Walter Huston: The Life and Times of a Real Character

Walter Huston was born in Canada in 1884. At 16 he hit the road with a traveling troupe and ultimately landed on the New York stage. On Tin Pan Alley he befriended senior song writer George M. Cohan–whose father he would later portray in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1941) in an Academy Award nominated performance. Walter also became a favorite of playwright Eugene O’Neill after his critically acclaimed portrayal of Ephraim Cabot in the epic Desire Under the Elms.

With the coming of Sound, Broadway’s hottest stars saw great opportunity and crossed the continent for Hollywood. In Walter’s first screen role he supported Gary Cooper in The Virginian (1929). But soon after, he returned to the East Coast claiming that the money he made in the movies “did not compensate for the nonsense and boredom.”

The very next year, film pioneer D.W. Griffith began work on his final film Abraham Lincoln (1930), and cast Huston as the lead. Walter was lured back to the screen and began churning out films in Hollywood.

In the 1930s, Walter Huston specialized in tough, uncompromising professional men. In Star Witness (1931) he played a district attorney charged with protecting a family endangered after they witness a gang killing. In The Ruling Voice (1931), Huston jumped to the other side of the law playing a ruthless racketeer. In Night Court (1932) he played a crooked judge and in Of Human Hearts (1938) he portrayed an honest preacher. Whether he was on the right side of the law on the wrong, Huston’s films captured the era.

Walter Huston

Walter with his son, famed film director John.

Prohibition…the Depression…the underworld of Gangland…The country was in a turmoil when Walter appeared in Gabriel Over the White House (1933). Here, Huston personified the President of the United States in a surreal political picture that would become one of his strongest performances of the 1930s. As the commander-in-chief he puts an end to poverty, racketeering, and social unrest. Walter pulled it off with such charisma that he became the favorite movie star of a young Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Watch Walter Huston act–it’s obvious that he’s having fun in his films. His specialty became anything over the top and outrageous. As a super cop in The Beast of the City (1932) Huston literally tore up the scenery in an explosive conclusion. Huston personified the evils of alcohol in The Wet Parade (1932), playing a bootlegger who ultimately beats his wife to death in a drunken rage. In his most stylized role, Huston played the depraved maniac leader of an African tribe in Kongo (1932). In this not-to-be-missed remake of Lon Chaney’s West of Zanzibar, Huston’s relentless sadism is a masterpiece of villainy.

Though Walter Huston gained acclaim as a leading man in films like Dodsworth (1936) and the ill fated The Outlaw (1941), he made his real mark in American Cinema as a Character Actor. Huston played a Chinese Peasant in Dragon Seed (1944) and a Slavic Nobleman in Edge of Darkness (1943) with equal ease. He was at his best playing the leering and sarcastic Devil in The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). In this film Huston shed his clean cut image. Although he was grizzled and gray he played the Devil with adolescent energy.

Huston’s most recognizable role was as Howard the old gold prospector in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Without make-up and without teeth Walter once again reinvented his image. With boundless energy he led Bogart and Tim Holt into the Mexican desert to find that the real treasure is the knowledge of the self. Walter emerged from the film with a best supporting actor Oscar®.

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