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An article in the February 12, 1951 issue of Life magazine titled "Fearless Fagan Finds a Home" first told the tale of Fagan the lion and his owner PFC Floyd C. Humeston. The next year, a film version entitled Fearless Fagan (1952), presented the real life story: Humeston (who in the film becomes Pvt. Hilston) raised Fagan from a cub, trained him to be gentle and eventually got Fagan work in a circus act. When Humeston was drafted and couldn't find a suitable caretaker for Fagan, he reported to the Army with the lion in tow.
Though it sounds like a far-fetched plot even for the movies, the screen adaptation was backed up by some top-notch credentials. The screenplay for Fearless Fagan was penned by Charles Lederer, whose impressive film credits include scripts for His Girl Friday (1940), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Ocean's Eleven (1960). Also behind the scenes was director Stanley Donen who had just finished up the incredibly successful Singin' in the Rain (1952). Fearless Fagan also starred Janet Leigh, who only five years into her career had already appeared in crowd-pleasers like Little Women (1949) and Angels in the Outfield (1951). In addition the movie provided musical funnyman Carleton Carpenter his first leading role.
Despite a warm reception with the public, the talent behind Fearless Fagan thought the film was little more than a trifle. Janet Leigh remembers feeling forced to do the picture. "None of us wanted to be a part of this," she admitted. "Not Stanley Donen, not Carlton Carpenter, not me. It was the first time I had felt any rebellion about an assignment." Leigh was right about Donen, who claimed he "did the film only out of a sense of responsibility." Donen went on to call the script and the film "equally mediocre." Of course any picture coming on the heels of Singin' in the Rain would have had it rough. In fact, the reviewer for Variety complimented Donen's direction on Fearless Fagan. "Stanley Donen deserves laurels for his skillful integration of animal scenes with a moving story," the review read. "He never permits the picture to become maudlin or unconvincing."
The review also praised the film's animal talent: "the film's star is Fagan," said Variety. "The animal being so well trained that it never gets out of character as the affectionate, well-instructed pet of the Army private." Some reports claim that another lion, the seasoned veteran Jackie, stood in for Fagan in some scenes, but it was Fagan that received star-on-the-rise billing: the opening credits of the film read, "and introducing Fearless Fagan (Himself)."
Humeston was granted leave from the Army to serve as technical advisor on the film. As part of the Private's agreement with MGM, Fagan resided at MGM's animal compound for the remainder of Humeston's enlistment. MGM had designs on making a sequel to Fearless Fagan but the plans were eventually dropped. Humeston's enlistment was up in 1952. As for Fagan, he found a home with the Monterey County Humane Society.
One final thing to note in Fearless Fagan is the music. The song "The Loveliest Night of the Year," which is used to calm Fagan throughout the film, was featured in The Great Caruso (1951) with Mario Lanza. And the song, "What Do You Think I Am?" used by Janet Leigh's character to entertain the troops was borrowed from Best Foot Forward (1943).
Producer: Sidney Franklin, Edwin H. Knopf
Director: Stanley Donen
Screenplay: Frederick Hazlitt Brennan, Sidney Franklin, Eldon W. Griffiths, Charles Lederer
Cinematography: Harold Lipstein
Film Editing: George White
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Leonid Vasian
Music: Rudolph G. Kopp
Cast: Janet Leigh (Abby Ames), Carleton Carpenter (Pvt. Floyd Hilston), Keenan Wynn (Sgt. Kellwin), Richard Anderson (Captain Daniels), Ellen Corby (Mrs. Ardley), Barbara Ruick (Second Nurse).
by Stephanie Thames