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Brought to Hollywood from the New York theatre world in 1946 at the recommendation of Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas made a strong impression in a villainous role opposite Robert Mitchum in Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947). A former carnival wrestler, the ambitious and proactive Douglas pressed on to considerable acclaim as the flawed heroes of Mark Robson's Champion (1949) for United Artists and Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole (1951, aka The Big Carnival) and William Wyler's Detective Story (1951) at Paramount. Locked into a long-term contract with Warner Brothers, the actor was obliged to make one film a year for the studio and suffered through Raoul Walsh's Along the Great Divide (1951) before deciding that he had had enough. When the studio assigned him to Felix Feist's The Big Trees (1952), Douglas made the studio an offer it ultimately could not refuse: he would do the film for nothing if it could be his last for them.
A loose reworking of William Keighley's Valley of the Giants (1938), an adaptation of the Peter B. Kyne novel by the same name, The Big Trees recycled not only plot points from the earlier film but also some of its Technicolor establishing shots in which sharp-eyed viewers can spot Valley of the Giants star Wayne Morris. Shot on location in Williams Grove and Orick, California, The Big Trees found its star unenthusiastic about playing a rakish redwood lumber entrepreneur distracted by domestic problems. Divorced from first wife Diana Dill, mother to sons Michael and Joel, the actor was involved in a volatile relationship with Standard Oil heiress Irene Wrightsman that was disintegrating due to infidelities on both sides. While Douglas slaved away in stiff 19th century costumes through the summer of 1951, rumors reached him that Wrightsman was engaging in booze-fueled orgies, bedding both men and women in his absence.
Despite Douglas' personal preoccupations and disdain for the material, The Big Trees remains an entertaining, if minor line item on the actor's diverse curriculum vitae. His initially unscrupulous and ultimately heroic businessman, Jim Fallon, compares favorably with Chuck Tatum, the manipulative newsman of Ace in the Hole, and Jonathan Shields, the sh*theel film producer Douglas would go on to play as a free agent in Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Too dedicated and exacting a craftsman to merely phone in his performance, Douglas persuasively etches Fallon's rise and fall from con man to family man; betrayed by former lover Patrice Wymore to villainous colleague John Archer, he finds redemption in the unconditional love of Quaker Eve Miller and helps militarize her brethren against the encroachment of big business, pointing The Tall Trees to a literally explosive conclusion.
Despite its seeming anti-industry stance, The Big Trees was made with the cooperation of, and on properties belonging to, the Hammond and Carlotta Lumber Companies. Students from Humboldt State University in nearby Arcata, California, were recruited to flesh out the ranks of the Quaker congregation and to sing as members of its choir. Douglas' leading ladies Eve Miller and Patrice Wymore had short-lived Hollywood careers, with Miller reduced to bits in There's No Business Like Show Business (1954) and Artists and Models (1955) - the Los Angeles native committed suicide in 1973 - and Wymore remembered more for being the last wife of Errol Flynn than for her work in films, on television or in live theatre.
Despite the price to his savings account, Douglas' bid to leave Warner Brothers in his dust proved a sound business decision. He enjoyed some of the better roles of his career during the ensuing years - traveling to Israel for The Juggler (1953), to Italy and North Africa for Ulysses (1954), to the Bahamas for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), to France and the Netherlands for Lust for Life (1956), to Bavaria for Paths of Glory (1957) and to Norway and Croatia for The Vikings (1958), accumulating two Academy Award nominations along the way and emerging by the end of the decade a bona fide international movie star with the staying power of a giant redwood.
Producer: Louis F. Edelman
Director: Felix Feist
Screenplay: John Twist, James R. Webb, Kenneth Earl (story)
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Editor: Clarence Kolster
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Jim Fallon), Eve Miller (Alicia Chadwick), Patrice Wymore (Daisy Fisher/Dora Figg), Edgar Buchanan (Yukon), John Archer (Frenchy), Alan Hale, Jr. (Tiny), Ellen Corby (Sister Blackburn).
by Richard Harland Smith
The Ragman's Son: An Autobiography by Kirk Douglas (Simon &U Schuster, 1988)
The Films of Kirk Douglas by Tony Thomas (Citadel Press, 1991)