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Part adventure yarn, part disaster epic, The Devil at Four O'Clock (1961) appealed to fans of both genres with its story about a trio of convicts, a priest, and some natives marooned on a volcanic island in the South Seas. The production had been in a holding pattern for several years with Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra as the designated stars until both actors finally persuaded Mervyn LeRoy to direct it.
It turned out to be no picnic for LeRoy. In his autobiography, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, the director said, "what made it a problem was that the climactic scene involved a volcano, and that's the kind of thing you have to worry about and plan for with extreme care...It was done partly on a Hollywood sound stage, partly in the Hawaiian Islands. And we also used miniatures extensively. We built a mountain near La Jolla, on Gil Hodges' farm. Mostly, though, we shot in Lahaina, on the Hawaiian island of Maui. We built a lovely set there -an entire village, complete with a street, a church, and even a jail. Even though we were shooting in one of the most beautiful places on earth, it was a tough picture."
Another complication was the conflicting acting schedules of the two stars. Supporting actor Jean-Pierre Aumont, in his autobiography, Sun and Shadow, recalled that, "Spencer Tracy, a genial man who was not well at the time, couldn't work past the morning. The problem was that Sinatra would only work in the afternoon. In the morning he hired a private plane and hopped from island to island trying to convince the startled inhabitants to vote for Kennedy in the next presidential election. Around two o'clock he returned, exhausted, at the precise moment when Tracy was retiring for the day to his rooms. How, in these conditions, the scenes between Tracy and Sinatra were shot is a mystery to me."
Under these circumstances, everyone on the set expected fireworks between the two leads but they got along famously even though Tracy had some problems with Sinatra's stand-in - a broomstick. According to Richard Widmark, who heard about the filming of The Devil at Four O'Clock from Tracy, a broomstick was used in Sinatra's absence to mark his place during scenes. A script girl would read his lines and Tracy would respond in close-ups while a crew member held up a broomstick to establish the location of Sinatra's head. Despite this ploy, Sinatra actually received some good notices for his dramatic performance as a convict with a heart-of-gold. And in case you're wondering what the title means, it comes from a proverb: "It is hard for a man to be brave when he knows he is going to meet the devil at four o'clock."
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Fred Kohlmar, Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Max Catto, Liam O'Brien
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Editor: Charles Nelson
Art Direction: John Beckman
Music: George Duning
Cast: Spencer Tracy (Father Matthew Doonan), Frank Sinatra (Harry), Kerwin Mathews (Father Joseph Perreau), Jean-Pierre Aumont (Jacques), Gregoire Aslan (Marcel), Alexander Scourby (The Governor).
by Jeff Stafford