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The Houston Story

The Houston Story(1956)

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teaser The Houston Story (1956)

In the mid-1950s, producer Sam Katzman decided to steer the low-budget B-Movie unit he headed at Columbia Pictures away from the costume drama genre, one of his mainstays. In the book Lost in the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood, Wheeler Winston Dixon quotes from a Variety article from January 28, 1955 titled "Katzman Discards Costume Pix" - Katzman said that he planned to produce "no more costume films, the market's flooded with 'em - Swashbucklers? Only something out of the ordinary and if I can get a top cast." The trade paper reported that the Columbia producer had thrown out plans to produce a movie to be called Ten Nights in a Harem, and had discarded other properties, keeping just four slated for immediate production since they dealt with "topical stories": Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Blackjack Ketchum, Desperado, Inside Detroit, and The Houston Story (all 1956).

The latter two movies were part of a cycle of low-budget crime films in the mid-1950s that purported to be an "expose" of how complex criminal organizations were set up in major cities, and then broken down by law enforcement. Katzman had success with a film called The Miami Story (1954), directed by Fred F. Sears and starring Barry Sullivan, that set up the formula. This and subsequent entries would shoot for a few days on location to give the story verisimilitude, then quickly wrap shooting on soundstages in Hollywood to keep budgets low. As long as the stories were hard-hitting, realistic, and topical, the public showed interest at the box-office.

The Houston Story, written by Robert E. Kent, looks at corruption in the Texas oil industry. In a pre-credits sequence, oil field worker Frank Duncan (Gene Barry) arrives at the Headquarters of the Houston Police to identify the body of a young woman, found dead off the ship channel. He identifies her as Carrie Hemper, the wife of his late friend, Joe. But Duncan is lying; he knows that Carrie Hemper had actually left his friend and become a nightclub singer under the name Zoe Crane (Barbara Hale). Duncan visits Crane to deliver a violent slap in the face, the dying wish of his friend. The wily Duncan has something else on his mind; he uses his leverage with Crane to get information on her underworld connections, and an introduction to local mob boss "Pauley" Atlas (Edward Arnold). Zoe's boyfriend is Atlas' hot-tempered second-in-command, Gordon Shay (Paul Richards). Duncan's plan is to set up a dummy Petroleum company and install his cab-driver friend Louie Phelan (Frank Jenks) as fall guy if things go bad. The income will come from bribing refinery foremen to allow them to tap into legal lines and steal oil, which is then sold to fly-by-night companies and foreign interests. The expensive plan is approved by the St. Louis-based syndicate boss Emile Constant (John Zaremba), who insists on a non-violent operation. Phelan is threatened by Duncan, though, and plans for gunplay during a raid on oilfield equipment so that Duncan will be on the outs with the organization.

The Houston Story went through a major casting change while in production in 1955. Originally set for the lead role was acclaimed character actor Lee J. Cobb, fresh off his Oscar®-nominated supporting part in Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954). In his autobiography I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul, director William Castle wrote that "Houston, Texas is unbearable in August - especially if you're going to make a picture in the oil fields. The humidity was oppressive. Filming a fight sequence in the oil fields at night was tough enough without having an exhausted star. Cobb was pale and haggard. Something was wrong. Watching him rehearse a scene where he was supposed to lift a man bodily and throw him to the ground, worried me." Castle writes that he called a halt to filming and later that night, as the cast and crew were staying in Houston's Shamrock Hotel, he was awakened and called to Cobb's room. "He was on the floor, clutching his chest, writhing in pain. 'My chest!' he moaned. 'Call my father.' Instead, I called the hotel doctor and got Lee to a hospital... Still in my bathrobe, I left Lee's hospital [room]. As I appeared in the corridor, a frantic nurse rushed up to me and grabbed my arm. 'Mr. Cobb - you should be back in bed!' The nurse started to pull me back into the room..." Director Castle did indeed resemble Cobb in both build and in facial features. There were three more days of location shots to finish in Houston, so Castle filled in for the ailing actor.

Castle and Katzman were willing to put the completion of The Houston Story on hold and wait for Cobb's return, but the actor was suffering from exhaustion and would be out of commission for several months. The part would have to be recast; as Castle writes, "Katzman insisted on a relatively new actor in pictures - Gene Barry, a fine actor, but as unlike Lee J. Cobb as anyone could be." A showman to the end, Castle is prone to exaggeration in his autobiography, and he makes a greater claim of appearing in The Houston Story than a viewing of the film bears out. He is clearly visible, however, in a shot where the Duncan character is perched on the platform of an oil derrick, surreptitiously watching an equipment theft operation. Castle's stocky build and light hair is a poor match for Barry's close-ups in the same scene.

The Houston Story also features a plum part for Barbara Hale, who later became known for the "good girl" role of Della Street in the long-running Perry Mason series on television. In this film she makes the most of a femme fatale part, even getting to sing "Put the Blame on Mame" (which Columbia owned and trotted out every time they needed a sultry nightclub number). Also noteworthy in the cast is veteran Edward Arnold, in one of his last roles before his death in 1956. Arnold is very convincing as a middle-rung hood who has aged past his effectiveness; he is terrified of becoming useless to his boss, and he lashes out like a pathetic wounded animal in a memorable scene when he is caught trying to take it on the lam. As for Lee J. Cobb, he eventually recovered, and the following year starred in a later entry in the loose Columbia series of Big City crime dramas, Miami Expose [1956], directed by Fred F. Sears. This film also costarred Edward Arnold, in his final role.

Houston, Texas was quite the boom town in the 1950s, and those familiar with the area will enjoy seeing The Houston Story and its pristine location shots taken on downtown streets and in Hermann Park. Also on view in the film are such then-new additions to the landscape as The Houston International Airport and the Gulf Freeway connecting Houston and Galveston.

Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: James B. Gordon
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Production Design: Paul Palmentola
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff (uncredited)
Film Editing: Edwin H. Bryant
Cast: Gene Barry (Frank Duncan), Barbara Hale (Zoe Crane), Edward Arnold (Paul Atlas), Paul Richards (Gordon Shay), Jeanne Cooper (Madge), Frank Jenks (Louie Phelan), John Zaremba (Emile Constant), Chris Alcaide (Chris Barker), Jack V. Littlefield (Willie), Paul Levitt (Duke), Fred Krone (Marsh), Pete Kellett (Kalo)
BW-79m. Letterboxed.

by John M. Miller

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