Film Reviews

The Straight Shooter

Oscar "Budd" Boetticher Jr. was raised in patrician comfort as the adopted son of a wealthy Chicago businessman, and educated at Culver Military Academy and Ohio State University. But don't hold any of that against him: At the age of 20, he rebelled against his privileged background and pursued graduate studies in the school of hard knocks.

He journeyed to Mexico City, made his home in a notorious bordello -- where he was very, very friendly with the madam -- and decided in 1938, more or less on a romantic whim, to become a bullfighter. Figuring he could learn the most from the best, Boetticher trained with the great matadors Lorenzo Garza and Fermin Espinosa. He learned his lessons well, and despite an occasional setback, like a goring that left him with a splinter in his stomach, he made his mark as a matador. Which is how he got into an even riskier profession: filmmaking.

With a little help from producer Hal Roach Jr., a former classmate, Boetticher landed a job as technical adviser for Blood and Sand, a 1941 drama starring Tyrone Power as a naive matador who's distracted from his true love (Linda Darnell) by a cunning temptress (Rita Hayworth). He paid close attention to director Rouben Mamoulian and editor Barbara McLean, studying their work as attentively as he had practiced the smooth moves of Garza and Espinosa. Boetticher soon knew enough to be employed as an assistant director by such notables as George Stevens and Charles Vidor. But he never learned how to kowtow to anyone on or off a studio set.

"What I learned from bullfighting," he says, "is to have absolutely no fear in dealing with anyone from Hollywood. It gave me tremendous concentration and a lot of control."

Better still, it gave him the gumption to stand up to the infamously combustible Harry Cohn, then production chief at Columbia Pictures, when the latter paid an unannounced visit to the set of Stevens's The More the Merrier (1943). When the assistant director failed to jump fast and high enough to a barked command, Cohn angrily addressed him as "You son of a bitch!" Boetticher responded by describing what damage might ensue if his foot made contact with Cohn's posterior. Impressed by the outburst -- at least, that's how Boetticher tells the story -- the Columbia chief offered to make him a full-fledged film director.

"And you know," Boetticher recalls, "the only lie I ever told in my life is when I told Harry Cohn I knew how to direct. I was 25 then; I wasn't about to say I didn't know what the hell to do.

"But later on, when they asked me who taught me how to direct, I could tell the truth when I said, 'I taught myself.' Really, I didn't have a mentor. I watched my 12-day pictures by myself, all alone in the projection room. I was 26 by then. And I told myself, 'My God! Don't ever do that again! That is really a piece of crap!' And I never did do that again. So I guess I taught myself pretty well."

Well enough, in fact, to attain the status of living legend -- with the emphasis on "living." Irrepressibly feisty and gregarious at age 85, he resides in Ramona, California, with Mary, his wife of 30 years, and still talks about a possible comeback after three decades away from filmmaking. He is unfailingly gracious, and sometimes profanely funny. And he takes unabashed delight in hearing about events such as "The Chicago Matador: The Westerns of Budd Boetticher," the retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

After an extended period of on-the-job training as a director of mostly forgettable B-movies, Boetticher came into his own with The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), a semiautobiographical drama about an American-born would-be matador (Robert Stack) who studies with an aging master (Gilbert Roland). He was so proud of his handiwork that, for the first time, he billed himself simply as Budd Boetticher, the name he has signed to his movies ever since. But he was so furious when the movie was recut by John Ford, who served as co-producer with longtime buddy and collaborator John Wayne, that he nearly took his name off the picture.

"Mind you, I wound up being nominated for an Academy Award [for original screenplay] even after they cut 42 minutes out of it," Boetticher says. "Fortunately, UCLA put it all back together 15 years ago. But at the time, Jack -- I was one of the few people who ever got to call him Jack -- thought it was too long. And he knew just what he wanted to cut. He told me, 'You got that Stack guy and Gilbert Roland acting like a couple of queers!' So I said, 'Well, Mr. Ford, men can love each other...' And he said, 'Not in my picture!' "

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Joe Leydon