By Christopher Langley, Eastern California Film Historian
By now, after seventy-five years, we know there was as much drama behind the camera as in front as High Sierra filmed in many locations including Lone Pine. But all the whining on Mt. Whitney, risking of lives on the cliffs and winding road below, the gambling with careers, and the tricks to get coveted parts all contributed to give us one of the lasting hallmarks of noir filmmaking. Much of it began in the glaring sun of a Lone Pine July day in a summer not too different from 2016’s. torrid months.
On July 5, 1940, nearly at the beginning of the film shoot, the Warners Brothers company started to shoot the dramatic climax of High Sierra. It was the suspenseful yet picturesque flight of Roy “Mad Dog” Earl to evade the police in the gray Plymouth coupe on display in the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine. He raced up the twisting old Portal Road to the heights of Mt. Whitney and the biggest and final fall of his life. (Remember shooting scenes out of chronological order is nothing unsual in Hollywood.)
The author of the book the film is based on, W.R. Burnett, had already written other successful novels-to-film and original scripts for the movies. They include Little Caesar, Iron Man, Beast of the City (script), Scarface (script), Dark Hazard, The Whole Town Is Talking (script based on a story), and Dark Command, to name several. He would go on to write This Gun For Hire and The Asphalt Jungle, so he was and remained a proven commodity. Jack Warner read the book and immediately bought it.
Director Raoul Walsh is quoted by his bioographer as saying they paid $12,500 but others state it was almost double that. They had a hot property on their hands, and although they changed the name several times (i.e. I Died a Thousand Times and The Jagged Edge) it returned to High Sierra. The remake with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters used the Edge production title when they filmed at the Cuffe ranch and the film was eventually released with the I Died…. Title.)
Casting the Roy Earle part presented some problem. His career on his way up, Humphrey Bogart fell in love with the part but Paul Muni was being considered. At the time he was the biggest star at the studio and he agreed to do it if Warners in return would allow him to create a biographical film about composer Beethoven. At first they agreed and then backed out of the agreement which angered Muni. He began to reject every version of the script. Soon he would be leaving the studio for good.
The next actor was George Raft who was not well liked but made a good salary and his films brought in money. Warner wanted Raft to work harder. Raft, on the other hand, not known for his wise decisions on which roles he would take, refused. His reasoning was his fans wouldn’t want to see him die. At the same time Bogart got wind of Muni leaving and wrote to Hal Wallis who had told him to let him know when he saw a role that interested him. He got no answer and wired him again as it looked like the part was up for grabs.
“Dear Hal....You told me once to let you know when I found a part I wanted. As a few weeks ago I left a note for you concerning High Sierra. I never received an answer so I’m bringing it up again as I understand there is some doubt about Muni doing it.” Wallis did not respond again right away.
Then there was getting a final script ready for the shoot. Another fan of the novel and the character was writer/ director John Huston who also worked at Warners. Before he told Wallis he was interested in writing the script, it was assigned to Warren Duff who found the story “somewhat preposterous.” His approach would likely get a reponse from the Breen censorship office. Huston would be the man it began to seem who could capture the nuanced subtlety of Burnett’s storytelling.
Huston sent a memo that identified how the studio was mishandling the project. He wrote, in part according to Walsh biographer Marilyn Ann Moss, “Take the spirit out of Burnett, the strange sense of inevitability that comes without deepening understanding of his characters and the forces that motivate them, and only the conventional husk of a story remains.”
Finally Jack Warner assigned Huston to write, and Raft and Ida Lupino who had worked on another picture together to star. Raft finally refused and Warner chose Bogart as a star on the rise. Walsh was brought on late to the project but he still worked to finish casting.
A near final draft of the script was done, but it would have to be “cleansed” to be in keeping with the Production Code that was still in full sway in Hollywood. More about that next time.
Even after Bogart succeeded in capturing the role, the studio had some on-going concerns. When Ida Lupino and Bogart were finally cast and were working together, they had a very stiff relationship although things improved during the shoot. Ida stated, “I have a way of kidding with a straight face; so has Bogie. Neither of us recognized the trait in the other. Each of us thought the other was being nasty, and we were both offended.”
William Donati in his biography of Lupino recounts Bogart working with his co-star. In a scene she was required to cry but was finding it difficult. Bogarft broke the stalemate by taking her aside and saying, “Listen doll, if you can’t cry, just remember one thing-I’m going to take this picture away from you.” She laughed just as he wanted. Then he continued, “All right, now you’re relaxed. If you can’t relate it to me or the charcter go back to your childhood. Can you remember when you hasd to say goodbye to somebody, somebody you loved? And you thought you weren’t going to see them again?”
Ida replied she had and then noticed tears in Bogey’s eyes. Soon she was crying as well.
(Note: In keeping with the seventy-fifth anniversary of “High Sierra,” the Museum of Western Film History in Lone Pine has the Plymouth that Bogart drove up to the Whitnery Portals. There is also abn accurate standee of Bogart in costume with whome the adventuresome can have their picture taken. Finally is the large picture with Bogart and the car here in Lone Pine hanging above the display.)