Walter Huston — He Rôles His Own! (1931) 🇺🇸

Walter Huston — He Rôles His Own! (1931) |

July 01, 2024

“I’m an actor,” Walter Huston says. “Not a matinee idol. I’m a business man and acting is my business. I’m a craftsman and interested in my craft. I’m not a movie hero.”

by Marie House

Well, he isn’t handsome. He isn’t ostentatious. He doesn’t exude personality and temperament. He doesn’t make a noise like a movie star at all. But he’s tall and lean and brown, with quizzical eyes and a nice smile.

He’s just an actor.

And yet he doesn’t ‘act.’ Nor interpret a part. Nor live a character. He doesn’t study mannerisms that go with a rôle. Nor the voice. Nor the posture. None of these things.

A part plays itself. That is, to Walter Huston it does. Acting is a simple thing, one of the simplest things, the way Walter Huston does it. But that isn’t ‘acting,’ really.

And yet you’d think if anyone in the talking picture world had to act it would be this same Huston. He’d have to. What of all the diverse rôles he has played: in “Gentlemen of the Press,” “The Virginian,” “Abraham Lincoln,” “The Bad Man,” not to mention his parts on the stage in Congo, The Barker, Zander The Great, The Commodore Marries, Desire Under the Elms, all these couldn’t be himself. He’d have to ‘act.’

There’s such a fine shading between ‘acting’ and what Walter Huston does!

The way he explains it: picture a long Spanish room with two steps at the end that leads to the foyer. Picture the tall Mr. Huston ambling to the end of the room and up the steps to the natural stage it makes there. We, in the meantime, of course, are at the far end of the room by the window and the view of Hollywood.

“Now,” says Walter Huston. “I’m going to act Lincoln. Everyone knows that Abe was tall, lanky, and walked with a slouching gait, used casual awkward gestures. All right. I’ll do all of these things. Now, I’m acting Lincoln,” he slouches down the steps, gives an awkward salute with the arm, says ‘Howdy, folks,’ and ambles down the room. “Well, everyone would recognize that as Lincoln. ‘Sure,’ they’d say, ‘he’s acting Lincoln,’ Exactly. But that’s not the way Lincoln himself would have walked.

This is the way Lincoln himself would do.” He goes again to the impromptu stage at the end of the room, and with just the slightest shade, just the merest difference in exaggeration of gesture and speech, he repeats the action and comes down the room. That was Lincoln!

Now you know the difference between acting and what Walter Huston does. But he spent months studying Lincoln, reading everything he could find about him. until he knew him, backwards and forwards. Knew how he felt in different situations. He could be that man.

But what about another rôle, something you couldn’t read about and study?

“The key to every character you play is in the words he says,” Huston explains. “You don’t have to interpret it. It’s there. Just as the author planned it. The man’s personality is sketched for you. So there’s only one way to do a rôle, the way it’s written. Sometimes just a bit of a conversation will give you a clue to the kind of person you are to be. Then it’s the simplest matter to play it. The words really say themselves. They couldn’t be expressed any other way.”

He picks up a book, The Criminal Code by Martin Flavin. This is to be his next talkie, he tells you. He takes the part of the district attorney. Brady, who is later made warden of a prison. He leafs through the pages.

“Here, for instance,” he goes on, “a kid has been mixed up in a brawl in a speakeasy and has killed another boy. He was drunk and the boy wasn’t bad. It was just a tough break for him.

When he comes in to see the district attorney, Brady questions him. He says:

“‘What’s your name, kid?’


“‘Bob, huh? Well, what’s it all about, Bob? Tell me about it.’

“Right away you sense the kind of man this Brady is. He isn’t hard-boiled, nor tough. He doesn’t start in to bulldoze the youngster. He’s human and kindly. He’s sorry for the kid. If he’d been hard-boiled he wouldn’t have asked the kid his name in that way. So there’s only one way to say those lines. Any other way would be entirely out of keeping and would sound wrong. So it doesn’t take imagination nor interpretation to do a rôle. The part plays itself.”

“But The Bad Man. Surely that takes — a little — well, imagination?” I asked.

“Even The Bad Man is a part you can thoroughly understand,” insists Huston. “Perhaps it does take a little imagination. But here is a man who would take the law into his own hands. We all would like to, if we had the nerve. He says: ‘I keel mans, evil mans. I feel good.’ Well, I might see a man strike a kid out here on the street and if I went out and knocked him down I’d feel better about it. So I can understand how the ‘bad man’ felt about a ‘good deed well done’.”

The talkies to Walter Huston are fascinating. But he feels they are still handicapped by their mechanics. Perhaps because the sound men are mechanics first, and stage men afterwards. They are more interested in the words as words that five thousand people in a theater in Peoria will hear — than in words that mean something.

He hopes still to play parts on the stage. He feels that on the stage you can get little nuances that you miss entirely in the talkies; and yet in the talkies you act more naturally, for the microphone is right there beside you. In a way the audience is right there with you. On the stage you can have an intimate conversation with someone else in a low key and get the audience’s keen attention, make them lean forward in their seats to hear you — but not in the talkies.

He feels the public wants human, real stories. That this change in taste has come about by the talkies. Just movies won’t do anymore. He believes the talkies have brought more spontaneity to acting. He believes it best, and there need be but few rehearsals, if everyone knew his part and its relation to the play as a whole. When Griffith [D. W. Griffith] was directing Abraham Lincoln he used to gather the cast together and just talk to them for five minutes about the scene and generally there were only two or three ‘takes.’

Acting to Huston is an art, yet a business. He fails to understand those who would make a display of fame and stardom. In New York an actor was just like someone who sold bonds. He wasn’t a goldfish. Fan letters he thinks are fun — at first. Some of them are of interest to him, but many of them want to know if Mr. Huston will correspond with them and that amazes him.

He’s had a long career on the stage. At the age of eighteen he first started his Thespian career, left for matrimony and the business world, but was later lured back and for fifteen years was an entertainer on the vaudeville circuit. His first starring rôle was in a play called Mr. Pitt, and since then life has been just one rôle after another.

When not acting he is sailing in the yacht he owns with Richard Arlen. It is the apple of his eye, and the slightest excuse will start him talking about it. He can talk about art and artists, too, but that is something else again.

Walter Huston — He Rôles His Own! (1931) |

“Abraham Lincoln,” “The Bad Man,” the general in “The Virtuous Sin,” the district attorney in “The Criminal Code” — all Walter Huston!

Walter Huston — He Rôles His Own! (1931) |

Collection: Screenland Magazine, January 1931

Walter Huston (1931) |

Photo by: Cecil Beaton (1904–1980)

Collection: Screenland Magazine, June 1931