Robert Aldrich’s family was one of the traditional pillars of society, Nelson Rockefeller was a cousin, but he distanced himself from his family and his films always presented traditional pillars of society as forces of oppression. He is best known for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Longest Yard (1974). Throughout his career he was driven by the desire to achieve complete control over his work, so he used the profits from The Dirty Dozen to buy his own studio.
Robert Aldrich was born on August 9, 1918 to a prominent Rhode Island family that had produced a number of political and business leaders in the state. One of his uncles was Winthrop Aldrich, chairman of the Chase Manhattan Bank, while his aunt Abby had married John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Although he embraced the competitive lifestyle among his cousins, he quickly became bored by his family’s constant maneuvering to gain more power, so he had little to do with them once he became an adult. As the only son, the pressure to follow in the family footsteps must have been immense but he still broke with tradition and followed his own path. Aldrich attended the University of Virginia, where in addition to serving as head of his fraternity and captain of the football team, he was also president of the German Club, and booked celebrity orchestras for dances, which proved to be more attractive than a future working in a bank.
In the summer of 1941, Aldrich asked his uncle Winthrop how to enter the film industry, and his uncle arranged for him to have a job with RKO but he turned down the associate producer position he was offered for a much lower job as a production clerk. Actually, it was the lowest position possible, so he spent five months toiling as a glorified errand boy. Aldrich’s opportunity came when many of the more experienced members of the production staff joined the military after Pearl Harbor. Rejected by the Air Force Motion Picture Unit because of an old football injury, he quickly got bumped up to second assistant director. Aldrich had reached first assistant director by 1944, but he realized that he would not go any further at RKO, so he started working free lance at other studios.
Working for a wide range of directors, including Jean Renoir, William Wellman, and Joseph Losey, gave him the opportunity to absorb different styles. His key lesson came from Lewis Milestone, who taught him the importance of working with people that you liked, and Aldrich later put together a team composed of his favorite cinematographer, editor, musical score director, and art director. He also learned a great deal from his involvement with Enterprise Productions, an idealistic studio that emphasized creative freedom, profit participation for stars and good treatment of labor, from 1946 to 1948. The studio failed because it was ahead of its time and badly run but the creative atmosphere was an extremely liberating experience. Most important, Aldrich realized the need to stay within budget if you want to be able to make the movies you want. It was also an extremely vital period for his career since he advanced from assistant director to studio manager during the two years. Many of the people involved in the studio were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and a large number had their careers ruined when they were blacklisted but Aldrich was a relatively small fish at the time, so he was left alone.
Tired of working as an assistant director, Aldrich happily accepted an offer to be a director on the TV show The Doctor in 1952. Most of his peers were unwilling to leave Los Angeles for New York despite the numerous opportunities available but Aldrich knew that his career was not moving forward in Hollywood. Working as a TV director on several shows at the same time during the early 1950’s gave Aldrich a crash course in film making. His big break came when he did the feature length film World for Ransom (1954) based on one of his TV shows, China Smith, where he had the opportunity to produce and assemble a team made up of his favorite photographer, editor, art director and music director.
This was the first time that he could explore his own style and the film caught Burt Lancaster’s eye, so Lancaster’s production company, Hecht-Lancaster, hired him to direct Apache (1954), knowing that he could shoot the film in 30 days for a small budget. Apache was not only Aldrich’s first big screen movie, it also attracted a lot of attention because it was part of a new wave of Westerns that attempted to show the Indians’ point-of-view. The success of Apache gave Aldrich the opportunity to direct Vera Cruz (1954), also for Hecht-Lancaster, but with a budget of $3 million, and a two-and-a-half month-long shooting schedule. However, the relationship ended after Vera Cruz because Lancaster was thinking about becoming a director, and Aldrich was in no mood for directing suggestions.
Unlike most directors who prefer to let their movies speak for themselves, Aldrich was willing to speak directly to the public. He even wrote an article for the New York Herald Tribune in February 1955 that defended his use of violence, saying that as an ingrained part of human nature, violence can not be ignored. In fact, he wrote a number of articles for Cahiers du Cinema over the years.
He chose his next project, Kiss Me, Deadly, a loose adaptation of a Mickey Spillane novel, because he could direct and produce. Moderately successful in the United States, it was highly praised by French critics. The modest profits enabled him to start his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich, in 1955. The company’s first film was the Big Knife, a powerful criticism of the moral corruption behind the elegant façade of the film industry, thus serving public notice that Aldrich did not intend to play by the studios’ rules. A direct challenge to Hollywood could not be expected to be a hit and it actually lost money, not an auspicious beginning for a young production company. Aldrich’s insistence on independence forced him to make do with limited budgets but he persevered and films like Autumn Leaves (1956) and Attack! (1956) continued his theme of people walking the fine line between being crushed by the system and losing their self-respect, which was the same choice that tormented him.
Seeking financial security, Aldrich signed a three-film contract with Columbia. Autumn Leaves was the first film and the second was The Garment Jungle (1957) but he clashed with Harry Cohn, head of the studio, who wanted Aldrich to tone down his realistic portrayal of mob involvement in the garment industry, partially because Cohn had his own mob connections. Aldrich was eventually fired from the film and while Cohn was contractually obligated to pay Aldrich’s salary, he could not start any projects until the contract ran out. Aldrich did not direct for eighteen months, although his company produced a western with Anthony Quinn, The Ride Back (1957), that also lost money.
Faced with stagnation in Hollywood, Aldrich accepted exile overseas, making Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) in Germany, The Angry Hills (1959) in Greece, The Last Sunset (1961) in Mexico and Sodom and Gamorrah (1963) in Italy, but the creative spark was missing and the films are not his best.
After a great deal of negotiations, Aldrich came up with the money to make Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), which was his biggest hit since Vera Cruz, and made him a major player in Hollywood again. He followed it with critical hits like Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1965) and Flight of the Phoenix (1966) but steady commercial success still eluded him until he made The Dirty Dozen, which was the number one hit of 1967. He had tried to buy the rights to the screenplay while it was being written but MGM got them first. Several drafts later, Aldrich was brought in, and while many critics disapproved of its anti-establishment attitude, young audiences loved it.
Aldrich sold his interest in the Dirty Dozen to MGM for 1.5 million dollars, which enabled him to buy the John Sutherland Productions Studio in January 1968, spending over $1 million on the purchase and renovations. The studio gave him independence, and allowed him to keep the people he liked around. He intended to produce between eight and sixteen films in the next five years. Aldrich relished controversy and the studio’s first film was The Killing of Sister George (1968), which featured an extremely overt lesbian relationship that won the film an X rating despite a lawsuit from Aldrich. When Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? was only a moderate hit, he tried to replicate the success of The Dirty Dozen with Too Late the Hero (1970) but its atmosphere of futility drove away audiences. After several commercial failures, Aldrich was forced to sell the studio in 1973 to Video Cassette Industries for a loss.
Aldrich’s reputation had fallen so low that he even had to lower his asking price for free lance work from $750,000 to $150,000 when he did Ulzanna’s Raid (1972). It was followed by Emperor of the North (1973) but neither movie proved able to restart his career. As a result, he was assigned to make The Longest Yard (1974) with Burt Reynolds, which was a blessing in disguise, since Aldrich was a massive sports fan and he went full-out to produce a crowd-pleaser. The success of the film led to another collaboration with Reynolds, Hustle (1975), but it was too dark for American audiences.
Throughout his career, Aldrich wrestled with the desire to make films that entertained and films that pushed people to think. However, the disjointed plot of the Choirboys (1977) made it clear that all of the constant fighting and butting heads with studios and censors had worn him out.
Politics and films were his two passions so it should come as no surprise that Aldrich was extremely involved in the Director’s Guild, serving first as vice-president and president of the Assistant Directors Council of the Guild, and then vice-president (1971-75) and president of the Directors’ Guild (1975-79). He felt that the previous heads of the Guild had not been concerned with the rank and file members, so Aldrich instituted a number of radical reforms. He forced the Writers Guild to back down on their demand for complete script control during filming and he won a better financial deal and more control over the final cut of a film for directors.
While his efforts were greatly appreciated by many of his peers, they won him little love from the producers and executives who ran the studios. Furthermore, Aldrich did not hide his contempt for many people in Hollywood, which was a major factor in his decline, along with simply losing his edge. His career was fading and he was brought in to finish The Frisco Kid (1979) only because it had already been written off by the studio. Both The Frisco Kid and All the Marbles (1981) were commercial failures, and he was no longer able to start projects.
Aldrich experienced serious health problems in the summer of 1983 and his kidneys stopped working, which would have forced him to be dependent on a dialysis machine for the rest of his life. Unwilling to face such a loss of independence, he refused further treatment and returned home to end his life on his terms. He died five days later, on December 5, 1983.
Starring Burt Lancaster and Jean Peters
When the Apache are sent to a reservation in Florida, one warrior escapes but struggles to balance his thirst for the quick but glorious death and his gradual realization that it is possible to adapt to the white man’s world.
Vera Cruz (1954)
Starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster
An ex-Confederate officer joins a group of American mercenaries in Mexico who are hired to transport gold for the Emperor Maximilian but gets drawn into the Mexican rebellion during the French Intervention in Mexico. (full review)
Starring Jack Palance and Eddie Albert
During the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, a unit tries to survive the German onslaught and the danger of a cowardly commanding officer.
Ten Seconds to Hell (1959)
Starring Jack Palance and Jeff Chandler
In post-WWII Berlin, six former German soldiers have been sent to the Allied controlled part of the city to defuse unexploded bombs, but they know that their chances of survival are slim, so they all donate half of their pay into a fund to be collected by the last survivor, but one by one they all die.
The Angry Hills (1959)
Starring Robert Mitchum and Stanley Baker
An American journalist in Greece during the German invasion in WWII is given a list of names of partisans and becomes involved in the Greek resistance.
The Last Sunset (1961)
Starring Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas
A lawman captures a wanted murderer at a ranch in Mexico but they agree to guard a herd of cattle to Texas. The situation becomes tense as the two men become interested in the cattle-owner’s wife and daughter.
Sodom and Gomorrah (1962)
Starring Stewart Granger and Pier Angeli
Lot, the leader of the hard-working Hebrews, believes that his people can live in peace near the Sodomites, but when his people come under the influence of the morally corrupt Sodomites they incur God’s wrath.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
Starring Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson
A US Army major is ordered to train 12 soldiers sentenced to death or life imprisonment to raid a chateau frequented by high-level German officers in order to create confusion just before D-Day in WWII.
Too Late the Hero (1970)
Starring Cliff Robertson and Michael Caine
British and Japanese troops occupy different parts of an island in the Pacific during WWII and an American joins a war-weary British unit when it is sent behind enemy lines on a dangerous mission but the mission proves to be more dangerous than expected.
Ulzana’s Raid (1972)
Starring Burt Lancaster and Bruce Davison
An inexperienced US cavalry officer leads a unit to deal with a band of Apaches that have left the reservation and are brutally killing settlers.
Emperor of the North Pole (1973)
Starring Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine
During the American Depression, an ace hobo battles a zealous railroad man who has sworn that no hobo will ride his train for free.
Further Reading:The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich-Edwin T. Arnold & Eugene L. Miller, Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1986.
It was originally intended as an examination of his films, but after his death, the authors felt bound to provide more biographical information. Aldrich cooperated with the authors and saw an early draft before his death in December 1983. His blessing of the project gave the authors access to his family and friends. While there is a fair amount of biographical information, the book primarily focuses on his films. The analysis of the films is quite well-done, there is just too little on Robert Aldrich, which highlights the need for a more in-depth biography.