As we speak, Hurricane Patricia is bearing down on Mexico. It also happens to be the birthday of character actor Frank Sutton (1923-1974). Are you thinking what I’m thinking? What? You’re not? Well, as Quick Draw McGraw, used to say, “I’ll do the thinking around here – -and don’t you forget it”.
Now I COULD devote a post about the situation comedy Gomer Pyle USMC on which Sutton appeared as the hypertense Sgt. Carter from 1964 through 1969. But that’s so easy. Been done. And besides, like I said — hurricane. And so we write about Sutton’s last screen role ever, as happy go-lucky party boy “Bert Pearson” in the 1974 ABC TV Movie of the Week Hurricane. (Not to be confused with John Ford’s BRILLIANT 1937 disaster movie The Hurricane, a post for another occasion).
The choice of Hurricane isn’t arbitrary. As I’ve written here many a time I was a huge aficionado of disaster movies as a child. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was and is one of my favorite movies. And so I watched the television premiere of Hurricane when it aired in September, 1974. A few months ago I purchased a DVD of the film, which I had not seen in (ulp!) four decades, for a little refresher. And it was quite an eye opener. I see with a very different pair of eyes now. For example, I would say roughly a third of the film is made up of blatant stock footage, obviously taken by tv news crews, the National Weather service and the like. The remainder of the film was likewise shot on a tv budget, so this is less about the special effects (and I think we were expecting special effects – – hello, disaster movie?) and much more about people having conversations. In one, Will Geer and Michael Learned (both taking time off of The Waltons) play a couple of bickering weather reporters, with different methods. In another, Martin Milner as “Major Hymie Stoddard” and his fellow air force pilots fly above the storm to observe it. In another, Larry Hagman and Jessica Walter are stranded on a boat whose motor has conked out. In another, Barry Sullivan waits too long to evacuate his cabin and then his pick-up truck won’t start.
And, in the film’s most memorable story thread, Frank Sutton plays an obnoxious drunk who decides to wait the storm out and have a Hurricane party in his flimsy house. Here’s where all the tension is, for not only is it him and all his plastered friends carrying on like it’s New Year’s Eve, but there’s his wife and a couple of young neighbors (including a pregnant woman) who are both sober and increasingly nervous, and then terrified. But the guy keeps persuading and then pressuring them to stay. As a kid, this filled me with great anxiety, for a great many personal reasons. At any rate, I hope you don’t think this is a big spoiler when I say that Sutton gets his come-uppance, in a scene reminiscent of The Three Little Pigs.
The fact that Sutton died prior to this film’s release, gave his death in this film a rather strange vibe (I can’t say a “poignant” one because his character is so abhorrent). And lest you think I’m being too jokey about a very serious subject, I now use the occasion to turn the post on its head. Frank Sutton’s character dies in this film because he is an IDIOT. Don’t be an IDIOT. If you live in the hurricane zone and are able to do so, EVACUATE.