Excavating Mark Robson

Mark Robson (1913-78) directed many of my favorite movies but until recently I never knew his name. His is not a name-above-the-title, and many of his best known films are associated with stars, producers, or authors, and somehow the quicksand of time has kind of swallowed him up. But connect the dots — his body of work adds up to something.

I think it is especially instructive to excavate him archaeologically, i.e., top layers first. The first movie of his I would have known well (very well in fact) is his penultimate one, 1974’s Earthquake. One of the notable features of this classic disaster movie, beyond the elephant in the room, the seismic event that levels Los Angeles, is the melodrama that characterizes its first act. It’s one of the factors that adds to the movie’s richness. The characters are people first — THEN something happens to them. But melodrama isn’t just a genre, it’s a STYLE. So everything clicks into place when we learn that Robson previously directed two famous melodrama classics: Peyton Place (1957) and Valley of the Dolls (1967). Today we look upon these movies as camp, at least I do, though they are more than that. Interestingly, in both cases we think of them in connection with the female authors of the novels on which the films are based, Grace Metalious and Jacqueline Susann, respectively. Robson himself is virtually anonymous. And yet his mark is there. The grim seriousness, the operatic, over-the-top emotionalism, the artificiality of the manner of playing, and the tawdriness of the subject matter. Earthquake also borrows two of his Peyton Place cast, Lloyd Nolan and Lorne Greene. (He’d also worked with Ava Gardner on The Hut, 1957).

Robson got his start as a director at RKO, directing the Val Lewton pictures The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), Youth Runs Wild (1944), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946). Again, we are conditioned to think of these as “Val Lewton pictures”, even though Robson had both written and directed Bedlam. But he could still be said to have been under Lewton’s wing at this stage. He had come up through the ranks as his editor, on the films Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Leopard Man (1943). Robson seems to have derived his ideas of pace from this experience. Robson’s films are unhurried. One might almost call them “deadly”, but the performances he gets out of the actors, especially at peak moments, are what command attention. That is his emphasis.

Prior to the Lewton association — Robson worked on Orson Welles pictures as the assistant editor to Robert Wise! In this capacity he worked on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). By Journey into Fear (1943), also a Mercury production, he was the primary editor.

And before this? He was a prop man at Fox. This was back when you could climb the ladder at the studios from the ground up.

Another notable strain in Robson’s body of work included action/war films like The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1955), Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Lost Command (1966), and Avalanche Express (1979), his last film. He also directed the boxing pictures Champion (1949) and The Harder They Fall (1956), the western Roughshod (1949), etc. This association both with “women’s pictures” and “men’s pictures”, if I may be gender essentialist, is a trait he shares with Robert Aldrich.

In addition to these, there were several noirs, thrillers, mysteries, rom coms, and such like in the grab bag. He worked with screenwriter Ernest Lehman on From the Terrace (1960) and The Prize (1963), both with Paul Newman. An interesting late anomaly is the 1971 version of Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Limbo (1972) was based on a Joan Micklin Silver story. He clearly loved writers.

Like I say, so many well known films under his belt — Mark Robson ought to be just as well known!