The Story of Horizon Pictures: Told by John Huston
In his memoirs, John Huston describes his independent venture
with Sam Spiegel known as Horizon Pictures. Huston describes some of the
anecdotes surrounding the formation of the company, and also explains how
Spiegel’s creative financing helped get the picture The African Queen
off the ground. Displeased with the economic terms, Huston later terminated his
partnership with Spiegel (who continued Horizon without Huston). Unfortunately
for Huston, this break up came before realizing any of the massive profits from The
Excerpt from An Open Book by John Huston (1980)
Chapter 14 (page 163-165)
In 1948, having completed Key Largo, I was approached by Sam
Spiegel at a cocktail party with the idea that we go into partnership and
start our own film company.
My contract with Warners was about to expire, and I had made up my mind not
to stay there. "If you can come up with the money," I told Sam,
"you've got yourself a partner." Sam negotiated a loan, and the next
thing I knew we were in business as Horizon Pictures.
Sam and I were both eager to get the company going, so, hurriedly,
prematurely, we decided upon We Were Strangers as our first picture. This
was a long short story from a book called Rough Sketch, by Robert
Sylvester. A New York columnist suggested in print that I make the story into a
picture. Sam and I both saw the item, read the story and thought, "Why not?
" It wasn't a very good choice, and it wasn't a very good picture.
We acquired the property, and Sam went about looking for a major studio to
finance the making of the film. Finally he arranged for us to make our pitch to
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Every so often L. B. Mayer would call together the various
heads of his departments, along- with the producers at Metro, and they would
discuss policy, procedure, and, on occasion, sit and listen to ideas that were
advanced — such as ours to do We Were Strangers with them. This gave a
democratic air to proceedings at MGM, but of course L.B.'s ,,'as the last word,
if not the only word.
It so happened that the night before this scheduled meeting Bogie gave a
riotous anniversary party at his house, during which I proceeded to get as drunk
as I've ever been in my life. When I say riotous party, by the way, I don't mean
orgiastic. I mean we played football in the living room.
I was much too drunk to drive, so I slept overnight at Bogie's place. I woke
up around ten o'clock to the ringing of the telephone and heard Bogie saying,
"Yes, Sam, he's here-"
Sam had been calling allover town for me since nine o'clock.
"John, for Christ's sake, get over here immediately! We've got to make
I had a hangover that only a bullet could cure. I was in such a daze I
couldn't even focus on my own hand.
"Sam, it's hopeless! We've got to call it off."
"We can't! John, do you realize how important this is? It's a great
dispensation on their part to hear us at all!"
"Okay, Sam. I'll come out to your place and we'll talk."
Bogie's man drove me to Sam's house, where I shaved, showered and put on a
shirt and tie belonging to Sam.
Sam Spiegel was about five feet nine inches tall, but he insisted I also wear
one of his sportcoats. Naturally the cuffs were halfway to my elbows. I had to
wear my dress trousers with a ribbon down the leg, and my patent-leather shoes.
Decked out like this, I was supposed to give a convincing pitch for our project!
"Sam, I can't do it! It's impossible! I don't even remember what the
hell the story's about!"
Sam said, "All right, John, but we have to make an appearance, at
least." So off we went.
Upon our arrival at Metro, we were ushered into a large room, and I was
introduced to various people with familiar names but whom I hadn't met before.
Everyone was cordial and polite but not effusive, for we were, after all,
petitioners. We had waited about five minutes when L. B.
Mayer entered briskly, shook our hands and called the meeting to order. We
sat down at a long board table, and everything was conducted formally: direct
and to the point. Then Sam Spiegel got up and told the story of the picture we
wanted to make. It was one of the finest demonstrations of pure animal courage
I've ever witnessed. He just made it up as he went along, and as I sat listening
to it, his rendition was so good that it actually seemed to make sense. After he
finished, L.B. said they would think about our proposal, and the meeting was
adjourned. Eddie Mannix asked us if we'd care to stay for lunch. Sam declined
with considerable courtesy, and the two of us went back to his house, where he
gave me a drink to calm my jitters.
We were sure we had blown it, but we were wrong. Metro liked the idea and
eventually approved the project. In the meantime, however, Sam had received a
better offer from Columbia, and we decided to go with them. I heard through the
grapevine that the wheels at Metro had found the story Sam told quite
interesting, but were dubious about Sam himself. Sam had a reputation for being
something of a rogue, and the MGM bosses, with their snobbish pretensions, found
him to be wanting as a member of their club. I, on the other hand, was their
kind of gentleman. I don't suppose I had said anything but "How do you
do?" and "Goodbye," but this was interpreted as gentlemanly
reserve. Metro was so impressed, in fact, that it began negotiations with Paul
Kohner and arranged a two-picture contract for me to follow We Were Strangers.
. . .
Chapter 17 (page 187)
While I was finishing The Red Badge of Courage, Sam Spiegel and I
talked a lot about the next film for Horizon. Our prime choice was The African
Queen. Columbia had bought the rights years before from C. S. Forester, planning
to make a film starring Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton. For some reason
they didn't make it. Then Warners bought the property from Columbia for Bette
Davis. They, too, never followed through.
Warners were willing to sell the rights to Horizon for $50,000. Sam and I
together had nothing like this amount. We debated whether I should make another
picture first, aiming to pick up enough cash for a down payment, with Sam to add
whatever he could manage to scrape up.
Then Spiegel had an inspiration. He went to Sound Services, Inc., and asked
them for the full amount we needed. Sound Services, a company that supplied
sound equipment to studios, wasn't in the habit of making loans, but Sam was
desperate, trying anybody and everybody. I believe he told them that, in
addition to repaying the loan, he would use their equipment on location, give
them credit in titles, and I don't know what not. Miraculously, they agreed,
gave Sam the money, and the rights to The African Queen were ours.
Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart agreed to play the leads. On the basis
of their names, Spiegel arranged for a loan for the American budget from the
Walter E. Heller Co. of Chicago. He then made a deal with Romulus Films, Ltd.,
London — John and Jimmy Woolf — for the sterling required. We were going to
shoot in sterling areas. For this they got the European distribution rights.
United Artists were the distributors in the United States. . . .
Chapter 18 (page 210)
. . . No money arrived from The African Queen. No money ever arrived
from The African Queen. It was promised. It didn't come in. Excuses would
be made. More promises. I phoned Bogie to ask him how he was faring. He told me
that certain discrepancies had been discovered in Horizon's books by his
business manager, Morgan Maree. Bogie's share of the picture was not in order.
He was owed a goodly amount, and if it was not paid immediately, Bogie would be
suing Horizon. Maree was in London and would come to Paris the following week.
Bogie strongly recommended that we get together and that I be guided by Maree's
That's how I met Morgan, who was to be my friend and business manager for
many years. Maree filled me in on a few of the deals Sam had made — all in his
favor, naturally — and advised me to disassociate myself from Horizon and its
shenanigans without delay. It was the best-intentioned, worst advice I ever
accepted. I got out of my contract with Horizon. No more partnership. No more
share of the possible profits.
The African Queen was one of the most successful pictures I ever made —
and Sam got all the money. My leaving Horizon is one of the "what if's"
of my career. What if I had waited? How much would I have made? Actually, I
know: a more than comfortable sum. It might have changed my life.
Huston, John. An Open Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf,