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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 African Queen.

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 that meeting!"

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 counsel.

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.

 


SOURCES:

Huston, John. An Open Book. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980. 

See Bibliography.

 

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