I once posted a top ten list on Facebook―I do this periodically to reclaim my feed against humblebrags, kid photos and anti-Trump rants―of the films I enjoyed re-watching no matter how many times. To my surprise, they included three from director Arthur Lubin: Buck Privates (1941), White Savage (1943) and Francis the Talking Mule (1950). Lubin, a director whose career even today defiantly resists auteur appreciation. Lubin, best known for talking animal films and putting Clint Eastwood under personal contract in the fifties but not making him a star. Lubin, the obscure, described by critics in such terms as “untroubled”, “untroubling”, and “competent”.
Yet should it be a surprise? Lubin films were a staple on midday Australian television in the eighties, when I was falling in love with movies―it’s only natural they would have some impact on my brain. And he was a very skilled director. In 1941 Variety said he was Hollywood’s most commercially successful director that year. He remained in demand for over four decades, he created whole genres, he launched Abbott and Costello and Turhan Bey as stars. Why not Lubin?
He began his career as an actor, and what’s more began very young. Lubin was born in 1898 and started appearing in Sunday School productions when he was five. He joined music and drama clubs at high school, served as a water boy for touring theatre companies, then studied drama at Carnegie Tech, graduating in 1922. Lubin moved to New York to find work as an actor, but found the going difficult, so headed to Los Angeles, where he was soon busy appearing in films and on stage. His film credits include King Vidor’s Barkley the Magnificent (1925) with John Gilbert, and he was part of a stage production of Desire Under the Elms that was shut down by police for obscenity. Lubin had a decent acting career but never quite reached the top rank, and over time seemed to lose enthusiasm for the craft; by the late twenties his thoughts were increasingly turning to directing. “Every director should have acting experience,” he once said. “You can talk their language. You know their problems. You know how a scene should be acted.”
Lubin directed plays in New York and Los Angeles (working with casts that included Paul Muni and Pauline Frederick), was as an assistant to William Le Baron at Paramount, then was offered a job directing features at lowly-ranked Monogram Pictures in 1932.
Lubin’s first film as director was A Successful Failure (1934), a creaky comedy-drama about a doddery old reporter (William Collier) whose family treats him with contempt; he goes on to earns their respect by interrupting his son’s communist rally, becoming a radio star and slut shaming his daughter (not making that up). These sort of worm-turns family dramas were surprisingly common in the thirties (Frank Capra made a bunch), and could be made watchable by strong actors and direction; however Successful Failure’s cast was poor and Lubin’s handling uneasy.
Both criticisms could also be made of his next two films: Great God Gold (1935), a melodrama about a stock broker who learns that Greed (in particular, firms that specialise in receiverships) is Bad; and Honeymoon Limited (1935), a comedy about an author who winds up in a lodge with cute kids and wacky crooks. Still, all three movies had their moments (for instance, Lubin was a superb director of children from the beginning) and he easily jumped over the low quality bar that was Monogram’s standard for the time.
In 1935 the studio was merged (briefly, as it turned out) into Republic Pictures and Lubin signed a year long contract with the latter. While there he made three features: Two Sinners (1935), a man-out-of-prison melodrama; Frisco Waterfront (1935), a tale of the docks; and The House of a Thousand Candles (1936), a spies-in-Europe comedy thriller. I’ve only seen the latter – it is creaky and is hampered, as many Lubin films would be, by a lack of star power in the lead roles, which really should be played by stars, but it is quick and light and Lubin clearly has affection for his characters.
Lubin’s boss at Monogram, Trem Carr, then accepted a contract to produce movies at Universal, a major studio which had just come under new management and was looking to revamp its operations. Carr took Lubin with him, and the director signed a contract with the studio in March 1936. Universal would be his main base for the next two decades.
Lubin’s early directorial work at Universal consisted of low budget programmers, usually shot in one-to-two weeks, rarely going for more than an hour and with B/C/D list stars. But the studio had more resources than Monogram so budgets were larger and the films looked better with stronger casts, scripts and production values.
Lubin started with Yellowstone (1936), a decent thriller notable for its weak leads, robust support cast and incorporation of location photography at Yellowstone National Park. He then made Mysterious Crossing (1937), followed by a series of action stories with a pre-Stagecoach John Wayne, none of which were Westerns: California Straight Ahead! (1937) (Wayne as a trucker), I Cover the War! (1937) (Wayne as a newsreel cameraman), Idol of the Crowds (1937) (Wayne as a hockey player), and Adventure’s End (1937) (Wayne as a sailor). The films performed disappointingly at the box office, sending Wayne scurrying back to Westerns – which is a surprise since they are entertaining, unpretentious and hold up surprising well, packing in a lot of plot for their sixty minutes, and demonstrating that Lubin could handle physical stories, though he was never that comfortable with action (he once said “I would never know how to do an automobile chase”, which wasn’t true, but over time he would show a preference for comedies and thrillers more than anything else).
Lubin went straight into Midnight Intruder (1938), which is terrific fun, a fast-paced, bright entertainment starring Louis Hayward as a gambler who poses as the son of a wealthy woman and gets involved in a murder case; the performances are full of energy, and it rockets along for its 67 minute running time. Lubin was coming into his own as director.
Warners borrowed him for The Beloved Brat (1938), an entertaining star vehicle for Bonita Granville, playing a poor little rich girl who sets her room on fire, accidentally kills a motorist by grabbing the wheel of a speeding car, sends the racist family butler to prison for the crime by perjuring herself on the stand, is sent to reform school and… actually reforms. Based on a story by Jean Negulesco, the movie is of cultural interest in that it shows a black mother character to be a far superior parent to Granville’s parents, and Granville’s best friend is a black boy. (Having said that black characters other than maids were rare in Lubin’s entire output, with the notable exception of New Orleans (1947).)
Lubin then did Prison Break (1938), a Warner Bros-style innocent-man-accused-of-crime-goes-to-prison tale that was made at Universal, starring Barton MacLane; like most of Lubin’s movies from this time it is stacked to the brim with plot, and the director punches it through. He stayed at Universal for Secrets of a Nurse (1938) with Edmund Lowe, Newsboys’ Home (1938) with Jackie Cooper, Risky Business (1939) with George Murphy, and Big Town Czar (1939) with MacLane. He went to Republic for Mickey the Kid (1939) with Ralph Cabot, then back to Universal for Call a Messenger (1939), which united the Dead End Kids with The Little Tough Guys, and The Big Guy (1939) with Victor McLaglen and Cooper. Few of these movie are remembered today – I would argue this was more due to their lack of star power and exposure on television in later years rather than quality because almost all of them remain very watchable.
Lubin’s first film to have any kind of lasting legacy was Black Friday (1940), which is sought out by many buffs because it features both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, though neither share a scene together. It’s a sort of gangster-horror film that involves a brain transplant (Curt Siodmak, who worked on the script, loved brain transplants). Stanley Ridges plays a part clearly meant for Karloff with Karloff playing a role that should have been played by Lugosi and Lugosi being wasted in a part that could have been played by anyone. The film is no classic but it is crisp and no-nonsense, taking advantage of Universal’s studio resources, with excellent tempo; Joe Dante later commented it was more like a Warner Bros film in that respect than a Universal one, a judgement that could be made of many Lubin movies from this period.
A case in point was Gangs of Chicago (1940), a classy B which Lubin made back at Republic, starring Lloyd Nolan as a gangster who gets a law degree to commit crime more effectively only to have second thoughts due to his love for childhood friend Ray Middleton.
Lubin returned to Universal for Meet the Wildcat (1940), a really fun mystery comedy with Margaret Lindsay in superb form as a photographer convinced Ralph Bellamy (miscast, trying to channel Cary Grant) is an art thief. He followed it with I’m Nobody’s Sweetheart Now (1940), a cheerful comedy with footballer Dennis O’Keefe pretending to date Helen Parrish for the sake of his father’s political career; it’s so briskly done and well acted that it doesn’t hit you until the movie’s almost over how selfish the lead couple are – Lubin’s empathy for all his characters possibly threw this off balance because all the audience sympathy goes to the partners of O’Keefe and Parrish.
Lubin went to Republic for Who Killed Aunt Maggie? (1940), then returned to Universal for The San Fransisco Docks (1940) with Burgess Meredith and Where Did You Get That Girl? (1941) with Leon Errol. The latter was a joyous, breezy, silly musical made with predominantly young talent; you can feel Lubin being in complete charge of the material and having a ball. A 1942 profile described him as “personally intense, but an easy boss to his casts. He is friendly and witty. Players like to work for him. He strives to keep them relaxed for the cameras. Holding a pow-wow before rehearsing a scene, he will frequently sit cross legged on the floor with the players seated about him. But when the camera starts going, so does Lubin. He is a pacer… He pantomimed all the parts.”
Considering this, it’s not surprising Universal assigned Lubin to direct a hot new comedy team from burlesque, Abbott and Costello, in their first starring vehicle, Buck Privates (1941). The studio would have been hopeful for a positive response but no one expected the film to become the blockbuster it did – earning over $4 million for a cost of $245,000, establishing the leads as the third most popular stars in the country, and changing Lubin from “just another camera flagger” (to quote Variety) to one of the Universal’s leading directors.
It’s become fashionable in later years among Abbott and Costello aficionados to decry Buck Privates – purists complain about all those Andrews Sisters numbers and the time devoted to a “straight” love triangle. Hold That Ghost (1941) and especially Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) are more highly regarded by buffs. But I think it’s terrific – in part because of that love triangle (which is very well acted) and the Andrews Sisters, but also because Abbott and Costello were rarely so energetic. They’re in top form with brilliant routines, and Lubin treats it all with the perfect light touch.
He directed the next four efforts from the team – Hold That Ghost (1941), In the Navy (1941), Ride ‘Em Cowboy (1942) and Keep ‘Em Flying (1942) (they were released in a different order to how they were shot). All but Keep ‘Em Flying are first-rate entertainments – fast, polished, clean, with decent storylines, strong casts, and well-staged musical interludes. Abbott and Costello had two golden periods as movie stars; the second was under Charles Barton – from The Time of Their Lives (1946) to Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein – but the first was those films with Lubin. They are still incredibly entertaining, and it’s a shame the director never worked with the team after 1942.
At a “classier” studio like, say, Paramount, Lubin’s comedy success may have seen him pigeonholed, but at Universal in the forties, where profits depended on Deanna Durbin musicals, horror flicks, and south sea adventure tales, he was treated with respect. They assigned him to an expensive war film, Eagle Squadron (1942), produced by Walter Wanger in colour with Diana Barrymore and Robert Stack; it was another big hit and established Lubin on the “A” list.
Universal gave him three of the studio’s other new stars, Maria Montez, Jon Hall and Sabu, for White Savage (1943). This was one of a series of exotic adventures shot in colour set in some corner of the globe where Montez typically played a princess who’d wear a series of outfits and be rescued by Hall and sidekick Sabu. Not as well known as Montez’s later camp classic Cobra Woman (1944) (to be fair, all her American films are camp classics), White Savage is actually a better movie – Montez and Hall seem to genuinely like each other (not always the case in their films), Richard Brooks’ script is clever and there’s plenty of action and gorgeous photography.
Lubin was reunited with Montez and Hall for Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1944) which isn’t as good as White Savage but is still bright fun. Turhan Bey, who played Montez’s brother in Savage steps into the role meant for Sabu, and his casting throws the movie off -Sabu was a big kid but Bey is more mature, suave, grown up, with careful pro-noun-ci-ation – Sabu was never a sexual rival to Hall but Bey he could be and Lubin gives him all these close ups of him looking dreamy (the director and Lubin had clearly decided to build him into a star). It was clearly just the tonic for audiences after a hard day at the munitions factory – the public turned up in droves, and the film has never stopped playing on television.
In between these films Universal gave Lubin his biggest budget to date with a remake of The Phantom of the Opera (1943), the classic horror tale that was a cross between two of Universal’s most successful genres: horror and Deanna Durbin musicals. The project was originally conceived for Durbin who turned it down, replaced by Susannah Foster. The story was reconfigured as a musical more than a horror saga, with as much time given to the singing of Foster and Nelson Eddy as to the villainy of Claude Rains. Once you accept that, this works well on its own terms and Lubin’s touch is assured; it looks splendid and was hugely popular.
Around this time Lubin also made two propaganda shorts for the US government. Keeping Fit (1942) was a ten minute treatise on the benefits of eating well and exercising, and notable mostly for the large number of Universal contract stars who appeared (including Robert Stack, Broderick Crawford and Lon Chaney Jnr. Far more interesting was a 22 minute dramatised documentary he made with Wanger, To the People of the United States (1944), which warned about the dangers of syphilis. It starred Jean Hersholt and a young Robert Mitchum, as well as US Surgeon General Thomas Parran, who was a notable warrior in the war against the social disease (though not always an ethical one – he was partly behind the Tuskegee and Guatemalan syphilis experiments, where carriers were observed for years without being told they had the disease… and in hindsight Parran’s eyes in the film do seem to have a fanatical gleam about them).
To the People of the United States is the sort of doco that is easy to laugh at (“syphilis – say it!”) but actually has a fine message: don’t be ashamed if you’re infected, look to science rather than urban legend, get tested and treated, follow the example of Denmark when it comes to sex education. This is all sensible stuff, and accordingly offended the Catholic Legion of Decency who felt the film should have said the leading cause of syphilis was promiscuity, and used their influence to stop the film from being distributed in commercial theatres. It was nonetheless nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1944, losing to John Ford’s December 7th (1943).
Towards the end of the war, Lubin’s career suffered a few missteps. He was loaned to United Artists for a Jane Powell musical: Delightfully Dangerous (1945), produced by Charles Rogers, his old boss at Universal. The movie is dull and sluggish, with a poor script and inadequate casting (apart from the surprisingly un-annoying Powell, who, in her memoirs, calls it the worst film she ever made). Lubin later said “I feel the writer is the least credited person in our business. If you haven’t got a good script, you can put John Barrymore in a picture and audiences still won’t like it.” He was no screenwriter himself, incidentally, and never learned the ability to write his way out of trouble on a movie. But he also felt “Too many directors are former writers. They have the scene in their mind but they don’t know what the actor has to do to interpret it.”
Back at Universal Lubin was forced to do a horror film, The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946), meant to be the first in a series of movies starring the titular character (played by Gale Sondegaard), who had made her debut in Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1943). Despite starring horror icons Sondegaard and Rondo Hatton, Strikes Back was poorly received and helped kill off Universal’s second horror cycle. And it’s a poor movie – a confused script and inadequate casting of support roles are mostly to blame but, it must be admitted, Lubin did not seem to have a particular feel/affinity for horror material. He was probably too upbeat and happy a person – no James Whale gloominess for him.
Lubin then made Night in Paradise (1946), an expensive Eastern fantasy with Merle Oberon and Turhan Bey. This is painful to watch, one of Lubin’s worst movies; those Maria Montez-Jon Hall films were full of movement and pace but Paradise is basically a lot of hanging around a palace, relying on its two leads to provide star power they simply didn’t have. In a year where 90 million Americans went to the movies once a week, the film managed to lose $800,000 and killed Bey’s career as a leading man. Universal terminated Lubin’s contract.
Lubin did not flounder, as many studio directors did when kicked out into the cold. He started developing his own material and went the independent route, making two movies for United Artists, New Orleans (1947) and Impact (1949).
New Orleans is the only film appearance for Billie Holiday, who notoriously plays a maid, albeit one who becomes a singing star; it’s one of those movies where critics generally go “the music’s great but everything else is terrible and isn’t Hollywood racist” which is basically true – but it was 1947, what did people expect? At least there is a lot of music, Louis Armstrong and Dorothy Patrick are charming, it’s fascinating to see Holliday in a movie and I love how in the story her character marries Armstrong’s. Also Lubin seems to have genuine affection for the characters and the music – it’s much better than his previous three features.
So was Impact, a solid film noir with a decent cast and typically brisk handling; Lubin may not have been strong with horror, which depends heavily on mood, but with thrillers, which benefited from speed, he was fine.
Both films were well received but it was Lubin’s next project which set the tone for his career over the next two decades. He found a novel about a talking mule, optioned the rights and succeeded in setting it up at Universal, who liked the fact it was inexpensive and would provide a role for Donald O’Connor. It’s unlikely even Lubin would have predicted the enormous success of Francis the Talking Mule (1950), which led to six sequels, of which all except the last were directed by Lubin. These movies were a guilty pleasure for me growing up and time hasn’t given them much legitimacy or lessened the joy they provide. Lubin’s handling is always sure and confident, and they contain some genuinely hilarious moments and sensational performances from O’Connor and Chill Wills (who voiced Francis). Admittedly the structure gets repetitive – generally in first half hour everyone thinks Donald O’Connor is mad, then Francis talks to someone, there’s another half hour of people thinking they’re mad, then Francis talks to a few more people, then another half hour and more allegations of madness, the Francis talks to everyone.
The film’s success re-established Lubin as a force – well, kind of a force – in Hollywood and got him a two-picture-a-year deal at Universal. For the next five years he alternated Francis movies with other projects: Francis, then Queen for a Day (1951), an anthology film based on a quiz show, which told three separate stories, for United Artists ; Francis Goes to the Races (1951), then Rhubarb (1951), a comedy at Paramount about a cat that inherits a baseball team; Francis Goes to West Point (1952), then It Grows on Trees (1952), a comedy with Irene Dunne at Universal; Francis Covers the Big Town (1953), then South Sea Woman (1953), a south seas adventure tale with Burt Lancaster at Warners; Francis Joins the WACS (1954), then Star of India (1954), a period swashbuckler with Cornel Wilde shot in Italy for UA; Francis in the Navy (1955), then Footsteps in the Fog (1955), a Gothic thriller with Stewart Granger shot in England for Columbia.
For me the best in the Francis series was Francis Covers the Big Town (1954). Let’s look at the non-Francis output in a little more detail…
Queen for a Day was sometimes known as Horsie, but it wasn’t an animal film – that was the title of the anthology’s third segment, about an infant’s nurse who had a face like a horse. It was based on a story by Dorothy Parker, whose satirical point about beauty is muted in this adaptation – perhaps Lubin was too “nice” a director to do it justice. The other stories are warmly done (a child gets polio, an immigrant’s son does a high dive for money) but put together they don’t t quite work as a movie – maybe it would’ve been better had Lubin been restricted to a 65 minute running time like in the old days.
Rhubarb was a bright comedy which Lubin had developed himself then sold to Paramount.There are some funny moments though the director can’t overcome the main problem of all live action movies about cats – namely, their personality doesn’t come across screen. There’s no strong relationship between Rhubarb and Ray Milland so the film feels hollow at its core in a way the Francis movies never did.
The film is played straight but It Goes on Trees – which again Lubin had packaged with his own money before on-selling to a studio – is a fantasy like Francis where Irene Dunne discovers a tree that grows money; it is effective and entertaining though very “Eisenhower era” and I kept wishing Dunne’s husband was played by a movie star rather than Dean Jagger.
South Sea Woman needed to be in colour but is highly spirited fun, which benefits from Lancaster at his toothy, swaggering best. Star of India should have been good – it has Italian locations and Cornel Wilde had appeared in some decent swashbucklers – but is sunk by a silly script.
Much better is Footsteps in the Fog, an unpretentious, enjoyable little thriller – so many Lubin films can be called “unpretentious, enjoyable little [insert genre]” – where Stewart Granger is always trying to kill Jean Simmons and she never stops thinking he’s wonderful. The director had developed this for a number of years to avoid being typecast as a comedy specialist; it doesn’t hit great expressionistic heights but is lots of fun, and it’s a shame box office receptions weren’t strong enough to allow him do more work in this line. (Incidentally the script was co written by Dorothy Reid, Lubin’s most regular writer, who worked with him on an off throughout his career; she was best known for being the widow of Wallace Reid, the first notable Hollywood movie star to die of a drug overdose, always overshone her genuine achievements as a filmmaker.)
Lubin’s second stint at Universal ended with the box office failure of Lady Godiva (1955). Why this movie tanked compared to other colourful costume periods of the time is a mystery – it’s bright and cheerful and stars Maureen O’Hara in all her red haired glory (she does the final ride in a body stocking, in case you’re wondering). Maybe more screen time should have been devoted to her rather than her leading man, Universal’s back up Jeff Chandler, George Nader, but I’ve always liked this movie – like so much of Lubin’s output, it was perfect Saturday afternoon TV fodder when I was growing up.
The cast included Clint Eastwood, a young actor who was put under personal contract to Lubin in the mid fifties, and turned up in several of his films. Lubin gave Eastwood some of the actor’s best early roles (that isn’t saying much) including parts in two films the director made for RKO, The First Travelling Saleslady (1956) and Escapade in Japan (1957). This led to plenty of urban legends that the handsome Eastwood sold his body to Lubin, ignoring the fact that the director may simply have just had an eye for talent. On the other hand, Lubin did get Eastwood to do his screen test wearing nothing but a jockstrap, and would buy him suits and take him out for dinner… Still, there is no proof the relationship was anything other than totally professional. There was never any scandal attached to Lubin during his life and career, in contrast with other gay directors of his time such as Mitchell Leisen, Edmund Goulding and Irving Rapper (or straight directors such as Roman Polanski, Charlie Chaplin, and so on).
While we’re on the gay thing – and we may as well deal with it, in this era of queer film studies – Lubin would probably rank amongst the least analysed gay directors from Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was not known for “women’s pictures” and no one’s made a James Whale/George Cukor case about him sneaking in coded messages past the censor, even though he made films with such camp icons as Maria Montez and Steve Reeves. True, Lloyd Nolan appears to be in love with Ray Middleton in Gangs of Chicago and Burt Lancaster seems more interested in Chuck Connors than Virginia Mayo in South Sea Woman, but that was entirely typical of those respective genres (boyhood-friends-grow-up-on-opposite-sides-of-law gangster film and buddy action comedy). Historian William Mann described Lubin as “an ordinary workhorse”, one of those filmmakers who were “gay but not transgressive, outsiders who nonetheless felt in many ways already in, who harbored no need to challenge, to provoke, to do anything other than live out their lives quietly and amenably, with a balance of conformity and integrity.” That’s not to deny Lubin’s legitimacy and/or skill as a filmmaker – it just means you’re less likely to find PhDs done on him.
Lubin’s two RKO movies failed commercially. Saleslady is a classic example of a film that should work but simply doesn’t, lacking the consistency and pace of his earlier movies. Escapade suffered from being a kids film at a time when Disney were beginning to monopolise that market. Incidentally, Eastwood broke away from Lubin before the actor was cast in Rawhide and kept his distance from the director over the next few decades… but called Lubin for a chat about old times when Eastwood was nominated for an Oscar for The Unforgiven (1992).
Coming off a series of flop movies, Lubin turned to episodic television, easily adapting to the shorter schedules and fast pace, helming over 500 hours of shows such as Maverick, Bonanza and Adventures in Paradise. His one last huge success would be on the small screen: Mister Ed (1961-66).
Lubin had wanted to make a TV show based on the Francis movies but Universal were not interested; cunning Lubin then looked around to buy the rights to a 1937 book of stories about a talking book that predated the Francis source material (David Stern’s 1946 novel) and turned it into Mr Ed. (This is a perfect example of what to do if you’re having trouble securing IP – you just buy a similar work that predates it so no one can accuse you of ripping it off even though you are). No network would back the project but George Burns agreed to personally finance a pilot and Lubin succeeded in selling the show into syndication before CBS picked it up. The two lead roles were cast beautifully – Alan Young as Wilbur and Allan Lane as the voice of Mister Ed – and the series ran for 143 episodes, and is still being re-run today.
By the sixties Lubin had earned more than enough money to retire, but he loved to work, so continued to direct other television shows as well as feature films. In between making the Mr Ed pilot and series he spent months in Italy and Africa doing a Steve Reeves “Eastern”, The Thief of Baghdad (1961), which has bright colours and Tunisian locations but is hurt by a wonky screenplay and uncertainty how much fantasy to put in.
Over a summer break for Mr Ed Lubin made the part-animated Don Knotts fish comedy, The Incredible Mr Limpet (1964) which is overlong and clearly budget challenged but full of charm, and is reminiscent of the Francis movies. Since the nineties several stars and directors such as Jim Carey and Rickard Linklater have been interested in remaking this movie and you can see why – it’s an extremely likeable story.
After Ed wound up Lubin did a Herman’s Hermits vehicle for producer Sam Katzman at MGM, Hold On! (1966). Shelley Fabares is wasted and the film’s quality is a long way from A Hard Day’s Night (1964) which it clearly apes, but it is full of high spirits and features eleven Herman’s Hermits tunes, and lead singer Peter Noone regarded this is the favourite of the three movies made by the band.
Lubin’s last feature was a drama shot in Spain, Rain for a Dusty Summer (1971) – this is sometimes called a spaghetti Western, but it isn’t really… It’s more a priest-on-the-run story, where a guitar-playing man of the cloth tries to escape army prosecution during the 1917 Mexican Revolution. This film’s a hard slog, badly dubbed and veers wildly in tone (one minute the priest is in drag, the next he’s being executed by firing squad). It’s very pro-Catholic, as if Lubin was trying to make amends to the Legion of Decency for To the People of the United States by making a a bad Leo McCarey movie. He later said he only ever directed eight flops in his career – this was surely one of them. But to be fair, most directors wind up with a whimper rather than a bang at the end.
Lubin directed some TV specials in the late seventies before retiring, probably through lack of offers and age-ism than any lessening of desire. He lived to a ripe old age in the Hollywood Hills, then had a stroke in December 1995, after which he moved into a nursing home, where he died in May 1996 (possibly mercy killed by a nurse, though it’s never been proven – this does put a downer on things, but I felt I had to mention it, and how someone dies shouldn’t take over how we judge how they lived).
Lubin described himself as a happy person and this is reflected in his films. He wanted to entertain. He kept things fast. He didn’t go too dark. He deliberately tried to have no “style”. That’s not the sort of attitude that’s going to earn you a lot of critical respect but it did bring him constant employment and money, as well as the gratitude of countless cinemagoers and TV viewers. Lubin sometimes wondered maybe he’d be better off if he’d done less less and better work… but I don’t think that was in his nature – he was a compulsive worker rather than a David Lean/Kubrick style tinkerer. I think he was terrific and he should be better known.