Great Films: 'Ace in the Hole' and the Career of Kirk Douglas


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"I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog." Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum in Ace in the Hole.

Ace in the Hole (1951) stars Kirk Douglas who just turned 96,  as a hard-bitten reporter who has pretty much ruined his once shining career due to his ruthless style and alcoholism.

The film is a relentlessly cynical view of tabloid journalism, well ahead of its time, and would be familiar to readers of the National Enquirer and other similar media outlets.

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times writes, “There's not a soft or sentimental passage in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, a portrait of rotten journalism and the public's insatiable appetite for it. It's easy to blame the press for its portraits of self-destructing celebrities, philandering preachers, corrupt politicians or bragging serial killers, but who loves those stories? The public does. Wilder, true to this vision and ahead of his time, made a movie in which the only good men are the victim and his doctor. Instead of blaming the journalist who masterminds a media circus, he is equally hard on sightseers who pay 25 cents admission. Nobody gets off the hook here."

Chuck Tatum is a fiercely ambitious, self-centered, wisecracking, down-on-his-luck reporter who has worked his way down the ladder. He has come west to New Mexico from New York City, along the way being fired from eleven newspapers for slander, adultery, and heavy drinking, among other charges. Now that his car has broken down and Tatum is broke, he talks his way into a reporting job for the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin, a paper of little consequence.

Tatum learns about Leo Minosa, a local man who has become trapped in a cave collapse while gathering ancient Indian artifacts.

Sensing a golden opportunity, Tatum manipulates the rescue effort, convincing an unscrupulous sheriff to pressure the construction contractor charged with the rescue into drilling from above, rather than shoring up the existing passages, so that Tatum can prolong his stay on the front pages of newspapers nationwide.

The victim's wife, goes along with the reporter's scheme,. eager to leave her husband and their struggling business. Thanks to the publicity Tatum generates, she experiences a financial windfall, particularly from thousands of tourists who come to witness the rescue.

The rescue site literally becomes a carnival, with rides, entertainment, songs about Leo, even games of chance. Tatum begins drinking again. He takes up with Leo's wife  and is greeted heroically by the crowd each time he returns from visiting poor Leo in the cave.

Spoiler Alert! After five days of drilling, the party atmosphere ends abruptly. Upon learning that Leo is fading fast, Tatum belatedly tries to get the contractor to switch back to the quicker procedure of shoring up the walls of the cave, but the vibration from drilling has made this impossible. Leo dies.

The film's plot was inspired by two real-life events. The first involved W. Floyd Collins, who in 1925 was trapped inside Sand Cave, Kentucky, following a landslide. A Louisville newspaper, The Courier-Journal, jumped on the story by dispatching reporter William Burke Miller to the scene. Miller's enterprising coverage turned the tragic episode into a national event and earned the writer a Pulitzer Prize. Collins's name is cited in the film as an example of a cave-in victim who becomes a media sensation.

The second event took place in April 1949. Three-year-old Kathy Fiscus of San Marino, California, fell into an abandoned well and, during a rescue operation that lasted several days, thousands of people arrived to watch the action unfold. In both cases, the victims died before they were rescued.

At the time of its release, critics found little to admire. However, the film has many champions among today’s critics.

Kirk DouglasKirk Douglas (born Issur Danielovitch in 1916) other most popular films include Out of the Past (1947), Champion (1949), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Lust for Life (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Vikings (1958), Spartacus (1960), Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) and Tough Guys (1986).

His parents were Jewish immigrants from Gomel, Belarus. Douglas grew up as Izzy Demsky and legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas before entering the Navy during World War II.

Douglas sold snacks to mill workers to earn enough to buy milk and bread. Later, he delivered newspapers and worked at more than forty jobs before becoming an actor. "I was dying to get out. In a sense, it lit a fire under me." During high school, he acted in school plays, and discovered "The one thing in my life that I always knew, that was always constant, was that I wanted to be an actor."

Unable to afford tuition, Douglas talked his way into St. Lawrence University and received a loan which he paid back by working part-time as a gardener and a janitor. He was a standout on the wrestling team, and wrestled one summer in a carnival to make money.

Douglas' acting talents were noticed at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City and he received a special scholarship. One of his classmates was Betty Joan Perske (later to become better known as Lauren Bacall), who would play an important role in launching his film career.

Screenshot Cast ShadowAfter the war, Douglas returned to New York City and found work in radio, theatre, and commercials. Lauren Bacall helped him get his first screen role in the Hal B. Wallis film The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), starring Barbara Stanwyck. Wallis was on his way to New York to look for new talent when Bacall suggested he visit Douglas, who was rehearsing a play. Douglas finished the play's run and, with no follow-up work in sight, headed to Hollywood. He was immediately cast in one of the leading roles in Wallis' film and made his film acting debut as a weak man dominated by a ruthless woman.

Douglas made seven films over the decades with Burt Lancaster; I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), The Devil's Disciple (1959), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Victory at Entebbe (1976) and Tough Guys (1986).

DVD cover: Lust for lifeDouglas was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in Champion, The Bad and the Beautiful and Lust for Life. Douglas did not win any Oscars, but received a Honorary Academy Award in 1996 for "50 years as a moral and creative force in the motion picture community".

During his career, he worked to break the Hollywood Black list by employing blacklisted writers.

He is ranked as the 17th greatest male movie star of all-time by the American Film Institute.

Visit your local library for these resources:

Films of Billy Wilder on DVD at Worldcat

Kirk Douglas films on DVD at Worldcat

Books by Kirk Douglas

The Ragman's Son
The noted actor talks about his childhood as the son of an illiterate Jewish ragpicker, the anger born of a difficult childhood, and how that emotion inspired him to succeed as a Hollywood star, fighter, father and friend.

Climbing The Mountain: My Search For Meaning

My Stroke of Luck
The actor shares his story of survival after a debilitating stroke in 1995, which changed his life and taught him valuable lessons, and provides anecdotes from other famous figures who have triumphed over adversity

Let's Face It – 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning.

Dance With the Devil

Last Tango in Brooklyn

For Younger Readers

The Broken Mirror: A Novella
After the Nazis destroy his family, twelve-year-old Moishe gives up his Jewish faith, calls himself Danny, and is taken to New York where he tries to make the best of his life in a Catholic orphanage.



Article illustration: Screenshot: Ace in the Hole.

Screenshot: Cast a Giant Shadow

DVD cover: Lust for Life



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