In the Old Days, Disney—and I have no reason to believe it wasn’t Walt personally—could get anyone to sing. This will doubtless come up again, when we talk about Sean Connery. But Sean Connery was young and hadn’t been around much; what people tend to forget is that he took a man who would become known for playing lawmen and soldiers and guys with names like “Deke” and got him to sing a love song opposite a seal.
You see, this was how I first encountered Kirk Douglas, or anyway first remember encountering him. I suppose it’s not a total wonder that my mother did not consider Mourning Becomes Electra or Young Man With a Horn or similar appropriate to young children, though it does seem odd that, despite her love of Westerns, she never got around to showing me Gunfight at the OK Corral. I’m sure there are people everywhere whose only exposure to Douglas, not to mention Peter Lorre, is watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as children.
There are worse movies. There’s some silliness, like the seal, but James Mason is a force of nature as Nemo—and, yes, there’s depth to Douglas’s character that I don’t think everyone recognizes. On the surface, he’s the fun-loving sailor who sings “A Whale of a Tale,” one of the minor delights in the Disney catalog. (Composed by Al Hoffman, the only person whose work appears in both Ikiru and My Cousin Vinny.) However, Nemo pushes too far and discovers where Ned can’t be pushed back.
Kirk Douglas spent most of a career, I think, as guys who couldn’t be pushed back. He is Spartacus, as are we all, but he’s also a lesser-known Patton (Is Paris Burning?). In his seventy-three movies, he played nine characters IMDb credits with a military rank, three who are clearly lawmen, and a Senator. Oh, and Doc Holliday—he’s played various others handy with a gun. A few were, yes, cold-blooded killers, but I think more were men who felt the need to protect someone or something that mattered to them. Even Ned Land, that inappropriately named seaman, wishes to protect more than just himself from Nemo.
I do keep going back to it. But it is, after all, a fine movie, one that tends to play second fiddle to Spartacus when people are talking about Kirk Douglas. And don’t get me wrong—I like Spartacus, even though I’ve discovered I’m not really what you’d call a Kubrick fan. Spartacus is a great movie, and I’m not sure Leagues is. You’ve got me there. But there is, you’ll pardon the expression, a lot more depth to it than people give it credit for, and I do think it’s a great place to start introducing your kids to classic Hollywood. It’s not the only Peter Lorre movie appropriate for kids (show ’em Arsenic and Old Lace!), but it may well be the only Kirk Douglas one, for all I myself saw Is Paris Burning? at a relatively young age.
I also have to say that I like Oscar, Sylvester Stallone’s comedy, where Kirk Douglas plays his father. And slaps Sylvester Stallone. Maybe that’s the other reason I keep harping on Leagues. Everyone talks about Kirk Douglas and his gift for drama, but films like Oscar and Leagues demonstrated his gift for comedy. He always played tough guys of one stripe or another, even if it’s not one of the first words that comes to mind for The Glass Menagerie‘s Jim O’Connor, but they were usually or at least often funny as well, and to be frank, Spartacus is not a very funny guy.
In case you need another reason to like him, here’s what I discovered while tracking down the image at the top of the story. For his birthday? He gave fifteen million dollars to the Motion Picture and Television Fund. You see, they’re spending $35 million to build a care facility for industry members with Alzheimer’s. Said facility will, of course, be named the Kirk Douglas Care Pavilion. It’s a fine gesture from a fine old gentleman. He even managed to seem dignified while hitting on Anne Hathaway at the Oscars a few years ago.