INTRODUCTION: LOW-BUDGET AND LOWBROW
Ask someone to name an atomic film comedy and nine times out of ten you are going to hear the title of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece: Dr. Strangelove.But more than ten years before Slim Pickens rode the Bomb to immortality in that classic, Lew Landers directed Run for the Hills, a low-budget, lowbrow farce starring two of Hollywood’s most notorious pariahs:Barbara Payton (1927-1967) and Sonny Tufts (1911-1970). Guess which one of the aforementioned movies is preserved for the ages in the prestigious National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and which one is rotting away on a no-frills public domain DVD release.
Over the decades, there have been millions of words written about Kubrick’s cinematic Cold War treasure, so CONELRAD decided that it was time to devote some space to its poorer genre sibling. To prepare this article we have examined as many documents related to Run for the Hills as possible. We have also interviewed two people who were involved in the production: the story writer, Leonard Neubauer, and actress Dee Ann Johnston who played the bratty child, Malinda.
NOT SINCE GABLE AND LOMBARD… TUFTS AND PAYTON
The first public mention (that we could find) of Run for the Hills was in a syndicated Jimmy Fidler Hollywood column from January 10, 1953:
Barbara Payton and Sonny Tufts have been signed to co-star in a picture titled, “Run for the Hills.” According to announcement, they will play “a typical middle-class American husband and wife.” H-mmmm! Considering all of the episodes of scandal flavor in which these two have been involved, I’d say “Run for the Hills” sounds more like a set of instructions than a title for a motion picture.
The two D-list stars were more than deserving of Mr. Fidler’s snark. Indeed, by 1953 both Payton and Tufts were on the downward slope of their careers thanks to their off-camera shenanigans. In 1951 Payton made headlines as the center of an unseemly, violent love triangle with actors Tom Neal and Franchot Tone. By 1967, the year of her death, she was an alcoholic with a rap sheet that included prostitution and theft arrests.
Tufts was a mess, too. By 1953 his marriage of fourteen years was ending and he was racking up public intoxication charges. His wife, Barbara Lorayne, said at the time, that she was divorcing him because “he drinks too much and lives too lavishly.” A year after his divorce, Tufts was accused of biting the thighs of two strippers.*
Jack Broder, the producer responsible for another Payton classic, Bride of the Gorilla, undoubtedly saw some publicity value in pairing these two train wrecks in a comedy about the H-bomb. It turns out that he had a talent for economical stunt casting: The year before Run for the Hills, he released Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla starring the titular horror icon and Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, a shameless Martin & Lewis knock-off act.
To put the low-wattage star-power of the Run for the Hills duo in the proper perspective, it is necessary to conjure up a modern day show business analog. And while this is by no means a perfect match, Tom Sizemore and Sean Young are awfully close.
ORIGINS:“MARION KIND OF FUCKED IT UP…”
The original story of an insurance actuary who moves his family to a cave to avoid the H-bomb was conceived by Leonard Neubauer, who had previously sold the screen stories for A Fugitive from Justice and The Lady Wants Mink. Neubauer also produced hundreds of film trailers at Paramount and other studios in the 1940s and ‘50s—including the ones for Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. Much later in his career he co-wrote Black Snake with Russ Meyer.
The Run for the Hills treatment was sold through Neubauer’s agent, Lou Schor, to Edward Lewis, who would eventually go on to produce Spartacus (directed by Stanley Kubrick) and Seven Days in May. The screenplay was written by Marion Parsonnet who wrote Rita Hayworth’s career-making Gilda in 1946. Before Run for the Hills’ release, however, Parsonnet successfully had his name removed from the credits (In his stead, the non-existent “Richard Stroup” took the fall).
When asked if the H-bomb was his inspiration for his story, Neubauer told CONELRAD, “Well, sure, naturally. It was on everybody’s mind at the time… It was more a situation comedy-drama [the way he originally wrote it]. I was inspired to write an awful lot of stuff and this was one of the weird things I came up with.”
We also asked the writer how much of his storyline was retained by Parsonnet and his response was: “Basically, the original idea – the kick-off.” Neubauer added that he did not like the Gilda scribe’s broad comedy approach to his more nuanced concept:
I think [Run for the Hills] could have been a really good movie, but I think Marion kind of fucked it up and what happened after that was just free fall.
How did Hills wind up with Jack Broder? “I think Eddie [Lewis] had a distress sale. I don’t know,” recalled Neubauer. “They couldn’t sell it and then, a year passed, and I got word that these people were making the movie with the typical all-American couple: Sonny Tufts and Barbara Payton.”
Neubauer told us that he remembers visiting the production when it was shooting:
I remember going on the set one day when the picture was being made – and I knew Lew Landers – he’s a feisty little guy; and I had no contact with anyone else on the movie.
When we asked him if he was friendly with the movie’s scandalized female lead, the writer said knowingly, “Barbara and I didn’t travel in the same circles.”
PRODUCTION: “They were very nice to me…”
Run for the Hills was not really tracked by the trade papers, so it is difficult to know exactly how long it took to make. Dee Ann Johnston, one of the few surviving cast members, told CONELRAD that she was on-set for her scenes for “about two weeks.” When asked if she was aware of the notoriety of the film’s leads, Johnston said: “Yes, my parents told me some things that I didn’t understand at the time.” Johnston hastened to add: “They were very nice to me. I was really young at the time, but there were no problems.”
According to the “Data for Bulletin of Screen Achievement Records” submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences by the producers, Run for the Hills was completed in February of 1953. Since news of the casting appeared in Jimmy Fidler’s January 10, 1953 column, it is safe to say that the shoot was fairly brief.
The debut of Run for the Hills was not exactly a publicity bonanza. Indeed, there was no theater owner willing to roll out the red carpet for the tainted co-stars and the newspapers barely mentioned the film. “San Diego’s own” Dee Ann Johnston told CONELRAD that she was the special guest at her local premiere, but this appears to be more a case of hometown pride than genuine enthusiasm for the movie. At the Orpheum in downtown Los Angeles (where the movie played from June 24, 1953 through June 30, 1953), Hills ran as the bottom half of a double bill topped by Robot Monster.
THE REVIEWS: “MERITS LITTLE COMMENT”
The reviews for Run for the Hills were limited to a handful of notices that ran the gamut from dismissive to hostile. The Los Angeles Times tacked its verdict to the tail end of its review of Robot Monster:
TRANSCRIPTION: An accompanying feature, “Run for the Hills” merits little comment. It stars Johnny [sic] Tufts and Barbara Payton, who do nothing to enhance a weak script involving the H-bomb and a return to caves.
With all this violence, the viewer is liable to come out a bit worse for wear, and even children may be a little bored by it all [the second paragraphs seems to be referring more to Robot Monster than Run for the Hills].
The Hollywood Citizen News did not seem to even realize that Hills was a comedy (but at least they got Sonny’s first name right). Their shorthand description of Payton, though, is priceless:
On the same bill [as the 3-D Robot Monster] is a so-so flat-screen drama, “Run for the Hills,” in which Sonny Tufts worries about an H-Bomb. His wife is acted by Barbara Payton, of headline fame.
For some reason, Variety published two reviews. The first, on June 25, 1953, names Marion Parsonnet as the screenwriter. The second, issued on July 8, 1953, blames the pseudonymous Richard Stroup. Both reviews call the movie “strictly for fill-in dates” and comment on Payton’s wardrobe:
…Barbara Payton, enduring a series of asinine exploits that spin out the footage and serve no purpose save to frame Miss Payton in a succession of sweaters and a leopard skin.
The first Variety notice sums up their opinion in one paragraph:
“Run for the Hills” is not, as might be expected, an injunction to the luckless producers, but an abortive effort to mine the comedy values from contemporary fears. It has a few mild chuckles and perhaps a bellylaugh in one of the slapstick sequences. Overall, however, it is a draggy affair which resorts to kissing in the cliches whenever the story line gets too anemic, as it frequently does…
“The picture’s very vague in my memory,” Leonard Neubauer told CONELRAD in his interview. “I know I saw it sometime and I think I got royalties from it from the Writers Guild. It got awful reviews, I know.” Fresher in the screenwriter’s mind is his feeling of disappointment with the end result. He had worked with Edward Lewis and Marion Parsonnet on the film before they sold it to Jack Broder and he believes that the final film should have been a lot better.
Aside from its obvious value as a Cold War pop culture curiosity, Run for the Hills is significant because it is the only film to feature Barbara Payton in a comedic role. It is fascinating to see how ably this tragic figure handles light material. Payton, who was only twenty-six when she filmed the movie, is quite charming as Jane Johnson (even if her character’s New York accent fades out occasionally). In the quieter parts of the film, she seems to be trying to project a subtler version of Judy Holliday. Tufts, on the other hand, pretty much hams his way through the entire film. His performance of the song Frankie and Johnny in a bizarre fantasy sequence is particularly excruciating.
After our interview with Leonard Neubauer, we re-watched the film to see if some of the more serious elements of his work that he referred to made it into the final version. It is, indeed, apparent on second viewing that the dramatic elements from the original story seem to have been awkwardly shoehorned into Parsonnet’s gag-filled screenplay. This seems to have been done to help resolve the loose end regarding the couple’s conflicting attitudes about how to live a happy life in the shadow of the H-Bomb.
At times, the scattershot, non sequitur humor of this loosely structured film suggests a primitive, unfunny version of Airplane! Therefore, when Payton has a weepy breakdown near the end of the movie because of the couple’s life and death predicament (no spoilers here), it simply does not work. Her character, after all, spends a large portion of the film walking around in a cavegirl outfit. Mickey Rooney’s The Atomic Kid (1954), on the other hand, has no such tonality issues—it is unapologetically stupid from start to finish.
RICKY BUYS A CAVE: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
As hard as this might be to believe, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are said to have once considered Run for the Hills as a vehicle for their big screen debut as a team.* Neubauer had never heard this bit of trivia, but the fact that Lucy and Desi wound up starring in The Long, Long Trailer the same year as Hills (produced in 1953; released in February of 1954) tends to support the claim. Of course, the TV power couple probably looked at numerous story properties before settling on Trailer.
If this story is true, fans of atomic film are fortunate that Lucy and Desi passed on the film that ultimately helped Sonny and Barbara pay their rent for a month or two. Because if The Long, Long Trailer is any indication, Run for the Hills might have been turned into a mediocre bore. Lew Landers’ atomic sitcom might not be masterpiece, but it is never boring.
RUN FOR THE HILLS
Completed February, 1953
Released June, 1953
Jack Broder Productions
Executive Producer: Edward Lewis (as Ted Lewis)
Produced by: Mark O. Rice and R.D. Ervin
Directed by: Lew Landers
From an original story by: Leonard Neubauer
Screenplay by: Richard Stroup (Marion Parrsonet)
Director of Photography: Paul Ivanechevitch, A.S.C.
Film Editor: Irving Berlin
Art Director: Ernest Fegte
Music by: Raoul Kraushaar
Assistant Director: Richard Dixon
2nd Assistant Director: Maxwell Henry
Special Effects: Ray Mercer
Set Dresser: Otto Siegel
Sound: Harold Lewis
Make-Up: Webster Phillips
Wardrobe: Henry West
Property Man: Lou Asher
Unit Publicity: Judd Bernard
Charley Johnson: Sonny Tufts
Jane Johnson: Barbara Payton
Jed Taylor: John Harmon
Hudson: Mauritz Hugo
Mrs. Cornish: Vicki Raaf (as Vici Raaf)
George: Jack Wrightson
Sheriff: Paul Maxey
Mr. Carew: Harry Lewis
Mr. Harvester: John Hamilton
Mr. Simpson: Byron Folger
Wagstaff: Sid Slate (note: Slate plays himself in the film)
Craig: Charles Victor
Orin Hadley: Bill Fawcett
Malinda: Dee Ann Johnston (as DeeAnn Johnston)
Television Commentator: George Sanders
Cave Girl: Rosemary Colligan
Radio Announcer: Jack McElroy
Hermit: Ray Parsons
Paleontologist (Phineas Cragg): Michael Fox
Prancer Veach: Jean Willis
Happy Day: Richard Benedict
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND REFERENCES
CONELRAD would like to thank Leonard Neubauer and Dee Ann Johnston for speaking with us about Run for the Hills. This article would not have been nearly as thorough without their help.
John O’Dowd, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story [BearManor Media, 2007].
Telephone / e-mail interview with Dee Ann Johnston, October 4, 2004.
Telephone interview with Leonard Neubauer, May 27, 2006.
NEWSPAPER / MAGAZINE ARTICLES
Fidler In Hollywood Column (syndicated), Nevada State Journal (Reno), January 10, 1953.
Run for the Hills review, Variety, June 25, 1953.
Lowell E. Redelings, “Robot Monster’ Screening In 3-D at Three Theaters,” Hollywood Citizen News, June 25, 1953.
”Robot Eerie Film Figure,” Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1953.
Run for the Hills review, Variety, July 10, 1953.
Dial Torgerson, “Barbara Payton, Once Object of Film Stars’ Fistfight, Dies,” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1967.
“Film Star of Fifties Dies, 58,” Lima (Ohio) Times (via UPI), June 7, 1970.
Run for the Hills official press book, Ronald W. Borst Collection.
“Data for Bulletin of Screen Achievement Records,” Run for the Hills production file at the Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills.
* For details on Sonny Tufts’ arrest see “Actor Accused of Biting Thighs of Two Actresses,” The Daily Independent (Kannapolis, North Carolina) (via UPI), June 18, 1954. The photograph of Mr. Tufts leaving the Los Angeles jail cell featured in the above story is from April 26, 1950. The giddy man seen next to the actor is Weston H. Eldridge who, according to the back caption on the photo, has just paid Tufts’ bail for a drunk driving arrest. In an unknown magazine publication dated May 8, 1950, under the headline “Tuft Talk,” the arrest is described in more detail:
Los Angeles police picked up on a drunk charge a tall man who was weaving along the white line down Central Avenue. “I’m Sonny Tufts,” he assured them. “I’m 23 years old and I could do a handspring on this white line…I guess you don’t know I’m the famous actor and if you insist on bothering me I’ll get your jobs.” After five hours in jail, Tufts was released on $20 bail.
** The detail about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz considering Run for the Hills as a potential film project was provided to us by a relative of Jack Broder. CONELRAD was unable to independently verify this intriguing bit of information.