Lee Aaker broke into feature film work as a child actor in 1952, appearing as a “Little Boy Spectator” in that year’s Best Picture Oscar-winner, the circus film THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. The film plumbed the dramatic lives of trapeze artists (Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton), a clown (James Stewart), and an elephant trainer (Gloria Grahame) as told against a background of circus spectacle.
Lucille Ball was first cast in the role of elephant trainer “Angel,” but had to withdraw from the role when she became pregnant. Gloria Grahame was cast in the part, which Paulette Goddard also had coveted. Jimmy Stewart wanted the part of “Buttons” the clown so badly that he offered to perform for scale. Except for a shot of a still photograph, Stewart’s face is never seen onscreen without clown makeup.
Charlton Heston was driving through the Paramount Pictures lot when he spotted director Cecil B. DeMille, whom he had never met. Heston waved. DeMille was so impressed by Heston's wave, he made inquiries that ultimately led to Heston being cast as “Brad” in this film. This was only Heston's third film, and it skyrocketed him to fame. One fan wrote a letter to DeMille on how much she enjoyed the movie and commented, "And I'm surprised how well the circus manager [Heston] worked with the real actors." Heston thought it was one of the best reviews he ever received.
The film production became a big screen episode of “Circus of the Stars,” as many of the stars were coached by circus performers and executed their own stunts. Betty Hutton learned many aerial tricks from Lynn and Linda Couch. Antoinette Concello and Bill Snyder, both of whom were with the billed Flying Concellos, performed onscreen with Hutton. During one scene, Snyder, doubling for Cornel Wilde, caught the swinging Hutton by the ankles. Dorothy Lamour, who played the “Iron Jaw Girl,” was also coached by Concello, who taught her to spin forty feet in the air while biting a leather strap. Grahame learned about elephants from “elephant girl” Pat Scott and trainer Eugene “Arky” Scott, while Stewart was coached by famed Ringling clown Emmett Kelly.
Cecil B. DeMille not only directed the film, but also did the voice-over narration that was heard intermittently throughout the picture. Victor Young scored the film. RCA Victor released a 10-inch LP of music from the film—mostly previously existing circus music, but including two new songs penned by Young and Ned Washington. The LP had a gray market CD release from Sepia Records in 2007.
Paramount road-showed the film starting in January 1952 and, according to a December 1952 Variety article, limited its exhibition to fifty “situations” between January and Easter week. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH was the greatest film at the U.S. box office, grossing $32.9 million, against its $4 million budget.
An atomic scientist's son is kidnapped by enemy agents in the 1952 thriller THE ATOMIC CITY. Gene Barry made his feature film debut as “Dr. Frank Addison,” whose son “Tommy” (Lee Aaker) goes missing. Nancy Gates plays the boy’s teacher, “Ellen Haskell.”
The film opens with voice-over narration and includes footage showing the daily operations of the Los Alamos, NM atomic energy plant. A title card announces that the faces of the plant's personnel have been "masked for security reasons." Paramount was the first Hollywood studio to receive permission from the Atomic Energy Commission to film inside the plant. In addition to Los Alamos, location shooting took place in Santa Fe, NM, the nearby Puye Indian pueblo ruins, and at various sites in and around downtown Los Angeles.
THE ATOMIC CITY marked Jerry Hopper's debut as a feature film director. Hopper previously had worked as an editor and had made training films for the U.S. Army during World War II. Although a news item announced that Lydia Clarke, actor Charlton Heston's wife, was making her screen debut in the picture, she had previously appeared in a bit role in JULIUS CAESAR, a 1950 16mm release made in the summer of 1949, starring Heston.
In June 1952, the picture opened in Los Angeles area theaters under the title “19 Elevado St.,” except for one theater, which screened it as THE ATOMIC CITY. Paramount used the title “19 Elevado St.” in hopes that it would "generate grosses in keeping with the film's critical acclaim as a 'sleeper.'" On the East Coast, the film was released only as THE ATOMIC CITY, and was copyrighted under that title. Leith Stevens’ score for the film was released by Kritzerland in 2012
Lee Aaker received his first poster credit for the film, but only on posters used in Germany, where the film was titled “The City of 1000 Dangers.”
Lee Aaker appeared as an unnamed boy in a bit part in 1952’s HIGH NOON. Fred Zinnemann directed the film, in which Marshal “Will Kane” (Gary Cooper) must face a gang of outlaws alone after every one of his presumed friends abandons him and urges him to leave town with his new bride (Grace Kelly) while the gettin’ is good.
Dimitri Tiomkin won an Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, and he and Ned Washington also won an Oscar for the song "High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin')". The song was a huge hit for Tex Ritter, whose singing is heard throughout the picture, and an even bigger hit for Frankie Laine, who released a cover version of the tune. There were only three instruments accompanying Ritter on the soundtrack: guitar, accordion, and the Hammond Novachord, the first electronic synthesizer, which created an unusual gourd-like percussion background.
A few tracks from the score were re-recorded over the years until Screen Archives Entertainment released the full score in 2007. Bear Family Records released a CD containing 25 versions of the title song in 2001, by such varied artists as Tex Ritter, Frankie Laine, Henry Mancini, Johnnie Spence, Ray Conniff, Ferrante & Teicher, Chet Atkins, and Robert Horton.
HIGH NOON was the #12 film at the 1952 box office, with a $9.4 million domestic gross.
O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE was an anthology film in which author John Steinbeck (in his only film appearance) introduces a quintet of author O. Henry's most celebrated stories from his New York Period (1902-1910). Aside from “The Gift of the Magi,” perhaps the best known of the remaining four tales is "The Ransom of Red Chief.”
In the early 1900s, confidence men “Sam ‘Slick’ Brown” (Fred Allen) and “William Smith” (Oscar Levant) are in rural Alabama, where they are trying to raise capital for a phony stock scheme. Over William's objections, Slick suggests that they kidnap a child for ransom, but the two genteel city dwellers are overwhelmed when the boy they abduct, “J. B. Dorset” (Lee Aaker), proves too wild for them to handle. While awaiting the ransom, William and Slick spend a harrowing twenty-four hours being tormented by J. B., who steals their watches, insists on being called "Red Chief," intimidates them with his pocketknife and "sics" a wild bear on them.
Fred Allen and Lee Aaker in “The Ransom of Red Chief” in O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE
Clifton Webb was originally set for the part of "Sam 'Slick' Brown," but when he was occupied with production of STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER, the role was given to Fred Allen. Nunnally Johnson wrote the screenplay of "The Ransom of Red Chief" specifically for Webb and William Demarest, and after the casting of Fred Allen and Oscar Levant, director Howard Hawks asked Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer to re-write the script. Johnson then requested that his name be removed from the film's credits before its release because he was displeased with the finished segment. No writer is credited on-screen for the segment.
All five segments were included in the film's initial September 1952 release, but in early October 1952, before the film's New York opening on 16 October, the studio re-edited the picture to exclude "The Ransom of Red Chief." Studio officials were quoted as saying "it would be a better picture without" the segment. New York Times’ critic Bosley Crowther pointed out that the title O. HENRY’S FULL HOUSE was a misnomer, as the film contained only four stories, and suggested that it ought to be changed to “O. Henry's Four of a Kind.”
Alfred Newman’s score was released by Kritzerland in 2014. The film had a middling box office of $2.4 million.
In Vancouver, British Columbia, charter pilot and recovering alcoholic “Vince Heldon” (Howard Keel) and his new wife “Julie” (Jane Greer) sadly place Vince's two young children, “Don” (Lee Aaker) and “Janet” (Linda Lowell), on a commercial flight to return to their mother, “Nora Stead” (Patricia Medina). The children, who adore Vince and Julie, want to stay, but according to his custody agreement, Vince can only have the children six weeks a year. As Vince and Julie drive toward their lakefront home and business, the radio broadcasts a news report that the children's plane is on fire. They rush back to the airport, but after several hours, all contact with the plane has been lost. Although it is not yet daylight, Vince decides to take his seaplane out on a DESPERATE SEARCH for the wreckage himself. Meanwhile, the children awaken near their plane, the only survivors of the mountainous crash.
Linda Lowell and Lee Aaker in DESPERATE SEARCH
Joseph H. Lewis directed this 1952 adventure, which had a stock music score. The film had minimal box office grosses of $1.3 million. According to studio records, MGM took a loss of $88,000 on the film.
Lee Aaker was one of the children seen in Samuel Goldwyn’s production of HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN, in which Danny Kaye played the famed fairy tale writer. The film adapted some of Andersen's best-known stories - "The Emperor's New Clothes", "Thumbelina", and "The Ugly Duckling" as songs, while "The Little Mermaid" was presented as a fantasy ballet sequence. Although Goldwyn had been negotiating with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to score the film, they were later replaced by Frank Loesser.
Charles Vidor directed the 1952 film, which cost $4 million to produce. Samuel Goldwyn urged theater owners to charge a higher admission price for the film, so that he could more easily recover his costs, which brought an inquiry from the Justice Department regarding possible "price fixing" on the film. Goldwyn needn’t have worried. The film was the #5 draw at the U.S. box office, grossing $16.7 million dollars.
Danny Kaye's re-recording of eight songs from the Frank Loesser score, released on a Decca album with accompaniment by Gordon Jenkins and His Orchestra and Chorus, zoomed to the number-one spot on the "Billboard" album chart in January 1953. The LP reigned in first place for an impressive 17 weeks. Re-recording the delightful patter duet, "No Two People," Mr. Kaye was joined on record by Jane Wyman, who substituted for Danny's film partner, Renée Jeanmaire. While Varese Sarabande re-issued the LP on CD in 1994 (coupled with Danny Kaye’s THE COURT JESTER), the actual film tracks have never been released.
On holiday in Mexico, “Doug Stilwin” (Barry Sullivan) is in JEOPARDY—trapped by timber from a collapsing pier on a remote beach. With the tide rising, his wife “Helen” (Barbara Stanwyck) drives off to seek help, leaving their young son “Bobby” (Lee Aaker) to tend to his dad. Helen runs into an escaped killer, “Lawson” (Ralph Meeker), who cynically appropriates the car to make good his own escape.
Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, and Lee Aaker in JEOPARDY
John Sturges directed this 1953 thriller. Dimitri Tiomkin provided the unreleased score. This programmer brought in a decent $3.7 million at the box office.
The rodeo film ARENA was MGM's first feature-length 3-D film. The picture finds rodeo rider “Hob Danvers” (Gig Young) encountering his old friends, “Lew and Meg Hutchins” (Harry Morgan and Jean Hagen), who are staying in a trailer with their young son “Teddy” (Lee Aaker). Lew, an aging veteran of the rodeo circuit, tells Hob he has come to ask rodeo owner “Eddie Elstead” (Stuart Randall) for a job.
Gig Young, Lee Aaker, and Jean Hagen in ARENA
Richard Fleischer directed the film, which had a 15-city opening on 16 June 1953. However, because the 3-D craze was waning, the film played flat in most locales. It generated below average box office of $2.3 million. Rudolph G. Kopp was credited as music director but may have scored the film as well.
Barbara Hale plays a college-educated schoolteacher and the wife of James Cagney's backwoods peddler, who rises to run for governor in A LION IS IN THE STREETS. Lee Aaker had a small role in the film as “Johnny Driscoll.” Producer William Cagney (James' brother) stated that the film was about "the simplicity with which a demagogue can pervert the democratic system." Raoul Walsh directed the 1953 drama. Franz Waxman's score has not had a release. The film had a below average gross of $3 million.
In HONDO, army dispatch rider “Hondo Lane” (John Wayne) discovers “Angie Lowe” (Geraldine Page) and her young son “Johnny” (Lee Aaker) living in the midst of warring Apaches and becomes their protector.
John Wayne and Lee Aker in HONDO
John Farrow directed the 1953 release, which was based on a story by Louis L’Amour. The picture was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Motion Picture Story, but the nomination was disqualified by L'Amour himself, who asserted that his short story was not an original motion picture story. Hugo Friedhofer and Emil Newman collaborated on the unreleased score.
The $1 million production was a big hit at the box office, ranking as the #12 film of the year with an $11.5 million gross. Wayne, who thought the film should have done even better, felt that perhaps the box office had been limited by the film’s similarity to SHANE, which had been released 7 months earlier. Nevertheless, HONDO was one of The Duke's personal favorites as it was the one which best reflected the values he stood for—honesty, loyalty, bravery, self-reliance, and independence.
In RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO, when a railroad worker (Audie Murphy) finds out that his father and brother have been killed by cattle rustlers, he returns home to find the killers. But the local sheriff (Paul Birch) and his father's lawyer (Russell Johnson) aren't too keen about him taking the law into his own hands. When he persists, they decide to deputize him and send him after a likely suspect--legendary sharpshooter and outlaw "Whitey Kincade" (Dan Duryea)--who is hiding out in the neighboring town of Diablo. Lee Aaker has a bit part as a young boy in the film.
Jesse Hibbs directed the 1954 western, which had an uncredited score by Milton Rosen and Herman Stein. The film did decent business, with a $4.3 million gross.
I have a weird relationship(?) with Wayne's movies. I dislike a lot but also love others. Hondo is by far one of my favorites, up there with The Searchers and The Shootist. Of course, before I even saw the movie, this episode of MWC was part of my life. Its now a running gag between myself and another friend.
"Remember when I wanted to watch Shane and I ended up in the emergency room, Peg?" "You got to see then end from your bed." "Oh yeah. 'Shane Shane Come back Shane.' The End."
A group of Confederate prisoners escape from a Union stockade in Plattsburg, NY and make their way to Canada. From there, “Maj. Neal Benton” (Van Helflin), the group’s leader, conducts THE RAID, a daring plan to rob the banks and set fire to the small town of Saint Albans in Vermont. To get the lay of the land, Benton spends a few days in the town and finds he is getting drawn into its life and especially into that of attractive widow “Katy Bishop” (Anne Bancroft) and her son “Larry” (Tommy Rettig). Lee Aaker had a small role as Larry’s friend in the film.
Hugo Fregonese directed the 1954 production. Roy Webb’s score has not had a release. The film generated average box office returns of $2.9 million.
In HER TWELVE MEN, Greer Garson plays “Jan Stewart,” a widow who takes a job at The Oaks, an all-boys boarding school. She's the lone female teacher at the school, and though her colleagues and students alike are initially skeptical, her warmth and dedication quickly win everyone over. Her colleagues include fellow teacher “Joe Hargrave” (Robert Ryan) and physical education instructor “Ralph Munsey” (James Arness). Students include rebellious “Richard Oliver” (Tim Considine) and young “Michael” (Lee Aaker).
Greer Garson, Tim Considine, Lee Aaker, and James Arness in HER TWELVE MEN
Robert Z. Leonard, who had directed Garson in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE fourteen years earlier, helmed the film. Bronislau Kaper’s score was released by Film Score Monthly in 2010 as part of a Kaper box set. The film grossed $2.3 million, and MGM reported a $116,000 loss on the picture.
HER TWELVE MEN was the last film that Greer Garson made under her contract with MGM. She, along with other former contract players, returned to the studio in 1965 to appear in THE SINGING NUN.
DESTRY was a remake of an earlier film, 1939's DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich and directed by George Marshall. The plots are the same. A dishonest mayor (Edgar Buchanan) and the powerful criminal “Decker” (Lyle Bettger) dominate a small western town. But when the town's sheriff (Trevor Bardette) dies under mysterious circumstances, and the town drunkard “Rags” (Thomas Mitchell) is put in his place, Rags calls in “Tom Destry” (Audie Murphy), son of a famed gunman, to put an end to the corruption. Upon Tom’s arrival, however, Rags is dismayed to note that Tom is small and refined, and further horrified when Decker forces Tom to admit that he carries no gun. Walter Baldwin played “Henry Skinner,” who is cheated out of his ranch in one of Decker’s crooked poker games. Lee Aaker played his young son “Eli Skinner.”
Mari Blanchard suffered several wounds during the filming of DESTRY, including an injured leg when she tripped over a cable on the set, and an injured nose when Mary Wickes accidentally kicked her during a fight scene.
George Marshal, who had directed the 1939 version of the film, directed this remake as well. The film was team-scored by Henry Mancini, Frank Skinner, and Herman Stein. The picture had decent grosses of $4.3 million.
One of the forgotten films noir is the 1954 Edward G. Robinson film BLACK TUESDAY. In the film, gangster "Vincent Canelli" (Robinson) and bank robber "Peter Manning" (Peter Graves) plot to escape from Death Row minutes before their execution by electric chair. Jean Parker co-stars as the moll, “Hatti Combest.” Lee Aaker has a small role as a little boy in the film.
The New York Times said the film was "like one of those smoothly-machined, old fashioned gangster melodramas of the Cagney-Robinson era," and remarked that "Sidney Boehm's script is cryptic and literate, and Hugo Fregonese has directed the picture in taut and graphic style." Because of its violence, the film was banned by the Memphis, Tennessee Censor Board. Paul Dunlap provided the unreleased score. The film was an also-ran at the box office, with a $1.8 million gross.
“The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin” was a children's Western television series. It starred Lee Aaker as “Rusty,” a boy orphaned in an Indian raid, who was being raised by the soldiers at a U.S. Cavalry post known as Fort Apache. As an honorary Corporal, he and his German shepherd dog, Rin-Tin-Tin, helped the soldiers to establish order in the American West. James E. Brown appeared as “Lieutenant Ripley ‘Rip’ Masters.” Co-stars included Joe Sawyer as “Sergeant Biff O'Hara” and Rand Brooks as “Corporal Randy Boone.”
The cast of “The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin”: Lee Aaker, “Rinny”, James Brown, and Rand Brooks
The series was derived from a radio program which aired on the NBC Blue network and on Mutual Radio from 1930 - 1955, which was in turn derived from a series of movie serials produced between 1923 – 1930 by Warner Bros, and in the early 1930s by Mascot.
ABC premiered the half-hour series on Friday, 15 October 1954, at 7:30 PM. Both competing networks, CBS and NBC, split their half-hour into two parts, with 15 minutes of news, and musical programs with Perry Como and Eddie Fisher, respectively. “The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin” finished at number 23 in the Nielsen ratings, making it the second-highest rated series on ABC at the time, behind “Disneyland,” which placed number six.
Lee Aaker in “The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin”
In the show’s second season (1955-56), it went up against new competition on CBS—another children’s western series about a horse: “The Adventures of Champion.” Although “Rin-Tin-Tin” dropped out of the top 30 shows, it beat “Champion,” which lasted only a single season.
Season 3 (1956-57) saw CBS try yet another children’s western series about a horse in the 7:30PM timeslot: “My Friend Flicka.” It too lasted only a single season against “Rin-Tin-Tin.”
In Season 4 (1957-58), CBS finally counterprogrammed a family series that had staying power. It was “Leave It To Beaver.” NBC also changed up, moving its news to the 7PM hour and programming a detective series, “Saber of London” against “Rin-Tin-Tin.” Neither of the new series made it into the top 30 shows, and “Rin-Tin-Tin” was renewed again.
“Rinny” and Lee Aaker in “The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin”
Season 5 (1958-59) saw the competition change again, with CBS going with the venerable “Your Hit Parade,” in what would prove to be its final season, and NBC programming the western “Buckskin,” and when that failed, “Northwest Passage.” “The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin” finally ran out its string and was cancelled after 164 episodes.
After the traditional bugle call of “Assembly,” the show’s main title segued into a march theme. It’s not entirely clear of the theme’s provenance. One credible source suggests that it is a theme written by Joseph Mullendore for the MUTEL/Capitol 'Q' music library. At some point in the show’s run, the opening march changed. Since it sounds quite similar to the first march, Mullendore may have composed it as well. But it’s possible that Harry Bluestone and Emil Cadkin composed the revised march.
In 1958, Columbia Pictures edited together the initial episode and several other episodes of the series to create a feature film for foreign markets. In English-speaking countries, it was titled THE CHALLENGE OF RIN-TIN-TIN. In Germany it was known as RIN-TIN-TIN INTERVENES.