A 'Thing' to His Credit

Henry Fuhrmann is a Calendar news editor

"The Thing" was produced by Howard Hawks and supposedly directed by his editor on "Red River," Christian Nyby. . . . Howard Hawks was listed as "presenting" the film, with Christian Nyby listed as director, but chances are that Hawks also had a sizable share in the directing. . . . Ostensibly directed by Christian Nyby but generally considered the work of its producer. . . . Many consider [Nyby's] contribution to "The Thing" to be minimal.

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You're no doubt familiar with the Hollywood blacklist. Let me introduce you to the Hollywood hacklist, unjustly headed by one Christian I. Nyby, the late editor, director and--not incidentally--younger brother of my father's mother.

To many film historians and fans of the science fiction genre it helped begat, my Uncle Chris did not actually direct "The Thing," simply because there's no plausible reason to believe that he could have. (And the above-cited quotations are some of the more measured criticisms that have appeared in print.)

"The Thing (From Another World)" (1951) was his feature directing debut, and although he went on to direct a handful of other features and several hundred hours of television, nothing he did afterward quite approached that film's brilliance.

Nyby had served Hawks admirably on a number of films--editing "To Have and Have Not," "The Big Sleep" and "Red River"--but the relationship was clearly that of protege and mentor. Hawks directed "The Thing," the argument goes, and gave Nyby the credit; this was Hawks' way of thanking him for salvaging other editors' botched first cut of "Red River" (an effort that earned Nyby an Oscar nomination) and launching him on a new career as director.

Given the current renewed interest in Hawks and his oeuvre--Todd McCarthy's long-awaited biography is due next month, and UCLA is screening a 22-film retrospective, including a showing of "The Thing" next Sunday--it's high time someone posed the question on behalf of Nyby: Was it that "Thing" he did or that "Thing" he didn't?

The following alternative to the accepted Hollywood story relies on the testimony of Nyby's son Chris II, a veteran TV director in his own right; three of the surviving cast members; and the two protagonists themselves--Nyby, who died in September 1993 at age 80, and Hawks, who died in 1977 at 81.

Until the advent of home video, to be honest, I hadn't actually seen "The Thing" all the way through. Certainly, in comparing family histories with friends, I would mention the Nyby connection. "You mean Christian Nyby, director of 'The Thing'?" I'd be asked. "I guess that's him. I know he did a lot of TV--'Perry Mason,' 'Bonanza,' 'Gunsmoke,' 'Ironside.' " In my youthful ignorance, I was more aware of Chris' brother Harold, a Warner Bros. carpenter whose massive hand could be seen stamping the Mark VII Productions logo at the end of Jack Webb's many TV series.

(Not least of Chris' accomplishments was his swift, improbable rise from Warner Bros. carpenter to apprentice editor, film editor and, finally, director. At one time, in fact, there must have been as many Nyby and Fuhrmann brothers as Warner brothers on the studio lot, for my grandfather Henry and his brother Francis were also longtime studio craft employees.)

"The Thing," for the uninitiated, tells the story of a group of scientists and Air Force men who discover a spaceship and its alien pilot (a young, barely recognizable James Arness) buried in the permafrost near the North Pole. They dig up the body and return with it to their base camp, it thaws, and all hell breaks loose. Neither man nor beast but a quickly reproducing, blood-sucking vegetable, the Thing threatens not just the camp but all of humanity. The film--bearing the overlapping dialogue, arch humor, fast pace and general craft of Hawks' best pictures--is a thriller with a lot to say about the military, science and the grace under pressure of capable men (and women).

Nyby, says son Chris II, was always quite proud of "The Thing" and the once-in-a-lifetime experience it would turn out to be:

"The avenue he took, when you get into television, the material isn't as good as you can get in a picture like that," my cousin recalls. "Wouldn't it be nice if we all had one of those, a project where all the elements came together--the proper script, the proper cast, his mentor right there."

"Dad directed it," he says firmly.

In his forthcoming "Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood," Variety film critic McCarthy comes down squarely on the side of Hawks, quoting "Thing" star Kenneth Tobey, among others, as minimizing Nyby's role in directing the film. A key fact that emerges from McCarthy's research: Of the $50,000 that RKO allocated for the director's fee, Hawks paid Nyby $5,460 and kept the rest for himself.

Yet in my own telephone discussions with surviving cast members (absent Arness, who has always declined requests to discuss that early, thankless role), the picture that emerges is not nearly so black-and-white. The story they tell is of a first-time director hewing faithfully to his mentor's vision and an experienced, hands-on producer giving his charge the support he needed to make the film.

George Fenneman, now 77, was making his movie debut with "The Thing." He can still laugh at the 26 takes it took to film his one big speech as a member of the scientific team. The overlapping dialogue threw the radio veteran ("Dragnet") and TV mainstay ("You Bet Your Life") and ensured, he jokes, that Hawks never hired him again.

Less funny, he says, is the way history has treated his friend and onetime neighbor Nyby: "Chris got a bad deal. . . . I was there every morning, so was Chris. Sometimes Hawks was late," he recalls, noting the producer's penchant for living the high life, "and Chris in the meantime was making the show go. Hawks would once in a while direct, if he had an idea, but it was Chris' show."

"It sickens me, some of the things that have been said," says Robert Cornthwaite, who played Dr. Carrington, the research team leader who tried (quite unsuccessfully) to befriend the Thing.

"Chris always deferred to Hawks, as well he should," says the veteran actor, writer and translator, now 80. "Hawks was giving him the break, after all, though he had done much fine work for Hawks and had his confidence. . . . Maybe because he did defer to him, people misinterpreted it.

"When people ask me, I say, 'Chris was the director, Hawks was the producer,' " says Cornthwaite, who credits Nyby with being an approachable, human counterpart to the more autocratic Hawks.

William Self, 75, played the hapless corporal who placed an electric blanket over the frozen body of the Thing and set forth the ensuing action.

Says Self, a longtime TV producer and executive: "Chris was the director in our eyes, but Howard was the boss in our eyes. Did Chris direct every scene? Yes and no. Chris would stage each scene, how to play it. But then he would go over to Howard and ask him for advice, which the actors did not hear. . . .

"I would say that Chris has not gotten enough credit, but he didn't deserve all the credit. . . . Even when it first came out, there was debate about who did what and how much Chris contributed. Even though I was there every day, I don't think any of us can answer the question. Only Chris and Howard can answer the question."

And how did they answer?

Nyby was asked the question at a reunion of "Thing" cast and crew members in 1982 pegged to the release of the John Carpenter remake.

As reported by Cinefantastique magazine, Nyby replied: "Did Hawks direct it? That's one of the most inane and ridiculous questions I've ever heard, and people keep asking. That it was Hawks' style. Of course it was. This is a man I studied and wanted to be like. You would certainly emulate and copy the master you're sitting under, which I did. Anyway, if you're taking painting lessons from Rembrandt, you don't take the brush out of the master's hands."

When asked the same question, Hawks was similarly direct.

Richard Jewell, a USC professor of critical studies and author of "The RKO Story" (1982), recalls approaching the filmmaker at a 1973 appreciation organized by the university. "Did you direct 'The Thing'?" Jewell asked. The answer: "I did not."

"Hawks was an extremely hands-on producer, as a Selznick would be. Hawks probably had great respect for Nyby and was just trying to push him to the next level," Jewell says.

And Peter Bogdanovich quotes Hawks in his new collection of interviews, "Who the Devil Made It": "Chris Nyby had done an awfully good job as the cutter on 'Red River' and he'd been a big help to us too, so I let him do it. He wanted to be a director and I had a deal with RKO that allowed me to do that." Were you ever on the set? he was asked. "I was at rehearsals and helped them with the overlapping dialogue--but I thought Chris did a good job."

Yes, Hawks was saying, he was thanking Nyby. But not by giving him the credit--by giving him the job.

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* "The Thing," UCLA Bridges Theater, near Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue, Westwood. With Hawks' "Monkey Business," next Sunday, 7 p.m. $4-$6; parking, $5. (310) 206-FILM.

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