Harris, James B.


Harris, James B.
(1928– )
   The producerdirector James B. Harris was born on August 3, 1928, in New York City. His father was a wealthy insurance broker. He spent a year at the Juilliard School of Music before he decided that being a jazz drummer (which STANLEY KUBRICK also wanted to be at one point) was not his vocation. By 1949 Harris was employed by Realart, a distributor of foreign films in America. He then served in the U. S. Army Signal Corps during the Korean War. Because he had some experience in the film business, he was assigned to the Signal Corps Photographic Center at Paramount’s old Astoria Studios on Long Island, where training films were produced. There he became acquainted with Alexander Singer, a classmate of Kubrick’s at William Howard Taft High School in the Bronx; Singer later became a film director himself. Singer says in JOHN BAXTER’s biography of Kubrick, “My sense was that Jimmy Harris was at twenty-two as shrewd and as hard a money dealer as he would ever be. ” Borrowing equipment from the Astoria Studios, Harris and Singer spent a weekend at the Harris family’s Manhattan apartment shooting a 15-minute detective story they had written. Singer invited his old high school chum Stanley Kubrick, who was himself busy with his second low-budget feature, KILLER’S KISS (1955), to kibitz. Harris remembers that he was nervous when Kubrick, already established as an independent filmmaker, showed up to watch. But Kubrick proved very encouraging. Harris recalls Kubrick treating him and Singer, who were just fumbling around with a short subject, as if they were all in the same boat. “I never forgot that,” he says.
   In 1954, after Harris had been demobilized from the army, he cofounded Flamingo Films, a film and TV distribution company, with David L. Wolper, later a film producer. One day he met Kubrick on the street in New York, and Kubrick brought him along to an advance screening of Killer’s Kiss (1955). “I was very impressed with Kubrick,” Harris recalls in VINCENT LOBRUTTO’s Kubrick biography, because Kubrick had made two features “all by himself ”: Kubrick had done the lighting, the camera work, the sound, and the editing of both movies. “This guy is going to be a great director,” Harris said to himself. Kubrick and Harris hit it off very well, even discovering that they had been born six days apart in New York City. “We were not only partners, but we became best friends,” Harris told Peter Bogdanovich. They did a lot of things together, like playing touch football and having Thanksgiving dinner with their friends or families. They soon pulled up stakes in New York and moved to Los Angeles, with the hope of setting up their own production company. Harris reasoned that, with his experience at Flamingo Films, he could help Stanley with the business end of moviemaking—acquiring the rights to a property for filming, obtaining financial backing, and the like. Harris found a crime novel entitled CLEAN BREAK by Lionel White, about a racetrack robbery, in the mystery section of a bookstore; Kubrick thought the thriller was terrific. With that, Harris bought the rights to the novel and sought studio backing for the movie. But he found that Kubrick’s not-tooimpressive track record (two low-budget features that had not performed well at the box office) was a distinct drawback in financing the film. “But I swore to Stanley that, on this or any other project, I would never ditch him as director just to keep the film alive. ” At long last, Harris arranged for United Artists to distribute the film, once they had secured STERLING HAYDEN (famous for The Asphalt Jungle, 1950) to star. Jim Harris believed enough in the project—and in Kubrick—to put up more than one-third of the film’s $320,000 budget, with United Artists providing the rest. Harris-Kubrick Productions was on its way. “We worked with a very prestigious cameraman named Lucian Ballard” (who had shot Otto Preminger’s Laura, 1944) Harris told Jill Bernstein. But it was not long before Ballard stopped coming to the screenings of the footage they had shot, because “Stanley was telling him how to light the scenes. ” “We edited the film the way we wanted to—the way the script was written,” Harris continued. Kubrick portrays the racetrack heist in a series of fragmented flashbacks, as each partner in crime carries out his assigned task to bring off the robbery. “Many people said they thought . . . the flashbacks would irritate people. ” They held a sneak preview, with the usual walkouts by filmgoers not interested in a crime picture. “Afterward, Sterling Hayden’s agent told us that we had ruined the picture and hurt his client. If enough people tell you you’re sick, maybe you should lie down. ” So Harris and Kubrick went back to New York, rented an editing room, and, before delivering the picture to United Artists, “broke the whole thing down and started over. ” When they put all the scenes in chronological order and eliminated all of the flashbacks, they looked at each other and said,“This stinks. ”After all, it was the flashbacks,Kubrick told Harris, that made The Killing “more than just a good crime film. ” Consequently, he recalled,“we put it back the way we had had it. ” Only one person was present when they screened the picture for United Artists: Max Youngstein, the head of production. When the screening was over, Max said, “Good job. Let’s keep in touch. ” Kubrick and Harris had to follow him down the hall, asking, “Where do we go from here?”Youngstein replied, “What about out the door?”Kubrick said,“You have other producer-filmmaker teams. Where would you rate us with all of those people?” Youngstein answered, “Not far from the bottom. ” Adds Harris, “We never forgot that. ” Still “Stanley had absolute awareness of his own talent. He knew he was doing good work. ” As a matter of fact, when The Killing opened, Kubrick was compared in the Time review to the young Orson Welles, and the film turned a modest profit. Indeed, today it is considered a classic example of FILM NOIR.
   Undaunted, Kubrick picked the next project. He suggested HUMPHREY COBB’s PATHS OF GLORY, an angry novel about World War I that Kubrick had read in high school. No major studio showed much interest in financing the film. “Not because it was an antiwar film about World War I,” Kubrick told Gene Phillips;“They just didn’t like it. ”Then KIRK DOUGLAS became interested in playing the lead, and United Artists agreed to back the project for $935,000-despite Youngstein’s brushoff of Kubrick and Harris after The Killing. Nevertheless, it was still not a big budget by studio standards, but it was astronomical compared to the budgets that Kubrick and Harris had previously worked with. The film was released under the banner of Douglas’s independent company, Bryna Productions, which was one of the star’s stipulations for appearing in the movie. Kubrick pointed out, however, that “although Jim and I had to give Bryna a production credit, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the making or financing of the film. ” Kirk Douglas was “pretty dictatorial,” Harris recalled for Jill Bernstein; “but Stanley earned people’s respect, and Kirk could tell immediately that Stanley knew what he was doing. ” Because the movie presents a very negative picture of the French High Command during World War I, Kubrick opted to shoot it at the Geiselgasteig Studios in Munich, since filming in France was out of the question. When Kubrick and Harris screened Paths of Glory around Los Angeles before it opened, in order to drum up some word-of-mouth publicity, “the lights would come up and people would just sit there,” says Harris. “There was no applause or anything. I think they were just stunned. ” Harris and Kubrick finally surmised that the silence which greeted the end of the film was actually a positive reaction on the part of the viewers.
   When Douglas had agreed to star in Paths of Glory, he had stipulated that Kubrick and Harris would have to commit themselves to a five-picture deal with his Bryna Productions. Later on, Douglas asked Kubrick to direct SPARTACUS (1960), a Roman epic about a slave revolt led by Spartacus (Douglas), which Douglas not only was to star in but to serve as executive producer. Harris agreed with Kubrick that he should direct Spartacus because “we wanted to buy our way out of this five-picture contract we had with Kirk,” Harris explained to Bernstein.
   Kubrick was dissatisfied with DALTON TRUMBO’s script. For example, there was no battle scene portraying the Roman legions defeating Spartacus’s slave army, as Harris points out in JAN HARLAN’s documentary, STANLEY KUBRICK: A LIFE IN PICTURES (2001). The climactic battle scene, as depicted in the script, was done in a sort of symbolic fashion, “with helmets floating down the water with bloodstains, and battle sounds in the background. ” Kubrick, of course, contended that “you can’t make a spectacle movie and not have a battle scene in it. ” So Kubrick persuaded Douglas to film the battle scene in Spain, “where he could get all those extras” to play the opposing armies very cheaply. The next film made by Harris-Kubrick Productions was the screen adaptation of VLADIMIR NABOKOV’s controversial novel LOLITA (1962), about the sexual obsession of Humbert Humbert (JAMES MASON) for a nymphet named Lolita (SUE LYON). At a book luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, Harris was introduced to Nabokov, who was told that Harris had just purchased Nabokov’s book. Assuming that Harris had merely bought a copy of the novel to read, Nabokov replied, “I hope you enjoy reading it. ”
   Later, Harris and Kubrick commissioned Nabokov to write the screenplay, which Kubrick heavily revised; indeed, Nabokov’s first draft was 400 pages long, and Harris remembers that he and Kubrick “could hardly lift it!” The big problem with the movie, Harris explained to Bernstein, was “how we were going to get this picture made, with the censorship restrictions” they would have to cope with. “We didn’t want to make it void of suggestiveness; we just didn’t want to be explicit. ” In fact, Harris and Kubrick had to guarantee Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), which was distributing the film, that the movie would receive the industry censor’s official seal of approval.
   Kubrick and Harris were aware that the industry’s censorship code forbade any explicit depiction of the relationship between a middle-aged man and an underage girl. In order for the film to receive the industry seal, they promised Geoffrey Shurlock, the industry censor, that the relationship of Humbert and Lolita would be portrayed with subtlety and sophistication, and even be leavened with some black humor. One way that Kubrick and Harris mollified the censor at the outset was to cast 14-year-old Sue Lyon as Lolita, since they rightly assumed that Shurlock would not hear of Lolita being played by a girl of 12, Lolita’s age in the book.
   On May 25, 1961, Shurlock granted the film industry’s official seal of approval (seal \#2000) to Lolita. But then Kubrick and Harris had to contend with the Legion of Decency, which rated the acceptability of films for its Catholic constituency. Nevertheless, in the absence of an industry rating system—which would not be inaugurated until 1968—the legion’s ratings were followed by many non-Catholics. Hence studio bosses tended to do the legion’s bidding in order to avoid receiving an objectionable rating for a movie, which would damage the film’s chances at the box office. MGM therefore insisted that Kubrick and Harris avoid a condemned rating for Lolita at all costs. In Jan Harlan’s documentary, Harris states that the Legion of Decency advised them that it was prepared to condemn the film on the basis of a couple of scenes which they felt were objectionable. So Kubrick and Harris accordingly arbitrated with the legion to change the rating. As Harris points out in his documentary, in the scene in which Humbert, who was married Lolita’s mother, Charlotte, just to be near her daughter, embraces Charlotte on the bed, he surreptitiously gazes beyond Charlotte to the picture of Lolita on the bedside table. This implies that Humbert prefers his sexual encounters with Charlotte to Lolita. Monsignor Thomas Little, the director of the legion, maintained that this emphasized Humbert’s obsession with the girl too blatantly. As Harris affirms in the documentary, “We agreed to change that,” by simply reducing the number of times Humbert is shown looking at Lolita’s photo. In the documentary Harris stops just short of saying that, as a direct result of the minor modifications which he and Kubrick made in the film at the behest of the Legion, Lolita was spared the condemned rating; but that is the fact. Monsignor Little, in concert with his advisory board, finally gave the legion’s blessing to the picture, with the condition that the movie’s ads state that Lolita was “for persons over eighteen only. ”
   In sum, by making concessions, first to the industry censor, then to the legion, the picture was approved for mature audiences across the board. It was one of the first times that the Legion of Decency recognized officially that not every film had to be suitable for the entire family—that there could be responsible adult film fare. “The one thing I know is that being explicit was never of any interest to us,” Harris says today. Although the freedom of the screen had not advanced to the point it has reached in the 21st century, Harris still contends that the relationship of Humbert and Lolita in their film would be presented no differently if the film were made today. “We assumed that everybody was familiar with the book,” he comments. “We didn’t have to dwell on” the sexual dimension of the story. The audience would see it for themselves: “It wasn’t necessary to show it. ”
   Lolita was the last film made by Harris-Kubrick Productions. Harris later became a director himself. “I said to Stanley that I felt comfortable about going back to California to pursue a directing career,” Harris says in James Howard’s book; Kubrick planned to continue making pictures in England, where Lolita was filmed. Kubrick had encouraged Harris to try directing, since Harris had started out directing shorts with Alexander Singer in the 1950s. “He just felt that I could do it,” Harris remembered. Kubrick also said that Harris would find directing more fulfilling than producing.
   Harris began by directing The Bedford Incident (1962), about the confrontation of an American destroyer with a Russian nuclear submarine in the Arctic during the cold war. If Kubrick’s next film, DR. STRANGELOVE (1964) was to be a nightmare comedy about nuclear war, The Bedford Incident was a serious take on the same subject. The film was well received, but Harris admitted that directing was not as easy as it looked. “I watched Stanley direct three films,” he says, “and it looked easy when he did it. ” He adds that The Bedford Incident “turned out okay, but it was a lot of pain and compromise and trying to second guess. ” Harris had a terrific cast (among them Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier); “I just got lucky with all those people working for a firsttime director—I could use all the help I could get. ”
   Harris went on to direct Some Call It Loving (1973), a comic fantasy inspired by the story of Sleeping Beauty, with Carol White; Cop (1983), with James Woods, a crime film based on the James Ellroy novel; and Boiling Point (1993), a psychological study of a federal agent determined to avenge his partner’s death, with Wesley Snipes and Lolita Davidovich. Harris attended Kubrick’s funeral in March 1999, but he did not speak at the burial service. “I don’t think I could have stayed composed enough to do it,” he told Peter Bogdanovich. He listened to a number of people speak who he thought did not really know Kubrick. “I felt that I was the only one there, aside from the family, that knew him”—not the heads of studios and the major movie stars who were speaking. “I’m the guy that played Ping-Pong with him,” he reflected,“and watched football games with him and drank beer with him”; he was “the guy who was my pal. ”
   Harris’s main claim to fame is the three pictures which he coproduced with Kubrick. Recalling their relationship, Harris observes that when they first got together, Kubrick said, “We should never have a falling out and we should never have any kind of dispute that reaches an impasse because we’re both intelligent, we’re both articulate; and one should be able to convince the other. If both people are intelligent they should be able to buy the other’s argument if it’s on the right track. ” Harris concludes,“So I must be the most intelligent person in the world, because he convinced me every time. ”
   References
   ■ Baxter, John, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997);
   ■ Bernstein, Jill, et al. , “Stanley Kubrick: A Cinematic Odyssey,” Premiere 12, no. 7 (August, 1999), pp. 85+;
   ■ Bogdanovich, Peter, “What They Say about Stanley Kubrick,” New York Times Magazine, July 4, 1999, pp. 18+;
   ■ Howard, James, Stanley Kubrick Companion (London: Batsford, 1999);
   ■ Leff, Leonard, and Jerold Simmons, “Lolita,” in The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood and Censorship (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), pp. 219–246;
   ■ LoBrutto,Vincent, Stanley Kubrick:A Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1999);
   ■ Phillips, Gene, Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1977).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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