Ah….the “smoking gun.”
Isn’t that what we’re always looking for? For me, the “smoking gun” has always been getting Tony Curtis’ detailed thoughts on the movie Johnny Dark – at the time the movie was filmed. And that’s…..what I found. Listen to the words of Tony Curtis in an article he wrote about the movie in late 1953:
“Returning to Toledo, for the opening scenes of “Johnny Dark,” which is a racing car story, was another experience I’ll treasure the rest of my life……
All the cars in the border-to-border race are of special design, turned out by some of the foremost sports car men in the country. The designs are futuristic in conception, and I think they’re impressive enough to make a change in the types of cars tomorrow’s automobile buyers will want.”
The cars he was talking about included:
- Woodill Wildfire
- Victress S1
- Glasspar G2
- Grantham Stardust
- Irwin Lancer
- Kurtis Sports Car
- Tatum Special
- Bohman Special
Wow! Tony Curtis talking about his experience with the movie and the observations of car design concerning the cars used???
Like I said…”the smoking gun.” How could it get any better than this! Let’s find out.
Researching the Movie “Johnny Dark”
In researching this movie, I’ve gone to great lengths to get the best detail possible – which is particularly hard since it’s nearly 60 years since they shot it in 1953 (it debuted in June 1954). But…what I found and am sharing with you today….. I actually never thought I would find. An interview about the movie that appeared in the “Toledo Blade” newspaper on November 22nd, 1953 – just weeks after filming had come to an end and about 7 months before the movie would premier in Toledo, Ohio.
I was lucky to speak to Tony Curtis several years ago when he lived in Las Vegas. I asked him about his memories and he was very patient with me but explained that the number of movies and the number of cars he drove were fairly numerous – so his memories of any specific car in the movie were faint, at best. Plus, as I came to learn later on (and should have known as well) the racing scenes – what we’re interested in – were filmed with different drivers and not the actors that were in the movie.
So let’s have at it gang. Let the article begin. It starts, for your enjoyment, below.
“Car Buff Tony Curtis Pitches For Toledo Premier of ‘Johnny Dark’
Toledo Blade Newspaper, November 22nd, 1953
By Tony Curtis
Mitch Woodbury Reports
When Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Don Taylor were in Toledo several weeks ago filming background scenes about town at at the Willys plant for Tony and Don’s new Universal-International picture, “Johnny Dark,” we asked Tony if he would write a guest column on his local visit when he returned to Hollywood.
“Just dictate it to your press agent, Harold Mendelsohn,” we stated. “It won’t be much of a task.”
The handsome and likable young star promised to fulfill our request as soon as his film making duties would permit. That Tony is a gentleman of his word is proven by this pillar, which arrived last week. Thus, the following (by Tony Curtis).
I’ll always remember Toledo – for a variety of reasons.
It wasn’t too many years ago that I was standing out on the street there, thumbing a ride. And then my very next visit was under somewhat different circumstances as one of the principals in Universal-International’s “Johnny Dark,” with Piper Laurie and Don Taylor.
In both instances, let me say, the people of Toledo proved exceptionally friendly and helpful. The hitch-hiking goes back to the days before I broke into films, when I was with a stock company which, somehow managed to reach as far west as Chicago. There the moribund troupe collapsed. Me along with it.
I didn’t have very much money. Only enough for doughnuts and coffee, if I managed it right. So I began thinking of some way out. And I remembered an aunt who lived in Cleveland. That’s when I put my thumb to work – hailing cars. That thumb deserves an Oscar. It took me a long ways. Of course, there were dry spells, times when it seemed no one would give me a lift.
But I remember that when I hit Toledo and was looking for someone to carry me on the next leg of the journey, the very first car that passed saw my signal and stopped to pick me up. Turned out that the driver was a native of Toledo, and he said he just couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave the town for any place else.
He wasn’t even going to Cleveland, he said. But as it turned out he made a special detour just to get me to my destination. Also bought me my meals along the way. I figured that if he was representative of the rest of the folks in Toledo, than it was, indeed, a fine community.
Returning to Toledo, for the opening scenes of “Johnny Dark,” which is a racing car story, was another experience I’ll treasure the rest of my life.
First let me confess that I’m a car buff – a guy who’s never happier than when he’s around automobiles. So when I heard that we were actually going to work inside of a car plant – brother, that was for me. The first day out at the Willys plant I think our director, George Sherman, must have felt he didn’t have an actor on his hands, but a plain, garden-variety rubbernecker. I couldn’t keep my mind on the picture, not with all the activity going on at the plant.
Like everyone else, I’d always wanted to look in on an auto plant, and this was my big opportunity. Made me feel really important, standing on the assembly line and pretending that I actually knew something about putting a car together.
Even after I’ve seen it with my own eyes, the whole business of fabricating a car and turning one out just about every sixty seconds seems completely incredible – a machine age achievement that just couldn’t be true. When Raymond R. Raush, the big wheel out at Wills, came down on the set one afternoon to watch us work, I was delighted to learn that even he, after many years in the business, was just as saucer-eyed about the assembly line as I was – that he likes to spend at least a few minutes of each day watching the men actually rigging the cars.
It seemed to me that most of the workers at the plant appeared to take our movie-making more or less in stride – up to the point where Janet – (my wife Janet Leigh) arrived for a personal look-see. They probably just hadn’t seen a chassis of her particular model, because the men were giving her as much attention as next year’s car design. Maybe, even a little more.
I know the conductor of this column, Mitch Woodbury, would be inclined to reach for his blue pencil at any hint of a personal mention, but I have his solemn promise, witnessed and heard by Janet, that he’d let it go unedited, except for spelling and punctuation needs. He arranged something I’d always wanted to do, but never thought would actually happen – a chance to pitch the first ball at a playoff game. Wow. Talk about excitement. That’s got it.
I only hope the studio decides to have the world premier of “Johnny Dark” in Toledo, because that would give me a chance to return and renew some of the wonderful friendships gained there.
The picture is one I think folks will enjoy, especially if they like an action tale, because this one has got it, with most of the story centered around a border-to-border sports car race. Sports cars are just about the most important new development in the auto industry, with most manufacturers joining the movement to get their own product on the market.
In a way, “Johnny Dark” will give impetus to this development, it seems to me, by introducing this new automotive phrase to a lot of people who perhaps have not as yet been exposed to it. All the cars in the border-to-border race are of special design, turned out by some of the foremost sports car men in the country. The designs are futuristic in conception, and I think they’re impressive enough to make a change in the type of cars tomorrow’s automobile buyers will want.
Since undertaking the role, I’ve had a chance to take lessons in race driving from some of the best men in the field, including Louis Tomei, the former Indianapolis speed pilot. I think I’ve learned how to handle a car at high speed, but I’ve learned one thing more – that few race drivers would think of operating an ordinary passenger car – the kind you and I drive – at a greater speed than 50 or 60 miles an hour.
The race pilots tell me that if they have learned one thing about safe driving on the road, it might be summed up in the admonition that you should never try to outguess the other driver, because you can never really tell what he’s going to do.
I like this column writing, because if I didn’t become an actor I think I would have tried to be a reporter. And so I’m going to close with a pitch for another go, just as soon as Mitch can spare the space.
Tony wrote this in late 1953 – the same year the Chevrolet Corvette debuted, and the Kaiser Darrin was just about to come out. Sports cars were big news everywhere and the movie “Johnny Dark” hit America square dead in the center of their enthusiasm. By the way, Tony’s mention of Louis Tomei – above – is interesting. Tomei was one of the 8 stunt drivers in the film which also included Phil Hill and other racing legends (and noted stunt men too).
This “backstory” of the history of sports cars in America makes this film all that more interesting. That is, how does a movie that debuted in the middle of what we now consider to be the golden age of sports car racing in America so quickly and completely be forgotten (save some reruns here and there on the Speed Channel of yore).
Very interesting indeed….
Hearing Tony Curtis talk about the importance of the Johnny Dark movie to the sports car movement in America at the time is music to my ears. It’s like going back to this era and getting a glimpse of the excitement when all things seemed possible with sports cars – designing, building, driving, and winning.
And getting the girl too!
Hope you enjoyed the story, and until next time…
Glass on gang…
Click on the Images Below to View Larger Pictures
E; I enjoyed your article especially because I own a Woodhill Wildfire Roadster like the one Tony Curtis drove in the movie Johnny Dark. The difference is that this car was built as a kit car and only 285 built. The ironic thing is that it was built for Curtis Screw a manufacturer of screws and bolts located in Buffalo, NY. I didn’t realize it was that rare at the time because it wasn’t called a Wildfire is was named after the company a Curtis. This; was built with any engine that was available in that era. This one had a 331 Chrysler Hemi and 4 speed. trans. It was drag raced and called the Purple People Eater. I’m the 4th owner and she in rough shape right now and I’m not in the greatest shape myself to rebuild it, after all I’m the same age the car is and been around that the block a few 🙂 times. I would like to sell it and I’m open to offers. Thank for the flash back Happy Motoring
Hi All I was 11 years old, Born in Toledo, Ohio in 1943. Here are the facts of the Toledo, Ohio Premier showing of Johnny Dark as I remember them. First it was shown at the Rivoli Theater on St Clair St, between Jackson and Adams streets, in line with the Trinity Church and next door to the Palace Theater. (I have a picture of the theater if interested) The movie was attended by Tony Curtis and Piper Laure and officials from the Hollywood Studio. I was outside the theater when Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie drove up in a green Kaiser Daren, that was not painted with the things seen in these pictures. They got out of the car and was interviewed by a person from the studio or news, not sure which, but I suspect from the size of the camera on big wooden legs, it was the studios. We were kept back by a rope line, the kind they used to use inside the theater with burgundy cloth over a chain. Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie set in one of the upper private box seating rooms and watched the movie. I saw them get up before the movie ended and I guessed they were going to leave early so I ran out into the foyer and sure enough they came down the stairs and walked right past me, with me hot on their heels. They went out the door, with me right behind them and the film crew filmed them as they came out of the theater and I am sure I was in there along with them, they stopped and told the interviewer it was the first time they saw the film, and loved it, then they turned to leave and I said something like you are both really good in the film, Tony Curtis shook my small hand and Piper Laurie touched my shoulder and said thank you and they both got into the Kaiser Daren (which I am sure was being guarded by some of the Toledo Police officers that were there, and they drove North down St Clair Street and turned on Jackson street I am not sure of the date but it was warm and not hot outside and they said the film had not been shown anywhere else as this was the World Premier. Boy I sure had a crush on her from that day on. So somewhere there is a reel of film with this Premier on it out there and it has this then little boy in it. If you look at the people in the Press cars they are not Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie. I just went back and took a close look at the Press Car in one of the pictures and you can see both the man and woman’s faces, and they are obviously not Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie, but more importantly, look at the trunk lid, You will see part of the word Rivoli there as well as the date of the Premier June 16th next to Rivoli. I also noticed June 18th on the car when it went to Detroit. SO New Your and Los Angeles were not the official actual premier of Johnny Dark. Thanks for listening. Charles