The Birdman of Alcatraz was a 1962 movie that won 4 Oscars in 1963. Many say that it was Burt Lancthaster’s defining role, and he plays the role of Robert Stroud who was an actual criminal and who was the real life Birdman of Alcatraz.
“Robert Franklin Stroud (January 28, 1890 – November 21, 1963), known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, was an American federal prisoner and author who has been cited as one of the United States’ most notorious criminals. During his time at Leavenworth Penitentiary, he reared and sold birds and became a respected ornithologist, but because of regulations, he was not permitted to keep birds at Alcatraz, where he was incarcerated from 1942 to 1959. Stroud was never released from the Federal prison system.
Stroud in 1912
“Born in Seattle, Washington, Stroud ran away from his abusive father at the age of 13, and by the time he was 18, he had become a pimp in the Alaska Territory. In January 1909, he shot and killed a bartender who had attacked one of his prostitutes, for which he was sentenced to 12 years in the federal penitentiary on Puget Sound’s McNeil Island. Stroud gained a reputation as an extremely dangerous inmate who frequently had confrontations with fellow inmates and staff, and in 1916, he killed a guard. Stroud was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang, but after several trials, his sentence was eventually commuted to life imprisonment.” Wikipedia
[In the movie, Stroud’s mother begged for leniency from the wife of President Woodrow Wilson, and Wilson commuted Stroud’s sentence to life.]
Thelma Ritter played Stroud’s mother, and she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She did a good job of representing the typical overbearing mother who used her affection as a weapon. It is reported that Stroud was an aggressive homosexual, and his mother issue may have caused his homosexuality. The homosexuality is not part of the movie. Perhaps showing his relationship with his mother was the best way to hint of that in 1963.
Telly Savalas won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He played the role of a Stroud’s cell neighbor–a person who Stroud persuaded to share his interest in birds.
“Stroud began serving life in solitary confinement at Leavenworth, where in 1920, after discovering a nest with three injured sparrows in the prison yard, he began raising them, and within a few years had acquired a collection of some 300 canaries. He began extensive research into them after being granted equipment by a radical prison-reforming warden, publishing Diseases of Canaries in 1933, which was smuggled out of Leavenworth and sold en masse, as well as a later edition (1943). He made important contributions to avian pathology, most notably a cure for the hemorrhagic septicemia family of diseases, gaining much respect and some level of sympathy among ornithologists and farmers. Stroud ran a successful business from inside prison, but his activities infuriated the prison staff, and he was eventually transferred to Alcatraz in 1942 after it was discovered that Stroud had been secretly making alcohol using some of the equipment in his cell.” Wikipedia
Although Ritter and Savalas did a good job playing their roles, the movie Birdman of Alcatraz is almost a one-man show. Burt Lancaster won the 1963 Oscar for Best Actor. I question whether the movie would win any Oscars at all now, but when we remember that this feature was made almost half a century ago, we begin to understand why it was a hit in its day. At times, the movie is more like a documentary than a movie. Throughout the show, there is a monotone narration that is reminiscent of the 1960s Dragnet. In my opinion, Birdman of Alcatraz is not a great drama, but the facts of the story were represented well, and the story itself is fascinating.
“Stroud began serving a 17-year term at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary on December 19, 1942, and became inmate #594. In 1943, he was assessed by psychiatrist Romney M. Ritchey, who diagnosed him as a psychopath, but with an I.Q. of 134. Stripped of his birds and equipment, he wrote a history of the penal system.
“In 1959, with his health failing, Stroud was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he stayed until his death on November 21, 1963, having been incarcerated for the last 54 years of his life, of which 42 were in solitary confinement. He had been studying French near the end of his life. Robert Stroud is buried in Metropolis, Illinois. Author Carl Sifakis considers Stroud to have been “possibly the best-known example of self-improvement and rehabilitation in the U.S. prison.” Wikipedia
©Jacki Kellum February 1, 2017
Throughout the month of February, I’ll try to post an Oscar movie daily. It is my annual Countdown to the Oscars.