erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 1950s posts

Wednesday January 13, 2021

Movie Review: Mister Roberts (1955)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

So were there any competent Navy captains in the Pacific during World War II? It’s a wonder we won.

At first blush, “Mister Roberts” seems like a lighter, breezier, Cinemascope and Technicolor (sorry: Warnercolor) version of “The Caine Mutiny,” with its incompetent captain obsessed with fruit (oranges rather than strawberries) and played by a 1930s Warner Bros. gangster (James Cagney instead of Humphrey Bogart). But that’s kind of backwards. “Mister Roberts” came first. It was a best-selling novel in 1946 and a smash Broadway play in 1948, while Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” wasn’t published until 1951. Many of its reviews even invoked “Roberts”:

  • “‘The Caine Mutiny’ is a sort of serious ‘Mister Roberts’… — Des Moines Register
  • “His Captain Queeg [is] … somewhat reminiscent of the commanding officer in the play, ‘Mister Roberts’…” — Hutchinson News

“Caine,” however, did beat “Roberts” to the screen by a year, which is par for the course for later Cagney. He made his WWII movie (“Blood on the Sun”) at the tail end of WWII, his O.S.S. movie (“13 Rue Madeleine”) a year after the officially sanctioned “O.S.S.,” and his Huey Long movie, “A Lion Is In the Streets,” four years after “All the King’s Men” won best picture. “Come Fill the Cup,” his movie about alcoholism, showed up six years after “Lost Weekend.”

Now this.

America to me
Cagney gets second billing here—he’s next to Henry Fonda on the title card—but it’s not a meaty role. It’s small and one-note. The Captain’s wartime goals seem to be: 1) prevent his men from going on leave; 2) prevent Lt. Roberts from being transferred; 3) don’t share fresh fruit. He’s a petty asshole who barely gets a name.

What’s his inner life? His backstory? Lt. Barney Greenwald salutes Queeg’s earlier career—“Who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours?”—but the only one defending the Captain is the Captain. During an argument with Roberts, he gives his raison d’etre: class resentment.

I’ve been seeing your kind around since I was 10 years old—working as a busboy. “Oh busboy, it seems my friend has thrown up on the table. Clean up that mess, boy, will ya?” And then when I went to sea as a steward—people poking at you with umbrellas. “Oh, boy! You, boy! Careful with that luggage, boy!” And I took it. I took it for years! But I don't have to take it any more. There’s a war on, and I’m captain of this vessel, and now you can take it for a change!

That’s only vaguely interesting, probably because it’s so vague. Not to mention incomplete. It may explain his pettiness toward Roberts but not to the mostly working-class boys on his ship. He’s awful to them, too.

On Broadway, the role of the Captain was actually darker. He was played by William Harrigan, a longtime character actor in Hollywood, whose roles included “Mac” McKay, Cagney’s gangster benefactor in “G-Men.” He was also the real-life son of Edward Harrigan, a 19th-century Irish playwright/actor for whom George M. Cohan wrote the song “Harrigan,” which, of course, Cagney sang with such gusto in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Amazing the connections when you dig a little. 

Joshua Logan, who co-wrote both play and film, criticized the way John Ford directed the Captain character. “In Christ’s name, what has Ford made Cagney do [but] play the Captain like an old New England bumbler, without any hatred, without darkness, without threat? He’s all Down East accent—and comic at that.” Logan also complained how the atmosphere on the ship changed from “prison-like” in the play to “boys camp“ in the movie. But apparently that was necessary to get the cooperation of the U.S. Navy.

All of which created a mess behind the scenes. I’ll try to untangle it.

Because he was 49 years old and hadn’t starred in a movie in eight years, Warner Bros. didn’t even want Henry Fonda, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, to star in the movie version of a play for which he’d already won a Tony. They wanted Marlon Brando or William Holden. But Ford fought for him. Then he fought with him. Fonda hated the lighter, breezier tone and at one point the two men came to blows.

Ford also fought for Cagney and then with Cagney. Apparently on the first day of shooting, Cagney was slightly late, Ford went into a tirade, but Cagney cut it short: “When I started this picture, you said we would tangle asses before this was over. I’m ready now. Are you?” Ford wasn’t, and eventually his excessive drinking got him canned. The irony is he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, whom Cagney hated. Cagney did one movie with him, ”Hard to Handle" in 1933, and pegged him as a brown-noser who took too much credit on too little talent. LeRoy’s autobiography seems to bear this out. Among other things, he claims credit for directing Cagney in one of his first films, “Hot Stuff” in 1929. The problem? Cagney wasn’t in “Hot Stuff.” He wasn't even in Hollywood until 1930. 

Another irony: That “boys camp” atmosphere Ford fought for is the part of the movie that’s actually aged the worst. The crew seems both gay dream team (young, fit, shirtless, sweaty) and #MeToo scandal waiting to happen (voyeurism; literally tearing the clothes off women during shore leave). They're also, per every Hollywood WWII movie, a melting-pot vision of America—except more melted than usual. Sure, we get a Rodrigues (Perry Lopez) and a Stefanowski (Harry Carey Jr.), but they hardly register. It’s mostly bland, randy white guys who come from nowhere specific. The one time anyone brings up a state back home, it’s the Shore Patrol Officer with the bad southern accent (Martin Milner), who tells Roberts that six of his men razed the home of a French colonial governor. An Army private brought them there as a joke: 

Shore Patrol Officer: He told them it was, uh... well, what we call in Alabama … uh…
Mr. Roberts: Yeah, we call it the same thing in Nebraska.

I like that they use Fonda’s home state for Mister Roberts’ home state.

Fonda makes the movie. His goal is noble. The Reluctant is a cargo supply ship drifting in a chain of islands in the Pacific, far from the war, and Roberts wants to be where the war is—he recognizes the historical moment—but his transfer is continually denied by the Captain. Since Roberts can’t get what he wants, he at least tries to get the men what they need. Sure, men, you can take your shirts off in these hellish conditions. Sure, I’ll sacrifice any attempt at transfer and follow all the Captain’s orders forevermore so you guys can have this one shore leave. It’s another of Fonda’s noble men—from Abe Lincoln to Wyatt Earp; from Tom Joad to Juror 8. For the ways Ford screwed up the movie, he couldn’t have fought for a better actor.

He humanizes what is otherwise a fairly cartoonish group. Just that opening, looking out at the open water, the yearning and hurt on his face. He obsesses over his latest transfer letter like he’s an upbeat Joseph K., giving Doc (William Powell) a boyish grin at his new turn of the phrase—the thing that he hopes will finally get him transferred. And that Fonda voice: slow, measured, stretching out his words: “Carriers so big they blacked out half the sky. Battlewagons sliiiding along, dead quiet.” You know the song lyric, “What is America to me?” Henry Fonda isn’t a bad answer. 

Even with this great open, though, you sense the movie’s behind-the-scenes schism. Roberts walks out on deck on a sunny day, surveys the horizon with the water bright blue, then sits down with a pencil in his mouth—like a dog with a bone—to go over the letter again. Then it’s a reverse angle for the intro of Doc and … Where did the sun go? We don’t really see anything but the metal of the ship. I assume it was shot on a sound stage in LA rather than off the coast of Hawaii. It’s a disconnect. It’s Ford vs. LeRoy.

Crud
A quick synopsis. In the first act, the men admire Roberts. In the second act, not knowing his sacrifice, they turn on him, think he’s bucking for promotion. Third act? After he tosses the Captain’s prize palm tree overboard, and the men learn about his sacrifice through a kind of loudspeaker ex machina, they work to get him the transfer he’s always wanted. And they do! And they shower him with gifts and send him on his way.

And on that battleship, he dies in the waning days of the war.

Oddly, there’s no mea culpa from the men, no thought of, “Gee, if we hadn’t have gotten him that transfer …” Instead, Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon, in an Oscar-winning role), who is now a lieutenant and in Roberts’ role, and who never had the guts to finish one thing, finally does. He does what Roberts might’ve done—but with Pulver’s bluster. Over the loudspeaker, they hear that the night’s movie has been canceled, and, in a sudden rage, Pulver a secondary palm tree overboard and busts into the Captain’s quarters:

Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I just threw your stinkin’ palm tree overboard! Now what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?

Roberts is dead; Roberts lives.

Sadly, Cagney’s reaction is a comic wuh-wuh. It’s “Not this again?” as he buries his face in his hands. It feels off, considering what we’ve just learned about Roberts.

I like all the loudspeaker announcements we hear in the movie—spoken in that bored military cadence of an amateur draftee. “Attention! Attention!” Then some stupid annoying thing. Then: “That is all.” Fifteen years later, the movie “M*A*S*H” would use these to great comic effect.

“Mister Roberts” was nominated for three Academy Awards—picture, sound, supporting—and won for Lemmon. Don’t quite see it. His character is only mildly amusing, with that classic Lemmon jitteriness that never appealed to me. I like the calm guys. The opening scene, in the morning on the deck, where Doc and Roberts talk? That could’ve been the movie for me. But Fonda didn’t even get nominated. He got nomed for “Grapes of Wrath” in 1940 and not again until “On Golden Pond” in 1981. It’s one of the great travesties of the Academy.

Posted at 09:04 AM on Wednesday January 13, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Friday November 27, 2020

Movie Review: Never Steal Anything Small (1959)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Never Steal Anything Small” is a musical that feels ashamed to be a musical. We’re meeting Linda Cabot (Shirley Jones) for the first time, about 25 minutes in, and suddenly she starts singing. And it throws us. Oh, right, this is a musical. It’s the first song we’ve heard since the opening chorus.

How many songs do we hear overall? Five maybe? Many are consumerist. Jones’ first song is all about clothes (“I Haven’t Got a Thing to Wear”), “I’m Sorry, I want a Ferrari” takes place in a car showroom, while “It Takes Love to Make a Home” is a TV commercial for a cleaning product called “Love.” “Thing to Wear” is the cutest, “Ferrari” the most memorable, “Love” the missed opportunity. It’s supposed to satirize commercial jingles but doesn’t dig deep enough. It’s not jingly, either.

Despite all this, “Never Steal Anything Small” almost has a chance. It’s about a Damon Runyonesque figure, Jake MacIllaney (James Cagney), who runs for president of his union local, wins, then keeps the machinations going to rise further. That could’ve worked. He’s a charming scoundrel. But he goes a machination too far. He not only tries to pin his own graft on his naïve lawyer, Dan Cabot (Roger Smith, whom Cagney discovered while on vacation in Hawaii), he breaks up Cabot and his wife, too. At first I thought it was because Linda wanted Dan to steer clear of Jake, so Jake needs her out of the picture—but that’s not it. He wants Linda for himself.

Keep in mind: At the time of filming, Jones was an unblemished 23 while Cagney was a craggy 58. It’s kinda creepy. 

Addressed as sir
The movie opens with Cagney at a piano, talk-singing to the camera, about advice his father gave him to never steal anything … never steal anything … small. It’s not bad. Even better, we get these lines, which probably ring truer during the Trump years than they did in the Eisenhower era:

Steal 100 dollars and they put you in stir
Steal 100 million they address you as “sir”

 I liked all of this. I liked that the opening title card alludes to Cagney’s breakthrough picture a quarter-century earlier: “This picture is sympathetically dedicated to labor and its problems in coping with a new and merry type of public enemy … the charming, well-dressed gentleman who cons his way to a union throne.” Then we get a speech by Cagney on the waterfront. And it really is the waterfront. A lot of the movie was shot on location in New York City—this scene was apparently at the Fulton Street pier in lower Manhattan—and it’s so great to be outdoors in a real place with Cagney it makes you wonder what we missed with all those ’30s Cagney flicks shot in the studio. 

“Anything Small” is basically a series of problems Jake solves, only to have the solution lead to another problem. At Union Local 26, he’s running against longtime president O.K. Merritt (Horace McMahon) but needs money to win. That’s the problem. So he and his boys shake down “Sleep-Out” Charlie (Jack Albertson), a penny-pinching loan shark, to get the dough. That’s the solution. Except Sleep-Out rats on him and Jake is arrested. Problem. So he gets Sleep-Out’s girlfriend to slip him a mickey and Sleep-Out wakes up in a (fake) iron lung while a (fake) doctor tells him he should go to Yuma, Ariz. for his health. And there goes that problem. Amid some strongarming, Jake then wins the election and takes over the local.

Except he finds out his newbie lawyer, Dan, is dropping him as a client because his wife objects, which means the Sleep-Out case may be delayed, which means Sleep-Out might be back in time for it. Can’t have that. So he goes to see Dan but instead finds his charming wife singing “I Haven’t Got a Thing to Wear,” and he falls for her. Now his machinations are two-fold: wooing Dan back with a big office, which takes care of the Sleep-Out case; and equipping the big office with a hot, well-appointed secretary, Winnipeg Simmons (Cara Williams), who, on instructions from Jake, seduces Dan. Which takes care of the Cabot marriage, allowing Jake to move in. 

The rest of the movie is this bifurcated plotline: How to rise in the ranks while winning over Linda. Early on, he tells Winnipeg: “I like to scheme. I get a boot out of a nice, sharp scheme.” I admit: The stuff with the union, where his opponents are other sharpies, grifters, and mob bosses, is fun. But the other storyline? Just awkward. Creepy. Plus, why is Linda amenable to him? She didn’t want Dan representing him but she’ll consider dating him? No logic there.

I might have swallowed some of this if Cagney weren’t so much older than Jones—and obviously older rather than, say, “Cary Grant older.” But this is how apparent their age difference is: The movie acknowledges it. Yes. Even though older men with younger women is generally treated as normal in the movie, in this one Jake raises the issue: “Maybe age doesn’t make as much difference as you think,” he tells Linda over coffee. “Elderly guys and young gals—getting to be quite the fashion.” Truer words were never said in Hollywood.

As for Dan? Too much of a patsy to be interesting. He not only loses his beautiful wife, he allows Jake to use his name on some local larceny. As a result, when Jake runs against mob boss Pinelli (an excellent Nehemiah Persoff) to take over United Stevedores, and Pinelli alerts the cops to Jake’s graft, Jake simply points the finger at Dan, whose name is on everything. Interestingly, it’s the same scam played on Cagney’s character, Biff, in “The Strawberry Blonde” 20 years earlier. Maybe that’s where Jake gets his schemes—watching old Cagney flicks.

Put in stir
For a movie about a corrupt union man, there’s a real knowledge and pride in union history. While trying to woo Linda, for example, Jake says the world isn’t a garden but a jungle, where the winner is always right, and without unions “the jungle could be a whole lot crueler.” He ticks off past union heroes—Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis, Dubinsky, Meany and Reuther—and the assumption is the audience knows who most of them are. Love that. Different world.

I also like the twist at the end. Jake fingers Dan, who’s carted away by the cops, and Linda pleads for Dan’s sake. She asks Jake to take the rap for his own crimes. She says she’ll do anything Jake asks—even marry him. “You’d go that far just to keep that square out of the can?” he asks. He seems both incredulous and pissed off. Then he works himself into a lather talking up how Dan will have it made when he gets out. “He can go into union politics. When the story gets out, the member will think he stole all that money for them—for their clubhouse and their benefits. He’ll be a real vote-getter in the unions, all the unions. A very popular figure.” That’s when the light bulb goes on. “Yeah. Why should he be the popular figure?” And he does what Linda wants. Without the marriage. Or the anything.

It is a bit ridiculous that Dan is still Jake’s attorney during the final trial. One, why would Dan bother to help him? Two, can you actually represent someone whose confession to a crime got you off the hook? Either way, after the guilty verdict, Jake plants a big kiss on Linda’s lips and then happily goes to the stir—with the foreknowledge that when he gets out he’ll be running it all. It’s another ’50s movie that has to make Cagney the hero, or anti-hero, when he’s really the villain. Cf., “Love Me or Leave Me.”

“Never Steal Anything Small” was written and directed by Charles Lederer, who is mostly a writer (“His Girl Friday,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) and rarely a director (this is his third, last and best-known). He adapted it from an unproduced play, “The Devil’s Hornpipe,” by Maxwell Anderson and Rouben Mamoulian—which apparently wasn’t a musical, although Anderson and Allie Wrubel (“Song of the South”) wound up writing 13 songs for it. Only a handful made it in. Then they kept tinkering. I guess previews were bad? The movie was filmed between October 1957 and January 1958 but not released until March 1959.

It was supposed to be a big deal. In July 1956, The New York Times wrote about it under the headline UNIVERSAL PLANS ‘BIG’ MUSICAL FILM, and in the first graph we get an unattributed insider quote saying it will be “one of the biggest pictures ever made.”

It wasn’t, but it almost had a chance.

Posted at 08:25 AM on Friday November 27, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Monday October 12, 2020

Movie Review: These Wilder Years (1956)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I couldn’t help but think of “Public Enemy.” And not because the movies are similar.

In an early scene, Steve Bradford (James Cagney), the CEO of a Detroit steel company, walks through his office and into a board meeting. The area is carpeted, bland, airless, sterile. There’s no life in it. There was always life and grit in the sets of early Warner Bros. movies, and this is the opposite of that. I actually thought of the offices of bosses in ’60s TV sitcoms. It was like Mr. Tate’s office on “Bewitched.” I think of the difference between Putty Nose’s backroom and Mr. Tate’s office and wonder how American went so wrong.

But that’s just the beginning. You really see the difference with the Cagney character.

Before he walks into the board meeting, Bradford asks his secretary who’s in there, and she tells him—to a  man—and he compliments her on her great memory. The exchange is brief but irrelevant. You wonder why they kept it. It moves nothing forward.

Then he’s on an airplane, and an entire high school football team is on the same flight with him, which is odd in itself, and he’s seated next to the guy who, yes, lost the big game by dropping the ball in the end zone (Tom Laughlin, in his film debut). So he dispenses fatherly advice: “You ever hold onto any?” “Yeah. Plenty.” “Try to remember those.” And sure, you get why that’s in there. It’s a metaphor. It’s foreshadowing. Steve dropped a big one 20 years ago when he walked out on his pregnant girlfriend, and that’s why he’s traveling back to his hometown. He’s trying to rectify his mistake. But the airplane conversation is more than that. Because it keeps happening.

From the airport, he takes a cab and sits in the front seat like a regular joe, and he and the toothless cabbie talk, and Steve gives him a big tip so the guy can get himself some new chompers. At the orphanage, he throws a ball back to kids playing in the field, then dispenses advice to Suzie (Betty Lou Keim), the 16-year old pregnant girl: “Don’t cry about tomorrow, he says. “Wait til it’s yesterday.” She takes a shine to him, as does the head of the orphanage, Ann Dempster (Barbara Stanwyck), who should know better. I mean, she should really know better. It’s not just the boy he was, it’s the man he became. Because as determined as he was to leave his son back then, he’s now just as determined to find him. He all but threatens Ann.

Steve: I’ve got a lot of two things: time and money. And I’ll use either one or both. Whatever it takes. You know, I could’ve sent somebody to do this for me. And they’d have gone about it quite differently.
Ann: How?
Steve: Bought it. Bought the records, the court, maybe even this place. Maybe even you.
Ann: What in the world would you do with me?
Steve: Take you to dinner. How about it?

That pivot is such bad writing. He mentions buying her, then segues into buying her dinner? Like it’s charming? But it works, of course. Because movies. At the least, she invites him to her place for dinner, but there’s an emergency so it’s just Steve and Suzie, and … Wait. So Ann Dempster, the head of this orphanage, leaves a 16-year-old pregnant girl alone with a strange man who abandoned his child 20 years ago? That doesn’t seem so smart. But I guess it’s OK because he’s a famous CEO? Suzie gives him a drink and the Evening Gazette but he’d rather hang with Suzie in the kitchen. They talk. He asks her about her, which leads to how she wound up 16 and pregnant, and she cries, and he dispenses more advice, and by the time Ann shows up he’s sent Suzie to the movies while he’s drying the dishes—“Paying for my supper,” he says. A regular joe. And that keeps happening. There’s all these little bits in there, nudging us, until it finally hits you: Ahhh. They want us to like him. And that’s where the real contrast with “Public Enemy” comes in.

In “Public Enemy,” Cagney plays a low-level gangster who shoves a grapefruit in a woman's face and chillingly kills his old mentor, Putty Nose, in cold blood, and yet Warner Bros. constantly has to remind us: You’re not supposed to like this guy. They put up disclaimers before and after. They called him a problem that “we, the public, must solve.” And all for naught. Because we still like him. Martin Scorsese calls Cagney in “Public Enemy” the birth of modern acting because he was so vibrant and real. He has an energy and an honesty. And yet here he is 25 years later, and now it’s MGM, not Warner Bros., but they’re doing everything they can to make us like this guy ... and it doesn’t work. It sets you back on your heels. They tried to get us to like Jimmy Cagney … and couldn’t do it.

What’s the difference?
Why did he make it? Cagney and his wife adopted two children so maybe that’s partly why this story appealed to him. His biographer, John McCabe, also mentions that Cagney liked his experience with MGM in “Tribute to a Bad Man” and quickly agreed to follow up with this one. He also gets to play white collar rather than blue, and rich rather than not, and contrite rather than sneering, so maybe all that appealed, too. But I doubt he thought much of it. It’s one of the few movies of his he doesn’t mention in his memoir. At all. Not a whisper. 

It’s his only movie with Barbara Stanwyck. It’s kind of funny watching Public Enemy and Baby Face being the upstanding adults in postwar America. The ’50s were the era when Hollywood discovered teenagers—parents were staying home with the TV—and here they pair stars from the previous generation with the up-and-comers. The movie is the debut of not only Laughlin but Michael Landon, as well as the first credited role for Dean Jones. Most of these guys have bit parts, though. I didn’t even catch Landon, to be honest. The up-and-comers are Keim and Don Dubbins as Mark, Steve’s 20-yeaar-old son, who’d also been in “Tribute to a Bad Man,” and wound up with a good journeyman career: 123 credits until his death in 1991. Keim, though, didn’t make it out of the ’50s. She nabbed a few more roles, than nabbed a husband—Warren Berlinger, who also had a good journeyman career—and she called it quits. Her last role was in the TV series “The Deputy” in 1960.

So, dilemma: Cagney wants to see the son he abandoned, Stanwyck is polite but reminds him, “The adoption laws are very strict”; and that’s the battle for most of the movie. And for all the effort of director Roy Rowland and screenwriters Ralph Wheelwright and Frank Fenton to show us Cagney’s a regular guy, they never give him reason enough for abandoning the boy or seeking him out now. The opposite:

Ann: Why did it take you so long?
Steve: Because it took a long time to get what I wanted.
Ann: And now you’ve got what you wanted.
Steve: Yeah. I got it. And something else. I got older. And I got lonely.

That’s it? Good god, Tom Powers is a picture of responsibility in comparison. Steve is even worse when explaining to the high-powered SCOTUS lawyer he brings in. James Rayburn (Walter Pidgeon) asks the same question, “What took you so long?” and at first Steve simply replies “What’s the difference?” before adding, impatiently, “Shall we say, I was busy? That enough?” The lawyer then finds a loophole, they take Ann to court, and Steve plays the victim. For a scene or two. This forces Ann to produce the original 1936 adoption papers in which the younger Steve turns out to be a major asshole:

Mr. Bradford said he would not assume any responsibility toward Emily Haver or the baby. That he would not marry the girl. He said he would not pay anything toward the expense of her confinement and that it was none of his business how she got along. He said to the welfare representative and before the witnesses, “Why do you say I’m the father of the child? It could be any one of 16 other guys.”

Classy. Pidgeon in his last MGM role is even-toned and well-cast. I like what he says to Steve after the judge dismisses the case: “You gambled that there are people who wouldn’t do unto you what you would do unto them.” But it’s Stanwyck who gets the best lines: “We all make our beds and have to lie in them, whether we sleep or not. Isn't that all there is to it?” And when Steve seems to dismiss her as an idealist dreamer who has sacrificed her life, she responds, “No, I didn’t. This is my life.”

Forgive me?
After Steve is foiled in court, the rest of the movie tumbles into place. Outside the courtroom, Ann tells him that Suzie had an accident and is in the hospital asking for him. Because he’s such a great guy, I guess. So he goes, helps out, she has the baby, and in the afterglow of all that he does what any man would do: He goes bowling. And that’s when Mark shows up; and in the bowling alley, then the adjacent café, then out on the street, the two have several long, pained conversations, in which Mark admits to hating him at times and admiring him at times, and Steve looks variously uncomfortable and tortured and apologizes without apologizing. He says: “Look, what does a man say? What do I say? I’m sorry? Forgive me?” Sure. But try it without the question mark, dick.

It’s not just that he’s not a good person; Cagney’s acting isn’t good, either. Or it’s not interesting. You used to never be able to say that about him. In the end, Steve asks if there’s anything Mark needs, and Mark, the calm, responsible one, says “I needed this tonight. Just this,” and sticks out his hand. I like that Steve looks pained here, as if thinking: “Goodbye? So soon?” Or that he wanted to hug him but has to settle for a handshake. And then Mark walks away, while Steve paces, head down, and finally looks up to see his biological boy walking away in the distance and says quietly, “So long, son.” And the camera pulls back so we see a lone man on a lonely street corner. 

And we have six minutes left in this thing.

What happens? Why he adopts Suzie, of course. Or I think that’s what happens. Seems odd, since I don’t think her parents have cut her off or anything. But he goes home with her and the baby—a man who’s suddenly both father and grandfather all at once.

It’s definitely a movie of its time: a weepy ’50s melodrama—Douglas Serk without the artistry, and without a person in color in sight. Among its working titles were “Somewhere I’ll Find Him,” “All Our Yesterdays” and “All Our Tomorrows.” All bad. They went with “These Wilder Years,” says John McCabe, “for no discernible reason.”

Posted at 09:22 AM on Monday October 12, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Sunday September 06, 2020

Movie Review: The Seven Little Foys (1955)

WARNING: SPOILERS

James Cagney won the Academy Award for for playing George M. Cohan in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and here he is a dozen years later playing him again in a nice tap-dance and soft-shoe cameo opposite Bob Hope’s Eddie Foy. My immediate thought: “Is this the first time an Academy Award winner for best actor reprised his role in another film?”

Turns out … not even close.

At only the second Academy Awards, Warner Baxter won best actor for playing the Cisco Kid in “Old Arizona.” Then he reprised the role in a 1931 short (“The Stolen Jools”) and a 1931 feature (“The Cisco Kid”). Then he played him again in a 1939 sequel (“The Return of the Cisco Kid”).

So if Cagney wasn’t the first, surely it was an anomaly?

Nope. Happened all the time. In 1930, George Arliss won the Oscar for playing Disraeli in “Disraeli,” a role he’d already played in a 1921 silent film, and to which he returned in a 1931 short. In 1933, it was Charles Laughton for “The Private Life of Henry VIII,” a role he reprised 20 years later in “Young Bess.” Spencer Tracy was Father Flanagan in “Boys Town” and three years later in “Men of Boys Town.” Bing Crosby was Father O’Malley in 1944’s “Going My Way” and a year later in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”

OK, so not first and not an anomaly. But maybe the last?

I didn’t do a deep dive, but there’s already John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn, George C. Scott’s George S. Patton, Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, and—coming soon to a theater near you—Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. What I thought was a one-off was an industry. 

You can see most of the Cagney-Hope dance number here. It’s cornball but fun. There’s a showbizzy, tongue-in-cheek one-upmanship between Cohan and Foy throughout:

Cohan: You know any of my soft-shoe routines?
Foy: I know all your routines—I did them first.
Cohan: And I did them right.

As apparently in life? Or at least as in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” where the Foy cameo was played by Eddie Foy, Jr., and where they also engage in the same kind of back-and-forth. In the video clips from “Foys,” you can see Hope giving the dances the old college try but he can’t compare to Cagney. Just look at their arms. Cagney’s are perfectly balanced while Hope’s are all over the place. Cagney lost 15 pounds for the role and looks great. He was also in agony. His knees had filled with fluid from practicing, and when he jumped onto the table he felt a stabbing pain in them. But he kept going. He did it all gratis, too. From John McCabe’s biography:

When Jack Rose, The Seven Little Foys producer, first approached Jim about his salary for the job, he refused payment, not only as a favor to Hope but as a contribution to the memory of Eddie Foy: “When I was a starving actor, I could always get a free meal and a friendly welcome at the Foys. You don’t forget things like that.”

I would’ve liked more on that story. Did he know them personally or was it a known thing that the Foys helped out? And was it just the Foys or other successful show-biz types? Cohan and Foy were legendary to the young Cagney and Hope, and still well-known in the 1940s and ’50s, but now we mostly know them through the portrayals of Cagney and Hope. Our storytelling moved on to movies and TV, which they didn’t do, and so they’re left behind. As we’ll all be left behind.

51 to 21
I watched “Foys” for Cagney, of course, but the movie is better than I thought. Hope is better than I thought. I grew up with annual Bob Hope Christmas Specials, which weren’t that special, but I laughed here. I’m beginning to see what Woody Allen saw.

It’s not really Foy’s story. It’s Hope schtick placed on Foy’s story. Foy was married three times, for example, and here he’s portrayed as marriage-averse. Almost women-averse. Early on, a buxom showgirl comes onto him but he passes. “I travel light—which is more than I can say for you.” An Italian sister act joins the troupe and he’s asked to switch his largeish dressing room for their tiny one. They don’t speak much English, the manager says. “Just enough to get top billing,” Foy responds. In her dressing room, the younger Italian sister, Madeleine Morando (Milly Vitale), who becomes Foy’s wife, his second in real life, wears a little frou-frou undergarment that makes the most of her tiny waist. In Milano, she says, we wear this all the time. Foy: “No wonder Italy’s overpopulated.”

The future Mrs. Eddie Foy.
“No wonder Italy's overpopulated.”

Gotta ask: Were Italian actresses Hollywood’s greatest 1950s import? I’d never heard of Vitale before but good lord is she gorgeous. The oddity in the movie is that she has to land him. At the time of filming, she was 21 and gorgeous while Hope was 51 and not, but Hollywood was Hollywood. The age difference is also apparent in the sister act. Angela Clarke plays Clara, but she’s 23 years older than Vitale. Her role is basically to be nag Foy. Nothing he does is good enough. She’s older sister as mother-in-law. That gag.

Bert Williams, a Cagney favorite, is mentioned twice. Character-actor George Tobias, playing Jewish here—Barney Green, Foy’s manager—mentions in passing “I’m the fella who discovered Bert Williams.” Then, in the rain, trying to woo back Madeleine, Foy talks up Williams’ song “Nobody” and sings it. The conversation leading up to it is interesting for demonstrating Foy’s shallowness:

She: You are so empty
He: All I want is my name in lights
She: Nothing else?
He: What else is there?
She: The rest of the world.
He: What have they ever done for me? You ever hear that song that Bert Williams sings? When life seems full of clouds and rain, and I am filled with naught but pain, who soothes my thumpin’, bumpin’ brain? Nobody

At this point, he just wants her to sign a contract so they can be on Broadway together—so he can be on Broadway—but she wants him. As a man. As a lover. Sure. So she signs. Then, scared of the commitment, of maybe falling for her, he tears up the contract and goes to the west coast while she goes back to Italy. Problem solved. Except she writes him a letter, saying she’s marrying someone else, and he travels to Milan, kinda proposes, and…

Yeah, it’s a little scattered. 

Beav to Bud
In the movie, Foy takes the kids on the road when his wife dies, but that’s another fabrication. The wife died in 1918; the Seven Foys act began in 1910. So why did it begin? Because it worked? And what exactly was Eddie Foy’s bit anyway? He was primarily a comedian, right? With a kind of slurring thing and an odd upturned smile? “Seven Foys” was supposed to be Hope’s turn toward more dramatic roles but we mostly get Hope being Hope. His persona here isn’t that different from the one I saw on Christmas specials in the 1970s. But the jokes are better. Or maybe, being so long out of style, they seem new again.

Another interesting pop-cultural note: The eldest Foy child, Bryan, is played by a teenaged Billy Gray, who had just started playing Bud Anderson in the hit 1950s TV series “Father Knows Best.” We also see him as a young boy, too. And who plays him as a young boy? Jerry Mathers, who, two years later, would play Beaver Cleaver in the hit 1950s TV series “Leave It to Beaver.” I like stuff like that.

Cagney in fighting form; Hope with the college try.

Posted at 11:30 AM on Sunday September 06, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Monday August 17, 2020

Movie Review: Starlift (1951)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The working title was better: “Operation Starlift.” It was actually a thing, too. According to The San Francisco Examiner, Nov. 22, 1950, it began with gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who organized the transport of Hollywood stars on an Air Force C-47 to Travis Air Force Base north of San Francisco to entertain troops who were wounded in the Korean War or were heading there. It was basically a roving version of Hollywood Canteen.

Hollywood Canteen, for those who don’t know, was a club in LA offering food and entertainment to troops heading overseas during World War II. It was started by Bette Davis and John Garfield in October 1942, and literally hundreds of stars volunteered their services—from Bud Abbott to Vera Zorina. A 1943 New York Times article mentions the canteen as a place where soldiers might dance with Betty Grable, get a cup of coffee from Hedy Lamarr, or chat up Rita Hayworth. The MC might be Bing Crosby or Eddie Cantor, with a band led by Kay Kyser. It lasted throughout the war and closed up shop on Nov. 22, 1945.

And even before the Hollywood Canteen, there was Stage Door Canteen, the New York/Broadway version, which opened in March 1942, led by Nedda Harrigan. A CBS radio series broadcast from the place from 1942 to 1945.

Each of these good-will gestures became movies of their own. Hugely popular movies, it turns out. Per The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box-Office Hits, “Stage Door Canteen,” released by United Artists, was the fifth-biggest movie of 1943, while “Hollywood Canteen,” released by Warner Bros., was the fifth-biggest hit of 1944. Merely mingling with the stars of Hollywood, the purveyors of wish-fulfillment fantasy, had become one of our biggest wish-fulfillment fantasies.

“Starlift” didn't do as well. According to Wiki, via Variety, it grossed $1.9 million in 1951. That’s probably top 20. It was the Korean War, so no longer all hands on deck. The movie is awful, too.

The worst Cagney impression
Sgt. Mike Nolan (the pushy one, played by Dick Wesson) and Cpl. Rick Williams (the passive one, played by Ron Hagerthy) are soldiers hanging out a movie theater next to cardboard cutouts of the stars when Nolan figures out a way to get close to the real ones. Williams is from Youngstown, Ohio, same as Nell Wayne (Janice Rule, one of the few stars playing a character here), so, against Williams’ aw-shucks objections, he claims Williams and Wayne were good friends back in Youngstown (they didn’t know each other), and that the boy is about to head overseas (they just transport others from SF to Hawaii and back again). And it works! Soon the two are back in the hotel room of Doris Day and Ruth Roman shooting the shit. Well, Nolan is shooting. Williams looks like he ate some bad sushi.

Nolan says he saw Doris Day’s first picture 47 times. She’s flattered. Then we find out he was a movie projectionist. Then he does an unfunny re-enactment of a French love scene with Ruth Roman, which is less Jean Gabin than Pepe Le Pew. It’s the whole kissing-up-the-arm gag. (When did that trope begin? When did it end?) Finally, he talks about how one time the projector broke down in the middle of “White Heat,” so he went out on the stage and did the movie from memory. As he does here, imitating James Cagney:

Pardo, I’ve been watching you. So far, you ain’t done anything I can put my finger on. But maybe that’s what bothers me. I don’t know you; and what I don’t know, I don’t trust.

In the middle of this, the real James Cagney walks in carrying a load of … whatever. Gifts? Noshes? Once he hears the guy doing him, he finishes the dialogue for him. Then we get this exchange:

Cagney: Now look here, pal. I don’t like people going on imitating me, you understand? I don’t like it!
Nolan: I… [still imitating] I’m not imitating you. Since when is there against people talking like this?
Cagney: Well, you know, there ought to be? And between us, one of us is very bad.
Nolan: Oh, I don’t know. I think you do it better even than I do.
Cagney: I’ve had more practice.

Cagney is actually being kind: Wesson does a horrible Cagney impression—and both he and the movie seem oblivious to it. How do you miss doing Cagney? How do they not find someone who can do a better Cagney?

Before Cagney leaves, Nolan corrals him again, says he’s noticed that before he hits a guy he hitches up his pants. He shows him. “Why do you do that?” he asks. Cagney opens his jacket: “That’s simple: No belt. So long, son.”

Cagney is the reason I watched this thing, of course, and I knew it was just a cameo (90 seconds of screentime, it turns out), but at least it came early in the movie—not even 15 minutes in. So I didn’t have to watch the rest. But I did. Because you never know.

But we do. The rest of the movie is awful.

The girls take the two soldiers back to Travis Air Force base, visit the wounded, signs some casts, and put on an impromptu show. It’s mostly Doris. She’s got pipes but with a supercheery, asexual delivery that speaks of the sad age. She’s also doing it in front of a fake backdrop—or frontdrop—of soldiers, which means even here they’re not performing for the troops. Meanwhile, Nell goes from being annoyed by the boy from Youngstown to kissing him goodbye. And on the way out, a bland colonel (Richard Webb) blandly and (to me) impertinently suggests the girls get a bunch of their friends to come up for a show. 

They do. They're game. And we get a lot of song and dance numbers, and an overlong comedy bit from the team of Noonan and Marshall, which is mostly Noonan. (Marshall was Peter Marshall, straight man, and future “Hollywood Squares” host.) Meanwhile Phil Harris, the voice of Baloo from “The Jungle Book,” and thus beloved by me, tries to teach the boys about gin rummy but gets fleeced instead. Or does he pretend to get fleeced? I’ve already forgotten.

The music numbers are either super straightlaced (Gordon MacRae singing “The Good Green Acres of Home” backed by a military band), leggy but oddly asexual (Patrice Wymore singing and dancing “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)”), or leggy, oddly asexual and culturally inappropriate (“Noche Caribe,” danced by Virginia Mayo, who’s dubbed by Bonnie Lou Williams). This last is introduced by Randolph Scott, who asks the men if they saw what they imagined in the tropics, such as “lovely maidens beneath swaying tropical palms.” The men shout NO!, Scott chuckles, and then introduces Mayo, who will “give you her idea of your idea of what you expected to see.” Unpack that. The reality didn’t live up to the sexualized myth, so here’s a white, somewhat asexual version of that. To keep the myth alive. But tamped down. I guess.

Watching all this, you understand why rock ‘n’ roll was invented. To cut through the bullshit.

The final number is a story-song, “Look Out Stranger, I’m a Texas Ranger,” starring an aged Gary Cooper, and playing off the western tropes Hollywood popularized.

Oh, and after being on and off, and on and off, the two Youngstownians make up and share a milkshake as in a Norman Rockwell painting. Then he gets on a plane—I think to war this time—while we hear strains of the Army Air Corps Song: “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder.” Finally this nod:

“Warner Bros. wishes to express their appreciation and grateful thanks to the Department of Defense, the United States Air Force and the officers and airmen of Travis Air Force Base for their whole-hearted cooperation which made this picture possible.”

Remember when Warners was gritty and left-wing? Jack Warner doesn't.

Huey Long --> MPA
The story and screenplay credit for “Starlift” go to John D. Klorer, who only has 14 such credits to his name, none of them memorable, but he certainly led a memorable life. In the 1920s, he was assistant city editor of the Times-Picayune in his native New Orleans during Huey Long’s rise to power. Then he became editor of the Louisiana Progress, a Huey Long ragsheet, and became part of that rise. He was Long’s secretary in D.C. when the Senator and presidential candidate was assassinated in 1936. After that, Klorer moved on to Hollywood, where he joined the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, which helped bring the blacklist to Hollywood, ruining countless lives—including Hollywood Canteen co-founder John Garfield's. In July 1951, five months before “Starlift” was released, Klorer was returning home from a golf match at Lakeside Golf Club when he had a heart attack and died. He was 45.

The director was Roy Del Ruth, who directed some of the fun, slapdash, early Cagney pictures, such as “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi!” and “Lady Killer.” The kind where you don’t know where the story is going; where it just veers suddenly and now it’s about this. I don’t know much about Del Ruth. His directing style has been called “easygoing,” while in the book Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley credits him as a director who taught her she didn’t have to overwrite for the screen. He’s hardly mentioned in John McCabe’s Cagney bio, other than an incident in which, to Cagney’s quiet consternation, he doesn’t correct Margaret Lindsay’s Britishisms. (It was the other “Roy” director, Mervyn LeRoy, whom Cagney loathed.)

Overall, “Starlift” is indicative of the period. It’s anodyne, asexual, bland. Even Wesson as Nolan is bland. His machinations unintentionally create all this and yet there’s never a mea culpa or epiphany or anything from him. There’s never really anything from him. Whatever type he is has had its most interesting elements leeched away. 

By this point in movie history, it seems, all the tropes have been codified and everyone’s bought in. The women are pretty but there is no sex. The men wolf-whistle but make no passes. There’s a war on but there are no battles. Everyone’s ramrod straight and so, so dull. There's not a true moment in here. Well, one. Gene Nelson was a helluva dancer—did the “Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City” number in “Oklahoma”—who wound up directing television, including, believe it or not, the Wrongway Feldman episode of “Gilligan's Island” and the “Gamesters of Triskelion” episode of “Star Trek,” both staples of my childhood. Amazing arc. Anyway, we first see him here, playing himself, and dancing in a number being filmed in Hollywood with Nell/Janice Rule. After it's over, he walks over to the choreographer, LeRoy Prinz (yep, another “Roy”), who went by the nickname “Pappy,” and who staged dances in everything from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to “South Pacific”; and after this great, athletic dance number, as everyone is drifting away, Nelson asks him, “Got a cigarette, Pappy?” I liked that.

Also Cagney saying he didn’t like people imitating him. He didn't. 

Great good-will gesture, lousy movie. 

Posted at 08:46 AM on Monday August 17, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Monday August 10, 2020

Movie Review: A Lion Is in the Streets (1953)

WARNING: SPOILERS

A lot of lasts in this one.

It’s the last time Cagney made a movie with Irish Mafia pal Frank McHugh (they did 11 films together), the last time he was directed by Raoul Walsh (their fourth go-round) and the seventh and final film from William Cagney Productions (R.I.P.).

Here’s an obscure one: It’s the last movie Cagney made that’s under 90 minutes long. In the early days, that was all of them. The first Cagney movie that was actually longer was his fourteenth, “Footlight Parade,” and the 32 movies he made in the 1930s averaged only 83 minutes in length. (Warner Bros.: Make ’em quick, see ’em quick.) In the 1940s, in comparison, Cagney’s 12 pictures averaged 101 minutes, and his 15 movies in the ’50s averaged 105. As Hollywood made fewer movies, they padded them out. They made them epic. Brevity was for TV.

You’d think a movie in which a New York actor plays a Bayou peddler who marries a Pennsylvania Quaker and then runs for governor—all of it based on Huey Long—would be a bit of a mess, but “A Lion Is in the Streets” isn’t bad. Cagney’s drawl comes and goes but he’s got energy and charm and hornswoggle. I like some of the dialogue, too—like this from early in the courtship:

She (doubtful): You’re a … peddler?
He (after a pause): Ma’am, I’m Hank Martin. Also I peddle.

Is part of the problem the movie’s length? As in: too short? Or too unfocused? According to Cagney biographer John McCabe, Raoul Walsh cut out the final third of the script, which means this Huey Long never even makes the governor’s mansion, let alone the U.S. Senate, let alone running for president. He doesn’t even win an election, does he? That seems wrong. So it becomes the story of a swamp peddler who champions the people only to betray them and pay the ultimate price. It’s about a man who rose from the swamp all the way to … a few feet from the swamp.

Buzz, Chuck, Willie and Hank
Some background. Adria Locke Langley’s novel was published in 1945 and became a No. 1 bestseller, and the Cagney brothers bought 10-year rights for a then-record $250,000. (Anthony Lane mocks the novel mercilessly in a great 1995 piece on 1945 bestsellers.) Then they dithered while Robert Penn Warren published another Huey Long roman á clef, “All the King’s Men,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, was adapted into a Robert Rossen movie, and won the Oscar for best picture in 1949. The Cagneys were first to the story but sloppy seconds when it came to putting it on the screen.

For the curious, I count four Huey Long novels from the period: Buzz Windrip in Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” Chuck Crawford in John Dos Passos’ “Number One,” Warren’s Willie Stark and Langley’s Hank Martin. She’s running with heavy hitters here and comes up short. Start with the name. Willie Stark seems like a Southern pol. Hank Martin seems like a backup second baseman for the 1956 Baltimore Orioles.

Langley’s novel is supposedly steamy, her Hank Martin a man of prodigious sexual appetites, but of course 1950s Hollywood tempers this. Or obliterates it. Sure, he’s enamored of the Quaker schoolteacher, Verity Wade (future Perry Mason secretary Barbara Hale), but it feels like love more than lust. He calls her “Sweet Face” and pats her cheeks in the paternal Cagney manner. And sure, he sleeps with the spirited, sexy swamp girl, Flamingo (Anne Francis, 31 years younger than Cagney), but she’s the one who makes all the moves. She literally jumps into his arms upon first meeting, wrapping her legs around his waist. Later she shows up at his campsite and seduces him. Oddly, she’s now wearing a pink sweater and a black beret and looks more Greenwich Village beatnik than swamp girl. Why the change? No word. And where did that sexy swamp girl trope begin anyway? Was it just “Li’l Abner” or was Al Capp playing off it?

We expect the affair with Flamingo to be his downfall, as with politicians since forever, but it’s never even uncovered. He’s running for governor and riding around town with a hot blonde and no one says boo. No, his downfall is all about ambition. He starts out a true believer, has to fight dirty to win—and the higher up he goes the dirtier it gets. That’s not a bad trajectory for a story but Hank and the movie take some odd leaps. Doesn’t help that his true belief turns out to be false. Nor that he secretly has contempt for people. He says this to Verity right after he finagles the locals to help spruce up their honeymoon cabin:

All folks is wonderful. You just have to know the right place to kick 'em in. Sure. It's like learnin' to play a musical instrument by ear. All you gotta know is what place to push to get what note. Then pretty soon, everybody's dancin’ … to your tune.

Then they head for supper at the stately mansion of Jules Bolduc (Warner Anderson), who is renting them the cabin and loaning law books to Hank, and who is pipe-smoking, courtly, and useless until the final act. The other dinner guest that evening is Robert L. Castleberry IV (Larry Keating), who owns the local cotton gins and cheats the sharecroppers. Hank despises him and can’t hide it. That’s his true belief. He tears into Castleberry until the prim businessman cries libel. Eventually there’s a huge confrontation at the local weighing station, with Castleberry’s armed deputies on one side and Hank’s armed sharecroppers on the other. Except the gin managers knew they were coming and switched its crooked weights for real ones; but Hank uncovers the real ones under a floorboard and cries triumph. He also comes up with a great nickname for Castleberry:

You know the birds we got up the swamp? The black skimmer? Always wears black. He lives by skimming over the water and scooping up all the little bugs and fishes without even slowing down. Well, every time, every time I see that black skimmer, scoopin’ and swallowin’, scoopin’ and swallowing’, I just want to take him around the neck and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until he spews up every little thing that he ate. Now we’ve only begun our squeezing.

And that’s what he calls Castleberry for the rest of the movie: the Black Skimmer. (This is one of the ways Hank reminded me of Trump: His gift for epithet.)

At the tail end of the confrontation, though, a deputy stalks one of Hank’s men and is shot by sharecropper Jeb Brown (John McIntire), who is sent to jail without trial. Why? Because if Castleberry’s chicanery is mentioned in a court of law, newspapers can write about it without risking libel charges. So Hank teams up with Guy Polli (Onslow Stevens), an all-powerful backroom man, to get the trial going. The day of, though, Jeb is shot by Castleberry’s right-hand man Samuel T. Beach (James Millican), but Hank pulls Jeb into the courtroom and enters the accusation into the record before he dies. And Hank rides this wave into a race for governor. But that’s when his true beliefs are upended.

Turns out the Black Skimmer wasn’t cheating the sharecroppers, Beach was. And in the interim, Castleberry sold the gin mills to … wait for it … Polli, for whom Beach now works. Or was he always working for him? I’m a little unclear on that. Anyway, Hank finds all this out the night before the election. It’s a close race but the forecast calls for torrential rains, which will make it tougher for Hank’s country folk to vote. So Polli agrees to get out the city vote for him. All Hank has to do is sign an affidavit saying Beach was with him at the time of Jeb’s murder. All he has to do is betray everything he’s stood for.

He does. Then he loses anyway. On the radio, initially downtrodden, increasingly angry, he calls fraud and encourages his followers to descend on Dodd City with their guns. (Another Trumpism: the cheater claiming fraud.) The mob is about to do just that when the pipe-smoking Bolduc shows up and suddenly knows everything: that Castleberry didn’t cheat them; that Beach killed Jeb; that Hank is covering for Beach. Nobody believes him until Verity confirms it all. Which is when Jeb’s widow (Jeanne Cagney) turns her shotgun from Bolduc to Hank and pulls the trigger. 

Plus ca change
The death scene has good and bad in it. As Hank stumbles around, he confronts Verity: “You told on me, Sweet Face. You told on me.” There’s Cagney menace on either side of the endearment. And what is he saying but basically: You dirty rat. 

That’s the good part. The bad part is his final words. The man with contempt for people suddenly offers up this backhand paean to democracy: “Never knew that folks could be so all-fired smart.” Except are they? They were ready to burn down city hall because their fiery populist claimed fraud. And they didn’t believe anything Bolduc said. They believed the lies and dismissed the truth. Bolduc is basically Robert Mueller or Anthony Fauci here, laying out the facts, and getting a shotgun leveled at him for his trouble.

In his mostly positive review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther sees value in Hank’s quick fall:

[The movie] has avoided the more touchy task of throwing a demagogue on the national scene, which might have more forceful implications but might be resented in some quarters today. 

But to me that's the whole problem. The Cagneys bought the rights at the end of World War II but didn’t film it until late 1952, by which time Huey Long was long gone and there was a new demagogue on the scene. But could they attack Joseph McCarthy and get away with it in the heyday of the blacklist? Anyway they didn't. They avoided it all. They mangled the story to accommodate the era. Hank never lusts (because Hays Code), the business owner never cheats the workers (because capitalism is good), and the fiery populist never rises to power (because the people are smart even when they're not). The movie starts in the mud and ends as a muddle. The Cagneys tried to make it clean but it’s a dirty story; and, in case you weren’t paying attention, new chapters are being written every day.

Posted at 07:17 AM on Monday August 10, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 05, 2020

Movie Review: Man of a Thousand Faces (1957)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

There’s a better biopic to be made here. Lon Chaney’s parents were deaf and mute, and growing up he pantomimed for them, and as an adult he pantomimed for the world. It made him world famous. Deservedly so. I’ve only seen a few Chaney movies—“Phantom of the Opera,” “Where East is East”—but the  pain and power he exuded hasn’t diminished after 100 years. Then in 1930, at the age of 47, he developed throat cancer. Just as the movies were beginning to speak, he went mute. In his last months, he resorted to signing—as he had with his parents as a child. It’s circle-of-life stuff.

This is what “Man of a Thousand Faces” does with that story.

The first half is about how horrible Chaney’s first wife is. The second half is about how unforgiving Chaney becomes. The movie wrings its hands over the treatment of Chaney's parents but is as horrified by their state of existence as anyone. It’s mainstream melodrama, ’50s pablum but set earlier in our history. That may be what bugged me most: It reeks of postwar prosperity rather than turn-of-the-century struggle. There’s a sense of safety and cleanliness that feels like a ’50s sitcom rather than an era in which child labor laws hadn’t yet been established. You almost expect the Beav to enter stage left.

James Cagney is also the wrong physical type to play Chaney: that round, pudgy face rather than Chaney’s long, hollow one. He’s also too old. Sorry. Cagney begins the movie in clown makeup—not a bad idea to hide the years—but once he takes it off, well, we’ve got a 50/60-year-old playing twentysomething. And with Dorothy Malone as his wife? In your dreams, gramps. 

Chaney’s makeup was better than Cagney’s. That’s sad. It’s in black-and-white but Cinemascope. That’s odd. And the aspect of Chaney’s life that the movie is least interested in? The movies. That’s ... ironic? 

Even the movie's transitions are facile.

Mother to a dumb thing
We first see Chaney as a kid—with blonde, floppy hair like me in the 1960s—coming home bruised and bloodied because he’s been defending his parents against the taunts of bullies. His mother (Celia Lovsky, a standout), signs that he should feel sorry for those who don’t understand, then tells him to go wash up. He smiles, hugs her, goes to wash up. The camera focuses on running tap water then cuts to a rainstorm 15-20 years later. Sure.

Lon, dressed like a clown, is being called to see the boss because his wife, Cleva (Dorothy Malone), a not-very talented diva, is late for her curtain. The path from her dressing room to the stage feels like the watery pathway beneath the stage in “Phantom of the Opera,” for no real reason, and on the way she slips, falls in, can’t make the curtain. She’s fired, of course, so he goes on in her place. Performs a pantomime clown number that kills. The boss is excited but Chaney isn’t having it. “You fired her,” he says, “you fired me.” That’s the kind of loyal guy he is, see? So why go on in the first place?

We quickly discover that Cleva: 1) is pregnant, 2) has never met his parents, and 3) thinks it’s because he’s ashamed of her. But we know it’s because he’s ashamed of them. He never told her that his parents are deaf-mutes. So that’s the tension when they return home for a holiday gathering: How is she going to take it?

Not well, it turns out. His siblings are there, joyful and friendly, and then the parents come in and begin signing She stares, horrified, then runs up to the bedroom and throws herself on the bed.

He: Was it that hard to look at them, Cleva?
She: I couldn’t stand it.

Ouch. Yes, some of this is his fault for not mentioning it before, but she’s about the furthest thing from a picnic. “Ask them about my baby,” she cries. “Will it be like them? It’s in your blood, Lon, it can happen again! … I don’t want to have it! I don’t want to have it! I DON’T WANT TO BE MOTHER TO A DUMB THING!”

You’d think that would end it—how can their relationship recover?—but his mother convinces him to do right, so he sticks by her. At this point, the drama becomes: Will the baby be born a deaf-mute? Nope. It cries at birth (so not mute) and cries after Lon claps loudly by its crib (so not deaf). As the parents celebrate, Lon tells the boy, Creighton, who will become horror movie icon Lon Chaney Jr., “That’s the last time anyone will ever scare you.” Ha. Heh. Cough.

Cut to four or five years later and Cleva still doesn’t want the boy. Or she wants a career. Or something. At the  Kolb and Dill vaudeville show, where Lon works, she drops off Creighton backstage and the showgirls dote on him like in a G-rated scene from “All That Jazz.” One in particular, Hazel (Dorothy Malone), shows maternal instincts. She’s forever babysitting while Cleva goes off to sing at a cocktail lounge. Cleva has an admirer there, but when he finds out she’s married he abandons her. So Cleva shows up at Lon’s work, walks onstage, and tries to kill herself by drinking mercuric chloride.

That’s actually true, by the way. She did that. It’s also true that they finally divorced—good riddance—but he couldn’t get custody and Creighton became a ward of the state. I don’t know if this is why Lon went into the movies, but that what the movie implies. He needed to make a lot of money quickly to show the judge he could raise Creighton by himself; but no matter how much money he makes in Hollywood, how nice and 1950s-ranch-style his home becomes, the judge won’t budge. Until he marries Hazel. One night, she confesses her love for him and basically proposes. (“Oh, so that’s why you’ve been hanging around for the past 10 years …”) And the two of them get Creighton back. And they get a cabin in the mountains. And the boy signs a greeting to his visiting grandparents. And all is well with the world.

We only get three extended sequences from his Hollywood career—the making of “The Miracle Man” from 1919, “Hunchback” from 1923 and “Phantom” from 1925—and each involves some backstage drama. While filming the whipping scene in “Hunchback,” for example, Hazel, along with Lon’s press agent pal Clarence (Jim Backus), show up, and guess who they merrily bring along? Cleva! Why not, right? She’s contrite but he’s unforgiving. She wants to see her son again but he wants nothing to do with her—in part, because to spare Creighton’s feelings, he told his son she was dead. And that’s the tension for the rest of the movie. Will Creighton find out? How will he take it?

Not well, it turns out. He leaves his father—who is also against him becoming an actor—and goes to live with his mother, who welcomes him with open arms. But she’s a good person now, and convinces him to forgive his father. Which happens just in time for Lon to die.

You know what would’ve made a better story? The truth. Example. In his memoir, Cagney relays what really happened when Creighton went searching for his mother. He got a lead, wound up at a desert ranch, knocked. A woman answered. 

“Hello. My name is Creighton Chaney, and I’m looking for Mrs. Cleva Fletcher.”

“What’s the name?”

“Cleva—Cleva Fletcher.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “No one here by that name.”

Then a voice came from inside the house. “Who is it, Cleva?”

Why didn’t they use that? “The story,” Cagney wrote, “seemed both crueler and larger than life itself.” Instead we got saccharine and smaller.

Thee may leave now
Cagney came to the Chaney story not because he worked with Lon Jr. in “A Lion Is in the Streets” (my assumption), but via Ralph Wheelwright, who wrote Cagney’s previous film, “These Wilder Years.” On that set, he pitched this. He was apparently a good pitcher. A journalist in the 1910s and ’20s, Wheelwright became a PR man for the likes of William Randolph Hearst and Louis B. Mayer before getting some story credits late in his career. All of his credits are just that—stories, not screenplays. The screenwriters for this are latter-day Cagney staples Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts (“White Heat,” creators of “Charlie’s Angels”) as well as a guy named R. Wright Campbell (“Teenage Caveman”).

Anyway, it doesn’t amount to much. Backus is wasted as nice guy/press agent, Greer is wasted as nice chorus girl/wife, and the four actors playing Creighton become duller versions of the gee-whiz All-American kid. Future producer/studio chief Bob Evans plays past producer/studio chief Irving Thalberg, but not well. Malone, on the other hand, is a knockout. Shame her character’s arc doesn’t ring true. (Because it isn’t true.)

Meanwhile, Lovsky, playing Chaney’s mom, so impressed me I had to look her up. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of a composer, and was a respected actress of the surrealist German stage in the 1930s when she became involved with Peter Lorre. She brought him to the attention of Fritz Lang (for “M”), fled Germany with him (he was Jewish), married him, divorced him, remained friends with him for life. In America, she continued acting, mostly in small character roles. One of those? Vulcan elder T’Pau in the classic “Star Trek” episode “Amok Time.” Yes, she’s the second person ever to do the Vulcan salute. The director of that episode happens to be the director of this movie: Joseph Pevney. “Amok Time” worked anyway.

Posted at 06:41 AM on Wednesday August 05, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Tuesday July 21, 2020

Movie Review: Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

One, two, three for Cagney: First Cinemascope, second-billed, third Oscar nom.

WARNING: SPOILERS

There’s a line near the end of this that made me laugh out loud. At the grand opening of a nightclub, “M.S.,” its proprietor and namesake, Marty Snyder (James Cagney), steps out of a car and is arguing with a friend when a young autograph hound spies him and shouts: “Hey, that’s the guy that shot the guy!”

That is so good. Is it based on anything? A famous Hollywood story? Or did it come from the imaginations of screenwriters Daniel Fuschs and Isobel Lennart? Or director Charles “not King” Vidor? I’m finding nothing online. Anyway, it was the best line in the movie.

A lot of firsts and lasts with this one. Released in June 1955, “Love Me or Leave Me” was Cagney’s first Cinemascope picture; it was the first time he was second-billed since the 1930s (apparently at his insistence), and it garnered him his third and final Oscar nomination for lead actor. (He lost to another Marty: Ernest Borgnine.) It was a huge hit—the eighth-biggest of the year—while its soundtrack was the No. 1 album in the country for six months: from early August to late January 1956. (It was replaced by “Oklahoma!,” which was replaced by “Belafonte,” which was replaced by … wait for it … “Elvis Presley.” And now you know the rest of the story.)

“Love Me or Leave Me” was also the second-to-last time Cagney played a gangster, and he may never have been scarier. Imagine Cody Jarrett hopelessly in love. The movie is based on a true, tempestuous love story that Hays-Code Hollywood probably couldn’t tell properly, so, in between socko Doris Day numbers, they made it about an abusive relationship. It doesn’t mesh. It’s kind of exhausting, actually.

Mean to me
Background: Singer Ruth Etting said she married gangster Moe “The Gimp” Snyder “9/10 out of fear and 1/10 out of pity.” She feared that if she left him, he would kill her. 

Cagney’s Marty has elements of the real Moe, but Ruth has been cleaned up. From IMDb:

Ruth Etting was a kept woman who clawed her way up from seamy Chicago nightclubs to the Ziegfeld Follies. It would require her to drink, wear scant, sexy costumes and to string along a man she didn't love in order to further her career. There was also a certain vulgarity about Etting that she didn't want to play. Producer Joe Pasternak convinced Day to accept the role because she would give the part some dignity that would play away from the vulgarity.

Except Ruth’s lack of vulgarity makes the abuse seem worse. Day’s dignified Ruth is a declawed cat being messed with by a junkyard dog. One yearns to see the claws come out.

In 1920s Chicago, Etting is a dime-a-dance girl who doesn’t like men who paw at her, which is all of them, so she’s fired. Snyder, shaking down the proprietor, takes a shine and uses his connections to get her singing gigs, expecting some quid for his quo, but she keeps putting him off. Until he’s tired of being put off. But even then nothing comes of it. In her dressing room, he says he’s stuck on her, she says she’s not on him, not yet anyway (that’s the lie), and the higher she rises the more jealous he becomes: of potential rival agents and potential rival lovers—like that piano player Johnny Alderman (Cameron Mitchell), with cheekbones like diamonds.

Up the ladder she goes: from singing, to headlining, to radio, all the way to New York City and the Ziegfeld Follies. For the real Etting, that was 1927 and she’d been married to Snyder for five years; here, they haven’t even kissed. Opening night at Ziegfeld, Marty rushes backstage during the middle of her performance, has his way blocked, decks a tall guy (as Cagney is contractually obligated to do), and is hustled out, huffing and puffing, between two other guys. Back at her hotel room, we find out he’s particularly mad at her for not sticking up for him. “You walked away!” he shouts. He talks about the debt she owes him but she says there’s no way she can pay it off. “Ain’t there?” he cries, then throws her down on an ottoman and kisses her. She stumbles away, in tears.

This was supposed to be a rape scene, believe it or not. According to IMDb, “As originally filmed, Cagney slammed her against a wall, savagely tore off her dress, and after a tempestuous struggle, he threw her onto a bed and raped her.” Can’t quite see that happening in a 1955 movie, but its removal means after one kiss she’s suddenly undone—lifeless. She marries Marty, quits Ziegfeld, tours with Marty. He tells her he’ll take care of her, and, dead-eyed and dead-voiced, she responds: “You don’t have to sell me. I’m sold.” Great, sad line.

Eventually he lands her a gig in Hollywood. Guess who’s there? Johnny Alderman of the cheekbones. He’s musical director for the movie she’s working on, Marty doesn’t like it a bit, and for some reason she chooses this moment to fight back.

Snyder: That’s the way with those phonies: You gotta let ’em know who ya are.
Etting: Who are you, Marty?
Snyder: What do you mean?
Etting: What have you accomplished? Can you produce a picture? Have you done one successful thing on your own? Just who do you think you are?

Ouch. In front of her he makes a joke but behind the scenes he’s seething. His good-natured right-hand man, Georgie (Harry Bellaver), tries to make him feel better by saying he was a big man in Chicago but here they think Ruth’s his meal ticket. Doesn’t go well. Marty decks him. Then he gets an idea. He’ll open his own nightclub! That’ll make him a big man. Everyone else thinks it’s a lousy idea but now he’s too busy to hover around Ruth, so her romance with Johnny blossoms.

That sets up the rest. He tries to get Johnny fired from the movie, she objects, he slaps her, she leaves him for good. He assumes the worst: cheekbone dude. And he finds them in a doorway clinch. So he shoots him.

Shaking the blues away
One assumes some kind of comeuppance for all of Marty’s crimes but it doesn’t quite arrive. Because it’s based on a true story and MGM wanted everyone to sign on? Because Cagney’s fans needed to be placated? Marty is a monster, truly—by the end we’re as twitchy around him as Ruth—but after he’s bailed out on attempted murder charges he discovers that Ruth is actually headlining the opening of his nightclub. All his friends arranged it! And Ruth agreed to it! (She feels she still owes him.) All of which just pisses him off—it’s the meal-ticket thing—but eventually he calms down. And leaning against the bar at his brand-new nightclub, he takes it all in, while the girl he abused belts out the closing number for him. 

And they all lived happily ever after.

Again, Day is fine if miscast; and while she’s got great pipes, the musical numbers have that hammy, Eisenhower-era cheerfulness at odds with everything else going on. Mainstream 1950s movies—selling Technicolor and Cinemascope and uplift—really were the worst.

Cagney, though, is great. I don’t know if he got the Oscar nom for the limp—you know how Academy voters are—but in those early confrontations there’s such a look of betrayal and contempt and anger in his eyes. He’s never not in this guy’s fucked-up worldview. It’s as if he got the limp from the massive chip on his shoulder.

This is third time Cagney played a ’20s gangster—“The Public Enemy” in 1931 and “Roaring Twenties” in 1939—and we get other echoes from Cagney pictures, too. Setting up his club, isn’t it a bit like Bat setting up his bar in “Frisco Kid”? Marty doesn’t speak Yiddish but he does get off a “Mazel tov” before Ruth headlines her first show. And I don’t know if this was intentional or not—if the phrase was already in the cinematic lexicon—but before her first show, Ruth asks the piano player, Johnny of the cheekbones, how she looks. His reply? “Top of the world.”

Posted at 12:44 PM on Tuesday July 21, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Thursday May 21, 2020

Movie Review: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The most famous cinematic gangster of the 1930s hardly played one in the 1940s. In that decade, James Cagney played a pilot twice, a reporter twice, a spy chief, a dentist, a “barroom observer,” and of course George M. Cohan, but never the kind of lawless SOB that made him famous. It wasn’t until William Cagney Productions lost a bundle on its adaptation of William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” that Cagney returned to Warner Bros. and the type of role people associated him with: gangster Cody Jarrett in “White Heat” in 1949. That went well. A year later, Cagney Productions came out with its own Cagney gangster flick, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” That went less well.

It’s still a fascinating movie. In fact, is it more fascinating?

“White Heat,” directed by Raoul Walsh, is the better film, and it’s modern in its T-Men crime methodology and Freudian mother-complex psychology. At the same time, it’s not exactly modern. What are our set pieces? A train, a cabin, a motel, a prison, another cabin, an oil refinery. We could’ve gotten variations of all of these 30 years earlier. Maybe even 50 years earlier? It’s a mid-20th-century movie that begins with a 19th-century crime: a train robbery.

Though “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” starts in a chain-gang work farm, we get up-to-date quick. Some of it is startling to see—like James Cagney wandering the aisles of a modern, midsized supermarket in Glendale, Calif. But the most startling moment is when he visits a southern California “church.” It’s New Age before the term was coined. It’s “The Master” at the time of “The Master.” It may be the first instance of such a thing showing up in the movies. Cagney immediately mocks it, of course. He knew a grift when he saw one. 

Peckinpah before Peckinpah
For a movie that was banned in Ohio for its “sordid, sadistic presentation of brutality,” “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” begins like a bland 1960s TV courtroom procedural: crescendoing soundtrack music, close-up of a gavel being pounded, “Directed by Gordon Douglas.” This is Douglas’ only Cagney feature. He would go on to direct B-movies in the ’50s (“Them!,” “I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.”), and Rat Pack and faux-Bond movies in the’60s (“Robin and the 7 Hoods,” “In Like Flint”), before ending his career with “Viva Knievel!” in 1977. His work here isn’t bad. At least we get some nice shots. Or do we credit cinematographer Peverell Marley for those?

It didn’t take me long to dislike the district attorney (Dan Riss). Something pinched and bitter about him. His opening accusations are of a piece with the McCarthy era: 

“Look at [the seven defendants] carefully, because they are your enemies and the enemies of every decent citizen. They’re at war with you—and always have been and always will be! Should they escape this time, the next victim may be you! Or you! Or you!”

One of the seven defendants is an attorney, “Cherokee” Mandon (Luther Adler), “now the shame of his profession,” the prosecutor proclaims, but Mandon seems oddly unconcerned. And in case you’re wondering, yes, Luther is Stella’s brother. He’s great—one of the best things in the movie: both corrupt and calm. Halfway through, as he’s cross-examined, we get this exchange:

Prosecutor: You formerly practiced law in this state.
Mandon: I have not yet been disbarred.
Prosecutor: Quite so. But I’m sure that such will be the case in the near future!
Mandon [turns to Judge, calmly]: Objection?
Judge: Sustained. The prosecutor will please remember that the prisoner is innocent until proven guilty. Such insinuations are singularly out of place.
Prosecutor: Yes, your honor.

Good god, I laughed. That’s brilliant. I even began to wonder if we were supposed to dislike the DA; if the movie wasn’t a bit subversive—attacking what it pretended to be upholding. The DA wasn’t the only one making insinuations during this period, after all. Production began in April 1950, just two months after Joseph McCarthy came to power with his charge that 205 known communists had infiltrated the State Department. Then there was the Hollywood blacklist, which began with HUAC in 1947—or even earlier, really, before the war, with the Dies Committee. Cagney himself was accused of having communist ties on the front page of The New York Times in August 1940. He was cleared six days later … on pg. 21. Sadly, no judge remonstrated his high-powered accusers. I have to wonder, too, about the casting of Ward Bond, the self-appointed right-wing cop for HUAC and the Motion Picture Alliance, as a corrupt cop. Inspector Weber claims to be doing good but he’s doing the opposite. As was Bond.

The trial is our framing device. Seven people—two cops, a prison guard, a garage mechanic, a lawyer, a driver and a blonde—are charged with murder or accessory to murder, and we’re made to understand that the eighth orchestrated it all but sadly isn’t there to face the music. Several take the stand and everything is in flashback. The guard begins, “Well, sir, I guess this all began about four months ago…” and we’re back at a chain gang/work farm, where Ralph Cotter (Cagney) and Carleton (Neville Brand) are planning an escape with a planted gun. But when the bullets start flying Carleton loses his nerve, and Cotter, with that Cagney sneer, kills him point blank.

Their accomplices include Carleton’s sister, Holiday (Barbara Payton), a tall blonde who is distraught when Cotter says her brother was killed “by the guards”; and “Jinx” Raynor, the driver, who quickly becomes Cotter’s right-hand man. Holiday becomes Cotter’s girl. That part is actually brutal to watch—even today. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the reason for the Ohio ban. 

It’s also a deviation from the novel. “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” by Horace McCoy was published in 1948 to much acclaim. Apparently Bogart wanted to make it into a movie but someone else bought they rights, and the Cagneys bought them from him. They changed a few things. There’s no framing device in the novel; it’s first-person and begins on the work farm. But the biggest change is to Holiday. In the book, she’s blonde and statuesque like Payton, but not exactly innocent. She’s bad, sexual and aggressive. It’s that Mickey Spillane fantasy. This is what happens in the novel on the day of the jailbreak—the day her brother is killed:

Holiday opened the door and I went inside. Before I had time to say anything, to look around, to even put down the newspaper I was carrying, she grabbed me around the neck, kicking the door shut with her foot, putting her face up to mine, baring her teeth. I kissed her, but not as hard as she kissed me, and then I saw that she was wearing only a light flannel wrapper, unbuttoned all the way down.

The movie makes her an innocent, and in doing so makes it all much, much worse. In the movie, Cotter insinuates himself into her apartment, refuses to leave, forces her to fix him a meal, then badmouths her brother. She throws a knife at him, which hits him handle side by the ear. (Her one bad-girl moment.) He shoots her a look, calmly walks over to the bathroom, dabs his ear with a wet towel, then whips her with it until she breaks down. Crying, she admits she’s lonely, so lonely, and succumbs to his power. It’s a Peckinpah moment before Peckinpah. For most of the rest of the movie, she’s basically his housewife without the ring. 

A grapefruit in the face seems like a lovetap compared to all this.

The Master before “The Master”
One thing that is in the novel? That New Age church. Screenwriter Harry Brown basically used McCoy’s stuff almost verbatim.

They got there this way. First, Cotter robs a supermarket, kills the owner, then gets into it with Vic Mason (an excellent Rhys Williams), the gimpy mechanic who provided the original getaway car. Mason is angry they chose a joint just a block from his garage and sics the crooked cops on Cotter. But when Cotter realizes Weber is an inspector, he hatches a plan to record him in the midst of the shakedown—Jinx in the closet with an actual recording disc, like an old-fashioned LP. For some reason, he figures he needs a mob lawyer for the actual blackmail attempt, which is why they go to Darius “Doc” Green (Frank Reicher), a former accomplice of Jinx’s, who can point them in the right direction.

Except by this point Doc is onto a bigger scam. Here’s the sign outside his house:

Inside, in a small, cramped room with signs proclaiming LOVE, TRUTH and an ALL-SEEING EYE, a few dozen people in folding chairs listen attentively to an older man, Doc Green, droning on from Plotinus’ letters to Flaccus. There’s also a pretty brunette there, Margaret Dobson (Helena Carter), who turns out to be the spoiled, slightly crazy daughter of the most powerful man in the state, and who later gives the men a lift in her British sportscar. She’s trying to convert them—especially Cotter. “It’s a philosophy,” she says of Doc Green’s sermons. “It goes into the fourth dimension.” Cotter, amused, says the following when she asks him to the next meeting:

“Oh, I’d be a very bad influence. My vibrations would be positively pointless. You see, I don’t hold with the theory that the fourth dimension is either philosophical or mathematical. I think it’s purely intuitional. I don’t mean to start an argument or sound pretentious, but that’s the way I feel about it.”

Again, this is in 1950. In the movie, she calls Green “The Doctor” but in the book it's “The Master.” Seriously, anyone know of earlier portrayals of New Age-type religions in the movies? I was so happy when I came across this. I love culling such gems in generally forgotten films.

The scene at Doc Green’s also includes another subtle anti-HUAC dig. Cotter and Jinx just want the name of a lawyer from Green but he’s recalcitrant; he feels he’s put all that behind him. They’re persistent. This is the novel:

Cotter: You don’t want to be bothered with us anymore, do you?
Green: No.
Cotter: Then think of somebody.

And in the movie during the blacklist:

Cotter: You don’t want to be bothered with us anymore, do you?
Green: No.
Cotter: Then give us a name.

Naming names. So in tune with the times.

Another shtunk
My feelings about “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” kept changing. It starts out ponderous and self-important—or, again, is it mocking such ponderous self-importance?—and the towel-whipping scene is way creepy. Then the machinations to blackmail Weber are involved and interesting. But does it lose itself? Cotter keeps pushing the envelope with everybody but there’s a lot of pots to stir: a secret marriage to Margaret against Mandon’s counsel; blackmailing Weber to take on a rival racketeer. At least it makes you wonder who’s going to finally get him. Crazy Margaret? Her powerful father? Inspector Weber? The rival racketeer? The cops catching up to him? Turns out it’s the all-but-forgotten Holiday—for his original crime of killing her brother. Watching, it felt like a let-down. In retrospect I kind of like it. Original sins catch up to us when we’re busy making other plans.

For his part, Cagney hated the film. From John McCabe’s 1991 biography:

“Guess what noble character I was called on to play? Another shtunk. I didn’t want to do it, but it was from a well-known novel by a hell of a good writer, Horace McCoy. In the novel the Cagney character is complex, interesting. He has a Phi Beta Kappa key, of all things, on top of which he was an ex-dancer. Not that you saw any of this in the picture. All the complex stuff was ironed out by the writer with the plea that there was no time for subtleties. He was probably right. Anyway, Bill said, ‘Jim, we need the dough, and it’s the last gangster I’ll ever ask you to play.’ He kept his word. I did play a few more rats after that, but no gangsters.”

The writer who had no time for subtleties was Harry Brown, who won an Oscar a year later for co-writing “A Place in the Sun” with Michael Wilson. Wilson was infamously blacklisted (and went uncredited on “Bridge Over the River Kwai”) but Brown kept working through the 1950s. Genre stuff, mostly: westerns, war. In the early ’60s he wrote “Ocean’s 11.” His life trajectory was basically: Maine, Harvard, Robert Lowell, poetry, 158-page epic poem called “The Poem of Bunker Hill,” Time, The New Yorker, WWII with Yank magazine (but unmentioned in Walter Bernstein’s memoir), then Hollywood. Not a bad run. But did he smuggle anti-HUAC messages into this gangster flick? The romantic in me likes to think so. 

The two female leads are both good-looking actresses with truncated careers. Helena Carter was a Columbia University fashion model discovered by Universal Pictures who never liked the roles she got. She only made 13 movies between 1947 to 1953, including “Invaders from Mars,” her last. She lived a long life. Payton was a Minnesota/Texas, who made 12 features between 1949 and 1955, including “Bride of the Gorilla,” with Raymond Burr; but she had a temptuous off-screen life. She had a string of lovers (Howard Hughes, Bob Hope, George Raft), became engaged to Franchot Tone, a leading man 20 years her senior, then began cheating on him with Tom Neal, a former boxer and B-movie star (“Detour”). One night, on her front lawn, Neal beat up Tone, breaking his nose and jaw. She wound up marrying Tone but kept seeing Neal until the inevitable divorce. That scandal basically ruined her career. Alcoholism and drug addiction didn't help; she died in 1967 at age 39. A biography of her life, with this movie's title in it, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story,” was published in 2007.

She’s the only one who says that line in the movie, by the way. Right before she shoot Cotter, she tells him, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” The line isn’t in the book; it’s just the title.

SLIDESHOW


  • Cagney a year after Cody: “It's the last gangster I‘ll ever ask you to play.”

  • Our ’30s gangster in a ‘50s supermarket in Glendale, Calif. 

  • “And now, would one fugitive from justice care to fix another fugitive from justice... a sandwich?”

  • The Peckinpah moment before Peckinpah.

  • Mason thinks he has the upper hand...

  • ... he doesn’t.

  • “Objection?” Great moment. Great actor.

  • The New Age faithful ... when they were actually new. 

  • The New Age faithful II: “It goes into the fourth dimenson.” 

  • The corrupt cop, trapped. Would that it happened to Ward Bond, too. 

  • “Kiss tomorrow goodbye!”  *FIN*
Posted at 07:59 AM on Thursday May 21, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Sunday April 05, 2020

Movie Review: The West Point Story (1950)

WARNING: SPOILERS

James Cagney starred in only four musicals during his career, and it’s instructive comparing the first, “Footlight Parade” (1933), with the last, this one, “The West Point Story” (1950), 17 years later. 

In both, Cagney is an impresario of musical numbers. He thinks them up and nurses them along. In both, the love interest is his straight-shooting blonde assistant (Joan Blondell, Virginia Mayo). Both are vehicles for up-and-coming Warner Bros. singing stars (Dick Powell/Ruby Keeler; Doris Day/Gordon MacRae). And in both, at the end, one of the leads can’t go on, so Cagney has to sing and dance the finale.

Those are the parallels. More interesting are the differences.

In “Footlight,” Cagney’s character is surrounded by scantily-clad chorus girls as the movie sells sex in the midst of the Depression. In “West Point,” Cagney’s character is surrounded by buttoned-up military men as the movie sells patriotism in the midst of the Cold War. The first movie is rat-a-tat-tat and scrambling; it’s gritty Warner Bros. The last is self-satisfied and cartoonish; it’s absurdly cheery and totally phony. You watch both and can’t help but wonder what happened to Warner Bros., the film industry, and us.

Many dilemmas
Elwin “Bix” Bixby (Cagney) is an exacting dancer/choreographer/director who’s making a go in a small club in New York. We see him hopping up and down angrily when his performers don’t do the routine just so. Then he shows them how. Then he leaves to place a bet on the horses. He’s got a gambling addiction. That’s the first dilemma.

His girl, the leggy Eve Dillon (Virginia Mayo), is going to leave him because of it; she says she got an offer to perform in Vegas. But then Bix gets a call from Harry Eberthart (Roland Winters), his corrupt ex-partner, who wants Bix to direct West Point’s annual musical, “100 Days Till June.” Why? It seems his nephew, Tom Fletcher (Gordon MacRae, five years before playing Curly in “Oklahoma”), is the star of the show. He’s a cadet who wants a military career but his uncle thinks he’s got a voice and wants him for Broadway. At first, Bix stands his ground. “I will not steal your nephew out of West Point,” he says in the Cagney manner. But then Eberhart mentions the Vegas offer for Eve—which he orchestrated—and Bix knows he’s trapped. He seals the deal not with a handshake but a sock to Eberhart’s jaw. It’s accompanied by comic sound effects. Eberhart rises, dazed, from behind his desk. All that’s missing are the animated birds circling his head.

That’s the second dilemma: Going to West Point to convince Tom to make a career out of singing.

Good news? Tom’s got a voice. Bad news? There are no women in the show, so the princess is played by the biggest of the bunch, Bull Gilbert (Alan Hale, Jr., 14 years before becoming the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”). Bix tries to show him how to do his dance number, Bull gives him a wolf’s whistle as a joke, and Bix cold-cocks him. Cue more comic sound effects.

For that, Bix is about to get booted from the Point before the job even begins. I guess that’s the third dilemma. The boys stick up for him but the commandant is wary. Bix’s own military record includes both absurd insubordination and absurd bravery. But a deal is struck. Bix can stay if he becomes a cadet himself.

That’s actually the germ of the idea that led to this movie being made in the first place. From John McCabe’s biography of Cagney:

[Cagney] recalled that his idol George M. Cohan, in preparing for a scene in one of his musicals, had inveigled West Point’s superintendent into allowing him to live as a cadet on the premises for a week.

So Bix gets a high-and-tight but remains the same short-tempered curmudgeon. Except now he wants to steal Tom for himself. In that regard, he gets in touch with his friend, movie star Jan Wilson (Doris Day, third-billed), whom he plucked from the chorus back in the day. She agrees to go to a military hop as Tom’s date. And it works! They fall for each other.

Except Eve finds out about Bix’s machinations and is ready to leave him again. Is this the fourth dilemma? Or is it when Bix loses the respect of the men because he lies about having a pass? This latter problem is solved when he admits to the lie and is forced to walk a punishment tour in the quad—filmed against a blue screen; the principles were never at West Point—but oddly it also solves the former problem. Tom explains to Eve what’s going on and Eve blows Bix a kiss and all is forgiven even though Bix is still trying to become Tom’s agent.

In fact, Tom and Jan get engaged! But instead of Tom agreeing to follow Eve to Hollywood, Eve follows Tom to West Point. So Bix finagles a way to get the studio to drop the hammer on her. That works, and Tom resigns his commission, but by now Bix doesn’t want to be Tom's agent, so … Blah blah blah. It’s like this, one dilemma after another, many of Bix’s own making, and it culminates with Bix convincing the French premier to pardon Tom by showing him the Medaille Militaire Bix was awarded in World War II. “This is our highest decoration!” the premier says, in case we haven’t figured it out.

So the West Point show goes on—with movie star Jan now playing the princess, and Bix replacing Hal (Gene Nelson, “Oklahoma”), whom he inadvertently coldcocks backstage. Tom and Jan wind up together (but pursuing separate careers?), Bix and Eve wind up together, and the boys present Bix with the book and libretto of the show so he can stage it on Broadway. The end. Mercifully.

Great guardians of human liberty
“West Point” was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who directed Cagney in four movies between 1931 and 1934: “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi,” “Winner Take All” and “Lady Killer.” The first two aren’t bad, and even the bad ones are worth watching for Cagney. Not here. Cagney actually hurts more than helps. He overacts, particularly with the on-stage temper tantrums, and seems in danger of becoming a parody of himself: more Frank Gorshin than Rocky Sullivan.

MacRae is good, if a bit blank, while Day is saccharine enough to make your teeth hurt. Hale is fine. (Did Cagney act with other father-son combos? Hale Sr. appeared in several early ’40s Cagney flicks.) Mayo is fine, too, but she’s way too young for Cagney, who’s an old 51. He’s 17 years older than in “Footlight Parade,” and looks it, while she’s basically the same age as Blondell: 30 instead of 27. 

The pre-code titillation of “Footlight” is sadly absent. Eve shows up at West Point in short shorts with legs up to here and not one cadet gives a second glance? Or a first? The camera in “Footlight” knows what it’s offering us as chorus girls change into their Busby Berkeley outfits, but this camera is as dumb as the cadets. It’s Sgt. Schultz: It knows nothing. Nothing.

But it knows everything about chest-beating patriotism. MacRae is forced to do a number called “The Corps,” which he mostly intones, as a military chorus hums and thrums behind him:

Duty. Honor. Country. This is why the dream materialized into the stone and steel and spirit that is West Point. A dream that can be measured by the names of its giants striding through the pages of American history. Giants whose voices rang so loud that the entire world trembled, yet who were once cadets, marching nervously across the plain. Cadets like Lee, Grant, Pershing; MacArthur, Wainwright, Arnold; Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower. And thousands of others, who left this point on the Hudson to end their earthly lives in the dirt and mud of foreign lands.

That’s laying it on a bit thick. But whatever. Depression, World War II, communist rise: Americans had been through a lot. So I guess … Oh, he’s not done?

Men who didn’t want wars and didn’t make wars but simply fought them because they had the understanding and the courage to want a free America. 

“A free America”: That should be enough for HUAC, right? To show that Hollywood is patriotic and … What? More?

Because like Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, they believed in a dream that is West Point. A legend, a tradition, one of the great guardians of human liberty.

“Guardians of human liberty”! There we go. That’s the trump card. And … nope: 

Please, God, may we always keep faith with them, as they have with us. For duty, for honor, for country. 

Can you imagine a culture so scared and cloistered that this passes for entertainment?

Cagney liked it anyway. Via McCabe:

“It’s one of my favorite pictures,” said Jim. “Cornball as all hell, but don’t let anyone tell me those songs by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn aren’t worth listening to. They were sure worth dancing to.”

A year later, Del Ruth would direct a musical, “Starlift,” with a similar theme—military dude + Hollywood star—and with almost all the same actors: Day, MacRae, Mayo and Nelson. Just not Cagney. Or he was relegated to a cameo. As himself.

Watch “Footlight Parade” instead.

Cold War America: cheery, buttoned-up, sexless.

Posted at 09:06 AM on Sunday April 05, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Monday May 14, 2018

Movie Review: Cet homme est dangereux (1953)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Cet homme est dangereux” is a French B-movie based on a British novel about an American tough guy. Expect dislocation.

Example: The movie opens on a closeup of an actor dressed as an American cop laying out in APB fashion how American gangster Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) escaped from Oklahoma State Prison, and was “last seen heading east.”

Where is he in the next scene?  Marseilles. So, yeah, “east.”

All of this is done both on the cheap (just a closeup) and intriguingly (great lighting). You can immediately sense the talent.

Cet homme est dangereux movie reviewI first heard of  “Cet homme” when it was praised by Betrand Tavernier in the documentary “My Journey Through French Cinema,” and it’s pretty good for what it is. It’s noirish, with nice, tough-guy snatches of dialogue. But it’s got a plot that’s tough to unpack.

Avant Godard
First, the dialogue.

Early on, before we really know Lemmy, a woman on a boat tells him, “I’m sick,” and this is his response: “Don’t worry. You suffer because you’re alive.” Lemmy may be American, but he speaks the French ennui. Later, he even gets meta. He rescues a dim-bulb American heiress, Miranda Van Zelten (Claude Borelli), and as they drive along Marseille’s coast, she starts talking in English. “Speak French!” he admonishes. “People don’t get subtitles here.”

Another woman, Constance (Colette Deréal), pulls up at his hotel, pretends like they know each other, and invites him back to her place for a whiskey. He hesitates.

She: Are you afraid of me?
He (getting in): No. The whiskey.

Dialogue like that just makes me happy. It can sustain me through a week of my own ennui.

As for the tough-to-unpack plot? I’ll say right off that Lemmy isn’t a gangster but an undercover G-man. The target (from the get go?) is French mob boss named Siegella (Grégiure Aslan), who is apparently in the process of kidnapping the heiress, Miranda, when Lemmy shows up on the boat to rescue her. He also finds a dead man in a state room (another G man?) and it pisses him off. He’s so pissed off he kills one of the gangsters, Goyaz, in cold blood and throws him overboard. So not exactly Elliott Ness.

Not sure if there was an original plan involving the stateroom guy but the new plan is to become reluctant partners with Siegella in kidnapping Miranda. So he can get evidence? And put Siegella away? I guess. But he seems to have enough of it fairly early and just keeps going.

It’s really one of those “Nobody trusts anybody” movies. Siegella doesn’t trust Lemmy—not because he thinks he’s a fed but because he’s an uncontrollable element. Lemmy doesn’t trust the women buzzing around him—and shouldn’t. Constance works for Siegella, which we find out soon enough, as does Miranda’s secretary, Susanne (Véra Norman). Another woman, an angry blonde named Dora (Jacquelline Pierreux), turns out to be Goyaz’s lover seeking revenge. She suspects Lemmy but teams up with him, and winds up being killed by Siegella. She is who she says she is; as is Miranda.

At one point, after Siegella and Lemmy agree to work together, Siegella wakes to find both Miranda and Lemmy gone. Traitors! But Lemmy isn’t gone; he’s checking in on Miranda himself, finds her gone, and suspects Siegella. Good bit. Eventually he figures it out: Miranda just flew to Paris for a haute couture fashion show—as heiresses do.

Lemmy uses Miranda as bait but it backfires. He takes her to a country estate, run by Siegella, and lets her play cards while he pretends to succumb to whiskey. For all his smarts and running around: 1) Dora winds up dead, 2) Miranda winds up kidnapped, and 3) Lemmy winds up in a shoot-out with two of Siegella’s men.

In the real world, that would’ve been the end of it: Siegella no longer needs Lemmy, n’est-ce pas? Except all of a sudden Lemmy has a satchel full of Siegalla’s vital intel. It's just there to keep the dishes spinning. So Lemmy, backed by the cops, returns to rescue Miranda, but the cops lose him en route and he’s on his own. He’s caught, tied to a bed, and the room is set on fire. He escapes, of course. The final battle takes place in a country garage. While Lemmy and Siegella duke it out, Miranda and Constance take turns dousing each other with a firehose. Where are the rest of Siegella’s men? Who knows? Hardly matters. After Lemmy chokes the life out of Siegella, and after Constance is properly wetted down, the cops finally arrive and we get our end. 

Apres le firehose
What sells the movie are the visuals. It’s directed by Jean Sacha, who edited under both Max Ophuls and Orson Welles but only directed six feature-length films; this is the third. The cinematographer is Marcel Weiss, who worked under Bresson and has 37 DP credits. This is his seventh.

They work well together:


  • Here's our hero about to light a cigarette. 

  • Does he know he's being spied on? 

  • Oui. 

  • This is Dora. We see what she sees. 

  • This is Constance. We see what Lemmy is about to see. 

  • See? 

  • Love this one: Before the pullback. 

  • Et apres.

  • Not a bad spot for the penultimate battle. 

  • Lemmy finally caught. 

  • And the villains celebrate in French fashion. 

  • Constance again, before the dousing. *FIN*

“Cet homme” was the second Eddie Constantine/Lemmy Caution film. There would be nearly a dozen more, including the celebrated “Alphaville,” directed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1965. Constantine last portrayed him in 1991: “Germany Year Nine Zero,” also directed by Godard, which is described as “a post-modern film about Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.” So a long way from the firehoses.

Posted at 05:31 AM on Monday May 14, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  

Monday February 01, 2016

Movie Review: Big Jim McLain (1952)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Big Jim McLain” is a fascinating cultural artifact. It’s the first movie from John Wayne’s independent company (eventually: Batjac Productions), and it’s apparently the only Hollywood movie that turns members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—which was, at the time, ruining Hollywood lives—into heroes.

A little background before I get to the greater irony. HUAC’s original reason for investigating Hollywood was as follows: 1) The film industry was crawling with commies, who were 2) injecting red propaganda into mainstream American movies and warping American minds. But while HUAC had some examples of 1), it was never very good at proving 2). In 1947, for example, it called Ayn Rand, a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (like Wayne), to testify, and she tagged the World War II-era “Song of Russia” as propaganda. The Russians in it, she said, were smiling, and Russians never smile. “Pretty much no,” she said when questioned. “If they do, it is privately and accidentally.”

As a result, during the second round of Hollywood hearings that began in 1951, HUAC pretty much dropped 2) and focused on 1). Basically: Betray your friends or end your career. Or both, in the case of Larry Parks.

Big Jim McLain

Go get 'em.

Here’s the awful irony: While HUAC had trouble proving left-wing propaganda in Hollywood movies, preview audiences had no trouble at all distinguishing the right-wing kind in “Big Jim McLain.” Among the preview comments, as recounted in Scott Eyman’s biography, “John Wayne: The Life and Legend”:

  • “Good in spots, except for the too, too obvious propaganda (and I am NOT a Commie).”
  • “[Stephen Vincent] Benet would turn over in his grave the way he was quoted.”
  • “One wonders about the future of this country when this sort of tripe passes for Americanism.”

The movie presents HUAC as surprisingly toothless. (All the better, I suppose, to show us the need for a stronger HUAC.) It opens with a left-wing professor taking the fifth before the committee while investigator McLain (Wayne) and his sidekick Mal Baxter (James Arness) seethe on the sidelines. Here’s Wayne’s voiceover:

Eleven frustrating months we rang doorbells and shoveled through a million pages of dull documents, and proved to any intelligent person that these people were communists, agents of the Kremlin; and they all walk out free.

Yes, that’s what happens. The witness is excused and Wayne claims that Dr. Carter will return to his “well-paid chair as a full professor of economics at the university—to contaminate more kids.” Instead of, you know, having his life completely upended. Or winding up in jail. (See: Hollywood Ten.)

Wayne’s voiceover, believe it or not, is actually the third voiceover in the film. And at the three-minute mark. That’s how disorganized this thing is.

The first voiceover (Harry Morgan) is the folksy, cornball kind. It talks up Daniel (or “Dan’l”) Webster, and suggests you can summon him from his grave by calling his name:

And sometimes the ground will shake and he’ll respond, “Neighbor, how stands the union?” And you’d better answer the union stands as she stood: oak-bottomed and copper-sheathed! One and indivisible! Or he’s liable to rear right out of the ground!

Then we get a bland, bureaucratic voice to talk up HUAC’s good works:

We, the citizens of the United States of America, owe these, our elected representatives, a great debt. Undaunted by the vicious campaign of slander launched against them as a whole and as individuals, they have staunchly continued their investigation, pursuing their stated beliefs: that anyone who continued to be a communist after 1945 is guilty of high treason.

Then we get the rest of this horseshit movie.

Vasquez! Cohen!
McLain and Baxter (who, like a lot of Wayne’s 1950s sidekicks, is a hothead, to better highlight Wayne’s cool one), fly to Hawaii to ferret out a Soviet cell there. The ringleader is named Sturak, and he’s played by Alan Napier, who would later play Alfred, Bruce Wayne’s butler, in the 1960s camp classic “Batman.”

What’s the commie plan? To “create a paralysis of island shipping and communications.” Who’s a commie? Eggheads mostly: a doctor, a labor lawyer, a bacteriologist, a rising star in the labor union. One guy, who looks like a bruiser but has a glass jaw when fighting McLain, claims to be a country club type, and condemns “white trash and niggers.” Back then, you see, commies played up our “Negro problem,” and this was Wayne’s way of showing that they, and not Strom Thurmond, were the true racists. Our open-mindedness, in fact, is on display in the end, when smiling soldiers report to duty as Wayne, and his fiancée, Nancy (Nancy Olson), stand at attention nearby. Here are the names:

  • Shulman!
  • Donahue! (black)
  • Vasquez!
  • Cohen!
  • Pratt! (black)
  • St. John! (Asian)

For a non-military movie, we get a lot of homages to the military. In Hawaii, McLain and Baxter first stop at the final resting place of the U.S.S. Arizona. The soldiers aboard, Wayne tells us, “have been there since Sunday ... Sunday, December 7, 1941.” The date that will live in infamy. And the one that propelled Wayne to join the military. Kidding. Wayne fought World War II from a Hollywood backlot. He became a star.

The plot is thin. McLain and Baxter hand out subpoenas, then get on the trail of Willie Namaka, a member of the party who’s been acting erratically, and who may be ready to talk. Early obvious clues as to commie headquarters (the Okole Maluna Club) are saved for the final reel. Nothing is smartly pursued except Nancy, by Big Jim, and she’s easily caught. You could argue that McLain, for a staunch capitalist, has a pretty lousy work ethic. Just as he and Baxter are on what seems to be a trail, his voiceover interrupts: “The weekdays were real dull. But not the weekends!” Then we get a travelogue of Hawaii: sailing, dinner and dancing.

Two extended comic relief sections go nowhere: a nutjob fellow traveler (Hans Conreid) claims to have met Stalin; and a brassy blonde (Veda Ann Borg) all but blackmails Big Jim into taking her out to dinner before handing over intel about Namaka. Everyone talks up Wayne’s size. He’s 6’4” we’re told numerous times; the blonde even calls him “76,” with its double meaning: inches and “spirit of.” That’s “a lot of man,” she adds. Arness, about the same size, and broader of shoulder, gets bupkis. No, that’s not true. He gets killed. Wayne fights on alone. Because that’s the Hollywood way. 

Riding into the sunset
In the end, after McLain saves the day, we get a replay of the opening HUAC hearing in which the commies, including Sturak, plead the fifth and then walk away. Later, McLain has the following conversation with Honolulu’s Chief of Police Dan Liu, played with the expected stiffness by Honolulu’s Chief of Police Dan Liu:

Liu: I wonder how Mal would’ve felt about this fifth amendment.
McLain: He died for it. There are a lot of wonderful things written into our constitution that were meant for honest, decent citizens, and I resent the fact that it can be used and abused by the very people that want to destroy it.

“Big Jim McLain” is a low-budget affair, a B movie with an A actor; but its suggestion that HUAC was an upright but surprisingly toothless organization whose hands were tied once the suspect decided to plead the fifth, and that it, and not the accused, were the victims of “vicious slander,” is beyond insulting.

Nobody seems to get it. For most of its history, Hollywood movies have been unintended propaganda for the right. They’re neocon bedtime stories, tales of good vs. evil, in which good (generally white) triumphs over evil (generally not), and often with a gun. The whole thing is a century-long ad for the NRA. And at the height of Hollywood’s powers, when this absolutist, All-American message was being broadcast around the world, dominating the global film industry in a way that few American enterprises ever dominated their industries, HUAC attacked, and damaged, this Hollywood brand. It accused a successful capitalist enterprise of communist sympathies, and hurt its bottom line in the name of capitalism. Then it rode off into the sunset not knowing how stupid it was. But it left behind this movie to remind us.

HUAC sign from John Wayne's Big Jim McLain

UnAmericans this way.

Posted at 07:24 AM on Monday February 01, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s   |   Permalink  
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