Movie Reviews - 1940s postsMonday November 12, 2018
Movie Review: The Phantom (1943)
I never dug the Phantom. None of my comic book-buying buddies did. Probably because he wasn’t a comic book guy but a comic strip guy—born in those pages in 1936, two years before Action Comics #1 introduced Superman to the world. After I began collecting in 1973, I recall being vaguely intrigued by the Phantom’s daily strip, since, at the time, he was as close to a superhero as you could find in the funnies. But no, he was boring. I kept waiting for him to do something super. I kept waiting for him to return from the jungle until I realized, “Oh, he’s supposed to be there.” He was what we now call a transitional superhero: mask and skintight suit, yes, but everything else spoke to boys adventure stories of the 1910s: the jungle, “magic,” signet rings, subservient natives, a German Shepherd sidekick. He was your grandfather’s superhero and creaked like it.
The 1943 Columbia serial, “The Phantom,” is that turned up to 11.
It’s a movie serial so it’s going to be cut-rate and clumsy; and it’s set in the jungle (Africa, South America, we’re never sure), so it comes loaded with the usual racial landmines. The filmmakers manage to trip them all:
- Natives kowtowing before a white man (our hero), who is proclaimed a god
- Flabby white dudes, wearing leopard-skin diapers, playing the natives
- Flabby white dudes saying things like “Boola boola cahoola” and “Ubba gonga tonga” as examples of the native language
This last is like what “Gilligan’s Island” would be two decades later. I also got a whiff of “Star Wars.” At the end of Chapter 10, “Chamber of Death,” the Phantom falls through a trap door and into a pit, where a metal panel opens revealing ... a rancor! Kidding, it’s a tiger. But it’s still very much like Luke in Jabba’s lair in “Return of the Jedi.” Yet another reminder that these things hugely influenced filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who hugely influenced everything else. “The Phantom” and other serials are like the ur-texts of what’s playing at your local multiplex.
Boola boola cahoola.
That old cistern
What’s the story here? Glad you asked!
Prof. Davidson (Frank Shannon) and his team, including his spunky niece Diana Palmer (Jeanne Bates), arrive in the town of Sai Pana, on the edge of the jungle, hoping to find the fabled “Lost City of Zoloz” and its various riches.
Meanwhile, a gang of thugs, led by Dr. Max Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), needs the area to construct a landing strip in the jungle—for war, one imagines, but the why is never stated—so they try to throw the Professor’s team off the scent. Then they try to keep everyone out of the jungle by riling up the natives. Best way to do that? Kill the Phantom.
The Phantom, you see, is the reason there’s any peace in the jungle at all. He demands it. And he’s revered and kotowed to as a god because he can’t be killed. He’s “The Man Who Never Dies” and “The Ghost Who Walks.” But it’s a trick; he’s just been played by different men through the years—20, as the serial opens.
The first Phantom we see is played by actor Sam Flint, born in 1882, who looks every bit of his 61 years. (I was reminded of Alfred dressing up as Batman in the ’66 TV series.) Thankfully, as he makes an appearance before the natives, sitting in a rising stone throne behind a smokescreen, he’s shot by a poisoned dart blown from one of Bremmer’s men. He knows he’s a goner so sends word to his son, Geoffrey Prescott (Tom Tyler), to take over. Geoffrey, who just happens to be part of Prof. Davidson’s team, arrives just in time to get Phantom 101 lessons and meet the natives on their side: Suba and Moku.
There’s also a treasure in jewels and gold, “a tomb of your ancestors,” an oath, and a signet ring. Like any boys club. Then, when Phantom XX dies, our newer younger version rises in the stone throne behind a smokescreen to make his proclamations.
My thoughts at this point:
- Why wasn’t he trained in sooner? Seems a bit last minute.
- Why a skintight purple suit and black mask? That’s not really ghostly. Nor good camouflage. Not to mention breathable. He is in the jungle, after all.
- Why do Suba and Moku go along with the ruse?
- How come, when the new Phantom emerges, no one says, “Hey, doesn’t he look 30 years younger to you?”
Bigger point: Our hero is someone who uses literal smokescreens to trick the natives. “There’s nothing that so sways the native mind as a few simple tricks and illusions,” Phantom XX tells him. That’s our hero. Did they know back then how bad this sounded? One wonders. In episode 9, the Phantom tells Diana about the ancient legend of the Fire Princess: How she arrived, helped them rule, then disappeared with a promise to return.
Diana: But surely you don’t believe that legend.
Phantom: Heh. Of course not. But the natives do. That’s why whoever calls herself the Fire Princess now can take advantage of them.
Uh, dude? You’re basically describing you. It’s one of the better examples of projection I’ve seen from a so-called hero. One wonders if it wasn’t a wink from the screenwriters.
Speaking of: I expected them to use the “man who never dies,” conceit more than they do. The problem with superheroes and serials is that each chapter has to end with a cliffhanger, and it’s absurd that: 1) the superhero gets into so much trouble, and 2) keeps surviving. “The man who never dies” conceit, at the least, gives a plausible explanation to the other characters for that survival. Except they never use it. Instead we get:
Rocco: Great news, Chief! We knocked over the Phantom!
Bremmer: The Phantom? But Long and Chris told me they took care of him at Rusty’s shack.
Rocco: Well, we’re not responsible for what they say.
Flunky: Hey Doc! We sure got the Phantom in a pocket. He’s trapped in that dead-end tunnel.
Bremmer: I thought he’d drowned in that old cistern.
Flunky: He must’ve gotten out of that somehow, but he’s a sure goner now.
I think at one point Bremmer does wonder if maybe there’s something to “The Man Who Never Dies” legend, but it should’ve been integral throughout the serial. Missed opportunity.
(Sidenote: Daka, the Japanese villain in “Batman,” another Columbia serial from 1943, assumes with Batman what’s actually true with the Phantom. Since Batman keeps surviving, he decides there must be many Batmen, “all members of the same organization,” and if one goes down another takes his place. Probably no coincidence that the serials share two screenwriters: Victor McLeod and Leslie Swabacker.)
For those who care, these are the cliffhangers/escapes:
- The Phantom is stuck in a swamp with an alligator approaching ... but Devil, his German Shepherd, chases the alligator away then pulls Phantom out.
- A lion attacks him ... but is killed by a native’s spear.
- A grenade blows up a hut ... but Phantom had escaped beforehand.
- He’s being gassed to death ... but Devil warns his friend, Rusty, who pulls him to safety
- A rope bridge breaks ... but he survives the fall.
- A booby trapped is rigged ... but Devil saves him.
- The bad guys collapse a well ... but Phantom crawls through a tunnel.
- He falls into a canyon and there’s an explosion ... but survives.
- He seems to succumb to fire-dance flames ... but is pulled to safety by Moku and Devil.
- He falls into a pit and a tiger is released ... so he lights a flare and escapes through the tunnel the tiger emerged from.
- A metal gate portal is brought down ... but he rolls to safety.
- In a pit, he’s forced to fight an ape ... and kills it.
- In a cistern, water is dumped on him ... but he survives.
- An explosion in a cavern ... doesn’t kill him.
How does he survive? Either somebody helps, he did something beforehand we weren’t shown, or he just shakes it off. The best escape is really from the tiger. At least that involved some ingenuity.
Devil (played by Ace the Wonder Dog) is an interesting addition—he certainly beats the boy sidekick—but it creates an added absurdity. He wasn’t Phantom XX’s dog but Geoffrey Prescott’s. I.e., there’s Geoffrey with Devil; then Geoffrey disappears and Devil is suddenly the Phantom’s dog. In Chapter 8, “In Quest of the Keys,” Diana, who’s been wondering over the disappearance of Geoffrey, calls the Phantom on this. She asks: Why do you have Geoffrey’s dog? “I found him wandering in the forest,” he responds.
‘Bring sparkling burgundy!’
Tyler, who also played the first live-action superhero ever (Captain Marvel in 1941), is a good fit for the role. He’s strong-looking, athletic, and dull. As dull as I remember the Phantom being.
This is one of the serials in which we know the villain from the get-go and our hero doesn’t; so we wait for him to catch up. We wait 15 chapters—300 minutes. The villain is good in the sense that he’s infuriating—a liar and a scoundrel—and we can’t wait for the moment of comeuppance. So guess what they do?
They handle it off-screen.
For like the 10th time, Bremmer assumes the Phantom is dead, so he concocts a not-bad scheme to control the natives: He has one of his henchman dress as the Phantom. They do the whole nine yards: smokescreen, stone throne, but now phony Phantom just stands there; it’s Bremmer who does the talking. He’s in the midst of this when one of the natives, the long problematic Chief Chota (Stanley Price), takes this moment to reenact what the bad guys did in the first episode: He shoots a dart at the (phony) Phantom, who goes down. Chota is killed, and then there’s more smoke. When it clears, the real Phantom is standing there with .... Bremmer dead.
How does he die? Who knows? What of the fake Phantom? Got me. But that’s it. Not much of a payoff after five hours of drivel.
Oh, and the treasure from the lost city of Zoloz? The Phantom has it. He’s always had it.
There are many absurdities—snow-capped mountains in chapter 8, for example—but my favorite is the sideplot to the Genghis Khan-like castle of Tartar (Dick Curtis). It’s like the screenwriters ran out of ideas and so went the Khan route. At one point, impressed by the Phantom’s survival skills, Tartar calls for a celebration. “Bring sparkling burgundy!” he cries.
More lines like that might’ve made “The Phantom” worth watching.
Movie Review: All Through the Night (1942)
By now, it’s more historical/cultural curiosity than anything—a battle between Damon Runyonesque gamblers (led by Humphrey Bogart) and a Nazi fifth column in New York City (led by Conrad Veidt) that’s so light-hearted I assumed it was filmed before we entered World War II. Nope. It was rushed into production after Pearl Harbor, then rushed into theaters a month later.
I watched it because I’m reading Noah Isenberg’s book on the making of “Casablanca,” and he brings up some of the similarities between the two movies. In both, Bogie starts out neutral, then becomes committed; Veidt plays the villain, while Peter Lorre scurries along the edges. Otherwise, there’s no comparison. “Casablanca” is a great movie and this one isn’t. But it’s got, as I said, cultural curiosities.
Bogie’s men, for example, are played by future ‘50s/‘60s sitcom staples: William Demerest, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason. Quite the trio. Gleason is the least funny of the lot and has the least to do. Silvers has a good bit where, during a fight, to confirm his opponents are Nazis, he shouts “Heil” at them, and if they respond in kind he clobbers them. Demerest, with the most screen time, is essentially playing the ever-crabby Uncle Charlie character he made memorable in “My Three Sons”: a gambler ironically called Sunshine. At one point, in the dark, Bogie asks, “That you, Sunshine?” He responds: “If it ain't, I've been doing a lot of suffering for the wrong party.”
We also get references to Flash Gordon, Joe DiMaggio, and practically every street in Manhattan. Best of all? Superman. Specifically the radio series, “The Adventures of Superman,” which had begun just two years earlier, on Feb. 12, 1940. Bogie is trying to convince a recalcitrant cop, Forbes (James Burke), that the Nazi hideout is in the auction house he says it is. As they enter the place, we get this conversation:
Bogie: The main office is right down this hall. This’ll open up your eyes.
Forbes: You’re scaring me. Sounds like the next installment of “Superman.” My kids will enjoy this.
I’m curious if Superman was mentioned in the movies before this. Besides via Max Fleischer, of course.
Historically, it’s interesting to see what we knew and didn’t. The femme fatale in the movie is Leda Hamilton (an uninspired Kaaren Verne), who collaborates because the Nazis have kidnapped her father and placed him in a concentration camp. A place called Dachau. So we knew about Dachau; we just didn’t know “concentration” was the wrong word—as evidenced by the fact that the movie has her father dying there “of natural causes.”
The rest is a tangle. A local baker, Miller, whose cheesecake Bogie’s character, “Gloves” Donahue, likes, is murdered. Leda shows up, they track her to a nightclub where she sings two songs, including the title number, and Bogie, enamored, tries to make his moves despite the pesky presence of the murderous Pepi (Lorre). After Bogie leaves, an argument backstage leads to another murder. When Bogie examines the body, he leaves one of his gloves behind, so he’s fingered for the crime. No pun intended.
With his men, including an overacting Barney (Frank McHugh), who should be on his honeymoon, Bogie leaps into the investigation himself. At a toy warehouse, Sunshine goes missing; at the auction house next door, Bogie is betrayed by Leda. But our heroes reunite, discover the Nazi connection, and escape with Leda, who's now on their side. There’s a chase in Central Park. Then to the cops? I forget. Basically it’s into and out of trouble for the whole long night, until Bogie and his men show up at a fifth column meeting, where the junior Nazis plan to blow up an American battleship. Our Broadway gamblers break up the ring and thwart the plan. Proving the old adage: “Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”
In the end, we get a clever call to arms:
Leda: [to reporters] I feel it's about time someone knocked the Axis back on its heels.
Gloves: Excuse me, baby. What she means is it’s about time someone knocked those heels back on their axis.
Except the movie doesn’t end there. In keeping with the jokey tone, it ends with Bogie’s mom (Jane Darwell), who began the whole thing with her “feeling” that something was wrong, reiterating that line. “I’ve got a feeling, son.”
It was January 1942. Nazis wouldn’t be this funny again until “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Movie Review: The Green Hornet (1940)
Is there a better example of white privilege in the superhero world than the Green Hornet?
He’s got a superfast car ... that Kato built. He’s a got a gas gun ... that Kato invented. He’s got a mask ... that Kato made. What does the Hornet do exactly to earn top billing? Is he good in a fight? Well, at one point we see him trade blows with a 50-year-old dry cleaner, so not really. It’s Kato who has the moves. In one of the earliest depictions of Asian martial arts in Hollywood movies, he sneaks up behind guys, and, with one swift, silent blow, karate-chops them into unconsciousness. It’s so swift it almost feels like a forerunner to (or inspiration for?) Spock’s Vulcan neck pinch.
Each evening, Kato (Seattle’s own Keye Luke) is there to help Britt Reid (Gordon Jones) on with his trenchcoat, mask and hat; then he drives him to the scene of a crime. After the cliffhanger, he’s there with the car to speed the Hornet from inquiry and prison. He’s the gentleman handler of an incompetent.
Did no one see this disparity back then? Were we all that blind?
Not the brightest bulb
The Green Hornet was born on the radio. In 1932, George W. Trendle, a rapacious lawyer, was searching for content for his radio station WXYZ in Detroit, and he thought a cowboy version of Robin Hood/Zorro would work well for Depression-era audiences; so with Fran Striker, a prolific freelance writer, he created The Lone Ranger. The Hornet is their 1936 update—the Ranger, but in a modern, urban setting:
- Tonto --> Kato
- Silver --> The Black Beauty
- Revolver--> gas gun
- The William Tell Overture --> The Flight of the Bumblebee
Instead of leaving behind a silver bullet, the Green Hornet’s calling card is a button reading “The Green Hornet.” (Not clever, but a must-have, I’m sure, for kids in the fan clubs.) Oh, and instead of the hero being thought of as a hero, or even a vigilante, he’s considered just another racketeer by the people in the city.
Battling rackets is actually perfect for the serial form. It allows for progress within the stasis necessary to keep the serial going. The big boss doesn’t get his until the final chapter, but with each episode, and each racket ended, the Hornet gets a little closer.
But it works oddly here. At the beginning of most chapters, in Reid’s office at The Daily Sentinel, someone—the police commissioner, reporter Jasper Jenks (Phillip Trent), Reid’s own bodyguard Mike Axford (played with an over-the-top brogue and vaudevillian befuddlement by Wade Boteler)—will inform him of a racket in town: shoddy equipment at a mine; insurance scam at a flying school; car thieves at a parking lot. And invariably Reid dismisses the idea in either a high-handed or a jokey/fratboy manner:
Mike: I just made an important discovery!
Reid: Don’t tell me you solved perpetual motion!
Mike: No, I ... [saddened] No, it’s about the Mortensen place over at the Westwood Pike.
Reid (still joking): Is it haunted?
This is from Chapter 6, “Highways of Peril,” and it’s not hard for viewers to connect the dots:
- Hey, the Mortensen place is where the syndicate has operated in the past, and...
- Mike says it’s been taken over by the Blue Streak Bus Co., which...
- A rival bus operator has just told Reid is trying to run him out of business!
But it takes further cajoling before Reid finally, sourly relents: “Alright, alright, put Lowry on the story.” Is this obstinacy an act? The way Clark Kent’s meekness is an act? I could never figure it out. Worse, Reid often investigates things himself in a hamhanded manner: He rides one of the buses that’s breaking down; he takes off in one of the airplanes that crashes; his own car gets stolen from a parking lot.
In the very first chapter, after Reid refuses to take a public stand against the rackets, we see, via stock footage, a local dam burst, which is tied to faulty construction. “I tried to give you that story the other day!” Jenks cries. In a later chapter, an old friend of Reid’s phones him with news about a racket in the transportation biz; then he’s cut off, and found dead. Jenks offhandedly refers to his friend’s company as “the Jinx company” because of all of its recent accidents, and Reid expresses surprise. Jenks: “Ever read your own paper?”
You get the feeling that if Britt Reid were simply a better editor, the Green Hornet wouldn’t be necessary at all.
Jenks, Axford, Reid, slightly confused.
That’s a good question, actually: Why does Britt Reid become the Green Hornet? This is an origin story so we should get a definitive answer. We don’t.
As the serial opens, Kato and Reid are in their garage testing a chemical; then we get some painful exposition, including why Kato, with World War II looming, is no longer Japanese, as he was in the radio serial:
Reid: That chemical has a powerful kick! You think the motor will stand it?
Kato: It’s the strongest motor ever built! And the fastest.
Reid: Thanks to your scientific knowledge.
Kato (subservient): I am satisfactory ... as a valet, too?
Reid: Perfectly. It was a lucky day for me when I rescued you from the native in Singapore.
Kato (affronted): He tried to kill me. Because I am a Korean.
Kato then pushes the car horn, Reid says it sounds like the “giant green hornet” they encountered in Africa, and he anticipates springing it on the world. “It’ll prove to that skeptical old dad of mine that I’m not just a playboy!” he says.
As the Green Hornet? Slow down, Sally. Reid hasn’t thought that far ahead. (Which raises the question: What was the superfast car for? To tool around town?) He first gets the germ of the idea later that day, when a judge and police commissioner encourage The Sentinel to look into the rackets:
Reid (ultra serious): The Sentinel will back you, but it won’t take the lead. That’s for you to do. What are you waiting for—a modern Robin Hood to lead you out of the woods?
Comm.: Yes, Reid. That’s just what this city needs: a Robin Hood.
Reid (to secretary, amused): Miss Case, check the want ads and see if there’s a modern Robin Hood looking for a job.
But after they leave, he strokes his chin and muses aloud: “A modern Robin Hood...” So you could say the Green Hornet starts as a joke.
Except he still doesn’t start. First, the local dam bursts; then a foreman named Gorman is about to blow the lid off a tunnel-digging operation. “I’m hoping to get something from Gorman tonight,” Jenks says. (“I doubt if you will,” Reid responds helpfully.) Of course, Gorman is killed, and that turns out to be the last straw for Reid.
No, he still doesn’t become the Hornet. Instead, he writes editorials against corruption in the city—so many editorials, in fact, that the racketeers try to shut him up by buying his newspaper. Reid is suspicious; but when Axford tries to follow a potential buyer, his car is cut off and he’s roughed up by hoodlums.
And that appears to be the final straw. Kato develops the mask and gas gun, and off they go:
Reid: Funny isn’t it, Kato?
Kato: What, Mr. Britt?
Reid: When we built this secret garage to construct our super speedster, we never thought it would become the lair for a modern Robin Hood!
The first superhero?
The most annoying thing in the serial may be the Hornet’s voice. At first, I thought Jones was doing the Bud Collyer/Superman thing—dropping a register to key the transformation—except his superhero voice sounds tremulous, almost desperate. Turns out, it’s not Jones. It’s Al Hodge, who voiced the Hornet on the radio. Apparently, the producers wanted continuity from radio to theatre, even if they couldn’t manage it from scene to scene.
The serial does do a few things well. There’s nice irony in the fact that Axford, Reid’s bodyguard, keeps trying to kill him (as the Hornet). I also like the resolution to the mysterious crime boss. In every episode, in a nondescript office, three crooks gather before a fourth, Curtis Monroe (Cy Kendall), the chief’s right-hand man, who invariably mentions that the chief is about to call. Then he turns on an intercom-like device and they get instructions. The only point to an unseen chief is that he’s one of the other characters. So who could it be? The Judge? Jenks? Kato? Nope. It’s Monroe himself. “Using a phonograph record to conceal from the rest of the gang that you were the chief!” the Green Hornet cries in the final chapter. I liked this twist because I didn’t guess it, but it does make the syndicate seem a bit small? Just these guys? Taking over nearly every industry in the city? From that office?
Another plus: The serial doesn’t overdo the standard cliffhanger resolution, which is to wait for the next chapter and then insert a shot of the hero falling off the thing about to explode before it explodes. Half the time, Reid survives simply because he’s ... thickheaded. He’s in a car that crashes into a gas station (knocked out, but fine), near a car that explodes (blown back, but fine), falls out a second-story window (no biggee), and near a gas tank that explodes (coolio). In a later chapter, a car goes over a cliff with him in it. “These armored cars are built for protection!” he tells Kato the following week.
Question: Was “The Green Hornet” the first modern superhero to hit the big screen? An argument can be made. The ones that came before were in the past (Zorro/Lone Ranger), the future (Flash Gordon), or in the jungle (Tarzan). So why didn’t the Hornet catch on like, say, Batman? The lack of a solid comic-book foundation probably didn’t help. More, I think it’s the white-privilege thing. The Hornet is a mix of cool (mask, car) and lame (everything else), and the lame trumps the cool. The minority does all the work and the rich white guy gets all the credit? For a fantasy, that’s a little too close to reality.
That's right, Kato, you got rooked.
Movie Review: The Red Menace (1949)
“The Red Menace,” a 1949 B-picture from Republic Studios, was one of the first anti-communist movies to be released during the post-WWII Red Scare, but from a distance it’s kinda quaint. Sure, there’s a Soviet cell operating in the U.S., but it’s the furthest thing from effective. A better title for the movie might be: “Red ... Menace?”
A tall, broad-shouldered lunkhead, Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell), is pissed that he’s been ripped off in some GI real estate scam and the government won’t do anything about it. Overhearing, a party member invites him to a nearby bar “for discriminating people,” where two broads make a play for him. While the brunette, Yvonne (Betty Lou Gerson), looks on disgruntled, the blonde, Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), takes him back to her place and mixes drinks while he peruses the shelves and ... Hey, what are these books? Marx? Lenin? You’re a commie! Yeah, but a looker. C’mere. Pucker up, baby.
Irish Italian Jewish Negro
The Soviet cell that Bill Jones is slowly indoctrinated into is like one of those WWII movie platoons: someone from every race:
- Henry (Shepard Menken), a nice Jewish poet, cuckolded by Mollie on a weekly basis.
- Mollie, Irish Catholic, whose mother hangs around like a gray cloud, mourning the loss of her daughter’s respectability.
- Sam, the affable Negro front-office worker at The Toilers, the commie newspaper.
- Reachi, the Italian, who wonders if communism is a democracy as they say, why is it called “a dictatorship of the proletariat”?
- Nina, the foreign beauty, who will become The Love Interest.
Things first go south when Reachi is killed in a back alleyway for asking questions. Then Henry gets curious, too, and is kicked out of the party. He quickly turns into a patriot:
At least that [American] flag has three colors in it, not one. Not one bloody one!
But he can’t take the ostracism and throws himself out a window. He leaves a note for Mollie, telling her to return to her mother, which she does; in a church. Sam leaves with his respectable father, while Yvonne, always ratting out others, is picked up by the cops, who, it turns out, know everything. (Because our law enforcement is on the case.) Then she goes mad. (Because that’s what happens to commies.)
That’s it. The filmmakers, I’m sure, wanted to make sure communism didn’t seem attractive, but they were so successful they made it seem hardly a threat at all. Which makes the way the movie is bookended even odder.
‘We can’t suspect everybody’
It opens steeped in paranoia. Nina and Bill flee California, sure that communists are right behind. At an Arizona gas station, the attendant makes small talk—Where are you from? Where are you going?—and Nina freezes:
Nina (whispering): Why’d he say that?
Bill: Just to make conversation probably.
Nina: I don’t believe it. There must be some reason why he’s so curious.
Bill: Take it easy, Nina. We can’t suspect everybody.
After we get the rest of the story in flashback, we see them driving into Talbot, Texas, where Bill suddenly becomes sensible: “I’ve been thinking, Nina. What are we running away from? This is the United States not a police state. Let’s go see that sheriff.” Which they do. And they tell him their tale. (This really should’ve been the spot for the flashback, but the movie screwed up that, too.)
The sheriff’s response to their tale?
You folks have been running away from yourselves, and the fear in your own minds.
The entire movie is an argument against the paranoia of groups like HUAC, presented as an argument in favor of such groups.
Nobody on either side of the political fence saw this. The Daily Worker denounced the movie, while California’s own HUAC, the Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, honored it, commending “Republic Studios and those persons who have so courageously assisted in this production.”
And then, like most anti-communist movies, it died at the box office. No one went to see it because that stuff's a drag: preachy, heavy-handed. It's called the free market.
Movie Review: Intruder in the Dust (1949)
“Intruder in the Dust” was one of several movies produced in the short progressive period between the horror of the Holocaust (when tolerance suddenly seemed like a good idea) and the paranoia of the Red Menace (when fuck it). They were called “message movies” or “problem pictures” and included such films as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Crossfire” (anti-Semitism), “Pinky” and “Home of the Brave” (racism).
“Intruder,” also about racism, only got made because of one man, Clarence Brown, who learned at the feet of Maurice Tourneur, Jacques’ daddy, during the silent era, then became one of the main dudes at MGM during its lush glory days. He was also a member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance, and a Southerner, making him an odd choice to push for such a racially progressive picture.
Why did he do it? In Patrick McGilligan’s book, “Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends,“ he talks about being in Atlanta during the 1906 race riots when 16 black men were lynched. Three decades later, William Faulkner published his novel about a near lynching, and as Brown recounts:
I didn’t walk, I ran up to the front office at MGM. “I’ve got to make this picture,” I said. “You’re nuts,” said [Louis B.] Mayer, because the hero was a black man. “If you owe me anything, you owe me a chance to make this picture,” I said.
There were battles throughout production—both on location in Oxford, Mississippi (Faulkner’s hometown), and at MGM. Mayer felt the protagonist, Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), was “uppity,” and that the picture would lose money. He was right about the latter—did it even play in the South?—but the picture earned critical raves. The National Board of Review included it on its top 10 list, and it finished second to “All the King’s Men” in the New York Film Critics Circle’s best picture category. It received multiple nominations from the WGA, Golden Globes, and British Academy, and won BAFTA’s short-lived “UN Award” (for the film “embodying one or more of the principles of the United Nations Charter”). In The New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote, “By all our standards of pre-eminence, this is—or will prove—a great film.”
He’s right. At the least, I was startled by how good “Intruder” is. The cinematography is often reminiscent of Dorthea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs, while Beauchamp (pronounced “Beach-em”) is a type of rich, powerful African-American character that Hollywood, always worried about the Southern market, rarely allowed to be seen on screen.
It also bears a passing resemblance to a later, much-beloved film. Maybe more than a passing resemblance.
Before Atticus, before Superman
Seriously, when “To Kill a Mockingbird” was published in 1960, didn't anyone bring up “Intruder in the Dust”? Let's count it off:
- A black man is jailed for a horrific crime.
- He’s represented by a white lawyer.
- A kid, related to the lawyer, is central to the story—the main character, more or less.
- There’s a standoff on the courthouse steps between an unarmed white person and a white mob, who want to lynch the black man.
- The real criminal is a white relative of the victim.
Yes, there are differences. It’s murder rather than rape. The black man here, Beauchamp, is proud, almost haughty, as opposed to the humble, bland Tom Robinson. Our lawyer, John Gavin Stevens (David Brian), is no Atticus, and starts the case assuming his own client guilty. Rather than the lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem, it’s the lawyer’s teenaged nephew, Chick (Claude Jarman, Jr.), who acts as our eyes and ears. Oh, and Stevens proves Beauchamp innocent even without a trial. Apparently, in 1949 Mississippi, the criminal justice system worked.
The courthouse-steps confrontation not only prefigures “To Kill a Mockingbird” but—indulge me—“Superman vs. The Mole Men,” an hour-long intro to the 1950s TV series, in which the Man of Steel stops a Texas mob from lynching an alien. Of course, being Superman, he’s hardly unarmed, but otherwise the dynamic is the same as in the other two: the stalwart one (without a gun) against the angry many (Southern racists) to protect the defenseless one (black/alien). (Note to readers: If you know of other such scenes in novels/movies, write me.)
Here, the stalwart one is old Southern white lady, Miss Eunice Habersham (Elizabeth Patterson), sitting in a rocking chair and doing her mending. Why her? Calculation on the part of Stevens. The mob, he says:
...would pass even [deputized] Will Legate sooner or later when there's enough of them. But there's one thing that would stop them. Long enough anyhow. And that's somebody without a gun. [Pause] A lady. [Pause] A white lady.
I have to admit, I always found the “Mockingbird” scenario absurd. Atticus thinks one unarmed man can turn back a mob in the middle of the night? Him and his lamp and his book? Really, he’s only saved because Scout and Jem show up, and Scout (a white lady) asks questions of different people in the mob. She humanizes them.
Faulkner’s way is smarter, and Patterson, supposedly handpicked by Faulkner, is a story in herself. Born in Tennessee in 1875, 10 years after the Civil War, she died in 1966, a year after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She began her career on stage, and became a frequent character actress on Broadway before doing the same in movies. The subhed to her New York Times obituary reads: “Was Said to Have ‘Played Mother of About Every Star in Hollywood.’” Here, she mothers this role into being. She was Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman.
Her nemesis in the scene is the perfectly named Nub Gowrie (Charles Kemper), the brother of the deceased, and the man who actually did the killing. He’s a Southern stereotype—fat, ineffectual, unethical—but you also get a sense of a man trapped in his role. As in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” Nub is propelled along by the expectations of the mob.
There’s already a sleepy, carnival atmosphere in town, as folks gather to watch the lynching, and Gowrie, sitting in his truck, is confronted in by-the-way fashion. A woman with a baby begins it. (Think about that for a moment.) She says, “Well, Mr. Gowrie, when you reckon you gonna get started?” Jokes are made, Nub gets fed up, and after he gets a metal canister overflowing with gasoline, he walks across the street, sloshing things as he goes, to confront Miss Eunice through the screen door. She refuses to budge. So he dumps gas on the floor, and, with a bully’s grin, lights a match.
Miss Eunice: “Could you step out of the light so I can thread my needle?”
And that defuses it. Literally. Nub waves the fire out, puts the match in his shirt pocket (nice touch), and we get the following exchange:
Nub: Miss Habersham, I ain’t gonna touch you now. You’re an old lady but you’re in the wrong. You’re fightin’ the whole county but you gonna get tired. And when you do get tired, we gonna go in.
Miss Habersham: I’m goin’ for 80 and I’m not tired yet.
Then she stands up, goes to the porch, and talks to the crowd. “Go home! Everyone one of you, go on home. You oughta be ashamed!” Trying to shame the crowd. So she was Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too.
To be honest, I think the scene should’ve ended with “I’m not tired yet.” But the movie keeps doing this. It keeps pulling back to make grander, progressive points that deflate the power of its smaller scenes. It doesn’t trust its micro and insists upon the macro. It wants pontification.
The worst example is in the movie’s penultimate scene.
Micro > Macro
“Intruder” opens beautifully with the arrival of Beauchamp in the custody of the benevolent sheriff (Will Geer), and his walk through a gauntlet of tense, Southern faces. Beauchamp, unbowed even in handcuffs is almost contemptuous here; and on the courthouse steps, he turns and orders Chick to get his uncle to represent him. Interestingly, though he asks for him, he never confides in the uncle; he confides in Chick, with whom he has a history. Halfway through the movie, Stevens wonders over this. Why didn’t Beauchamp trust him? It’s Miss Habersham who answers: “You’re a white man,” she says. “Worse than that, you’re a grown white man.” Worse than that. From a 1949 movie? Amazing.
Most of the movie’s casting (Miss Eunice, Beauchamp) is perfect, but Brian, I have to say, is all wrong for Stevens. Born and bred in New York, he doesn’t attempt a Southern accent; he just has that bland, post-World War II voice. There’s something unpleasant about him in look and manner, too; something pinched in the eyes. In his obit, from 1993, the Times wrote, “Mr. Brian repeatedly portrayed characters who were ruthless or powerful or both, including some villains in Westerns,” and I can see it. But maybe that’s what makes him right for this? Stevens isn’t an Atticus, after all. He’s supposed to be the hero but he actually gets in the way of justice. Everyone else does the hard work—digging up graves, jumping into quicksand—while he stands around pontificating and sucking on his pipe.
He’s doing the same in the movie’s penultimate scene.
By this point, Nub has been arrested for the murder of his brother, the crowd dispersed, Beauchamp freed. We get some awful dialogue between Chick and Stevens as they watch the crowd disperse (“It’s alright, Chick”/“Is it?”), when silence would’ve spoken volumes. Then a few days later, Beauchamp shows up at Stevens’ office to settle his debts, but Stevens, all paternal benevolence, refuses payment since he didn’t do anything. (He’s right.) Beauchamp insists; Stevens mentions that he did break his pipe, and it cost two dollars to fix. Beauchamp says he’ll pay for that, then pays him with: a bill, two quarters and 50 pennies. “I was aimin’ to take ’em to the bank, but you can save me the trouble,” he says, with a glint in his eye. Then he insists, as in any transaction, that the pennies be counted. Stevens, still with the upper hand, tells him to do it. Which he does. And as he does, we get this exchange:
Stevens: That night in the jail—why didn’t you tell me the truth?
Beauchamp: Would you have believed me?
It seems straightforward enough, this back-and-forth, but there are chasms beneath it. Stevens is acting the great white father here, even though he knows what he knows; and instead of playing along, Beauchamp calls him on it. Beneath the bland words, he’s calling Stevens a racist. And that’s too much for Stevens, our ostensible hero, whose face suddenly darkens and becomes pinched; and he puts up a barrier—a book—between himself and Beauchamp. He expects Beauchamp to leave. But Beauchamp doesn’t leave. He keeps standing there until Stevens testily admonishes him.
Stevens: Now what. What are you waiting for now?
Beauchamp: (Standing taller) My receipt.
Holy crap, that’s good. The movie really should’ve ended there (the novel, in fact, does), or with Beauchamp walking outside, and through the town, and past the people that wanted to lynch him just a few days earlier. But instead we pan back to Stevens and Chick on the balcony, watching Beauchamp. And we get more pontificating:
Chick: They don’t see ‘em—as though it never happened. ... They don’t even know he’s there.
Stevens: But they do—same as I do. They always will as long as he lives. Proud, stubborn, insufferable. But there he goes, the keeper of my conscience.
Chick: Our conscience, Uncle John.
(Music wells up: THE END)
MGM saves the white man in the end by letting him sound profound; by pretending he’s the hero. The story knows different.
INTRO: Lucas Beauchamp (an amazing Juano Hernandez) arrives at the police station, unbowed, despite being charged with the murder of a white man.
The crowd isn't exactly friendly.
It is, however, reminiscent of Dorthea Lange's photography.
John Gavin Stevens: the lawyer Beauchamp asks for but never trusts. Not exactly Atticus Finch.
The movie's villain, the perfectly named Nub, walks with a cannister of gasoline to confront another of the movie's heroes.
Miss Habersham is Atticus before Atticus, Superman before Superman.
The threat is ignited.
And defused. “Could you step out of the light so I can thread ma needle?”
Shaming the crowd that has no shame. She's Joseph Welch before Joseph Welch, too.
The movie ends on this false note, with this false hero.
Faulkner's novel ends on this true note with this true hero: ”My receipt." *FIN*