Thursday May 21, 2020
Movie Review: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950)
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?
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?
Cotter: Then give us a name.
Naming names. So in tune with the times.
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.
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*