December 30, 2014


Paul Muni snarled to prominence as the amoral gangster kingpin Scarface (1932), and followed it up with an expose of the prison system, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933). He had already received an Oscar nomination for his debut performance in The Valiant (1929), so by 1934 he was a star, and a serious-minded one. Born to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, he came up through the Yiddish theater, made it to Broadway, and eventually earned unprecedented freedom in choosing the parts he wanted to play in Hollywood. So when histories of Muni’s career are written, few mention his little newspaper comedy from 1934, Hi, Nellie. A standard Warner Brothers quickie, it packs in screwball, romance, mystery and gangster movies into one 75 minute package. Muni clearly revels in trying out comedy, channeling his wiry energy into the clipped, slangy dialogue of a Hecht/MacArthur knockoff. And the rest of the cast is up to his challenge, with acidic performances from Glenda Farrell and Ned Sparks. Hi, Nellie is now available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8 set of pre-codes (also including Blonde Crazy, Strangers May Kiss, and Dark Hazard).

Poster - Hi, Nellie_01

“Either a comedy, something light and frivolous, or the story of a Slovak coal miner.” This was reportedly Muni’s response to Jack Warner about what he would like to make after the multi-generational drama The World Changes (1933). Muni was fascinated by the coal miner’s fight for unionization and better work conditions. While acting in a touring company of Counsellor At Law, Muni stopped off in a Pennsylvania mining town to interview the local workers. All of this research would turn into Black Fury (1935). But first, he did something “light and frivolous”.

 Hi, Nellie was based on a story by Roy Chanslor, and turned into a script by Abem Finkel and Sidney Sutherland. Finkel was Muni’s brother-in-law, and the scion of a legendary Yiddish theater family. Abem’s father Moishe was a producer in Hungary as well as the States. Great Yiddish star Jacob Adler described Moishe in his memoir: “A tragic figure in our history, Finkel. One of the first pioneers, an excellent artist, a good director, for many years a power in our theater world, until in 1904 he put an end to his career and life with a bullet in his brain.” After Moishe’s second wife,  Emma Thomashefsky, left him, he shot her, her lover, and then himself. Emma was partially paralyzed but lived until 1929. Muni’s employment of Abem was not just for nostalgia’s sake. Abem had a long career as a scenarist at WB, with an Oscar nomination for Sergeant York (1941), and credits on Jezebel (1938), Black Legion (1937) and many more.

Poster - Hi, Nellie_04

With Abem along, Muni carried the Yiddish theater with him, and must have seen some analogues to Yiddish comedy in Chanslor story. Muni plays Samuel Bradshaw (nicknamed “Brad”), the tough-talking managing editor of the New York Times Star. The head of the governor’s investigating committee, Frank J. Canfield, has gone missing, along with $60 Million of a prominent bank’s reserves. All the tabloids connect the two stories, that Canfield absconded with the cash, but Brad refuses to publicly indict him on scant evidence. The paper’s owner J.L. Graham (Burton Churchill) is enraged, and demotes Brad down to the paper’s romance column, where he has to take on the pseudonym Nellie Nelson. The current”Heartthrobs” columnist, Brad’s ex-beau Gerry Krale (Glenda Farrell), is thrilled to get back on the city beat.Brad has to endure rounds of “Hi Nellie!” each trip through the office, sinking him into an alcohol-fueled depression – until a break in the Canfield case gets his journalistic juices flowing again. The basic plot was remade several times by Warner Brothers, as Love is On the Air (1937), You Can’t Escape Forever (1942), and The House Across the Street (1949).

8 Hi-Nellie 1934

Hi, Nellie was Muni’s third straight collaboration with Mervyn LeRoy (after I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang and The World Changes), one of WB’s most bankable directors. LeRoy topped Variety’s list of top box office directors of 1933, during which he directed Gold Diggers of 1933 and four more profitable movies. While never a distinctive artist, LeRoy was a reliable craftsman, and ably orchestrates the chaos of the Times Star’s newsroom. He establishes the geography of the office in a high-angle crane shot that scans the anthill industriousness of the constantly moving reporters/editors/newsboys. The majority of the film then uses waist-up medium shots to focus on gesture and dialogue. Muni, with a streak of gray in his hair to indicate the stresses of the job, seems to have studied the speed chatter of Lee Tracy in preparing for this role, all of his wiry strength transferred from his muscles to his words. Brad is an arrogant taskmaster who also happens to be good at his job, so when his power is taken from him, his whole self-image collapses. He ends up in a dive bar apologizing to his whiskey. But with Gerry’s admonitions ringing in his head to stop being a coward (she endured the Heartthrobs gig for much longer, and didn’t crumble), the plot shifts again into investigative mode, and Brad sets his sights on a local gangster.

Annex - Muni, Paul (Hi, Nellie)_01

The film breezes by because of the energy of the performances. Brad and Gerry have a complicated, flirtations relationship that involves a past fling and professional jealousy. Glenda Farrell had experience playing a tough-talking reporter gal from her time in the Torchy Blane series, and her self-confidence emanates off the screen. LeRoy noticed this too, and grants her one of the few tracking shots in the film, pulling back through the office as she is harassed for a date by a mousy reporter (she, as ever, declines). The other unsung hero of the film is Ned Sparks, who has a Droopy Dog face and a voice like a muted trumpet. His deadpan nasal delivery anchors the film as it revs through the too-pat coincidences of the mystery plot. His slow-motion lope and sourpuss sarcasm brings everything back to earth.

Even though it’s rather unknown today, Hi, Nellie was well-received at the time. Photoplay lauded its “trip hammer action”, while Motion Picture Daily wrote, “It moves rapidly. It is flavored with the sauce of front page life and salted with humor.” The impressively named Frederic F. Van de Water at The New Movie Magazine ranked it as “outstanding”, and praised LeRoy for having “taken the trouble to learn how a newspaper office looks and sounds.” I’m throwing my lot in with the esteemed Mr. Van de Water. Hi, Nellie is a brisk entertainment, and one which shows off the commitment and range of Paul Muni, who I never expected could have been so funny.


April 8, 2014


With each successive generation of home video, the Hollywood studios have paid less and less attention to their archival titles. The profits generated by new releases dwarf that of their classics, so they have become an afterthought. For the thinner profit margins of independent labels, however, these films, including The Quiet Man (Olive Films) and  Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (Twilight Time), can provide a significant economic boost. So in the Blu-Ray era, it has  fallen to these indie video labels to license and release studio restorations. The notable exception has been Warner Brothers, who still invest in Blu-Rays of silents like The Big Parade, while their invaluable Warner Archive line continues to churn out the hidden gems of their library. One of the foremost independent rescuers of film history has been Olive Films.

This month they will release ten new-to-Blu-Ray titles, including the daylight noir Cry Danger, the Douglas Sirk-does-Gaslight thriller Sleep My Love and Anthony Mann’s existential Korean War bummer Men in War. The rarest item this month however, might be Joseph Losey’s Stranger on the Prowl (1952), a neorealist moral fable about a drifter on the run from the cops (Paul Muni) who befriends a small boy in an Italian port city. Never released in any home video format (that I’m aware of), it was made while Losey was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities committee, so his name was removed from the credits and replaced with that of the Italian investors. It was made during the process of his blacklisting, and though hamstrung by budget shortfalls and technical limitations, it is a haunting, self-lacerating portrait of a persecuted exile.

Paul Muni, Joseph Losey, Henri Alekan

Stranger on the Prowl came about because a group of blacklisted artists started a production company to make films overseas. Director Bernard Vorhaus, agent John Weber, and the husband-and-wife writing team of Ben and Norma Barzman formed Riviera Films as their names kept appearing in HUAC testimony. It was the same for Losey, who was wrapping up his last Hollywood feature, The Big Night (1951), which completed retakes in June of 1951. As they were all being red baited in the trades, they knew their opportunities for stateside work were dwindling. So Riviera Films started two Italy-based productions, A Bottle of Milk for Losey, and Finishing School for Vorhaus, both with Barzman scripts. A Bottle of Milk (later changed to Stranger on the Prowl), adapted from a story by French crime fiction author Noël Calef (Elevator to the Gallows), follows an unnamed stranger (Muni) who skulks around a port city trying to sell his rusted out gun. After committing a crime out of severe hunger, he is chased through the city’s honeycomb of slum housing, befriending a poor boy who is bringing a stolen bottle of milk home to his mother. The scenario has the raw sentimentality of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and Losey mimics the street-shooting style of that neorealist classic. To aid him was the cinematographer Henri Alekan, who shot Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Roman Holiday and Wings of Desire. Though he preferred grand expressionistic effects (his mentor was Eugen Shüfftan, the creator of Metropolis’ special effects), he was also adept at more “realist” styles, as evidenced by his work in Rene Clement’s La Bataille du Rail, in which railway workers re-enacted their roles in the French Resistance during WWII.

Stranger on the Prowl

Alekan did not speak English, so the camera operator had to translate Losey’s instructions, but both valued their time working together. In the historical survey Hollywood Exiles in Europe (the main source for this article), author Rebecca Prime quotes Losey calling Alekan “a great gift”, while Alekan described their collaboration as “total and unreserved”. Their camera nimbly navigates the narrow streets and alleys of the Stranger and the boy’s elaborate escape, shot mostly at Tirennia Studios, outside Pisa. Using a mix of handheld and tracking shots, the film is more stylized, less immediate than its neorealist model, especially in the dramatic finale, a chiaroscuro suspense sequence shot on the slum roofs. Though the images impress a sense of alienated isolation, the sound is muddy and marred by poor dubbing of the local actors’ dialogue. For many scenes the boy is unintelligible. The audio was one of the casualties of the patchwork funding of the feature. The money initially came from Andrea Forzano, whose family owned the studio in Pisa, but when his cash ran out, they tapped an Italian-American businessman named Albert Salvatore. As Prime writes, both producers had ties to Mussolini, making Stranger On the Prowl a half-fascist, half-Communist film. Riviera Films had so much trouble raising money many of them got work dubbing Italian films into English to make extra cash.


Though shot on the streets, nothing feels off the cuff. It is a highly composed, artificial kind of neorealism, unaided by the presence of former Hollywood fixture Paul Muni. Though no longer a star, Muni was still a name, at least enough to get the film financed. Muni was happy for the work, but reportedly terrified of being associated with Communists, according to Losey. His terror translates to the screen, in which the already frog-faced actor uglies himself up more, skulking around corners with oily hair, deep pockets under his eyes, and a wardrobe seemingly carved out of a potato bag. He is haunted and hunted by the whole town, a seemingly stateless specter shadowing Europe. It’s a moody metaphor for Losey’s in-between status at that point, a freshly blacklisted artist with no visible means of support outside of the US.

If he had harbored any hopes about returning home, it is not exhibited in the human wreckage of Muni’s exiled loner. Losey’s exile status may have been cemented by a two page spread afforded him by the Italian Communist newspaper L’Unita. Prime reported that soon after the article was published, HUAC announced that Losey was one of the people still unserved with a subpoena to appear before the committee. United Artists had distribution rights to the film in the U.S., but could no longer release the film with all of its Communist associations. The AFL Film Council had already submitted to HUAC a petition to ban films made overseas by Communists of fellow travelers. So UA’s Arthur Krim changed the names of the crew to those of the film’s Italian backers. So Joseph Losey and Ben Barzman became “Andrea Forzano”, while Henri Alekan turned into “Antonio Fiore”. Losey was being erased from U.S. screens, his fate as an exile sealed, just like the film’s wandering Stranger.


November 15, 2011

dieterle watch

The previously hazy career of William Dieterle is slowly being brought into focus, as the Warner Archive and repertory screenings grant incrementally wider access to this neglected German-American filmmaker. The Archive has just released Fashions of 1934 (’34) and Juarez (1939), while the 92Y Tribeca recently screened a gorgeous new print of Love Letters (1945, scheduled to air on Jan. 21st at 10PM on TCM). The Warner Archive discs display opposite poles of his career, the dynamic fantasist and the staid historical dramatist, while the hallucinatory Love Letters lies somewhere in between.

Fashions of 1934 reunites Dieterle with William Powell, whom he had worked with two years earlier on Jewel Robbery (which I wrote about earlier this year). Powell again plays a suave member of the criminal class, but instead of a dapper thief he’s con-man Sherwood Nash, dealing knock-off couture gowns to department stores around town. Along to help him are Bette Davis as the eager fashion designer Lynn and Frank McHugh as his trusty dissembler Snap. In order to keep ahead of the trends, they fly to Paris to spy on the elite fashion housesAs the cops and the real designers close in on them, it’s up to Sherwood to lie his way out once again. Like Jewel Robbery, Fashions is a fairy tale of criminality, only focused through a male POV this time. Both define thievery and pirating as a kind of harder working entrepreneurship that leads straight to our preferred dream life.

It seems like the entire budget was funneled into the Busby Berkeley-directed musical number towards the end of the feature, but Dieterle makes the most of the drab office sets at his disposal. He focuses on Powell’s posture, his leans over the desks and chairs indicating the relative state of his pocketbook and love life. The dialogue is rolled out in an unvaryingly speedy pace, with the only indication of an emotional shift present in Powell’s relationship to furniture. Even when urging Lynn to marry another man, his voice betrays nothing – it is his body that gives him away. In seduction mode, he tilts forwardas if heading into an oncoming wind, offering his body to his suitably awed targets. It works with the store owners who agree to stock his knock-offs, as well as the vamp who bamboozles a French designer. With Lynn though, he always stands ramrod straight, often in group shots with Snap. It is only when he kneels down at the end in supplication that he can win her hand.

Davis was not happy with the film, saying that she “was glamorized beyond recognition”, and she does seem uncomfortable, never quite locking in to the screwball tempo set by Powell. Despite her reservations, the film was fairly well received, with positive notices from influential gossip columnist Louella Parsons (“very excellent”) and the New York Times: “The story is lively, the gowns are interesting and the Busby Berkeley spectacles with Hollywood dancing girls are impressive. ” The Berkeley musical, wrenched in as part of Sherwood’s plot to increase demand for ostrich feathers, is suitably insane, turning the female models into mutating patterns of harps, flowers and oarsmen. The harp-women are fun and disturbing, but it is Sherwood’s demonic energy in conjuring his dreams into reality that lingers.

Juarez (1939), a dramatization of the Mexican Revolution, lacks the speed and physical expressiveness of Fashions, collapsing under the weight of its ambition. This was a major project for Warner Brothers, and Dieterle assuredly didn’t have the freedom as on his previous quickies. The AFI Catalog lists the massive amounts of resources poured into the feature:

The picture represented Warner Bros. most ambitious project to date. According to the production files, every detail was exhaustively researched for historical accuracy. The files contained long lists of reference books in both English and Spanish. Press releases refer to the film’s extensive research. According to modern sources, the writers had a bibliography of 372 volumes, documents and period photographs. Art director Anton Grot drew 3,643 sketches from which engineers prepared 7,360 blueprints for the exteriors and interiors of the settings. A complete Mexican village was built on the Warner Ranch in Calabasas, CA.

Dieterle did not excel in the realist mode, with his light touch being weighed down with the anvil of historical “truth”, at least that according to studio researchers. It’s no surprise that the result is leaden and monotonously expository, which is not aided by Paul Muni’s grotesque makeup job as Benito Juarez, looking like he got a jumbo Botox injection. Every character states their motivation and provides historical context within the same sentence. The saving graces occur in the prissy arrogance of Claude Rains as Napoleon III, and the sensitive handling of Carlotta’s (Bette Davis) descent into madness, which rekindles for a moment Dieterle’s skill at eliciting hyper-real, dreamlike performances.

This skill is on full display in Love Letters (1945), a delirious romantic melodrama that Dieterle made when he was a freelancer, taking on short-term deals with studios. Producer Hal Wallis tapped him to direct the treatment, starting a professional relationship that would last until 1953. According to Bernard F. Dick’s biography of Wallis,  the producer purchased the rights to Chris Massie’s novel, Pity My Simplicity, in 1944, for $35,000, and was adapted for the screen by Ayn Rand (whose novel Fountainhead was released in ’43). It tells the story of Quinton (Joseph Cotten), an army man who ghost writes love letters for his friend while at the front. Although they have never met, Quinton falls in love with the woman he is writing them to, Victoria Morland (Jennifer Jones). After a tragic murder, Victoria is struck with amnesia, whereupon Quinton finally meets her, and falls desperately in love. But what will happen when she remembers her past?

Both Cotten and Jones were loaned out from David O. Selznick, with plenty of strings attached. Jones was negotiated to receive $100,000 for nine weeks of work, and Selznick had final approval over her hairstyle, makeup and wardrobe. He also stipulated that Lee Garmes be hired as director of photography, who had just shot Jones in Since You Went Away (1944). Within these restrictions Dieterle crafts an unsettling love story that equates the spiritual and the ghostly. It begins in the content of his letters, in which he writes he envisions “life as a dream of beauty”, and his friend tells him that Victoria is a “pin-up girl of the spirit”. For Quinton, Victoria is a disembodied vision of love, a Platonic ideal to strive toward.

Then this ideal comes jarringly to earth. After Quinton is wounded in war, framed against the gauzy curtains of the army hospital, he returns home. At a party, the blonde hostess (Ann Richards) tells him “I see things that may happen to you”, with both their faces in a close-up. The world is contracting and shuddering around him. He inherits his Aunt’s cottage, and when he arrives the table is mysteriously set. A ghost servant! No, it is only Mac, a gruff Scottish butler whom Quinton had forgotten, and who he calls “gargoyle”. The border between life and death, and past and present (as Quinton rummages through his childhood toys) seems awfully thin indeed. It is within this atmosphere that he meets Victoria, whose identity has been subsumed inside an amnesiac who calls herself “Singleton”. Singleton has no past or future, an unearthly presence to match the fantasy “spirit” of the letters. Quinton’s great fear is that Victoria will regain her body, and he will again have to re-enter the fraught thicket of memory and psychology that embodiment will bring. He envies her “contagious serenity”, and fervently believes that she has “lost a world, but gained a soul”. This use of Quinton’s fantasy to motor the plot is a similar device to Jewel Robbery, in which Kay Francis’ erotic desire seems to will William Powell’s thief into existence.

The pace is subdued compared to his 30s films, but the deliberation is appropriate to document the slow re-emergence of Victoria and the subtle fissures between worlds. Dieterle instead utilizes elaborate set design and tight compositions to convey the sense of the uncanny. The film is shot entirely on backlots, an artificial world for incomplete people, shot in dramatic chiaroscuro by Garmes. There are endless shots of lamps lit and extinguished, intermittently illuminating a red splotch on a white dress that will end Quinton’s dream and re-start Victoria’s reality.