November 24, 2015


C. Jack Lewis saw a lot in his 84 years. A Marine Corps veteran of three wars, he was also a self-described “reporter, drunk, editor and hobo” who spent decades on the fringes of Hollywood. A fan of Westerns since childhood, he broke into screenwriting just as the B-Western business was collapsing, thanks to the arrival of television. He managed to sell a few scripts for budget stars like Lash LaRue and Johnny Mack Brown, but would spend the majority his career as a journalist for horse and army publications (he was the founder of Gun World magazine). During that time he met all of the stars of his youth as they sank down the Hollywood food chain, making a living as extras on TV Westerns or as special attractions at traveling circuses. In his affecting memoir White Horse, Black Hat, published in 2002 by Scarecrow Press, Lewis wrote thumbnail portraits of these faded stars, a collection which captured the end of the B industry and the itinerant careers of the low-budget cowboy.


Jack Lewis was born to a military family in 1924 Iowa. His father was an officer in the Army cavalry, and Lewis followed suit by enlisting with the Marines when he turned 18,. He saw action in WWII as a machine gunner, received a Bronze Star for bravery as a combat correspondent during the Korean War, and served as a Reserve Major for the Marine Amphibious Force in Vietnam. Throughout his service he was thinking up scenarios, specifically for the B-Westerns starring the likes of Tom Mix, Ken Maynard, and Hoot Gibson that dominated his youth. Lewis writes that “from the age of twelve, I insisted I was going to be in the Western movie business. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer and my old man just wanted me to seem reasonably sane.” As a kid he wrote a fifty page script for The Range Busters series and sent it to the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. It was rejected for being too expensive to produce. This would be an early lesson in economics that Lewis would encounter throughout his career, as he struggled to get his work up on screen.


In 1945 Lewis was training in Pendleton, California for an invasion of Japan, but on his off days would hitchhike to Hollywood and talk his way onto studio lots. One day he weaseled his way into Eagle-Lion, and managed to speak to producer Robert Tansey and a young actor named Al LaRue. A few years later Al would be rebranded as “Lash” LaRue, for whom Lewis would write one of his first screenplays, King of the Bullwhip, It was produced and directed by Ron Ormond for his Western Adventures Pictures, Inc. for  $40,000. Lewis describes the pre-production:

I went to the Hollywood library and checked out a book on screenwriting. A week later, I was in Ormond’s office in the San Fernando valley, script in hand. “This isn’t bad, he said. “I think we can use it, but have you ever seen Lash act?” I admitted I had. “Then take it back and cut all of his lines to ten words or less. Otherwise we’ll never get the picture made!”

Ormond would become one of Lewis’ close friends and collaborators as they tried to make a living on the edges of Hollywood. LaRue, according to Lewis, became another sad story, getting fired from the Wyatt Earp TV show before moving on to appearances at country fairs and rodeos. He eventually hit the bottle, and “at one point, when a police officer drew a pistol on him, the old actor challenged him to fire and ‘put me out of my misery.’” This story is representative of the characters Lewis meets throughout the book, men discarded by Hollywood and clinging to the embers of their fame. What makes White Hat, Black Hat so engaging is the complete lack of judgment. Lewis is very upfront about his own troubles with alcoholism, and treats each story with a matter-of-fact distance. And LaRue’s story does not end in the gutter. He dried himself out , became an evangelist named “Doctor Lash”, and bounced around North Carolina and Los Angeles. Lewis stayed in touch until his last days, whereupon his ashes were lost by the cemetery. “I’m certain he has to be laughing like hell at the final excitement he created!”


Death is everywhere in this book, there are more heart-attacks per page than the New York Times’ collected obituaries. Comedian Al St. John was in a motel room in Vidalia, Georgia eating grapes when “he just fell over and he was dead.” Charles King had started as an extra in the silents, and ended his life and career the same way, working background for TV’s Gunsmoke. The legend goes that he had just finished playing a corpse on-screen when he suffered the heart attack that killed him.  Tex Ritter had a heart attack in a Nashville jail cell, visiting a friend. Regarding Ritter, Lewis writes: “This was a man I wish I had known better.” The whole book is an attempt to resurrect an era from memory, and Lewis is open and regretful for the gaps therein. Of flight instructor and bit actor Dennis Moore he writes: “I felt a little relieved to find that I was not the only one who never really knew Dennis Moore, but it’s really too bad. No one should have to be that much of a loner.”

Lewis is the Forrest Gump of B-Westerns, seeming to have encountered every star who passed through Poverty Row.  Even if he met someone in passing, or in Tom Mix’s case, talked to his ghost, he makes room for them in this generous book. An empathetic collector of characters, White Horse and Black Hat opens up a lost world depicting the twilight of the B movie, and the real human consequences of its loss. The majority of people mentioned by Lewis will never have monographs written about them, but here their art, their lives and their deaths are made to matter. “They don’t really forget you in Hollywood”, according to prolific B-Western actor Frank Yaconelli, “They just park you beside the road so you can watch as the rest of them marched on.” With this book, Lewis looks to those left behind, and gives them their final fade-out.


June 10, 2014


Whenever I have a spare sixty-five minutes, I try and watch a movie by Edward L. Cahn. While he started out making well-regarded Westerns and crime films for Universal Pictures in the early  1930s, he was eventually demoted to short subjects for reasons unknown, and ended his career cranking out one-week quickies for producer Robert E. Kent, distributed through United Artists. He made eleven features in 1961, many of which were shot in his split-level home to save money. He passed away in 1963, reportedly from complications due to his diabetes. But over the course of his thirty-year career he directed 71 features and innumerable shorts, leaving behind a grimly deterministic body of work, evident even before he slid out of Universal’s favor. The bellboy murder witness in  Afraid to Talk (1932, aka Merry-Go-Round)  and the escaped convict in Laughter in Hell (1933) are doomed from the first shot – the rest of their movies are a low-lit explication of their inevitable fate.  His movies are best described from a line in When the Clock Strikes (1961). They are “like a door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.”

Cahn has received a bit more attention these days thanks to Dave Kehr’s column in the November/December 2011 issue of Film Comment magazine, and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s fascinating article on When the Clock Strikes for the Film Noir of the Week blog. Those should be your starting points if you wish to study the Edward L. Cahn sciences. I am taking a more patchwork approach at Movie Morlocks, writing up his features whenever I have a spare moment to watch them (I previously wrote about Laughter in Hell, You Have to Run Fastand a grab bag of noirs and Westerns). Many of the films Cahn made with Robert E. Kent are streaming in cropped versions on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Watching his movies in dodgy samizdat prints seems somehow appropriate to his checkered, cheap and vibrant career. Last week I sampled a feature Cahn romantic comedy, Redhead (1941, on Amazon Prime), and one of his bleaker noirs, When the Clock Strikes (1961, Hulu).


While he was churning out short subjects for MGM in the 1940s, Cahn found time to make a cheap romantic comedy for Poverty Row studio Monogram. It was an adaptation of Vera Brown’s 1933 novel, Redhead, which Monogram had adapted once before with director Melville Brown in 1934. Amazon lists Cahn’s version as 1934 (and IMDb has Cahn making the 1934 AND 1941 versions), but the authoritative American Film Institute catalog clearly indicates that Cahn directed only the 1941 iteration. The story is appropriately grim. Dale Carter (June Lang) is a former showgirl acquitted of murder, who is introduced peering over a cliff, contemplating suicide. It is only the drunken interjection of the newly disinherited playboy Ted Brown (Johnny Downs) that keeps her from making the leap. Ted had embarrassed his father one two many times with his inebriated escapades, and has been cut off from receiving family funds. He and Dale try to con his father out of some cash by faking a marriage, but instead the dad pays Dale to domesticate Ted. If she can make a man out of him, he’ll pay her ten grand.

Edward L. Cahn directs Judy Bamber in DRAGSTRIP GIRL

Cahn’s films are filled with false identities and histories, and he had much experience in re-inventing himself after he was mysteriously booted from his Universal contract. His characters are always trying the escape their true selves. Both Dale and Ted would prefer to forget themselves, so they build an entirely new life together. They buy a rundown roadside diner, building a business from the ground up. Ted gets a job as a steelworker to help pay the bills and drum up lunchtime business. Dale acts the contented housewife living the American dream. If they fake it long enough, their idea goes, maybe it will become real. Cahn captures a true sense of community between Ted, Dale and the factory town they serve. Ted’s former butler Digby (Eric Blore) is made an equal partner to help out behind the counter, flattening the class system that gave Ted his wealth. It’s the only real functional society in Cahn’s features, and it’s instructive that this is only possible because the main characters repress their pasts and invent their future. The truth is a waste of time.


No one is who they seem in When the Clock Strikes (1961), but unlike in Redhead, these facades are built not for a society but for individual greed. It was made for one of Robert E. Kent’s numerous production companies, this one called Harvard Film Corporation. Written by the improbably named Dallas Gaultois, it follows the guilt-wracked murder witness Sam Morgan (James Brown), who believes may have fingered the wrong man. Driving to implore the warden to halt the execution, he picks up a storm-soaked blonde by the side of the road. She turns out to be Ellie Pierce (Merry Anders), the wife of the convict headed for the noose. A tree falls and blocks the way to the prison. All they can do is wait at a seedy hotel, called Cady’s Lodge, and wait for the inevitable. Then there is the matter of a suitcase full of money, which twists everyone’s loyalties a little bit more.


In the elemental opening, Sam and Ellie are inside his car, under a wavering light meant to represent reflected rainfall. They speak in tortured existential argot, awaiting death. “-Are you lost or something? -Aren’t we all?” After the tree falls, blocking the path to the prison, Ellie utters the line about the “door closing behind you, and you have to go on all the way.” Their entire existence is posited as a forced march towards oblivion. And even more explicitly, Ellie says to Sam: “You sound like a man headed to the electric chair. -Aren’t we?” These exchanges, occurring beneath the undulating artificial light, have an uncanny alienating effect, as if the rest of the film is a foregone conclusion, and all that matters is the life-awaiting-death of this nightmarish car ride.


The film continues anyway, and suffice it to say Ellie isn’t who she claims to be, Sam will hit the bottle, and the proprietor (Henry Corden) of Cady’s Lodge is some kind of sociopath. “Everyone sets their watches to Cady’s clock”, the sheriff says, because Cady’s main business is in the execution trade. People swoop in on those evenings and drink to the killing hour, whether friends, enemies or lovers. Cady calls them “specs”, for spectators, and hovers over Ellie and Sam like a vampiric vulture, ready to feed off of their guilt and regret. There are plot twists and turns a plenty, repeated in mechanistic fashion. These are human husks with all emotion drained out of them. The ostensible happy ending is an absurd shift in tone that at first viewing nearly undermines everything that came before. But as Dixon writes in his appreciation of the film, their “positive” moral action occurs only out of self-preservation. A second before they were gleeful thieves. In the final shot they are back in the car, in a climactic clinch. But their embrace is awkward and posed, as if two embalmed corpses had their faces wrenched into a grin.