April 28, 2015
In June of 1949, Roddy McDowall was twenty years old, and it appeared his acting career was winding down. He had been in the business for over a decade, having first appeared on screen at the age of nine in the British production Murder in the Family (1938). At twelve he signed a contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and in 1941 appeared in both Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. The studio saw money in pairing the cute kid with animals, from the horse in My Friend Flicka to the collie in Lassie Come Home. Fox dropped him from their contract in 1945, as adolescence started dimming that innocent young boy glow. McDowall recalled that, “My agent told me I would never work again, because I’d grown up.” In this uncertain period, he took on parts at independent Poverty Row studios, including a part in Orson Welles’ Macbeth, for Republic Pictures, and a few “grown up” animal films for Monogram. One of these was Black Midnight (1949), directed by Oscar (not yet “Budd”) Boetticher. Released on DVD by Warner Archive, it’s a 66 minute programmer that pairs McDowall with an unruly black stallion that he befriends, tames, and defends against a murder charge. Filmed in the windy mountains of Lone Pine California, it emphasizes McDowall’s open, easy charm, and his awkward, spindly body. Almost every sequence ends in a pratfall – into a creek, party punch, and a pond. But by the end he’s reached something approaching adulthood, in a trial by fists.
Oscar Boetticher (he would adopt the Budd for 1951′s Bullfighter and the Lady) completed his service as an Ensign in the Photographic Science Laboratory of the US Navy during WWII, and, like McDowall, was making the rounds of Poverty Row. He directed a couple crime films for PRC (Assigned to Danger and Behind Locked Doors (both 1948)) before moving to Monogram, which Boetticher described as “really second rate.” He made three films for them and producer Lindsley Parsons, starting with Black Midnight. With Roddy McDowall in tow, Monogram provided whatever animal-related script they had lying around (credited to Erna Lazarus and Scott Darling). McDowall plays Scott Jordan, who lives on a farm with his uncle Bill (Damian O’Flynn). They work the land and flirt with the neighbors – Martha (Fay Baker) and her daughter Cindy (Lynn Thomas). But when Bill’s wayward son Daniel (Rand Brooks) returns, their balanced ecosystem is upended. Daniel eyes Cindy and distracts Scott with a wild stallion named Midnight. Scott soothes and trains the horse, while Daniel sulks and generally acts suspicious. When Midnight accidentally kills one of Daniel’s friends, Scott has to resort to extreme measures to save the stallion’s life.
Though the plot is packed with incident, Boetticher somehow makes this hour-long drama seem leisurely. Time is spent establishing the rhythms of Bill and Scott’s daily life, of feeding the chickens, cleaning the house, and training the horse. DP William Sickner doesn’t have time to set up many close-ups, but captures all the work in odd, oblique angles, out of boredom, creativity or a combination of both. McDowall still has a spring in his step, seemingly happy to be outside and working, despite the swirling winds that very clearly bedevil the actors in most takes. Every outdoor shot sends everyone’s hair whipping. Bigger budgeted productions would just wait for the wind to die town, but on such tight schedules the shots had to proceed – and they clearly loop the audio in post-production. Each of these location shots seem like a battle, and gives these sequences an air of mounting tension, as if building up to a storm that never arrives.
Boetticher is continually pushing the camera in swift, punchy movements to keep the images interesting, always sidling around corners in a vaguely voyeuristic manner. Roddy McDowall, as in his career, is caught between beatific kid and hormonal teen. His flirtation with Cindy is kept chaste and non-threatening, as every chance at intimacy is interrupted by a McDowall pratfall in which his desires are doused by varieties of H20. But there is a clear attempt to give McDowall more “manly” scenes, none more so than in the epic brawl he has with Daniel that spills out from their country home out into the Lone Pine mountains. It’s a brutal knock down drag out scrum that has Roddy narrowly escape a knife to the face and proves, if nothing else, that he can take a good beating and deliver a believable punch. In Hollywood action movies, this passes for a sign of growth.
Boetticher remembered McDowall fondly: “I just loved him. He always had his mother and father with him on the set, but he was just about to have his 21st birthday [on the set of Killer Shark (1950)]. So we went out on location on purpose, so he could get out from underneath their jurisdiction and see some girls here and there. So we made the picture in Baja, California, and Roddy was no virgin after that.” Boetticher was a raconteur/serial exaggerator, so whether or not this story is true, it reflects his affection for the young actor, and that affection is all over the screen. This movie is a small one with modest ambition, but there is a looseness and happiness apparent in every frame.
Sickner reflects this shift in Scott’s importance in a rhymed pair of compositions. In the opening of the film, there is a shot of Bill and Martha in the foreground on a couch, chastising Scott and Cindy in the background, who mimic their elders positions by the fire. Near the end the shot is reversed, with Scott and Cindy commiserating on a fence in the foreground, blotting out the obsolescent Bill and Martha, who are off in the middle distance. Make way for tomorrow. McDowall would go on to acting school and add another fifty years in show business to his resume.