November 3, 2015


In 1932 the treatment of prisoners on chain gangs became an issue of national import. In January Robert Elliott Burns published I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, which recounts two escapes, eight years apart, from brutal prison camps. Warner Brothers would rush to adapt it into I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang for a November release. In June Arthur Maillefert died inside a “sweat box” at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida, a chain wrapped around his neck and wooden stocks nailed around his feet. The camp’s captain was charged with first degree murder and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Calls for reform reverberated across the country, and the film studios were eager to capitalize on the nation’s interest. Universal was developing Laughter in Hell (which I wrote about here), adapted from a Jim Tully novel, while RKO was fast-tracking Hell’s Highway, which combines Burns and Maillefert’s stories into a narrative they hoped not to get sued overPrizing speed above all else, RKO got Hell’s Highway into theaters first on September 23rd, beating Fugitive to screens by almost two months (Laughter in Hell didn’t arrive until January of 1933). Brought to the screen by the famously combative director Rowland Brown, Hell’s Highway is cynical and punchy, but compromised by studio meddling.  The Warner Archive has made Hell’s Highway available on DVD as part of “Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9″, the latest in their series of pre-code DVD sets (it also includes Big City Blues, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, and Sell Anything).


The sole reason for Hell Highway’s being was to beat Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang into theaters, regardless how it accomplished that goal. Producer David O. Selznick and writers Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker, and Rowland Brown cobbled together a script culled from the Burns novel, the Maillefert story, and Agnes Christine Johnson’s Freedom, another book about chain gangs. Then Selznick cut out anything he thought might get them sued. This “original” tale focused on Duke Ellis (Richard Dix), a prisoner on a chain gang continually looking for an escape. He nearly breaks loose thanks to a distraction from the fortune-telling bigamist Matthew (Charles Middleton), but had to call it off when he discovers his young brother Johnny (Tom Brown) has been detained in the same camp. After a Maillefert-like prisoner dies in a sweatbox, the inmates start advocating for revolt. Johnny receives word that Duke is about to be extradited to Michigan to serve a life sentence, so Johnny decides to bust Duke loose. The attempted escape triggers an all out riot that burns the prison camp to the ground, and Duke and Johnny try to stumble their way to survival.


Brown gets a lot of mileage out of symmetrical shots out of chained feet, men lined up at the cafeteria table and trudging to work to build a road. They are effectively dehumanized, herded like cattle and whipped like dogs. Duke is the one who can’t be broken, a hard-bitten cynic who seems to have been raised in jails and resents every authority figure he’s ever met. The warden and all the guards are depicted as ignorant goofs or sadistic fascists, not exceptions but representatives of a violent system. It is missing I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang’s  meticulous attention to detail and Laughter in Hell’s death-drive delirium, but it does have dirt and grime and an atmosphere of desperation, ably lensed by DP Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait).


Martin Scorsese was a fan, and wrote for TCM, “There are moments that you will never forget. There’s a remarkable scene that we included in my documentary on American cinema: the prisoner played by Richard Dix is about to be whipped by a guard, who suddenly flinches when he sees the tattoo on Dix’s back and recognizes that he’s a fellow WWI vet. And there’s another passage that is quite unlike anything else in American cinema of the period, in which the story of a cuckolded guard and his cheating wife is told in an impromptu Frankie and Johnny ballad.” The latter is a bizarre interlude unrelated to the rest of the action. There is a group of black prisoners, segregated from the whites, who sing spirituals in their off hours. But one of them is a talented caricaturist, and sketches out a few cartoon panels of one of the guard’s cheating wife. The story is told through song. It is graphic, funny, and a completely different tone from the quiet desperation of the rest of the feature. It’s hard to say why Selznick did not cut that sequence, when he did so many more, as well as re-shooting the ending. He had John Cromwell come in to shoot an absurdly upbeat ending that inserts a benevolent bureaucrat who punishes the staff and implicitly exonerates the prison-industrial system.


Director Rowland Brown is one of those great Hollywood enigmas. He only directed three well-regarded films (Quick Millions, Blood Money and Hell’s Highway) before reportedly punching out a producer and never directing again, though he maintained a career as a writer up through the ’50s (he received a story credit on Kansas City Confidential (’52)). He was born in Ohio, and got his start in the arts as an illustrator and sports cartoonist. He eventually moved to Los Angeles and became a day laborer at the studios. According to James Curtis’ Spencer Tracy biography Brown, “turned to screenwriting under the auspices of the late Kenneth Hawks [Howard’s brother], went to Universal for a short while, then sold a grim mob story, “A Handful of Clouds”, to Warner Brothers, shot as The Doorway to Hell (1930, directed by Archie Mayo). Brown was reportedly involved with the mob, and was rumored to have made a living as a bootlegger during prohibition, and was said to have been an acquaintance of Bugsy Siegel. This all lent an air of legitimacy to his gangster films, and perhaps got him the opportunity to direct his script for Quick Millions (1931), a movie about a small time protections racket starring Spencer Tracy. What is remarkable about Brown is how much remains unclear. It doesn’t seem like anyone knows for sure his true relationship to the mob, or who he actually punched at RKO. It was rumored to be David O. Selznick or Frank Davis, the producer on The Devil is a Sissy, from which Brown was fired and replaced by W.S. Van Dyke. Let’s just say I will buy the Rowland Brown biography if it is ever published.


Despite it’s beating I Am a Fugitive On a Chain Gang into theaters, the comparatively slim and cheap Hell’s Highway was soon overwhelmed at the box office, and it has disappeared from view aside from the chatter of a few Rowland Brown cultists. It is a strange, tough little film with a grim view of American incarceration, one that was kneecapped by Selznick’s re-shoots, but one that still retains its ability to shock.


October 27, 2015


After a career of making B-pictures for Columbia and Poverty Row, Joseph H. Lewis signed a contract with MGM in 1950. His calling card was Gun Crazy (1950), a daring crime film whose location photography and long-take heist sequence created a buzz in Hollywood, if not at the box office. MGM executive Dore Schary screened the film at his home, and brought Lewis into the fold. They sold him on the idea of making a documentary portrait of Cuban immigrants, “no actors, done with all portable equipment”, but this bold experiment never materialized. The idea was recycled into the Hedy Lamarr vehicle  A Lady Without Passport (1950), which was Lewis’ directorial debut for MGM. Their artsy hire became just another contract director. But Lewis was used to working miracles off of threadbare scripts – he earned the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe” on B Westerns by continually bisecting his compositions with wheel spokes. One of the most delirious examples from this period is Cry of the Hunted (1953), about the manhunt of an escaped prisoner through the Louisiana bayou, that Warner Archive has just issued on DVD. Lewis takes every opportunity to ratchet up the intensity: he pushes into extreme close-ups to emphasize flop sweat, lenses a fog-choked hallucination brought on by swallowing swamp water, and captures intense on-location footraces up the Angels Flight funicular in Los Angeles and long take brawls through the Louisiana Bayou. The characters don’t have time to take breaths, and in its svelte 80 minutes, neither does the viewer.


Cry of the Hunted was shot in September of 1952 in Los Angeles and the Louisiana bayou, an ambitious schedule for a B picture. But even MGM’s B films were done at budgets higher than Lewis was used to. He recalled to Peter Bogdanovich in Who the Devil Made It:  “At Metro, I found when I had a sequence to shoot with fog in it, they wanted to give me two huge stages and build a whole swamp set, put a boat in there and everything. I knew what that meant: you’d fog up the scene and after you made a shot, you’d have to wait for a half hour of forty-five minutes until the huge fans blew out all the old smoke. Right? Well, that was the Metro way. I wasn’t about to do that – I wanted to do it on the outside, which we did eventually.” Lewis was always trying to get outside and onto the streets and the dirt – thinking it was cheaper to find something ready-made than have it constructed. This was not quite the MGM way, and this made him an odd fit at the company, and he often regretted signing the deal.


The screenplay by Jack Leonard is fairly elemental. Jory (Vittorio Gassman), a petty Cajun criminal, has been imprisoned for driving the getaway car at a robbery. Lt. Tunner (Barry Sullivan) had been tasked with getting Jory to talk and incriminate his heist-mates. When Jory busts out of jail, he lams it for Louisiana. It is up to Tunner and his rotund partner Goodwin (a sardonic William Conrad) to wade through the swamps and the quicksand to find Jory and bring him back to justice.


The energy lags anytime there is a scene indoors, whether it’s at the prison Warden’s office handing Tunner his detail or it’s the Lieutenant at home, making nice with his improbably perky wife (she mixes him martinis for his manhunt picnic basket). These are script pages to plow through, an assignment to complete. But the film comes alive outside. The first galvanic scene is Jory’s escape, which happens during a car accident when they are transferring him back to jail. After being harangued in the backseat by Goodwin’s threatening banter (William Conrad plays his cop as a smiling sociopath), he springs loose on a Los Angeles street following a head on collision. Lewis seems to feel as suddenly free  as Jory, capturing Gassman hoofing it towards the Angels Flight funicular with the piston-like form of Tom Cruise. The funicular was a transport from Downtown to the working class neighborhood of Bunker Hill. The history and various incarnations of Angels Flight were dissected in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, a history of the city on-screen. This instance is particularly notable, for Lewis jams a camera into one of the cars as it travels up, and shots Conrad (or his stand-in) as they race up a staircase across the way.


The scenes shot on the Louisiana Bayou are less urgent and more atmospheric – sweaty, sticky sequences where everything seems to be sinking into a bog. Lewis’s use of extreme close-ups becomes even more prominent, pushing his camera straight into the sweat ridges on male foreheads. Forward motion becomes impossible through the thick swamp, dotted as it is by quicksand, crocs, and disfigured Cajun soothsayers who scream for their lost loved ones (“Raul! Raul!”, she yells, to no response). Tunner even hallucinates being choked by the fog (and by Jory), a fever dream of elongated giant shadows towering over him and his hospital bed – it’s an impossibly strange bit of surrealist cinema for a MGM programmer.  With all of this insanity, the easy thing for Tunner and Jory to do would be to sink and disappear, but they keep fighting until the swamps threaten to consume them. They are ready to be devoured until a miraculous last act of heroism by the previously self-serving Goodwin. It’s an improbable end to a story that seemed destined to dissolve in the muck, but that’s Hollywood for you. And that’s Joseph H. Lewis for you as well, finding visual intensities from script inanities.


October 20, 2015


When Helen Hayes was cast in the 1926 Broadway production of What Every Woman Knows, she was not yet “The First Lady of the American Theater”. According to the show’s producer William A. Brady, she had previously been “deep in the high heels and lipstick business – flapper roles”. It was with the part of the pragmatic “Maggie” in J.A. Barrie’s 1908 play, a Scottish battle of the sexes, that she established the Hayes persona, her civilized veneer holding back a mischievous spirit. The show ran for 268 performances and rave reviews. After further Broadway successes in Coquette (’27) and The Good Fairy (’31), she signed with MGM in 1931 to extend her career into the movies. It seemed natural to have her return to her breakthrough role, and What Every Woman Knows was directed by Gregory La Cava in 1934 – available now on DVD from the Warner Archive. But it was a frustrating experience for all involved, hampered by poor test screenings and re-shoots. Hayes was so disappointed in the process she stopped acting in films for nearly two decades. Regardless of the off-screen dramas, the film itself is a charming comedy about a smart young spinster who manipulates the men in her life into prominence, becoming a behind-the-scenes power broker. It is a rare treat to see Hayes reprise her star-making role, and it is a layered performance built on hundreds of stage repetitions, in which every glance is like a conductor’s wand, controlling the men around her.


Hayes may have first become wary of cinema during that initial Broadway run of What Every Woman Knows at the Bijou Theater in 1926. As she was performing,  MGM’s epic WWI movie The Big Parade was screening next door at the Astor, and the live accompaniment was so loud it would reportedly startle the Bijou performers (per Ken Bloom’s BroadwayAn Encyclopedia). She would recover enough to take MGM’s money and immediately win a Best Actress Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), and was radiantly innocent in Frank Borzage’s adaptation of A Farewell to Arms (’32).


What Every Woman Knows had already been filmed in a 1917 British version and a 1921 Paramount Production starring Lois Wilson. But enough time had passed for MGM to take their shot, and they had the definitive “Maggie” to go with it, so they paid Paramount $65,000 for the rights to J.A. Barrie’s play. It is set in the village of Kilburne, Scotland and concerns Maggie Wylie (Hayes), a plain, rather brilliant 26-year-old whose family fears she will become a spinster. With her mother passed on, she is surrounded by her father Alick (David Torrence), and her two brothers James (a delightfully dopey Dudley Digges) and David (a starchy Donald Crisp). A few betrothals have fallen apart, and the male Wylies become desperate to marry her off, while Maggie endures them with a twinkle in her eye. The family sees an opportunity in John Shand (Brian Aherne) when they catch him breaking into their library to study, for he’s too poor to attend school. So the Wylies propose to pay for his schooling if he signs a contract promising to marry Maggie after his graduation in five years. The contract is adhered to, and suddenly John is thrust into a race to become MP. Maggie is by his side, and his ear, guiding him to higher positions. The only threat to her ascent is the beautiful socialite and political operator Lady Sybil (Madge Evans), who has her own designs on John, but Maggie has a plan for her too.


Maggie operates in a suffocating patriarchy in which her only value to her family is through marriage, so while they love and adore her, they are desperate to get her out of the house. The early scenes are fascinating for how lightly Hayes plays them as her fate is decided by men sitting around a table. She blames her lack of “charm” for not getting a husband, and continues to flit around the house seemingly oblivious to the monumental changes her life is about to undertake. Whether she is accepting a present or a husband, her reaction is the same, with a benign, half-smiled acceptance. This false “lightness” is conveyed through her lilting Scotch burr as well as her walk. The one aspect of her that can’t lie is her eyes, and director Gregory La Cava, a wonderful director of actresses (Bebe Daniels in Feel My Pulse, Constance Bennett in Bed of Roses), has the blocking in the frame dictated by her gaze. Men are the filaments to her magnet, shifting around her as she tilts her head. While she cannot run for political office due to her sex, she can control their actions from her boudoir.


After a poor test screening in Los Angeles, La Cava brought the cast and crew back into the studio for retakes, saying, “every Joe Miller Scotch joke ever written” would be thrown in to please the audience (Joe Miller’s Jests was an English joke book from 1739), though Hayes recalled that none of the 18th century bon mots made it into the film. She was unhappy with the production, though it received decent reviews (the NY Times called it “heart-warming and decidedly effective”. She threatened to no-show her next assignment, Vanessa: Her Love Story (’35), but did the job to avoid getting sued. Through with Hollywood, she would devote the rest of her career to the stage, returning to TV and film intermittently (memorably so in Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952)). What Every Woman Knows was a project La Cava and Hayes would both like to forget, but my job is to keep people from forgetting. It is a loose and amiable film with an alert, masterful performance at its center.


September 15, 2015


In 1935 Kay Francis was one of the highest paid women in Hollywood, a glamorous star who set fashion trends based on the gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her. In 1939 Warner Brothers terminated her contract. This rapid fall from corporate favor is documented in three films the Warner Archive recently released on DVD:  I Found Stella Parish (’35), The White Angel (’36), and Confession (’37). All feature Francis as the suffering center, absorbing the sins of the world in sacrifice for the virtues of motherhood and mercy, expressed in extreme close-ups where Francis radiates a divine glow. Stella Parish and Confession are urban melodramas that offer Francis the opportunity for multiple hair and costume changes, one of the main pleasures of any Francis film, whereas The White Angel, a Florence Nightingale biopic, keeps her in heavy woolen nursing gear. It was the latter that disappointed Warners. It was perceived as a flop (though it actually turned a profit), and started the downshift in her career. None of these movies are masterpieces (see Trouble in Paradise for that), but contain the compensatory pleasures of any Francis film – gorgeous gowns, a dizzying array of haircuts, and a heart-tugging melodrama of female self-sacrifice.

I Found Stella Parish, directed by studio stalwart Mervyn Leroy (I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang) was such a success on its New York opening that WB extended Francis’ contract well before it was to expire. Based on a John Monk Saunders story called “The Judas Tree”, it is the story of London stage sensation Stella Parish (Francis), who disappears right after another smash hit debuts. A shadowy figure from her past appears in her dressing room, threatening to reveal a violent secret. In order to protect her daughter, Parish flees home to the US, and is trailed by a reporter, who reveals her past involvement in a murder case. Fashion is closely tied to identity. On the ship from London to the US,Francis hides her identity as a gray-haired granny in what looks like conservative mourning clothes. When she takes off the wig and returns to her natural age, reality sets in, the past still on her trail.

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Parish abandons her daughter to keep her free of scandal, and hits the stage to cash in on her newfound fame. Francis goes from grand dame lead in London to vaudeville circuit curiosity, her wardrobe getting tawdry, her language salty. There are no surprises in the film, but it hits its marks, and Francis is reliably stunning in Orrin-Kelly’s draping, backless gowns, and she positively glows with mother-love:


The White Angel is something else entirely, a drab biopic of Florence Nightingale’s reformation of England’s nursing corps during WWI. Director William Dieterle, who had directed Francis before in the fast-paced screwball heist film Jewel Robbery (’32), seems bored with the material, as does most of the cast and crew, although there are a few nice tracking shots of Nightingale checking on wounded veterans, lit only by a lantern. But Francis wasn’t right for the role, and she knew it: “I shudder to think of that one”, she said in 1938:


More importantly, the studio was displeased. Producer Hal Wallis:  “In scene after scene, reacting to the sight of the injured…she looked completely blank. We weren’t too happy with the picture. The White Angel was well directed, but miscast, and Kay Francis had lost the box office she once had. It was one of our box office failures.” Though he overstated the financial failure (it made $886,000 domestically on a $506,00 budget), the perception was something of a disaster. And once she lost that shine, she had trouble getting it back, not that WB was giving her great opportunities to succeed.


Confession (1937) is the most fascinating film of the three (and the least successful at the box office), directed by German expat Joe May (Asphalt). The film was a remake of the Pola Negri movie Mazurka (1935), and reportedly May was militant about copying the film down to the second, showing up to the set with a stopwatch to make sure the shot length matched exactly. The movie has a complex flashback structure, delving into the past of Vera (Francis), as she is being tried for murder. A one-time actress in operettas for Michael Michailow (Basil Rathbone), she had later married, divorced, and lost her daughter in the split. Each phase of her life brings a different haircut and wardrobe, from the chin-length blonde locks of her court date, to a curly golden wig of her nightclub routine, back to her days as a happy-go-lucky brunette. Francis doesn’t even appear in the film for the first twenty minutes, a bold narrative strategy that focuses on secondary characters in elaborate tracking shot sequences, in and around a transit station, and then up and through a dinner theater. The lengthy prologue ends with Francis in a tacky patterned dress and wig, desperate to end that segment of her life. And so she does, with a gunshot to her male tormentor’s torso. The film has a strong sense of female solidarity, as Vera finds sympathy and tenderness from the second wife of her husband  and the estranged daughter who was the cause of it all. The intensity of that bond is terribly moving, and May’s roving camera and cluttered mise-en-scene provides a background of  a life in disarray. After the disappointing returns on The White Angel and Confession, WB started giving her cheaper projects, eventually shunting her off to their B unit, until they terminated her contract in 1939.

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July 28, 2015


In the summer of 1956, Sam Fuller took a 50% stake in Globe Enterprises, an independent production company that would strike deals with RKO, Twentieth-Century Fox, and Columbia for financing and distribution. He received creative control over his projects, and though this setup only lasted through 1961, he made six strong films with Globe: Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Verboten!, The Crimson Kimono, and Underworld U.S.A. His first Globe production, Run of the Arrow (’57), is now available on a long-overdue DVD from the Warner Archive, and reflects the unusual freedom Fuller secured himself in this period. It is a prickly, jumpy Western in which a post-Civil War Confederate loyalist named O’Meara (Rod Steiger) joins the Sioux in order to fight against the United States. It depicts America as a land of perpetual warfare, one in which race and cultural hatreds are reconfigured to justify the current battle, whether without or within. It is a film of jagged rhythms, its chase scenes broken into extreme long shots and close-ups, which are then followed by minutes-long takes of two-shot conversations. At no point does one feel settled or comfortable regarding a character’s motivations or their position in space, and that is how Fuller wanted it.


In the June 24, 1956 issue of the New York Times, Sam Fuller talked to Oscar Godbout about his new production, then called “Arrow”:  “This is a post-Civil War frontier story that will contain, according to Mr. Fuller, parallels between that period and the difficult social transition now roiling the South. He will be disappointed if it does not provide thinking material for the intellectually committed on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.” From the beginning Fuller conceived it as a story about Southern Whites, and their violent reactions against threats to their power. In the film O’Meara fires the last shot of the Civil War, which just misses the heart of Union Lt. Driscoll (Ralph Meeker). While his family encourages him to return home and accept the Confederate defeat, O’Meara wants to fight on. He figures the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so he heads West into Sioux territory, where he befriends the returning Indian scout Walking Coyote (Jay C. Flippen). They are captured by renegade Sioux warrior Crazy Wolf (H.M. Wynant), and in order to avoid execution, agree to try the (invented by Fuller) “Run of the Arrow”. It is a barefooted chase where they receive a head start based on the distance of an arrow shot by the pursuers.  O’Meara survives through the help of Yellow Moccasin (Sarita Montiel, who’s voice is dubbed by Angie Dickinson), the inevitably beautiful young Sioux who falls in love with him. For surviving the run, he is granted safe passage by Chief Blue Buffalo (a bronzed Charles Bronson), but instead O’Meara chooses to stay with the tribe and become a member of their society, taking Yellow Moccasin as his wife and the orphaned mute kid Silent Tongue (Billy Miller) as his son. But the U.S. Army wants to build a fort in Sioux territory, and they send Lt. Driscoll to protect U.S. interests. O’Meara is sent as the Sioux emissary, to guide Driscoll to build on neutral ground. But Driscoll is an irritable, racist warmonger, and rattles his saber until he gets the fight he was begging for.


The head of RKO, William Dozier, was an admirer of Fuller’s newspaper drama Park Row, and gave him the green light to make the project. These were the last days of RKO as a producer/distributor, and by the time Run of the Arrow was ready for release, it was Universal-International that handled it. While Fuller had control of his script, he needed Dozier’s approval for the cast. They had a stark disagreement for the lead actor. Dozier wanted Gary Cooper, while Fuller argued strenuously for the young method actor Rod Steiger. Steiger had made an impression in supporting roles in On the Waterfront and a slew of television dramas, and Fuller felt he was perfect for the part: “I need the opposite of Cooper. The character’s hateful, a misfit. I want this newcomer, Steiger. He’s got a sour face and a fat ass. He’ll look awkward, especially when he climbs up on a horse. See, my yarn’s about a sore loser, not a gallant hero” (from Fuller’s autobio, A Third Face). Dozier caved, and Steiger got his first starring role. Fuller had a tense relationship with his leading man, who, the director noted, “tended to overact”.  And one’s opinion of the film can hinge on the reaction Steiger’s performance, which is mannered, mumbly and admirably off-putting.


One of the more remarkable sequences occurs about an hour in, a conversation between O’Meara and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), who is leading the Army engineers to build a new fort. In an unbroken shot that lasts 4 minutes and 25 seconds, DP Joseph Biroc captures a relatively simple two-shot in which the formerly warring duo discusses the future of their country. It begins with everyday concerns, Clark complaining about his saddle, and tracks a few feet to a rest area with covered wagons and a table. “You’re not the only Johnny Reb fighting a one-man war against the United States, you know. Some of them went down to South America.”, Clark says, as he stares down into a few coffee mugs, tossing the old brew out of a few before he finds a clean one. He sits at the right edge of the frame. O’Meara standing off to the left,  claims that this part of the country isn’t part of the United States, and sits down with the words, “we had a right to fight for our rights”, while accepting a cup from Clark. The camera pushes in as O’Meara inveighs “The Union be damned, the Union be damned…we don’t like you makin’ up laws…We’ll go down like a free, White, Christian country.” Clark laughs, “Free, white and Christian, eh. Burning crosses and hiding under pillowcases and terrorizing families. Free, white and Christian!” Brian Keith delivers that devastating line with a smirk, eyeing Steiger to his right. Steiger clenches up, raises both hands to his cup and says, as if a chastened child, “I don’t know anything about that, sir.” Clark sarcastically responds with, “It’s always the other guy.”


The word “black” or “slave” is never uttered, but the righteous fire briefly dims in Steiger’s eyes, quickly acknowledging and then repressing what underlies a white Southerner’s freedom in post-Civil War America. Or a Northerner’s, for that matter. Captain Clark doesn’t last long, and Lt. Driscoll takes over. If Clark is dreaming of a better Union, Driscoll dreams only of colonization and subjugation. Every power structure in the film is split, internal battles spilling out into exterior ones. The Sioux are riven with dissension between the pragmatic Red Cloud (Frank de Kova) and the warlike Crazy Wolf, and the South has O’Meara’s mother preaching reconciliation with the North, while her son is a staunch separatist. These coalitions are repeatedly jumbled until alliances become meaningless, and all that’s left are the hatreds left undissipated by years of war and bloodshed. Fuller ends the film with the on-screen exhortation, “The end of this story can only be written by you!” Looking back at race relations in the United States in the 58 years since the film’s release, it now reads like an accusation.


July 14, 2015

Last week Warner Archive snuck out a minor announcement with major implications. Six martial arts films from Golden Harvest studios were made available in HD on their Instant streaming service, in their original language and aspect ratios. Golden Harvest was the proving ground for Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan,  Sammo Hung and Jet Li, producing some of the most enduring kung fu films from the 1970s through the ’90s. These days Golden Harvest has segued from production to exhibition, and their classic titles remain frustratingly hard to see in decent transfers. Warner Brothers owns the U.S. rights to part of their catalog, and the initial six titles are only the beginning. On their Twitter feed Warner Archive promised, “we’re just starting to tackle the domestically unreleased Golden Harvest library”.  Available now to stream on Warner Archive Instant are: Downtown Torpedoes (1997), Big Bullet (1996) , The Blade (1995), Blade of Fury (1993), Pedicab Driver (1989)  & Terracotta Warrior (1989). While many of these titles are far overdue for release on DVD and Blu-ray, the fact that WB is preparing HD masters of these films is reason for optimism. I started the month-long free trial of their Instant service to check out Sammo Hung’s Pedicab Driver, an irresistible showcase for his knockabout acrobatics that packs in a public transit war, human trafficking, and Triad gangs into its 90-odd minutes.

Golden Harvest was formed in 1970 by Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, two former employees of the Shaw Brothers studio. Shaw Brothers was then the largest production operation in China, specializing in historical martial arts films like King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967) and Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman (1967).  Golden Harvest would become their main competitor, poaching director King Hu and most importantly Bruce Lee, who was on the cusp of superstardom. The gargantuan success of Lee’s The Big Boss (1971), The Chinese Connection (’72), The Way of the Dragon (’72) and Enter the Dragon (’73) secured the company’s financial future, allowing them to invest in talents like Sammo Hung. Hung came up through the brutal training of the Peking Opera, enrolling in Yu Zhanyuan’s China Drama Academy at the age of nine, studying acrobatics, martial arts, singing and dancing, along with future co-stars Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. They endured painful tests like maintaining a handstand on a stool for one hour. Hung’s parents enrolled him, he told the New York Times, because, “I was never good at school and was always fighting in the streets. So they sent me to learn to fight.” He was a senior member of the “Seven Little Fortunes” performing troupe, and became known as “Big Brother” to Biao and Chan. In 1971 Golden Harvest hired him as a martial arts instructor on The Fast Sword, and thus began a two-decade association with the company, where he worked with everyone from King Hu (The Valiant Ones) to Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon). He directed his first feature in 1977 with The Iron-Fisted Monk, and would gain success by working with Biao and breakout star Chan — directing hits like Winners & Sinners (’83) and Wheels On Meals (’84).

By ’89 Hung’s relationship with Golden Harvest was strained. His films were getting more ambitious and expensive, including the globe-hopping martial arts Western Millionaire’s Express (’86) and the post-Vietnam War commando movie Eastern Condors (’87), but the box office returns were not keeping pace. Pedicab Driver was a back-to-basics fight film set in 1930s Macau involving a group of pedicab operator friends who get mixed up with a Triad gang. There are few sets but plenty of brawling, and the tone ping-pongs from slapstick comedy to dark melodrama and back again, with the whipsawing speed representative of Hong Kong films of this period (and of pre-code Hollywood films). Sammo Hung plays Lo Tung, a leader of the pedicab union who bikes around town in a bowl cut, checked shirt and suspenders. He looks like an overgrown child in lumberjack costume, but when he throws down, his blows land like giant redwoods to the face. He pals around with a driver nicknamed Malted Candy (Max Mok) who thinks he has found his dream girl in Hsiao-Tsui (Fennie Yuen). However, she is paying off her debts to gang leader Master 5 (John Shum) by working at a brothel. When Malted Candy tries to buy Hsiao-Tsui’s freedom, he invokes Master 5′s wrath. Lo Tung, Malted Candy and their friends are faced with a fight for their lives. Approximately five hundred other things happen, including Lo Tung’s romancing of a bakery girl named Ping (Nina Li Chi), but that is the kernel of the digressive story.

Pedicab Driver contains some of the finest fight choreography of Hung’s career, combining Looney Tunes lunacy and more traditional sparring. The absurdity is stacked up front when the pedicab operators get into a brawl with rickshaw drivers in a cavernous restaurant. Hung makes his entrance by leaping over a rail with the ease of a man a fraction his size. There is supposed to be a negotiation, a splitting of work between the two tribes, but it soon devolves into fisticuffs involving Three Stooges-esque eye pokes and Star Wars parodies. At one point Yuen Biao pulls down a long fluorescent bulb from the ceiling and wields it like a lightsaber. His opponent does the same, and a brief saber duel occurs (with requisite sound effects) until both men get electrocuted  like Wile E. Coyote at an Acme Electrical Line.

The most thrilling bout in the film has no bearing on the plot. After an intensely dangerous pedicab car chase, Lo Tung and Ping crash into a gambling hall. The managers insist upon recompense until their the den boss (Lau Kar-leung) decides to settle it with a fight. This fight represents a generational battle, between a Shaw Brothers legend in Lau versus the more modern, manic and comical Golden Harvest performer in Sammo Hung. Hung begins with a sneak attack, trying to catch Lau unawares. But Lau has those quick, deep strikes that continually send Hung to the ground. Hung tries clowning for distraction, but is thrown through a wall of strategically placed bamboo. Then there is an intricate battle of dueling staffs that (see above) Hung attempts to use his acrobatic skill to evade. But again he is struck down. Eventually he is pinned with his feet over his head, and admits defeat. But Lau sets him free, admitting respect for Hung’s skill, and that he was the only fighter he ever made him afraid he might lose. It is a sweaty, sweet, passing of the torch.

The streaming video was sharp and clean, aside from some speckling during the slow-motion sequences. The subtitles had their fair share of typos, but nothing to distract from the presentation (be sure to click the CC button to turn them on).

The film shifts into darker territory with Malted Candy and Hsiao-Tsui. Master 5′s operation is built on total control of his rapt criminal network, from his indentured servants (prostitutes, hired thugs) to the addicts and johns that fill his coffers. Malted Candy initially reacts to the news of Hsiao-Tsui’s work with chauvinistic horror – she is a “bitch” for resorting to prostitution. But his friends argue him back to sanity, that it is the male populace who condones and perpetuates the sex worker trade, and that Hsiao-Tsui is just doing what she can to get by. Their brief reunion is thwarted by Master 5, who sends his anonymous top assassin (a lithe, hard-kicking Billy Chow) to erase them from his books. Billy Chow is the real villain here, a quiet psychopath who waits his turn after all the pawns have been cleared from the stage. In the climactic battle at Master 5′s mansion, he sits at a table slurping soup as Lo Tung annihilates what’s left of the hired goons. His patience comes from confidence, and the final bout between him and Lo Tung is a brutal succession of high-impact maneuvers. There is none of the subtlety and grace of the fight with Lau here, this one is all deliberately paced destruction set to the tempo of move/rest/strong move.  Lo Tung is victorious of course, a roly-poly hero beaten, bloodied, and exhausted. That’s the state of Sammo Hung after most of his features from this period, leaving it all up on the screen. Hopefully Warner Brothers and the Warner Archive will continue to create HD masters of Sammo Hung’s sacrifices.


June 23, 2015


After the conclusion of WWII, the subject of the returning soldier became a popular one in B-movies, with the image of a dazed G-man wandering desolate back alleys becoming cinematic shorthand for post-traumatic stress. While the prestige pics explored how the soldiers’ physical toll left psychological scars (The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines), the Bs were blunter in opting for amnesiac narratives, in which the veterans have lost all memory of their war efforts, and have to piece it back together, usually in a labyrinthine urban environment (Somewhere in the NightThe Crooked Way). These stories usually find a way to reconstitute these broken men and integrate them back into America. The Clay Pigeon (1949) is a particularly effective film noir of this type, directed by Richard Fleischer from a Carl Foreman script for RKO, soon after Howard Hughes took over. Released by the Warner Archive on DVD this month, its post-war America is one of paranoia and betrayal, where one is guilty until proven innocent.


Jim Fletcher (Bill Williams) awakens from a coma in a San Diego hospital to feel a blind man’s hands around his throat. “I just want to find out what a dirty traitor looks like”, the man says, and Jim is thrust into the mystery of his life. He remembers nothing after his internment in a Japanese prison, nor why the staff of the military hospital treats him with disdain. He asks his nurse, “Is the war over?” She responds, “For some people it’ll never be over.” Fletcher is set to be court-martialed for the the torture killing of his friend and fellow-soldier Mark Gregory. Unaware of his own guilt, Fletcher stumbles into an escape, and searches for the truth to his past, dragging along Gregory’s widow Martha (Barbara Hale) and his army buddy Jim Niles (future director Richard Quine). In San Francisco he spots his Japanese prison guard, who seems to be connected to a larger conspiracy fronted by a U.S. business.


Richard Fleischer and Carl Foreman had first collaborated on So This is New York (1948) , the debut film for Stanley Kramer Productions, in which Foreman was a partner. Fleischer was under contract to RKO, having only made two Sharyn Moffett cute-kid moppet movies up until that point. But Kramer had admired the first of those, Child of Divorce (1946), and one of the co-screenwriters, Hubert Baker, was a school friend from Yale. The head of RKO’s B unit, Sid Rogell, had nothing for Fleischer to do after the second Moffett film, Banjo (1947), bombed at the box office. So he lent Fleischer to Kramer to direct their Ring Lardner adaptation, So This is New York. Fleischer describes his relationship with Foreman in his autobiography, Just Tell Me When to Cry:

When So This is New York was finished and I had returned to RKO serfdom, there was a long hiatus for the Kramer Company, and Carl needed a job. He had an idea for an original story called The Clay Pigeon, and I convinced Rogell to hire him to develop it into a screenplay. Carl and I both lived in the San Fernando Valley at that time, so we drove to and from work together every day. It was on one of those drives that Carl came up with an interesting suggestion. He said, “Look, since we have to spend almost two hours a day in the car, why don’t we use that time to develop a story idea I’ve got in mind?” …So over the next eight weeks, Carl and I developed the story and characters for High Noon. When the script of The Clay Pigeon was finished, Rogell called me into his office. “This is pretty poor stuff,” he said…”I don’t think your friend is going to amount to much as a writer.” He then proceeded to replace the future author of such screenplays as High Noon, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone with Lilly Hayward, the author of Banjo. My RKO contract eventually kept me from directing High Noon, although I did get to do The Clay Pigeon. It was not what could be called a good trade-off.

Just Tell Me When to Cry is one of the more self-deprecating director autobiographies you’ll read, as he’s always quick to run down his own career. So though he contextualizes The Clay Pigeon as a stepping stone of Foreman’s way to High Noon, it’s a worthy film in its own right.


Fleischer disorients us from the beginning, opening with a shot of a blind man’s hands ready to grasp Fletcher’s throat. Foreman’s script keeps the audience as equally in the dark as Fletcher – where even a sainted figure as the army nurse is antagonistic. Star Bill Williams still has the baby fat good-boy look of an approved American hero, so it’s jarring to see him as an accused war criminal, shown early on throwing Martha around in an attempt to stifle her screams. He is only trying to quiet her to beg his innocence, but in these early scenes there still exists an edge of danger, proof that extremes of violence do hide inside of him. Bill Williams was an athlete and performer from a young age, a professional swimmer and later an exhibition diver and Vaudeville adagio dancer. He enlisted in the Army and was discharged for medical reasons. He seems unusually stiff in his movements here, betraying his hoofer past, but he had been recovering from a back injury and had not acted in a year (his most enduring role was as the title character of the tv series The Adventures of Kit Carson).

the clap pigeon 1949

The turning point in Fletcher’s investigation is the appearance of Ken Tokoyama (Richard Loo) in San Francisco, who was the most vicious guard at the prison camp Fletcher and his unit were kept in. His presence triggers Fletcher’s memory and solves the mystery of his own guilt. This could easily have devolved into a racist narrative justifying the internment of Asian-Americans during WWII, but Foreman was a political progressive, at one time a card carrying Communist who would later refuse to testify in front of HUAC, and undercuts it with a moving scene of Japanese-American integrity. As Fletcher is running from both a criminal syndicate and the police, he rushes inside a city apartment, and begs the woman there to hide him. Helen Minoto (Marya Marco) is a Japanese-American war widow, with her decorated late husband’s photo displayed prominently on the mantelpiece. She speaks without the insulting accent of most Asians in Hollywood films, and chooses to hide him because she can tell the thugs outside are not cops. When Fletcher tells her he cannot thank her enough, she simply says, “then don’t try”, and escorts him out. It is a scene that movingly depicts the contributions of Japanese-Americans to the US war effort at the same time they were being persecuted at home.

Fleischer and Foreman might prefer you forget this relatively unknown programmer from 1949, which does indeed end by putting Fletcher together again and thrusting him back into the expected narrative of postwar American life (wife and expected child), but The Clay Pigeon is worth remembering for the steely look on Marya Marco’s face as she directs Bill Williams out the door, a secret smile crawling across her face, treating the tragedies that surround her as one grand, private joke.


May 12, 2015


When sound came to cinema, the musical came along with it. The tremendous box office returns of The Jazz Singer (1927) had producers reeling, and the market was soon flooded with song and dance. But the Depression-era audiences began tuning them out,  preferring the patter of William Powell to the tapping of another chorine. By 1931 the studios had slashed musicals from their slates and were brainstorming what went wrong. In the May 1931 issue of the Motion Picture Herald, Paramount’s Jesse Lasky was optimistic about the future of the genre:

A gradual but inevitable return of music to the screen is predicted by Lasky. He believes the future will bring a sprinkling of operettas, a reasonable number of musical comedies, dramatic pictures with backgrounds of symphony orchestras. Citing the public’s attitude toward musical comedies, he contends that picture audiences were given something before they were prepared for it. “There is merely a need of a little more skillful technique and a better understanding on the part of the public”, explained Lasky. “The public was not prepared for the license of the musical comedy. For years we had trained the public to realism. The stage naturally had a dramatic license which was impossible in pictures. Audiences could not get used to music coming from nowhere on the screen. Nevertheless, musical comedies will come back and the public will become accustomed to that form of entertainment. In the next two or three years they will have forgotten that there ever was any question about musical comedies.”

In 1933 all questions were dropped after the massive success of WB’s 42nd Street, a snappy, streetwise backstage musical that introduced the world to the symmetrical spectacles of Busby Berkeley’s dance choreography. Now out on a sparkling Blu-ray from the Warner Archive, it’s clearer than ever why this was the film that brought the musical back into the spotlight.


Warner Brothers hitched itself to to the coattails of FDR, and in the publicity for 42nd Street declared the film “A New Deal in Entertainment!”.  The studio pitched their films at the working class, with James Cagney their pugnacious stand-in (he would star in WB’s next musical, Footlight Parade (’33)). These films depicted musicals as acts of labor, as groups of dancers, actors, singers, stagehands and directors worked together to make the show sing. Every character in the movie is looking for work, even the show’s star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) who remarks early on how the Depression has ruined her career. On the opposite end of the class spectrum is “Anytime Annie” (Ginger Rogers), who dresses up as an upper class twit, monocle and all, in order to fool the casting directors into hiring her (they see through her ruse – but cast her anyway).


Darryl Zanuck was the man who set it in motion. Studio head Harry Warner was still opposed to the musical genre after a series of flops, but Zanuck convinced him to take a chance, and assigned Rian James and James Seymour to adapt Bradford Ropes’ unpublished novel into a screenplay. Daniel Eagan suggests, in America’s Film Legacy, that Zanuck may have “fooled Harry and his other brothers into thinking the film would be a drama without songs and dances.” Whatever his rhetorical tricks, he was able to get the project greenlit. The story was about a director who risks his health to mount an expensive Broadway production. For the role of the hard-driving director Julian Marsh, Zanuck borrowed Warner Baxter from Fox, who had won the Best Actor Oscar in 1930 for In Old Arizona. The rest of the cast was filled out by WB contractees. Marsh’s leading lady Dorothy Brock was played by Bebe Daniels, who grew up on the stage, while the young ingenue role of Peggy Sawyer was given to Ruby Keeler, who was then married to talkie pioneer Al Jolson. Keeler had been offered the lead alongside Jolson in Fox’s Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, but turned it down because Jolson, according to Keeler, “would be worrying about my part as well as his own.” There was no such concern with 42nd Street, which made her a short-term star. Familiar, welcome faces like Guy Kibbee, George Brent and Dick Powell lent their inimitable support.

Julian Marsh is a sick man, but powers through a fraught rehearsal period to get the musical revue “Pretty Lady” into shape for the opening. But when star Dorothy Brock gets into a spat with the producer and source of cash, the whole production grinds to a halt. It’s up to fresh-faced newbie Peggy to step into the leading role, and it’s up to her whether “Pretty Lady” ever gets beyond previews.


The director was originally intended to be Mervyn LeRoy, but he got ill like Julian Marsh, after exhausting himself on the set of I Am a Fugitive on a Chain Gang (1932).  Lloyd Bacon sat in the director’s chair instead. One of Zanuck’s cost-cutting maneuvers was to split up production – Bacon would handle all the dialogue scenes, while Busby Berkeley would get his own production unit for the musical sequences that would close the film. They worked different days on different stages, but both shared DP Sol Polito. Berkeley was coming off a trio of films choreographing dance numbers for Samuel Goldwyn, but it was at Warner that Berkeley would develop his soon-to-be famous style of overhead shots of abstracted gams moving in patterned unison. His routines in 42nd Street are fairly tame compared to what came later in his career, staying tethered to stage musical reality. Though he and Polito manage to wend a camera through the legs of a throng of lined up models, and in the final “42nd Street” number recreates the fabled NYC block with a cutout skyline and a remarkably realistic apartment block, complete with stabbings.


The movie was a huge hit, and though it is filled with enthusiasm and sunny can-do spirit, there is an undertone of resignation veined throughout, present in the character of Julian Marsh. In one of the biggest downers in backstage musical history, instead of wrapping up with the triumphant opening night performance, it ends with a slumped over Marsh, sitting half dead on the back stairs, listening as the theater goers praise Peggy and demean him, crediting her with the show’s success. Future entries in the backstage cycle always sync the culmination of backstage romance with the on-stage performance, with both narrative strands uniting in a super-happy climax. But in 42nd Street there’s a disorienting disjunct between on and off stage, admitting that during the Depression hard work might not get you anything.


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.

BlackMidnight00005 BlackMidnight00030

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.


February 24, 2015


Johnny Mercer is one of the finest lyricists the United States has ever produced, contributing “Moon River”, “Fools Rush In” and “Days of Wine and Roses” to the Great American Songbook. Before he wrote that string of immortal hits, he tried (and folded) his hand at movie stardom, appearing in some sprightly B musicals for RKO starting in 1935. In the early 1930s Johnny Mercer was just another hard working lyricist, with his steadiest paycheck coming from the Paul Whiteman Orchestra as both writer and singer. He had made a name for himself in 1933 with “Lazybones”, written with Hoagy Carmichael, which attracted the attention of the aging but still popular “Pops” Whiteman. The hope was that Mercer could replace the recently departed Bing Crosby in his touring road show. The Savannah-born Mercer was paired with legendary Texas trombonist Jack Teagarden, and they formed a kind of Southern comedy duo, interpreting Fats Waller and “Harlemania” for the white masses. Their routines were enough to get the attention of Hollywood, and RKO lured him West. Mercer had dreams of contributing songs to major musicals, but he had to prove his mettle in the Bs first. The Warner Archive recently released a DVD of Mercer’s first two silver screen forays, the irresistible college comedy Old Man Rhythm (’35) and morbid farce  To Beat the Band (’35). These cheap B pictures are enlivened by the spectacular talents RKO had at its disposal, including  choreographer Hermes Pan, production designer Van Nest Polglase and director of photography Nicholas Musuraca (Cat People, Out of the Past). They are Bs that look like As, and though none of Mercer’s tunes in these films became standards, there were no duds. Billie Holiday agreed, and would record “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo” and “If You Were Mine” from To Beat the Band later in ’35.


Johnny Mercer had previously worked with RKO composer Lewis E. Gensler, who was the connection that got Mercer hired at the studio. Mercer was ignominiously assigned to Zion Myers’ production unit, which was the cheapest setup on the lot. Old Man Rhythm was Myers’ first feature as a producer, having just graduated from overseeing the parodic “Dogville” shorts, in which live canines parodied the top box office draws of the day (sample title:  The Dogway Melody). The experienced Edward Ludwig directed, and though he would later make fascinating films with John Wayne at Republic Pictures (like Wake of the Red Witch), there just wasn’t time to do more than shoot as quickly as possible, though he allows his talented collaborators to to go wild (the Hermes Pan dance numbers are uniformly a delight). Eight writers got their hands on the project as it went from treatment to story to script, but the plot couldn’t be simpler. Baby doll magnate John Roberts, Sr. (George Barbier) is concerned about his son Johnny’s (Charles Buddy Rogers) declining grades at University. He’s convinced Johnny’s latest girlfriend Marion (Grace Bradley) is distracting him from his studies, so the senior citizen decides to enroll at his son’s school as a freshman in order to meddle. He wants to break up Johnny and Marion, and re-direct his son’s gaze towards the “good” girl Edith (Barbara Kent).

Old Man Rythm 4

Interspersed are six songs with music by Gensler and lyrics by Mercer. Mercer also appears in the film as “Colonel”, a Southern layabout who memorably performs a soft shoe to “Comes the Revolution, Baby”  with Evelyn Poe, followed by the then unknown Betty Grable doing a remarkable en pointe tap routine (Lucille Ball is also credited as “College Girl”, but I didn’t spot her). The movie is an excuse for the musical sequences, and they are effervescent fun. Choreographer Hermes Pan was developing the gliding, naturalistic style he would perfect in the Astaire-Rogers films, and here you can see his preference for displaying the dancers’ full bodies – as opposed to the mechanical breakdown of body parts in Busby Berkeley sequences. Pan biographer John Franceschina (Hermes Pan: The Man who Danced with Fred Astaire) elaborates on anti-Berkeley bias:

On 6 June, Hermes struck another blow against the Busby Berkeley method of staging when he was quoted in Robin Coons’ syndicated column Hollywood Sights and Sounds saying that the showgirl as glamorized by Ziegfeld was virtually useless in a Hollywood chorus. Pan added that he would rather have a homely girl that could dance than a beautiful girl who cannot. “For close-ups, the beautiful dancer gets the call, but beauty without rhythm can spoil a routine more quickly than the one bad apple spoils the barrel.

Hermes Pan with Blore

The final dance sequence is a complicated number set on the quad, in which paired off dancers wind their way through the fantastical set while sewing up the madcap plot. The Polglase sets imagine college as an isolated resort town, with dorm rooms as massive loft spaces that emerge atop winding staircases. The main quad is an artificial, fantastical bit of twisting turf that could have come from Oz. The kids spend their time roasting weenies and serenading each other under the moonlight, with the only lecture coming from administrator/butler Eric Blore on fleas. After a tremendous bit of slow-motion jitter demonstrating a dog’s reaction to a infestation, and an impassioned plea for understanding their role in the circle of dog life, Blore deadpans, “I’ve been waiting to say this to someone for fifteen years.” Blore is hilariously, defiantly odd throughout the entire film, every scene destabilized by his jowly sarcasm. But when he cuts loose and sings in the opening number, a joyful smile creeps across his face, the kind of fugitive moment the movies are made for.

To Beat the Band is far less memorable, with Hermes Pan no longer on board, and a tiresome Hugh Herbert taking the lead role. Without Pan, the inventive dance routines are replaced with simple nightclub sequences of band performances. And though funny in short bursts as a character actor, Herbert’s shtick as a star, a panoply of neighing exhalations, quickly becomes grating. Herbert plays Hugo Twist, an undesirable bachelor pursuing the lovely young blonde Rowena (Phyllis Brooks). His rich aunt passes away, but in order for him to earn the inheritance, he has to marry a widow. His plan is to convince a suicidal friend of his to marry Rowena and then kill himself. Then Hugo will waltz in, marry the newly widowed Rowena, and get his millions. It is an astonishingly morbid plot for a farce, and would seemingly be impossible to render boring, but this project found a way. Neither director Ben Stoloff or any of the cast can seem to care much for the material, and they just went through the motions to get this B material into theaters on time. Mercer, however, was still intent on carving out a career as a Hollywood lyricist, and he wrote five more songs for the production. The film wrapped in August, but Mercer kept shopping his tunes. In October, Billie Holiday recorded “If You Were Mine” and “Eeny Meeny Miney Mo”, thereby justifying the existence of To Beat the Band.