Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Saturday, 30 November 2019

I Want a Divorce (1940) - Marriage Isn't Meant To Be Fun

It takes a brave celebrity couple to star in a movie called I Want a Divorce, especially if they are married in real life and the subject of regular magazine coverage regarding their glamorous relationship. Joan Blondell and Dick Powell were one such couple and were half way though an eight year marriage when the movie came out in 1940. Luckily the reviews were so bad that the film quickly disappeared into obscurity to the point that when they eventually divorced in 1944 it was a long forgotten footnote rather than a punchline. Still, a married couple even entertaining the notion of a movie with such a title in the notoriously relationship fickle world of Hollywood was surely just asking for trouble.

I Want a Divorce is a strange little film that knows exactly what it wants to say but can’t settle on the right way to go about saying it. It advertises itself as a rip-roaring comedy (“A Lovable Wise-Cracking Comedy Drama!!” declares the poster) but in execution resembles a particularly pious Public Service Announcement. It’s ninety minutes of half-hearted attempts at comedy competing with a dreary, bad tempered atmosphere of moralising in which every character is affected in some way by the demon divorce and most come out of it losing someone they hold dear, if not more.

The mood is set with the first scene as Joan Blondell’s character Geraldine walks through the divorce courts looking for the room where her sister is campaigning to ditch her husband and have the sort of carefree lifestyle she has always desired. As Joan walks through the halls we meet a litany of miserable broken families, from a young girl screaming “You think dad’s a heel but that doesn’t make me believe it!” (Her mother’s touching answer: “Oh shut up!”), to a little boy wailing “I don’t wanna live with you, I want my mommy!”). When she arrives at the right courtroom we see her sister Wanda, played with impeccable disdain by Gloria Dickson proclaim that she wants a divorce because her husband’s occasional criticism has caused her public humiliation (“He also criticised my clothes!”). Her lawyer sums up that this despicable act has caused her “great mental anguish, seriously endangering (her) health”. Divorce granted, next case!!


All that was needed was perhaps the wailing sounds of motherless babies cast aside by their divorce happy parents accompanied by the sounds of lawyers counting their money and the intended picture of a modern day Bedlam would be achieved. Divorce is bad. Divorce breaks up families. Divorce makes everyone miserable. Okay, we get it. So, when exactly does the lovable wise-cracking comedy start?

Next we meet the rest of Geraldine and Wanda’s family, namely their grandparents and Wanda’s son David. These characters are used to hammer home the message even more as the grandparents have been married forever and have endless nuggets of homespun wisdom to impart about the sanctity of marriage, while the son is supposed to be an adorable young scamp (he's not) whose innocence is in peril by the actions of his selfish mother. Even the now ex-husband David (played with a dignified restraint by Conrad Nagel) comes across as a good and loving parent brought down by Wanda’s actions and lifestyle. Inappropriately, Grandma starts her sermonising the minute the sisters get back from court, telling Geraldine "Divorces don't take long these days. What should I be saying to her, 'Sorry, congratulations or many happy returns?'" When she is told that it seems she got up on the wrong side of bed this morning she replies "Yes and it's the same bed I've slept for nearly 50 years. And with the same man". She's a delightful character.

After that the comedy portion finally begins, and it really wasn’t worth the wait. Joan Blondell and Dick Powell co-starred successfully in many movies during the 30s but for whatever reason, by the time this film was made they have little or no chemistry on screen. Joan tries her best, but Dick (as up and coming lawyer Alan MacNally) just seems to be going through the motions (honestly, he looks so bored) and it doesn’t help that the script is so leaden for the majority of the movie that there is nothing for them to work with. Anyway, events conspire to make our stars meet and soon they are courting, everything is wonderful and before we know it they decide to get married. Fittingly the ceremony itself is a rather mute affair as the camera pans round the group of friends and family in the church staring furtively as the priest intones the solemn wedding vows to the blank faced couple. It’s the furthest thing from the joyful celebration of union, but I guess that’s the point – marriage is a serious business. Divorce has even taken the fun out of getting married!


Just in case you really haven’t picked up on the message the movie is trying to impart, Geraldine and Alan are getting on swimmingly as newlyweds until Alan gets offered a chance to make more money and rise up the ranks at his law firm by becoming (gasp) a divorce lawyer! From there the marriage immediately falls apart, and the legal eagles start circling the wagons. In the end it takes the suicide of Wanda, inconsolable after realising the mistake she made, to wake everyone up to the fact that divorce destroys lives (all part of the lovable wise-cracking comedy of course). Finally, while Geraldine is in shock, numb at the fact that her sister has died, Grandma decides to monologue about how it was all Wanda’s fault and that “She broke a promise she made to the Lord God almighty. She started something that grew big and evil and it finally was too much for her”. Grandma continues in this vein, oblivious to the human cost of the ensuing drama, and indeed her own family. The incessant nagging must have worked though, as the couple reconcile and order restored.

Obviously, times and attitudes have changed since 1940 and divorce is now no longer a scourge of society but one would hope that even back then people would be rolling their eyes at the incessant, heavy handed lecturing in the movie. The movie shows the worst excesses of the Production Code in action, pushing message at the cost of entertainment, and even advertising itself as a screwball comedy to do so. Quite what Dick Powell and Joan Blondell were doing in such nonsense is difficult to understand. Apparently they got a very good financial incentive to come to Paramount but it doesn't appear that bothering about a good script was included in the deal.

The movie is fascinating mostly for how far it hammers the point home about divorce and its destructive effects. From the opening court scene where we see the broken families and hear the obviously fabricated testimony of the selfish plaintiff, to the juxtaposition of the happily married grandparents from an earlier simpler time (I guess divorce was only invented in the 20th century) the message is stay together at all costs. In the key line of the movie, Grandma tells Geraldine “Getting married isn’t the important thing, it’s staying married that counts”. In the movie, marriage is about the long run and the institution is the most important thing. It’s understandable that they are trying to tell young people to stick it out throughout good times and bad but the inference is also that if you are stuck in a broken, unhappy marriage that it’s your lot in life (and probably your own fault) and you should just grin and bear it. That combined with the frequent assertion that all a woman needs to be kept in line is a swift slap (and that men too can be kept in line with a fist or some flying crockery) gives the impression of a society where being single sounds the best option. 


If the picture given of the ideal marriage is bad, then the view of divorce is even worse. There are two things in particular that the movie saves its disdain for, two things that it considers the lowest of the low. Firstly it’s divorce lawyers, who seem to be the pushers in this scenario, planting the seed of doubt in the minds of the married and making it so, so easy to take a trip to Splitsville, all the while gleefully pocketing the cash. When Alan and Geraldine get married, the nuptials go south the minute he decides to take up with the devil’s brigade of the divorce lawyer.  Though he is saved from this soul destroying fate in the end, he still feels the need to repent his sins and convert his occupation to good, becoming a “Child Conciliation“ lawyer and thus putting broken families back together for a living (presumable whether they wanted to or not). I hope it’s enough to pay the bills.

The second thing that raises the ire of the movie is women. Or rather women who dare to divorce. The movie seems at pains to point out how the lowest thing a woman can do is file for divorce and break up the sacred family unit. Though to be fair, no one would want to be married to Wanda in the first place as she is vain and selfish and concocts the divorce plan to spend less time at home and more in the nightclub. In reality people get divorced for all sorts of complicated reasons but it’s telling here that the reason is portrayed as almost entirely the fault of the woman and everyone else suffers for her sins.

However, lest we forget I Want a Divorce is supposedly a comedy and does spend at least a small proportion of its running time attempting to raise a smile. Unfortunately because the script can’t decide if it’s a searing melodrama or knockabout comedy the result is that it’s successful at neither. Luckily, despite the miserable atmosphere and the fact it looks for all intents and purposes like a Monogram B picture, it is saved but a decent cast of reliable faces. As mentioned earlier, neither Joan Blondell nor Dick Powell are at their best here. It’s 1940, so Joan Blondell is firmly in her brown hair and big shoulder pads phase (and she wears some extraordinary examples here – I’m surprised she could get through doors!) but there is the occasional flourish of the charm that made her famous. In particular a scene where she asks Grandma about love while waiting for her new beau to arrive (and fetchingly dressed in a big hat and checked farm girl outfit). She sighs dreamily as Grandma begins once again to lecture about marriage then suddenly her face lights up with innocent charm when she spots Dick Powell approaching. With her big round eyes and wide smile, for just a brief moment it’s 1934 again. The simple problem with the comedic sections of the movie is that they are not funny, nor do they have any remotely comic situations for Joan and Dick to enact. There’s no one liners, no snappy dialogue and really nothing for the stars to wring some laughs from. It’s as if the romance sub plot exists to kill time until the punchline (ie divorce) and thus allow the movie to go back to preaching.


The supporting cast do at least provide some amusing moments, with entertaining appearances from Dorothy Burgess (a brief but wildly over the top turn as a Mexican Spitfire type), Louise Beavers (a sensitively played maid) and a genuinely funny cameo from Roscoe Ates as a summons server. However it’s the presence of Frank Fay as their jaded friend Jeff that steals the show. I never thought I’d say this but (whisper) Frank Fay is by far the best thing in this movie. Obviously it’s no secret that in real life Frank Fay was a despicable and reviled human being, an egotistical, alcoholic, racist wife beater, but if it’s possible to put that aside (and granted it is very difficult) he’s rather wonderful in I Want a Divorce. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t had a dramatic part in a movie in close to eight years, or that he had finally begun to accept that he was no longer the star he once was, but his character has a melancholy demeanour that is quite compelling. He is used entirely for comic relief and constantly on the run from his crazy wife but his almost punch drunk wistfulness sets him apart from the rest of the cast. Maybe it was the effects of the booze but he delivers his lines in an unsteady manner, with a twinkling detachment of a man who has lived life and takes each day as it comes. It could equally be seen as a terrible performance given by a man the shadow of this former self or an actor coming to terms with his mistakes and finally showing a degree of vulnerability. Either way he’s the most memorable thing about the movie, which granted, isn’t saying much.

All in all, I Want a Divorce isn’t a good film, but it’s strangely fascinating for its mismatched mix of genres and tone, the odd lack of chemistry between the married leads and the unexpected charm of a much despised former star. Most of all though the endless moralising and preaching about the sacred vows of marriage and the utter disdain at the mere concept of divorce (and especially those who facilitate it) results in a tone more like the “Red Menace” movies of the late 40s and early 50s. As ever, it was a bit rich for Hollywood to lecture anyone of the sanctity of marriage, but it’s always been a 'do as I say not as I do' type of place. Nonetheless the heavy handedness of the whole enterprise may not particularly unusual for the time but is unintentionally amusing now. Sadly, it's the sort of subject one would expect to see as a short film or perhaps as a programmer produced by one of the Poverty Row studios, not a Paramount movie with two major stars. As such it's a complete waste of Joan Blondell’s talents at a time where she really could have done with a career boost.

However, before I pack my bags and head to Reno there is a curious postscript to this whole affair. Despite the film getting terrible reviews and flopping at the box office, someone, somewhere decided that the general public needed to know even more about the evils of divorce. Thus was born, I Want a Divorce the radio show, starring Joan Blondell! Stay tuned until next time and we shall lift the lid on the sequel of sorts that no one really asked for.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

The Green Goddess (1930) - George Arliss, Alice Joyce and Warner Brothers Before the Gangsters

The Green Goddess is one of those movies that appears to be fairly commonplace in the early sound era in that they are obsessed with the British aristocracy and their affairs. In this instance it positively revels in its Britishness, from the cast and their clipped accents, to the colonial setting in India and right through to the “brownface” and casual racism. Filmed in 1929, but not released until 1930 the movie was an adaptation of a popular 1921 play (which additionally spawned a silent film version in 1923). Watching it today or indeed in 1930 it’s ridiculously stagey and old fashioned, but does hold a certain Kiplingesque charm that brings to mind the early output of Ronald Colman and the like. The play certainly must have been popular in its day as it brought forth multiple adaptions in film and radio. Orson Welles was seemingly an admirer, adapting it for stage and radio performances of The Mercury Players and it even inspired a salad, which is something you can’t say about a lot of plays.

What’s interesting to me about the movie is with its exotic locale, savage tribesmen, British stiff upper lipped resolve and general plodding presentation that it’s surprisingly produced by Warner Brothers. MGM maybe, Fox definitely - but Warner? This is the studio that within a year would be producing Little Caesar and kicking off a wave of violence, sex and sin so beloved of Pre-Code movie fans. However, when you look at Warner Brothers output in 1929 and 1930 it’s clear that they were a studio still finding its voice (so to speak) in the world of the talkies.

In fact, while the studio’s movies from this era include some minor gems, overall it’s a weird patchwork of genres and styles. There’s biblical epics (Noah’s Ark), operettas (The Desert Song), historical biopics (Disraeli), exotic dramas (The Squall) and whatever Golden Dawn is supposed to be. Add to that a raft of Al Jolson vehicles, a ton of Broadway based fluff starring Alice White and some attempts at drawing room drama and comedy with the likes of Dorothy Mackaill and Billie Dove and you certainly have an eclectic selection. It’s definitely a mixed bag in the days before Cagney, Robinson and Blondell hit the scene. Yet in the middle of this potpourri of cinematic uncertainty sits Warner Brothers' most bankable and dependable star of the era, George Arliss

Whilst mostly overlooked these days, make no mistake about it - George Arliss was a very big deal in the early 30s. For an industry desperate to achieve artistic respectability, he provided it in spades. Arliss began his theatrical career in his native Britain but found virtually all his success in America. Touring in plays such as “The Devils”, “Disraeli” and “The Green Goddess” made him a hugely successful and respected actor in the early part of the 20th century, a position that he used to transition to movies in the early 20s. By the time sound films arrived Arliss, then in his 60s was one of the unexpected successes of the period. I first realised the power that he commanded in the industry when I heard his debut on Lux Radio Theater in an episode from 1938. The hushed tones of reverence used by host Cecil B. DeMille to introduce him let the radio audience know in no uncertain terms that they were in the presence of greatness, and were glimpsing a dramatic talent far beyond the abilities of the average studio player. George Arliss represented artistic quality and with his extensive stage background, that all important ‘legitimacy” so craved by certain quarters in Hollywood.

However, the mark of quality surrounding his movies was not just hype. When he signed to Warner Brothers to make talking pictures starting in 1929 he was given an extraordinary amount of control over his output, at a level which possibly no other actor had at the time. He was responsible for virtually every element of his movies from casting to scripts to set design and his productions had essentially their own unit on the Warner lot. Though his movies are now fairly unfashionable, being largely overwrought historical biographies or adaptions of his theatrical successes, they were incredibly popular in their day and brought in a lot of money and prestige for Warner Brothers. It’s also worth noting that despite his own success he had an undeniable eye for young talent and cast the likes of Bette Davis and James Cagney in early roles and took an active part in cultivating and mentoring new stars. 

Even though The Green Goddess bears all the hallmarks of an Arliss production in terms of cast, crew and treatment, pretty much everything about the movie is absolute hokum. There is possibly a serious point to be made about the role of race, class and colonialism in India submerged somewhere within the setting but it is lost in a sea of melodrama. The plot concerns a three British people who crash land their plane on the kingdom of Rukh (supposedly some Indian province currently warring with the main government) The Rajah, played by George Arliss holds them prisoner and intends to execute them in retaliation for the government executing three of his countrymen for acts of terrorism. Our plucky heroes must try to escape before the Rajah has his ‘eye for an eye’ revenge.
For modern audiences such movies, featuring the otherness of another (usually non-white or certainly non-Western) culture leave a bad taste in the mouth, especially since as in this case the lead actor is essentially in ‘brownface’ to portray an Indian. This was not unusual in 1930, and indeed for many, many decades to come in movies and television. One unfortunately just has to accept the film for what it is - a product of its time made with noble intentions and with a small world view that was painfully unaware of its cultural surroundings. At the very least there is some discussion of the issue of British colonialism in India which serves as an attempt to paint the characters in a few minor shades of grey.

The Rajah is initially assumed by the British contingent, and especially the arrogant Major (played with impassive superiority by H.B, Warner) to be a savage (his line about wanting to get ‘back to civilisation’ starts relations with the Rajah immediately on the wrong foot) but is nonetheless erudite, educated and modern. There is an amusing scene where the Rajah points out this ‘household cavalry’ and we see a group of misshapen and elderly old codgers, one of which can’t even stay awake. This makes the British contingent bristle with satisfaction until at the snap of his fingers the real soldiers turn up like a modern well-oiled machine (bizarrely assembling in speeded up fashion). Despite tribal beliefs and idol worship going on amongst Rukh’s people (hence the titular Green Goddess who demands appeasement), the locals seem to be a strange lot, combining every available stereotype of movie tribesmen. The men carry spears, play the war drums, all the while whooping and shrieking in a variety of weird outfits. Conversely the women glide about like concubines in a harem, seductively shaking their hips in a hand me down 'Dance of the Seven Veils'. Typically with Western culture’s then-portrayal of the mysterious East, this exotic hodgepodge seems to have no connection with anything remotely Indian. One of the tribesmen even inexplicably carries a trident! Why he does so is never explained...


While the arrogance of Hollywood and its cultural view is never taken to task, luckily the movie at least attempts to tackle the attitudes of the British and their rule in India. The Rajah refuses to back down on his threat to have his British visitors killed, saying "Asia has a long score against you swaggering lords of creation, and by all the gods I mean to see some of it paid tomorrow" Of course, he has a valid point and the play brings up an interesting moral dilemma. Sadly, when he clasps eyes on the lone white female of the group, this ethical high ground goes swiftly out the window as he becomes another typically lust crazed foreign devil. He then goes out further on the crazy scale by attempting to justify his actions on some eugenic level, "For though I hate the arrogance of Europe, I believe that from the blending of a flower of the East with a flower of the West that the man of the future, the Superman will be born!" Not surprisingly, our flower of the West quickly turns down his advances.

Despite some of the more dubious elements of the scenario, the movie undoubtedly belongs to George Arliss. He commands the screen, resplendent in his silken finery as the sly and arch Rajah and is positively glowing with both charm and menace. It’s no wonder he is so confident in role having played it on and off for the better part of a decade. What’s surprising is how easily, at his first attempt, he adapts to talking pictures. His performance is assured without being theatrical, adept at the small moments as well as the large and seemingly at ease with acting within the new medium. Admittedly Arliss does at times chew the scenery with his proclamations and he holds a cigarette in the most weirdly off-putting manner - horizontal!  Most divertingly, his appearance and manner immediately brings to mind Kenneth Williams’ tour de force Khasi of Kalabar in Carry On Up the Khyber, but to me that’s the highest of praise.

The whole production, while having that certain rough at the edges charm of early sound movies, still retains a sense of gloss and grandeur. The interiors of the Rajah’s palace look impressively dressed and the courtyard set with its enormous thick doors (which I couldn’t figure out if were real or realised by visual trickery) at times brought to mind hints of silent Babylonian epics. If this had been made six months earlier one could easily imagine The Green Goddess being a lush and expensive silent melodrama of the highest order. 

There is a lot to like in some other members of the cast, most noticeably in the lovely Alice Joyce as Lucilla, the beleaguered housewife who wants only to be reunited with her children but who has to put up with the Rajah's creepy advances. Although is it a standard underwritten ‘woman in peril from evil foreigner’ role which requires her to look anguished and nervous for most of the film, Miss Joyce succeeds in being quietly understated and rather charming. Like a lot of great silent screen actresses, she excels when having to emote and her ability to use her face gives her character a lot more depth than perhaps appears on the page. Alice Joyce retired from the screen in 1930 and only appeared in a couple of more movies after The Green Goddess, which is a real shame as I would have likes to see more of her. However, at her age (a positively geriatric by Hollywood standards 39 in The Green Goddess but still looking delightful), her days as a leading lady were probably over. To be honest, she probably didn't have enough charisma in sound to be a big success, and her persona is definitely that of an earlier more demure era. However, she definitely appeals to my love of seeing silent stars making charmingly serviceable attempts at talking pictures so to me she's just right.


A brief mention also needs to be made of Ivan F. Simpson as the butler Watkins. Again this was a role he had played with Arliss previously on the screen and on stage and he oozes menace and class resentment with every pore. He’s a grubby, bitter little man and expertly brought to life by Simpson, who would go on to be one of Arliss’ regular stock players. The Green Goddess attempts, mostly unsuccessfully to say something about social class but in the scenes between Watkins, the Rajah and the new visitors the dynamic finds its greatest success. There's a great scene where the captured Brits try to convince him to turn on his master and help them out. They try to guilt him into doing it for the old country and offer him a variety of financial bribes. He remarks that if he's going to do it he's "got to have enough to make a gentleman of me" Without thinking the prisoners all laugh at his nerve. Even though their lives depend on him, they still need to remind him of his place in the world. In the end he double crosses them and so they throw him out a window to his death. I think there's a lesson to be learned there for all of us. If you ever figure it out please let me know.

In the end, your opinion of the The Green Goddess depends upon what part you choose to concentrate on. It’s old fashioned even for 1930, it has some misguided racial politics, it makes a confusing and ham fisted mess of untangling British colonialism and class conflict but if you can choose to overlook this there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on. Of course, these issues are difficult to get past but the movie (and the play) are of their time and entertainment and melodrama are the focus, not outdated social mores. On a technical and artistic level the movie is mostly above average, presenting a confident attempt at early sound filmmaking. It also allows a charismatic veteran actor in George Arliss to set out his stall for what would be a string of captivating and successful performances that would seal his legend in the public consciousness (and give Mitzi Green someone to impersonate).

The movie also shows Warner Brothers finding their feet at trying to create an identity as a studio. 'Tales of the British Raj' wouldn’t last long for the studio once they found a successful formula in gangsters, good time girls and slice of life Depression era grifting. It was no great loss when the likes of The Public Enemy started to be the in-house style for the studio at the expense of stagey nonsense like The Green Goddess. Yet the movie is emblematic of an industry finding its feet and trying different things to see what worked and what didn't. That in itself makes the movies of the early sound era endlessly fascinating. Sometimes they work, sometimes you can generously label it as 'a curio'. If I'm being generous, this one is a curio.

If nothing else, The Green Goddess ends with one of the best final scenes I can remember seeing. As the Rajah makes a final desperate effort to enslave Lucilla only to be foiled by the cavalry at the last moment he admits defeat, sits down cross legged and lights up a cigarette. Arliss looks at the camera with a twinkle in his eye and says, "Well, well, she'd probably have been a damned nuisance" It almost makes the film worthwhile. Almost, but not quite but I hope at least The Green Goddess made for a tasty salad.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Screen Snapshots Returns! Hooray!



Hello 2019! Wait, what happened to 2018??

Alas, times have been tough here at Screen Snapshots over the last year and a half. On this occasion it’s not because of any fraught personal problems but due to nothing less than good old fashioned apathy. My issue has been with trying to find a way to communicate what I want to say in an appropriately informative and entertaining manner. However, my movie viewing habits have widened considerably since I started this blog, and though I still concentrate mainly on Pre-Code movies, I don’t stick to the same favourite stars as much as I used to (can you ever forgive me Cary Grant?). The result is that the number of interesting films I watch is greatly outnumbered by the amount of average, run of the mill ones. I watch so many movies that I think are fine, maybe even entertaining – but can I find anything to say about them? I could try, but I doubt it would be worth reading. There are enough film reviews out there that just give a basic plot recap with a thumbs up/thumbs down verdict and I’ve always strived to give a bit more than that. Regardless of that, the simple fact is that nothing has really demanded my attention of late.

For example, yesterday I watched Lucky Night, the 1939 romantic comedy starring Myrna Loy and Robert Taylor. I quite enjoyed it so I thought about writing a review. Then I thought more about it and realised that sadly I didn’t really have anything particularly stimulating to say about the movie. I could say that there were no scenes that grabbed me, no performances that stole the show and no minor moments of cinematic genius to be seen. At a push, I could talk about how it has a tone that shifts all over the place and that there were only a few fleeting flashes of brilliance from the cast. I still liked it though, but it would be a fairly worthless blog post. 

I’ve had a year and a half of movies like this it seems and as a result I have been gripped by a sort of movie watching existential crisis. Why can’t I find the right films to write about? Is it me? Have I angered the movie Gods? Has the muse left me? Did I ever have it to start with?

I began to think that perhaps my love of classic movies was waning, but considering it is something I still think about on a daily basis I don’t believe that my passion for the era has diminished. So it’s time for a bit of a rethink. I still want to write this blog, regardless of whether anyone actually reads it (and let’s face it, nobody reads this - but I forgive you, invisible non-existent readers). I’ll have to be a bit more creative in terms of articles until I find that elusive movie that piques my interest. I have a ton of 20s and 30s movie and radio magazines I’ve been meaning to sift through for interesting titbits of gossip. I also have a really cool piece of Myrna Loy memorabilia that I’ve been sitting on for years. Oh, did I ever tell you that my dad went out drinking with Montgomery Clift a couple of times? And also, isn’t Alice White really great? People need to write more articles about her.

So I guess there may be a bit more life in this blog yet. What say we give it another go in 2019? Shall we? .

(cue furious typing montage starring Lee Tracy as me…)

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Snapshot # 8 - The Savage Girl (1932)


What is it about?: An eccentric millionaire hires an intrepid jungle explorer to go to Africa to catch him some wild animals for his new zoo. While there they encounter the legend of the White Goddess – a savage girl who lives wild in the jungle.

The Call Sheet: Rochelle Hudson, Walter Byron, Harry Myers, Adolph Milar, Ted Adams and Floyd Shackleford

Behind the Camera: Directed by Harry L. Fraser, Written by Brewster Morse, Cinematography by Edward A. Kull.

Snapshot Thoughts: I’ve seen plenty Poverty Row movies in my time, and for the most part they pass the time of day and rarely make an impression. Using faded stars and journeymen directors, they are simple tales giving simple thrills, cranked out for an audience that really only came to see the main feature. In this environment it seems that there was little need to stand out from the crowd, but against all odds The Savage Girl does just that. Made by the tiny Monarch Pictures, with a veteran cast and crew, the movie manages to be both funny and entertaining. Unfortunately the print currently circulating derives from the Commonwealth Pictures 1948 reissue and includes a lengthy disclaimer encouraging the audience to see the movie for the childish fantasy that it supposedly is. It’s as if by the late 40s such whimsical jungle adventures were considered a minor embarrassment, despite the fact that much worse examples of the genre were continuing to be churned out by even the major studios. I guess it shows that people have always thought that current movies were the best and that anything old was dated and silly.

Given that the movie is essentially just a standard jungle adventure, all the usual clichés we would come to expect are ready and present – stock footage, pith helmets, ferocious animals, jungle drums and spear wielding natives all make an appearance (not to mention colonialism and casual racism but sadly that’s to be expected). The difference here is that The Savage Girl has a collection of interesting characters, a couple of truly inspired and ridiculous ideas and a script that is at least trying to overachieve. The result is as good example of a fun and entertaining low budget movie this side of the Hal Roach lot. 

The story starts with veteran explorer Jim Franklin (played by Walter Byron) giving a lecture to a bunch of well to do gentlemen about his adventures in the jungle. Franklin confesses that despite his brushes with wild animals (which he proudly boasts, he only kills in self-defence) he feels he is “safer in Darkest Africa than in many a speakeasy or nightclub in this city”. His speech so inspires one of his listeners, a certain Amos P. Stitch (Harry Myers) that he decides there and then that he wants to open his own zoo and needs Franklin to stock it with animals. When asked why he replies “I want to be different!” It should also be noted that Stitch is very, very drunk, to the point that he thinks a stuffed animal head on the wall is talking to him. Franklin, though initially uncomfortable, agrees to his proposal and before you can say “So this is Africa!” they are in the jungle and saying “So this is Africa!”. Along the way Stitch manages to bring a taxi driver and his taxi as well as a collection of mice for his grand experiment – to see if elephants are actually afraid of mice. At this point you realise that the character of Amos Stitch wasn’t just drunk in the opening scene, he’s drunk 24 hours a day (in fact later on when he gets up first thing in the morning from his tent, he’s still drunk – that must be some powerful moonshine!)


Once there, they learn from Dutch explorer Alec Bernouth (Stitch: “Did you say Vermouth?”) the legend of the White Goddess, a figure of mystery worshiped by the native tribes. Before long we meet our Savage Girl, only to discover that she’s actually fairly tame. She’s pretty, very well dressed (by jungle loincloth standards) and kind to animals (she can talk to them too it seems). This proves to be her undoing as she is tricked into falling down a hole while attempting to free some of her captured jungle friends from their safari cages.

Once apprehended, it doesn’t take long for her to catch the eye of the men on the expedition, and she soon finds herself fighting off the unwanted attentions of a drunken and lecherous Bernouth (“She’s white, she’s beautiful, she’s warm, she’s smooth” he intones creepily). Luckily heroic Jim Franklin appears in time to save the day but even he has to muster all the stiff upper lip he can to resist her charms. In the end he sets her free and she runs off, pausing to look back in a sultry manner before climbing a tree and swinging off on a vine (and if you’re going to make a memorable exit, that’s the way to go). Later they meet again and she tries to kiss him, which elicits the classic line (deadpanned perfectly by Walter Byron) “You can’t do this you know - what would Walter Winchell say if he heard about it!” It’s quite interesting watching Byron in his scenes with Rochelle Hudson as he often seems quite flustered and in fact stumbles over his lines on more than one occasion. It’s doubtful that this is a reflection of his acting skills (which are admittedly fairly average) but instead I’d like to think more likely a commentary on how tongue tied one could get doing a love scene with the delectable Miss Hudson!

The rest of the movie is spent dealing with Amos Stitch’s historic mouse and elephant experiment. Once again, the fact that Stich is drunk and staggering around while attempting it just makes an already bizarre scene even stranger. Afterwards, fully vindicated he gleefully declares “Get mousie a steak when we get back to the hotel!” Truly, that mouse deserves to be recognised by science as much as Pavlov’s dog. The whole yarn enters its final reel when Bernouth starts to rabble rouse the natives and our hero is (predictably) tied to a stake awaiting sacrifice while the tribe does its war dance. The end arrives in lightning fast fashion and involves a taxi ride through the jungle, natives frightened by loud noises and a man being suddenly dragged through a window by a gorilla. The Girl finally embraces Jim and is tamed – a savage no more!


Star Performances: The cast across the board give energetic performances and all look like they are enjoying themselves and making the most of the action. Rochelle Hudson naturally gets most of the attention as she is suitably alluring and mysterious in a way that belies her young age (it’s quite incredible to think she’s only 16 in the movie as her looks and screen presence tell an entirely different story). She manages to convey the innocent and feral nature of her character quite well and uses her body language (I’m guessing she had a background in dance given the graceful and fluid way she moves) to suggest a life spent with the jungle animals. She doesn’t have many lines but her hesitant understanding of English is quite endearing, showing her naivety having lived apart from other humans. Far from being a mere Tarzan knock off (which unashamedly the movie attempts to be), Rochelle Hudson has a charm and poise that gives the movie another reason to shine brighter than the average Poverty Row filler.

Rochelle Hudson may be the most attractive element of the movie but mention needs to be made of the comical performance of Harry Myers as Amos P. Stitch. Myers made the movie relatively fresh from his memorable appearance in 1931 as the eccentric millionaire in Chaplin’s City Lights (though he filmed his part in 1929) and here riffs on that role. Sadly, in 1932 Myers' career was beginning to slow down and he was generally finding only smaller, often uncredited parts (despite a respectable career as a star comedian and director in the early silent era) In The Savage Girl he clearly relishes the chance to have a starring role and makes the most of it. It’s one of those performances that is so assured and so full of great comic timing that it makes you wonder why he never got more work. I suppose his plight is similar to that of any number of veteran comic players from the silent era who never got to fully show what they could do on a big stage (for example most of the Hal Roach stock company or perennial comic foils such as Vernon Dent or Stanley Blystone). Here he plays the sort of role that a man of his experience could do in his sleep, and like a true pro makes it hilarious and appealing, milking the full comic potential out of every situation.
  

Technical Excellences: As would be expected, there’s not a lot of 'High Art' going on in The Savage Girl but what does make the screen is filmed competently and edited to make the 60 minute duration fly swiftly. The director Harry L. Fraser was a veteran of many westerns but had tried his hand at most genres. He would go on to direct and write a number of movie serials and seemed to have a talent for scripting them, since a lot of the better ones are from his pen. A great advantage of The Savage Girl is its use of primarily real location rather than being studio bound like many low budget jungle capers. Obviously the African jungle looks more like a park somewhere in New York but the locations are chosen well enough not to completely lose credibility. Even the use of stock footage works pretty well and integrates into the action better than most.

The Sublime: The best thing about the movie is its silly ideas. It’s as if the writer said to himself “What would happen if one of our central characters was drunk…all the time?”. From that revolutionary brainwave sprung the peculiar sort of madness and whimsy that the movie exudes in which every basic action can be rewritten with the question “Now what would that be like if our hero was drunk?”. It could be quite a fun game – take the plot of any well known film and rewrite the script following the logic of a pie-eyed protagonist. Some movies would actually benefit from this approach! Everything that Amos P. Stich does is off the cuff and a result of his constant inebriation. He hears a lecture about African safaris, and immediately leaves on the next boat to Africa. His taxi driver says he wants to go to Africa, and so he takes the driver and his taxi on the boat with him. Best of all he suddenly decides that he needs to discover if elephants are afraid of mice, and goes about it like it is going to be the scientific discovery of the century (“The National Geographic will hear from you!” he triumphantly tells one of his mice). The inclusion of the character and his silly schemes is what lifts the movie from the less than ordinary to the slightly above ordinary, and the fact that the cast and director manage to deal with such preposterous material in a relatively straight faced (or sober, if you will) manner just adds to the overall fun of the movie.

The Ridiculous: The whole film is ridiculous, but in a good way that adds to the enjoyment. However, from a logic point of view (and with a movie like The Savage Girl, logic very rarely enters into the equation so I don’t know why I even bring it up) some things are more ridiculous than others. First and foremost is the titular ‘Savage Girl’. Now, sadly I was not raised in the jungle Tarzan style but I know that even in a movie jungle I wouldn’t last long. Quite how Rochelle Hudson made it five minutes in the green hell is a mystery. When we first see her, she is cuddling some leopard cubs and seems to understand monkey language, which are both great jungle goddess skills to have (she also seems to have great jungle goddess skills in makeup and hair considering she is immaculately turned out despite probably living full time in a tree). However, some of her other survival abilities are a bit lacking. She screams at a leopard as if she has never seen one before (maybe it wanted its cubs back?) and thus gives herself away to the party of explorers. What’s more she is eventually trapped by being attracted to a shiny thing (aka a mirror) attached to a branch, which causes her to fall into a freshly dug hole. One would think that she would be fully acquainted with shiny things given the obvious amount of time she spends applying her foundation every morning in the mirror, but perhaps her jungle compact had become worn and dull from so much use. Anyway, as ridiculous as the movie is, the idea that somehow she is the mythical White Goddess that inspires awe and fear in the local tribesmen is a bit farfetched since she seems scared of the (fully grown ) animals and can’t see a large trap staring her in the face. In fact, her character brings up more questions than answers. Sadly, and not unexpectedly the movie spends absolutely no effort in answering any of them.

Is it worth watching?: If you like low budget jungle adventures (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) then this is a superior example of the genre and about as good as you are going to get until the advent Monogram a decade later, The Savage Girl has a rather charming touch of whimsy that is highly unusual for a Poverty Row picture and this combined with a frisson of Pre Code raunch, a solid cast of character actors and the delectable Rochelle Hudson in a leopard skin, the whole affair is an overachieving delight. There are certainly worse ways involving gorillas to spend 60 minutes of your time.

Random Quote: “Keep away from men. We’ve all got a little of the tramp in us”

Friday, 17 February 2017

Mary Brian - The Real Talent of "The Sweetest Girl in Pictures"


Given the moniker of “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”, lovely Mary Brian was the perfect 20s ingénue with her long dark hair, adorable good looks and graceful manner. She was girlish and innocent when that was the fashion, and smart and sophisticated when tastes matured.  Yet she remains a difficult actress to truly define as she was never quite a leading actress, far more than a juvenile lead and never tied herself to one particular style or genre. As the film historian Anthony Slide put it, she was a “competent, intelligent, and compliant actress who exudes a natural charm and personality” Slide, a close friend of Brian in her later years meant it as the highest compliment, yet this summation of her career seems lacking in the usual hyperbole and platitudes typically given to stars of the Golden Age.
Make no mistake about it, Mary Brian was a very big star with a extremely successful career as a marquee headliner from 1925 through to the mid 30s and unlike many of her contemporaries transitioned from silent to talking pictures with an enviable ease. During her career she starred with acting heavyweights like Wallace Beery, Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, James Cagney and W.C. Fields and worked with top level directors such as Lewis Milestone, Gregory La Cava, William Wellman and George Cukor. She even had a leading role in an Oscar nominated movie but despite these stellar accomplishments, like so many others, she is sadly still often overlooked and underappreciated.

Mary Brian was born Louise Datzler on February 17 1906 in Corsicana, Texas, the daughter of an oculist. Her father died in an accident when she was one month old and the family then moved to live with her aunt, eventually following her from the prairies of Texas to Long Beach, California in the early 20s. Mary received her big break into the movies when she was spotted by silent star Esther Ralston at a Bathing Beauty contest and through that connection managed to get an audition with the director Herbert Brenon. Despite having little to no experience in acting, Brenon asked her to play Wendy in his forthcoming adaption of 'Peter Pan'. Soon Louise Datzler was signed to a five year Paramount deal and rechristened Mary Brian and a new star was born.


From the very beginning in her successful 1925 debut in Peter Pan, Mary Brian was a popular young leading lady in Hollywood. Her status as a rising star was cemented when she was named as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926 alongside future greats such as Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray. Sadly, very few of her silent films still exist today which is perhaps one of the reasons why she is primarily remembered for her 30s work despite making more than 20 silent movies as a leading actress. Among her most popular movies in the silent era were the football comedy Brown of Harvard with William Haines, adventure epic Beau Geste with Ronald Colman and William Powell and Behind the Front with Wallace Beery, the first of four pictures she made with him. She also become a trusted friend of W. C. Fields and starred with him in two of his silent movies, Two Flaming Youths (sadly lost) and Running Wild.
By the time sound came in, Mary Brian was a mainstay at Paramount and was soon rushed into making a talking picture. Her first, a part talkie, was Varsity (also now lost) with her friend and frequent co-star Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers in 1928. She soon followed it up with a well received turn in The Virginian with Gary Cooper that proved to be a break out role establishing her as a successful sound actress (it didn't do too badly for Cooper's career either). In the early sound era she also lit up the screen in The Royal Family of Broadway (a not so subtle poke at the Barrymore acting clan) and the Oscar nominated fast talker The Front Page. Both roles continue to be fondly remembered today and show her to be a talented and resourceful actress. Despite these triumphs, in 1932 Paramount decided not to renew her contract, choosing instead to move away from the sort of ingénue roles she played to more ‘sophisticated’ fare. Since playing the sort of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich roles preferred by the studio was not her scene, Mary freelanced for the rest of her career.

This post 1932 period brought some memorable roles but the good parts began to slowly dry up. Nevertheless she still made some great films in this time such as Blessed Event with Lee Tracy, Girl Missing with Ben Lyon and Glenda Farrell and Hard to Handle with James Cagney, perhaps her last great film (though she sports atypical platinum blonde hair which doesn't really suit her natural beauty). However, B pictures started to appear more and more on her resume and the A list co-stars became replaced more often than not by the likes of Leo Carrillo, Dick Purcell, Jack Oakie and Richard Arlen (though in the end Arlen became her most frequent co-star, they made an astonishing 11 films together between 1926 and 1933). After that Mary worked in theatre and then during the Second World War tirelessly devoted her time to entertaining the troops with the USO. Her last movie appearance was in the Poverty Row crime drama Dragnet in 1947, and save for a brief television comeback in the 50s Mary then retired to devote herself to her family and her painting.


I’ve always likes Mary Brian immensely since she first caught my eye in The Marriage Playground. There she plays the oldest of a large group of children living with their rich, disinterested parents. Despite being incredibly pretty and the camera simply loving her, she was still overshadowed by her co-stars Fredric March, Lilyan Tashman, Kay Francis and particularly Mitzi Green. Next up was Blessed Event, a newspaper caper where she generally stands around while Lee Tracy blitzes the screen with his incendiary delivery and presence. She still looks incredibly pretty though. More recently I watched her in Girl Missing where she plays one half of a crime solving team of gold diggers with Glenda Farrell. The movie has a tour de force performance from Farrell, who commands the screen and gets all the best lines. Mary gamely hangs in there and gives capable support but is really only there to provide a romantic subplot with Ben Lyon. Finally, a couple of weeks ago I watched Charlie Chan in Paris. To be honest, I don’t even remember what she did in the movie and in fact I have no memory of her even being in it. It appears that by that time (1935) she had almost disappeared into the background entirely. 

Going back to Anthony Slide’s earlier words, what at first seemed like faint praise is actually a perfect summation of her talent. She truly is “competent, intelligent and compliant” – a true professional whose role in movies was to be the featured actress there to support a star impeccably without smothering them. Additionally she definitely has “charm and personality”, yet never to the point that detracts from her afore mentioned purpose. What first struck me about Mary Brian was her everyday fresh faced looks and simple style that lived up to her moniker “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”. She was a girl next door, or a beloved big sister - dependable and gracious, at times streetwise but never brash or rude. This quality, especially when paired up with a larger than life co-star made her believable in her roles and equally trusted by audiences. There is an honestly and charm to Mary Brian that is real and very appealing and could quite easily hold a film together despite being paired with large personalities.


For this reason it’s no wonder that she was so revered by W. C. Fields and was requested by him to play his daughter in one of his best films, The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Throughout the film she is the one person who not only stands by Fields’ character and defends him but who holds together the chaos that he brings. She once said of him “He knew he could count on me to do certain things and never look as if I don’t know what it is. A comedian depends on a straight man…their timing depends on what you feed them” The fact that she could work so easily with a comedian as spontaneous and unpredictable as Fields and not only keep up with him but feed him exactly the reactions he needed speaks volumes about Mary Brian’s talents more than perhaps any one performance. Just like her work with Lee Tracy, Glenda Farrell and James Cagney (and it can’t be a coincidence in her freelancing years that she was hired out to team up with the three fastest talkers in Hollywood) being the straight man is a vastly underrated skill that is essential to the success of the other part of the equation. And if you can do all that and look lovely while you are doing it...well, then that is even better.

Again, when reading reviews of The Front Page, with its constant chatter and cross talk, you very rarely hear anything said about Mary’s performance in the movie. In a way it means she has done her job and let the others shine despite not always getting to show her own skills so prominently. Watching the movie and particularly her performance, she is adept at stunned reactions and timing her feed lines to let the rhythm of the dialogue flow. Of course the problem with being a good straight man is that if the parts across from you are not very well written or performed than your own role is diminished too. Sadly this happened all to often in Mary’s career in its later years where she just turns up and looks pretty (like the afore mentioned Charlie Chan film) or even worse just stands about doing nothing as the nominal romantic interest in a dull picture.


Sometimes in the case of comedy double acts I wonder what would have happened if one of the pair had made solo films or worked as character actor. Would Bud Abbott have managed to show more of his comic range (so tantalisingly hinted at in Little Giant)? George Burns certainly flourished when he went solo though it took him a while to truly find his voice.  In the case of Mary Brian, ever the perfect sounding board for actors and actresses to bounce off, would she have been successful if given Joan Crawford or Carole Lombard level parts? Given her talent and adaptability I have no doubt that she would have been wonderful but in cinema, just like in life we each have a role to play and Mary Brian’s role seemingly was to help others shine. It was often became a thankless job but one that she was supremely gifted at. At her best, Mary Brian was a radiant, charming talent that had a likeability and connection with audiences that made her a popular favourite for over a decade.  Despite sharing the screen with bigger personalities or nearly disappearing into the background with sub par scripts, Mary Brian with charm and grace always gave it her all and made us believe in her, and for me will always be one of the brightest stars in Hollywood. Happy birthday Mary!

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Look of Oliver Hardy - Happy 125th Birthday Babe!



A couple of years ago I wrote a short piece on the occasion of Stan Laurel's 120th birthday. I mentioned my eternal gratitude to him for all the laughs he has given me and that if it were not for him, I would not be the film fan (or the person) I am today. Of course, Stan deserves every plaudit he receives, but he would be the first to admit that all those accolades need to be equally given out to Oliver Hardy. When I was a child, Stan was my favourite and he made me laugh until I was sick with his clowning. My dad would always tell me that Ollie was his favourite and he would try unsuccessfully to convince me that Hardy was the real funny one, not Stan. Of course, we were both right and wrong. Stan and Ollie can't be viewed separately, they are entwined forever, parts of an infinitely funnier whole. However, one thing has changed as I have gotten older - I have taken my father's advice and now spend most of my time (as Stan did), just watching Oliver Hardy and his pitch perfect comic timing. His expressions, body language and mannerisms are an exquisite thing of beauty, a talent so expertly judged that it is at times breath taking how good Hardy is as a comic actor. He is the glue that holds the partnership together, and in his soulful eyes and gentle voice is the heart and soul of the duo.

Yet despite all this, what really makes Oliver Hardy a true screen immortal is 'the look'. It's often just a simple, incredibly brief raising of the eye and the tiniest glance at the audience but it's enough to make all the difference. Once you catch it the connection is made and throughout the Laurel and Hardy movies, Ollie will forever become your guide through the many trials and pitfalls of life with the two friends. Hardy’s glances at the camera probably started in an effort to highlight the roles each of them often play – that of Stan the child and Ollie the exasperated parent but they ended up becoming so much more. Of course their actual roles are more complex but it’s interesting (and perhaps a reason for their longevity) that children watching tend to identify strongly with Stan then grow up to be adults their own responsibilities that Ollie represents. Whereas Stan wanders through life aimlessly, following in the footsteps of his pal, it is Ollie who tries to better himself by his misguided attempts to integrate with everyday society, whether it be marriage, a job or a new skill. Ollie tries to be a successful adult but due to a combination of Stan’s ineptness and his own ego, he always fails. And that is where his look makes all the difference.


Surely there is no one in screen history that can cause accidental destruction on a scale with Ollie (of course all triggered by Stan first). Ollie doesn't merely slip on a bar of soap and fall over, he slips, stumbles and falls on to a bed which violently collapses causing a tremor which brings down all the fittings in the room with a near explosion of chaos. Ollie doesn't merely get his feet wet in a puddle, he falls down a six foot hole that the puddle disguises (Stan walks though undisturbed, obviously). And when Ollie falls down a chimney, there's always an endless supply of bricks waiting to fall on his head, seemingly suspending the laws of physics especially in order to extend his suffering (and there's always one last brick when he thinks it all over). Simply put, often through little fault of his own Ollie is a walking disaster of epic proportions. It's cruel but his plight makes us laugh, such is the way of slapstick. However, as we watch him flounder, Hardy pulls one of the most singularly brilliant and audacious comic touches in motion picture history, he looks back at us.

Better writers than me could probably wax eloquently all day about the emotions contained in one of Ollie's looks to camera. Suffice to say, there is a lot of variety in his looks - he uses different ones for different situations (one of the best is after Stan says something nonsensical, he tends to do the briefest of double takes, with his eyes! Try doing that in front of a mirror). The most affecting though, happen after one of his frequent falls down a chimney/out a window/out the side of a boat/ down a large flight of stairs etc. He stares at the camera, and in that brief intimate moment we truly feel his pain, his frustration and most of all his essential goodness. It's a wonderful connection that just extends the field of goodwill that Laurel and Hardy endlessly project and makes me love them even more. Ollie's desperate glances may convey momentary exasperation with Stan, but we know that it is temporary and their friendship will be repaired in no time (or until the next mishap).


It's been said many times how the humanity of Laurel and Hardy is what sets them apart from all other comedy teams. There is a graciousness, a respect and a real affection between the two friends, and as someone once said (it may have been John McCabe), they really are two gentlemen and 'gentle men'. A huge part of the believability of this relationship was of course the real life relationship between the pair, but to me it's always been Ollie and his weary looks to the audience that made me truly understand their humanity. They transcend the decades, and bring us closer to these two funny men from a time before any of us were born. And as I mentioned earlier, this is all a testament to Hardy's beautiful timing and unparalleled ability as an actor.

As Kurt Vonnegut once remarked "There is terrible tragedy there somehow. These two men are too sweet to survive in this world". This could be true but Ollie takes the burden of worry from us, looks back at us for a brief moment, then gets back up, puts on his battered bowler hat and starts all over again. He is reassuring us that things are alright, and indeed we all feel better for it. His look is a beautiful, sincere gesture from a talented comic master. For all that Stan Laurel means to me, Oliver Hardy means just as much. Comedy, tragedy and humanity are hard skills for most actors to master but Ollie can do it with a look. Just watch for that final brick though... 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Snapshot # 7 - Hell's Highway (1932)


What is it about?: Confined to a prison camp and forced to do the back breaking work of construction for the ‘Liberty Highway’, convicted bank robber Duke Ellis looks for a way to escape the brutal conditions of the chain gang .However, his plans are complicated by the arrival of his cocky yet naïve younger brother, who looks up to Duke and wants to follow in his footsteps.

The Call Sheet: Richard Dix, Tom Brown, C. Henry Gordon, Stanley Fields, Charles Middleton and Clarence Muse

Behind the Camera: Directed by Rowland Brown, Written by Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker and Rowland Brown, Cinematography by Edward Cronjager, Art direction by Carroll Clark.

Snapshot Thoughts: Hell’s Highway is a prime example of Pre Code exploitation cinema, coming as it did hot on the heels of the hype surrounding Warners' I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Though both films were made at around the same time, Hell’s Highway sneaked into cinemas a couple of months before its legendary cousin, but like all imitators quickly faded into obscurity. However, it is an unjustly forgotten film that naturally suffers in comparison to the Paul Muni epic yet deserves serious consideration on its own merits. Although there is a powerful message contained in the story, it takes a back seat to a parade of human drama and suffering. The movie refrains from offering a clear moral stance, instead opting to view events from a detached cynical distance. An opening title card makes the audience perhaps believe that this is another movie with a conscience, offering a solemn plea for justice and an end to the “conditions portrayed herein – which though a throw-back to the Middle Ages, actually exist today”. Yet the accompanying newspaper headlines flashed before the screen quickly betray these good intentions with their sensationalism (“Naked Boy Was Chained By Throat To Overhead Rafters, Convicts Declare”). For here we have not the powerful sermonising for change of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but the lurid desire to show the abuses of the penal system in all its sordid glory, under the pretence of social betterment. With a cast of grotesques, a gritty, nihilistic worldview and a brisk pace, Hell’s Highway is tabloid film making at its finest, and is all the better for it.

For rather than being a film with a social purpose, the chain gang setting acts as a situation to hang two things – firstly that of the relationship between two brothers and secondly a near fetishism for prison brutality. All else is just window dressing, and incidental to the melodrama. The director, Rowland Brown was a singular talent who really deserved to achieve more in the movie industry (he also wrote and directed the excellent Quick Millions and the cult classic Blood Money) but personal and issues and creative conflicts derailed his directorial career, Always a man to fight the system, explore unusual ideas or just get kicked of a movie set, his films contain a quirky non conformity that could never realistically result in a long career in Hollywood. Hell’s Highway bears all his hallmarks and proves that perhaps he came along too early in film’s history. His ideas seem more in tune with the potent low budget exploitation cinema of the 50s and 60s and once the Production Code was enforced in 1934 a lot of his edge was lost.

Here he assembles a fine cast of character actors to portray the convicts and despite many not getting much screen time each character is memorable, and imbued with a semblance of an inner life. These include a bigamist (Charles Middleton) who prefers being in prison than being back with his three wives, a gullible prison guard who suspects his wife is cheating on him and takes lethal action (Warner Richmond), a cruel warden who in his spare time finds pleasure in playing the violin badly (C. Henry Gordon), a gay cook (Eddie Hart) who loves funerals (“The casket was all covered with a great big blanket of pansies!”), an African American prisoner (Clarence Muse) who misses his wife’s sweet charms (“…you don’t know tired a man does get when he don’t get no lovin’”) and a ladies’ man (Jed Kiley) who has signed photos from a variety of movie stars (all signed in the same handwriting) and who jumps back into his burning cell to retrieve them rather than escape. All these little sketches add so much to the supporting cast and flesh out the movie with all manner of fascinating details. When added to the carefully mapped out plot, the shocking representation of the misery and brutality of prison life and the distanced and non judgemental morality, Hell’s Highway is an intense mix of Pre Code crowd pleasing thrills.


Star Performances: Richard Dix brings a rugged menace to the role of Duke Ellis and shines in what on paper is a largely unsympathetic role. He is a tough career criminal yet heavily principled when it comes to how his brother sees him. Typically for the tone of the movie, there is no doubt about whether Duke is actually innocent of his crimes and it makes for a morally interesting choice of leading character. With his dark hair and manly good looks, there is an element of Clark Gable to Dix’s screen persona, yet without Gable’s twinkling charms and broad smile. In a sense, Dix is an unfiltered Gable, an alpha male in the prison yard and full of seething righteous anger at authority, yet without a measure of accountability for his own actions. In reality this is because Richard Dix lacks the acting range and charisma of Gable but nonetheless there is something magnetic about his performance in Hell’s Highway. It’s a stripped down role in a brutal environment and it suits his skills perfectly. Dix is an actor who had a very respectable career but who could have benefitted immensely from more of these sweat stained, gritty roles to flex his muscles to. There’s a great scene where he talks to Charles Middleton’s character while brushing his teeth in the morning, and spits out the contents of his mouth mid way through his line. It’s a small moment but refreshingly unrefined for a Hollywood production and works perfectly for his brutish character.

Speaking of Charles Middleton, he is superb as the gaunt pseudo mystical bigamist Matthew. Usually Middleton excels in high melodrama (see for example his iconic roles in the Flash Gordon serials or Laurel and Hardy films) but here he brings a real depth to his usual character. For the first time I can remember, he appeared to be a real person rather than merely a sonorous voice and grave demeanour. Unshaven and dishevelled, he stands by the sidelines watching for information then uses his new found knowledge to his advantage, disguised as mystical prophecy. With proclamations like “There is blood on the stars” he strikes an otherworldly presence. I always think that Charles Middleton usually has a certain impenetrable manner to him, like a stern Victorian father (to the point that I can’t actually image what he could be like in real life), but here given a real character and motivation he uses his considerable ability to create a memorably real persona, or at least as real as it gets with Charles Middleton.


Technical Excellences: Rowland Brown’s direction is solid and concentrates on the drama with a pared down, ground level focus that lets the action speak for itself. Where the movie really shines is in its creation of an atmosphere of confinement, routine and misery. The camera moves slowly through the prisoners' cages (essentially train compartments with bars) as we see rows upon rows of shackles and chains. Before long the clanking of the chains being locked and unlocked and the rattling of metal as it is pulled through each shackle signalling the start and end of each day become part of the background noise of the movie.. Added to this is also the ever present lilt of the Spiritual songs echoing through the encampment. It starts from the opening credits, continues during the hard labour of rock breaking and surrounds the relative calm of the evening as prisoners sit together chained up. The eerie and haunting music frames and highlights the narrative like a Greek chorus (and expertly sung by the Etude Ethiopian Chorus). Brown uses this dreamlike atmosphere as an ethereal contrast to the horrors of the sweatbox, the brutal method of torture used for straightening out an unruly prisoner, with one memorable moment where the singing is suddenly interrupted by the howl of a dog, signifying the death of a prisoner.

The Sublime: In many ways the most impressive parts of the movie are the minor details. It’s a cleverly written script wherein seemingly inconsequential moments slowly snowball into becoming life changing events and where small character details leave a lasting impression. Examples of this include the deaf prisoner who doesn’t hear the bullet that kills him, and his plaintive moans to a higher power as her dies or the group of young posse members who shoot Duke’s brother from behind and who cry and run away once they realise the reality of what they’ve done. These moments of despair and poignancy appear when least expected and make a lasting impression, hinting at inner stories that will forever remain untold.

However, best of all is a particularly brilliant subplot involving a missing spoon, grabbed by an inmate at meal time. We catch up on the progress of the stolen cutlery throughout the film in various inserts as it is whittled down to a shiv and used ultimately for a deadly purpose. From the moment the spoon is announced as missing, the audience can guess what the end result will be, and the sense of grim foreboding builds slowly and inexorably. What is striking about the subplot is that we never get a good look at the inmate’s face. He’s just a face in the crowd, a menacing silent killer blending into the background and waiting for the right moment to strike. He’s not a featured character, has no influence on the story, and has no real motivation. As a result the episode has a chilling, anonymity that underlines the randomness of the violence in the chain gang


The Ridiculous: Not surprisingly, everything is played straight in the movie and in the name of gritty realism there is little to detract from the on screen misery. However one brief scene raises an unintentional laugh. Duke is being punished for punching out a guard and the sadistic warden decides to give him a taste of his whip. He pulls off Duke's shirt to reveal his Army regiment tattoo (42nd Infantry, 167th Regiment – a real division that served in the trenches during the First World War). He sees the tattoo and hesitates before using the lash. It’s just a silly moment, firstly due to the inference that even a vile and sadistic prison warden would hesitate to punish a troublemaking career criminal because he served his country. Even sillier is the fact that the centrepiece of Duke’s tattoo is an enormous American flag. Other than the fact it’s a clumsy and awkward visual motif, you’re telling me no one noticed it before? You can’t miss it!

Is it worth watching?: Hell’s Highway may be the unloved cousin of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but what it lacks in artistry, powerhouse acting and searing social comment, it makes up by being wildly entertaining and lurid in equal parts. It never sermonises like its famous cousin and crackles with a raw vitality and earthiness that makes its point coolly and directly. It may be exploitative but in many ways it’s the tabloid fodder that really ingrains a message into the minds of the general public. The movie speaks to its audience on their own level, giving them a cast of recognisable characters, a compelling and violent plot that simmers slowing until exploding in a fiery climax and a leading man that delivers a square jawed, rugged performance. Hell’s Highway is great entertainment, both shocking and enlightening and deserves to be reappraised as a compelling and valid companion piece to its more famous competitor.

Random Quote: “Whosoever betrayeth his brother is in danger of brimstone, and stomach trouble”