Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE STORY OF G.I. JOE (United Artists 1945)

William Wellman’s THE STORY OF G.I. JOE tells the tale of boots-on-the-ground combat soldiers through the eyes of war correspondent Ernie Pyle, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist for Scripps-Howard newspapers. The film was one of the most realistic depictions of the brutality of war up to that time, and made a star out of a young actor by the name of Robert Mitchum . In fact, this was the one and only time Mitchum ever received an Oscar nomination – a shocking fact given the caliber of his future screen work.

Burgess Meredith  plays Pyle, who embeds with the 18th Infantry’s ‘C’ Company in order to give his stateside readers the grim realities of war from the soldier’s point of view. The men accept him, affectionately calling him ‘Pop’, as he shares their hardships, heartbreaks, and victories. Meredith’s voice over narrations are taken directly from Pyle’s columns, detailing the cold nights, dusty roads, and slogging across muddy rivers, as they campaign through the rugged Italian terrain. Pyle and Captain (later Lieutenant) Walker (Mitchum) bond, the diminutive writer and the battle-hardened Walker sharing Grappa as they discuss life, love, and the pain of losing comrades in the midst of war.

Mitchum stands tall as Walker, his breakthrough role after toiling for five years in mostly ‘B’ Westerns. Walker, with his scruffy beard and stoic demeanor, is the embodiment of the American fighting man, fiercely loyal to his troops, tough when he has to be, tender during somber moments. The haunting final scene, as the soldiers solemnly pass by Walker’s corpse, will bring tears to the eyes of even the hardest hearted viewers. Mitchum’s restrained performance, under the watchful eye of director Wellman, led to his casting in larger roles and eventual superstardom.

Former Middleweight boxing champion Freddie Steele does outstanding work as Walker’s second in command, Sgt. Warnicki, whose eventual crack-up after trying to hold it together for so long is amazing to behold. The rest of ‘C’ Company’s main players (John R. Reilly, Wally Cassell, Jimmy Lloyd, William Murphy) all get their chances to shine, and real-life veterans of the Italian, Sicilian, and African campaigns are featured to add further authenticity.

William Wellman’s insisted on having his actors train with actual soldiers in California to insure that authenticity – they didn’t call him ‘Wild Bill’ for nothing! Wellman, DP Russell Metty, and the rest of the crew worked as a team, much like the soldiers themselves, to create a realistic depiction of the harshness of war. Wellman was a combat veteran himself, having been a fighter pilot during WWI, which helped provide the backdrop for his Oscar-winning film WINGS. Otho Lovering’s editing deserves special credit for putting it all together.

War correspondent Ernie Pyle (1900-1945)

The real Ernie Pyle was killed in action covering the Pacific front in Okinawa on April 18, 1945, two months before THE STORY OF G.I. JOE was released. War correspondents like Pyle were just as brave as the soldiers they covered,  putting themselves in harm’s way in order to bring the battle directly to the public, and sharing the human interest drama of the foot soldier’s struggles and triumphs. As we set aside this day to honor those who served, I leave you with this quote on returning veterans from a man who served in his own small way, the late Ernie Pyle:

“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people. Even if they were away from you under normal circumstances, the mere process of maturing would change them, and they would not come home just as you knew them. Add to that the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights and strange wonderful things they have experienced, and they are bound to be different people from those you sent away.”

 

 

Hoods vs Huns: ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (Warner Brothers 1942)

A gang of Runyonesque gamblers led by Humphrey Bogart take on Nazi spies in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT, Bogie’s follow-up to his breakthrough role as Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON. Here he plays ‘Gloves’ Donahue, surrounded by a top-notch cast of character actors in a grand mixture of suspense and laughs, with both the action and the wisecracks coming fast and furious in that old familiar Warner Brother style. Studio workhorse Vincent Sherman, whose directorial debut THE RETURN OF DOCTOR X also featured Bogart, keeps things moving briskly along and even adds some innovative flourishes that lift the film above its meager budget.

Bogie’s gangster image from all those 1930’s flicks come to a humorous head in the part of ‘Gloves’. He’s a tough guy for sure, but here the toughness is humanized by giving him a warm, loving mother (Jane Darwell ) and a fondness for cheesecake (the eating kind, though he loves the ladies, too!). ‘Gloves’ and his cronies (William Demarest,   Frank McHugh , and a young Jackie Gleason!) get embroiled in the murder of local baker Miller (Ludwig Stossell), with the notorious ‘Gloves’ as prime suspect. A mystery woman (Kaaren Verne) leads the gang to rival Marty Callahan’s (Barton MacLaine) nightclub, and intrigue involving a nest of Fifth Columnists led by Conrad Veidt , Peter Lorre , and Mrs. Danvers herself, Judith Anderson !

There’s a truckload of hilarious one-liners (some a bit dated) and some clever Code-bending double entendres, most of which center on newlywed McHugh’s plight. Sherman and DP Sid Hickox stage a novel and well shot fight in a freight elevator between Bogie and an Axis spy that’s very noir-ish in its execution. A scene Sherman dreamt up features Bogart and Demerest infiltrating a Nazi sympathizer rally and giving the Krauts the “doubletalk”. This scene, mostly improvised by the two stars, was ordered cut by studio boss Jack Warner, but when test audiences reacted positively to a snippet Sherman purposely left in the mogul relented. I’m glad he did, because it’s a very funny bit, allowing Bogie to show off his comedy chops!

Veidt, Lorre, and Anderson all excel as the bad guys, and the two male ex-pats would later join star Bogart in my favorite film, CASABLANCA . Kaaren Verne is quite good as the mystery woman, who of course is not what she seems. Miss Verne was in Sherman’s previous anti-Nazi film that year, UNDERGROUND, and acted in KING’S ROW, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON , and THE SEVENTH CROSS before marrying costar Lorre and retiring from the screen. After their divorce in 1950, she made a brief comeback in movies and TV, including a memorable TWILIGHT ZONE episode, “Death’s-Head Revisited”. It’s too bad she wasn’t given a higher profile during her Hollywood career; she’s both skilled and beautiful, and with the right part could’ve probably been a big success in films.

The supporting cast features a pair of comics who later gained success in the world of television. Gleason, billed as Jackie C. Gleason, shows glimpses of his comedic talent; he wouldn’t make it in films until after he was firmly established as a top TV comic. Louie the waiter is played by Phil Silvers , who fared slightly better in movies, but did much better after bringing SGT. BILKO to life on the small screen. Familiar Face spotters will have a field day with this one, as Jean Ames, Egon Brecher, Ed Brophy , Walter Brooke, Wally Brown , Chester Clute, Wallace Ford, William Hopper, Martin Kosleck , Sam McDaniel, Emory Parnell, Frank Sully, Philip Van Zandt, Henry Victor, and Ben Welden all appear in small roles (some of them of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him variety).

ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT is one of those enjoyable 40’s films made in an innocent time, where even gangsters rallied ’round the flag for freedom against the Nazi menace. It’s colorful dialog and cast of pros make this a fun vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, on the cusp of superstardom after years of toiling in secondary parts for the Brothers Warner. Soon Bogie would be travelling to CASABLANCA and achieve even greater success, thanks in large part to his work in films like ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT. Movie lovers like yours truly are forever grateful!

 

Pulp Fiction #1: Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer

“The roar of the .45 shook the room. Charlotte struggled back a step. Her eyes were a symphony of incredulity, an unbelieving witness to truth. Slowly, she looked down at the ugly swelling in her belly where the bullet went in.

“How c-could you”, she gasped.

I only had a moment before talking to a corpse. I got it in.

“It was easy”, I said. “

– from I, THE JURY by Mickey Spillane, first published in 1947 by EP Dutton

Mickey Spillane’s PI Mike Hammer made his debut in I, THE JURY, and set the shocked literary world on its collective ear with its sex-and-violence laden story. Critics savaged Spillane, but the book buying public ate it up, turning I, THE JURY into a best seller and launching Hammer as a pop culture icon. Hammer’s roots were deeply set in the bloody pulps and another 20th century phenomenon… the four-color comics!

Spillane got his start writing for both mediums. Born in Brooklyn in 1918, the tough-talking Irishman found he had a knack for storytelling, and by the 1930’s managed to make a few sales to the pulps. Spillane soon joined the fledgling comic book world, cranking out stories for Timely’s (later known as Marvel Comics) Human Torch, Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, and a ton of those two-page “fillers” publishers used to print to meet the cheaper second-class postal rates. Like most red-blooded American males of the era, Spillane joined the service during WWII, and when it was over he returned to grinding ’em out. Only this time, Spillane had an idea.

Spillane dreamed up a tough private eye named Mike Danger and, together with artist Mike Roy, looked to sell it to the lucrative syndicated newspaper comics market, without success. Undaunted, Spillane took his project and wrote a novel based on the character, now renamed Mike Hammer. The writer (“I’m not an author”, he once claimed) elevated the levels of sex and violence, whipping up his lurid adaptation in a little over a week. Publisher E.P. Dutton bought the book, titled I, THE JURY, and history was made. The critics lambasted Spillane’s literary style (or lack thereof), but post-war readers grabbed onto all the sex and violence within the book’s pages and begged for more.

“The guy was dead as hell. He lay on the floor in his pajamas with his brains scattered all over the floor and my gun in his hand”

  • – from VENGEANCE IS MINE , first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Mike Hammer is Spillane’s macho fantasy alter ego. The PI was, like his creator, a World War II vet, now a Cold War Anti-Communist who played by his own set of rules. He was a law-and-order guy dishing out vigilante justice, not interested in waiting for an incompetent system that rarely worked for the little guy. Hammer had a way with the ladies, yet the love of his life was loyal secretary Velma. His two best friends were NY Homicide Captain Pat Chambers and his trusty Colt .45, which served him well when delivering just desserts to the lowlifes and corrupt officials who deserved them. Say what you will about Hammer’s misanthropic methods or misogynistic viewpoints; he was a stand-up guy who got the job done… by any means necessary!

Ralph Meeker as Hammer in “Kiss Me Deadly” (1955)

Spillane’s terse, graphic novels exploded in the public conscience like a .45 slug through flesh and bone, and it was inevitable Mike Hammer would blast his way to the Silver Screen. Tough guy actor Biff Elliot was the first to play Hammer in a 1953 adaptation of I, THE JURY, which of course was considerably toned down for the screen. Probably the best known movie Hammer was Ralph Meeker, who starred in director Robert Aldrich’s KISS ME DEADLY (1955), as bleak and violent a film noir as you’re likely to find. Robert Bray next stepped into Hammer’s shoes for 1957’s MY GUN IS QUICK, a low-budget but fairly entertaining entry. A syndicated television version of MIKE HAMMER was run from 1958-60, with Darren McGavin as the PI, a series decried by critics for its excessive violence – hey, what did they expect?

Mickey Spillane as his creation Mike Hammer in “The Girl Hunters” (1963)

Mike Hammer took a ten-year hiatus before Spillane resurrected him in the 1962 novel THE GIRL HUNTERS. Believing his beloved Velma dead, Hammer’s been on a booze soaked bender before learning she’s actually alive, and he begins his regeneration from drunken bum to instrument of vengeance. This book was made into a film a year later with none other than Spillane himself cast as Hammer! It’s as violent as you’d think with the author doing a not-bad job. Spillane had always been a self promoter, and in later years he made the rounds of TV talk shows and even starred in a series of commercials for Miller Lite Beer!

Stacy Keach, TV’s greatest Mike Hammer

Hammer was back with (what else?) a vengeance, and a new audience was turned on to Spillane’s sex-and-violence fueled world. In the Reagan-era 1980’s a new TV version was broadcast on CBS, starring Stacy Keach, by far the most popular of Hammer portrayers. The stylish series was a hit, that is until Keach got busted in Britain on cocaine smuggling charges and had to serve time in prison. He returned to the role in (appropriately enough) the 1986 TV movie THE RETURN OF MIKE HAMMER, and again the 90’s with the  syndicated MIKE HAMMER, PRIVATE EYE series.

“There isn’t a Coliseum anymore, but the city is a bigger bowl, and it seats more people. The razor-sharp claws aren’t those of wild animals, but man’s can be just as sharp and twice as vicious. You have to be quick, and you have to be able, or you become one of the devoured, and if you can kill first, no matter how and no matter who, you can return to the comfortable chair and the comfortable fire. But you have to be quick. And able. Or you’ll be dead”

-from MY GUN IS QUICK, first published in 1950 by EP Dutton

Tough as a two dollar steak, Mike Hammer refuses to die, even though his creator Spillane passed away in 2006. Mystery writer Max Allan Collins, who once took over the Dick Tracy comic strip and penned the graphic novel THE ROAD TO PERDITION, has been chronicling the hard-boiled adventures of Hammer since 2007, working from Spillane’s own unfinished manuscripts. As long as there’s a need for a ruthless avenger to take on the dirty jobs no one else can, there will be a need for Mike Hammer, political correctness be damned!

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 15: Halloween Leftovers 2

Halloween (and ‘Halloween Havoc!’) may have come and gone, but for horror fans every day’s Trick or Treat! Here are 5 fright films scraped from the bottom of this year’s candy bag:

THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN (United Artists 1956; D: Edward Nassour and Ismael Rodriguez) – This US/Mexican coproduction stars Guy Madison (TV’s WILD BILL HICKOCK) and Patricia Medina (PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE) up against a giant prehistoric Allosaurus in the Old West. The movie starts as just another standard Western until the three-quarter mark, when the beast finally makes his appearance. Jack Rabin’s cartoonish special effects can’t hold a candle to the great Willis O’Brien , who’s given credit for the film’s story idea (later remade as the much better VALLEY OF GWANGI ). Good as Saturday matinée kiddie fare, nothing more. Fun Fact: Patricia Medina was the wife of actor Joseph Cotten, who made quite a few horror flicks later in his career.

THE DEADLY MANTIS (Universal-International 1957; D; Nathan Juran) – Another William Alland-produced sci-fi flick from the fabulous 50’s, coming at the end of the ‘Big Bug’ cycle, involving a prehistoric Praying Mantis awakened from its frozen slumber to wreak havoc across North America. Air Force Colonel Craig Stevens teams with paleontologist William Hopper and pretty magazine reporter Alix Talton to stop the flesh-eating terror – mainly by talking it to death! Some of the Arctic set scenes are reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ THE THING, but don’t get your hopes up, this film’s nowhere near that classic. This ‘Big Bug’ is a Big Bore!  Fun Fact:  Director Juran won an Oscar for his art direction on 1942’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, and his later directorial credits include a pair of sci-fi hoots from 1958: THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS and the immortal ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN!

INDESTRUCTiBLE MAN (Allied Artists 1956; D: Jack Pollexfen) – Lon Chaney Jr stars as Butcher Benton, an executed convict brought back to life via a massive dose of electric current, giving him superhuman strength in this horror/crime hybrid. Chaney, looking pretty ragged due to his alcoholism at this point in his life, does well in a mostly mute role as the murderous Butcher seeking revenge on the double-crossing rats who sold him out, giving an athletic, energetic performance. Dad would’ve been proud! The rest of the cast is game, but hampered by the ultra-low budget and somewhat silly dialog (“You rotten, stinkin’ mouthpiece!”). Casey Adams (later known as Max Showalter) plays the detective on the case, narrating a’la DRAGNET’s Joe Friday, and Robert Shayne (SUPERMAN’s Inspector Henderson) and Joe Flynn (MCHALE’S NAVY’s Capt. Binghampton) are the biochemists who revive the Butcher. The macho script was written by two women, Vy Russell and Sue Bradford, who also penned the 1963 cult classic MONSTROSITY! Not a great film, but not all that bad; Chaney fans will definitely want to take a look. Fun Fact: DP John Russell (Vy’s husband) was also the cinematographer on another horror film of note – Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece PSYCHO!

BILLY THE KID VS DRACULA (Embassy 1966; D: William Beaudine) – The Count goes West to battle a reformed Billy the Kid in this no-budget piece of dreck. John Carradine reprises his role of Dracula from his Universal days, but even at his most demonic can’t save this juvenile schlockfest (though his crazed hypnotic eyes are pretty scary!). It features the cheeziest rubber bat this side of THE DEVIL BAT , and is padded with plenty o’stock footage. The acting, script, and direction are all rock bottom, making this fail as both a Western AND a horror movie. Yet somehow, the producer enticed veterans like Roy Barcroft, Marjorie Bennett, Harry Carey Jr and his mom Olive Carey , Virginia Christine, and Bing Russell to appear. Must’ve done a casting call at the unemployment office that week! The film was shot in just 5 days – and it shows! Fun Fact: This was the last feature for both director Beaudine and Miss Carey, both of whom started their film careers at the dawn of motion pictures (Beaudine in 1915, Olive Carey in 1913).

SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (AIP 1973; D: Bob Kelljan) – This much maligned sequel isn’t as bad as some claim, just not as good as the original. William Marshall is back as the undead Prince Mamuwalde aka BLACULA , and Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier plays a voodoo cult priestess! There’s some neat touches updating the usual vampire tropes for the 70’s Blaxploitation crowd, and a decent supporting cast (Michael Conrad, Bernie Hamilton, Richard Lawson, Don Mitchell, Lynn Moody, Barbara Rhodes). A fun little fear flick that’s better than it’s reputation. Fun Fact: Director Bob Kelljan also helmed another AIP vampire sequel, 1971’s THE RETURN OF COUNT YORGA.

See you next October, fright fans!

An OMG Moment with The Ross Sisters

While laid up at home battling sciatic nerve pain (which is pretty damn painful!), I turned on TCM for relief, and started watching BROADWAY RHYTHM, a 1944 musical starring George Murphy, Gloria DeHaven, and Jimmy Dorsey, among others. The movie itself was no great shakes, but this scene featuring a trio known as the Ross Sisters singing and dancing to “Solid Potato Salad” grabbed my attention:

Holy pretzels, Batman! Who were these scat-singing, torso-bending ladies?? I did a little research and found out, because… well, because that’s what I do! Apparently, they were Betsy, Vicki, and Dixie Ross from West Texas, who performed under the stage names Aggie, Maggie, and Elvira. These show-biz kids were teens at the time, but already gaining steam for their acrobatic contortions and three-part harmonies. The sisters even performed before the King & Queen of England at the London Pallaidium in 1946. Imagine that!

Betsy married comedian Bunnie Hightower (who also appeared in the movie as an impressionist), an alcoholic/schizophrenic who beat her severely… yet they also appeared together on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW! Vicki became a chiropractor, and managed to stump the panel on an episode of WHAT’S MY LINE? Dixie, the youngest Ross Sister, died of a barbiturate overdose at age 33. The girls surely didn’t have it easy in their post-entertainment careers, but their one glorious movie performance has been preserved for posterity to be enjoyed by all.

Halloween Havoc! Is Over!

The third annual ‘Halloween Havoc!’ horror movie marathon has ended, and I’ve gotta thank you all for reading! Cracked Rear Viewer had its biggest month ever, with 4,417 views from 2,930 visitors – a smashing pumpkin success! Once again, thank all you Dear Readers for your undying support, and I’ll be back in a few days with more classic movie and retro pop culture reviews. Right now, I’m gonna crawl in my coffin and take a well deserved nap!

Peace,   Gary Loggins, your ‘Cracked Rear Viewer’