Beautiful Dreamer: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (RKO 1949)

The folks who brought you KING KONG – producer Merian C. Cooper, director Ernest Shoedsack, writer Ruth Rose, animator Willis O’Brien – returned sixteen years later to the giant ape theme with MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, a classic fantasy that can stand on its own. Though the film usually gets lumped into the horror genre, it’s more a fable than a fright fest, a beautifully made flight of fancy for children of all ages, and one of my personal favorites.

In deepest darkest Africa, little Jill Young buys a cute baby gorilla from the natives. Twelve years later, impresario Max O’Hara, along with rodeo wrangler Gregg and his crew, travel to The Dark Continent in search of exotic animal acts for a new show he’s producing, when they come face to face with the now 12 foot tall, 2,000 pound gargantua, affectionately called Joe by a grown Jill. She’s the only person that can control the beast, so hustler O’Hara signs them both up to headline his newest venture, Hollywood nightclub The Golden Safari.

The act features Jill playing “Beautiful Dreamer” on piano while Mighty Joe hoists her far above his head. Then, in one of my favorite segments, ten of the world’s strongest men (professional wrestlers Sammy Stein, Killer Karl Davis, Rasputin, Henry “Bomber” Kulky, Slammin’ Sammy Menacker , Max the Iron Man, Wee Willie Davis, Man Mountain Dean, The Swedish Angel, and ex-heavyweight boxing champ Primo Carnera) attempt a futile tug o’war against Joe! The act’s a smash hit, yet neither Jill nor Joe are happy with their decision to leave home for the bright lights of Tinseltown.

A trio of trouble-causing drunks sneak backstage and get Joe wasted on booze, and the enormous ape escapes and wreaks havoc on the club. Joe is captured and ordered to be killed by those pesky authorities, but the ever-hustling O’Hara comes up with a scheme to free the beast and return him and Jill to Africa. The cops are in hot pursuit when the gang spots a burning orphanage (which was tinted red in the version I recently viewed), and Mighty Joe rescues a bunch of children from certain doom. Joe and Jill are allowed to return home, accompanied by Jill’s now boyfriend Gregg, and guess what – that’s right, they live happily ever after!

Sixteen year old Terry Moore had been playing mostly bits before shooting to stardom in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Miss Moore. who’s still with us at age 90, went on to a lengthy screen career in films like COME BACK LITTLE SHEBA (for which she received a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination), DADDY LONG LEGS, SHACK OUT ON 101, PEYTON PLACE, and numerous TV appearances (and also did a memorable 1984 nude PLAYBOY pictorial at age 55!). Ex-rodeo champ, stuntman, and John Ford favorite Ben Johnson put his roping and riding skills to good use here as Gregg (and Ford himself was an uncredited co-producer). KING KONG’s Robert Armstrong plays the hyperbolic producer O’Hara, older but still as fast-talking as ever. And perennial Warner Brothers movie sidekick Frank McHugh steals a few scenes as O’Hara’s sidekick Windy.

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG is a Familiar Face spotter’s dream (especially that panning shot down the nightclub bar!). Old Hollywood Buffs will have a ball locating (among many others) such stalwarts as Iris Adrian , Kay Christopher, Chester Clute, Joyce Compton, Ellen Corby , James Flavin, Bess Flowers, Byron Foulger , John Gallaudet, Ed Gargan, Dorothy Granger, Paul Guilfoyle, Carol Hughes, Tom Kennedy, Donald Kerr, Charles Lane, Richard Lane , Kermit Maynard, Anne Nagel , Nestor Paiva, Jack Pennick, Irene Ryan , William Schallert , Regis Toomey – a veritable classic movie lover’s paradise! Happy Hunting!

Willis O’Brien  supervised the special effects, but most of the animation was done by his protege, Ray Harryhausen. Young Ray had done some film work, notably on George Pal’s Puppetoons shorts, but MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was his first of many fantasy features to follow – classics such as BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH , 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, ONE MILLION YEARS BC , GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD, and CLASH OF THE TITANS. His debut here earned an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, which was given to O’Brien as special effects supervisor. O’Brien, in turn, handed the Oscar over to Harryhausen, and deservedly so. Honestly, you don’t see that kind of humility in Hollywood very often!

MIGHTY JOE YOUNG was remade by Disney in 1998. Having never seen it, I can’t really comment on it, but I don’t see how it could possibly compare to the original. This is (in my humble opinion) one of the all-time great fantasy films, and despite it’s age still holds up well today. It’s the kind of movie that, if you  showed it to the younger generation, would surely spark their interest in films of the past, and I can’t give it a greater compliment than that!

 

Special Memorial Day Edition: Randolph Scott in GUNG HO! (Universal 1943)

Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.

Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN:  there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold Landon (from Brooklyn, of course!), hustler Sam Levene , and most notably a young Robert Mitchum as a scrappy ex-boxer with the moniker ‘Pig Iron’. A shirtless Bob made the bobbysoxers swoon, and he was soon cast in a series of ‘B’ Westerns at RKO, then scored big two years later in another war flick, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE , leading to superstardom and screen immortality.

There’s plenty of blazing combat action, and the violence is quite brutal for the era, but we were at war, and War is Hell. Director Ray Enright handles it all well, with plenty of help from some of Universal’s best: DP Milton Krasner, editor Milton Carruth, composer Frank Skinner, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton . Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffman’s script was based on the first-hand account by Lt. W.S. LeFrancois, first published in The Saturday Evening Post. Besides those previously mentioned, other Familiar Faces to film fans include Irving Bacon (in a funny bit as a soda jerk), Peter Coe , Dudley Dickerson, Louis-Jean Heydt, Robert Kent, Richard Lane, Walter Sande, and Milburn Stone. Those of *ahem* a certain age will recognize the voice of newscaster Chet Huntley narrating the proceedings.

Carlson’s Raiders: The Real Heroes of Makin Island

Modern day viewers may cringe at some of the blatant racist epitaphs hurled towards the Japanese (“I wanna kill Japs”, “I just don’t like Japs”), but once again I need to remind you of historical context. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in America’s collective mind, and retaliation was demanded. The real raid on Makin Island was the first strike, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and his second-in-command James Roosevelt (FDR’s son). The 2nd Raider Battalion was transported by submarine to the Japanese stronghold, and the bloody two day battle resulted in the destruction of Japan’s garrison, with 46 verified enemy kills. The Americans weren’t spared either: 28 dead (including nine who were captured and later executed), 17 wounded, and 3 MIA. Today we honor those who sacrificed their lives on Makin Island and in other battles for the cause of freedom. Before you eat those hot dogs or bask on the beach, remember them in your thoughts and prayers.

Redemption Song: John Wayne in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN (Republic 1947)

John Wayne  starred in some of the screen’s most iconic Westerns, but I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for ANGEL AND THE BADMAN. Perhaps it’s because the film fell into Public Domain in the mid-70’s, and I’ve had the opportunity to view it so many times. Yet I wouldn’t keep coming back to it if it weren’t a really good movie. It’s Wayne’s first film as producer, and though it has plenty of that trademark John Wayne action and humor, it’s a bit different from your typical ‘Big Duke’ film.

Wayne plays Quirt Evans, an outlaw on the run. The wounded Quirt encounters a Quaker family, the Worths, who take him to file a land claim before the big guy finally passes out. They bring him back to their family farm to nurse him back to health, and pretty daughter Penny, unschooled in the ways of the world, falls in love with the mysterious stranger. A romance blooms just as Quirt’s arch-rival Laredo Stevens and his gang ride in. Quirt’s gun has been emptied by the peace-loving Father Worth, but he manages to bluff his way through the encounter in an effectively dark scene.

Also arriving on the scene is the ominous presence of Marshal ‘Wistful’ McClintock, a rifle-toting lawman who’d like nothing better than to put a rope around Quirt’s neck. When Penny and her family take Quirt to meeting, the love among the Quakers gives him cold feet, and he rides off with his old pal Randy to bushwhack Laredo’s crew, who’re plotting to rustle a cattle drive. Quirt relapses to his old ways of wine, women, and song before having a change of heart and returning to Penny. But while the lovers are out picking blackberries, they’re ambushed by Laredo and company, causing their wagon to go over a cliff and grievously injuring Penny. Quirt has to once again strap on his guns, and goes out seeking revenge…

Wayne’s Quirt Evans is not a “good guy”; he’s a killer and a thief who becomes a changed man by the love of Penny and her family. The theme here is spiritual vs secular, with love conquering all in the end, and not in a corny way. Writer/director Grant doesn’t hit the viewer over the head with a Bible to get his point across; he simply and effectively uses the “show, don’t tell” method. Grant was a former Chicago newspaper man who came to Hollywood in the 30’s and worked for MGM. After WWII, he began a long and fruitful collaboration with Wayne, working on ten of Duke’s films, including SANDS OF IWO JIMA , HONDO, THE ALAMO, and MCLINTOCK!. Grant, like most of Duke’s cronies, was a heavy drinker, who fortunately got sober through AA, and became actively involved in the program’s Hollywood chapter.

Not so fortunate was the beautiful but tragic Gail Russell, who sweetly plays the role of Penny. Gail was a Paramount contract player dubbed “The Hedy Lamarr of Santa Monica” by studio publicists. She was also what was then called “painfully shy”, suffering from an acute anxiety disorder. Someone suggested to the young Gail she take a few drinks before going on set to calm her nerves, and soon her alcoholism was off and running. She made a splash in the films THE UNINVITED and OUR HEARTS WERE YOUNG AND GAY before co-starring with Duke in ANGEL AND THE BADMAN; the scenes between the two show an obvious fondness for each other, and rumors of an affair abounded, which the ever-gallant Wayne always denied. They also appear together in WAKE OF THE RED WITCH, but a series of drunk driving charges curtailed her career. Producer Wayne gave her the female lead in Budd Boetticher’s 1956 SEVEN MEN FROM NOW opposite Randolph Scott . She continued to act in low-budget films and television, though by this time her disease was far too powerful for someone of her sensitive nature. In 1961, her body was discovered in her small studio apartment, dead of heart and liver failure, empty bottles strewn all over the place. Gail Russell was just 36 years old.

Duke’s pal Bruce Cabot has the part of rival outlaw Laredo, and mentor Harry Carey Sr. turns up as the marshal. Other Wild West characters dotting the landscape include Symona Boniface , Joan Burton, Lee Dixon, Kenne Duncan, Louis Faust, Paul Fix Olin Howland (in a great comic relief part), Brandon Hurst, Rex Lease, Tom Powers, Marshall Reed, Irene Rich, and Hank Worden , as well as the beautiful vistas of Monument Valley. The rousing cattle rustling scene and obligatory barroom brawl are well staged by second unit director Yakima Canutt and his ace stunt crew, which included Richard Farnsworth and Ben Johnson .

ANGEL AND THE BADMAN may not be the Greatest Western Ever Made, but it’s as entertaining as all get-out, and as I stated holds a special place in my heart. Those who still believe John Wayne only played one type of character should watch this one, and the chemistry between Duke and the tragic Miss Russell is on a par with the great screen teams of the past. It’s a Western for people who don’t even like Westerns, filled with romance, action, good humor, and, most importantly, redemption. You really don’t want to miss this one, and if, like me, you’ve seen it before… see it again!

ANGEL AND THE BADMAN is now streaming on The Film Detective! 

Happy Patriots Day: Abbott & Costello in THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (Universal 1946)

Good morning! While most of you in America are fretting over Tax Day, here in Massachusetts we’re celebrating Patriots Day, commemorating the 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord that kicked off the American Revolution. It’s a state holiday, and the Boston Marathon is held every year on this date, with the Red Sox playing their traditional 11:00am game. It’s been a tradition on this blog (well, since last year, anyway ) to feature Revolutionary War-themed films, and today we’ll take a look at THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, an Abbott & Costello comedy that’s one of the duo’s best.

THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES differs from the usual A&C formula, with Bud and Lou playing separate characters rather than working as a team. The film begins in 1780, as Costello’s Horatio Prim, tinker by trade and true patriot, rides to visit his lady-love Nora. In his possession is a letter of recommendation from George Washington himself, but Abbott’s Cuthbert Greenway, jealous of Nora’s affection for Horatio, locks him in a trunk. Meanwhile, the lady of the house, Melody Allen, discovers her man Thomas Danbury is a traitor to the cause. Helping Horatio escape, the two are mistaken for British sympathizers, shot, and tossed down a well as the rebels ransack Danbury Manor and burn it to the ground. The rebel leader curses Horatio and Melody to spend eternity on the grounds unless it’s proven they weren’t traitors after all.

Fast forward 166 years and, as the ghosts of Horatio and Melody are still trapped on Earth, Danbury Manor is restored to its former glory by Sheldon Gage, planning to turn it into a tourist attraction. He brings along his fiancé June, her Aunt Millie, and his pal Dr. Ralph Greenway, a descendant of Cuthbert. There’s also servant Emily, said to possess psychic powers, as well as the power to creep people out (June  to Emily: “Didn’t I see you in REBECCA?”).

Our disembodied duo decide to haunt the joint in hopes of finding Washington’s letter and free their earthbound souls, and that’s when the fun really begins in this excellent fantasy-comedy directed by Charles Barton, who went on to make nine more movies with the team. Bud Abbott gets a chance to stop playing straight man and takes the brunt of the comic mayhem, as the ghostly Horatio mistakes him for Cuthbert (Bud plays both parts). But it’s Lou Costello who truly shines as Horatio, combining his farcical facial expressions and high-pitched vocal squeals with moments of pathos. Audiences weren’t used to seeing Bud and Lou as separate entities (though they also went this route in their previous film LITTLE GIANT), and they returned to  their tried-and-true routines with their next, BUCK PRIVATES COME HOME.

Marjorie Reynolds , fondly remembered for the Christmas classic HOLIDAY INN, makes a good foil for Lou as the ghostly Melody. Academy Award winner Gale Sondergaard didn’t play much comedy in her career, but she’s perfect as the weirdo Emily (and no, she wasn’t in REBECCA ; that was Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers). Binnie Barnes gets off some snappy one-liners as Aunt Millie (Bud during the séance scene: “We’ve all got to make our minds completely blank” Binnie: “Well, that should be easy for you!”). John Shelton and Lynn Baggett are bland as Sheldon and June, but veteran Donald MacBride livens things up as a cop towards the conclusion.

There’s plenty of spooky shenanigans to be had, as Horatio and Melody encounter modern (well, 1946 modern) technology, the séance sequence manages to be both funny and eerie, and the special effects hold up well for the most part. To cap it all off, there’s a hilarious final sight gag that’ll leave you laughing. Even non-A&C fans will enjoy THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, a scare comedy that’s as patriotic as George Washington! With that, let’s all celebrate Patriots Day:

(Hey, I told you it’s a Massachusetts thing!)

Happy Birthday Bette Davis: THE LETTER (Warner Brothers 1940)

Film noir buffs usually point to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR as the first of the genre. Others cite 1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON as the film that launched the movement. But a case could certainly be made for William Wyler’s THE LETTER, released three months after STRANGER, but containing all the elements of what would be come to called film noir by future movie buffs. THE LETTER also features a bravura performance by Miss Bette Davis , who was born on this date in 1905, as one hell of a femme fatale.

The movie starts off with a bang (literally) as Bette’s character Leslie Crosbie emerges from her Malaysian plantation home pumping six slugs into Geoff Hammond under a moonlit night sky. The native workers are sent to fetch Leslie’s husband, rubber plantation supervisor Robert, from the fields. He brings along their attorney Howard Joyce, and it’s a good thing he does, as Leslie is booked on a murder charge and transported to Singapore to await trial.

Leslie’s story is that Hammond “tried to make love to me and I shot him” (in other words, a rape attempt), and her story never deviates, not even once, raising suspicion in the veteran barrister’s mind. That suspicion heightens when Joyce’s assistant Ong tells him he has knowledge of a letter proving Leslie’s statement is “not in every respect accurate”, written by Leslie herself. The incriminating letter in question is in the possession of Hammond’s Eurasian widow.

Leslie asks Joyce to take the money from Robert’s hard-earned savings and purchase said letter. He retrieves the letter in Singapore’s dark Chinese Quarter, and Leslie pleads with Joyce to suppress the evidence in order to vindicate her. Against his better judgement, he does so, and a not guilty verdict is found, but when the truth is finally revealed about Leslie’s relationship with Hammond, it proves devastating to all concerned…

The noir themes are all there – murder, crime, adultery, prejudice, and an overall sense of impending doom. Director Wyler was born in Alsace (now eastern France) in 1902, and certainly must have viewed the German Expressionistic films of the period as a youth. He came to America in 1921 at the behest of his mother’s cousin, Universal honcho Carl Laemmle, and worked his way up from “swing gang” member to director.

Though adept at virtually every film genre there is, many of his works have that dark touch of noir to them – DEAD END, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, DETECTIVE STORY, THE DESPERATE HOURS, and his later, underrated psychological horror THE COLLECTOR. The repeated shadowy stripe motif represents the prison these characters have all made for themselves, but the  standout scene for me was when Joyce visits the dark, mysterious Chinese section of town to purchase the letter, and that entrance by the Dragon Lady-looking Mrs. Hammond (Gale Sondergaard), a tense, gripping masterpiece of a moment (and is Willie Fung as the antique shop owner smoking an opium pipe there?).

Wyler was Bette’s favorite director, appearing in three films for him, and receiving Oscar nominations for them all (winning her second for 1938’s JEZEBEL). She dominates every scene she’s in, from her blazing entrance to the fatal final moment, and gives an Oscar worthy performance, though she lost to Ginger Rogers for KITTY FOYLE (there was some tough competition that year – besides Ginger, Bette was also up against Katherine Hepburn for THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, Joan Fontaine for REBECCA , and Martha Scott for OUR TOWN). Bette’s superb supporting cast includes Herbert Marshall as the cuckolded husband, James Stephenson in his Oscar nominated  performance as lawyer Joyce, (Victor) Sen Yung as the go-between Ong, and of course the aforementioned Sondergaard as the wronged Mrs. Hammond.


Though Davis was elated to be reteamed with Wyler, she must have been rapturous to learn the source material was a play by Somerset Maugham, whose story OF HUMAN BONDAGE put her on the Hollywood map back in 1934. Once on that map, Bette never left, and her remarkable film career spanned an incredible 58 years, with more classics than clunkers (although there were a few). And by the way, the line “Petah, Petah, give me the lettah, Petah”, done to death by Bette Davis impersonators forever, never appears in THE LETTER. There’s not even in “Petah” to be found in the movie! What you will find is a grim tale of forbidden love gone wrong, made by one of Hollywood’s masters and starring one of the brightest superstars in Hollywood history.

Happy birthday Bette Davis (1905-1989)

 

 

 

The Great American Pastime: IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH (20th Century-Fox 1942)

Major League Baseball’s Opening Day has finally arrived! It’s a tradition as American as Apple Pie, and so is IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, a baseball movie about a lousy team in Brooklyn whose new manager takes them to the top of the heap. The team’s not explicitly called the Dodgers and the manager’s not named Leo Durocher, but their improbable 1941 pennant winning season is exactly what inspired this charmingly nostalgic little movie.

When Brooklyn’s manager quits the team, dowager team owner Mrs. McAvoy seeks out ex-player Frank Maguire, who seven years earlier was run out of town when an unfortunate error cost the team the pennant. She finds him running a club out in the sticks, and convinces him to come back to the Big Leagues. He does, bringing along his faithful bat boy/sidekick ‘Squint’, and just before the season’s about to begin, Mrs. McAvoy abruptly dies. Her family members, led by majority owning niece Kathryn Baker, know absolutely nothing about baseball and want to sell, but Frank woos and wins Kathryn over.

Ownership spends big money to bring in new players, and the Brooklyn nine go on an incredible hot streak. But when Frank stands Kathryn up on a date to accept a speaking engagement, their romance hits a bump. Further turmoil is caused when Frank starts his rookie phenom pitcher in a crucial game, and the rook gets shellacked. Poison pen sports columnist Danny Mitchell, who led the charge to run Frank out of town all those years ago, dips his venomous pen in ink once again, and things fall apart, with the players petitioning to have Frank removed. Will Frank and Kathryn get back together? Will Brooklyn rally and win the pennant? Will there be a happy ending? (I know, silly questions, right?!)

The criminally underrated Lloyd Nolan is convincing as baseball lifer Frank Maguire, and gives a passionate performance. Carole Landis also shines as socialite Kathryn, and the two have good screen chemistry. They made one other film together, the WWII drama MANILA CALLING, and it’s a shame they didn’t make more. Sara Allgood’s role of feisty Mrs. McAvoy is brief but memorable, Robert Armstrong plays the hissable columnist, William Frawley the sarcastic Brooklyn GM, Scotty Beckett the irrepressible ‘Squint’, Jane Darwell is Nolan’s Irish mum, and there’s more Familiar Faces than you can wave a bat at: James Burke, Gino Corrado, Mary Gordon, Matt McHugh, Jed Prouty, and many, many more.

Dodgers vs Reds at Ebbets Field: Umpire George Magerkurth takes a pummeling from overwrought Brooklyn Dodgers fan Frank Germano who objected to some of his calls. (Photo by Hank Olen/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)My favorite scene is based on a true-life incident that occurred during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1940 season, as Nolan goes out to argue with the umpire over a bad call, and a fan runs out of the stands, slugging the ump and causing a riot! Actual footage of the incident is spliced into the scene, and a courtroom coda features Nolan giving an impassioned, patriotic plea on the fan’s behalf (gotta get that WWII angle in the film somehow!). Director Ray McCarey handles the material well; like his more successful, Oscar-winning older brother Leo McCarey, Ray got his start at the Hal Roach fun factory, directing Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy shorts. He guided The Three Stooges in two of their best at Columbia, the Oscar-nominated MEN IN BLACK and the football spoof THREE LITTLE PIGSKINS (featuring a young Lucille Ball), and though his feature film career consists mainly of little ‘B’ films like IT HAPPENED IN FLATBUSH, his body of work deserves to be rediscovered.

So grab your peanuts and Cracker Jacks, the frosty beverage of your choice, and get ready, because baseball season has begun at last! Let’s root, root, root for the home team, and you know what’s coming next, right?…


LET’S GO, RED SOX!!

 

 

 

Crashing Out: Humphrey Bogart in HIGH SIERRA (Warner Brothers 1941)

Humphrey Bogart played yet another gangster in Raoul Walsh’s HIGH SIERRA, but this time things were different. Bogie had spent the past five years at Warner Brothers mired in supporting gangster parts and leads in ‘B’ movies, but when he read John Huston and W.R. Burnett’s screenplay, he knew this role would put him over the top. James Cagney and Paul Muni both turned it down, and George Raft was penciled in to star, until Bogie put a bug in his ear and Raft also refused it. Bogart lobbied hard for the role of Roy Earle, and his instincts were right: not only did HIGH SIERRA make him a star at last, it led to him getting the lead in his next picture THE MALTESE FALCON , the directorial debut of his good friend Huston.

Roy Earle is an old-school criminal pardoned from an Indiana prison thanks to the machinations of gang boss Big Mac, who wants Roy to take charge of a big-time money and jewel heist at a California resort. Roy’s been locked up a long time, and this caper will finance the freedom he’s always longed for, a way to “crash out” of the life for good. Along the way, he has an encounter with the Goodhue family, farm people like himself, whose pretty daughter Velma was born with a club foot. Roy’s enchanted by the young girl, and gets the idea in his head to pay for her operation and ask her to marry him after his job’s complete.

Roy heads to a camping grounds in the Sierra mountains to meet his new cohorts, a pair of inexperienced hotheads named Red and Babe, who’ve brought along a “dime-a-dance” girl, Marie, and “inside man” Mendoza. The veteran gangster doesn’t like the idea of having a dame around, but the girl, who has nowhere else to go except back to her sordid dance hall life, persuades him to let her stay. A mutt in the camp called Pard starts following Roy around, and the two kind of adopt each other, despite warnings from caretaker Algernon that the pooch brings bad luck to whomever he attaches himself.

Things start to go downhill, as Roy returns to the now-cured Velma, who rejects him. The heist goes awry when a security guard shows up and Roy is forced to plug him with lead.  A police chase ensues, with the panicked Mendoza tagging along, leading to death for the wet-behind-the-ears thugs. Roy and Marie manage to escape, but Mendoza rats, and the manhunt is on. Big Mac dies of a heart attack, and his lieutenant Kranmer tries to pull a fast one, resulting in another notch on Roy’s belt. He sends Marie away and makes it for the High Sierras, where “Mad Dog” Earle (as the papers have salaciously dubbed him) makes his last stand….

Everyone seems to be damaged goods in the powerhouse screenplay by Huston and Burnett. Roy Earle can’t shake his past, no matter what he does, and in the end finds his elusive freedom only in death. Marie, played by top-billed Ida Lupino , is a broken soul from an abusive home, who creates a family of her own with Roy and Pard. Velma (Joan Leslie) was born with a deformity, yet when she has her operation turns ungrateful towards Roy. Red and Babe (Arthur Kennedy,  Alan Curtis ) are wanna-be tough guys in way over their heads. Kranmer (Barton MacLane) is an ex-cop now on the wrong side of the law. Big Mac (Donald MacBride) suffers from a “bum ticker” due to his life of excess. Even Pa and Ma Goodhue (Henry Travers, Elisabeth Risdon), decent  folks they may be, are fleeing a life of poverty in their native Ohio.

Walsh’s direction is top-notch, as always, and DP Tony Gaudio gets some breathtaking location shots on Mount Whitney.  The rest of the cast features Henry Hull as a crime doctor, Willie Best in a rare dramatic role as Algernon, young Cornel Wilde as Mendoza, Jerome Cowan as a reporter, and Eddie Acuff, Dorothy Appleby, Wade Boteler, Spencer Charters, James Flavin, Isabel Jewell, and George Lloyd. Pard is played by Bogie’s real-life pooch Zero! And stuntman Buster Wiles appears on camera as the sharpshooter who nails Roy… and performs the stunt of tumbling down that treacherous mountain, which basically means Wiles kills himself!

“Thanks, George!”: Raft and Bogie in 1939’s “Invisible Stripes”

There’s a strong MALTESE FALCON connection, with Bogart, Huston, Cowan, and MacLane all participating in the film noir classic. But it’s HIGH SIERRA that made that movie possible, again thanks to George Raft, who turned down the part of Sam Spade to appear in Walsh’s next film, MANPOWER. Walsh remade this film eight years later as a Western, COLORADO TERRITORY, with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo, and the story was refilmed in 1955 as I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES with Jack Palance and Shelley Winters. I haven’t seen the former, but have viewed the latter, and there’s no comparison. HIGH SIERRA is mountains above it, and remains a bona fide gangster classic.