Easter Egg Hunt: THE LIVING CHRIST SERIES – RETREAT & DECISION (Cathedral Films 1951)

Good morning, and Happy Easter (and Passover season!). Today’s holiday treat is from 1951’s THE LIVING CHRIST SERIES , a 12-part retelling of the life of Jesus made by Episcopal minster James K. Friedrich’s Cathedral Films. Though extremely low budget, the films are much more earnest than your typical Hollywood Biblical Extravaganza. As for your Easter Eggs, they’re in the film: see if you can spot Familiar Faces Gregg Barton, Jeanne Bates, Lawrence Dobkin, James Flavin, Lowell Gilmore, William Henry, ‘TV’ Tommy Ivo, Dennis Moore, and Will Wright as you bear witness to Jesus preaching, performing miracles, and making His decision on His road to destiny. Narrated by ‘Familiar Voice’ Art Gilmore, and starring Robert Wilson as The Lord, enjoy RETREAT & DECISION:

     Happy Easter & Passover from Cracked Rear Viewer!

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New York After Midnight: 99 RIVER STREET (United Artists 1953)

The trio that brought you KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL – star John Payne, director Phil Karlson, and producer Edward Small – teamed again for 99 RIVER STREET, and while it’s not quite on a par with their film noir classic, it’s crammed with enough sex’n’violence to hold your interest for an hour and a half. Karlson’s direction is solid, as is the cast (including a knockout performance by Evelyn Keyes), and the camerawork of the great Austrian cinematographer Franz Planer gives it a wonderfully brooding touch of darkness.

The story itself is highly improbable yet highly entertaining: ex-boxer Ernie Driscoll (Payne), once a heavyweight contender now reduced to driving a cab, is married to ex-showgirl Pauline (the delectable Peggie Castle), who’s two-timing him with crook Victor Rawlins (slimebag Brad Dexter ). Ernie catches them making out through the window of the flower shop Pauline works at, and his PTSD is triggered. Then when his friend, struggling actress Linda Jordan (Keyes) sets him up as a patsy so she can nail an acting job, Ernie explodes and beats up the play’s producer and crew!

Meanwhile, Victor and Pauline try to sell a load of hot diamonds to fences Christopher and Mickey (Jay Adler, Jack Lambert ), but they balk at dealing with a woman – that and the fact Victor killed a man during the heist. So the dirty douche strangles Pauline and dumps her body in Ernie’s cab. The cops are already looking for Ernie after his meltdown at the theater, and that old familiar noir downward spiral rapidly escalates as Ernie, with the help of Linda, races to find the killer at large and clear his name…


Payne does a fine job as the guy who’s taken one too many blows to the head, and although things like PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injuries aren’t specifically mentioned, it’s obvious Ernie’s troubles go deeper than just financial or marital. Good as Payne is, Evelyn Keyes totally stole the show for me as Linda. The scene where she tricks Payne into believing she’s murdered someone had not just Payne’s character fooled, I was totally taken in! Later, she impersonates a drunken floozie in a sleazy waterfront gin joint while trying to lure Dexter’s Victor out in the open. Keyes, best known as Scarlet O’Hara’s little sister Suellen in GONE WITH THE WIND and her years at Columbia (making, among other films, THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK , A THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS, THE JOLSON STORY, and JOHNNY O’CLOCK), never really got a chance to strut her stuff, and she certainly delivers the goods here.

DP Franz Planer makes the backlot look and feel like New York After Midnight. The veteran’s career stretched back all the way to 1919 in his native Austria-Hungary. Leaving war-torn Europe in 1937, he came to America and worked on films both large and small. Planer’s name doesn’t get mentioned a lot in the film noir conversation, but he was the man behind the camera on gems like the aforementioned FACE BEHIND THE MASK, THE CHASE, CRISS CROSS , and CHAMPION . Perhaps it’s because his other work overshadows his noir efforts: among his resume you’ll find classics such as PENNY SERANADE, ONE TOUCH OF VENUS, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, ROMAN HOLIDAY, THE CAINE MUTINY, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA , and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S . He was working on SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE when that film was shelved due to the untimely death of Marilyn Monroe; it proved to be his last job, as Planer himself died a year later.

After 99 RIVER STREET, the trio of Payne, Karlson, and Small went their separate ways, though they worked together in various combinations on occasion. Pairing this film with KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL would make a dynamite film noir double feature, perfect examples of what can be accomplished on a low budget with little money and a whole lot of talent before and behind the cameras.

Man of the People: John Ford’s THE LAST HURRAH (Columbia 1958)

This post has been preempted as many times as tonight’s State of the Union Address! 


John Ford’s penchant for nostalgic looks back at “the good old days” resulted in some of his finest works. The sentimental Irishman created some beautiful tone poems in his 1930’s films with Will Rogers, and movies like HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY and THE QUIET MAN convey Ford’s sense of loss and wistful longing for simpler times. The director’s THE LAST HURRAH continues this theme in a character study about an Irish-American politician’s final run for mayor, running headfirst into a new era of politics dominated by television coverage and media hype instead of old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground handshaking and baby-kissing. It’s not only a good film, but a movie buff’s Nirvana, featuring some great older stars and character actors out for their own Last Hurrah with the Old Master.

Based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel, the film opens with the superimposed words ‘A New England City’, but you’re not fooling us New Englanders, Mr. Ford… we know that ‘city’ represents Boston and it’s Irish-dominated political scene! We’re taken inside a stately manse, where we see Mayor Frank Skeffington emerge from his bedroom, dressed and ready to go. He pauses before a portrait of his late wife before going to meet with his political operatives to plan the next campaign.

Skeffington’s a wily rascal, a product of the slums who hasn’t forgotten his roots or from where his power comes, as he visits a local widow at her late husband’s wake and hands her an envelope of cash, telling her it was his own late spouse’s last wish, then strong-arms the undertaker into giving the Widow Minnihan a discount. Skeffington is not above using his office for blackmail, and rumors of graft surround him, especially among the city’s blue blood elite. That such a charming scoundrel is played by the great Spencer Tracy only adds to his likability. Tracy was one of the most extraordinary screen actors ever, Golden Age or current, a performer who relied on instinct rather than method. Watch any Tracy film; he plays his roles so natural, you can’t see the seems.

The film follows Skeffington as he runs his old-school campaign, in contrast to his telegenic Kennedyesque opponent Kevin McClusky, who’s backed by the Yankee Brahmin. It’s basically a series of vignettes as Skeffington’s nephew, local sportswriter Adam Caulfield, is invited to join in for an inside look at politics. Ford regular Jeffrey Hunter (THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE) plays Adam, representing the new generation, and serving as a sounding board for Tracy’s Skeffington as he bemoans the loss of the old ways to media saturation and manipulation (though Skeffington’s no slouch in the manipulation department himself!). Tip O’Neill once said “All politics is local”, and that sums up Frank Skeffington in a nutshell.

LAST HURRAH, Edward Brophy, Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Ricardo Cortez, Pat O’Brien, 1958

THE LAST HURRAH is populated by a cast of veterans on both sides of the campaign trail. It seems like the entire “Hollywood Irish Mafia” is on hand for this one, with the exception of James Cagney (who refused to work with Ford again after their MISTER ROBERTS behind-the-scenes fiasco). Skeffington’s ward heelers include Pat O’Brien as his chief operative Joe Gorman, Ricardo Cortez representing the Jewish voters, James Gleason as pugnacious ‘Cuke’ Gillan, and Carelton Young as the blue-blooded Winslow, who’s crossed over to Skeffington’s side. But of all the mayor’s men, I absolutely LOVE LOVE LOVE Ed Brophy as Ditto, the dense but loyal ward boss who acts as court jester to Skeffington. Ditto lives for serving Hizzoner, down to wearing a duplicate of the mayor’s trademark Homburg hat (which he calls his “Grey Hamburger”). The undying affection Ditto has for Skeffington is palpable, and is reciprocated by the mayor. It’s Brophy who’s in the final shot, taking that long walk up the flight of stairs, head down, to pay respects to his boss, and Brophy gives a marvelous all-around performance.

The blue bloods are represented by Basil Rathbone as banker Norman Cass and John Carradine as publisher Amos Force, and with those eminent screen villains you just know they’re the bad guys, along with Basil Ruysdael as the Protestant bishop. Donald Crisp is the Catholic Cardinal, who grew up in the same slum as Skeffington but is on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Wallace Ford plays perennial candidate Charles J. Hennessy, who always runs and loses (there’s one in every town!), and Frank McHugh his ever-optimistic campaign manager. Among those who shine in smaller roles there’s Anna Lee as the Widow Minnihan, Jane Darwell in a comic cameo as an old lady who goes to all the local wakes (and there’s one of them in every town, too!), Willis Bouchey as Adam’s anti-Skeffington father-in-law, Ken Curtis as Monsignor Killian, Charles B. Fitzsimmons (Maureen O’Hara’s brother) as the vacuous McCluskey, O.Z. Whitehead as Cass’s equally vacuous son, and many more, some uncredited. Familiar Face spotters will have a good time with this one!

THE LAST HURRAH isn’t a Ford classic on a par with STAGECOACH , THE GRAPES OF WRATH, or others. It’s one of those smaller Ford efforts, despite the high-powered cast, a rumination on simpler times. The Skeffington machine gets outgunned by modern technology, allowing a pretty-boy puppet to replace the older, more experienced pol. This is progress? Whatever side of the political divide you fall on, you have to agree we need more charming rascals like Frank Skeffington, who actually care about their constituency, and less of those acrimonious, talking-point-repeating elitists who think they know what’s best for us unwashed masses and only serve to divide. But before I turn this into a political diatribe and piss half you Dear Readers off… just go watch the movie!

Rage in the Cage: CAGED (Warner Brothers 1950)

“In this cage, you get tough or you get killed” – Kitty Stark (played by Betty Garde) in CAGED

 

The Grandmother of all “Women in Prison” films, CAGED still packs a wallop, nearly seventy years after it’s release. This stark, brutal look at life inside a women’s penitentiary was pretty bold for its time, with its savage sadism and heavy lesbian overtones, and matches up well with BRUTE FORCE as an example of film noir prison flicks. Everything about this film clicks, from its taut direction by John Cromwell to the use of sound to create mood by Stanley Jones, plus a powerhouse mostly female cast led by Eleanor Parker .

The 28-year-old Parker convincingly plays 19-year-old Marie Allen, given a one-to-fifteen year sentence for accessory to an armed robbery during which her husband was killed. The mousey Marie is indoctrinated, given a number (Prisoner #93850), and poked and prodded by staff, who discover Marie’s two months pregnant. Marie is given light duty by the prison-reform minded superintendent Ruth Barton, but sadistic old-school ward matron Evelyn Harper has other plans.

Marie’s first night inside the walls is a frightening experience for the youngster. She’s befriended by three tough street chicks led by Kitty Stark, boss of a shoplifting gang who wants to recruit the kid when she gets out of stir. When fellow inmate June is denied parole, it’s Marie who finds her hanging during the night, causing her to go into shock and give birth  prematurely. Her mom refuses to take the baby, then she’s denied parole, and a switch flips inside Marie’s head, turning her as hard as the veteran cons.

Tensions flare when Marie finds a kitten outside the prison laundry and takes it in, and a catfight over the cat between Marie and Harper escalates into a full-scale riot! Marie is given three days in solitary by Barton, but before serving the cruel Harper shaves her head. Kitty, who’s spent a month in solitary enduring beatings from Harper, gains justice of her own in a swift and vicious stabbing of the matron in the cafeteria, as Marie cheers her on, yelling, “Kill her, kill her”. Prison life has changed Marie, but not for the better, and the final scene has Barton resigned to the fact that she’s failed, and Marie will be back.

Parker was justly nominated for an Oscar for her performance, as she transforms from young innocent into hardened criminal during the course of the film. Also nominated was Hope Emerson as the sadistic Harper. Emerson’s 6’2″, 200+ pound frame make her an imposing physical presence, and she’s about as mean as a prison screw can get. Neither actress won – Judy Holliday picked up the statuette that year for BORN YESTERDAY, while Josephine Hutchinson won for HARVEY – but a case could certainly be made for them.

Agnes Moorehead’s  part of reform warden Ruth Barton also deserved Oscar consideration. Her battles with bureaucrats and the disrespectful Harper (who treats the inmates like pond scum and constantly refers to them as “ya tramps”) highlight the differences between rehabilitation and punishment, battles that are still going on today (and as someone who once worked inside the prison system, trust me on that). The film gives an impressive cast of women the chance to shine: Betty Garde is the hard-bitten Kitty, Lee Patrick her rival “Vice Queen” Elvira Powell, Jan Sterling the CP (that’s Common Prostitute) Smoochie, Ellen Corby a nutty husband killer, Gertrude W. Hoffman the wise old lifer Millie, Olive Deering the doomed June, and the tragic former star Gertrude Michael as the haughty Georgia. Other Familiar Faces behind the walls include Don Beddoe (as the political hack prison commissioner), Jane Darwell , Marlo Dwyer, Sandra Gould, Esther Howard , Sheila MacRae (billed as Sheila Stevens), Queenie Smith (as Marie’s mom), Amzie Strickland, Nita Talbot, and Ann Tyrell.

CAGED’s tougher-than-the-soles-on-a-streetwalker’s-feet screenplay is by Virginia Kellogg, who wrote the story with Bernard Schoenfeld (both were Oscar nominated). Kellogg, who wrote the stories for the tough films noir T-MEN and WHITE HEAT , was a former reporter who used her contacts to go undercover as an inmate in four different prisons to do research on the subject. The result was this knockout of a movie, as realistic a look at prison life as was possible for the time. The bleakness of doing a bid behind bars, the corruption that still goes on, and the dehumanization of people contributes to the high recidivism rate experienced even today. The women of CAGED are no saints, not by a long shot, but their treatment here offers no hope for redemption, just a revolving door for those tagged as social outcasts. It’s a film that is still relevant today, and a film noir you don’t want to miss.


Happy Noir Year!: THE BIG COMBO (United Artists 1955)

(ATTENTION: There’s a surprise waiting for you at the end of this post, so read on…)

Joseph H. Lewis started his directing career with low-budget Westerns starring singing cowboy Bob Baker and East Side Kids programmers, and ended it back on the range doing epsiodes of THE RIFLEMAN, GUNSMOKE, and THE BIG VALLEY. In between, he created some of the finest films noir the genre has to offer: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS , SO DARK THE NIGHT, THE UNDERCOVER MAN, and especially GUN CRAZY . His last big screen noir outing is the culmination of his work in the genre, 1955’s THE BIG COMBO.

The plot is fairly simple: Police Lt. Leonard Diamond is out to crack gangster Mr. Brown’s “combination”, which controls crime in the city. But Philip Yordan’s screenplay takes that plot and adds exciting twists and turns, indelible characters, and a level of violence audiences weren’t used to seeing at the local bijou. Lewis, aided and abetted by cinematographer John Alton , uses that script as a springboard for some darkly dazzling visuals; the opening scene alone, with a young girl being chased down a dark alley by two menacing thugs, finds Lewis and Alton showing off their talents. The film moves at lightning speed, a pedal-to-the-metal noir that doesn’t let up until the chilling conclusion inside an airplane hangar.

Cornel Wilde  is the obsessed police detective determined to put an end to Mr. Brown’s reign of terror. Wilde had started his own production company along with his wife Jean Wallace (who plays Brown’s moll Susan), and this was their first release. Wallace does fair work in the part, though her performance is eclipsed by the rest of the cast. THE BIG COMBO got them off to a slam-bang start, and their next production, STORM FEAR, found Wilde in the director’s chair for the first time, a seat he would take again for films like THE NAKED PREY, BEACH RED, and NO BLADE OF GRASS.

Mr. Brown wasn’t Richard Conte’s first gangster role, nor would it be his last, but it may very well be his best. Mr. Brown is a smug cocksure sadist, deriding Wilde’s Lt. Diamond every chance he gets (“Book me, small change”, he sneers, referencing the cop’s low-wage job), and his staccato line delivery aids the film’s breakneck pace. Brian Donlevy , no stranger to gangster parts himself, plays his second-in-command McClure, once a big shot, now reduced to flunky status. Donlevy was one of noir’s greatest character actors, and his McClure adds another fine portrait to his Rogue’s Gallery. Helen Walker , in her final screen role, plays the mysterious “Alicia”; to say more about the character would spoil the film, and I want you to see it for yourselves! Suffice it to say Miss Walker gives a bravura career finale.

Many modern critics see ‘gay subtext’ everywhere they look in older films; most of the time it’s something that’s not really there. But the characters of Brown’s hit men Fante and Mingo are without question “more than just friends” in this one. It isn’t anything overt, but Yordan’s script subtly suggests these two psychcopaths are homosexual lovers, and the performances of screen tough guys Lee Van Cleef (Fante) and Earl Holliman (Mingo) leave no doubt in my mind about their off-duty relationship. They don’t flaunt their sexual persuasion or camp it up, but watching their nuanced performances, you just know there’s something beneath the surface. Kudos to both actors for giving these stone-cold killers a deeper shading.

THE BIG COMBO is a gripping crime drama in every way, and a fitting end to Lewis’s film noir body of work. It’s dark, sordid, and unsavory, and must-see for fans of the genre. Those who’ve never had the opportunity to watch it are missing a real treat – and since it’s in public domain, I’ll give you that opportunity right now! Consider it my “Happy Noir Year” present to you and enjoy!:

Enjoy Christmas Day with SANTA CLAUS (Complete 1959 Movie)

Merry Christmas! I’ve got one more present for you to unwrap, and it’s a doozy! It’s the Mexican fantasy film SANTA CLAUS, brought to you by K. Gordon Murray, the enterprising film distributor who made a career out of unleashing South-of-the-Border lensed luchadore and children’s flicks on  American audiences. SANTA CLAUS made oodles of money for good ol’ K. Gordon, and he rereleased it every few years to bank oodles more!

In this version of the Kris Kringle legend, Santa Claus lives in a castle up in the clouds above the North Pole, and has enlisted children from all over the world to work at Toyland, where they make all the toys for good girls & boys (can you say “slave labor”?). Santa inadvertently summons up The Devil Himself (here called Mr. Pitch), who does his best (worst?) to get kids to misbehave and piss off Jolly Ol’ St. Nick. Santa’s all-seeing Eye of Agamotto (er, that’s Cosmic Telescope… sorry, wrong movie!) helps him see the mischief Pitch’s trying to spread around, so Santa’s good buddy Merlin the Wizard concocts some Magic Powder to put the kids to sleep on Christmas Eve, and a Magic Flower that renders him invisible. But Pitch is up to his old tricks, cutting a hole in Santa’s bag that dumps his magic stuff, and the Jolly One winds up treed by a vicious dog just as daylight is approaching. Can Merlin save Christmas? Of course he can!

I know he’s supposed to be jolly, but Santa’s manical laughter throughout the film makes it seem like he’s had too much Tequila-spiked eggnog and Acapulco Gold (and speaking of mind-altering substances, little Lupita’s dream about the Dancing Dolls comes off more like an LSD-fueled nightmare!). The movie’s so nonsensical, it makes SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS look like Academy Award material! Yet it’s got a charm of it’s own, and you’ll find yourself laughing as manically as Santa himself while watching 1959’s SANTA CLAUS:

And remember, as Santa says during the film, “A dream is a wish that the heart makes” (hmmm… seems like I’ve heard that somewhere before…)

Cowboy Christmas: TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD (Republic 1950)

There’s no sign of Robin Hood to be found in the Roy Rogers vehicle TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD. However, the film has gained a cult following among sagebrush aficionados for the plethora of cowboy stars gathered together in this extremely likable little ‘B’ Western directed by Republic Pictures workhorse William Whitney , with plenty of songs by Roy and the Riders of the Purple Sage to go along with that trademark Republic fightin’ and a-ridin’ action (thanks, stuntmen Art Dillon, Ken Terrell, and Joe Yrigoyen!).

Some rustlers have been stealing Christmas trees from ‘retired actor’ Jack Holt’s tree farm. The benign Jack raises his trees to sell at cost to parents of poor kids, but avaricious J.C. Aldridge (Emory Parnell ) and his foreman Mitch McCall (former Our Gang member Clifton Young ) want to put an end to it and corner the Christmas tree market! U.S. Forestry Agent Roy is out to stop the varmints, along with his goofy sidekick Splinters McGonigle (Gordon Jones )  and his kid sister, whose name, appropriately enough, is Sis (Carol Nugent)!  Aldridge’s purdy but haughty daughter Toby (Penny Edwards) is sent to get Jack to sell out, and when he refuses, the baddies use every dirty trick in the book (including murder!) to put him out of business!

Toby has a change of heart when she learns McCall has kidnapped her pappy  after the villains resort to arson, causing Jack to be overcome by smoke inhalation. Things look bleak, as the tree wranglers are scared to bring the firs to market, so Sis gets the idea to call in the troops: Western icons Rex Allen, George Cheseboro, Crash Corrigan , William Farnum, Monte Hale, Tom Keene , Allan “Rocky” Lane, Kermit Maynard, and Tom Tyler ! They rush the trees by wagon over a burning bridge (with special effects courtesy of Republic’s Lydecker Brothers), the baddies are defeated, and Christmas for them thar poor kids is saved!

Anyone familiar with these Roy Rogers Westerns knows about the weird mix of Old West cowboys in modern times, and this one is no exception. Roy’s overgrown Boy Scout character is pure corn, but he was a big box office draw for the kiddies, and the film sure looks good in Trucolor (Technicolor’s poor cousin). Jack Holt, older and balding, is still as square-jawed as ever, and it’s a treat to see him along with all the other former cowboy stars under one Western sky. They don’t actually get to do much besides a little shooting and riding, but that’s okay, their mere presence helps up grade the material. Despite all these cowboy heroes appearing together, it’s Roy’s palomino Trigger, “The Smartest Horse in the West” , who receives second billing (his German Shepherd Bullet is featured, too)!

Roy gets to sing a few songs with Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage (“Home Town Jubilee”, “Get a Christmas Tree for Johnny”, “Every Day is Christmas in the West”), and there’s a cute subplot involving Sis and her pet turkey Sir Galahad, who Splinters envisions as a tasty Christmas dinner! Nobody did these things better than Republic, and it’s all harmless fun from the waning days of the Saturday matinee Westerns. The glimpse of cowboy heroes past makes it more than worth your time, and while it’s no classic, it sho’ nuff is a lot of fun!

Merry Christmas from Roy and Trigger!