Heel with a Heart: Dan Duryea in THE UNDERWORLD STORY (United Artists 1950)

Hollywood’s favorite heel Dan Duryea got a rare starring role in THE UNDERWORLD STORY, a 1950 crime drama in which he plays… you guessed it, a heel! But this heel redeems himself at the film’s conclusion, and Duryea even wins the girl. Since that girl is played by my not-so-secret crush Gale Storm , you just know I had to watch this one!

The part of muckraking tabloid journalist Mike Reese is tailor-made for Duryea’s sleazy charms. He’s a big-city reporter who breaks a story about gangster Turk Meyers spilling to the D.A., resulting in the thug ending up murdered on the courthouse steps in a hail of bullets. DA Ralph Monroe (Michael O’Shea )  puts the pressure on Mike’s editor, and Reese becomes persona non grata in the newspaper game. Seeing an ad for a partner at a small town newspaper, Mike gets a $5,000 “loan” from crime boss Carl Durham (a scary Howard DaSilva ), and hightails it to the sedate New England burg of Lakeville.

The Lakeville Sentinel is run by ‘Our Little Margie’ Miss Storm, as Cathy Harris, who inherited the failing rag from her late father. Cathy’s reluctant to take on the aggressive hustler as her partner, but is persuaded by old-time printer George “Parky” Parker (veteran Harry Shannon). Things get shaken up in Lakeville when the wife of Clark Stanton (Gar Moore), son of publishing mogul Ed Stanton (Herbert Marshall  ) is found murdered, and Mike exploits the tragedy for all its worth, leading to the frame-up of the Stanton’s black maid Molly (Mary Anderson).

THE UNDERWORLD STORY was pretty bold for it’s time in its subject matter, dealing not only with “yellow journalism”, but also issues of race and class. I had to rewind twice when rich Clark Stanton, who killed his wife and pins the blame on Molly, tells his dad, ” Who’ll believe the word of a nigger against ours?”. You just don’t hear something like that in a film made in 1950! The only complaint I have is that Anderson, who gives a sympathetic performance as Molly, is a white woman. Couldn’t the producers have hired a black actress to essay the role? It’s also implied that old man Stanton was a bit more than just fond of his daughter-in-law. The Stantons conspire to put the Sentinel out of business when Mike crusades for Molly’s innocence, using their blue-blood connections to get local businesses to stop advertising in the paper.

There are allusions to the HUAC hearings, as the case against Molly becomes akin to the “witch trials in old Lakeville”. Indeed, this was Howard DaSilva’s last film for awhile, as the actor wound up on the blacklist. He didn’t make another film until 1961’s DAVID AND LISA. Director Cy Enfield was also blacklisted, and had to move to England to continue his career with films like MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and ZULU. The screenplay by Henry Blankford (adapted by Enfield) contains some great, tough dialog, delivered by Duryea and company with gusto. Also of note is the cinematography by the great Stanley Cortez (THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER), whose keen eye adds immensely to the film despite its obvious low budget.

The Familiar Face Brigade is well represented by stalwarts like Phil Arnold, Art Baker , Melville Cooper, Ned Glass, Alan Hale Jr, Frieda Inescort, Donald “Devil Bat” Kerr (once again a photographer!), Edward Van Sloan (yes, of Universal Horror fame!), and ‘The Last Charlie Chan’, Roland Winters. But it’s Dan Duryea who runs away with the acting honors, making the most of his starring opportunity. Plus he gets to clinch Gale Storm in the end. Lucky bastard!

Christmas Surprise: IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE (Allied Artists 1947)

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I’d never heard of IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE until it’s recent broadcast on TCM. This unsung little holiday gem was a TV staple for decades before being pulled from viewing in 1990, only resurfacing in 2009 when a small but dedicated band of classic film fans put the pressure on to see it aired once again. And I’m glad they did, for this charming, unpretensious comedy boasts a marvelous cast, an Oscar-nominated screenplay, and a Frank Capra-esque feel without a lot of the Capra-corn.

Capra himself was scheduled to direct it back in 1945, but instead he chose to make another Christmas film you may have heard of, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Veteran Roy Del Ruth obtained the rights, and IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE became the first release of Allied Artists, the larger budgeted, more prestigious arm of Monogram Pictures (and you know how much I love Monogram movies!). The film was cast, shooting began, and the movie was released- in Easter season! I’m not quite sure why a movie based around the Christmas season was released on Easter, but it didn’t matter, as moviegoers packed their local theaters, and Allied Artists had a huge hit on their hands.

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The story: When “industrial wizard” Michael J. O’Connor, “the second richest man in the world”, goes south to Virginia during the winter months, hobo Aloysius McKeever and his dog Sammy appropriate the property. McKeever meets Jim Bullock, a homeless vet evicted from his room because O’Connor bought his building to put up another skyscraper. McKeever invites Jim to stay with him until he gets settled somewhere.

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O’Connor’s headstrong 18 year old daughter Trudy, still depressed over her parent’s divorce, runs away from boarding school and heads to the family mansion. She’s caught by McKeever and Jim, who think she’s a thief trying to steal a mink coat. When she overhears the two talking about the reason they’re in her home, she plays along, calling herself ‘Trudy Smith’ from Dubuque, Iowa, one of fourteen children with an alcoholic father who beats them all regularly.

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Trudy falls for Jim, and while they stroll down the street they run into a couple of Jim’s old Army buddies, Whitey and Hank, and their families, currently all living in their car due to the housing crisis. Soon all nine people are squatting in the O’Connor homestead, and Jim comes up with a plan to turn a former Army camp into housing for homeless veterans. O’Connor tracks down Trudy, but she persuades pop into playing along so Jim won’t think she’s a spoiled little rich girl. He does for a time, but soon gets fed up with the situation and threatens to call the police, forcing Trudy to call mom Mary in Palm Beach, who arrives and gets in on the charade by posing as an Irish cook!

Got all that so far? Good, but there’s a catch: unbeknownst to each, O’Connor is bidding on that same Army property as Jim, causing more complications. But you just know everything’s going to work out in the end; after all, it’s a Christmas movie, and that’s what Christmas movies do! Producer/director Del Ruth wraps things up neatly with a bow on top, and screenwriter Everett Freeman sends us all home happy in the end (his script lost the Oscar to another Yuletime classic that year, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET!).

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Victor Moore gets top billing as McKeever, a gentle soul of a hobo who’s wiser than his outward appearance lets on. Moore was a star of Broadway and early silent flicks who became a reliable character actor (GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937, SWING TIME). He’s definitely an acquired taste, but is more than acceptable here. The young lovers are well played by Don DeFore and Gale Storm . I’ve told you about my long-time crush on Miss Storm here through viewing reruns of her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE. Gale had a lovely singing voice to boot, but for some reason Del Ruth chose to have her dubbed! Doesn’t matter, Monogram’s home-grown starlet shines anyway as Trudy.

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It’s Charles Ruggles who really made the film for me as the millionaire O’Connor. Ruggles’ facial expressions, vocal inflections, and willingness to take a pratfall or two are a joy to behold, and the veteran comic character star walks away with the movie’s acting honors. Pre-Code darling Ann Harding (HOLIDAY, THE ANIMAL KINGDOM, THE LIFE OF VERGIE WINTERS), always a welcome presence, has terrific chemistry with Ruggles as his former spouse. Young Alan Hale Jr (Gilligan’s Skipper!) plays Jim’s pal Whitey, and Dorothea Kent (a lovely lass) is his wife. Other Familiar Faces joining in on the fun are Leon Belasco, Edward Brophy, Chester Clute, Dudley Dickerson, James Flavin, John Hamilton, Charles Lane, George Lloyd, and Grant Mitchell.

IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE will be on my Christmas watch list from now on, a delightful screwball tale the whole family can enjoy. Tired of the same old holiday movies? Give this one a try; you can thank me later!

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 7: Film Noir Festival

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I first got my DVR service from DirecTV just in time for last year’s TCM Summer of Darkness series, and there’s still a ton of films I haven’t gotten around to viewing… until now! So without further ado, let’s dive right into the fog-shrouded world of film noir:

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RAW DEAL (Eagle-Lion 1948, D: Anthony Mann)

This tough-talking film seems to cram every film noir trope in the book into its 79 minutes. Gangster Dennis O’Keefe busts out of prison with the help of his moll ( Claire Trevor ), kidnaps social worker Marsha Hunt, and goes after the sadistic crime boss (Raymond Burr) who owes him fifty grand. Director Mann and DP John Alton make this flawed but effective ultra-low budget film work, with help from a great cast. Burr’s nasty, fire-obsessed kingpin is scary, and John Ireland as his torpedo has a great fight scene with O’Keefe. The flaming finale is well staged, but I could do without Trevor’s sporadic narration. Fun Fact: Whit Bissell (BRUTE FORCE ) has a brief role as a killer on the run.

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THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (RKO 1947, D: Nicholas Ray)

Nicholas Ray’s first film tells the tale of two young lovers (Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell) on the run who try to but can’t escape his life of crime. Ray’s directorial flourishes aid tremendously in making this a good, but not quite great, movie. It bogs down about halfway through, and probably could’ve used some editing, but producer John Houseman gave Ray free rein to create his feature debut. Ray would go on to direct some great films (IN A LONELY PLACE, JOHNNY GUITAR, and of course REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) and influence a generation of filmmakers. Character actors Howard DaSilva, Jay C. Flippen, Byron Foulger, Ian Wolfe, and Will Wright offer fine contributions, and lead actress O’Donnell gives an outstanding, subdued performance as Keechie. Fun Fact: Remade in 1974 by Robert Altman as THEIVES LIKE US, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as the young lovers.

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BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (Columbia 1950, D: Gordon Douglas)

Programmer following two squad car cops (Edmond O’Brien, Mark Stevens) out to get the goods on gangster Garris (Donald Buka). The cops are also rivals for Gale Storm’s affections, and who can blame them…. I’ve had a crush on the sweet Miss Storm since adolescence! Not really a noir though it usually gets lumped with to the genre. A good cast can’t quite over come the hokey, clichéd script. Fun Fact: Be on the lookout for Madge Blake (BATMAN’s Aunt Harriet), Roland Winters (the last Monogram Charlie Chan), and Phillip Van Zandt (nemesis in countless Three Stooges shorts).   

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THE STRIP (MGM 1951, D: Laszlo Kardos)

You’d think a film noir with a jazz club setting would be perfect, and you’d be right… but this isn’t it (it’s 1941’s BLUES IN THE NIGHT, which I’ll be reviewing at a later date!). Mickey Rooney stars here as a jazz drummer fresh from the Korean War who gets involved with an aspiring actress ( Sally Forrest) and a gangster (Clark Gable wanna-be James Craig). The movie’s saving graces are it’s location scenes inside L.A nightclubs of the era, and some jazz numbers from legends Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Vic Damone, and Monica Lewis (the “Chiquita Banana” girl). Otherwise, pretty disappointing. Fun Fact: THE STRIP was nominated for (but didn’t win) an Oscar for the song “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”.

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INFERNO (20th Century Fox 1953, D: Roy Ward Baker)

Red haired sexpot Rhonda Fleming and lover William Lundigan leave her husband Robert Ryan to die out in the desert with a broken leg. They think they’ve committed “the perfect murder”, but didn’t count on Ryan’s sheer willpower and McGyver-like ingenuity. INFERNO was 20th Century Fox’s first 3-D movie (in Technicolor), and DP Lucien Ballard’s location shots in the Mojave Desert lend it a rugged feel (I would love to see this one on the big screen as intended). Director Baker also made the Marilyn Monroe noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK , and went on to direct some chilling Hammer films later in his career. Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) appears as an old desert rat, and the climactic fight between Ryan and Lundigan in a burning cabin will definitely hold your interest, as indeed will the whole movie. A neat film about survival and revenge, well worth watching! Fun Fact: Remade twenty years later as the TV Movie ORDEAL with Arthur Hill, Diana Muldaur, and James Stacy in the Ryan/Fleming/Lundigan roles.

I’ll leave you with wonderful Louis Armstrong and his all-star band swingin’ the tune “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo” from THE STRIP: