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.

No Surprises Here: GUN FURY (Columbia 1953)

I watched GUN FURY expecting a surprise. What I got instead was a routine Western, not bad for its type, bolstered by a better-than-average cast, solid direction from veteran Raoul Walsh , and some lavish Technicolor location footage from Sedona, AZ. But I kept waiting and waiting for that “surprise” that never came. What am I talking about? Read on and find out, buckeroos!

Ben Warren, a peaceful Civil War vet, meets his intended bride Jennifer Ballard at the stagecoach station. The two lovebirds intend to travel to the next stop and get hitched. Also onboard the stage is mean desperado Frank Slayton, an “unreconstructed Southerner” feared across the territory, and his partner-in-crime Jess Burgess. Frank’s gang, disguised as Cavalry soldiers, lie in wait and rob the stage of it’s shipment of gold, stealing the loot killing everyone except Jennifer, who Frank has designs on and kidnaps.

But wait! Ben’s still alive, and he saddles up to search for his missing fiancé. Jess, who disapproves of Frank’s lecherous lust for Jennifer, is tied up to a fencepost by the gang and left for the buzzards. Along comes Ben, who frees Jess from his bondage, and the pair form an alliance to find Frank and his gang, Ben to rescue his true love, and Jess to settle the score with Frank…

Yup, it’s a chase Western, with the novelty of being a 3D release, which must’ve looked cool at the time, but falls flat when watching on the TV screen. The saving grace here is the impressive cast, with young Rock Hudson starring as the intense, earnest Ben, on a quest to save his ladylove. She’s played by Donna Reed , who makes for a pretty woman-in-peril (and would win the Oscar that same year for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY). Phil Carey gives a good performance as bad hombre Frank, and Leo Gordon does a fine job as Jess. Lee Marvin and Neville Brand play members of Frank’s gang, and Roberta Haynes tries hard as Frank’s Mexican squeeze Estella.

Director Walsh was responsible for some macho screen classics (WHAT PRICE GLORY, THE ROARING TWENTIES , HIGH SIERRA, WHITE HEAT ), but unfortunately GUN FURY isn’t one of them. Like I said, it’s okay for what it is, it’s just not up to Walsh’s usual high standards. The screenplay was co-written by novelist Irving Wallace, whose books THE CHAPMAN REPORT, THE MAN, and THE SEVEN MINUTES were made into films, and Roy Huggins, who later created such TV hits as MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, THE FUGITIVE, and THE ROCKFORD FILES. The Sedonia scenery is gorgeous to look at in Technicolor, and Mischa Bakalieinikoff’s music is appropriately rousing.

I recorded GUN FURY off The Sony Channel a while back because under the “Cast and Crew” listing on my DVR was a name towards the bottom that made me want to see the film. It simply stated “James Cagney as The Villain”! Though I couldn’t find any other information, I figured the great Cagney might have done a cameo as a favor to his friend Walsh. So I sat and waited… and waited… and waited, right up until the very end. Cagney was nowhere to be found!! At least, I couldn’t find him! Why he was listed in the first place, I have no idea. So if you choose to watch GUN FURY, don’t expect any “surprise” appearance from Jimmy. Just make yourself some popcorn, sit back, and enjoy an average Western with an above-average cast.

The Last Gangster: James Cagney in WHITE HEAT (Warner Brothers 1949)


When James Cagney burst onto the screen in THE PUBLIC ENEMY, a star was born. Cagney’s machine gun delivery of dialog, commanding screen presence, and take-no-shit attitude made him wildly popular among the Depression Era masses, if not with studio boss Jack Warner, with whom Cagney frequently battled over salary and scripts that weren’t up to par. Films like LADY KILLER , THE MAYOR OF HELL , and ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES made Cagney the quintessential movie gangster, but after 1939’s THE ROARING TWENTIES he hung up his spats and concentrated on changing his image. Ten years later, Cagney returned to the gangster film in WHITE HEAT, turning in one of his most memorable performances as the psychotic Cody Jarrett.

Cagney is older and meaner than ever as Jarrett, a remorseless mad-dog killer with a severe mother complex and more than a touch of insanity. Jarrett has frequent debilitating headaches brought on by some unnamed trauma that only Ma can soothe. The actor is an untamed hurricane in this role, swaggering one minute, having a complete meltdown when he gets news of Ma’s death the next. He’s at his best when he’s totally unhinged, cold-bloodedly ventilating the car  trunk containing a would-be traitor with bullets, knocking spouse Verna off her chair, and the spectacular fiery finale where his madness engulfs him as much as the flames, delivering that immortal “Top of the world” line with gusto. Cagney’s Cody Jarrett is dangerous and unpredictable, a man to be feared, and that thread of fear permeates the film.

The women in Cody’s life say a lot about the kind of man he is. Margaret Wycherly is chilling as Ma, a far cry from her loving mother in SERGEANT YORK. Based loosely on Ma Barker, she’s been a criminal all her life, and has groomed her boy to be as ruthless as herself, if not more so. Virginia Mayo as Cody’s wife Verna is just as much a sociopath as he is, a duplicitous woman without morals who doesn’t hesitate to take up with Cody’s lieutenant Big Ed when her man goes to jail. Verna will lie and backstab to get her own way, but she’s deathly afraid of Cody’s wrath, letting Big Ed pay for Ma’s demise even though she pulled trigger that killed the older woman… shot in the back, no less! Cody and Verna are a match made in hell, and Virginia Mayo, who was one of Warner’s biggest stars at the time, received above the title billing just below Cagney. Both should’ve been nominated for Oscars.

Edmond O’Brien  plays T-Man Hank Fallon, who goes undercover as convict Vic Pardo to try and gain Cody’s trust. It’s a tricky part, but the always reliable O’Brien pulls it off. Steve Cochran is his usual menacing self as Big Ed… just not as menacing as Cagney! Another old reliable, Fred Clark , is on hand as ‘The Trader’, brains behind Cody’s crimes. And the Familiar Face brigade is out in full force – say, isn’t that young Robert Foulk? Omigosh, there’s Claudia “ROBOT MONSTER” Barrett! That guy looks like the butler in SON OF  FRANKENSTEIN! I could go on, but you get the idea, so happy hunting!


Raoul Walsh’s muscular, masculine direction makes WHITE HEAT even tougher. Walsh had success in the gangster genre before, helming Cagney’s THE ROARING TWENTIES and Bogart’s HIGH SIERRA, but he was one of those equally adept in any genre: silent classics like THE THIEF OF BAGDAD and WHAT PRICE GLORY, period pieces (THE BOWERY, THE STRAWBERRY BLONDE), westerns (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, COLORADO TERRITORY), war dramas (DESPERATE JOURNEY , BATTLE CRY). This is the third of four films Walsh would make with Cagney, and a fine coda to the gangster cycle. WHITE HEAT is a classic in every sense of the word, a movie that absolutely lives up to its reputation.

 

 

 

End of an Era: THE ROARING TWENTIES (Warner Brothers 1939)

Warner Brothers helped usher in the gangster movie era in the early 1930’s with Pre-Code hits like LITTLE CAESAR and THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and at the decade’s end they put the capper on the genre with THE ROARING TWENTIES, a rat-a-tat-tat rousing piece of filmmaking starring two of the studio’s top hoods, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart , directed with the top down by eye-patch wearing macho man Raoul Walsh for maximum entertainment.

The film’s story was written by Mark Hellinger, a popular and colorful New York columnist in the Damon Runyon mold who based it on his encounters with some of the underworld figures he knew during that tumultuous era. Hellinger was later responsible for producing some of the toughest noirs of the late 40’s: THE KILLERS BRUTE FORCE , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, and THE NAKED CITY. Jerry Wald, Richard Macauley, and Robert Rossen adapted Hellinger’s story for the screen, and the film has a novel way of moving through the decade via montage, nine of them to be exact!

WWI vets Eddie Bartlett, George Hally, and Lloyd Hart (Cagney, Bogie, Jeffrey Lynn) return home to vastly different circumstances. While Hally returns to saloonkeeping and Hart begins a law career, Eddie finds himself an out-of-work mechanic. Pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh) gives him a job driving hack, but when the Volstead Act goes into effect, Eddie becomes a bootlegger. He joins forces with saloon owner/hostess Panama Smith (Gladys George), and soon buys a fleet of cabs to deliver the hootch. Lloyd becomes his lawyer, and Eddie is off and running in the illegal booze business.

Sweet Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane), who once sent Eddie her picture during the war (she was a teen at the time), is trying to break into show business, so Eddie gets her a job as a singer in Panama’s joint. He’s infatuated with Jean, but she only has eyes for Lloyd. Meanwhile, competition in the rackets causes violence to escalate between Eddie and rival Nick Brown (Paul Kelly). George is working as Brown’s lieutenant, but double-crosses him to join forces with Eddie. Pal Danny’s body is dumped in front of Eddie’s nightclub, and the mobster goes for revenge against Brown, only to be double-crossed by that double-crosser George!

Times change, the stock market crashes, prohibition’s repealed, Lloyd and Jean get married, and Eddie hits the skids, crawling into a bottle with only loyal Panama by his side. Jean searches for and finds Eddie in a run-down gin joint and asks for help. Lloyd is now with the DA’s office, and George, still a top hood, wants to put him on ice. This last segment has the look and feel of an early Thirties Warners gangster pic, as the studio pays homage to itself and its  films. The famous final scene featuring Cagney, pumped full of lead and dying on those snow covered church steps, with Panama uttering the memorable last line “He used to be a big shot”, is one of my favorites in cinema history.

The casting is perfect. Cagney is Cagney, and can do no wrong far as I’m concerned. Bogart is thoroughly despicable as rotten George, the kind of villain you want to “boo and hiss” at. Priscilla Lane is all sweetness as Jean, and even gets to sing some period songs like “Melancholy Baby”, “I’m Just Wild About Harry”, and “It Had to Be You”. But it’s Gladys George who steals this one as Panama, the proverbial “tough-dame-with-the-heart-of-gold”, a part usually reserved for the likes of Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell, or Claire Trevor. Gladys was better known to audiences for “woman’s pictures” like VALIANT IS THE WORD FOR CARRIE and MADAME X, but here she gets down-and-dirty with the best of ’em. I don’t think Joan, Glenda, or Claire could’ve done it any better than Gladys, she’s that good, and should’ve been Oscar nominated. Gladys later reunited with Bogart as Miles Archer’s widow in THE MALTESE FALCON.

As you’d expect in a Warner Brothers film of this era, there are tons of Familiar Faces floating through the plot, way too many to mention them all here, so I’ll just list Elisabeth Risdon, Joe Sawyer, John Hamilton, Jack Norton (as a drunk, of course!), Eddie Acuff, Abner Biberman, Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale from THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES!), Maurice Costello, Wild Bill Elliott, Bess Flowers, Donald Kerr, George Tobias, Ben Weldon, and Frank Wilcox, and let you find the rest! Happy hunting, film fans!

 

 

Happy Birthday Errol Flynn: DESPERATE JOURNEY (Warner Brothers 1942)

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The actor known for his “wicked, wicked ways”, Errol Flynn was born June 20, 1909 in Hobart, Australia. The dashing Flynn skyrocketed to fame with a series of swashbuckling exploits: CAPTAIN BLOOD , THE SEA HAWK, and most notably THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. He was also featured in some of the great Westerns of the era (THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON, SANTA FE TRAIL). Like all stalwart screen heroes, during the 1940’s Flynn made a number of wartime propaganda films to boost morale for the masses. One of these was DESPERATE JOURNEY, a totally improbable but highly exciting action yarn from the two-fisted, one-eyed Raoul Walsh, director of such macho fare as THE ROARING TWENTIES, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT.

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An RAF bomber squad is sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines to take out a train depot. They accomplish the task, but are shot down by Nazi heavy artillery. Forced to crash-land, the survivors (Aussie Flight Lt. Terry, American Flight Officer Johnny, Canadian Flight Officer Jed, Brit Flight Sgts. Kirk and Lloyd)  are captured by the evil Nazis and taken before Major Baumeister. The Major tries to get airplane intel out of Johnny, but the cocky American gives him the double-talk and knocks the evil kraut out with the old one-two! The other men overtake the Nazi guards and escape, stealing some classified German documents on their way out (Johnny, reading one: “Degenerate democracy! That’s a great crack coming from Adolph!”) .

This pisses the Major off, of course, and he vows to hunt them down. But our plucky band of heroes thwart the Fascists at every turn, making monkeys out of them. After jumping some soldiers and stealing their uniforms, the crew hops a train (and it’s Goering’s private car, to boot!), and make their way into Berlin. They plot to blow up a chemical plant, and succeed, but Lloyd takes a bullet in the process. Terry meets up with a beautiful member of the German underground (what’s an Errol Flynn movie without a beautiful woman?) who tries to help them. She directs them to her parents place, and all seems well… until she walks in and discovers it’s not her parents, but Nazi sympathizers! Baumeister and his hoard surround the farmhouse, but the gang escapes yet again by stealing Baumeister’s car! (Though brave old Kirk doesn’t make it)

The furious chase continues until the Major’s car runs out of gas. Fortunately, our heroes stumble upon a captured British plane the Nazi’s plan on using to blow up a strategic waterworks. The trio manages to overpower the Nazis, but Major Baumeister and his men arrive on the scene, wounding Jed. Heroic Terry begins mowing down the Nazis with the plane’s machine gun, then takes off for the skies while heroic Johnny finishes the mowing down. All’s well that ends well, as Terry, Johnny, and Jed fly back to London, with Terry vowing, “Now for Australia and a crack at those Japs!!”

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WWII moviegoers must’ve cheered wildly at the spectacle of Nazis cut down by machine gun fire, and being made fools of throughout the film. DESPERATE JOURNEY was a box-office smash, even though Flynn was on trial for statutory rape at the time of its release (he was acquitted for those of you unfamiliar with Hollywood history). The film’s special effects were nominated for an Oscar, but didn’t win (nominee Byron Haskin later went on to direct the sci-fi classic WAR OF THE WORLDS). Arthur T. Horman’s script was pure fantasy, more like something out of Marvel Comics’ “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos” than real life, but it hit all the right patriotic notes. Speaking of notes, Max Steiner contributes another of his rousing scores.

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Flynn shared  top billing in this with Ronald Reagan, who plays Johnny as a typically brash, wisecracking American. His “double-talk” scene earned kudos from both audiences and critics. This was Reagan’s last film before beginning a four-year hitch in the Armed Forces (he was stationed stateside).  When he returned to Hollywood, Reagan was relegated to B-movies, and his film career slowly fizzled out. That’s okay though, as Ronald Reagan found even greater success in his next career- politics.

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Major Baumeister is the epitome of Nazi evil as played by Raymond Massey. The growling, sneering Hun is a far cry from Massey’s noble ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS. Alan Hale Sr (Kirk) adds comic relief; he was Little John to Flynn’s Robin Hood in 1938 (offscreen, Hale was one of Flynn’s good drinking buddies). Arthur Kennedy is the sober-sided Canadian Jed. Ronald Sinclair (Lloyd) played young Ebeneezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL ; he later became a film editor mostly associated with Roger Corman. Other Familiar Faces in the cast are Sig Ruman, Nancy Coleman, Lester Matthews, and Albert Basserman. If you look close, you’ll also spot John Banner (HOGAN’S HEROES’ Sgt. Schultz), Walter Brooke, Helmut Dantine, and Phillip Van Zant.

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Then there’s Errol Flynn himself, with that rascally charm and roguish smile, leading his band of brothers through peril after peril. The virile Errol was actually classified 4-F during the war, suffering from heart ailments, chronic TB and Malaria, and assorted venereal diseases (not to mention his struggles with alcohol and morphine). But that didn’t stop Warner Brothers from casting him in more wartime dramas like DIVE BOMBER and OBJECTIVE BURMA. At least he could fight for his adopted country onscreen, kicking Nazi and Japanese ass and sending war-weary audiences home happy, at least for a while. Errol Flynn continued to make movies and carouse until his death in 1959, when his abused body finally gave out, a victim of his own “wicked, wicked ways”. He left behind a legacy of classic films for Hollywood fans to enjoy for years to come.

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