Built For Speed: Richard Pryor in GREASED LIGHTNING (Warner Brothers 1977)

Richard Pryor  (1940-2005) has been hailed as a comedy genius, and rightly so. But Pryor could also more than hold his own in a dramatic role. Films like WILD IN THE STREETS, LADY SINGS THE BLUES, and BLUE COLLAR gave him the opportunity to strut his thespic stuff, and GREASED LIGHTNING gave him top billing as Wendell Scott, the first African-American NASCAR driver. Pryor plays it straight in this highly fictionalized biopic about a man determined to break the color barrier in the predominantly white sport of stock car racing.

We see Scott returning to his rural Danville, VA hometown after serving in WWII.  He tells everyone he wants to drive a cab and someday open a garage, but his secret wish is to become “a champion race car driver”. He meets and falls in love with Mary (Pam Grier, who’s never looked more beautiful), and they eventually marry. Meanwhile, Wendell and his friend Peewee (the always welcome Cleavon Little ) begin running moonshine, eluding local Sheriff Cotton (Vincent Gardenia) for five years before finally getting busted.

A local race promoter (Noble Willingham) who’s heard of Wendell’s driving skills bails him out, wanting to put him in a car and “make some money offa his black ass”, believing blacks will turn out in droves to cheer him on, while the whites will want to see him crash and burn – literally! With loyal mechanic Woodrow (singer Richie Havens) and white ex-driver Hutch (Beau Bridges) as his pit crew, Wendell battles the odds, not to mention redneck rival Beau Wells (Earl Hindman, neighbor Wilson of TV’s HOME IMPROVEMENT), as he races in Darlington, Atlanta, Bristol, Charlotte, Daytona, and other famous tracks, until becoming a bona fide star. A serious crash puts Wendell out of racing, but he stages a miraculous comeback (really, is there any other kind in these films?) against Mary’s wishes, entering the Grand National and winning the checkered flag!

Pryor plays the NASCAR legend with grit and determination, not letting anything stop him from achieving his dream, including the prejudice of the era. He and Pam Grier began dating around the time of GREASED LIGHTNING, and the affection the two had between them shows onscreen. The supporting cast is terrific, and Hindman’s Beau Wells is a composite of several NASCAR drivers, including legend Richard Petty. Others in the cast include civil rights activist Julian Bond in the small role of Pam’s first boyfriend, Lucy Saroyan (daughter of writer William) as Bridges’ wife, and Bill Cobbs as Pam’s dad.

Director Michael Schultz keeps the pedal to the metal, and has quite a decent resume himself: COOLEY HIGH, CAR WASH, the Pryor comedies WHICH WAY IS UP? and BUSTIN’ LOOSE, and KRUSH GROOVE (we won’t talk about SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND or DISORDERLIES!). The real stars of GREASED LIGHTNING may be stunt coordinator Ted Duncan and his team of drivers, who make the track action look real, along with some skillful editing by Randy Roberts and Bob Wyman. Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles (SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG) is among four credited writers.

GREASED LIGHTNING may not be entirely factual, but it is entirely entertaining, and was obviously a labor of love for Richard Pryor. The story of a man overcoming all obstacles to achieve his dream is something Richard Pryor could definitely relate to, and through all his real-life trials and tribulations and, like Wendell Scott, he did just that.

The real Wendell Scott (1921-1990)

Cleaning Out the DVR #24: Crime Does Not Pay!

We’re way overdue for a Cleaning Out the DVR post – haven’t done one since back in April! – so let’s jump right in with 4 capsule reviews of 4 classic crime films:

SINNERS’ HOLIDAY (Warner Brothers 1930; D: John Adolfi) – Early talkie interesting as the screen debut of James Cagney , mixed up in “the booze racket”, who shoots bootlegger Warren Hymer, and who’s penny arcade owner maw Lucille LaVerne covers up by pinning the murder on daughter Evalyn Knapp’s ex-con boyfriend Grant Withers. Some pretty racy Pre-Code elements include Joan Blondell as Cagney’s “gutter floozie” main squeeze. Film’s 60 minute running time makes it speed by, aided by some fluid for the era camerawork. Fun Fact: Cagney and Blondell appeared in the original Broadway play “Penny Arcade”; when superstar entertainer Al Jolson bought the rights, he insisted Jimmy and Joan be cast in the film version, and the rest is screen history. Thanks, Al!

THE BLUE GARDENIA (Warner Brothers 1953; D: Fritz Lang ) – Minor but well done film noir with Anne Baxter, after receiving a ‘Dear Jane’ letter from her soldier boyfriend, falling into the clutches of lecherous artist Raymond Burr ,who plies her with ‘Polynesean Pearl Divers’, gets her drunk, and tries to take advantage of her. Anne grabs a fireplace poker, then blacks out, wakes up, discovers his dead body, and thinks she killed him. Did she? Veteran noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuracra’s shadowy camerawork helps elevate this a few notches above the average ‘B’, as does a high powered cast led by Richard Conte as a newspaperman out to solve the case (and sell papers!), Ann Southern and Jeff Donnell as Anne’s roommates, George Reeves as a dogged homicide captain, and Familiar Faces like Richard Erdman, Frank Ferguson, Celia Lovsky, Almira Sessions, Robert Shayne, and Ray Walker. Based on  short story by Vera Caspary, who also wrote the source novel for LAURA. Not top-shelf Lang, but still entertaining. Fun Fact: Nat King Cole has a cameo singing the title tune in a Chinese restaurant, but the real ‘Fun Fact’ is the guy playing violin behind him… that’s Papa John Creach, who later played rock fiddle in the 70’s with Jefferson Airplane/Starship and Hot Tuna!

ILLEGA(Warner Brothers 1955; D: Lewis Allen) – ‘Original Gangster’ Edward G. Robinson stars as a tough, erudite DA who sends the wrong man to the chair, crawls into a bottle of Scotch, and crawls out as a criminal defense attorney working for racketeer Albert Dekker. EG’s practically the whole show, though he’s surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, including Nina Foch as his protege, Hugh Marlowe as her husband, Jan Merlin as Dekker’s grinning torpedo, Ellen Corby as EG’s loyal secretary, and Jayne Mansfield in an small early role as Dekker’s moll. Keep your eyes peeled for some Familiar TV Faces: DeForest Kelly (STAR TREK) as EG’S doomed client, Henry “Bomber” Kulky (LIFE OF RILEY, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA) as a witness, Ed Platt (GET SMART) as the DA successor, and sour-voiced Herb Vigran, who guested in just about every TV show ever, as a bailiff. Fun Fact: Co-screenwriter W.R. Burnett wrote the novel LITTLE CAESAR, which Warners turned into Eddie G’s first gangster flick back in 1930!

DIRTY MARY, CRAZY LARRY (20th Century-Fox 1974, D: John Hough) – The late Peter Fonda costars with sexy Susan George in this classic chase movie from the Golden Age of Muscle Cars. Fonda and fellow AIP bikesploitation vet Adam Rourke (a personal fave of mine!) are a down-on-their-luck NASCAR driver and mechanic, respectively,  who pull off a robbery and are saddled with ditzy George, with Vic Morrow as the maverick police captain in hot pursuit. The stars are likable, the cars are cool (a ’66 Impala and a ’69 Charger), and there’s plenty of spectacular stunt driving in this fast’n’furious Exploitation gem, with an explosive ending! Fun Fact: Roddy McDowell has an uncredited role as the grocery store manager whose family is held hostage.

BONUS: Now kick back and enjoy the noir-flavored blues of Papa John Creach and his band doing “There Ain’t No More Country Girls” from sometime in the 70’s:

Pre-Code Confidential #29: Joan Blondell is BLONDIE JOHNSON (Warner Bros 1933)

There are many contenders for the crown Queen of Pre-Code – Jean Harlow, Miriam Hopkins, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West, and a slew of other dames – but there’s only one Joan Blondell! Rose Joan Blondell was “born in a trunk” (as they say) to vaudevillian parents on August 30, 1906, and made her stage debut at the tender age of four months. Little Joanie took to show biz like a duck to water, and worked her way up to Broadway, costarring with a young actor named James Cagney in 1930’s PENNY ARCADE; the pair went to Hollywood for the film version, retitled SINNERS’ HOLIDAY, their first of seven screen teamings.

Our Girl Joanie struck a chord with Depression Era audiences: she was a tough, wisecracking, fast-talking, been-around-the-block tomato whose tough-as-leather veneer cloaked a heart of gold. Joan and Glenda Farrell had ’em rolling in the aisles as a pair of Gold Digging Dames in nine movies, and she more than held her own with screen tough guys Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and their ilk. In BLONDIE JOHNSON, Joan plays no mere gangster’s moll, but a full-fledged Queen of the Rackets in a fast-paced outing directed by Warner workhorse Ray Enright , opposite another movie tough guy, Chester Morris.

We meet Blondie at the Welfare and Relief Office looking for help. It’s the midst of the Depression, and she hasn’t worked in four months (“The boss wouldn’t let me alone”). Blondie and her sick mom are living in the back of a drug store, and when the old lady dies of pneumonia, Blondie vows not to go down to poverty: “I’m gonna get money and I’m gonna get plenty of it!”. She works up a sob-story racket with cabbie friend Red (Sterling Holloway), and her first victim is the somewhat dimwitted, gum chomping Danny (Morris), right hand man to racket boss Maxie (Arthur Vinton).

Danny gets wise, but Blondie comes up with a scheme to get fellow hood Louie (Allen Jenkins) off on charges – by pretending to be his pregnant fiance, playing on the jury’s sympathy! She then uses Danny to move up in rank, and when Maxie’s rubbed out in a rat-a-tat hail of machine gun fire, Blondie’s in charge. Danny tries to get Blondie out of the way so he can marry rich actress Gladys (Calire Dodd), but Blondie’s way too smart for him, and Danny finds himself outside looking in. Later, the boys think Danny’s turned squealer and decide to pay him a visit without Blondie’s okay…

Joan is dynamite as Blondie, and Depression audiences must’ve sympathized with her portrayal of a woman who, abused and abandoned by the system, strikes out on her own to take what she needs… and then some! Blondie’s all business, no time for cut-rate romances, and she concentrates on stealing everything in sight… including the movie! Joan and Chester have some pretty good chemistry here, with some crackling hard-boiled dialog by screenwriter Earl Baldwin (DOCTOR X, WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD, BROTHER ORCHID). The supporting cast is top-shelf, and besides those Familiar Faces I’ve already mentioned, you’ll spot Mae Busch (who’a a real hoot as a gangland gal), Joseph Cawthorn, Earle Foxe, Olin Howland, Eddie Kane, Tom Kennedy, Charles Lane, Sam McDaniel, and Toshia Mori (fresh off her success in THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN).

Joan Blondell’s a lot of fun to watch in BLONDIE JOHNSON, and she continued to be for another 46 years of screen and TV appearances. Always brassy, always sassy, and never bashful, Joan torched the screen in whatever era she acted in, but it’s her Pre-Code catalog we’ll forever cherish. Whenever this tough-talking dame comes into the picture, film lover’s know they’ll be getting their money’s worth!

Ride the Trail to DODGE CITY with Errol & Olivia (Warner Brothers 1939)

1939 has been proclaimed by many to be Hollywood’s Greatest Year. I could make a case for 1947, but I won’t go there… for the moment. Be that as it may, 1939 saw the release of some true classics that have stood the test of time, including in the Western genre: DESTRY RIDES AGAIN, JESSE JAMES, STAGECOACH , and UNION PACIFIC. One that doesn’t get a lot of attention anymore is DODGE CITY, the 5th screen pairing in four years of one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic duos, heroic Errol Flynn and beautiful Olivia de Havilland.

DODGE CITY was Warner Brothers’ biggest hit of 1939, and the 6th highest grossing picture that year, beating out classics like GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, GUNGA DIN, NINOTCHKA, and THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s a rousing actioner with plenty of romance and humor thrown in, shot in Glorious Technicolor by Warners’ ace director Michael Curtiz . And with a cast that includes Errol, Olivia, Ann Sheridan, Alan Hale, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, and a trio of Hollywood’s orneriest baddies (Bruce Cabot, Victor Jory, Douglas Fowley), it’s hard not to love this exciting sagebrush saga!

The railroad comes to Kansas, bringing progress and prosperity to the frontier town of Dodge City. Handsome Wade Hatton (Errol, of course!) and his pardners Rusty and Tex (Hale, Williams) have cleared the territory of buffalo years before, as well as clearing it of buffalo poachers Jeff Surrett (Cabot) and his henchmen Yancey (Jory) and Munger (Fowley). Now Wade’s leading a combination cattle drive/wagon train from Texas to Dodge, including beautiful young Abbie Irving (Olivia) and her wastrel brother Lee (William Lundigan), whose drunken shooting causes a cattle stampede to trample him, and Abbie blames Wade for it.

Meanwhile, back in Dodge, Surrett and his goons have turned the town into a lawless jungle of “gambling, drinking, and killing”, with his saloon girl Ruby (Sheridan) by his side. Surrett’s reign of terror has made Dodge the most lawless town in the West, until old rival Wade pulls into town, gets himself elected sheriff, and rounds up all the rowdies into the hoosegow. Surrett’s not licked yet though, but when Wade’s young pard Harry (child star Bobs Watson) is caught in a crossfire and dragged by horses to his death, the kid gloves come off…

It all culminates in an exciting climax aboard a burning railway car, and it’s not a spoiler to tell you the good guys emerge victorious, and Errol and Olivia live happily ever after! DODGE CITY serves as the template for many a Western to come, and Curtiz does his usual fine job in handling both the actors and the action. Some of the highlights include Hale swearing off liquor (!!!) and joining a Ladies’ Pure Prairie League meeting while a knock-down, drag-out saloon brawl rages on next door; the shadowy murder of crusading newspaper editor Frank McHugh ; and the aforementioned stampede, horse-dragging, and fiery finale. All of it brilliantly captured in Technicolor by Sol Polito and set to a typically majestic Max Steiner score!

And you want Familiar Faces? DODGE CITY has ’em in droves: classic era actors like Clem Bevans (the town barber), Monte Blue, Ward Bond (who has a good scene as one of Cabot’s henchmen), Wally Brown , George Chesebro, Chester Clute, Joseph Crehan, Thurston Hall (the railroad man), Charles Halton (Surrett’s weaselly lawyer), Gloria Holden (sympathetic as the little boy’s mom), Milton Kibbee, John Litel, Henry O’Neill (Col. Dodge himself!), Renie Riano (leader of the Pure Prairie League!), Russell Simpson, Henry Travers (as Olivia’s uncle), Cora Witherspoon, and others too numerous to mention!

Errol shines in his first of many Westerns to come, Olivia is more than a match for him, Hale and Williams are always welcome, Sheridan gets to belt a couple of tunes, Bobs Watson does his crying thing, the bad guys are totally hissable, and there’s enough material here for at least a half dozen other Westerns! DODGE CITY may not get as much love as other 1939 hits, but it deserves it’s place as one of the all-time greats.

 

Pre Code Confidential #28: Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR (Warner Brothers 1931)

Gangster movies were nothing new in 1931. Josef von Sternberg’s UNDERWORLD (1927), Lewis Milestone’s THE RACKET (1928), and Bryan Foy’s LIGHTS OF NEW YORK (1929) had all dealt with urban organized crime onscreen (and Foy’s drama was the first “all-talking picture” to hit cinemas). But when Edward G. Robinson rat-a-tatted his way through Mervyn LeRoy’s LITTLE CAESAR, the gangster genre had finally arrived – with a vengeance! This highly influential flick opened the floodgates for a variety of films about mobsters, killers, and other assorted no-goodniks, and made an unlikely star out of the pugnacious Eddie G.

The film concerns the rise and fall of Rico “Little Caesar” Bandello, a small-time hood from the sticks who, along with partner in crime Joe Massara, moves to the big city and blasts his way up the ranks to become a gang boss. The diminutive Robinson exudes star power as the psychotic sociopath who cares about nothing but himself, and craves power over everything. Robinson’s a cocky bantam rooster, strutting and swaggering his way across the screen; he’s a vicious animal to be certain, but you can’t take your eyes off him. Although he had a long Hollywood career (but believe it or not, never won an Oscar!), it’s as Rico most people remember him by, thanks to numerous bad impressionists and cartoon characters (i.e. THE KING AND ODIE’s Biggie Rat).

Film scholars make a lot about the homosexual subtext in LITTLE CAESAR: Rico’s got no time for dames, preferring the company of his fellow crooks; his close relationship with Joe, deriding him for keeping company with dancer Olga Stassoff; the fauning gangster Otero, who beams as his boss checks himself out in the mirror, donned in a tux. Though nothing is explicit or overt it’s definitely there, hidden in the shadows like like homosexuality itself during those more puritanical times.

What stands out even more for me is the proto-noir flourishes that appear throughout the film. LeRoy and his DP Tony Gaudio use devices such as montage and fades, and many of the scenes (William Collier Jr’s murder on the church steps, for example) precede the film noir movement by a good ten years. Gaudio’s fluid camerawork and Ray Curtiss’s slick editing keep LITTLE CAESAR from being static, unlike many early talkies, and that famous final scene, as the defiant Rico, trodding down a wind-swirled lonely street, gets cut down by the Tommy gun blast of copper Thomas E. Jackson, uttering the now-classic line “Mother of Mercy, is the the end of Rico?”, remains a highlight of Hollywood cinema. Mervyn LeRoy may not be a name that springs to mind when thinking of film noir influences, but films like this one, FIVE STAR FINAL , THREE ON A MATCH , and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tell a different story.

Young (21 at the time of filming) Douglas Fairbanks Jr. also makes an impression here as Rico’s pal Joe Massara, a hoofer who wants to put his life of crime behind him after falling for Olga (Glenda Farrell in her film debut). George E. Stone as henchman Otero, infatuated with boss Rico, gives another of his outstanding supporting performances. Other cast members of note include the aforementioned Jackson as the laconic cop out to get Rico, Stanley Fields as the dimwitted ex-capo Sam Vettori, and Sidney Blackmer as the dapper boss ‘Big Boy’.

LITTLE CAESAR can be enjoyed on many different levels: as an influential  piece of Hollywood history, a precursor to film noir, or Edward G. Robinson’s star-making turn. But for me, it’s just damn good entertainment, a rip-roaring crime saga that outguns the rest of them, and the granddaddy of all gangster flicks to come.

 

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)

 

 

 

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.

Pre Code Confidential #26: THREE ON A MATCH (Warner Brothers 1932)


Mervyn LeRoy is usually talked about today as a producer and director of classy, prestige pictures, but he first made his mark in the down-and-dirty world of Pre-Code films. LeRoy ushered in the gangster cycle with LITTLE CAESAR, making a star out of Edward G. Robinson, then followed up with Eddie G in the grimy tabloid drama FIVE STAR FINAL . I AM A FUGITVE FROM A CHAIN GANG tackled brutal penal conditions in the South, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 featured half-naked showgirls and the Depression Era anthem “Remember My Forgotten Man”, and HEAT LIGHTNING was banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency! LeRoy’s style in these early films was pedal-to-the-metal excitement, and THREE ON A MATCH is an outstanding example.

The film follows three young ladies from their schoolgirl days to adulthood: there’s wild child Mary, studious Ruth, and ‘most popular’ Vivien. I loved the way writer Lucien Hubbard’s script is structured, with headlines and music of the day preceding looks in on the girls at various periods of their lives. Mary winds up in a women’s reformatory before becoming a chorus girl, studious Ruth goes to business school and remains studious, while Vivien settles into society by marrying rich lawyer Bob Kirkland and having a son.

Then we focus on modern (1932) times, as Vivien is discontent with her life,  longing to break free of convention and her loveless marriage (at least, loveless on her part). A chance meeting with old pal Mary leads her to meeting Michael Loftus, who immediately puts the moves on Viv. The heavy drinking, gambling Loftus turns her on, and she vanishes with her child, shacking up with the degenerate and joining him on the road to ruin.

Bob is determined to get his son back, and Mary is also concerned that Vivien’s out-of-control drinking and partying is causing her to neglect the boy, so she drops a dime to Bob, who not only reclaims his kid and divorces Viv, but marries Mary and makes Ruth the governess! Vivien is now a destitute alcoholic and drug addict, and borrows money from Mary to help pay Michael’s gambling debts. But it’s not nearly enough, so Michael tries to blackmail Bob by threatening to reveal Mary’s sordid past. His gambit fails, so he gets the bright idea to kidnap Junior, which leads to the vicious gangsters he owes money to wanting a piece of the action….

And all this happens in just a swift 63 minutes! Ann Dvorak plays the part of Vivien for all its worth, going from ‘The Girl Most Likely To Succeed’ to ‘America’s Most Wanted’, and her descent into degradation is astounding. ‘Wild Child’ Mary is played by who else but everybody’s favorite Pre-Code Dame, Joan Blondell . Studious Ruth doesn’t get to do much but be studious, which is a shame, since she’s played by Bette Davis in one of her earliest roles. A pair of Pre-Code he-men, Warren William and Lyle Talbot , play Bob and Michael, respectively.

One of the kidnappers, the snarling Harve, is none other than Humphrey Bogart in just his tenth feature. It’s Bogie’s first screen gangster part, and seems like a precursor to his later Duke Mantee character in THE PETRIFIED FOREST. Familiar Faces abound in lesser roles: Edward Arnold (Bogie’s gangster boss), Herman Bing, Clara Blandick (‘Aunty Em’ herself as Joanie’s mom), Frankie Darro , Patricia Ellis, Glenda Farrell (in a cameo as one of Joan’s cellmates), June Gittleson, Allen Jenkins and Jack LaRue (Bogie’s murderous cohorts), Sidney Miller, Grant Mitchell, Buster Phelps (the annoyingly cute boy), Anne Shirley (Vivien as a child), and Sheila Terry. Allegedly, a 12-year-old Jack Webb is one of the schoolyard kids.

THREE ON A MATCH is a Red-Hot (sorry) Pre-Code that got Warners in hot water with the censors for its parallels to the then-in-the-news Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. Some posed publicity stills of Joan also caused quite a stir:

That’s Our Joanie, always causing trouble! The stills were banned after the Production Code went into effect, but most Pre-Code fans know about them  by now, thanks to the Internet. Racy and ripped from the headlines of the day, THREE ON A MATCH is a must-see for fans of the Pre-Code Era!

A Wee Bit O’Blarney with Cagney & O’Brien: BOY MEETS GIRL (Warner Brothers 1938)

Tomorrow’s the day when everybody’s Irish, and America celebrates St. Patrick’s Day! The green beer will flow and copious amounts of Jameson will be consumed,  the corned beef and cabbage will be piled high, and “Danny Boy” will be sung by drunks in every pub across the land. Come Monday, offices everywhere will be unproductive, as all you amateur Irishmen will be nursing hangovers of Emerald Isle proportions. They say laughter is the best medicine, so my suggestion is to start your workday watching an underrated screwball comedy called BOY MEETS GIRL, starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, both members in good standing of “Hollywood’s Irish Mafia”!

Jimmy and Pat play a pair of wacky screenwriters working for Royal Studios on a vehicle for fading cowboy star Dick Foran. Pretentious producer Ralph Bellamy has enough problems without these two jokers, as rumor has it Royal is about to be sold to a British conglomerate! While the boys verbally spar with Foran and agent Frank McHugh , commissary waitress Marie Wilson delivers food, and promptly faints. They all think she’s had an epileptic fit, but the truth is she’s pregnant, and about to give birth… right in Bellamy’s office!

The two nutty scribes get a brainstorm… they’ll costar Marie’s kid with Foran in his next picture! Cagney and O’Brien have Marie sign a contract giving them power of attorney, and little ‘Happy’ quickly becomes an eight-month-old superstar, to the chagrin of jealous Foran, who tries to woo Marie with his cowboy “charm”, but she’s fallen for extra Bruce Lester. The writers scheme to have someone go to a gala premiere posing as Happy’s dad, and central casting sends them Lester. The stunt backfires, and Jimmy and Pat are fired, as is baby Happy. Is this the end for Happy, or will there be a ‘Happy’ Ending?

You already know the answer – this is Hollywood, there’s always a happy ending! BOY MEETS GIRL is fast and frenetic fun, with Cagney and O’Brien cutting loose from their usual dramatics and having a grand old time. The two (take a deep breath) talksofastattimesitshardtounderstandthem, and the pace is downright exhausting! Marie Wilson almost steals the show as the dizzy mom, warming up for her later role as Irma Peterson on MY FRIEND IRMA, whom she portrayed on radio, television, and a pair of movies that introduced the world to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. And Foran’s a revelation, spoofing his cowboy star image as the self-centered sagebrush idol.

Fellow ‘Irish Mafia’ members Bellamy and McHugh are also funny in their respective roles, as is Bruce Lester, who had good parts in IF I WERE KING, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and THE LETTER. Harry Seymour and Bert Hanlon play a pair of decidedly non-Irish songwriters, Penny Singleton shows up briefly as a manicurist, young Ronald Reagan is the flustered  radio announcer at the movie premiere, and Curt Bois, Carole Landis, Peggy Moran (Foran’s future THE MUMMY’S HAND costar), John Ridgley, and James Stephenson appear in bits.

Screenwriters Bella and Samuel Spewack adapted their hit Broadway play, peppering it with plenty of Hollywood in-jokes, and director Lloyd Bacon keeps things zipping along. Cagney and O’Brien’s characters are loosely based on Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, while Bellamy’s producer is modeled after Daryl F. Zanuck. There’s a hilarious faux trailer for Happy’s latest hit movie GOLDEN NUGGET, and the movie playing at the  premiere is an Errol Flynn epic called THE WHITE RAJAH… which was actually the title of a script Flynn wrote himself that Warners rejected as being unfilmable!

So hoist those glasses of Guinness high tomorrow, boyos! And before you  load up on black coffee and greasy food or decide to indulge in some “hair of the dog” Monday morning, watch BOY MEETS GIRL instead. It probably won’t  cure your hangover, but you’ll be too busy laughing to notice!

THE MALTESE FALCON is the Stuff Film Noir Dreams Are Made Of (Warner Brothers 1941)

1941’s THE MALTESE FALCON may not be the first film noir (most people agree that honor goes to 1940’s STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR ). It’s not even the first version of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective story – there was a Pre Code film with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade that’s pretty good, and a 1936 remake titled SATAN MET A LADY with Warren William that’s not. But first-time director John Huston’s seminal shamus tale (Huston also wrote the amazingly intricate screenplay) virtually created many of the tropes that have become so familiar to fans of this dark stylistic genre:

THE HARD-BOILED DETECTIVE – Private investigators had been around since the dawn of cinema, from Sherlock Holmes to Philo Vance to Charlie Chan, but none quite like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade. Both Cortez and William played the character as flippant skirt-chasers, but in Bogie’s hands, Sam Spade is a harder, much more cynical anti-hero. Perhaps all those years playing gangsters (and battling the Brothers Warner for better parts) gave him that edge; he’s intelligent, but much tougher than your average brainy sleuth. Bogart’s fedora and trench coat became the standard uniform for all future noir PI’s, and with apologies to Robert Mitchum and Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart is the definitive hard-boiled dick.

THE FEMME FATALE – There was no shortage of dangerous ladies in movies before Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy either; the “vamp” had been a staple of films since the days of Theda Bara. Astor, however, takes it to the next level as the duplicitous, lying, greedy Brigid, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. First she seduces Sam’s partner Miles Archer (played all-too-briefly by Jerome Cowan) into a trap and kills him, then snares Sam in her dark web, lying all the way. As I said, Sam’s no dummy; he knows she’s a straight-up liar (“You’re good”, he tells her), yet still falls under her alluring spell. Mary Astor made two films in 1941; this and THE GREAT LIE, for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Of the two performances, I prefer the tantalizingly evil Miss O’Shaughnessy.

THE CRIMINAL CARTEL – When Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo arrives at Sam’s office, there’s little doubt of his sexual orientation – Sam’s secretary Effie (Lee Patrick, who reprised the part in the 1975 satirical sequel THE BLACK BIRD, with George Segal as Sam Spade Jr) hands the detective a gardenia-scented calling card! Though Huston’s script doesn’t come out and say it (the Code was in effect, remember), the effeminate Mr. Cairo is unquestionably gay. But Cairo’s a mere henchman; the man pulling the strings is “The Fat Man”, Kasper Gutman, played by 62-year-old Sydney Greenstreet in his film debut. Gutman is a cultured, erudite, but deadly adversary (and shot at a low angle to emphasize his ample girth), but his own sexuality is a bit more ambiguous. “The Fat Man” has another henchman…

THE PATSY – …a young ‘gunsel’ named Wilmer Cook, who Gutman’s more than a little fond of, but not fond enough to stop him from throwing the kid under the bus when Spade demands a fall guy. Elisha Cook Jr. plays the hood, and Cook’s presence could be a whole ‘nother noir trope category – he was in nineteen films noir from 1940 to 1957 (which must be some kind of record!), and a few neo-noirs after that! There’s always a patsy in film noir, and most of the time, it’s Cook (who also returned to his part in that ’75 sequel)!

GOOD COP/BAD COP – For every gumshoe working to crack a case, there’s a copper constantly on his case, usually (but not always) with a partner sympathetic to Our Hero’s plight. In THE MALTESE FALCON, it’s Barton MacLane as the harassing Lt. Dundy, and Ward Bond as Sam’s friend on the force, Det. Polhaus. This type of pairing is my favorite, though many noir P.I.’s aren’t so lucky – all the cops hate them (either way, film noir cops only serve to stand in the way of the detective solving the case).

Add in DP Arthur Edeson’s Expressionistic camerawork (check out the scene where, as Brigid is being led away by the cops, the lighting of the elevator doors suggest prison bars), Huston’s hard-bitten dialog (Spade getting off lines like “The cheaper the crook,  the gaudier the patter”, “It’s six-two-and-even they’re selling you out, sonny”, and “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it”), and a colorful supporting cast (Gladys George as Archer’s widow Iva, James Burke as a hotel dick, Murry Alper a helpful cabbie, and John’s dad Walter Huston’s cameo as dead-man-walking Capt. Jacoby), and you’ve got the blueprint for all hard-boiled detective sagas to follow. THE MALTESE FALCON is “the stuff that dreams are made of”, one of the most influential films ever, and for once, a remake that surpasses the original.