Once again I’m taking part in a blogathon – this time it is the Universal Backlot Blogathon, organised by Kristen of the Journeys on Classic Film website. A number of bloggers are taking part and covering a wide range of films made on the Universal backlot , to celebrate its 100th anniversary – please do visit Kristen’s site and take a look at the other postings.
First of all, a confession… I’ve belatedly realised that the film I’ve chosen to write about, William Wyler’s thriller The Desperate Hours starring Humphrey Bogart, was in fact mainly filmed on Paramount’s sound stages, with specially-built sets including a seven-room family house. Only some exteriors were shot on the Universal backlot. However, the way this film cranks up the tension to unbearable heights does have something in common with Universal’s famous horror films, even if in this film the horror unfolding is all too realistic, and the monster is just a man with a gun.
Countless movies from the 1930s feature fast-talking, fast-living journalists, armed with battered old typewriters, phones and bottles of whiskey. Some of these reporters are fearlessly determined to expose corruption at any cost. Others, however, are quite the opposite, and the (anti)hero of Wellman’s quirky romantic comedy-melodrama Love Is a Racket is a case in point. Gossip columnist Jimmy Russell, played by a very young and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jr, isn’t interested in putting his neck on the line. When he hears about a juicy story involving New York mobsters fixing the price of milk, he can’t get to the phone fast enough… to keep it out of the paper!
This is one of six movies made by Wellman in 1932, during his amazingly prolific pre-Code days. Made under contract at Warner, it has the studio’s gritty style, but is also stamped with the director’s personality, as it lurches from witty dialogue to black humour, practical jokes and slapstick. Also, about half the film seems to take place in torrential rain, Wellman’s favourite type of weather. There’s a great cast, with Lee Tracy, the original stage star of The Front Page, as Fairbanks’ best buddy and newspaper colleague, Frances Dee as our hero’s on-off girlfriend, and Ann Dvorak, one of my favourite 1930s actresses, in a sadly small role as his pal who wants to be something more. Even with all this going for it, this film isn’t on DVD as yet and is one of the director’s more obscure early works. But it has recently been shown on TCM in the US, so there must be a chance it will soon get released on Warner Archive.
I’ve watched a few little-known pre-Codes lately which aren’t masterpieces by any means, but are still interesting. I thought I’d post a few thoughts on them before they fade in my mind completely, starting with this early Bette Davis comedy-drama from Warner Brothers. Davis is one of my favourite actresses and I’ve been trying to watch as many of her movies as possible, so that’s why I tracked this down, though it isn’t on DVD as yet. There may be a hope that it will turn up in Warner Archive in the future.
I was especially intrigued by this film because of the title, since I am a fan of 1930s aviation dramas and recently reviewed Wellman’s Central Airport, also made in 1933, which features a woman parachutist. Sadly, however, Bette isn’t the parachute jumper in this one, staying firmly on the ground throughout! In fact it is top-billed star Douglas Fairbanks Jr who does the jumping, though he doesn’t do very much of it.
No time tonight to write a long posting, but I just wanted to say that I’ve seen yet another Wellman pre-Code. This one, Chinatown Nights, a romantic gangster melodrama starring Wallace Beery, Florence Vidor and Warner Oland, isn’t a great film - though I saw it on an extremely grainy unofficial DVD, and I’m sure it would look much better in a restored print on the big screen. I know it has been shown at one or two festivals so presumably there must be a better print available. The cinematography, by Henry Gerrard, who also worked on Wellman’s classic Beggars of Life, was clearly stunning, with haunting scenes full of dramatic shadows – even though a lot of this has been lost in the print I saw.
Ever since watching the Michael Curtiz pre-Code prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, I’ve been interested in seeing the Anatole Litvak remake with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan taking over their roles. Now at last I’ve had the chance, after the release of the title in the Warner Archive series. I don’t think the print has been remastered, but it looks and sounds fairly good all the same. As with the original, there is some footage which was shot on location, in Sing Sing prison, and the shots of the long rows of small cells make a powerful impression.
Unfortunately it is now a couple of years since I saw the earlier version on TV and I apparently failed to keep a copy of the movie, so I can’t make detailed comparisons – but a look back at my review confirms my impression that the two are very close, with almost identical scripts. Like the original, this is the tale of a cocky young gangster, Tommy Gordon (though his name is spelt ‘Gordan’ in the newspaper headlines running all through this version) who swaggers into prison under the impression he is entitled to special treatment, but changes his ways of thinking under the guidance of the prison governor, Warden Long. Both films are based on the memoirs of the original of Long, real-life warden Lewis E Lawes, so it is no surprise that the character is glowingly presented – although, to be fair, he does seem to have been a reforming figure in real life.
Most of the early William A Wellman movies I’ve written about here are little-known – and the same goes for a lot of the James Cagney movies I’ve written about up to now. I often find it’s easier to find things to say about films which haven’t already been discussed endlessly. By contrast, The Public Enemy is one of the most celebrated of 1930s films – Wellman’s gangster masterpiece, and the film which made Cagney a star. It’s also the film which got me interested in both its star and director. Since I first saw this movie, I’ve watched it repeatedly and also gone on to see almost all of Cagney’s other movies, plus as many of Wellman’s silent and pre-Code films as I can get my hands on.
I hoped that after doing all this I would have something new to say about this film, yet I am still daunted, and can really only come up with some rambling comments rather than a full review. Anyway, I agree with everybody else that it is a masterpiece, and a film where you can find something new every time you watch it. In case anybody reading this hasn’t seen the movie, I will be talking about the whole film, including the famous ending.
As a gangster film made only the year after The Public Enemy, directed by William A Wellman and starring Edward G Robinson and Loretta Young, this could have been a masterpiece. Sadly, it isn’t. The big problem is that it is supposedly set in the San Francisco’s Chinatown, but almost all the characters are played by Caucasian actors – something which was done in many films in the 1930s, but was criticised even then. I found a contemporary review from The New York Times which pointed out the wild mis-casting of Robinson.
I’m only going to write a brief review of this film, but wanted to say that it does have its moments, as you’d expect from any film directed by Wellman – and Robinson in particular has some powerful scenes despite everything. I also liked the dark, shadowy cinematography by Sidney Hickox, who worked with Wellman on other pre-Codes like Safe In Hell, The Purchase Price and Frisco Jenny – which also has scenes in Chinatown. It’s just a shame that the print I saw isn’t very good and so there are some scenes where, amid the darkness, it is hard to work out exactly what is going on.
For a director with a macho reputation, William Wellman made a lot of movies featuring strong female characters. Admittedly, it wasn’t always his choice to make these films – for instance, I have read that Wings was originally supposed to be an all, or mainly, male film before the studio told him to cast Clara Bow, who ended up getting top billing. According to the TCM account of the making of Frisco Jenny, Warner producer Darryl Zanuck ordered Wellman to make this movie and also cast Ruth Chatterton in the lead – originally Wellman was none too thrilled at this and the director and star weren’t even on speaking terms.
However, just as Wellman worked so well with Bow in Wings, the same thing happened with Chatterton, and in the end they got on very well and went on to work together again. Frisco Jenny is one of the six early Wellman films included in the great Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume Three box set, and I found it very enjoyable to watch – at times rather like a female version of the male gangster films of the era, as Jenny wears a succession of flamboyant outfits and rises to the top of the Barbary Coast underworld.
When you look at the list of Robert Wise’s movies, it seems amazing that he isn’t better-known – which is why it is so good that Joshua over at Octopus Cinema has organised a blog-a-thon about his work, to which this is a contribution.
Somebody Up There Likes Me, starring Paul Newman and Pier Angeli, is one of my favourites out of his movies that I’ve seen so far, and if anything it seems to get better with repeated viewings. I hesitated before watching because, on the face of it, it’s a boxing movie – a biopic of world middleweight champion Rocky Graziano, based on his autobiography – and I’m not a fan of the sport. However, it’s really far more than that, showing how Graziano, originally called Barbella, grew up in poverty and dabbled in crime before turning his life around, and the fight scenes, powerful though they are, take up only a relatively small part of this movie.
After first seeing the film on TV, I’m very glad I got hold of the DVD, since it has a good commentary track with detailed reminiscences by Wise himself as well as contributions from Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese. Film historian Richard Schickel mentions in the commentary that one reason Wise is sometimes overlooked might be that he isn’t identified with any particular genre, but worked in just about all of them. Bearing this out, it strikes me that this film alone touches on many genres in the space of under two hours – starting out as a cross between a gangster movie and a film about juvenile delinquents, then turning into a prison movie and briefly an army one before it really gets into the boxing story, which is also a romance. The film focuses just as much on Rocky’s relationships with his mother (Eileen Heckart) and his girlfriend and later wife, Norma (Angeli) as it does on the boxing. Indeed, the posters and lobby cards I’ve seen, possibly designed to persuade women to go to a boxing picture, seem to go more on the romance than on the fighting.
I already knew Frank Sinatra was a good actor, after seeing his impressive supporting performance in From Here to Eternity. However, I didn’t realise quite how good until seeing him in this little-known noir thriller, directed by Lewis Allen, where he just burns up the screen as a hired assassin out to kill the US President.
I’ve read on various websites that Sinatra had the movie withdrawn from circulation after the assassination of JFK because it was reported that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched the film just days before carrying out the killing. However, there’s a comment at the imdb saying that Sinatra in fact had nothing to do with the decision to withdraw the movie. In any case, there are one or two chilling similarities, especially in the scenes with a sniper standing at a window – and it’s easy to see why there might have been little appetite for watching the movie after the real-life tragedy.