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.
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 – whichalso 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.
I’ve decided I’m going to try to write slightly shorter blog postings, as I’m so short of time these days due to my work situation. But I still want to try to record some of my thoughts on the classic movies I keep watching – so my mid-year resolution is to use more pictures and fewer words!
Miriam Hopkins as Mary 'Swan' Rutledge
This is one of the early Howard Hawks films I didn’t manage to see during the blogathon organised by Ed Howard earlier this year. But I’ve now caught up with it after spotting the VHS video in a local secondhand shop (it hasn’t been released on DVD in the UK) and have also read Ed’s excellent review at his Only the Cinema blog. It’s definitely a lesser Hawks offering and doesn’t really have his stamp about it, but I’m still glad to have seen it.
I’ve now watched most of the movies from the Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Volume 3 box set – which is rather misnamed since none of the movies really seem to be true gangster films. Anyway, this early Humphrey Bogart offering is my favourite of those I’ve seen so far, along with The Mayor of Hell – which was also made by the same director, Archie Mayo. Judging from the films of his I’ve seen to date, it seems as if he was great at getting that Warner grittiness and working-class atmosphere, and, even when hamstrung by the Hays Code, he still pushed the boundaries as far as he could.
In this exposé of 1930s fascist organisations, Mayo was forced by the Hays office to remove some vital elements, such as explicit references to the ethnicity of the victims targeted by the Legion, a shadowy Ku Klux Klan-like organisation operating in some states of the US at the time. There are no African-Americans in the movie at all, and it’s only hinted that one of the victims might be Polish-Jewish, another Irish Catholic. Mayo even had to include a disclaimer at the start suggesting that the Black Legion was a fictional organisation – although I’m not sure if this was dictated by Hays or an attempt to avoid reprisals by the real terror organisations. In any case, this would have fooled nobody. The real Black Legion had recently been in the headlines over a murder case which provided much of the inspiration for the plot.
I saw this pre-code offering as one of a trio of films crammed on to a budget DVD misleadingly entitled Three Leading Ladies of the Silver Screen – with cover artwork making it appear that Bette Davis is the star of the movie. In fact, she only has a very small part, as Peggy, the kind-hearted girlfriend of bootlegger Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien). I gather the movie was rereleased after Davis and O’Brien had become stars, and repackaged to make the most of their names.
Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin
However, this is the tale of a reform school for boys, and the lead role in fact belongs to young actor Junior Durkin, who was 18 at the time the film was made. This contemporary review from the New York Times does give him top billing, though his name disappears from later posters. Watching this gawky lad with an expressive face, who dominates the screen whenever he’s present, I wondered why he didn’t go on to become an adult star. Sadly, the answer is that he died in a car crash at the age of 20. By contrast, the other teenager with a major part, Frank Coghlan Jr, aka Junior Coghlan, is still alive, according to the small amount of material I found about him on the net. (He also played the young Tom Powers in the opening scenes of The Public Enemy.)
This tale of a drunken journalist is one of James Cagney’s rarest films, never released on video or DVD and apparently never shown on TV. It seems to be available only on the “grey market”. I was lucky enough to see it in brief segments on Youtube, but am editing (July 2009) to say that, sadly, it has now been removed. Since it’s so little-known, I wondered how good it could be, and was surprised at just how powerful it is. Another re-edit (April 2013) – a commenter had kindly left details of a site which had an unofficial DVD available, but this is now no longer available, so I have removed the comments to avoid confusion. I do hope this film will get an official release, as there is clearly a demand for it.
The opening 20 minutes or so, in particular, for me are Cagney at his best – almost as compelling as his performance in White Heat, made just a couple of years earlier. The rest of the movie doesn’t keep to quite that pitch, but it’s still well worth watching, with excellent performances by Gig Young and James Gleason and sharp, memorable dialogue. It was directed by Gordon Douglas, who also directed Cagney in the gangster thriller Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, but for me this is probably the stronger movie of the two.
However, the problem with this film is in a way the same as with the much better-known Bogart and Raft movie They Drive By Night – that it starts off by giving a dramatic treatment of reality, showing a real issue facing the hero, but then spins away from the issue it’s just raised to come up with a far-fetched melodramatic plot. They Drive By Night begins with the exhausting workload of long-distance truckers, and ends with a film noir murder plot. Come Fill the Cup begins with a look at one man’s struggle against alcoholism, but turns into an also-ran gangster movie. Cagney himself was bitterly disappointed by this change of focus and the way gangsters had been worked in, just as he was trying to beat his typecasting. I’m wondering, though, if this plot was in the original book, by Harlan Ware – I can’t find a summary of its story anywhere, but did find the cover of a paperback edition on the net (unfortunately I seem to have lost the link), and it seems to feature the dancing girl Maria, who is involved in the film’s gangster plot.