Castle on the Hudson (1940)

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.

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Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)

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.

somebodyposterSomebody 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.

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The Mayor of Hell (1933)

After watching the 1932 movie Hell’s House, set in a reform school, I was keen to see this better-known Warner Brothers movie, directed by Archie Mayo and starring James Cagney, Frankie Darro and Madge Evans, which was made the following year. I was delighted to find that this one is included in the excellent Gangsters Collection 3 recently issued by Warner Brothers – a shame for film fans in the UK that it is only available as a region 1 import, though I believe the discs are actually region-free.
 
Anyway, the print is beautifully remastered, a great change from all the shaky grey pictures and out-of-sync soundtracks I’ve been suffering recently! The commentary by film historian Greg Mank also gives interesting background, though at times I think he gets too fixated on listing all the films a minor actor appeared in rather than focusing on what is happening in the powerful melodrama we’re watching. The most intriguing aspect of his commentary is his focus on how much censorship this film suffered even in the pre-Code area, with various states cutting different lines and scenes, offended by everything from juvenile vandalism to Cagney saying: “Ah, nuts!”

James Cagney and Madge Evans

James Cagney and Madge Evans

The spectacular finale, where rioting inmates set fire to the reformatory, was almost completely cut in some states, so that cinema-goers must have had a job working out what was going on.
 
Cagney plays gangster Patsy Gargan who is given a role as deputy commissioner, nominally in charge of  a reform school, as a political favour. However, when he meets the boys and  sees how badly they are being treated by the sadistic Mr Thompson (a wildly over-the-top Dudley Digges), Gargan starts to become emotionally involved.   As a boy from the slums  himself, he identifies with the youngsters and is determined to help them. He joins forces with the saintly reformatory nurse Dorothy (Madge Evans), takes over the running of the reform school and gives the boys a chance to prove themselves through self-government. The experiment goes smoothly and gives hope for the future – but Thompson is determined to get back control.

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Hell’s House (1932)

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

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.)

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20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

Spencer Tracy

Spencer Tracy

Seeing this was a pre-code movie about the notoriously tough prison in New York, directed by the great Michael Curtiz, I expected a disturbing, no-holds barred film, maybe something even tougher than the prison scenes in Each Dawn I Die.
So I was a bit surprised at how tame this film often feels by comparison with that movie, made just seven years later. By contrast with the snarling, brutal warders in Each Dawn I Die, the guards in 20,000 Years seem quite well-meaning, while the warden himself – played by Arthur Byron – is positively saintly, and only interested in reforming and helping his “boys”, rather than in sadistically exercising his power over them. As I watched the film, I kept on wondering why the warden was painted in such glowing colours, and only realised the answer when I discovered that the movie is based on a book written by his real-life original, Lewis Lawes – who also had final script approval. To be fair, he does appear to have been a genuine reformer. The title is based on adding up all the terms being served by the men in the prison, as the opening and closing titles make clear.
 

Spoilers behind the cut – plus picture of Bette Davis

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