Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Variety: Universal's other movies of the early '30s (Part 1)

Viewers only familiar with the classic monster movies created by Universal Pictures, specifically in the period of 1931 until 1936, may not have accessed or even cared to investigate other types of product the studio released during the same period. The fact is, Universal's aspirations to stand among the filmmaking greats of the time such as M-G-M, Warner Bros. and Paramount yielded a variety of productions in genres as dependable as the western to the more rarified romantic dramas, some of variable quality and others striving for greatness, all offering proof of Universal's desire to break away from an image as a supplier of bread-and-butter pictures for small-town and independent auditoriums.

Carl Laemmle Jr., son of Universal founder Carl Laemmle, was famously awarded production chief duties on achieving his 21st birthday in 1929, inheriting two seasons of lackluster response to what Universal was selling. While the studio was free of the responsibility borne by other top companies by owning their own theaters, Universal suffered fiscally from lack of guaranteed showplaces and profit for its product. Therefore, as the talking film became popular and Universal ultimately abandoned silents, Carl Laemmle Sr.'s goal was to get more exposure in the cities and bigger houses by investing in major product. "We want to sell to everybody," he said at the '29 sales convention, "but we have to have the houses that can pay the most money first. If we can't get them, we might as well quit right now. In other words, get every last dollar the law allows, and then some."*

Universal responded with such expensive productions as BROADWAY (1929) and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930), in addition to DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN (both 1931) that not only made back their investment but kept the studio working on all manner of pictures, including the smaller ones favored by theaters that went in for twin bills and programs of shorts and serials offered by Universal. It was no fluke that one of Universal's top stars of the early '30s was westerner Tom Mix, and later, Ken Maynard and Buck Jones.

Among those lesser efforts that served well in double feature situations is 1935's CHINATOWN SQUAD, coming much later in the Laemmle administration but indicative of Universal's action fare on a budget. Although labeled "inept" by historian Clive Hirschhorn,** CHINATOWN SQUAD tells a brisk yarn about skullduggery in San Francisco's famed neighborhood resulting in a murder solved by a disgraced police detective (Lyle Talbot) reduced to driving Chinatown tour buses.

The Murray Roth-directed film is slick and fast-moving, resembling at times some of the Warner Bros. whiz-bangs of similar content, but allowing for another reel for exposition. The Dore Schary-Ben Ryan screenplay touches on current events as a motivation for the slaying of a shady character (Clay Clement) who misused $700,000 in bonds intended for use by the Chinese Communists. Also notable is the appearance of Big U favorite Andy Devine in a decidedly more serious role than usual as one of the suspects. Co-starring as a lady of mystery was Valerie Hobson, fresh from her assignment in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), which had hit theaters three weeks prior to CHINATOWN SQUAD's May 31 release.

One of the more unusual films the studio marketed was S.O.S. ICEBERG (1933), dealing with the survival of an exploratory group stranded on a mountainous iceberg off Greenland. The project was one of the occasional co-productions the Laemmles entered into with European concerns because the overseas market was another rich source of income for the company. An English-language version produced by Paul Kohner and starring former Metro leading man Rod La Rocque was directed by Tay Garnett, while a German version was prepared by Dr. Arnold Fanck. Fanck, an originator of the "mountain" genre popular in Weimar Republic cinema of the 1920s, had launched the project by shooting scads of breath-taking iceberg footage, but had returned to Berlin "... lacking as much plot as you could get out of the ice compartment of your refrigerator," Garnett recalled in his autobiography.

Meeting with "Uncle Carl," Laemmle Sr.'s nickname earned for giving jobs at Universal to his numerous relatives, Garnett was asked to "shuffle off to Berlin, review ALL the exposed film (roughly fifty-eight hours of actual projection time), select whatever was usable, write a story and script around it, then direct the filming of the necessary connective tissue. That was all." *** Unfazed, Garnett accepted, targeted his footage, got a script from friend Edwin H. Knopf, and shot the required storyline in Switzerland. For all of that, S.O.S. ICEBERG is an acceptably thrilling piece of high adventure that offers a reminder of what attuned moviegoers familiar with such sights from National Geographic and the popular press must have experienced in seeing it all come to life. 

The Fanck-shot scenes chosen by Garnett for the English version are justifiably fabulous, especially in the aerial attempts to rescue the team and their climactic salvation by a nearby Eskimo village as the melting iceberg collapses around them. These compensate for the static sequences of building tensions among the team members that lead some of them to their doom, as well as a certain irritation with La Rocque's bull-headed character whose quest to continue exploring despite warming waters causes the dire situation in which he and his colleagues are entrapped. (However, if he hadn't stubbornly gone off by himself, we wouldn't have had a movie either). S.O.S. ICEBERG's American release was Sept. 22, 1933; the German version premiered nearly three weeks earlier.

La Rocque and Gibson Gowland, the burly British actor who starred in Erich Von Stroheim's massive GREED nearly a decade earlier, are supported in S.O.S. ICEBERG by a German cast that includes Leni Riefenstahl, the star of Fanck's beloved mountain romances before her career as a film documenterian of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. Garnett later recalled that as S.O.S. ICEBERG was in post-production, Hitler became the nation's chancellor, prompting fear and concern from his German associates on the project. 

The response to the question posed by Garnett and his associate Robert Fellows about the "undercurrent of gloom" from which they suffered was: "We feel as you would if Huey Long had been elected President of the United States," a reference to the populist politician from Louisiana whose saga was the basis for ALL THE KING'S MEN, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren that became Oscar's Best Picture of 1949.@

* Quoted in I.G. Edmonds, BIG U: UNIVERSAL IN THE SILENT DAYS, South Brunswick, N.J., and New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1977, pp. 154-155.
** Hirschhorn, THE UNIVERSAL STORY, New York: Crown Publishers, 1983, p. 91.
*** Tay Garnett with Fredda Dudley Balling, LIGHT UP YOUR TORCHES AND PULL UP YOUR TIGHTS, New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1973, p. 130.
@ Garnett, p. 139.

Variety: Universal's other movies of the early '30s (Part 2)

Universal in the early 1930s was also the place where directors of note in Hollywood received initial opportunities to practice their craft, in addition to employing known talent such as John Ford. Among the newer crop to find work at Big U, reportedly because of Carl Laemmle Sr.'s famous tendency toward nepotism, was William Wyler (born William Weiller) whose own emphasis on bringing heavy drama to life cinematically was evident when he directed A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931), taking a soap-operatic plot in the Dale Van Every-John B. Clymer script and giving it a certain sensitivity in collaboration with its three stars, Walter Huston, Helen Chandler and Douglass Montgomery.

A HOUSE DIVIDED is occupied by brutish fisherman Seth Law (Huston) and his meek son Matt (Montgomery), who yearns to leave the dismal beach community in which he was raised. A widower who's worn out too many housekeepers with his demanding ways, Seth advertises in a magazine for a replacement and believes he's getting a stout yet submissive candidate who will also serve as a wife. Instead, comely young Ruth Evans (Chandler) arrives in her place and is initially rejected by Seth, although she and Matt soon share an attraction. Seth changes his mind, forces a marriage that is opposed by Matt, and a resulting fight between father and son leaves Seth crippled. Tensions continue to rise as Matt and Ruth, tending to Seth's needs, can no longer conceal their feelings for one another.

Responsible for such future classics as WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939), THE LETTER (1940) and BEN-HUR (1959), Wyler (1902-1981) had graduated from silent westerns to talkie features with HELL'S HEROES (1929) starring Charles Bickford and THE STORM (1930) with Lupe Velez, both dramas that featured interpersonal conflict as major plot points. A HOUSE DIVIDED, which featured dialogue by Huston's then 25-year-old son John, compels viewing through the mature approach brought to the project and succeeds in maintaining suspense right up until the climactic storm and rescue of Ruth that decides everyone's fate. The commitment to providing something different and as dramatic as anything offered by rival studios makes A HOUSE DIVIDED well above average for Universal product of the time. Location shooting helped establish the mood supporting the drama.

The fine performances are led by Walter Huston, perhaps drawing on the stage experience of his lead role in Eugene O'Neill's DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS that brought him to prominence several years earlier. Huston gives Seth a duality that goes well beyond the expected ogre histrionics. Chandler, who had one of her best cinematic years in 1931 starting with her heroine role in DRACULA, reveals the acting skills that won her a maddeningly brief acclaim in the day. Montgomery, billed under the screen name of Kent Douglass given to him in Whale's WATERLOO BRIDGE of a few months earlier, is vulnerable but sympathetic as the son struggling to escape his father's dominance. A HOUSE DIVIDED went into release on Dec. 5, 1931.

Whale (1889-1957) had well-acquitted himself with the Laemmles in WATERLOO BRIDGE, his first Universal directorial credit that perfectly fit Junior Laemmle's passion for quality product, but cemented his reputation with the Nov. 21, 1931, release of FRANKENSTEIN, Universal's horror follow-up to DRACULA. But a new talent had to be kept busy with other projects before coming up with his next masterpiece of the macabre, so Whale's next assignment was a frank depiction of contemporary romance entitled THE IMPATIENT MAIDEN, released March 1, 1932.

Mae Clarke, the female lead of WATERLOO BRIDGE and FRANKENSTEIN, co-starred with reliable Lew Ayres of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT as a hard-working but restless secretary to a smooth divorce lawyer (John Halliday). When she and her roomate (Una Merkel) discover that a neighbor (Helen Jerome Eddy) in their run-down apartment house has tried to kill herself after her husband deserts her, she finds herself attracted to the responding ambulance surgeon (Ayres). Because our heroine cannot wait for the finer things in life she seems to desire, she becomes unhappy with the doctor's low-paying dedication to his profession and leaves him to become her boss's mistress. A medical emergency and desperate surgical procedure reunite the lovers.

The framework of the story was derived from a 1931 novel by Donald Henderson Clarke, THE IMPATIENT VIRGIN, and unfolds on screen with some dark Whale touches, especially in the depiction of the part of town where Ruth Robbins (Clarke) and her friend Betty (Merkel) reside. Without the stricter enforcement of the Production Code that was to come in another two years, the narrative is refreshingly adult for the time and well-acted by Clarke, whose 19-year-old character is surprisingly sage about love, marriage and all of the incidentals that go with them. The hospital atmosphere occupied by Dr. Myron Brown (Ayres) and his driver buddy Clarence (Andy Devine) carries an irreverent air that lightens the grim realities of their jobs. Whale makes good use of a Los Angeles location trip to the Angel's Flight/Bunker Hill section to establish the opening scenes, including a trip on the famous funicular railway that served the area.

Ayres might have later viewed his role as the medico as training for his nine-film stint as Dr. James Kildare at M-G-M between 1938 and 1942. The actor, whose career with Universal lasted until 1934, was swiftly reteamed with Clarke for the lower-case but interesting underworld drama NIGHT WORLD (1932), co-starring with FRANKENSTEIN's Monster, Boris Karloff, under Hobart Henley's direction. "I was never a big star, but a well-known leading man and player," Ayres self-deprecatingly reflected in a late-in-life interview. "And I did a lot of character roles later, but I never considered myself a big star or anything like that."* Whale indulged his penchant for the unusual with THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) before moving on to THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

Ford's status as a major Hollywood filmmaker had been long in effect when he came to Universal to film AIR MAIL, released Nov. 3, 1932. It was a brief reunion with the studio in which Ford (1894-1973) cut his directorial teeth with a set of well-regarded, World War I-era westerns starring Harry Carey, moving on to Fox to create one of the great dramas of pioneer days in 1924's THE IRON HORSE. His preference for telling virile stories peopled with strong characters had also long asserted itself, and AIR MAIL is a prime example of men (and their women) resolutely facing down danger and human conflict.

Steely Mike Miller (Ralph Bellamy) manages the Desert Airport which has an air mail contract with the Post Office. He and his pilots continually face treacherous weather from the nearby mountain range in order to get the mail through, and when one of the fliers perishes, he's forced to hire Duke Talbot (Pat O'Brien), a reckless daredevil with whom Mike clashes. Duke eventually quits, but when he learns Mike has been stranded in a remote region following a crash, he typically throws all caution to the wind, swipes a biplane and effects a rescue, barely making it back to base. The stuff of many a flying melodrama to come, AIR MAIL is thrilling in all the right parts -- the rescue attempt arouses as much suspense as the similarly-desperate Antarctic mission in Frank Capra's DIRIGIBLE (1931) -- but never abandons the human element in telling its story.

Aviation champion Frank Wead, co-author of DIRIGIBLE and whose life story was the subject of Ford's THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957), also had a hand in the screenplay of AIR MAIL, whose plot seems to have been a first draft of his 1935 play CEILING ZERO, filmed by Warner Bros. the following year at James Cagney's behest. CEILING ZERO dealt with an airport facing tough weather and economic conditions, including a serious-minded manager bedeviled by the cocky pilot with a reputation. Ironically, the role of the sensible guy in the screen version of CEILING ZERO was enacted by O'Brien, who had a fine time playing what became the devil-may-care Cagney part in AIR MAIL. In AIR MAIL, Ford does a convincing job of depicting the rough-edged world of the fliers who accept the constant peril in their lives not only because they need the job, but are in love with the whole idea of flight.

Bellamy, then at the beginning of his movie career, is determination personified as Mike, the type of role John Wayne tackled again and again for Ford into the 1960s. Bellamy receives fine support from fellow newcomer Gloria Stuart and such Universal favorites as Russell Hopton, Slim Summerville and Frank Albertson. Effective in a smaller role was Leslie Fenton, who later on forsook acting for the director's chair. As a piece of high adventure, AIR MAIL was a superlative offering for the larger audiences sought by the Laemmles.

Which brings us to one of the final productions under the Laemmle regime, SUTTER'S GOLD, released March 1, 1936, a month prior to Universal being taken over by the finance group that had floated loans to allow the studio to produce potential hit-makers such as this one and Whale's well-regarded but unsuccessful version of SHOW BOAT, which followed SUTTER'S GOLD into theaters in May. It had been hoped SUTTER'S GOLD, a boisterous yet mostly inaccurate account of the Swiss immigrant John Sutter (Edward Arnold) on whose land the California Gold Rush began in 1849, would rescue the studio financially, but the episodic nature of telling the story of Sutter (1803-1880), given epic status in the screenplay by Jack Kirkwood, Walter Woods and George O'Neil, worked against its success.

It does, however, provide us with an idea of what Universal could do with a reportedly $2 million budget that involved a heavy amount of location shooting, including sequences aboard a slave vessel commandeered by Sutter and his comic relief sidekick (Lee Tracy) before they get to California. Later scenes of Sutter and friends routing Spanish forces opposing his bid for independence denote sweep and production value thanks to director James Cruze (1884-1942), who came to prominence with the first mammoth  western of the silent period in THE COVERED WAGON (1923).

While Clive Hirschhorn declared Arnold miscast as Sutter,** he's actually quite acceptable in the type of big shot role that came to mark his career. In fact, Universal had already teamed Arnold and SUTTER'S GOLD co-star Binnie Barnes in DIAMOND JIM, its 1935 version of the life of James Buchanan "Diamond Jim" Brady (1856-1917), high roller and philanthropist of America's Gilded Age during the late 19th Century. Soon to follow for Arnold were similarly ebullient leading parts in COME AND GET IT (1936) and THE TOAST OF NEW YORK (1937), in addition to darker-shaded variants for Capra in YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938), MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) and MEET JOHN DOE (1941). 

Tracy's wisecracking performance, while more attuned to the day in which SUTTER'S GOLD was produced, is nonetheless welcome, leavening the disappointment endured by Sutter in later life as he attempted to recover the property lost to claim jumpers. This portion of the film, including an utterly false incident involving the death of Sutter's son (William Janney) before his eyes, left audiences with a sour taste. In reality, John Augustus Sutter Jr., who had a notable public career, outlived his father by 17 years.

The New Universal that followed in the wake of the Laemmles was even more aggressively tuned to the smaller situations, cranking out B product, musicals with Deanna Durbin, series flicks and serials with an occasional bigger production to attract more revenue, but maintained the spirit of variety that had marked the studio's earlier efforts. Lacking, however, was the desire to experiment and reach for class that was the hallmark of Junior Laemmle's hopes, leaving his relatively brief reign as executive producer, answerable only to his father, a unique and quite special period in the entertainment giant's history.

For further reading, we recommend "The Lost Treasures of Universal" by Michael H. Price, first published in Midnight Marquee, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2003, and reprinted in Price, Van Cliburn and George E. Turner, FORGOTTEN HORRORS, VOL. 10: THE MISSING YEARS, Lower Klopstokia: Cremo Studios, 2016.

* Steven Randisi, "A Final Interview with Lew Ayres, Actor and Filmmaker," Films of the Golden Age, No. 10, Fall 1997, p. 26.
** Hirschhorn, THE UNIVERSAL STORY, New York: Crown Publishers, 1983, p. 93.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Five degrees of Mike Hammer (Part 1)

"Look, Pat, I've managed to take care of myself one way or another for a long time. And license or no license, I'm going to find the killer and give him what he deserves -- a .45 right down there just like he gave it to Jack!" -- Biff Elliot as Mike Hammer in I, THE JURY (1953).

In the nearly 70 years since the appearance of Frank Morrison "Mickey" Spillane's private detective Mike Hammer in print via the novel I, THE JURY, difference of opinion lingers over the quality of Spillane's work and its enduring popularity. Spillane (1918-2006), who produced numerous works aside from than the more than 20 Hammer novels bearing his name as their writer (Spillane was very specific: he was a writer, not an author), still manages to create some controversy in literary circles between those who detest his style and those who defend it by pointing to the grand total of book sales he racked up over a lengthy career. No doubt the same discussion will arise this March with the publication of his latest posthumous work, a Hammer mystery entitled THE WILL TO KILL, the tenth of the novels started by Spillane and completed by Max Allan Collins, a disciple of Spillane's stark approach.

There is consensus, however, that yes, Spillane isn't on the level of Dickens or Tolstoy, and even less polished than the masters of the field of hardboiled fiction such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. But his driving narrative and sparing, go-for-the-throat use of language perfectly summed up the treacherous urban jungle Hammer navigates while seeking out his own brand of justice. "The guy was dead as hell," reads the terse opening sentence of the third Hammer novel, VENGEANCE IS MINE (1950). No masterpiece but it gets the point across in Hammer's lean narration of his cases. A non-Hammer 1953 novelette for the popular action magazine Manhunt, "Everybody's Watching Me," is similarly gripping and evidence of Spillane's mastery of the form.*

Critic and author Jon L. Breen's summation reflects those divided thoughts. While he doesn't care for Spillane's work, Breen notes that "a number of writers and critics whose opinions are worthy of respect believe he is an important writer of crime fiction."** Like it or lump it, Spillane is a significant presence in fiction of the post-World War II era, a position that made him "critic-proof" in the estimation of The New York Times when it published his obituary.

It took Hollywood a little time to beckon for Hammer, and early screen adaptations of the character were mostly true to the rough, tough and vigilante-like traits that Spillane imbued in his most famous creation. With the exception of Ralph Meeker's crafty, narcissistic approach to the part in KISS ME DEADLY (1955), other movie portrayals by Biff Elliot, Robert Bray and Spillane himself, not to mention Darren McGavin's conception for TV, have anchored themselves to the literary basis that created Hammer's well-known appetite for revenge, violence and sex as filtered through the eroding influence of censorship in the 1950s. Although variable given the actor's own talents, the performances in these first few film versions of Spillane's works emerge as their more significant features.

British producer and director Victor Saville purchased the screen rights to Spillane's novels and launched his franchise, appropriately, with the first of Spillane's popular compositions, I, THE JURY. (The second Saville production, a 1954 adaptation of a non-Hammer, THE LONG WAIT, starred Anthony Quinn and does a decent job in capturing the Spillane mood in a corruption-filled town). Released by United Artists on Aug. 14, 1953, I, THE JURY introduced Biff Elliot, a New York stage and television actor, as Mike and was a mostly acceptable choice. While he seemed to filter Mike through a Stanley Kowalski-like strainer, Elliot was experienced enough to project some sympathy for Mike despite the beatings and shootings he dispenses in the course of the screenplay by Harry Essex, who also directed.

Investigating the murder of an old friend, insurance investigator Jack Williams (Robert Swanger) who lost an arm rescuing Mike from a Japanese bayonet in the big war, our hero runs into a number of suspects, even falling in love with one of them, psychoanalyst Charlotte Manning (Peggie Castle). 

At the end, Mike's tough facade cracks when the desperate Charlotte pleads with him that they could have had the world. "I never wanted the world!" Mike responds with more than a little anguish. "All I wanted was room for you and me." Although Bob Porfirio found Massachusetts-born Elliot had "little presence and no conventional persona on which to draw for dramatic impact,"*** this particular moment hints that the actor and Essex sought to provide Mike with some vulnerability.

Max Allan Collins opined that I, THE JURY expressed the feel of early Spillane works,@ with much credit from a number of sources given to the moody cinematography of film noir master John Alton despite the provisions for the then-popular three-dimesional photography in which the movie was shot. His vision presents a chilly and forbidding view of a New York at Christmastime that dovetails nicely with the downbeat atmosphere. Noir it is, but one of the key ingredients of I, THE JURY's affinity to dark film are the minor, desperate characters Hammer either knows or encounters in the course of his probe, from the pitiable street hanger-on Bobo (an unbilled Elisha Cook Jr.) to Jack's hopeless girlfriend Myrna (Frances Osborne), who returns to a chemical addictions after her lover's death. Both also contribute to the high body count of the story, an acknowledgment of Spillane's unblinking view of such individuals living in the shadows.

Elliot, brother of CBS sportscaster and game show host Win Elliot, never found another starring role in a feature film, although he won decent supporting parts in such productions as THE ENEMY BELOW (1957) and THE STORY ON PAGE ONE (1959). He mostly worked in television and is known to fans of the original STAR TREK for his role in the 1967 episode "The Devil in the Dark." He later did some work in sports announcing for TV and died at 89 in 2012. I, THE JURY also boasts solid performances from Preston Foster as Pat Chambers, Hammer's police friend, Margaret Sheridan as loyal secretary and Gal Friday Velda, and Castle as the ultimately villainous Charlotte, the first in a long line of femmes fatale to whom the private eye loses his heart.

Saville handed off production and directing duties for the next Hammer movie, KISS ME DEADLY, to Robert Aldrich, a new talent who had acquitted himself well with three 1954 features, WORLD FOR RANSOM, APACHE and VERA CRUZ, the latter two top-lined by such powerhouse Hollywood names as Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. Much has been written and discussed about KISS ME DEADLY, released by UA and given a Los Angeles premiere on May 18, 1955, a film Aldrich always claimed to be a simple action thriller but the deeper overseas critics interpreted as a metaphor for the decline of civilization in the atomic age "The more primitive the world becomes, the more fabulous are its treasures," notes villainous Dr. Soberin (Albert Dekker), agent of most of the movie's chaos. Yet Aldrich insisted KISS ME DEADLY wasn't "as profound as many of the French thought it was."@@

The performance of Ralph Meeker as Mike in KISS ME DEADLY has also been subject to as much scrutiny if not more so for his decidely unsympathetic approach to the role, a result of scenarist A.I. Bezzerides' antipathy toward the character of Mike and Spillane's work as a whole. Yet his portrayal is fascinating to behold as he masks an amoral and greedy nature behind a charming smile. The difference in this depiction of Hammer with that of the novels coincides with a change in locale (Los Angeles instead of New York) and a substitution of what Velda (Maxine Cooper) calls the "great whatsit" everyone is after to a dangerous form of nuclear energy rather than the cache of illegal drugs from the 1952 source novel.

We pretty much get all we need to know about this new Mike Hammer and his priorities in the brilliant opening sequence when Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman), clad only in a trenchcoat, flags down Hammer's Jaguar by forcing it off the road. "You nearly wrecked my car!" grumps Mike before he offers the out-of-breath and bedraggled Christina the ride that draws him into the hunt for the "whatsit." More nattily dressed, driving a snazzier car than the older coupe owned by the Hammer of I, THE JURY and a lover of the finer things (note that for the most part, he doesn't drink beer in this one), this Hammer is completely modern but utterly lacking in scruples, still animalistic when his sadistic side is aroused, as in his disposal of a knife-wielding assassin (Paul Richards) and using a desk drawer to crush the fingers of an avaricious morgue attendant (Percy Helton). And we never do see what he does with such incredible force to hulking Sugar Smallhouse (Jack Lambert), first to put him out of action for awhile, and later to defend himself against a murder attempt. Or maybe we don't want to know.

Native Minnesotan Meeker never had another starring role as significant as Mike Hammer and it remains his most iconic role. A stage actor who entered movies in 1951, Meeker was under contract to M-G-M, with strong performances in two 1953 releases, JEOPARDY with Barbara Stanwyck and THE NAKED SPUR in support of James Stewart and Robert Ryan, before netting his greatest part on Broadway as Hal, the shirtless anti-hero of William Inge's PICNIC in 1953. Meeker declined an offer from Columbia to play Hal in the 1955 movie adaptation of the play, reportedly because he didn't like the attached seven-year studio contract. A professional misstep, perhaps, but he remained busy in film (Aldrich utilized his services again in 1967's THE DIRTY DOZEN) and television until sidelined by a 1980 stroke. He was 67 at the time of his death in 1988.

Fine performances supplement Meeker's portrayal, especially by the three actresses "introduced" in KISS ME DEADLY -- Leachman with her vulnerable yet affecting interpretation of the ill-fated Christina; Cooper as a sympathetic and strong Velda who proves to be brainier than her employer; and Gaby Rodgers as Carver, the waif-like but sketchy "friend" of Christina who joins Mike's search for the "whatsit." Ditto Dekker as the smooth chief miscreant who's heard throughout but remains unseen until the literally explosive climax, and Aldrich casting favorite Wesley Addy as the renamed Pat Murphy, the voice of reason Mike ignores for most of the proceedings.

KISS ME DEADLY's Mike Hammer may be more of a creep than a hero -- "All right, you've convinced me. I'm a real stinker," he offhandedly tells some federal investigators who have reviewed his less-than-ethical private eye practices -- but it's a characterization that works in this environment, made more palatable by Aldrich's direction, sharp cinematography by Ernest Laszlo and Frank DeVol's atmospheric music, elements that have given the film a solid basis to classic status.

* Available in Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, eds., PULP MASTERS, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001, pp. 256-329.
** Introduction to "Private Eye Mysteries" in Ed Gorman, Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff with Jon L. Breen, eds., THE FINE ART OF MURDER: THE MYSTERY READER'S INDISPENSABLE COMPANION, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1993, p. 154.
*** Critique of I, THE JURY in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, eds., FILM NOIR: an ENCYCLOPEDIC REFERENCE TO THE AMERICAN STYLE, third edition, Woodstock, N.Y.: The Overlook Press, 1992, p. 141.
@ "Fifteen Best Private Eye Movies," selected by Max Allan Collins, in THE FINE ART OF MURDER, p. 320.
@@ Alain Silver and James Ursini, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ROBERT ALDRICH? HIS LIFE AND FILMS, New York: Limelight Editions, 1995, p. 348.

Five degrees of Mike Hammer (Part 2)

"Get off my back, chick! I'm tired. I've been up 52 hours. I just crawled out of a sewer. There isn't a decent person left in the world." -- Robert Bray as Mike Hammer in MY GUN IS QUICK (1957).

As the 1950s moved into its latter half, British producer-director Victor Saville still owned the screen rights to Mickey Spillane's early works, especially those of iconic private detective and "one-man police force" Mike Hammer, as described in the 1953 movie adaptation of I, THE JURY. Saville, through his production company Parklane Pictures, had personally produced I, THE JURY for a profitable result, and turned over production and direction of KISS ME DEADLY (1955) to rising filmmaker Robert Aldrich, whose innovative approach to the material made KISS ME DEADLY a true cult classic, even within a year of its release due to the influence of the critics at the noted French film journal Cahiers du Cinema. "I think I did a good job, that everybody connected with it did a good job," Aldrich said in an interview. "But it isn't that deep a piece of piercing philosophy as the French thought it was."*

Saville's company produced the next adaptation of a Hammer novel, MY GUN IS QUICK, under the producer-director team of George A. White and Phil Victor, and once more, had a different actor portraying Spillane's tough-as-nails hero. Robert Bray, whose most notable screen role until then had been in support of Marilyn Monroe and Don Murray as the no-nonsense bus driver Carl in Fox's version of BUS STOP (1956), was a rugged choice for the part, not as unpolished as Biff Elliot in I, THE JURY but less smooth than Ralph Meeker's charming cobra of a Hammer in KISS ME DEADLY. He leads a cast of lesser-known professionals that indicated a lower production value, although the film employed such veterans of the business as Harry Neumann on cinematography and Marlin Skiles on music, both better known for their work at Allied Artists.

Released by United Artists on Aug. 1, 1957, MY GUN IS QUICK shares an element in common with KISS ME DEADLY in that the central villainy of Spillane's 1950 novel is tied to prostitution. Where KISS ME DEADLY switched an unstable atomic element for drugs as its "great whatsit," MY GUN IS QUICK hints at hooking in the beginning but focuses mostly on the hunt for a fabulous jewelry collection stolen after World War II. This change was the result of a screen story prepared by paperback novelist Richard Powell, who shared writing credit with Richard Collins (RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, 1954). It's a less-inspired but acceptable situation, which kind of sums up the picture as a whole. Most critics dismiss MY GUN IS QUICK as the most B movie-like of Saville's productions, but in this writer's opinion, it's a lively and watchable presentation that didn't do any damage to image of Mike Hammer.

Having finished a tough case that's left him in an extraordinarily bad mood (see the dialogue quote at the top of this piece), Mike wanders into a lower-case cafe and is touched by the plight of "Red" (Jan Chaney), a copper-haired Hollywood wannabe who's turned to the oldest profession for survival. After running off a sleazy character named Louis  (Richard Garland) harassing the girl, Mike bankrolls a bus trip home to Nebraska for her and takes his leave, bringing the ever-sensible Velda (Pamela Duncan) a chopped egg sandwich for dinner. The next day, Mike is called in by his police pal Pat Chambers (Booth Colman) when his address and phone number is found on a hit-and-run victim. 

Enraged when he discovers the unfortunate is Red, Mike begins following a ball of string that takes him to Red's stripper friend Maria (Gina Coree), a blonde in need of protection (Whitney Blake) and the Vanacci jewels, desperately sought by the ex-Army officer (Donald Randolph) who originally stole them and a gang of homicidal French hoods (we know they're French because they wear striped T-shirts and woolen caps) also on the swag's trail.

MY GUN IS QUICK makes good use of L.A. locations, including a sequence in the Angel's Flight/Bunker Hill section that also served KISS ME DEADLY. A lengthy car chase in which Mike pursues Louis offers some different views of the city, its highway system and beach community where suburban mid-20th Century homes shared space with oil drilling operations. The scenes provide an interesting impression of a prosperous, bustling postwar America, where Red's impoverished condition even prompts Mike to good-naturedly comment, "That's quite a feat in this lush country of ours."

That scene points out one of Bray's calmer moments as Mike as he generally jumps from zero to 60 in other scenes as someone badly in need of anger management. Like Elliot in I, THE JURY, that anger is a key part of Mike's motivation causing him to deal swiftly with anyone getting in his way, although Bray, who was capable of more restraint sometimes goes overboard. Like Elliot, however, a turn at playing Mike did not lead to bigger and better things for the actor, who soon returned to television for regular work. A Montana native, Bray had been a CCC worker and cowboy before coming to Hollywood prior to World War II as a studio carpenter. Following military service, he opted to become a film actor and found himself working at RKO in small roles, primarily in westerns or as the mute henchman in the noirish Pat O'Brien vehicle CRACK-UP (1946).

Around the time of MY GUN IS QUICK's release, Bray was reportedly offered a supporting role in Joshua Logan's film production of SOUTH PACIFIC (1958), but declined, prompting some observers to opine he made a career mistake. His longest run came in the TV version of LASSIE, where he portrayed the beloved collie's human companion, Forest Ranger Corey Stuart, for four seasons (1964-1968) before the producers wrote out the character. Bray soon retired and pursued outdoor interests until his death in 1983 at 65.

The solid supporting cast of MY GUN IS QUICK offered good work from Blake and Randolph, while Duncan makes a reassuring Velda and Garland a convincing heavy. At the time, both had been utilized to good advantage by independent producer-director Roger Corman, who provided them with choice roles in THE UNDEAD and ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS, also seen by audiences in 1957. Duncan and Garland had relatively brief Hollywood careers, the former leaving acting behind by the mid-'60s and passing in 2005 at 81, and the latter passing away in 1969 from alcohol-related illness. He was 42.

While a television series starring Darren McGavin as Mike kept the private eye and Spillane's name before audiences as the '50s passed (more on that later), Spillane, although hardly inactive, didn't produce another Hammer-themed novel until 1962 when THE GIRL HUNTERS appeared between covers. Producer Robert Fellows purchased the movie rights to the work, and with the assistance of Spillane and director Roy Rowland, scripted an adaptation that went before the cameras with an entirely new and original choice for the role of Mike -- Spillane. And once you get past the idea of a non-actor portraying his own literary creation, the writer offers a pretty good account of himself in a production that benefits greatly from his participation.

Spillane actually was a screen presence in RING OF FEAR (1954), playing himself and investigating a series of murders plaguing a circus. The color presentation was co-produced by Fellows and John Wayne for Wayne's company and released by Warner Bros. Spillane was originally brought in to revise the screenplay, which he did as a favor to Wayne, and aside from the Jaguar that Wayne bought him when Spillane refused a salary, the writer got his chance to appear on the big screen. He's not the main focus of RING OF FEAR's dramaturgy, but he appears to be enjoying himself in the scenes where he does pop up, including a climactic struggle with the killer (Sean McClory). With that experience behind him, the idea of casting Spillane as Mike in THE GIRL HUNTERS wasn't as outlandish as it may have sounded, despite the fact Spillane, fairly youthful and athletic in RING OF FEAR, was now a few years older and stockier.

Yet, wearing the dark suit, fedora and trenchcoat that became his image, brandishing a .45 with conviction and dispensing a rough charm, Spillne made the performance work while Fellows, Rowland and others worked a different kind of magic with the movie. As historian William K. Everson noted, THE GIRL HUNTERS was "a fascinating (and successful) exercise in illusion: apart from a few establishing shots of New York, the whole film was made in England, yet the intercutting of those few authentic shots with matched-up British sets, plus the use of familiar American faces, gave the film the wholly convincing veneer of an American-made film."**

The recognizably U.S. faces aside from Spillane were Lloyd Nolan as FBI man Rickerby, Scott Peters as Pat Chambers and columnist Hy Gardner portraying himself. The remainder of the cast were British trying to sound American or expatriates cast in UK films as being from the States. But as far as accents were concerned, nobody was paying attention to that of female lead Shirley Eaton due to her well-publicized scenes in a bikini, cast as a U.S. senator's wife who distracts Mike for a time. It was one of two iconic roles for the blonde actress, the second following closely on the heels of THE GIRL HUNTERS in the James Bond actioner GOLDFINGER (1964) as Jill Masterson, the alluring agent of the titular villain whose dalliance with Bond prompts her being painted gold. Eaton, who left films and television by the end of the '60s, celebrated her 80th birthday this month.

Released by UA with a Los Angeles premiere on June 12, 1963, THE GIRL HUNTERS is watchable for Spillane's performance and its story, which finds Mike in a drunken haze being picked up by police in an alley and taken to Pat, where he learns that Velda has disappeared and may be in the hands of a notorious Communist agent. After a couple of drinks to take off the edge, Mike snaps out of his stupor -- related to Velda's apparent abduction -- straps on his gun and follows a set of leads, among them seductive Laura Knapp (Eaton). Working with Rickerby, Mike's focus narrows to a dangerous Iron Curtain hit man known as The Dragon (Larry Taylor), leading to a life-or-death confrontation between Mike and the burly Red and in typically Spillane fashion, a showdown between Laura and our hero.

As explained by Everson, the Big Apple exterior scenes match seamlessly with the studio footage shot overseas by Kenneth Talbot, but both are also dark and brooding when the story called for the bright and colorful look of the Bond movies and the explosion of imitators they spawned. Filmed black-and-white by Rowland, a busy director at M-G-M in the '40s and '50s, THE GIRL HUNTERS' visual disappointment -- more likely a victim of the budget than any design oversight -- is compensated by the strength of the plot and the performances, offering an offbeat depiction of the material that Max Allan Collins described as "(n)ot a movie, but a pop culture event!"*** 

And while the film of KISS ME DEADLY touched on the Cold War motivations spurring the hunt for the disastrous "great whatsit," the well-known anti-Communist leanings of the Spillane novels were more prominently on display in THE GIRL HUNTERS; shortly after the novel's publication, Spillane's non-Hammer fiction began focusing on espionage themes.

The previously-mentioned TV series, formally titled MICKEY SPILLANE'S MIKE HAMMER, originally aired in syndication from 1958 to 1960 and was made by Revue, the production arm of Music Corporation of America, then a busy supplier of action fodder such as SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, STATE TROOPER and M SQUAD. Like the other Revues, MIKE HAMMER was fast, sharp and suitably rough-edged to remain in keeping with the Spillane conception. The 78 episodes utilized location shooting in New York matched with studio work to create a believable atmosphere.

Most historians who have seen it tend to prefer Brian Keith's Mike in a 1954 pilot film that didn't sell. But for this series, Darren McGavin was awarded the lead and while Spillane reportedly didn't care for his portrayal, McGavin brought the requisite toughness and physicality to the role, along with a breezy nature and touch of humor that made his somewhat more cleaned-up-for-TV image quite acceptable. Although quick with his fists when provoked, McGavin's Mike was more likely to talk things out before resorting to violence, and had none of the "what's in it for me" slime that dripped from Ralph Meeker's Mike in KISS ME DEADLY. No Boy Scout, mind you, but McGavin's private eye was more of a tarnished but likeable knight who used a '57 Ford convertible in place of a trusty steed to help save the day.

MIKE HAMMER was the actor's second lead in a TV series; McGavin replaced Richard Carlyle in CRIME PHOTOGRAPHER for most of the live program's 1951-1952 run on CBS. In the midst of MIKE HAMMER's production, McGavin accepted the lead in another series, NBC's RIVERBOAT (1959-1961), prompting him to simultaneously headline two shows, a task presumably made easier by their both being filmed at Universal Studios. A busy participant in the expanding made-for-TV movie market in the 1970s, McGavin's starring role as irrevrent yet intrepid newsman Carl Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), its 1973 sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER and the 1974-1975 ABC series KOLCHAK: THE NIGHT STALKER cemented his fame to generations unaware of his turn as a cool Mike Hammer. McGavin was 83 when he passed in 2006.

Different interpretations of Mike Hammer would start appearing in later decades, for film by Armand Assante in a 1982 remake of I, THE JURY and television with Stacy Keach's aggressively old-school conception, first on CBS from 1984 until 1987, and syndication in 1997-1998. But the performances from the heyday of Spillane's novels are an interesting and entertaing bunch for detective movie fans to savor. For completists, Mike was also on radio from January to October 1953 in THAT HAMMER GUY, which aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System. The program initially starred stage and radio actor Larry Haines and later, screen tough guy Ted de Corsia.

* Alain Silver and James Ursini, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ROBERT ALDRICH? HIS LIFE AND FILMS, New York: Limelight Edtions, 1995, p. 348.
** William K. Everson, THE DETECTIVE IN FILM, Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1972, p. 237.
*** "Fifteen Best Private Eye Movies," selected by Max Allan Collins, in Ed Gorman, Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff with Jon L. Breen, eds., THE FINE ART OF MURDER: THE MYSTERY READER'S INDISPENSABLE COMPANION, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1993, p. 320.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

He's back! Series 4 of 'Sherlock' on PBS

For those of us who feared the long layoff between the last and new series of SHERLOCK films for the BBC and America's Public Broadcasting System would produce either a radical change in tone or pure boredom, reassurance that the series is on the successful track it's followed was produced with the opener of the fourth set of episodes that aired New Year's Day.

"The Six Thatchers" was a fast-paced, complex yet compelling continuation of the adventures of the modern Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), qualities that have made SHERLOCK a hit with audiences since its premiere in 2010. The combination of high-tech with Holmes' genius for deductive reasoning has settled well with fans of the Canon. It is also popular with new viewers attracted to the psychological exploration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great sleuth, who describes himself as "a high-functioning sociopath" who lives for the variety of puzzles contemporary crime and world politics present him.

It also tells us that Cumberbatch, seamlessly paired with Martin Freeman as his associate and chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, recognizes his career isn't defined by his Sherlock and is unafraid of returning to the role. Its is comforting for the viewer to see Cumberbatch, now enjoying a busy feature film career, and Freeman, star of the FX cable series FARGO's first season in 2014, return to Holmes and Watson and provide us with new variations on the characters.

Also a relief is the mixing of the classic Doyle stories into current times, a feat co-creators Mark Gatiss (who co-stars as Sherlock's unflappable older brother Mycroft) and Steven Moffat have pulled off both recognizably and convincingly. In the case of "The Six Thatchers," Gatiss drew upon "The Six Napoleons," in which a series of home invasions involving the smashing of small plaster busts leads the Great Detective to a frantic hunt for the missing Black Pearl of the Borgias. The story is familiar to fans of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies as 1944's THE PEARL OF DEATH. However, in "The Six Thatchers" -- busts of Britain's first female prime minister standing in for the onetime French emperor -- the maguffin secreted in one of them is not the pearl but a computer memory chip that exposes a threat to Watson and his wife Mary (Amanda Abbington), as well Mary's previously shadowy background as a mercenary.

Resolution of the peril irrevocably changes everything for John and Mary, who have recently become parents, and strains the relationship between John and Sherlock to the breaking point as the episode closes -- and beckons those viewers already hooked by the program to readily tune in next Sunday night to see where this all takes us. It was a wise move on the part of Gatiss's script in that it has been almost three years since the airing of the final entry of SHERLOCK's third series, "His Last Vow." In that episode, Sherlock, briefly (all of four minutes) exiled for his slaying of the notorious tabloid publisher, blackmailer and all-around louse Charles Augustus Milverton, is pressed back into service when the supposedly-deceased "Jim" Moriarty makes a sudden reappearance. 

As "The Six Thatchers" opens, Mycroft has shifted the blame for Milverton's death onto someone else, Sherlock opts to continue investigating routine complaints while awaiting Moriarty's next (or any) moves, and is steered toward the curious matter of the shattered Margaret Thatcher busts by Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves).

"The Six Thatchers" also did much to erase the bad taste left over from SHERLOCK's stopgap one-off of 2016, "The Abominable Bride," the misstep that inexplicably presented Sherlock and John in the characters' original Victorian setting, then passed it off as a figment of the contemporary Sherlock's tortured mind. Maintaining the formula of cleverly adapting Doyle's stories to present times is the best path for Gatiss, Moffat and producer Sue Vertue to take, and the homage to the Doyle stories as well the movies they yielded is appreciated. 

In "The Six Thatchers," Sherlock not only employs the bloodhound Toby in a reference to the novel THE SIGN OF FOUR, but also borrows the final line from "The Yellow Face" when he advises Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) to mention the villain's name to him whenever he gets too cocksure of his abilities. There may be other such flashes of recognition in the episode, but the ones mentioned here are a welcome touch.

All in all, the return of SHERLOCK is a boon to the fans and proof, along with the thematically similar ELEMENTARY, now in its fifth season on CBS, that the cool, rational defender of law and order in a complicated world has maintained his popularity

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A hodgepodge of discovery and rediscovery

Herewith are some thoughts on films of varying nature either seen for the first time or re-encountered after a passage of time too long to mention. That the movies remain as intriguing today as when they were first viewed provides testimony not only to their longevity but entertainment value. They are deserving of a wider appreciation beyond that of the cluster of fans the productions attracted in the decades since their original screenings.

LITTLE BIG HORN (1951) -- The western movie was and remained a crowded market during the 1950s, further swollen by the number of similar programs that filled network and syndicated television schedules. In a year when the genre was represented by everything from A-level productions to hour-long second features, it's not surprising that Charles Marquis Warren's LITTLE BIG HORN became lost in the shuffle. A shame, too, in that this reasonably actionful tale surrounding the story of Gen. George Armstrong Custer's last stand also offers a sobering reflection on duty and courage sincerely presented by its cast of then-lesser known but no less capable actors.

LITTLE BIG HORN opens at Fort Abraham Lincoln in June 1876, where Cavalry Capt. Philip Donlin (Lloyd Bridges) and Lt. John Haywood (John Ireland) are at odds over Donlin's wife Celie (Marie Windsor), who's launched an affair with Haywood in response to her frustration with Donlin's stubborn devotion to the Army and frequent absences on patrol. Fate -- and orders -- land Haywood on Donlin's latest tour of the Montana Territory as the Great Sioux War heats up. Commanded to join Custer's forces at the Little Big Horn River with proof of the natives' superiority in numbers, the patrol is slowly picked off by their shadowy opponents as they race against distance and time to complete their mission. At the end of the trail, the group's surviving members do what they can to stop the opposing juggernaut of allied tribes before Custer's arrival.

Warren's script, from a story by Harold Shumate, is a fictionalization of a real and mostly unknown incident that served as a prelude to the disastrous battle between the ill-fated Custer's forces and the Indians. Between scenes of Donlin's desperate attempt to elude the enemy, the story moves away from the triangle that keeps Donlin and Haywood apart to focus on the hopes and dreams of the soldiers, well-played by such veterans of the form as Reed Hadley, Jim Davis, Hugh O'Brian and Wally Cassell. Hadley commands attention in particular as a onetime officer demoted to sergeant, somberly dealing with the fact that he once outranked both Donlin and Haywood. While Donlin tests the limits of his duty, Haywood, who's more popular with the men, questions the Army's contention that a few lives must be sacrificed to save those of hundreds. His query finds its answer when, after Donlin is killed, Haywood takes command and leads his hopelessly outnumbered crew into a final skirmish.

Bridges and Ireland are solid as the lead antagonists, while Windsor's talents were reduced to serve as window dressing. Otherwise, LITTLE BIG HORN fits snugly between the aspirations of higher-budgeted productions and the less-demanding requirements of its B counterparts. Released by Lippert Pictures, the film is one of several oaters of the period that bear influences of the noir movement, especially in its refusal to provide a happy ending and distort its historical basis. Carl K. Hittleman, who produced LITTLE BIG HORN, had shown a preference for unique westerns inspired by true stories with his two previous efforts for Lippert, I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949, also with Ireland and Hadley) and THE BARON OF ARIZONA (1950, with Hadley in support), the two initial directorial efforts of Samuel Fuller.

For Warren (1912-1990), LITTLE BIG HORN represented his debut in the director's chair after service as a screewriter and fictioneer for pulp and slick magazines. He provides the film with a definite sense of isolation for the soldiers as they travel against some breath-taking expanses of plains and mountain ranges. Warren became best-known for his association with two of television's great western dramas, GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) and RAWHIDE (1959-1966), serving as director and producer of GUNSMOKE for its first two seasons until differences with the show's co-creator and associate producer, Norman Macdonnell, prompted Warren's departure. Conversant with other genres, Warren also produced and directed two unusual entries in the horror field, BACK FROM THE DEAD and THE UNKNOWN TERROR (both 1957), for Robert L. Lippert's auccessor company, Regal Films, releasing through Twentieth Century-Fox.

CAREER (1959) -- For its honest exploration of the rare highs and frequent lows of an actor's life, Joseph Anthony's CAREER deserves to be better known than as a lengthy footnote in the resume of Dean Martin, who has first billing but whose character plays second fiddle to Anthony Franciosa's intense portrayal of an ambitious thespian who dedicates himself to his career -- and not surprisingly, loses a lot along the way.

The honesty stems from the screenplay attributed to James Lee, a former actor whose same-titled three-act drama opened off-Broadway to critical acclaim in 1957. Franciosa, whose own screen stardom was ascending as the curtain fell on the '50s, is Sam Lawson, a World War II veteran who's decided to become an actor in New York, temporarily leaving behind his hometown sweetheart Barbara Nielsen (Joan Blackman). A year later and still unemployed, Sam falls in with a ragtag theater company run by Maurice "Maury" Novak (Martin), whose on-again, off-again romance with Sharon Kensington (Shirley MacLaine), neurotic daughter of an influential producer (Robert Middleton), elevates Maury to a Hollywood director's chair -- with Sam still struggling to get a job.

Barbara joins Sam, they marry and then split up after she loses her first child. Sam continues his quest with the aid of his sympathetic agent Shirley Drake (Carolyn Jones) and survives a disastrous marriage to Sharon, betrayals, disappointments, military service in Korea, blacklisting and the demands of making a living that force him to consider abandoning his profession for a more steady position as a waiter. Maury, also a victim of the blacklist, talks Sam into taking the lead in a new play he's directing, whose off-Broadway success sends it uptown and provides Sam with the career satisfaction he's sought for more than a decade. Asked by Shirley if the struggle was all worth the pain he endured, Sam tells her, "Yes, it was."

Although contrived to heighten the barriers faced by Sam, CAREER remains a compelling, unblinking look at the trials and tribulations of being an actor. And while Sam's character becomes somewhat tarnished by his attempts to get ahead a la Maury's opportunistic influence, our sympathies stay with him as one damned thing after another gets in his way. While Lee (1923-2002) has sole on-screen credit for the script, sources reveal he was assisted by Bert Granet, Philip Strong and the then-blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, who no doubt had no hand in Shirley's explanation to Sam that his loss of the lead in a TV show was the result of "good Americans" who raised a red flag over his past association with Maury's seemingly left-leaning theater group. (The forever mercenary Maury later admits to having briefly joined the Communist Party, but only to help himself). Trumbo, who had been selling scripts under assumed names all through the '50s, broke the stigma when Kirk Douglas's production of SPARTACUS (1960) openly listed him as its scenarist.

A Hal B. Wallis production for Paramount, CAREER is among the few directorial efforts of Joseph Anthony (1912-1993), himself an actor who had previously helmed THE RAINMAKER (1956) and THE MATCHMAKER (1958), also film versions of well-received plays.* The film unspools in an efficient and low-key manner, placing most of the interest upon the performers. Franciosa, who had made his screen debut in 1957 with four important pictures (THIS COULD BE THE NIGHT, A FACE IN THE CROWD, A HATFUL OF RAIN -- which won him a Best Actor Oscar nomination -- and WILD IS THE WIND) was borrowed from Fox to play Sam and delivers one of his best performances, netting him the Golden Globe for Best Actor. He is matched by Martin's fascinatingly sleazy delineation of Maury. Having won kudos for his turn to the dramatic in Vincente Minnelli's SOME CAME RUNNING (1958), Martin was then exercising his acting muscles (perhaps not as vigorously as his pal Frank Sinatra) before surrendering to less-strenuous roles in the Rat Pack movies and Matt Helm burlesques. Interestingly, Franciosa capably tackled the Helm role in a short-lived 1975 TV series.

MacLaine, Martin and Sinatra's affecting co-star in SOME CAME RUNNING, does her best with the role of the hedonistic yet needy Sharon, working all the time to make the character human in her least annoying moments. "Sam was the name of the first man I ruined," Sharon tells our hero upon their first meeting. "He's a hairdresser now." MacLaine then rejoined Martin and Sinatra for a gag cameo in the original OCEAN'S ELEVEN (1960). In support, Jones is simply outstanding as Shirley, herself a former actress who ultimately falls for Sam. Her best moment arrives early when, trying to advise her new client on his career path, Shirley  reveals how she worked uninterrupted for three theatrical seasons -- and spent the next two waiting for the phone to ring. Wallis may have cast Jones on the basis of her memorable performance as Elvis Presley's ill-fated lover in KING CREOLE (1958).

As a side note: When CAREER was first staged in New York, Sam was played by Charles Aidman, Maury by Norman Rose, Sharon by Norma Crane, and in the small role of "A Soldier," Larry Hagman.

* "American Directors," compiled by Todd McCarthy, in McCarthy and Charles Flynn, eds., KINGS OF THE Bs: WORKING WITHIN THE HOLLYWOOD SYSTEM, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1975, p. 449.

GARGOYLES (1972) -- Passage of four decades has done little to take the demonic glint from this rugged made-for-TV feature, one of the best horror entries the field of the small-screen movie of the week produced during the first half of the 1970s, when many of the better films appeared. In fact, GARGOYLES, premiered by CBS on Nov. 21, 1972,* topped off a good year for scary films designed for the tube that began the previous January with the broadcast of Dan Curtis's modern-day vampire classic THE NIGHT STALKER on ABC.

Steven and Elinor Karpf's screenplay for GARGOYLES offers a titanic idea on a modest scale, tapping into the then-current trend of films pitting ordinary humans against domination from the beyond. Gargoyles, the film declares, are not simply decorative items on gothic European cathedrals but creatures who come to life every 500 years or so, each time looking to control humans on Earth who manage to destroy most of them before their plans can be realized. A few manage to escape to come back and bug the hell out of us after another half of a millennium.

Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde), anthropologist and author of popular books on the more unusual aspects of human development, is joined by his photographer daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) on a field trip into Mexico, but not before they stop to check out claims by Uncle Willie (Woodrow Chambliss), proprietor of a roadside museum of oddities, that he has something truly strange to share with the scholar. It turns out to be a skeleton of a freakish being that Boley at first dismisses as fake, which Uncle Willie vehemently denies. Agreeing to stay and hear out the old man, Boley and Diana are shaken as the shack containing the skeleton is attacked by something tearing at the roof and walls. A resulting fire leads to Uncle Willie's demise, with Boley and Diana fleeing not only with their lives but with the skeleton's head.

Their car is set upon by a creature before they get to civilization and hole up in a motel operated by boozy Mrs. Parks (Grayson Hall). The creatures return in search of the skull, and we learn they are the latest version of the gargoyles that have sprung to life from eggs secreted in a nearby cave. Their leader (Bernie Casey) represents the kind of gargoyle with wings and a demonic face; the others are without means of flight and eagle-like in aspect. Eventually, Diana is abducted by the chief gargoyle, sending Boley on a desperate rescue mission with the aid of the local police and a group of dirt-bikers (led by Scott Glenn) wrongfully held for Uncle Willie's death. Boley and his meager crew are successful in freeing Diana and burning the eggs of the yet-unborn gargoyles, but the leader escapes with one of his breeders, promising to one day rule the world.

Director B.W.L. Norton made simple but effective use of slow motion to isolate the gargoyles in a world where humans dominate; their movement, backed by the makeup co-created by Stan Winston, sends out a chill. The final shot of the leader flying away in a night sky remains as memorable as it did when it initially aired. Norton also uses shots of desert expanses to heighten the suspense and feeling of isolation as the story plays out. The Karpfs' script summons images of some of the best horror stories by H.P. Lovecraft, whose work of a half-century earlier enjoyed a new vogue in the '70s, some of it finding its way into movies and TV. One of the most terrifying segments of NBC's NIGHT GALLERY series (1970-1973) was in the revelation of Lovecraft's "Pickman's Model," a monster somewhat reminiscent of GARGOYLES' misbegotten beings.

The cast tackles the assignment with sincerity. Hall, best-known for her roles on ABC's horrific daytime drama DARK SHADOWS (1966-1971) and the two feature films it spun off, lends GARGOYLES with some of its lighter moments until her character's own grisly end is revealed. Casey (voiced by Vic Perrin, the "Control Voice" of THE OUTER LIMITS series of 1963-1965) adds such qualities as curiosity and wonder to his interpretation of the role to help make GARGOYLES a treat for even non-monster movie fans. While many of the best made-for-TV horrors of the early '70s emerged from DARK SHADOWS creator Dan Curtis's stable, GARGOYLES was produced by Roger Gimbel for Tomorrow Enteratinment Inc.

* Entry on GARGOYLES in Alvin H. Marill, MOVIES MADE FOR TELEVISION: THE TELEFEATURE AND THE MINI-SERIES 1964-1979, Westport, Conn.: Arlington House, 1980, p. 115.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Little-known cinema: 'Paradise Alley'

Not to be confused with one of Sylvester Stallone's post-ROCKY projects bearing the same title, PARADISE ALLEY (1962) was the final movie written, produced, directed by and starring Hugo Haas (1901-1968), who had enjoyed a unique niche as a hyphenate independent filmmaker within the Hollywood scheme of things. A distinct departure from the almost-forgotten melodramas that ultimately gave the talented Czech-born Haas a bad name in Hollywood (and a cult following long after his passing), PARADISE ALLEY actually points to the sweeter, comedic nature of the creative drive that made him a star in Europe before he was forced to emigrate to the U.S. prior to the start of World War II.

Perhaps dated for audiences of the time -- even more so given its delayed release date -- PARADISE ALLEY is considered by some to be Haas' disguised raspberry to the film capitol as he began realizing his increasingly-tenuous position as an independent was fading. On the other hand, it appears to be a valentine to the movie business in general, especially in his use of silent film stars, a recognition of cinema's ability to unify people and an occasionally charming study of human nature blended with Haas' Continental approach to the story. Originally titled STARS IN THE BACKYARD, which more closely expressed the storyline, PARADISE ALLEY offers a hint of what Haas brought to the comedies he not only starred in but produced before the shadow of oppression was seen in pre-war Czechoslavakia.

PARADISE ALLEY was a change in direction for Haas' usual output of intense, DOUBLE INDEMNITY-type dramas that had pretty much played themselves out when his last entry in that vein, HIT AND RUN, was released by United Artists in March 1957. He afterward obtained the services of Carol Morris, who was not only Miss America 1956 but also the same year's Miss Universe, the second American contestant to ever win that beauty pageant's title. Morris (born 1936), whose brown-haired, girl-next-door image was as far away as you could get from the duplicitous blonde floozies who usually populated Haas' more serious efforts, was more suited to lighter endeavors such as PARADISE ALLEY and Haas' BORN TO BE LOVED (1959). That both films failed to launch Morris on a screen career was not the fault of the actress, whose own charm in PARADISE ALLEY helps it over the timeworn boy-girl subplot Haas worked into the proceedings.

Haas, who frequently cast himself in the lead roles of movies he produced on his own, serves PARADISE ALLEY as Rudolph Agnus, a courtly, somewhat mysterious Old World actor awaiting a call from General Casting. "They think I'm a certain type," he reflects affably. "They say I look like a fallen human being. I look the part." Agnus comes to room in the lower-case Los Angeles neighborhood called Paradise Alley, which he finds on his first day of residence to be anything but. Condemned for future demolition by the city, Paradise Alley's crowded quarters are home to bickering, mean-spirited individuals whom life has beaten down in the pursuit of their everyday routine. Agnus finds a kindred spirit in Mr. Gregory (Chester Conklin), a retired cameraman from the early days of American cinema who maintains a small museum of movie memorabilia, including the now-defunct sound camera he employed before leaving the business. The scene leads to a neat in-joke when Conklin, once a member of Mack Sennett's famous gaggle of comical policemen in the silents, dons the walrus mustache he used for his character. When Agnus remarks on Gregory's resemblance to "one of those Keystone Kops," Gregory responds, "Just a cop. He's my cousin."

Agnus is taken with the plight of Susie Wilson (Morris) and Steve Nicholson (Don Sullivan), "a Romeo and Juliet of the slums" (as Agnus describes them), whose parents (Billy Gilbert and Corinne Griffith for her, Margaret Hamilton and Tom Fadden for him) are continually at odds with each other. Troubled by the fractious nature of Paradise Alley, Agnus decides to try what he calls a "local experiment," announcing that he is an independent producer-director planning to film a new movie in the neighborhood using the residents as his actors. Utilizing Gregory's movie camera and a cucumber made up to resemble a recording microphone, Agnus proceeds to cast and "shoot" his script, "The Chosen and Condemned," overcoming opposition to the project and uniting the denizens of his new home. "Do you make children unhappy when you tell them fairy tales?" Agnus asks a momentarily skeptical Gregory. "Illusion is the only thing that's free in life."

The charade continues until Agnus gets a call for an acting job at Corona Studios. There he encounters casting director Jack Williams (William Schallert), who recognizes Agnus for whom he really is, the once-famous European director Karl Von Stahlberg, who faded from the cinematic scene after he impulsively gave away his fortune and was committed to an insane asylum ("I prefer to call it a sanitarium") by his family. Under the name Agnus, he apparently emigrated to the U.S., deciding to remain in the shadows as an anonymous bit player. Jack, whose father worked for Agnus/Von Stahlberg on his Continental features, is exhilirated by the meeting and offers to help Agnus. Agnus takes him up on the offer and requests his aid in making a career for the talented Susie (whom Haas accidentally refers to as "Carol" in one scene). He then reveals he is making a "movie" using his neighbors in Paradise Alley.

Jack approaches Corona production chief Norman Holmes (William Forrest) who's in search of the newest gimmick moviedom can offer. Intrigued that Agnus/Von Stahlberg is still around and evidently working, Holmes accompanies Jack to Paradise Alley to check out "The Chosen and Condemned" in "production." They arrive in time to prevent the whole show from getting shut down by the extras union -- and divulging to all that the project was a sham. Holmes, struck by the unusual nature of the fake project, offers to make it a reality by offering the astonished moviemaker the budget and facilities to bring the film to the screen -- with complete creative control and more importantly, retention of the cast of non-professionals he's assembled.

A fairy tale it may be, but an entertaining one even for people who aren't movie fans, PARADISE ALLEY occasionally drags but builds interest as Agnus and his co-conspirators carry out their offbeat yet crafty social experiment, carrying all of the elements of screwball comedy without being so. The neighbors begin to take pride in the fact that someone has deemed them worthy of a movie, and their closing ranks behind Agnus is the impetus for them to forget their differences and annoyances with one another. Haas also offers a gentle commentary on Hollywood  in which Holmes, lamenting to his subordinates that all of the great ideas to draw people into theaters have been exhausted, realizes that simple human interest stories are once again the remedy. Some observers have found PARADISE ALLEY to be an outlet for Haas' anger with the system, but his more pointed criticism of the studio mentality is found in THE OTHER WOMAN (1954), in which he played a director chafing under front office interference with his productions.

PARADISE ALLEY bears a 1958 copyright date in the credits, evidence of the fact Haas was unable to find a distributor for the project until its June 1962 release by little-known Sutton Pictures. By then, Morris had retired from acting, marrying a Texan oilman in 1959, while Don Sullivan (born 1929), who was "introduced" in PARADISE ALLEY, had already seen his equally brief Hollywood career peak before the '50s ended. A singer and songwriter in addition to projecting a pleasing screen personality, Sullivan became a favorite of horror film aficionados by virtue of his starring in THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS (1958/1961), TEENAGE ZOMBIES (1958) and THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959). He later entered the hair care industry and enjoyed success with the Redken and Vidal Sassoon brands.

As previously noted, Morris and Sullivan made the standard romance palatable, but PARADISE ALLEY is also something of a curio for Haas utilizing three veterans of the silent cinema in key roles -- Chester Conklin as Gregory, and Billy Gilbert and Corinne Griffith as Susie's oddly-matched parents, Julius and Ann Wilson. Conklin (1886-1971), who had appeared in literally hundreds of short and feature-length films, including Charlie Chaplin's MODERN TIMES (1936), was still working in small roles when tapped for his part in PARADISE ALLEY; his last screen appearance was in A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY (1966). His role as Agnus' new friend supplies the link Haas sought to the days of earlier moviemaking, as Gregory reveals he was a cameraman for D.W. Griffith.

Gilbert, born William Gilbert Barron in 1894 in the dressing room of the opera house in Louisville, Ky., parlayed his large frame, bulging eyes and explosive acting style into a long career in screen comedy that extended successfully into talking pictures. Among the hundreds of two-reelers and features in which he appeared was Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy's THE MUSIC BOX, winner of the Academy Award for best short film of 1932. Earlier, Laurel had recognized Gilbert's talent and helped get him into movies. Gilbert was still plying his craft, particularly on Red Skelton's weekly TV show, when Haas cast him in PARADISE ALLEY, where his accumulated skill at portraying gruff, animated characters served him well. When PARADISE ALLEY went into release, Gilbert had his final screen role with a bit in Irwin Allen's FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962). Gilbert passed away following a stroke in 1971.

Haas' choice of Griffith seems somewhat more murky, given she had not been seen in a movie since 1932. A wealthy icon of old Hollywood, Griffith may have invested some money in the venture, but there is no immediate evidence of this happening or its bearing on her casting. A star of silents since 1916 and nominated for Best Actress of 1929 for her role as Emma Hamilton in A LADY OF DISTINCTION, Griffith became one of the casualties of the move toward talkies when her voice was found lacking. "Why should I go on until I am playing mother roles?" the actress asked when she announced her decision to leave films behind. "I have plenty of money. I want to improve my mind. Most of the time you'll find me bobbing around Europe."* 

Married four times and the author of 11 books -- including her 1952 memoir PAPA'S DELICATE CONDITION, which became a screen vehicle for Jackie Gleason in 1963 -- Griffith nevertheless yearned for a comeback and ultimately found PARADISE ALLEY was not the ideal vehicle for such an ambition. While her voice and approach to the role of Mrs. Wilson was adequate, she appears to have preferred a makeup that makes her face seem excessively pasty, which tends to distract the viewer from what she's trying to do with the part. Afterward, Griffith continued a career in real estate holdings and Republican politics. Additionally, she drew attention to herself when, divorcing her last and much younger husband in the mid-'60s, she claimed and continued to insist that she was not Corinne Griffith but her own younger sister. She died in 1979 at 84.

Also of note are the performances of Margaret Hamilton as Mrs. Nicholson and Marie Windsor as entertainer Linda Belita. Hamilton (1902-1985), the famed Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), makes the most of her part as a disagreeable but ultimately sympathetic skeptic of Agnus' "movie," especially when he casts her opposite the contentious Gilbert as one-time lovers. Windsor (1919-2000), one of the great femmes fatale of Hollywood film noir whose work in Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING (1956) resulted in a Best Supporting Actress nomination, is still in tune with Haas' light intention, transforming the bad girl of Haas' previous melodramas into a likeable tease. Much later, she and Hamilton were also cast in "Hollywood," a fascinatingly noirish episode of the newspaper drama LOU GRANT aired by CBS-TV on Dec. 17, 1979.

And what of Hugo Haas? By the time PARADISE ALLEY found a distributor, he had left Hollywood for Austria, which utilized his talents for television. Although still in exile from his beloved Czechoslavakia, which fell under Communist domination soon after World War II, he still nursed hopes of a return to the land where he had enjoyed his earlier triumphs, a hope that remained unfulfilled at the time of his death.

When Haas came to the U.S., he worked in radio before establishing himself as a character actor. Making his American feature debut in DAYS OF GLORY (1944), Haas specialized in either comic or villainous ethnic portrayals in such films as THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI (1947), THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN (1949) and KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1950). Having saved his own money as well as finding investors, Haas renewed his standing as a writer, producer, director and star with PICKUP (1951), the story of a middle-aged, lonely railroad inspector who on a whim, much to his later regret, marries a greedy, hateful and (surprise!) ultimately unfaithful B girl (Beverly Michaels). A modest hit, PICKUP set the stage for similar dramas from the Haas stable after his follow-up production, the more heartfelt GIRL ON THE BRIDGE (1951), also with Michaels (1928-2007), failed to register. Michaels was replaced in the bad girl role by the equally hard-edged Cleo Moore (1924-1973), whose film career was mostly in Hugo Haas movies. The aforementioned HIT AND RUN, the last of his older man-younger wife train wrecks, was also Moore's final screen appearance.

Haas was occasionally called upon for outside directing assignments, the most significant LIZZIE (released April 4, 1957), which Leonard Maltin's team of contemporary critics dubbed "a project of rare distinction"** for Haas in telling the story of a repressed young woman (Eleanor Parker) discovered to have three separate and distinct personalities. An adaptation of Shirley Jackson's 1954 novel THE BIRD'S NEST and released by M-G-M, LIZZIE might well have been Haas' true departure from the norm if it were not blown out of the water with Twentieth Century-Fox's September 1957 premiere of THE THREE FACES OF EVE, the thematically-similar but true tale of a simple Georgia housewife also beset by multiple personality disorder. The film, and Joanne Woodward's Oscar-winning lead performance, forever relegated LIZZIE to the also-ran category. However, LIZZIE remains an interesting effort with a fine job by Parker in the lead and Haas himself taking a supporting role as her neighbor.

Unable to raise additional financing after completing PARADISE ALLEY, Haas found himself playing Agnus for real, supporting himself with TV roles until his return to Europe. IMDB biographer Gary Brumburge concluded that Haas' career "is solid proof that Hollywood has a way of sometimes robbing a person of his artistic creativity and integrity."*** Larry Cohn, also writing for the IMDB, opined that the movies that earned Haas jeers in the film community were indicative of a psychic malaise on the moviemaker's part. "These scenarios pretty much tied in with Haas' own feelings about being abroad and the melancholy of his exile."@

The "Prague Spring" of 1968, a series of reforms designed to lead Czechoslavakia away from the dictates of the Soviet Union, gave Haas encouragement of coming home. But that summer, the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies invaded, deposed leader Alexander Dubcek and brought the nation back into the fold. Haas died that December in Vienna, but was buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Brno, the town of his birth. Czechoslavakia finally shrugged off the yoke of Moscow's control as the Iron Curtain collapsed in the late 1980s.

Knowing the backstory of Hugo Haas lends a certain sadness to a viewing of PARADISE ALLEY, particularly in the character of Agnus, once a great filmmaker who philosphically accepts his current status as "a fallen human being." Yet he finds a home and acceptance in the depressed neighborhood, bringing a sense of self-worth not only to his neighbors but to himself. And perhaps that's all Haas really wanted in the hurly-burly of Hollywood, a little respect for what he did and an understanding that he was doing his best in reduced circumstances. It wasn't much to ask for, and decades later, it remains a request well worth considering.

* Quoted in Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, THE MOVIES, New York: Bonanza Books, 1957, p. 246.
** Leonard Maltin, ed., LEONARD MALTIN'S CLASSIC MOVIE GUIDE, New York: Plume Books, 2005, p. 325.
*** Gary Brumburge, "Hugo Haas Mini-Biography," International Movie Data Base, retrieved Nov. 23, 2016.
@ Larry Cohn, "Hugo Haas Mini-Biography," IMDB, retrieved Nov. 23, 2016.