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.


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