Lost and found: 'The Story of Molly X'

Recently billed on some streaming sources as a "lost" crime film of the post-World War II era, THE STORY OF MOLLY X (1949) offers an intriguing title for a pretty routine thriller from Universal-International at a time when the studio entered a vogue with noir-themed productions, although they weren't being called "noir" right then. According to some critics, the film and others of its stripe deserved to be hidden away. Found "dreary" by historian Clive Hirschhorn* except for lead player June Havoc's enactment of the title role, THE STORY OF MOLLY X does have its compensations in using a semi-documentary tone to tell its story and the determination of its supporting cast of relatively fresh performers to put the film over with audiences.

Written and directed by Crane Wilbur, the 82-minute feature produced by U-I veteran Aaron Rosenberg opens with Molly, narrating her story and not providing a last name, telling us of a turning point in her life in early 1945 as the world war began winding down. Already a career criminal, she had come to San Francisco from Kansas following the murder of her husband Rick, also a thief with big ideas, which had gone unsolved. Molly sets herself up as a woman of means cultivating a wealthy set of friends, the better for the gang she gathers to case and then rob their businesses. Molly suspects one of her not-so-merry band of thieves is Rick's killer, especially Rod Markle (Elliott Lewis), who makes no secret of his desire for Molly despite his cloying girlfriend Anne (Dorothy Hart). Molly finds a kindred spirit in gang member Cash Brady (John Russell), who also wants to settle the score with Rick's murderer.

Pulling their biggest heist yet -- cracking a jeweler's safe after the V-J Day celebrations -- a mistake alerts the police and the mob scatters. Molly seeks refuge with Rod, who reveals he shot down Rick, which Molly answers by shooting and apparently snuffing out Rod. Molly then hides her gun in the apartment building where Rod lived, reconnects with Cash and prepares to flee when they are arrested by dogged Captain Breen (Charles McGraw). Cash goes to San Quentin for his role in the attempted jewel robbery, but Molly is given an indeterminate sentence at the state women's facility at Tehachapi. Breen suspects both had something to do with Rod's demise, but has no proof.

At Tehachapi, near the junction  of the San Joaquin Valley and Mojave Desert in southern California's Kern County, surly Molly cannot fit in with life at the institution, despite its operation resembling more of a college campus than a house of corrections. She in turn gets the cold shoulder from the other inmates, including tough-as-nails Dawn (Connie Gilchrist), but Molly's heroic actions during a laundry room disaster provide her with a new status with her fellow cons and open her eyes to the prison's intentions to help reform the women. Under the guidance of her worldly-wise roommate Jan (Cathy Lewis) and Norma Calvert (Katherine Warren), the warden, Molly learns a trade by cutting material for clothing and discovers a hidden talent for design. All is well until the prison gets a new resident -- vengeful Anne, who's always suspected Molly of being Rod's assassin. Molly manages to squelch any threat posed by Anne -- who seems to be in cahoots with Breen -- in time for her release on parole.

Relocated to Los Angeles, Molly gets a job as a cutter with dress manufacturer Chris Renbow (Wally Maher), who recognizes her design prowess, promotes her and becomes romantically interested. But when Molly learns that Cash has been charged with Rod's murder, she breaks parole and returns to San Francisco to retrieve the gun. Breen, who's been tracing Molly's movements since her release, takes her into custody but doesn't charge her in the slaying. Cash comes forward to reveal that Molly's shot had merely grazed Rod and in the confusion after the failed robbery, Cash went to Rod's apartment after Molly left and finished the job upon learning of Rod's role in his friend Rick's death. Molly is absolved of the lingering guilt she's experienced from shooting Rod and returns to her new life.

Wilbur's screenplay is about as old as the hills, but his direction of the same offers some difference with location filming both in the Bay City and at Tehachapi. Opening credits are limited to the main title played over shots of San Francisco, leading up to our introduction to Molly in the Top of the Mark Restaurant at the landmark Mark Hopkins Hotel. Similarly, location and weather play a significant role in Wilbur's treatment of a payroll van robbery early in the proceedings, lending a certain immediacy and desperation to the scenes. The shift from caper film to the more sedate atmosphere of the women's prison is jarring at first and seems to settle down into traditional jailhouse drama for awhile. Then Molly accepts the institution's more benevolent aims and copes with her own mental baggage over Rod's supposed murder.

Admittedly, in view of the considerably more hazardous conditions of prison life now seen on such reality TV shows as 60 DAYS IN, Tehachapi comes off as a fantasy of what reformation of criminals was all about; even Breen, on a visit to convince Molly to talk about the killing, comments to the warden that the place is too placid to be for real, changing his tune at the end when he observes the change the place has caused in the previously hell-bent Molly. No doubt the blissful picture THE STORY OF MOLLY X painted of the prison was a concession to get the cooperation of California corrections authorities in making the film, but it fit in with the intended message that more humane treatment could transition hardcases like Molly back into society. The difficulty of an ex-con's adjustment to life on the outside is touched upon when Renbow becomes the recipient of an anonymous letter (penned by Anne) informing him of her background. Renbow, believing Molly has made a positive change in her life, puts a match to the missive.

Tehachapi was the first prison in California built expressly for women. Opened in 1932, it was referenced in such early Hollywood noirs as THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). A devastating 1952 earthquake led to its closing and the transfer of its more than 400 inmates to the new women's institution at Corona. The Tehachapi prison was rebuilt in 1954 despite initial criticism that it was a money pit, and has since served as a men's correctional center.

For Wilbur (1886-1973), THE STORY OF MOLLY X represented the onetime actor-turned-auteur's adaptability to trends in the film capital. The author of several plays that made Broadway stages -- including THE MONSTER (1922), which Roland West turned into a screen vehicle three years later for Lon Chaney Sr. -- Wilbur had perceived the postwar leaning toward darker crime dramas, and in 1948 was responsible for the scripts of two productions, THE AMAZING MR. X (a.k.a. THE SPIRITUALIST) and HE WALKED BY NIGHT, produced at Eagle-Lion Films, which specialized in noir-like movies. That same year, Wilbur directed the same company's CANON CITY, a tense, ripped-from-the-headlines account of a sensational Colorado prison break from December 1947.

Not surprisingly, Wilbur and Rosenberg re-teamed at U-I for another prison-themed drama, OUTSIDE THE WALL (1950), starring Richard Basehart, Marilyn Maxwell and Dorothy Hart in a variation on THE STORY OF MOLLY X in which Basehart plays an ex-con who must recover the loot from a previous crime as part of his reformation. Wilbur continued plugging away in the industry for another decade, and his last produced screenplay was an adaptation of Jules Verne's novel MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), memorable for its Ray Harryhausen-created special effects.

U-I had, as the '40s came to a close, tapped into a vein of audience demand for crime movies that lasted until 1951, when the studio shifted its smaller film emphasis to westerns (with and without Audie Murphy), costume dramas and comedies. THE STORY OF MOLLY X was among the initial efforts in this darker-themed direction and it was quickly followed on its November 1949 release with William Castle's UNDERTOW, with Hart and John Russell appearing in support of Scott Brady and Peggy Dow in addition to some well-chosen Chicago location shooting. At the same time, U-I wrapped its New York-shot production of George Sherman's THE SLEEPING CITY (1950), with Richard Conte and Coleen Gray headlining one of the studio's grimmer exercises in noir as it explored an undercover investigation of skullduggery in a Big Apple hospital.** Later noirish endeavors from the studio, such as Hugo Fregonese's ONE WAY STREET and Robert Siodmak's DEPORTED (both 1950) made for more tedious going.

Like THE SLEEPING CITY, THE STORY OF MOLLY X went for the semi-documentary crime film feel that had so well served Mark Hellinger's production of the Jules Dassin-directed THE NAKED CITY (1948), with the more recognizable star players blending in with the lesser-known supporting cast. This approach works well in the opening of THE STORY OF MOLLY X until Molly is shipped off to prison, followed by establishing scenes at Tehachapi. Such concessions to realism helped elevate the more familiar aspects of Wilbur's script.

As noted, the lion's share of attention has been focused on June Havoc's portrayal of Molly, which Leonard Maltin and associates found "earnest" in a brief critique of the film.*** She does a convincing job as the tough cookie we encounter in the first half, but makes an appealing and not-altogether unbelievable change in personality and outlook in the latter portion. The younger sister of entertainer, author and occasional screen presence Gypsy Rose Lee (the surname Havoc adapted from the family name of Hovick), Havoc (1912-2010) was a former vaudeville trouper who entered films in 1942, MY SISTER EILEEN from that year being one of her more notable early performances. 

Adept at both comedy and drama, Havoc came to the role of Molly after a nice showing in the noir-tinged Alan Ladd vehicle CHICAGO DEADLINE (1949) at Paramount, and followed up on her good work in ONCE A THIEF (1950), paired with Cesar Romero in a downbeat effort produced and directed by W. Lee Wilder for a United Artists release. Havoc then focused more on TV and the stage before retirement, and notched her final theatrical film assignment in The Village People tunefest CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC in 1980.

                                     The Story of Molly X

As Molly's enemy Anne, Cleveland-born Dorothy Hart (1922-2004) again proved the point of several biographers that her innate class and bearing made her better than many of the vehicles supplied her by U-I. After making her debut in the Randolph Scott western GUNFIGHTERS (1947), Hart was placed under contract by U-I following her casting in THE NAKED CITY. Her taking on villainous roles in THE STORY OF MOLLY X and UNDERTOW provided some relief from other productions where she wasn't allowed much range, particularly as William Powell's blissfully patient spouse in TAKE ONE FALSE STEP (1949). Hart embraced television, both live and film, as the '50s took hold and soon retired from the business. Her last screen appearance was opposite George Raft in LOAN SHARK (1952) for Lippert Pictures.

John Russell (1921-1991) started in features at Twentieth Century-Fox and made the most of his brief association with U-I, offering stalwart support to the films he made there. Russell's ruggedly handsome but slightly sinister look made him a favorite as a villain (as in Howard Hawks' RIO BRAVO, 1959), and he also found a place in television, where he headlined such adventuresome series as SOLDIERS OF FORTUNE (1955-1956) and LAWMAN (1958-1962). His last screen role was provided by Clint Eastwood's PALE RIDER (1985).

An interesting pairing in the cast of THE STORY OF MOLLY X was of the husband-wife acting team of Elliott and Cathy Lewis, both prominent at the time in radio, where Elliott (1917-1990) was often heard on various dramas, such as the long-running THE WHISTLER. Cathy (1916-1968), in addition to numerous other assignments, was Marie Wilson's friend Jane Stacy on the audio and later TV versions of Wilson's situation comedy MY FRIEND IRMA. Elliott established himself as a presence in noir-inspired fare in 1949 as producer-director of BROADWAY IS MY BEAT, an edgy police procedural that aired on CBS until 1954. 

Additionally, Elliott became associated in 1950 with the CBS standby SUSPENSE, created and overseen by June Havoc's husband William Spier, first as director until 1954 and producer until 1956. As the networks later abandoned their Hollywood radio studios in favor of producing from New York, Elliott Lewis moved into TV, most successfully with '60s comedies produced by Desilu (e.g., THE LUCY SHOW and THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW). THE STORY OF MOLLY X was among his few screen roles. He and Cathy divorced in 1958, yet she continued her career as a familiar face on TV, notably in a recurring role on Shirley Booth's sitcom HAZEL.

Whether or not the "found" STORY OF MOLLY X is a breakthrough in recovering cinema history is open to debate as it is an intertesting if unexceptional example of the dark crime drama in which U-I specialized, but never quite excelled, during the postwar years. For all of the dismissal it's earned, THE STORY OF MOLLY X is well-acted, slickly put together and involving, and therefore welcome to fans of the genre it represented.

* Hirschhorn, THE UNIVERSAL STORY, New York: Crown Publishers, 1983, p. 185.
** Production on THE SLEEPING CITY concluded Dec. 10, 1949, about a week after the release of UNDERTOW, as we learn from 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. 259.
*** Maltin, ed., LEONARD MALTIN'S CLASSIC MOVIE GUIDE, New York: Plume Books, 2005, p. 535.


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