Katy and I settled in for a month of pre-code Stanwycks on Criterion and… we only made it through this one. The new doc featuring Catherine Russell and Imogen Sara Smith was certainly more engaging than the film. It’s short though, full of nurses undressing and Stanwyck solving the mystery of why her employer’s chauffeur (Clark Gable, a couple years before It Happened One Night) is slowly killing the children of the house, punching lots of people, and somehow staying employed. Stanwyck gets romanced by a bootlegger (Hell’s Angels star Ben Lyon), saves the children, and I think Gable gets murdered offscreen. Costarring Joan Blondell, who appeared in the other 1931 William Wellman movie I’ve seen.
Tag: William Wellman
Nothing Sacred (1937, William Wellman)
Small-town Carole Lombard (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) is misdiagnosed with radium poisoning by her incompetent doctor Charles Winninger (The Sun Shines Bright). It seems most old movies have newspaper reporters as main characters, and most are big-city reporters crashing some quaint small town for a story, and this movie is no exception. Frederic March (who I absolutely cannot recognize, even though he starred in Design for Living and I Married a Witch and The Best Years of Our Lives) is that reporter, sent by chief Oliver Stone (really!, played by Walter Connolly, last seen in 5th Ave Girl).
Wellman must’ve put his energy into the oscar-winning A Star Is Born from the same year, cuz this one just spins its wheels. Lombard is cute, and it’s got not-bad color for the 1930’s.
Hecht’s best films (the Hawks comedies, though it’s also in his Hitchcock thrillers) are built on the fact that every line/action is hit on a very specific beat, a sort of rhythm that demands a not necessarily limited visual/performative delivery, but one that requires it all to be in step with those beats. Wellman instead lets the thing run with a loose rhythm more apt for his style, less editing and more long takes that give the actors breathing room – a good idea but the wrong script for a world where everyone is a cartoon.
Magic Town (1947, William Wellman)
Somehow this is the fifth Wellman movie on the blog, even though I can never recall who he is or which films he directed, also getting him confused with William Wyler. I am remembering this movie as being somewhat Capraesque, but now maybe I’m getting mixed up with Here Comes The Groom, which we saw the same week. Anyway.
Jimmy Stewart (immediately after It’s a Wonderful Life) is an obsessed pollster who hits upon the statistically perfect town, which when polled on any question comes up with the same answers as the country as a whole. So he heads down there to conduct a covert polling operation, and bumps into Jane Wyman, who is trying to modernize and improve the town. Jimmy can’t have her mucking up his system, so he sets out to sabotage her, until his cover is blown and the town becomes overrun with media trying to interview every resident on every topic. And of course Jimmy and Jane fall for each other, but Katy says they lacked chemistry.
Two classic character actors played Stewart’s sidekicks – Donald Meek (timid balding fellow from You Can’t Take It With You and Stagecoach) and Ned Sparks, the prototype sour-faced cynical braying cigar chomper. At first I thought he was doing a poor William Demarest impression, but Sparks had gotten famous with this persona at the advent of sound film. Both he and Donald Meek coincidentally died immediately after filming – this was their last movie. Less successful as a character actor was Jimmy’s friend Hooperdecker, his inside man who helps set him up in town – played by Kent Smith of both Cat People movies. A hunky leading-man type crammed into a schoolteacher’s cheap suit, Katy remarked that he looked like Clark Kent.
Jimmy Stewart was maybe darker than he needed to be, a secretive war veteran who doesn’t work well with others, acting as puppetmaster of this small town. Wyman was looking young, four years before Here Comes The Groom, and got to play a surprisingly empowered (for a 40’s rom-com) newspaper publisher with political connections. The main thing that smelled funny to me was how perfect this small town was – an ideal, all-white, upper-middle-class society. That’s not a problem for a Hollywood movie in general, but this town isn’t “magic” because it’s ideal, but because it perfectly represents the greater United States, so should have its share of all classes and professions.
Lady of Burlesque (1943, William A. Wellman)
Another in an unplanned series of taboo-breaking sexy movies from different time periods. This one is set in a burlesque theater and has sexy dancers being murdered by a g-string strangler. Must’ve been seriously hot stuff in the sexless 40’s. Katy and I had a hard time believing this was such a late Stanwyck film, coming after Remember the Night and Ball of Fire, because the print was in such rough shape it felt older. Backstage drama popping with fast-talking slang for the first half, becomes a slave to its murder-mystery plot by the end. Barbara Stanwyck ends up with a clown named Biff (Michael O’Shea of Fixed Bayonets). One of the girls appeared three years later in something called Queen of Burlesque, which also features strangled bodies found in trunks.
William Wellman double-feature
Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
TCM presented some pre-code treats from Wellman, who made a bunch of them. This was one of six films Wellman directed that year – those were the days.
A fully action-packed youth depression drama that wastes no time. Well-made and, incredibly (since I hate child performances in early movies), well-acted too. I kinda loved it.
Eddie (played Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet!) is a cool kid who proudly drives a junker car with impenetrable 30’s slang phrases scrawled all over it. He and his best friend Tommy (22-year-old Edwin Phillips) drive around, sneak into school dances and make out with their girlfriends a whole lot. Unfortunately, Tommy’s got The Great Depression, and he passes it on to Eddie, whose dad gets laid off, leading the kids to sell the car and flee the city to look for work elsewhere. While rail-riding, they meet a girl named Sally (Dorothy Coonan, 18, who married 37-yr-old Wellman the following year) who later gets raped by a train brakeman (Ward Bond, John Wayne’s murdered friend in Rio Bravo) – that and all the hot high-school kissing earlier in the picture justify the movie’s inclusion in whatever “forbidden” pre-code DVD set is coming out this week. One scene on the trains is memorably wonderful: rail cops ducking behind a barrier on the ground while being pelted with eggs by a hundred kids on the moving train – the one time the movie goes into giddy Zero For Conduct territory. But during all the fun, Sally is getting raped on a train car, and the kids take bloody offscreen revenge when the perpetrator is discovered, immediately and severely darkening the mood set by the egg-tossing scene.
Sally and the boys make it to Sally’s aunt’s house in Chicago. The aunt (Minna Gombell of a couple Borzage films) is extremely friendly and welcoming and feeds them all cake, but she’s also running a speakeasy, a brothel, or something else (it wasn’t very clear) and is immediately busted by the cops, leaving our kids on the run again.
Hard-luck kids from around the nation build a sort of youth shantytown in Ohio. Tommy loses a leg to a train. The kids flee to New York where Eddie finally finds a job, but in order to earn a quick buck to afford respectable clothes he accidentally gets mixed up with a holdup gang and is arrested. The judge, with a hard-luck kid of his own, buys their story and sends them home… maybe not the most believable ending in the world, but a deserved bit of relief.
Other Men’s Women (1931)
Back a couple years for this next one, the sound quality is noticeably worse. The movie is noticeably worse too… I’m not sorry I watched it, but I wouldn’t have missed much if I’d just gone to sleep dreaming of troubled youth.
Everything seems to revolve around trains in these movies. This time all our heroes work on the trains, starting with our cheesy lead, alcoholic Bill (Grant Withers, would play Judge Priest’s political rival 30 years later in The Sun Shines Bright), who is always handing out gum with his puzzling catchphrase “have a little chew on me.” He’s dating Marie, a big-eyed blond-wigged waitress played by Joan Blondell (popular in ’31 with Blonde Crazy and The Public Enemy, much later in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter), but he’s fond of Lily (Mary Astor, the princess in The Palm Beach Story, far less outrageous here), the wife of his best friend Jack (Regis Toomey of The Big Sleep, played older salvation army man in Guys & Dolls). Bill, staying with the couple while he sobers up, presents it to Jack one day at work like this: “Lily and I found out all of a sudden we loved each other.” A fistfight ensues and somehow Jack is blinded… blinded! Things couldn’t get sillier – but wait – a rainstorm is flooding the river and threatening to knock down the dam. Bill figures if he drives a loaded train out onto the dam the extra weight will stabilize it. While more sensible supporting characters (have I mentioned James Cagney, a few months before The Public Enemy?) try talking him out of it, blind Jack sneaks onto the train and drives it onto the dam himself, resulting in a spectacular suicide. A few months later when things settle down, Lily and Bill are happily together, a weird sort of happy ending.
Written by Maude Fulton, who adapted a film of The Maltese Falcon the same year (not the one starring Mary Astor). I’m not sure if this is sordid enough to count as a naughty pre-code movie. I guess married Lily kisses another man. Bill acts gay for a laugh in an early scene, but that’d probably still be allowed. There’s another guy with one leg. Clever bit where Bill jumps off the head of a train slowly rolling past a coffee joint, gets himself a cup while counting the cars that pass, then jumping back on at the end. Nothing wrong with the film or the acting (though Bill and Marie suck at playing drunk – the illusion falls apart in close-up) but nothing especially exciting either.
Track of the Cat (1954, William Wellman)
Another bizarro Western from the same year as Red Garters and with some similarly fake-looking sets/backdrops, but this time it’s not done on purpose. To be fair, much of the film is shot in a national park and looks fine.
More of a family drama than any kind of Western. Mitchum plays an unlikeable guy who’s strong-arming his family for lack of anyone else to strong-arm. He lives with Ma and Pa, middle brother Arthur, young brother Harold, sister Grace and 100-year-old Indian servant Joe-Sam. Neighbor Gwen comes over and wants to marry Harold and get him out of his dysfunctional nowhere household. But then, Mitchum and Arthur go hunting and a wildcat kills Arthur. Mitchum goes out in search of it, but loses his food by accident, then goes hungry and mad, running off a cliff to his death after a few days.
A strange idea for a movie, but stranger still is the fact that a third of the movie seems to take place in the snowy wilderness with Mitchum (the titular tracking of the cat) and the rest is screamy family drama, with Grace trying to help Harold escape, Pa always drinking, Joe-Sam being generally creepy and Mitchum hating on everyone. What kind of a Western is this? I’d heard the movie was bizarre, but it doesn’t feel bizarre while watching it (camera, sets and acting style are all pretty regular) until you stop and think about what is happening.
Katy hated the movie because she played video games while listening to it, so she hears the yelling and bitterness but doesn’t watch the tense/serene snowy bits in between. I liked it, but couldn’t imagine putting it on my top-100 all-time faves list or anything like that.
This was the year before Mitchum stunned in Night of the Hunter (that and Out of the Past being far likelier candidates for personal top-100 status).
Sister Grace starred in Shadow of a Doubt, girlfriend Gwen was the younger sister in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and young brother Harold was one of Tab Hunter’s first roles. Tab later had his own TV show and appeared in Grease 2. Ma was a professional Ma-actress, playing Ma in Make Way For Tomorrow almost 20 years earlier, Ma Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Ma Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. She’s also in Baron of Arizona. And damned if 100-year-old Indian Joe-Sam wasn’t played by Alfalfa from Our Gang.