RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: March 2011

Nora Prentiss (Feb. 21, 1947)

In 1947, March was “make jokes about Nora Prentiss” month on the Jack Benny show. A week didn’t go by with at least one line like, “She makes Nora Prentiss look talkative.”

I suppose the promotional tagline for the film — “Would you keep your mouth shut if you were Nora Prentiss?” — was irresistible for comedians, especially since it’s selling the picture based on its final 10 minutes, which strain credulity a bit.

If you can swallow a few plot contrivances, however, Nora Prentiss is a fantastic film. The performances are great, Vincent Sherman’s direction is assured, Franz Waxman’s score is rich and expressive, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is crisp and beautiful, as it always was.

The title, poster, and advertising campaign for Nora Prentiss all seem to be modeled on the earlier Warner Bros. “women’s noir” Mildred Pierce (1945), but they’re very different films. Nora Prentiss, which is based on Paul Webster’s short story, “The Man Who Died Twice,” is more about its male protagonist, Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith), than it is about Nora.

The film begins, as so many noirs do, at the end. A man sits in the shadows of a prison cell and refuses to say how he knew Dr. Talbot, or why he was blackmailing him.

Dr. Talbot is a 43-year-old physician with a wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and two teenaged children (Robert Arthur and Wanda Hendrix). He lives in a beautiful house in San Francisco and shares a thriving practice with his partner, Dr. Joel Merriam (Bruce Bennett).

One night, Talbot comes to the aid of a beautiful nightclub singer after she’s knocked down by a car and suffers minor leg injuries. The singer, Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan), flirts with him a little as he tends to her, her nylon rolled down on one leg.

The strait-laced Talbot is completely smitten with Nora, but when she finds out he’s married, she resists his clumsy advances. Talbot says he doesn’t see a reason why they can’t be friends, but an afternoon at his cabin in the mountains never seems platonic, no matter what either of them says.

Nora is drawn to Talbot, but she never seems less than clear-headed about the affair. After a short, dreamy period of time with Talbot, she realizes that she doesn’t want to be “the other woman,” and attempts to break it off. He is less clear-headed, and will do anything to be with her, including — but not limited to — promising her he will divorce his wife, using a cadaver to fake his own death, and following her to New York, traveling under an assumed name.

If the logic police tend to kick down your doors of perception anytime the party in your head gets too weird, you’ll probably find yourself picking apart the plot of Nora Prentiss starting around the halfway mark.

But if you can relax, sit bank, and enjoy the ride, Nora Prentiss is an absorbing film about a man who loses everything for the love of a woman, eventually devolving into a paranoid, hard-drinking wreck who never leaves his hotel room for fear he will be recognized.

Kent Smith is very good as Talbot, but the film works as well as it does because of Ann Sheridan’s performance as Nora. Unlike noirs in which a wicked femme fatale with no discernible inner life seduces and ensnares a sad sack Everyman, Sheridan’s Nora is a three-dimensional character. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and sensible enough to pull away from Talbot when things start to go south. This has the effect of making Talbot’s obsession sadder and more believable than it would be if she were just a harpy with a beautiful face.

Ramrod (Feb. 21, 1947)

Ramrod
Ramrod (1947)
Directed by André De Toth
United Artists

They called it God’s country … until the Devil put a woman there! screams the poster for André de Toth’s Ramrod.

That darned Scratch. Goin’ and puttin’ women where they oughtn’t to be.

The woman in Ramrod is Connie Dickason, whose slight frame and small stature belie her will of iron. She’s played by Veronica Lake (de Toth’s wife from 1944 to 1952).

Connie’s fiancé, Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), plans to bring sheep through public grazing land, which hasn’t endeared him to local cattleman Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), who has Connie’s father, Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles), in his pocket.

Alcoholic cowhand Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) has worked for Shipley for the past three weeks. At the request of Connie, with whom he has a history, he backs up Shipley when Ivey and his men attempt to stop Shipley from leaving on the night stage. (If Shipley gets out of town, he’ll come back with sheep.)

Sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) cautions Dave to stay out of it. When Dave says to the sheriff, “I work for Walt,” the sheriff responds, “For three weeks? What do you owe that fool, your life?”

All of this takes place in the first 10 minutes of the film. De Toth drops the viewer into the action in media res. Without a scorecard, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who during the first reel. (And it doesn’t help that Shipley and Ivey look nearly identical.)

Veronica Lake

But things become more clear as the plot rolls forward. Shipley decides that he doesn’t love Connie enough to die for her, so he heads out of town, leaving her his ranch. Connie’s father expects that she’ll do his bidding after Shipley departs, but she throws down the gauntlet with a fiery speech: “From now on I’m going to make a life of my own. And being a woman, I won’t have to use guns. This isn’t just a fight between father and daughter. You’ve pushed Frank Ivey at me ever since I can remember. For years I’ve watched him run things his way. The town, the valley, you, and now me! No one’s ever had the nerve to stand up to him. Well I have!”

Connie hires Dave to be foreman of her ranch, the Circle 66. He in turn hires an old friend of his, a handsome, charming loose cannon named Bill Schell (Don DeFore). Dave is determined that everything the Circle 66 does to fight Ivey be above board, but Connie and Bill have their own ideas. Connie may have made the decent and honest Dave “ramrod” of her outfit, but it’s the violent Bill Schell who is the true instrument of her will.

Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea has the pleasantly handsome, soft-featured face of the dad next door, but he’s tall enough and projects enough quiet menace to be convincing as the ramrod of the Circle 66 ranch. Don DeFore, who usually played pleasant, jovial men, is excellent playing against type as a cold-blooded gunman.

Ramrod is a great western. It’s based on a novel by Luke Short, and de Toth does an excellent job of capturing Short’s hard-boiled western prose and talent for characterization. The tone of the picture is closer to the film noirs of the period than it is to the westerns.

In Ramrod, de Toth creates a grim, violent world in which the righteous are just as likely to die as the wicked. Fistfights in this film don’t end with a bunch of broken furniture, they end with blood. A group of Ivey’s men beat an unarmed cowhand to death in front of Connie. When Bill Schell slaps a man in the face to enrage him, he tells Bill that he won’t be “rawhided” into drawing, so Bill burns his hand with a cigar. When Ivey shoots a man, he steps forward and finishes him off with another shot. Ramrod ends with a shootout, of course, but it doesn’t end with a quick draw or any fancy trick shooting. It ends with a shotgun blast to the gut.

True to the noir tone of the film, there’s a “good girl” to counterbalance Connie, named Rose (Arleen Whelan). The intertwined relationships of Dave, Bill, Connie, and Rose are well-played, and evolve naturally over the course of the film. Character drives the plot of Ramrod forward as much as bullets and fists.

Ramrod premiered on Friday, February 21, 1947, in Salt Lake City, at both the Utah and Capitol theaters. The world premiere event was part of Utah’s centennial celebration as a U.S. Territory. Ramrod went into wide release on May 2, 1947.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.

Code of the West (Feb. 20, 1947)

Code of the West, a programmer from RKO Radio Pictures, has the same pedigree as Sunset Pass (1946). Both films are based on novels by Zane Grey, the screenplays for both films were written by Norman Houston, both are directed by William Berke, both star James Warren and John Laurenz, and both feature Robert Clarke, Harry Woods, Steve Brodie, and Harry Harvey in supporting roles.

In Sunset Pass, the tall, lean, blond-haired, scowling Warren played a cowboy named “Rocky.” Here, he plays a cowboy named “Bob Wade.” John Laurenz plays the same character, Chito Rafferty, a comical, musically inclined Irish-Mexican. (Incidentally, “Chito Rafferty” was a sidekick character made famous by Richard Martin, who played the character in 33 different westerns from 1943 to 1952. Laurenz was the only other actor to play the character, and he only did so in Sunset Pass and Code of the West.)

While I won’t be able to tell you the plot of either of these films at this time next month, I thought Code of the West was the better picture, largely due to the presence of a young Raymond Burr, who is a smoother and more malevolent villain than Harry Woods was in Sunset Pass.

In Code of the West, Burr plays a land baron (what else?) named Boyd Carter. Carter and his henchmen know that the railroad is coming through town, but they’re keeping the information to themselves as they buy up all the land they can get their hands on. When a young banker named Harry Stockton (Robert Clarke) lends Bob and Chito money to stake a claim of their own, Carter’s men go into action.

If you were drawn to this film by the poster above, be forewarned that Carter’s arson-murder gang that blasts the frontier is mostly a collection of stock footage. But if you squint your eyes, suspend your disbelief, and take another sip of bourbon, you’ll be fine.

Vigilantes of Boomtown (Feb. 15, 1947)

I thought Allan Lane’s third go-round as Red Ryder was his best yet, but it could just be because I’m a boxing fan.

Or maybe I’m just getting used to good old “Wild” Bill Elliott no longer playing Fred Harman’s comic-strip cowboy in his inimitable wooden style.

Either way, Vigilantes of Boomtown was a fun way to spend an hour. It begins with a tour of boomtowns, culminating with Carson City, the capital of Nevada. The year is 1897, and a bill legalizing boxing in the state has enraged Molly McVey (Peggy Stewart), the daughter of a U.S. senator. Molly believes that Nevada crawled its way to respectability, and hosting a bloodsport will make the state look like a hotbed of savagery to the rest of the country. She’s so opposed to prizefighting that she plans to hire gunmen to stop the fight if the state legislature goes ahead with its plans.

Red Ryder (Lane) and his English-challenged young sidekick, Little Beaver (Bobby Blake), are drawn into the fracas because Ryder’s aunt, the Duchess (Martha Wentworth), is leasing her ranch out to the fight’s promoters, who plan to hold their bout on St. Patrick’s Day. The combatants are a Cornish blacksmith named Fitzsimmons (John Dehner) and a bank clerk named Corbett (George Tumer).

Corbett (the more likable and handsome of the two fighters) stays with Ryder and the Duchess at their ranch, teaching Ryder a thing or two about the sweet science. When Molly hires a couple of thugs (George Chesebro and George Lloyd) to kidnap Corbett, there’s a bit of mistaken identity, which leads to them carrying off Ryder instead of Corbett, and they stash him in that cave where all bad guys go in Republic westerns. Will Corbett’s boxing lessons stand Ryder in good stead? You’ll just have to watch and find out.

Oh, and at the very end, Corbett’s referred to as “Gentleman Jim,” just in case you hadn’t already put the pieces together.

Angel and the Badman (Feb. 15, 1947)

James Edward Grant’s Angel and the Badman is a fish-out-of-water story about a gunfighter named Quirt Evans (John Wayne) who renounces violence after he is injured and nursed back to health by a pretty Quaker girl named Penelope Worth (Gail Russell) and taken in by her community. Like most Hollywood movies of this sort, Angel and the Badman has its cake and eats it too — it preaches nonviolence, but is still jam-packed with gunfights and fistfights.

The action is fast and furious from the very opening moments of the film, which begins with a close-up of a gun being drawn, the shooter fanning the hammer, firing from right to left, emptying the cylinder, and then running to his horse.

Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt was the second unit director on this picture, and it shows. There’s a cattle raid sequence that’s among the best I’ve seen, and most of the action is well-staged. There’s one orgy of fistfighting, however, that was so over-the-top that I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be funny or not. By the time the melee was finished, every visible piece of wood in the saloon was in splinters.

Angel and the Badman was John Wayne’s first time as a producer, and it feels like a labor of love. Unfortunately, the direction, cinematography, and pacing of the film aren’t up to the standard of Wayne’s other pictures I’ve seen from the ’40s. The music is especially bad, and is rarely appropriate for the scene it’s accompanying. At its heart, Angel and the Badman is a B picture with an A-list star.

The film ends with a line that could be interpreted as pro gun control — “Only a man who carries a gun ever needs one.” This is a rarity for a western, especially one starring John Wayne, but if you’re a traditional sort, don’t worry; all the bad guys die of lead poisoning before the film is through.

The Arnelo Affair (Feb. 13, 1947)

Arch Oboler’s The Arnelo Affair is a crime melodrama with so much voiceover narration that most of it can easily be understood and enjoyed by blind people.

Oboler cut his teeth in radio. His most famous work was for the horror anthology Lights Out, which is one of the scariest and most gruesome radio shows of all time. Oboler was a native of Chicago and the child of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. He was a prolific writer — one of the most talented in the medium of radio. His work as a film director is more hit or miss.

The Arnelo Affair, his third film, is based on a story by Jane Burr and takes place in Chicago. It starts out promisingly, with a lot of heat between its protagonist, Anne Parkson (Frances Gifford), and the magnetic, mustachioed nightclub owner Tony Arnelo (John Hodiak). Anne is married to a lawyer and all-around stuffed shirt named Ted (George Murphy), who’s such a drip that he won’t let their 9 year-old son, Ricky (Dean Stockwell), touch any of the tools in the room in their house marked “Ricky’s Workshop.”

The Parksons have been married for 12 years (which, if Gifford’s character is the same age as she is, means they got hitched when she was only 14 or 15), and Anne is clearly neglected and unloved. When her path crosses Arnelo’s, his persistence and menacing charm draw her to him.

Eve Arden, at this point typecast as the worldly and knowing friend of the troubled female protagonist (see also Mildred Pierce and My Reputation), plays Anne’s friend Vivian, who cautions Anne that “Canaries and hawks don’t make good playmates.”

She’s right, of course, and when Arnelo murders one of his other girlfriends in order to draw Anne closer to him, Anne will realize what a dangerous game she’s been playing.

Oboler’s script is perceptive about infidelity, and the dialogue is more believable than in most melodramas, but Oboler’s direction is flat, and he relies too heavily on voiceover narration by Gifford to explicate her character’s emotions. The Arnelo Affair isn’t bad, but after 45 minutes it loses momentum and never really picks up again. It might have made a better 60-minute B movie programmer from one of the small studios than a 90-minute maudlin MGM melodrama.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 374 other followers