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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Desert Fury (Aug. 15, 1947)

For me, Lewis Allen’s Desert Fury is currently running neck and neck with Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride for the honor of “wackiest movie of 1947.”

But maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges. While The Devil Thumbs a Ride was a zany thrill ride with oddball characters and a lot of unexpected humor, Desert Fury is a ridiculously campy melodrama in which most of the humor seems unintentional.

Also, it has gay undertones that are strong enough to power a small city for a year.

The poster on the right implies that Burt Lancaster and John Hodiak spend the movie fighting for Lizabeth Scott’s love, but that’s not the case. More accurate is the tagline: “Two men wanted her love … The third wanted her life!”

Scott plays a beautiful 19-year-old girl who lives in a “cactus graveyard” in the middle of nowhere — Chuckawalla, Nevada. She lives with her mother, Fritzi, who’s played by Mary Astor (an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age who was just 16 years older than Lizabeth Scott). Fritzi always calls Paula “baby.” Not in a sweet, maternal way, but the way a barfly might say, “Hey, baby! C’mere!”

Fritzi wants Paula to go back to school, but Paula wants to help her mother run the Purple Sage Casino. (Paula’s father was a bootlegger who was killed when Paula was very young.)

Burt Lancaster plays Tom Hanson, a former bronco buster who barnstormed around the country, but washed out of the rodeo and now works as a sheriff’s deputy in Chuckawalla. Fritzi wants Tom to marry Paula and make an honest woman out of her. He’d like nothing more than to marry Paula, but he doesn’t push, because he knows that her love for him is strictly platonic.

Into their lives comes runty, mustachioed gangster Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and his gunsel Johnny (Wendell Corey), and Paula — quite inexplicably — falls head over heels in love with Eddie.

The love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Tom is weak sauce compared with the love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Johnny.

Johnny is more than just Eddie’s “muscle.” He’s his longtime companion, his best friend, and — just possibly — his lover.

Is he or isn’t he? Let’s look at the evidence. Eddie and Johnny form a tight unit, and seem to both know what really happened to Eddie’s first wife, who died in a car accident. Johnny hates Paula, and seems insanely jealous of her relationship with Eddie.

And how does Eddie explain to Paula how he first hooked up with Johnny?

“I was your age, maybe a year older. I was in the automat off Times Square about two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. I was broke, he had a couple of dollars, we got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs,” he says, a note of shameful resignation creeping into his voice.

“And then?” Paula asks.

“I went home with him that night. I was locked out. Didn’t have a place to stay. His old lady ran a boarding house in the Bronx. There were a couple of vacant rooms. We were together from then on.”

The relationship between Eddie and Johnny isn’t the only hint of a gay union. Paula and Fritzi are so close in age, and Fritzi’s attitude toward her daughter lacking so much maternal warmth, that they seem more like a lesbian couple than anything else. Fritzi seems like the older, more dominant one, and Paula seems like the younger, more restive one, who might also be interested in men. (In further defense of this reading, Lizabeth Scott and Burt Lancaster might walk off into the sunset at the end of the picture, but their lips never meet. The final — and most passionate — kiss of the film is the one Fritzi plants on Paula’s lips.)

There’s a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, but that only counts for so much. For instance, compare Miklós Rózsa’s brilliant score for Brute Force (1947) with his score for Desert Fury. His score for Desert Fury is powerful, but without the dramatic underpinning of a great film, it just writhes and flails all over the place, seemingly in search of a better movie, or at least a more lively one.

The script by Robert Rossen (with uncredited assistance from A.I. Bezzerides), which is based on Ramona Stewart’s novel Desert Town, has a lot of snappy dialogue, but the story just doesn’t move with much intensity. Also, the Technicolor cinematography really undercuts some of the noir elements of the story and the situation.

Desert Fury is campy, and worth seeing if you’re into camp, but that’s about it. Also, if you’re a connoisseur of face-slapping, there’s plenty of that going around, too.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Aug. 14, 1947)

Norman Z. McLeod’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a pretty funny film, and sometimes funny is all you need.

It wasn’t all James Thurber needed at the time the film was made, however. The movie was based on Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name, and he was extremely unhappy with all the changes made to it. He also hated Danny Kaye’s performance as Mitty, since it was nothing like how he had originally conceived of the character.

I haven’t read Thurber’s short story. If I had, this movie and the liberties it took with the source material might have irritated me.

As it was, the only thing that irritated me was the length of some of the film’s musical interludes. Danny Kaye is an engaging and likable performer, but he milks his musical stand-up comedy bits for such a long time that I had more fun watching the amused extras than I had watching Kaye.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a Technicolor extravaganza that follows the misadventures of a put-upon editor named Walter Mitty (Kaye). Mitty lives with his mother (played by Fay Bainter) and commutes into New York City every morning to his job at a company that publishes pulp magazines. He also has a rich fantasy life, and imagines himself as a sea captain, a brilliant surgeon, a gunslinger in the Old West, a … well, you get the idea.

He’s engaged to a girl who doesn’t really love him named Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford), his mother piles errands on him until packages are literally falling out of his arms, his boss Mr. Pierce (Thurston Hall) steals his ideas, and Mitty takes it all in stride. One day, however, the girl who prominently features in all of his daydreams (Virginia Mayo) suddenly appears in the flesh, and Mitty is drawn into a real-life adventure involving stolen jewels and a spy ring. A grim-looking assassin who masquerades as a psychiatrist named Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (played by a perfectly cast Boris Karloff) dogs Mitty’s every move, first trying to kill him, then trying to convince him that the whole affair was just another one of his daydreams.

It may not be a deep film, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a lot of fun. It’s a production of The Samuel Goldwyn Company, so of course the luscious Goldwyn Girls are on hand for all those department store dressing-room scenes and lingerie-modeling bits that are integral to the film’s story.

Singapore (Aug. 13, 1947)

Note to aspiring makers of B movies — if you’re going to blatantly rip off Casablanca (1942), take a page from director John Brahm’s book. Don’t just change the characters’ names and tack on a happy ending. Do it with real panache and also change the hero’s occupation to “pearl smuggler” and spice up the love triangle by giving the heroine a case of amnesia.

True to its title, Singapore is steeped in the exoticism and heat of the Pacific Rim, but like the film noir techniques Brahm uses to tell his story, it’s mostly just window dressing for a run-of-the-mill potboiler. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Brahm keeps things moving along nicely, and Singapore is a lot of fun if you’re in the mood for a melodrama and you can overlook some contrivances.

When Matt Gordon (MacMurray) returns to Singapore after World War II, it’s clear as soon as he steps off the plane that he has a history there. Deputy Commissioner Hewitt (Richard Haydn) has Gordon brought to his office, and he reminds him that the penalty for removing illegally obtained pearls from a British colony is a minimum of 10 years in prison.

“Before the war it was only eight,” Gordon quips. “But I guess everything’s gone up, huh?”

Gordon sits down in the hotel bar, orders two gin slings, and sits alone, reminiscing about life in Singapore before the war. He fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner), but their whirlwind romance was cut short by the beginning of hostilities with the Japanese.

They were engaged to be married, but before they could tie the knot she was killed in a bombing raid, and Allied forces had occupied his hotel room, where his $250,000 worth of pearls were secreted in the motor of the ceiling fan in his room.

He made it out of Singapore with his life, but that’s all, and now that the war is over he’s intent on retrieving his pearls. (It’s established that Gordon has a service record, and saw combat during the war, perhaps to engender audience sympathy.)

Of course, Linda didn’t really die in a bombing raid. She was injured and stricken with total amnesia. Unable to remember any details of her former life, she was interned in a Japanese concentration camp, where she met Michael Van Leyden (Roland Culver), a British plantation owner who saved her life many times during the war. Now they are married, and her name is Ann Van Leyden. No matter how many times Gordon calls her “Linda,” she just can’t remember their time together, or the love they shared.

So Gordon has two problems — winning back Linda/Ann, and somehow getting his pearls out of the ceiling fan of a hotel room that is now occupied by an obnoxious married couple. The problem of the pearls is compounded not only by the watchful eye of Deputy Commissioner Hewitt, but also by the corpulent gangster Mr. Mauribus (Thomas Gomez), who wants the pearls for himself.

There are a lot of ceiling fans in Singapore, and none of them move quickly. It’s all part of the languorous, overheated atmosphere of the film, but like I said above, it’s all just window dressing. The Asian extras in the background and the crowded streets of the port city add ambiance, but not much else. The action could be moved to any other “exotic” locale, and few details of the plot would have to be changed. (And that’s exactly what happened in 1957 when director Joseph Pevney remade Singapore as a vehicle for Errol Flynn called Istanbul.)

I liked Singapore despite its flaws, and it’s always enjoyable to watch the beautiful Ava Gardner do anything. I didn’t completely buy her relationship with the hulking, thuggish Fred MacMurray — I’ve always thought MacMurray was better in comedic roles than dramatic ones — but it works well enough to keep the film moving.

Under the Tonto Rim (Aug. 1, 1947)

Tim Holt’s second postwar western, Under the Tonto Rim, is a lot like his first postwar western, Thunder Mountain (1947). Both are RKO films produced by Herman Schlom and directed by Lew Landers, with screenplays by Norman Houston that are based on Zane Grey novels.

And even though Tim Holt plays a different character in Under the Tonto Rim than he did in Thunder Mountain, Richard Martin is back as his Irish-Mexican sidekick, Chito Jose Gonzalez Bustamonte Rafferty, the same character he played in Thunder Mountain. Chito is tall and handsome, and has a way with the ladies, but he’s also a barrel of laughs, and has a way with malapropisms like “He swallowed it hook, line, and stinker.”

In Under the Tonto Rim, Tim Holt plays Brad Canfield, the new owner of the Rim Rock Stage Line. In the first reel of the film, one of his stagecoaches is held up by masked bandits who carry off the Wells Fargo box, kidnap Lucy Dennison (Nan Leslie) — a beautiful blonde with a mysterious past — and kill his friend Andy (Jay Norris), a young stage driver who was about to be married.

No one ever said running a stage line in a B western was easy.

Chito and Brad ride into Wicksburg and describe their attackers to Captain McLean of the Arizona Rangers. All the raiders wore black masks, except for the leader, who wore a gray, spotted bandanna

“A gray, spotted bandanna!” exclaims Capt. McLean (Jason Robards). “Sounds like the Tonto Rim Gang!”

Capt. McLean tells Brad and Chito that the Tonto Rim Gang’s hideout is somewhere under the Tonto Rim.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the Tonto Rim Gang are a bunch of clowns, naming themselves after their hideout isn’t quite like a group of criminals on the lam calling themselves “The 285 West Sycamore Street Safe House Gang,” since there are more than a hundred canyons under the Tonto Rim, and the gang could be in any one of them.

Brad and Chito decide to take matters into their own hands. Brad arranges to get himself thrown in jail in Tonto, where one of the captured raiders, Patton (Tony Barrett), is locked up and scheduled to hang. Brad thinks that if he can pass himself off as a criminal with $10,000 buried somewhere, he can escape with Patton, and Patton will lead him to the Tonto Rim Gang. But as they ride into Tonto, Chito expresses his doubts about the plan in his own inimitable way.

Chito: “You know what the word ‘Tonto’ means in Spanish?”
Brad: “No.”
Chito: “It means ‘fool.’ And I bet you that’s what we are.”
Brad: “Ah, keep your shirt on.”
Chito: “I always keep that on. Except on Saturday nights, when I take it back.”
Brad: “Well, this is only Thursday, and I don’t want to attract too much attention yet.”

When they arrive in Tonto, Chito passes himself off as “Ranger Rafferty” to Deputy Joe (Lex Barker), then bends the ear of the sheriff (Harry Harvey) with tales of Brad Canfield the outlaw, and tells him he needs to be taken alive.

Brad’s plan works out, and he and Patton escape together. But Brad’s quickly back in hot water when he finds that Lucy Dennison is part of the gang.

Or is she? And what part will the sultry Juanita (Carol Forman) play?

Under the Tonto Rim is good fun. Before this year, I’d only ever seen Tim Holt as a supporting player in A pictures like My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). He never made a huge impression on me, and after watching a couple of his starring roles in B westerns, I think I know why. He’s a soft-spoken, unassuming guy with average looks. But he projects a lot of steel when he’s the focus of the film, and gives the impression that he won’t stop fighting until the fight is through.

Deep Valley (July 30, 1947)

Every student of film noir knows that the genre owes its style to German Expressionism, and to the influx of European directors to the U.S. during World War II.

Jean Negulesco’s Deep Valley doesn’t really qualify as a film noir, although it has some hallmarks of the noir style. Instead, it seems as if Negulesco is drawing from an earlier German artistic movement — Sturm und Drang.

The high emotions of the film are expressed physically — often through the turbulence of the natural world. Ida Lupino plays a simple country girl named Libby Saul who lives in a broken-down old farmhouse deep in the California wilderness with her parents, Cliff Saul (Henry Hull) and Ellie Saul (Fay Bainter). One night, long ago, Libby’s father beat her mother, and her mother has never forgiven him or spoken to him again. Libby speaks with a stutter, and it is implied that it is directly related to the traumatic memory of seeing her father hit her mother.

The rift between Libby’s parents is absolute. Mrs. Saul never leaves her upstairs bedroom, and relies on Libby to wait on her. Mr. Saul never goes upstairs, and roams the ramshackle property in a perpetual foul mood.

Libby has no friends, and is isolated from the world. Her father is cruel to her and her mother, who is an invalid by choice, lives in a fantasy world and has never let go of the idea that she is an aristocratic lady. Libby’s only solace is her dog, Joe, and the woods that surround the Sauls’ property. Her only happy moments are when she is roaming the forest with Joe and communicating with nature and wild animals.

One day, she discovers a crew of prisoners working on a chain gang along the ocean, excavating and dynamiting the coastline in preparation for a highway. This destruction and remaking of the natural world will bring a steady flow of people past the Sauls’ farm, and radically change Libby’s life.

But her life is changed almost immediately when she spots a dark, handsome convict named Barry Burnette (Dane Clark) working on the line.

Naturally, fate contrives to bring them together.

During a dark and stormy night, a landslide destroys the toolshed in which Barry and a couple of other prisoners are locked up. Libby finds Barry in the woods and helps him stay hidden from the posses that are searching for him, as well as from the good-natured but black-hearted Sheriff Akers (Willard Robertson) and the blandly handsome engineer running the highway project, Jeff Barker (Wayne Morris), who has an eye for Libby.

Libby and Barry’s romance begins in an idyllic fashion, but the weight of doom slowly crushes it. It’s not just because he’s an escaped convict. He’s also a violent hothead — never towards Libby or someone who hasn’t provoked him, but when faced with a problem, his first instinct is to lash out and break through, with no thought of what he’ll do next.

But Barry is always a likable character. Dane Clark’s performance is soulful and tortured, and his big eyes and open countenance make him sympathetic, even when he’s crouching in the second floor of a barn with a scythe, ready to kill whoever comes up the ladder.

We root for Barry and Libby, even though we know their love is impossible. As the film progresses, the shots become increasingly full of shadows and menace, and Barry and Libby are forced into smaller and smaller spaces, symbolizing the world closing in on them.

Deep Valley is based on a novel by Dan Totheroh. The screenplay is by Salka Viertel and Stephen Morehouse Avery, with uncredited assistance from William Faulkner.

Wyoming (July 28, 1947)

The last time I saw cowboy star Bill Elliott was in the Red Ryder movie Conquest of Cheyenne (1946), in which he was credited as “Wild” Bill Elliott.

I missed the next picture he made, Plainsman and the Lady (1946), but in both that film and this one, he’s listed in the credits with the more mature moniker “William Elliott.”

Like Elliott’s name change, Wyoming reflects a B-grade product’s aspirations to A-level status.

It’s about halfway successful.

Director Joseph Kane knows how to shoot a western, and Wyoming looks great. It’s full of snowstorms, big cattle drives, and beautiful wide open spaces. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt is credited as the second unit director, and the fistfights, shootouts, and horse action are all well-done. (One fight in particular is more brutal than I ever expected from a Republic western.)

But the script by prolific screenwriters Lawrence Hazard and Gerald Geraghty never rises to A quality. It’s full of big ideas and grand themes, but the treatment of those themes is muddled, and the dialogue is hackneyed.

In Wyoming, Elliott plays Charles Alderson, an intrepid pioneer who settles in the territory of Wyoming with his pregnant wife. When she dies in childbirth, Alderson sends his daughter to Europe for an education. While she is away, he builds up an enormous cattle herd, and becomes rich. He does so with the help of his friend Thomas Jefferson “Windy” Gibson (George “Gabby” Hayes), a grizzled old mountain man who says that while he may not look it, he was originally a lawyer from Vermont. But he got too involved with another “bar.” Get it?

Alderson’s daughter Karen returns to Wyoming in 1890, soon after it has been admitted to the union. (Karen is played by Vera Ralston, who also played her own mother in the opening portion of the film.) Alderson is now a cattle baron, but all is not well. Much of his range is now open to homesteaders, who are led by John “Duke” Lassiter (Albert Dekker). Lassiter is a shady character who is involved in rustling cattle, and who is exploiting the homesteaders for his own purposes.

Alderson’s foreman, Glenn Forrester (John Carroll), cautions Alderson that resorting to violence will only make things worse, but Alderson is a prideful, tyrannical man who shoots first and thinks later.

If all of this sounds a lot like Howard Hawks’s Red River (which was filmed in 1946 but wasn’t released until 1948), that’s because it is. But Wyoming never achieves the same impact as Red River.

The biggest problem with Wyoming is Elliott himself. The character he plays, Charles Alderson, is a complicated man who is nearly undone by his own ambition and propensity for violence, but Elliott is not a nuanced actor. I loved him in the Red Ryder westerns because he was so wooden that it added to the comic-book stalwartness of the character, but in Wyoming he seems to be overreaching, and it’s a little like watching Leslie Nielsen play Othello.

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