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Category Archives: April 1947

Black Narcissus (May 26, 1947)

A lot of people make a big deal of the fact that Black Narcissus was released the same year that India became an independent nation. The film, which was written, produced, and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is a sensuous, beautifully lensed Technicolor production. (Black Narcissus won two Academy Awards. Alfred Junge took home the award for best art direction and set direction in the color category and Jack Cardiff won the Oscar for best color cinematography.)

The reason a lot of people make a big deal of its 1947 release is because a major theme of Black Narcissus is the inability of the British heart and mind to penetrate the mysteries of the Indian subcontinent. Deborah Kerr plays a young Anglican nun, Sister Clodagh, who is appointed Sister Superior of the Convent of the Order of the Servants of Mary, Calcutta. Not only does the convent occupy an abandoned harem high in the Himalaya mountains, but Sister Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the history of her order.

The plot of Black Narcissus isn’t as important as the mood the film creates, its scenery, or its overwhelming sense of lush sensuality.

Michael Powell wrote of Black Narcissus that it was the most erotic film he ever made. “It is all done by suggestion, but eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end.”

None of this is to say that the eroticism of Black Narcissus is the only thing that makes it worth watching. It’s a fine character study and a well-acted story of the clash between fantasy and reality. But its visual textures, breathtaking scenery, and exquisite attention to detail are overwhelming.

Remarkably, Powell and Pressburger — who produced films together under the name “The Archers” — created all of their majestic Himalaya settings on the soundstages of Pinewood Studios. Usually matte paintings call attention to themselves and fool no one. In Black Narcissus they are seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film and are good enough to create a sense of vertigo in the scenes in which Sister Clodagh rings the enormous bell that hangs near the precipice on one side of the convent.

Black Narcissus is not a perfect film. While the performances are generally good, especially from Kerr as Sister Clodagh, David Farrar as the insouciant and charming British agent Mr. Dean, and Kathleen Byron as the unhinged Sister Ruth, the native characters are mostly played by British actors, which doesn’t always work. The 18-year-old English actress Jean Simmons is beautiful and beguiling as the dancing girl, Kanchi, but her light-colored eyes clash with her brown face makeup. Much less effective is May Hallatt as the deranged Angu Ayah, a servant inherited by the convent. Her screeching Cockney line delivery was so confusing that for most of the picture I wasn’t sure where her character was supposed to be from. (The only Indian actor in the film, Sabu, who plays the Young General, is from southern India, not northern India, where the film takes place.)

But these are minor quibbles. Black Narcissus is a stunningly beautiful film that I look forward to seeing again some day. Despite its sometimes outlandish story and its melodramatic elements, it’s a meticulously crafted piece of art from the greatest British directors of all time.

Jack Armstrong (15 chapters) (Feb. 6-May 15, 1947)

Jack Armstrong! Jack Armstrong! Jack Armstrong!

Jack Armstrong! The aaaaaaaaaaaaaaall-American boy!

If those words stir something deep within you, you’re probably either a child of the Depression or a freak like me who’s always liked to live in the past.

Beginning in 1933, the eponymous hero of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy traveled around the world with his uncle, Jim Fairfield, and his cousins, Betty and Billy Fairfield. The globetrotting quartet battled pirates, evil scientists, gangsters, and restive natives for 15 minutes on the radio every weekday. Sponsored by Wheaties, “the breakfast of champions,” Jack Armstrong gripped the nation’s youth with its blend of high adventure, glacial pacing, and repetitive storytelling until August 22, 1947, when it moved from a quarter-hour, five-day-a-week format to a 30-minute, twice-a-week broadcast.

Beginning in 1945, Jack, Betty, Billy, and Uncle Jim locked horns with the Silencer, a gangland leader who was at war with another crime lord, the Black Avenger. Eventually the Silencer was unmasked and revealed to be Victor Hardy, a brilliant scientist and inventor until a bout of amnesia led him to a life of evildoing (sort of like the Crime Doctor in reverse). After Hardy’s memory was restored, his lent his unique understanding of the criminal mind to Jack Armstrong and his crew. Uncle Jim was phased out of the program, and Vic Hardy became the adult overseer of the group, as well as head of the “Scientific Bureau of Investigation,” or SBI. In 1950, the Jack Armstrong program finally ended and Jack, Betty, and Billy were suddenly grown-ups, heard in a new 30-minute, twice-a-week series called Armstrong of the SBI. The all-American adult version of Jack didn’t last long, though, and Armstrong of the SBI went off the air June 28, 1951.

Wallace Fox’s Jack Armstrong is a 15-part serial from Columbia Pictures. All the major characters from the radio play are present (including both Uncle Jim and Vic Hardy), but after a promising first chapter, the serial devolves into repetitious tangles with “natives” on an island somewhere. I don’t know where the island is supposed to be, but I imagine it’s flying distance from California, since Jack Armstrong and the gang get there in a twin-engine plane. One of the bad guys refers to it as “point X,” and the third chapter of Jack Armstrong is called “Island of Deception,” but I think those are both descriptors, not proper names, so let’s just call it “Crazy Island,” shall we?

In this serial, Jack Armstrong is an all-American “boy” in name only, since the actor who plays him, John Hart, was 28 or 29 during filming, and looked about 30. Hart’s dark good looks and slicked-back hair make him look as if he’d be more comfortable romancing a movie producer’s wife on the dance floor of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub than building a nifty jet engine car with his little buddy Billy (Joe Brown), which is what he’s doing when we meet him in the first chapter of the serial, “Mystery of the Cosmic Ray.”

Billy Fairfield is the obligatory horse-faced, comic-relief sidekick. With his bug eyes and big teeth, Brown looks like Mickey Rooney standing in a wind tunnel. He’s obsessed with food, and most of the “humor” in Jack Armstrong comes from his “But when are we going to eat?” quips. Billy’s sister Betty is played by Miss America 1941, Rosemary La Planche, whom I’ve found delightful in every role I’ve seen her in prior to this. In Jack Armstrong, however, she has the same consternated look on her face in every scene, and is forced to wear an unflattering gray sweat suit that makes her look as if she’s suffering through Army PT.

Jack’s jet engine car has no carburetor, no cylinders, no distributor, and can go 50 miles per hour faster than any other car on the road. Jack never explains why it’s riveted, not welded, or how he can hang outside of it during a high-speed chase without getting his hair mussed, but the action in the first chapter is fast-paced enough that I didn’t really care. (And for my money, sped-up films of car chases never get old.)

I was hoping for lots more high-speed action, but after Uncle Jim (Pierre Watkin), the owner of the Fairfield Aviation Co., announces that they’ve picked up unknown cosmic rays, possibly from another country, he and Jack, Betty, and Billy are off to Crazy Island in the second chapter of the serial, “The Far World,” and things get pretty dull.

Most of Jack’s time on Crazy Island is spent squaring off against evil mastermind Jason Grood, who’s played by Charles Middleton, the man who played Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials of the ’30s. Remarkably, he’s just as odd-looking without any of his Ming makeup.

Grood kidnaps Vic Hardy (Hugh Prosser) and forces him to work with his henchman, Prof. Hobart Zorn (Wheeler Oakman), who’s discovered a power “several steps above atomic energy,” which they use to create a “cosmic beam annihilator.” Grood sends the cosmic beam into space as part of his “aeroglobe,” which he explains in the following, 100% scientific fashion: “Where the pull of gravity from the sun and outer solar planets equalizes the pull of earth gravity, there you have ‘zero gravity,’ creating a ‘space platform.’ On this, our aeroglobe rests.”

With the ability to train his cosmic beam annihilator at any spot on earth, Grood plans to hold all the nations of the world hostage. While attempting to foil Grood on Crazy Island, Jack, Uncle Jim, Billy, and Betty face the Pit of Everlasting Fire, escape from quicksand, tangle with angry natives, and are helped by friendly natives led by the sexy and beautiful Princess Alura (Claire James). I honestly couldn’t tell the unfriendly natives from the friendly natives. They all have black page-boy haircuts, wear Madras shirts and sarongs, and look about as “native” as Boris Karloff.

Jack Armstrong suffers from poorly staged action and several cliffhangers that are truly awful. In one, bad guy Gregory Pierce (John Merton) is zapped by an intruder alert field. Are we supposed to care about him? Another chapter ends with Jack and a bad guy rolling down a gentle incline while hitting each other. Not exactly “the jaws of death.”

Plausibility, scientific accuracy, and believable dialogue were never requirements for a good serial, but excitement and fun were, and Jack Armstrong suffers from a lack of both.

The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (April 25, 1947)

I love George Sanders. I don’t know what it is. I could give you a laundry list of attributes — his effortless charm, his ironic detachment, his pitch-perfect performances as cads and bounders — but that would only scratch the surface.

I like him so much that I found it impossible to root against him as the villain opposite Tyrone Power in John Cromwell’s minor swashbuckling classic Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942) and I even enjoyed his role in Douglas Sirk’s lightweight A Scandal in Paris (1946).

His insouciance and Herculean detachment from the concerns of everyday life weren’t just an onscreen pose. In the suicide note he left in 1972 before taking his own life at the age of 65, Sanders wrote, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool — good luck. Love, George.”

In life as in art, there is always the sense with Sanders that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Certainly boredom was not the real reason Sanders took his own life. His brother, actor Tom Conway, had died of cirrhosis of the liver — a complication of his alcoholism — five years earlier. Sanders had four failed marriages under his belt, was himself a heavy drinker, and suffered from extremely poor health in his later years, as well as related bouts of depression. But who really knows? No one really kills themselves because they’re bored, but with Sanders, that’s all we’re left with.

Albert Lewin’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is based on Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel Bel Ami. Dubbed “the history of a scoundrel,” the film has a lot in common with Lewin’s 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which also featured Sanders and Angela Lansbury in starring roles. Both films are black and white adaptations of 19th-century novels that feature a single oil painting shown in stunning Technicolor. In the case of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s Dorian Gray’s famous portrait, hidden away in an attic, revealing his corruption. In The Private Affairs of Bel Ami it’s the totally crazy and anachronistic “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” by surrealist painter Max Ernst.

Ernst’s painting isn’t the only anachronistic thing about Lewin’s film. While the film ostensibly takes place in Paris in 1880, there are no attempts at verisimilitude. Frank Paul Sylos’s art direction in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is careful and loving, but it looks more like a picture postcard than real life.

Sanders’s character, Georges Duroy, is a bored habitué of Parisian café society who seduces women and uses them for social and professional gain, then discards them as soon as a lovely new opportunity sashays across his path. The women who love him call him “Bel Ami.” The name is ironic, since Duroy is a friend only to himself. When the film begins, he is already ignoring a hurt-looking former conquest while he seduces the pale beauty Clotilde de Marelle (Angela Lansbury). He’ll soon throw Clotilde over for his business partner’s wife, Madeleine Forestier (Ann Dvorak), to whom he proposes marriage in a businesslike fashion literally as her consumptive husband, Charles Forestier (John Carradine), is drawing his last breath.

Clotilde remains a presence in the film throughout. (Perhaps in an attempt to make Duroy more sympathetic, he dies with her name on his lips.)

She loves him madly, and while Duroy’s treatment of Clotilde is never less than ungentlemanly, the film never gets as sexually brutal as the poster above promises with its implication of desperate, “please-don’t-leave-me” fellatio.

With the help of his wife Madeleine, who does most of the actual writing, Duroy becomes a Victorian-era Walter Winchell with a gossip column called “Echoes.” With it, he influences politics and high society, and becomes a high-level player, but he always wants more. He attempts to buy a title from a family named “De Cantel” whose last descendant is missing, presumed dead. With the promise of his incipient nobility, Duroy courts the young heiress Suzanne Walter (Susan Douglas).

In his role as Duroy, Sanders is always doing things that telegraph his utter boredom with the here-and-now, such as playing with a ball and cup or flipping playing cards into a hat on the floor. He has a voracious appetite for fame, wealth, and women, but he almost never seems to be enjoying himself.

It’s a role tailor-made for the deadpan Sanders. In one of the last scenes of the film, in which he is preparing to fight a duel in the rain with an overheated young opponent, he casually asks for an umbrella and says, “I should not like to quit the field of honor with a bad case of the sniffles.”

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (April 19, 1947)

Roy Del Ruth’s It Happened on Fifth Avenue has a small but loyal following. Some people will even tell you that it’s better than It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). They are wrong. It’s a Wonderful Life is the far superior film. But It Happened on Fifth Avenue is still a great picture; warm, human, funny, and perfect for the holiday season.

In a plot inspired by the severe housing shortage that followed World War II, Don DeFore plays an ex-serviceman named Jim Bullock (not to be confused with Jim J. Bullock) who’s thrown out of his rented room under protest. (He’s carried out handcuffed to his bed, wearing only his underwear and his hat.) Dejected, Bullock stews while sitting all alone on a bench in Central Park. He’s approached by Aloysius T. McKeever (Victor Moore), who — with his tuxedo, top hat, and little dog — looks like a gonzo version of Rich Uncle Pennybags (a.k.a. “Mr. Monopoly”). McKeever and his little dog live in one of the stateliest mansions on Fifth Avenue, but they enter through the back, because it’s boarded up while its real owner, multimillionaire Michael J. “Mike” O’Connor, winters in West Virginia.

McKeever lives lightly off O’Connor’s wealth. The only thing he steals is food from the pantry, and he acts as a responsible caretaker. The only downside is that he has to turn off all the lights and make himself scarce every night when security guards sweep the mansion, but it’s a small price to pay.

Bullock settles into McKeever’s way of life quickly, and respects McKeever’s rules, but Bullock can’t help inviting old friends who need housing to join him in the mansion. Eventually, the O’Connors themselves wind up living with McKeever and his big group of friends. The first is the O’Connors’ daughter, Trudy (Gale Storm), who hides the fact that she’s an O’Connor because she likes McKeever’s way of life. Then her father (Charles Ruggles) and her mother (Ann Harding) reluctantly get into the act after their daughter begs them to pass themselves off as destitute people in need of housing.

The O’Connors have been estranged for some time, but their bizarre new living arrangement helps them fall in love with each other again. When Mike O’Connor comes home after a long, hard day of shoveling snow for dimes, he can’t resist the smell of his wife’s slumgullion wafting from the kitchen. It takes him back to better days.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a cute movie. Its message is the same as the message of It’s a Wonderful Life, that no man is poor who has friends, and it also ends with a Christmas miracle. It does it in a more contrived and comedic way than It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s still a sweet, funny, and very enjoyable movie.

Fear in the Night (April 18, 1947)

Fear in the Night begins with a little floating dot of light dancing around the screen. It’s a will o’ the wisp that flits here and there before it morphs into the title and an odd, pulsating background pattern that is abstract, but vaguely obscene. The background music by Rudy Schrager is high-pitched and eerie.

After the credits roll, the visual abstractions clear away and are replaced by a black screen and the disembodied head of a beautiful woman with upswept hair (Janet Warren) floating toward the viewer. We hear Vince Grayson (DeForest Kelley) narrate his strange vision:

At first, all I could see was this face coming toward me, then I saw the room. A queer, mirrored room. And somehow, I was inside it. There was danger there. I knew that. I wanted to turn and run, but I couldn’t. It seemed as if my brain was handcuffed, and I had to do what I’d come to do.

Vince dreams that he stabs a man (Michael Harvey) in the heart with a steel bore. The man resists, and chokes Vince. One of the buttons on the man’s jacket pops off. The beautiful woman with upswept hair watches and silently screams, then Vince hides the body in one of the closets in the strange octagonal room full of mirrors. He locks the closet and puts the little key in his pocket. He wakes up from his vivid dream. He is relieved, but then he sees in his bathroom mirror that he has thumbprints in his neck. He looks down and sees a spot of blood on his wrist. He reaches in his pocket and pulls out a key and a button.

Distraught, Vince calls in sick to work. He’s a bank teller, and his pretty co-worker Betty Winters (Kay Scott) is happy to take over his window for the day, but she clearly has feelings for Vince, and is worried when she calls his room and no one answers.

Vince walks the streets alone, eager to be in the sunshine, afraid of the shadows and the coming night. He goes to see his brother-in-law, Cliff Herlihy (Paul Kelly), who just happens to be a police detective. Cliff tells Vince that his mind is playing tricks on him — selling him a phony bill of goods — and not to say anything about this to his sister, Lil (Ann Doran), since she’s expecting a baby and high-strung enough already, but Vince insists on following the leads from his dream. He takes out a newspaper ad that says “WANTED—I am interested in buying or leasing a house with an octagonal mirrored-paneled room or alcove. Location, size secondary, provided has this one essential, desired for reason of sentiment. Phone Grayson, FE-7648.”

Nothing pans out until Vince and Betty go on a picnic with Lil and Cliff. Caught in the rain, they take refuge in a large, unoccupied house. Guess what Vince finds upstairs when he starts poking around? You guessed it … an octagonal mirrored room, the same one he dreamed about.

In a nice bit of realism, as soon as it becomes clear that a murder actually was committed, Cliff jumps to the conclusion that Vince has been stringing him along the whole time with a crazy story so he’ll be able to plead insanity when the case goes to trial.

Fear in the Night was the first film that screenwriter Maxwell Shane directed. He also wrote the screenplay, which was based on the story “Nightmare” by Cornell Woolrich (originally published under his “William Irish” pen name). If you’ve seen Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946), which was based on a novel by William Irish/Cornell Woolrich, you’ll noticed a few similarities to Fear in the Night. Blackouts and murders possibly committed in hypnagogic states were frequent occurrences in Woolrich’s fiction, which is unsurprising once you know that Woolrich was an alcoholic shut-in.

Fear in the Night was DeForest Kelley’s first role in a feature film. If you’ve ever seen an episode of Star Trek, it will be impossible to look at him in this film and not constantly see Dr. “Bones” McCoy and all of his trademark twitches and catchphrases. Even though Kelley was only 26 or 27 when he made Fear in the Night, he doesn’t look that different than he would in the ’60s.

If you can get over that, though, Fear in the Night is a twisty and involving noir with some remarkable subjective camerawork. The bits of straight drama are filmed in a flat, conventional style, but all of the dream stuff (of which there’s plenty) is really effective. I’ve seen numerous other films that the cinematographer, Jack Greenhalgh, worked on, and up until now they’ve all been flat, uninteresting P.R.C. westerns, horror films, and mysteries. Fear in the Night really lets him shine, and there are all kinds of wonderful cinematographic flourishes, such as images that shatter into pieces and then are reassembled, scenes that flutter in and out of focus, and even a freeze frame of Kelley’s face while a murder plays out across his empty eyeballs.

The plot is a little wacky, and the solution to the mystery involves some willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer, but no noir fan will be able to resist the central conceit of the film, which is summed up nicely by Vince when he says, “I’ve got an honest man’s conscience in a murderer’s body.”

New Orleans (April 18, 1947)

Arthur Lubin’s New Orleans takes place in 1917, the year that Storyville, the notorious red-light district of New Orleans, was shut down.

Like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Carnegie Hall (1947), New Orleans features some of the greatest musicians and performers of the ’40s shoehorned into a flat, uninteresting story.

I had high hopes for New Orleans. In the first scene, we see Nick Duquesne (pronounced “doo-cane”), who’s played by Arturo de Córdova, operate his casino and nightclub with smooth, effortless charm. Duquesne is known as the “King of Basin Street,” and de Córdova plays him well, so I was hoping to see an involving story about vice, graft, and crime.

Alas, the story quickly devolves into a maudlin melodrama about a young blond singer named Miralee Smith (Dorothy Patrick) who falls in love with both Duquesne and the Dixieland jazz she hears played by Louis Armstrong and his ragtime band. Of course, Miralee’s mother, the wealthy Mrs. Rutledge Smith (Irene Rich) doesn’t approve, and wants her daughter to sing opera.

The screenplay and acting in New Orleans are better than they are in Carnegie Hall, but the only reason most people will want to see this movie is for the music. The good news is that there’s plenty of it, especially if you’re a fan of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

Holiday plays a maid named Endie, and she doesn’t look happy in the outfit, or in the scene in which she’s dressed down by Mrs. Smith for playing the piano and singing while on the job. The strange thing is that her role as a maid is tangential to her role in the rest of the film, and she only appears in a maid’s uniform in her first scene, in which she introduces Miralee to jazz. After that, Holiday loosens up a bit, and her scenes onstage with Louis Armstrong and his band are all fantastic. Together they perform Louis Alter’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” “The Blues Are Brewin’,” and “Endie,” as well as Spencer Williams’s “Farewell to Storyville.”

Holiday and Satchmo aren’t the only great performers in the film. Woody Herman, Charlie Beal, Barney Bigard, George “Red” Callender, Meade “Lux” Lewis, Kid Ory, Bud Scott, Lucky Thompson, and Zutty Singleton all play themselves.

Bells of San Angelo (April 15, 1947)

Bells of San Angelo
Bells of San Angelo (1947)
Directed by William Witney
Republic Pictures

Bells of San Angelo was Roy Rogers’s second western filmed in “Trucolor,” a two-color film process. (The first was Apache Rose, released earlier in 1947.) It was also the fifth film he made with director William Witney, who I’ve been a big fan of since high school. Witney directed my favorite Republic serials (often with John English), such as Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Jungle Girl (1941), and Spy Smasher (1942). Witney had a sure hand with pulpy material, and never made a picture that was less than entertaining. The stunt work in his films was always a high point. His action scenes — especially the fights — were incredibly well-staged, and still hold up pretty well.

There are currently a few ways to see Bells of San Angelo online. It’s available on YouTube, at Internet Archive, and on Netflix instant watch. The version on Netflix is the version that was edited for TV. It’s in black and white, not color, and shaves more than 20 minutes off the running time. Among the scenes that are lost is a really good fistfight between Roy and one of the bad guys. So if you want to see this movie, I recommend downloading the version from Internet Archive or watching it on YouTube. (You can click the links above to go directly to this movie.)

In Bells of San Angelo, Roy plays — as usual — a character named “Roy Rogers.” In this one, Roy is a border investigator. There are nefarious goings-on down at the old Monarch mines, which are run by a man named Rex Gridley (John McGuire), a handsome, dark-haired gentleman with a pet bird named “Cinderella.” In the first of many exciting action scenes, Gridley’s right-hand man, Ulrich (David Sharpe), shoots a man fleeing by stagecoach, then plants some silver ore in his pocket. Ulrich’s official story is that he was shooting down a thief, but Roy smells something rotten.

Roy’s comical sidekick in Bells of San Angelo is a big fat guy named Cookie Bullfincher (Andy Devine), who’s San Angelo’s mayor, sheriff, and official dog catcher (but the soft-hearted Cookie is really more of a “dog keeper”). Cookie may have a passel of titles, but Roy is the real authority, and his reach extends down into Mexico.

When Roy learns that western pulp writer Lee Madison is coming to town, and will be observing him work, he exclaims, “I don’t mind chasin’ thieves and murderers, but this is too much.” Madison is the author of numerous western potboilers, including one called Murder on the Border, and Roy thinks Madison will just twist reality to suit the tastes of a bloodthirsty readership.

It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone when it’s revealed that Madison is actually a woman, or that she will hide her identity from Roy as long as she can, creating all manner of humorous misunderstandings.

Madison is played by Dale Evans, Roy’s real-life wife, and they’re really cute together. They always seem to be having fun in their scenes, which softens things when he’s being a chauvinist and threatening to spank her, or calling her “the nosiest girl I’ve ever met.”

Director Witney is more concerned with packing the film full of entertainment than with narrative coherence. But who cares? There are songs aplenty, subplots galore, and lots of action, some of it pretty rough for a Saturday matinée picture aimed at kids.

Bells of San Angelo was filmed in Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, and the scenery is spectacular. Of course, it looks nothing like San Angelo, Texas, which — by the way — is in the heart of Texas, not anywhere near the Mexican border. But whatever. If you like Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and Trigger, you’ll love this movie.

Violence (April 12, 1947)

Jack Bernhard’s Violence begins with a stunning freeze frame of the headquarters of the United Defenders, a radical Los Angeles-based group dedicated to preserving “America for Americans.” An American flag stationed above the entrance is captured in mid-billow. The jagged letters of the title shockingly appear: “VIOLENCE.”

After the freeze frame springs to life, we see Fred Stalk (Sheldon Leonard) and the brutal idiot man-child Joker Robinson (Peter Whitney) interrogating and beating a man who has betrayed the United Defenders. The man Stalk and Joker are beating is named Joe Donahue (Jimmy Clark), and his murder is the most violent thing about Violence, which generally doesn’t live up to its sizzling title or the promise of its first reel.

Ann Dwire (Nancy Coleman) is undercover with the United Defenders. She’s operating under the name “Ann Mason” and is preparing material for an exposé of the organization for View magazine. Her methods of subterfuge would get her killed in less than 24 hours in the real world. When she calls in information to Ralph Borden (Pierre Watkin), her managing editor back in Chicago, she calls him from her apartment, even stating Borden’s full name and title to the concierge of her building, a kindly old man called Pop (Frank Reicher). Also, when it comes time to dispose of a letter from Borden, she doesn’t burn it, she just tears it up into smaller pieces (and her delicate fingers don’t do a very good job of it).

The United Defenders recruit disgruntled World War II veterans, promising to fight against housing shortages and unemployment, but they’re really just a fascist organization whose purpose is to sow discord and promote violence. When a young veteran (Richard Irving) stands up at a meeting and tells the organization’s leader, True Dawson (Emory Parnell), that it seems as if his rhetoric only leads in one direction — violence — Dawson has a couple of his followers throw him out on his ear, which proves the young man’s point.

Violence touches on a lot of hot-button issues, but doesn’t delve into them very deeply. (If you wanted deep treatises on post-war intolerance and creeping fascism in America in 1947, you had to be a kid listening to the radio show The Adventures of Superman. Most Hollywood productions just didn’t have the stones to get too specific.) For the most part, Violence uses its serious themes as window dressing for a brisk B movie that only aims to thrill. If Violence had been made a few years earlier, the United Defenders would have been Nazi fifth columnists. If it had been made a few years later, they would have been Communists.

While on a trip back to Chicago to meet with her editor, Ann is in a taxi cab accident and loses her memory. She becomes Ann Mason through and through, even getting up to speak at a meeting and encouraging every man there to recruit friends … friends who aren’t afraid to use violence to get what they want. But to thicken the plot, her fiancé Steve Fuller (Michael O’Shea) accompanies her back to Los Angeles, and he seems to know what’s going on, even though he volunteers to work for the United Defenders.

Coleman’s acting while she’s suffering from memory loss is pretty awful. She keeps looking pained and pressing her fingers to her temples, as though her problem is a bad headache, not post-traumatic retrograde amnesia.

Violence is mildly entertaining, but its low budget and weak performances work against it. The editing is sloppy — there are a lot of jump cuts within scenes — and the amnesia aspect of the story is poorly handled. Violence was directed by Jack Bernhard, who made Decoy (1946), a film noir that has built up quite a reputation in recent years. I’ve seen Decoy twice, and I think it’s overrated, but it does have one thing going for it that is sorely missing in Violence, a truly loony and twisty plot.

Monsieur Verdoux (April 11, 1947)

Monsieur Verdoux
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
Directed by Charles Chaplin
United Artists

Monsieur Verdoux, “a comedy of murders,” is a product of Charles Chaplin’s Frantic One-Man Band. Besides starring in the film, Chaplin is credited with directing the picture, writing the screenplay, producing the film, and writing the music. Orson Welles wrote the original script and was slated to direct Chaplin in the picture, but at the last minute, Chaplin decided that he didn’t want to be directed by someone else — he’d always been his own director in the past — and bought the script from Welles, crediting him with the “idea” for the film.

The film is based on the career of real-life murderer Henri Désiré Landru, who between 1914 and 1918 seduced a number of women and murdered them after gaining access to their assets. He burned their dismembered bodies in his oven, disposing of them completely, which made prosecuting him a challenge after he was caught. A trail of paperwork and other evidence was enough to eventually convict him of 11 counts of murder (10 women and one of their teenaged sons), and he was executed on the guillotine in 1922.

In Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin plays a man named Henri Verdoux, who describes himself as an “honest bank clerk.” Honest, that is, until the Depression of 1930, at which point he began his new career, “liquidating members of the opposite sex.” He claims that he began his career as a Bluebeard strictly as a business proposition. This is utter claptrap, as is nearly every other word out of M. Verdoux’s mouth that isn’t plot-advancing dialogue, but we’ll get to that later.

The film takes place in 1932. M. Verdoux had a 30-year career in banking before he began his new career as a murderer, and with his dainty, foppish clothes he looks like a relic of another time. When the film begins, he is living in a villa in the south of France. He’s a tidy little man who loves to garden, but whose incinerator has been going full-blast for the past three days. He’s kind to animals, moving a caterpillar out of his way in the garden path and feeding a cat on the street. M. Verdoux is even a vegetarian.

He is also a lothario with an insatiable appetite for well-heeled widows. But this, M. Verdoux assures us, is just his day job. His heart belongs to his wheelchair-bound wife Mona (Mady Correll) and adorable little boy Peter (Allison Roddan). At home, M. Verdoux lectures Peter when he catches him pulling the cat’s tail that “violence begets violence.” He also tells his son that he has a mean streak. “I don’t know where you get it!” he exclaims.

Aside from the saintly Mme. Verdoux, nearly everyone in the film is a grotesque and obnoxious caricature. In this way, Monsieur Verdoux is a distillation of Chaplin’s career-long vacillation between sentimentality and cruelty. A perfect example of this is the scene in which M. Verdoux brings a girl in off the street to poison her, but thinks better of it after she speaks of how wonderful life can be, and how she loved her husband, crippled in the war. (The girl is played by 20-year-old ingenue Marilyn Nash.)

The few bits of physical comedy in the film are funny, but they’re mostly either too brief or out of character with the rest of the scene in which they take place. Several comedic scenes — such as when M. Verdoux and another man start slapping each other with rapid-fire speed, or when M. Verdoux is romancing the older woman who was going to buy his villa in the beginning of the film, and he’s moving ever closer to her on the couch — fade to black in a quick, unsatisfying way.

When Monsieur Verdoux was released, Chaplin’s reputation was severely tarnished. He hadn’t made a film since The Great Dictator (1940), and he was under attack for both his Leftist political sympathies and his morals (he was the subject of a sensational paternity suit, and was a serial seducer of young women, many of them underage).

Chaplin and Nash

Monsieur Verdoux can be seen as a defiant stand against his critics. It’s the blackest of black comedies, and was a box office disaster in the United States when it was first released (it fared a bit better in Europe), but has built up quite a cult since it was re-released to receptive audiences in the ’60s and ’70s. At the time of its release, however, it polarized critics. James Agee crowned it a masterpiece, and the National Board of Review named it the best English-language film of 1947. Others were less enthusiastic.

I think that Monsieur Verdoux is a deeply flawed film. Chaplin was the preeminent clown of the silent era. He wasn’t quite the master technician of hijinks that Buster Keaton was, but he was able to convey a panoply of emotions through his face and body. His films are not only some of the funniest of the silent era, but are emotionally affecting, too. The ending of City Lights (1931) is still one of the most powerful I have seen in any film.

When he was able to speak onscreen, however, Chaplin was a tedious hack who only thought he was profound. Monsieur Verdoux isn’t as crushingly pretentious and boring as his later film Limelight (1952), but it has its moments.

The end of Monsieur Verdoux is especially problematic. Speaking on his own behalf in court, M. Verdoux says, “I was forced to go into business for myself. As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and little children to pieces? And done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly, I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all… very soon… very soon.”

The problem with this is that the murders of dowdy and grotesque women that we’ve seen M. Verdoux carry out in the film are very different from the mass mechanized killing of the Great War or the genocidal horrors of World War II. They’re intimate crimes, carried out for personal gain, and occasionally hilarious, such as the sequence in which M. Verdoux is repeatedly foiled while attempting to drop a noose around one of his wives’ necks while they are out fishing. It would be one thing if Chaplin were presenting M. Verdoux’s crimes as symptoms of a sick society, but what he seems to be doing is using a sick society as a justification for M. Verdoux’s crimes.

Is M. Verdoux meant to be an unreliable narrator? Perhaps, but he never comes across that way. I think that Chaplin was simply too infatuated with himself to present M. Verdoux as anything but a lovable cad, which makes the entire film uncomfortable and off-putting in ways I’m not sure Chaplin ever intended.

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