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Category Archives: June 1948

Canon City (June 30, 1948)

Crane Wilbur’s Canon City is a low-budget entry in the docudrama genre, a genre that began in 1945 with the Louis de Rochemont-produced espionage melodrama The House on 92nd Street and enjoyed enormous popularity in post-war Hollywood.

Docudramas were dramatizations of actual events that featured actors but that strove for authenticity by filming in actual locations, using real documents in key scenes, and featuring participants in the case playing themselves in bit parts.

After The House on 92nd Street followed more fact-based spy thrillers like 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and The Iron Curtain (1948), and legal docudramas like Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948).

Some films, like Kiss of Death (1947), T-Men (1947), and The Naked City (1948), were mostly fictional, but were presented in a docudrama fashion and filmed on location to add authenticity to otherwise run-of-the-mill crime stories.

Canon City uses a combination of docudrama techniques. It begins in a straightforward documentary style, and slowly draws us into the fictional world of its incarcerated protagonists. The obligatory scroll of text that opens the film informs the viewer that all events depicted in the film are based on actual events that took place in and around the Colorado State Prison in Canon City on the night of December 30, 1947. (Canon City is pronounced “Canyon City,” and is sometimes spelled Cañon City.) It goes on to say that the convicts shown in the film are the actual convicts involved in the case, and that Roy Best, the warden of the prison, plays himself. Finally, we are told that “the details of the break are portrayed exactly as they occurred and were photographed where they happened.”

Reed Hadley narrates the opening in his signature style (docudramas provided a lot of work for Hadley). He describes the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City as “a home for those who like to have their own way too much, and have taken forbidden steps to achieve their aims. All kinds are here; murderers, kidnappers, thieves, robbers, embezzlers.”

Warden Best and the disembodied voice of Hadley lead the viewer on a tour of the prison, introducing the variety of work that the prisoners do and conducting short interviews with actual inmates of various types; a man soon to be paroled, an old man who’s been doing time since 1897, a 14-year-old murderer sentenced to 20-30 years who’s working on a hooked rug in the art shop, and a murderer whose death sentence was commuted to life by the warden, and who now hopes to be paroled in 1949.

We then see the process of nighttime lockdown, and at the 9-minute mark of the film Hadley’s narration introduces the viewer to a pair of inmates with adjoining cells: Jim Sherbondy, a 29-year-old inmate who was sentenced at the age of 17 for killing a police officer, and Johnson, a long-termer who is working on the model of a ship. (His real work — a zip gun — is hidden behind the ship. He’s part of a plan to break out.)

Hadley’s narration doesn’t stop after Sherbondy and Johnson are introduced, and the film continues in a semi-documentary style, but the introduction of these two characters marks the moment when the film moves from fact to fiction. Remember that opening text from the beginning of the film I mentioned? The one that said “The convicts you will see are the actual convicts”?

Well, this was clearly a lie, since Sherbondy and Johnson are both played by actors, not actual convicts. This is par for the course, though. Despite what they invariably claimed, docudramas in the ’40s usually had a tricky relationship with the truth.

I couldn’t figure out who the uncredited actor who plays Johnson is (if you know, please comment on this review), but Sherbondy is played by Scott Brady, the younger brother of notorious tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney. (Lawrence Tierney and Scott Brady’s youngest brother, Edward Tierney, who turned 20 years old in 1948, also had a career in the movies starting in the ’50s.) Brady was born Gerard Kenneth Tierney, and Canon City was his first major film acting role, and the first film in which he was credited as “Scott Brady.” (His first appearance was a small role in Sam Newfield’s 1948 film The Counterfeiters, in which he was credited as “Gerard Gilbert.”)

Brady bears an uncanny resemblance to his older brother, but his face is a little softer and more innocent-looking, which works well for his role in Canon City. Sherbondy is a reluctant participant in the breakout. He has a job in the prison’s photography shop working in the darkroom, which is the perfect place for the conspirators to hide a load of zip guns, since the darkroom requires guards to wait outside until it’s safe to turn the lights on and open the door.

I wonder if anyone who saw Canon City during its initial theatrical run noticed Brady’s resemblance to Lawrence Tierney, or if there were any astute viewers who noticed the slim, bespectacled Whit Bissell and said to themselves, “Hey, wasn’t that guy in Brute Force?”

I also wonder how many viewers didn’t specifically recognize any of the actors but were able to tell that they were watching actors and not the actual participants in the case. And if they did, did they feel cheated after the opening claim of total and complete veracity?

I wonder these things because I do think that Canon City is remarkably skillful in the way it draws the viewer in and the way it manages to feel raw and real throughout. A little before the half-hour mark, the breakout kicks into high gear with an assault on a guard and a furious rush to fit all the pieces of the plan together. For nearly an hour, Canon City is as tense a picture as one could ask for. A dozen men pour out into a snowy night, disguised as prison guards. The prison alarm tolls throughout the small town. Terrified moviegoers swarm out of a theater whose marquee shows the Abbott and Costello comedy The Noose Hangs High (which wasn’t released until the spring of 1948, incidentally) and people on the streets rush to get home. But home offers no solace, as the convicts break into house after house looking for shelter, food, and weapons.

The cinematographer of Canon City was John Alton, who was responsible for brilliant work on many film noirs (most notably his collaborations with Anthony Mann). There aren’t a lot of memorable “noir” setups in Canon City, but overly stylized lighting wouldn’t have fit with the docudrama approach to the material. The darkness and the driving blizzard are terrifying enough filmed in a straightforward fashion. Canon City is the kind of movie where the cold gets into your bones just watching it.

Canon City is a film that is dated in many ways, but it still packs a punch if you can go along with the semi-documentary style. Writer-director Crane Wilbur gets the most out of his limited budget by filming inside the prison and in the rugged beauty of the southern Colorado landscape around Cañon City, and the pacing is swift and brutal once the breakout occurs.

Oh, and if you’re a Star Trek fan, keep your eyes peeled for a young DeForest Kelley as one of the dozen escapees.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (June 15, 1948)

There are two schools of thought regarding Charles Barton’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

On the one hand, it was the final nail in the coffin of the increasingly moribund Universal monster series. If you’re a horror purist, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents the nadir of Universal Studios’ monster movies.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who loves horror-comedies, then Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein represents one of the best-known and most enduring films in the genre.

It wasn’t the first horror-comedy. Paul Leni’s silent film The Cat and the Canary (1927) was the cornerstone of Universal’s horror machine, and it had plenty of comedic elements. James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) is both scary and incredibly funny, which is not an easy mixture to pull off.

And the practice of throwing comedians into a horror-movie scenario didn’t start with this film either.

The Ritz Brothers were paired with Bela Lugosi in The Gorilla (1939), and Bob Hope and Paulette Godard starred together in a remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) and the horror-comedy The Ghost Breakers in (1940).

So by the time Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was released, not only were horror-comedies an established part of the box-office landscape, but Universal Studios had firmly demonstrated that they had run out of ideas beyond the “mix and match” approach, which gave us Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), each one more campy and silly than the last. (And the last “straight” monster movie that Universal released in the ’40s — Jean Yarbrough’s 1946 film She-Wolf of London — was pretty dull.)

My main problem with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is that I don’t find Abbott and Costello funny. The duo started in vaudeville, and every comedic set piece in their films feels to me as if it needs to be watched in the midst of an easily amused, wildly guffawing audience for the full effect. Watching their films at home just doesn’t work for me. (I felt the same way about Mel Brooks’s 1974 horror-comedy Young Frankenstein when I rented it years ago. After hearing for most of my life that it was one of the funniest movies ever made, I was shocked by its obvious jokes, its incredibly slow pacing, and the way Gene Wilder mugged for the camera. The problem, I think, is that the jokes are timed to allow for a large audience to rock with laughter before the next joke is dropped. If you’re watching it for the first time alone, however, it can feel awfully slow.)

As a nearly life-long aficionado of Universal monster movies, I appreciated the look of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The film is set in Florida, and the sets are an effective mix of castle-like structures and steamy swamps. I also enjoyed seeing Bela Lugosi reprise his most famous role — Dracula. John Carradine played the Count in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, and he was fine, but there’s no beating Lugosi. And it’s always fun to see Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, a.k.a. The Wolf Man.

I also liked that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein wasn’t overloaded with characters. Lugosi performs a kind of double duty. As Dracula, he turns into a bat and bends people to his will, but he’s also a mad scientist, scheming to bring Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) back to life to do his bidding. (The gag is that he plans to use the brain of Lou Costello, one of the dumbest characters in the history of cinematic comedy.)

Despite its classic Universal-horror look, there’s really nothing scary about Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The director, Charles Barton, was a hard-working journeyman who had a lot of experience directing comedies and none directing horror. But the special effects do look really good. The main thing that stood out for me was Dracula’s transformations into a bat, which look much better here than they did in Dracula (1931). In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the transformations are achieved with a mixture of hand-drawn animation and puppetry. Still, I’ll take the eerie power of the original and its rubber bat on a string over an Abbott and Costello horror-comedy any day.

Shed No Tears (June 9, 1948)

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times … only a chump fakes his own death.

And yet, that’s exactly what Sam Grover (Wallace Ford) does in the very first scene of Jean Yarbrough’s Shed No Tears. He sets fire to his hotel room and leaves a cadaver behind as he sneaks out the back way. It’s all part of a scheme he’s cooked up with his wife Edna, an icy blonde played by June Vincent, whose best-known film noir performance was probably in Roy William Neill’s Black Angel (1946).

Edna is as young and beautiful as Sam Grover is middle-aged and schlubby. When an old woman on the bus sees Sam looking adoringly at a picture of Edna, she asks him if it’s a picture of his daughter. “My granddaughter,” he responds with a sigh.

If you’ve ever seen a B noir before, you’ll know that Edna’s up to no good before Sam even kicks over the flaming wastebasket in his hotel room, but all doubt is erased a few minutes into the film when Sam scurries off to hide out and Edna falls into the well-muscled arms of her handsome young boyfriend Ray (Mark Roberts, listed in the credits as “Robert Scott”).

The plot thickens when Sam’s adult son, Tom (Dick Hogan), suspects foul play and engages the services of a slippery and pompous private investigator named Huntington Stewart (Johnstone White). Meanwhile, Sam grows restless in hiding and gets itchier and itchier as he waits for Edna to come through with the insurance dough for his “death.”

Shed No Tears is based on the novel by Don Martin. Its dialogue is heavy on exposition, but the editing and visual storytelling are tight. The acting by everyone except the always dependable Wallace Ford is merely passable, with Dick Hogan’s stilted performance qualifying as the most egregious. I suspect that he was cast more for his cute little face than for his acting ability. Incidentally, this was one of Hogan’s last roles. After Shed No Tears he would go on to appear in the Alan Ladd vehicle Beyond Glory (1948) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), in which he played the murder victim.

Shed No Tears never rises above the level of a B-movie programmer, but for what it is, it’s an entertaining 70-minute melodrama. It’s in the public domain, and there’s an OK-looking DVD available from Alpha Home Entertainment that was transferred from a 16mm print. There are also a few versions currently streaming on YouTube:

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (June 4, 1948)

I don’t know about you, but comedies like H.C. Potter’s Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House really stress me out.

When the subject of “things I could never laugh at” comes up, most people think of things like the death of a beloved family pet or ethnic cleansing, but while I don’t find either of those subjects fertile ground for comedy, one subject stands above all others as something I can never laugh at — chasing good money after bad.

I don’t know if Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is the first comedy in which most of the “comedy” involves someone making terrible decision after terrible decision and throwing vast sums of money into a disastrous project, but it’s one of the best-known and most well-loved.

The first movie like this I saw was the 1986 Tom Hanks “comedy” The Money Pit, which even as a kid I found stressful and unfunny.

The second was the Joe McDoakes “comedy” short So You Want to Move (1950), in which every bad decision the main character makes and every accident he has is flashed on screen in dollar amounts. As the one-reeler continues, and he drops things and crashes into things, his financial responsibility grows and grows. As an argument for using professional movers, So You Want to Move is a persuasive infomercial, but as a comedy it’s totally devoid of laughs. At least for me.

At least Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is enjoyable in the early going, and stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, who previously starred together in Wings in the Dark (1935) and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), and who are both attractive, charming, and a lot of fun to watch.

Grant plays Jim Blandings, a college graduate who lives in Manhattan, works in advertising, and makes about $15,000 a year. We learn all this from the film’s omniscient narrator, who also calls Mr. Blandings a “modern-day cliff dweller,” since he lives in a high-rise apartment building with his beautiful wife Muriel (Myrna Loy), their two daughters, and their housekeeper Gussie (Louise Beavers).

Here’s a case where inflation doesn’t tell you everything, since $15,000 is roughly $145,000 in 2012 dollars, but I don’t think even that salary today would be nearly enough to support a wife who doesn’t work, two kids in private school, and a Manhattan apartment big enough to fit a family and a live-in servant.

Granted, the Blandings live in cramped quarters. Everything in their apartment is full to bursting and ready to explode like Fibber McGee’s hall closet, and as the narrator tells us, “just getting shaved in the morning entitles a man to the Purple Heart.” But that’s just Manhattan living, folks. Even for the relatively well-to-do.

One day Mr. Blandings is enticed by a brochure from a Connecticut real estate firm that encourages him to “trade city soot for sylvan charm.”

I can’t even talk about what happens next. It’s just too painful.

I will say this, however. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House was funny enough to entertain even someone like me, and Mr. Blandings is presented as just enough of a screwball idiot to make his terrible decisions a little easier to laugh at. For instance, when his lawyer Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas) asks what his engineer said about the foundation of the house he just purchased, Mr. Blandings responds, “Who needs engineers? This isn’t a train, you know.”

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