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Tag Archives: 20th Century-Fox

Pinky (Sept. 29, 1949)

Pinky
Pinky (1949)
Directed by Elia Kazan
20th Century-Fox

Elia Kazan directed a lot of great movies. Pinky is not one of them, but there’s a great movie somewhere in there that’s struggling to get out.

The biggest problem with the film is that Jeanne Crain, the actress who plays Patricia “Pinky” Johnson, is wildly miscast.

Pinky is based on Cid Ricketts Sumner’s 1947 novel Quality, which is about a light-skinned African-American girl who “passes” as white.

Crain is as white as white can be, and to accept her as the granddaughter of the character played by Ethel Waters requires a willing suspension of disbelief. Crain’s physical appearance is only part of the problem, however. Her performance is never convincing either.

Pinky is a character who was raised by her grandmother, Dicey (played by Waters), in the Deep South, but who passed herself off as white after she went north to study nursing. She has a fiancé, Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan), who has no idea about her racial background. When he finds out, he’s progressive enough to tell her it shouldn’t matter, but he acknowledges the racist and segregated world they live in. “It’s a tricky business,” he says to her. “You never know what exists deep down inside yourself.”

At no point in the film does Crain seem like she actually grew up in the Deep South community in which Dicey lives. It’s believable enough that she changed the way she spoke when she was “up North,” but at no point does her mannered demeanor crack, no matter how angry, scared, or sad she is.

Waters and Crain

Kazan knew that Crain was the wrong actress for the role, and probably made the best film he could with what he had to work with. The original director of Pinky, John Ford, dropped out of the project because he didn’t get along with Ethel Waters, and Crain was already cast as the lead when Kazan took over.

In the book Kazan on Film, he said, “The only things that were not mine, which are a hell of a lot, were the script and the cast. It was the last time I ever allowed that. Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher. I did my best with her, but she didn’t have any fire. The only good thing about her face was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is part of what ‘passing’ is.”

Much better choices for the role of Pinky would have been an actress who was actually mixed race, like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge (both pictured below), or Hilda Simms.

Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge

If a white actress absolutely had to be case as Pinky, Linda Darnell would have been a much better choice. Jennifer Jones or Yvonne De Carlo wouldn’t have been terrible choices, either.

Crain, on the other hand, seems like stunt casting done for shock value. For instance, Melba Wooley (Evelyn Varden), one of the most odious characters in the film, exclaims after meeting Pinky, “Why she’s whiter than I am! It just gives me the creeps.”

The only interesting thing about having Crain in the lead is that it draws attention to how inextricable the concept of race was from the social struture of the segregated South. For instance, when two police officers show up after Pinky is arguing with a black man and a black woman, their attitude to her is solicitous and deferential. But as soon as her “true” race is revealed, they manhandle her and throw handcuffs on her.

Later in the film, when Mrs. Wooley is unable to get a store cashier to interrupt her transaction with Pinky to pay attention to her, she raises her voice loud enough for the manager to hear and says, “Since when has it been your policy to wait on nigras before white folks?!”

Like every film directed by Elia Kazan, Pinky is worth seeing at least once. Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters both turn in excellent performances, and films from this era that tackle racism head-on are extremely rare. Still, after watching Pinky I was left considering what might have been.

I Was a Male War Bride (Aug. 9, 1949)

I Was a Male War Bride
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
Directed by Howard Hawks
20th Century-Fox

Here’s what I knew about I Was a Male War Bride before I watched it: It’s a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks. It’s the only Howard Hawks movie my cinephile friend Oskar doesn’t like very much. Cary Grant dresses in drag at the end.

Beyond that, I went in with no preconceptions, and I had a great time. I laughed more at I Was a Male War Bride than any comedy I’ve watched in the past few months.

I’m sure it’s hard for a lot of people not to unfavorably compare I Was a Male War Bride with Howard Hawks’s two previous screwball comedies with Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). Both films are widely acknowledged classics. Taken on its own merits, though, I think I Was a Male War Bride is great. It’s a really funny movie, with a wonderful blend of witty dialogue and physical comedy.

Ann Sheridan plays Catherine Gates, a lieutenant in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and Cary Grant plays Henri Rochard, a captain in the French Army.

Capt. Rochard is an incorrigible skirt-chaser and Lt. Gates is a hard-nosed officer with a quick wit. When the film begins, they’ve already been paired on multiple missions, and have the easy romantic-comedy repartee of two bickering people who profess to hate each other but can’t get enough of each other.

The opening scene of the film mocks the military’s obsessive use of acronyms and initialisms, when Capt. Rochard is so caught up in making sense of abbreviations that he can’t decipher the door of the women’s lavatory. And the film as a whole mocks the endless layers of bureaucracy and red tape everyone in the military has to contend with.

I Was a Male War Bride is based on the memoirs of the real-life Henri Rochard, a Belgian who married an American Army nurse, which were published under the humorously verbose title I Was an Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress.

There’s a lot I loved about this film. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, with great gags and crisp dialogue that is frequently sexually suggestive, and Cary Grant and Ann Sheridan have wonderful chemistry.

My one problem with the film was that I could never accept Cary Grant as a Frenchman. Cary Grant is one of the all-time great screen stars, but he had two speeds: Comedy and Drama. He never altered his accent and barely ever changed his mannerisms. I wouldn’t have had trouble accepting him as a “French” military officer if it wasn’t so inextricably linked to the film’s plot. The film has a good deal of authenticity. Much of it was shot in Germany, and a lot of the throwaway dialogue is in German, so the fact that Grant doesn’t look French, doesn’t act French, and never speaks in French is really bizarre.

On the other hand, Cary Grant is perfect for this type of comedy, and I don’t think I Was a Male War Bride would have been a better film if his role had been played by Jean Gabin or Jacques François.

Grant and Sheridan

The final sequence with Grant in drag didn’t play as humorously for me as it probably did when the film first played in theaters. Seeing a popular male star dressed as a woman isn’t a novelty anymore, after movies like Tootsie (1982) and The Birdcage (1996). And this certainly wasn’t the first movie to feature a man in drag, as anyone who’s seen The Devil-Doll (1936) can attest.

The only thing funny about seeing Cary Grant in drag is that you’re seeing Cary Grant in drag. He plays a woman the same way he plays a Frenchman, only with a bit more discomfort.

But the scenes of him in drag take up a blessedly short amount of screen time, and didn’t diminish the overall good time I had watching this film. It’s a great comedy with great stars, and holds up really well. It was also 20th Century-Fox’s highest-grossing movie of 1949, and Howard Hawks’s third most financially successful film of all time, after Sergeant York (1941) and Red River (1948).

A Letter to Three Wives (Jan. 20, 1949)

A Letter to Three Wives
A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century-Fox

At the 22nd Academy Awards in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz received two Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives. One was for best director and the other was for best screenplay. (A Letter to Three Wives was also nominated for best picture, but didn’t win.)

The film was based on a novel by John Klempner originally published in Cosmopolitan magazine in 1945. The novel was called Letter to Five Wives, but the original script for the film version omitted one of the wives and was called A Letter to Four Wives.

Mankiewicz felt the shooting script was still too long, so he cut out one of the four wives. (Sorry, Anne Baxter.)

A Letter to Three Wives is divided into three sections, each dominated by a flashback sequence.

The first section focuses on Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) and her husband Brad (Jeffrey Lynn), who met when they were both serving in the Navy.

The second section focuses on Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), a writer of radio dramas, and her husband George (Kirk Douglas), a schoolteacher.

The final section of the film focuses on Lora Mae Hollingsway (Linda Darnell) and her husband Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), an appliance-store magnate.

While each section focuses on a different couple, this is not an anthology film. The viewer meets all the characters in the early going, but sometimes just for a moment. Watching A Letter to Three Wives is a little like being introduced to a rush of people at a party. As the evening wears on, you become better acquainted with everyone and you learn how their lives intersect in often messy and hilarious ways.

A Letter to Three Wives takes place in an upper-middle-class Eastern community that’s 28 minutes from the big city, or “23 if you catch the morning express,” as Addie Ross tells the viewer. Addie Ross is the most beautiful and alluring woman in town, and although her presence dominates the film, we never see her. We only hear her voice as she cuts in to narrate and comment on bits of the story. (Addie Ross is voiced by the uncredited Celeste Holm).

Rita, Lora Mae, and Deborah are on their way to help run a day trip for underprivileged children when they receive a letter from Addie informing them that she’s leaving town for good, but she’s not leaving empty-handed — she’s taking one of their husbands with her. The three friends are forced to board the boat, and all of them stare longingly at the public telephone on the dock as they drift into the water. They won’t be able to find out which one of their husbands is missing in action until the day is done.

Sothern Darnell and Crain

Mankiewicz directed some fine films before this one, including the Gothic thriller Dragonwyck (1946), the film noir Somewhere in the Night (1946), and the brilliant romantic comedy The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), but A Letter to Three Wives is head and shoulders above all of them.

Mankiewicz was a witty, intelligent, and acerbic writer-director, and A Letter to Three Wives shows him in top form. It’s one of the smartest and funniest films I’ve seen from the ’40s about marriage and the American class structure. Deborah is a farm girl and never feels at home with the country-club set she’s married into. Rita has a demanding, high-paying job, and she makes a lot more money than her schoolteacher husband. Lora Mae is a trophy wife to a fabulously wealthy, boorish, and bullheaded man.

Kirk Douglas, who plays Rita’s schoolteacher husband, is fantastic in this film, and delivers one of the most eviscerating speeches I’ve ever heard about anti-intellectualism and the idiocy of appealing to the lowest common denominator. And Paul Douglas, who plays Lora Mae’s husband, gives a phenomenal performance as well. He was a stage actor, and this was his first appearance in a feature film, but he owns the screen, and would go on to have an interesting career.

A Letter to Three Wives is a masterpiece of scriptwriting and direction. Addie Ross is really just a plot device to tell a character-driven story, and toward the end of the film, I realized that I’d been told a very different story than the one I thought I was watching.

The Snake Pit (Nov. 13, 1948)

The Snake Pit

The Snake Pit (1948)
Directed by Anatole Litvak
20th Century-Fox

The Snake Pit wasn’t the first film about mental illness, but it’s one of the most significant.

German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M (1931) are powerful films about mental illness, but they’re more horror films than they are dramas, and they don’t explore the day-to-day reality of life in mental asylums. Films like Maniac (1934) and Dead of Night (1945) are at least partially about “crazy people,” but again, mental illness is used as a horror trope, not a sad and difficult fact of life.

The Seventh Veil (1945) and Spellbound (1945) both dealt with psychoanalysis, but they were designed to appeal to a public newly interested in Freudian theory, and didn’t touch on the facts of life in state mental institutions.

In fact, the only movie I can remember seeing before The Snake Pit that really dealt with life inside a mental institution was Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946), but the fact that it was both a horror film and a period piece gave audiences a comfortable sense of remove.

Olivia de Havilland

The Snake Pit changed all that. It was based on the novel by Mary Jane Ward, who spent eight and a half months in a mental hospital. She was institutionalized for schizophrenia, which was possibly misdiagnosed. The Snake Pit was rejected by several publishers. When it was eventually released in a small print run in 1946 it became an unexpected bestseller and was reprinted many times. It was a novel, not a memoir, but it contained autobiographical elements and most of the characters were based on people Ward had known in Rockland State Hospital.

The film version of the the novel stars bona fide superstar Olivia de Havilland in an unglamorous, makeup-free performance as Virginia Stuart Cunningham. The film drops us into Virginia’s schizophrenic experience in media res. She’s sitting on a park bench, looking up at the sun shining through the branches of a tree. On the surface, it’s idyllic, but we soon notice that her clothes are threadbare and her nylons have a run in them. Her voiceover conveys how confused she is about where she is and what she’s doing there.

Her fellow inmate, Grace (Celeste Holm), is more aware of what’s going on and guides Virginia into the group of women when the noontime break is over. They are shuttled inside by the nurses, and Virginia’s surroundings resemble a prison. There are even iron bars.

This is a major theme in the film. Virginia is locked in a prison of her mind’s own making — her mental illness. But she is also locked in a very real prison — a mental institution where electroshock treatments, cruel staff, and harsh conditions are the norm.

Snake Pit 1948

The one bright spot for Virginia inside the institution is Dr. Mark van Kensdelaerik (Leo Genn), who is only ever referred to as “Dr. Kik,” because Americans find his surname too hard to pronounce. Dr. Kik has a picture of Freud hanging in his office, and believes psychoanalysis is the key to Virginia’s recovery.

I had some uncharitable things to say about Leo Genn in my review of Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), but that was more about his miscasting than anything else. He’s perfectly cast in The Snake Pit, and his performance is wonderful. His Freudian explanation of Virginia’s condition is a bit too neat, but audiences in the 1940s liked their stories with every T crossed and every I dotted.

The other man in Virginia’s life who cares for her is her husband, Robert Cunningham (Mark Stevens), but there’s very little he can do for her. Through a series of heartbreaking flashbacks, we see her grow increasingly fearful of him and confused about reality.

The Snake Pit was directed by Anatole Litvak, a Ukrainian director who became an American citizen in 1940. Litvak’s previous couple of films, The Long Night (1947) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), were both beautifully crafted, but they weren’t as powerful or as resonant as The Snake Pit. The scene in which the title of the film is realized visually is one of the most haunting I’ve ever seen.

Litvak’s direction is wonderful, but none of it would work without Olivia de Havilland’s phenomenal performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, but she lost out to Jane Wyman for her role in Johnny Belinda (1948). The Snake Pit actually had an extremely high portion of its budget devoted to hiring seasoned and professional actors, since Litvak wanted even the small roles in the film to be convincing. It paid off.

In addition to de Havilland’s nomination, The Snake Pit was nominated for Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best screenplay, best score, and best sound recording, which is the only Oscar that it actually won.

Road House (Sept. 22, 1948)

Road HouseThe second feature in our Jean Negulesco double bill is a tad less serious than the first.

Negulesco’s film Johnny Belinda (1948) is the story of a poor, uneducated deaf-mute girl played by Jane Wyman. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, and won one — Wyman took home the Oscar for Best Actress.

Road House, on the other hand, was nominated for zero Academy Awards.

But they’re both very good films, and watched back to back, they really show Negulesco’s facility with both A-quality material and B-quality material.

A truly good potboiler is as hard to pull off as a truly good drama is, and Road House is a truly good potboiler.

In an interview he gave in 1969, Negulesco recalled being given the assignment to direct Road House by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Negulesco said that Zanuck told him, “This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don’t know what they’re doing, because basically it’s quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she’d adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That’s the kind of picture we have to have with ‘Road House.’”

Negulesco knew exactly what kind of picture he was directing, and he directed the hell out of it. The first shot of Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) shows her with her bare leg up on a desk. She’s dealing cards alone, and there’s a smoldering cigarette next to her bare foot.

Lupino was smart, sexy, and talented, and she’s a joy to watch in Road House. When she played a singer in The Man I Love (1947), all of her performances were dubbed by Peg La Centra, but this film finally gave moviegoers an opportunity to hear her real singing voice. As Susie Smith (Celeste Holm) says in the film, “She does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard.”

Lupino may not have been the most impressive chanteuse working in Hollywood, but when she sings “One for My Baby and One More for the Road” in Road House, it’s an emotional scene that tells us more about her character than pages of expository dialogue ever could.

Besides the lovely Lupino and the talented Holm, Road House also features chiseled hunk Cornel Wilde. My favorite scene is the one in which he gives Lupino the angriest, most sexually charged bowling lesson I’ve ever seen in a film.

And last but not least, Road House was the third time Richard Widmark appeared on film, and it was the third time he played a memorable villain. He plays Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins, the owner of the juke joint that gives the film its name, and his character is a scheming chump who just can’t take no for an answer.

The Street With No Name (July 14, 1948)

By the time William Keighley’s The Street With No Name was released, noirish docudramas were practically a genre unto themselves. The docudrama craze began with The House on 92nd Street (1945), which was loosely based on a real case of nuclear espionage during World War II and was produced by Louis de Rochemont, the creator of the March of Time newsreels.

More “ripped from the headlines” stories followed. Spy thrillers like 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and The Iron Curtain (1948), tales of miscarried justice like Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948), and even films like Kiss of Death (1947), which wasn’t based on any single real event, but presented its crime story as realistically as possible by eschewing a musical score and filming all the action on location — in prisons, schools, and city streets.

The Street With No Name begins with the following words: “The motion picture you are about to see was adapted from the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Wherever possible it was photographed in the original locale and played by the actual F.B.I. personnel involved.”

Then, a quote from J. Edgar Hoover appears as it is pounded out by invisible hands on a sheet of paper stuck in a typewriter:

The street on which crime flourishes is the street extending across America. It is the street with no name. Organized gangsterism is once again returning. If permitted to go unchecked three out of every four Americans will eventually become its victims. Wherever law and order break down there you will find public indifference. An alert and vigilant America will make for a secure America.

The docudrama that I think The Street With No Name most closely resembles is Anthony Mann’s T-Men (1947), which uses the same kind of “government-approved” patriotic opening, but eventually devolves into a film noir in which the underworld setting and stylistic elements are more interesting than the clean-shaven protagonists. T-Men, however, showed its protagonists becoming drawn deeper into their undercover roles while The Street With No Name doesn’t really develop its protagonist beyond his play-acting heroics.

The Street With No Name opens with a murder at the Meadowbrook night club, a typical road house in a typical city called “Center City.” (The Street With No Name was filmed in and around Los Angeles, and while there is a neighborhood of San Diego called “Center City,” I think that “Center City” was just meant to be a generic name for “Anytown, USA.”)

A second crime by the same masked gang — the murder of a bank guard — draws the FBI into the case, since bank robberies are a federal crime. Leading the investigation is FBI Inspector George A. Briggs, who is played by Lloyd Nolan. (Briggs is the same character Nolan played in The House on 92nd Street.)

According to Briggs, these new gangs are “the juvenile delinquents of yesterday” and they are even more ruthless than the pre-war gangs. The only way to break this gang is to send in an undercover agent.

Enter Mark Stevens as FBI cadet Gene Cordell, who we know is a prime candidate for the assignment because he knows exactly which targets to shoot — and which ones not to shoot — in a Hogan’s Alley sequence filmed at Quantico, VA.

Stevens goes undercover as “George Manly” in the skid row section of Center City, which is full of pool halls, boxing gyms, and peep show machines, and where apparently the only song anyone ever plays on the jukebox is an instrumental version of “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”

Despite Stevens’s total lack of proficiency in the boxing ring (he looks less competent than Charlie Chapin was meant to in City Lights), the robbery gang he’s after is impressed with his skills and takes him in as one of their own.

The gang’s leader is named Alec Stiles, and he’s played by Richard Widmark. This was Widmark’s second big-screen role, and it’s similar to his first, the psychopathic Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death. Stiles’s teeth aren’t quite as big as Udo’s were, but his maniacal leer is the same. Widmark delivers a good performance, but character details like Stiles’s germaphobia and wife-beating aren’t quite enough to make you forget Udo if you’ve recently watched Kiss of Death.

But character details and plot points aren’t what makes The Street With No Name a standout docudrama film noir. What makes the film memorable is the overriding sense of tension and the dark, shadowy cinematography of Joseph MacDonald.

Stevens isn’t as strong a protagonist as Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder were in T-Men, and the most memorable sequences in The Street With No Name are completely wordless. The first is a chase in a ferryboat station (filmed at the Municipal Ferry in San Pedro, CA) and the second follows Stevens as he tries to get ballistic evidence by breaking into the gang’s weapons cache in a warehouse with Widmark hot on his heels.

Despite a generic story and a bland protagonist, The Street With No Name has great pacing, lots of suspense, style to spare, and a solid villain. I recommend it to all fans of FBI stories and film noir.

The Iron Curtain (May 12, 1948)

William A. Wellman’s The Iron Curtain was the first appearance of Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney together in a film since Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). This really has no bearing on The Iron Curtain, but I love the movie Laura and Andrews and Tierney are one of my favorite screen couples, so it was fun to see them play completely different roles.

The Iron Curtain is the fictionalized tale of Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet code clerk who was stationed at the U.S.S.R. Embassy in Ottawa and discovered that American military secrets and other products of Soviet espionage were being transmitted through his office.

There is the obligatory text preceding the film that tells the viewer that all the documents presented appear exactly as they did in actual court records, as authenticated by the R.C.M.P.

This is a standard opening for a docudrama, which in the late ’40s was sort of a subgenre of film noir, with dramatic lighting, expressionistic camera angles, and subjective storytelling applied to true stories of espionage or miscarried justice, like The House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Boomerang (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948). These films used actual locations, documents, and occasionally even the actual participants in historical events to add sizzle to their “ripped from the headlines” plots.

When Gouzenko first arrives in Canada he’s the perfect apparatchik, devoted to Marxism and to the Communist Party. When one of his fellow Soviet embassy workers, Nina Karanova (June Havoc), shows him her spacious, well-decorated apartment, he berates her for her laxity and for being seduced by the trappings of Western decadence. But a chain of events conspires to force Gouzenko to experience some character development. His wife, Anna Gouzenko (Gene Tierney), joins him in Ottawa, and together they experience the friendliness and good hearts of their North American neighbors, and realize that they might have more in common with their “enemies” than they thought. At work, Gouzenko is haunted by the drunken recollections of Maj. Semyon Kulin (Eduard Franz), who murdered some of his own men to force others to “volunteer” for a mission during the war.

When Gouzenko discovers that he is passing classified information from the embassy back to Moscow — American nuclear secrets, the details of a supposedly secret meeting in Canada between FDR and Churchill, details of sleeper agents — he experiences a crisis of conscience, and has to decide if he should turn documents over to the Canadian Minister of Justice and put his life and the lives of his wife and child in danger.

The Iron Curtain is a slick, well-made thriller that doesn’t generate suspense through over-the-top elements like chases or shootouts, but rather through grounded, real-life elements like the threat of the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police.

When the story of Igor Gouzenko was originally covered by the media in February 1946, it was the beginning of public awareness of the Cold War. The revelation that our former allies were running a spy ring in North America had a profound impact that would last for decades. The Iron Curtain is the earliest film I’ve seen to tackle the looming Soviet menace, and it’s more tasteful and factually accurate than some of the outré Red Scare flicks the ’50s would give us.

Fury at Furnace Creek (April 30, 1948)

Fury at Furnace Creek might not be a towering classic of western cinema, but I think I flat-out enjoyed it more than any other western I’ve seen recently.

I’ve never been a big fan of Victor Mature, but when he had good material to work with — My Darling Clementine (1946) and Kiss of Death (1947), for instance — he could be an engaging performer. I thought it made a lot of sense for him to play Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine as a drunk and a gambler, since Mature always looked more at home in a saloon than he did riding the range.

Fury at Furnace Creek allows Mature to stick with this formula, more or less. He plays Cash Blackwell, a fast-on-the-draw gambler who goes undercover to clear his father’s name.

His father, General Fletcher Blackwell (Robert Warwick), died of a stroke during court martial proceedings against him, and not because things we’re going well at his trial. In 1880, the Furnace Hills were still Apache territory, but rumors that the Apaches were using silver in their bullets led to a clamor for the region to be opened to mining. Gen. Blackwell stood accused of issuing an order that left a wagon train unprotected, and the prosecutor implied that this was done purposefully to draw the Apaches into an attack, which directly led to the opening of the area to white settlement.

The evidence is there, too. There is an order, signed by Gen. Blackwell, that supports the prosecution’s case. But even faced with this evidence, Gen. Blackwell still denied ever issuing the order, and he died with the shame of guilt hanging over him.

Enter Cash Blackwell, estranged from his family, but not estranged enough that he doesn’t care about his father’s good name. He goes undercover in Furnace Creek, now a boom town of 10,000 settlers, miners, and merchants. Calling himself “Tex Cameron,” Cash ingratiates himself to the local syndicate by saving the life of Capt. Grover A. Walsh (Reginald Gardiner) at the gambling tables. A gunman named Bird (Fred Clark) planted a card on Capt. Walsh so he could accuse him of cheating and shoot him dead, but Cash sees through the ploy, and puts a bullet in Bird’s gun hand.

“When a man can knock the knuckles off a moving hand at ten paces, I want him on Mr. Leverett’s side,” says Al Shanks (Roy Roberts).

Edward Leverett (Al Dekker) is the head of the Furnace Creek Mining and Development Syndicate, and it’s clear that he’s up to no good, but it’s not clear what his connection to Gen. Blackwell was.

In addition to his detective work, Cash finds time to romance the pretty Molly Baxter (Coleen Gray, who also starred with Mature in Kiss of Death). Molly’s father Bruce died in the massacre at Fort Furnace Creek, and she hates Gen. Blackwell with a passion, potentially complicating things.

And before long, Cash’s brother Capt. Rufe Blackwell (Glenn Langan) also shows up in Furnace Creek with his own plan to clear his father’s name.

Fury at Furnace Creek has a lot of moving parts, but the plot never feels crowded or confusing. Full of coincidences, sure, but not confusing. It’s genuinely suspenseful, and I wasn’t sure how things were going to resolve themselves. It’s a film that occupies the same basic physical space as John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), but it takes a completely different approach to the western genre. There’s no self-conscious myth-making or grand statements in Fury at Furnace Creek, it’s just a solid, grown-up western with good production values. The music nicely sets the scene, with strains of the cowboy ballad “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” popping up frequently in the score.

The director of Fury at Furnace Creek, Bruce Humberstone (sometimes credited as “H. Bruce Humberstone”), began his career in the silent era and ended up working in just about every genre Hollywood deigned to dip its toe in; musicals, film noir, westerns, war pictures, Charlie Chan mysteries, Tarzan adventures, sports comedies … the list goes on and on. Fury at Furnace Creek is not a great work of art, but it’s made with real flair and craftsmanship. It’s exciting, action-packed, and suspenseful. I enjoyed it a hell of a lot and recommend it to anyone who likes westerns from the Golden Era of Hollywood.

Anna Karenina (April 27, 1948)

Julien Duvivier’s Anna Karenina was the second non-silent film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. It premiered in the U.K. on January 22, 1948, and in New York City on April 27, 1948.

I originally put off watching it because I started reading the novel late last year and wanted to finish it before I saw any film versions.

Alas, I am a slow reader. After pushing Anna Karenina from its January U.K. release date to its April U.S. release date on my “to watch” list, I finally gave up on trying to finish reading Tolstoy’s novel before watching any film versions. (It’s not as if I don’t how the novel ends, and besides, caring too much about “spoilers” is a foolish preoccupation.)

As I mentioned, this was the second adaptation of the novel for sound film, but there were numerous silent versions that preceded both. The first was director Maurice Maître’s 1911 Russian version, which starred M. Sorochtina as Anna Karenina. The second was Vladimir Gardin’s 1914 Russian version, which starred Mariya Germanova. The third was J. Gordon Edwards’s 1915 American version, which starred Betty Nansen. The fourth was Márton Garas’s 1918 Hungarian version, which starred Irén Varsányi. The fifth was Frederic Zelnik’s 1919 German version.

Finally, there was Edmund Goulding’s 1927 silent film, entitled simply Love, which starred Greta Garbo as Anna and John Gilbert as her illicit lover, Count Vronsky.

The first sound version, Clarence Brown’s Anna Karenina (1935), again starred Garbo as Anna and Fredric March as Vronsky. I haven’t seen any of the silent versions, but I recently watched the 1935 version.

There seems to be a general consensus that the 1935 film is the more definitive version, while the 1948 version is well-made but essentially flawed. For me, the 1935 version played like filmed Cliffs Notes. For the first hour of the film, I recognized all the major plot points and important bits of dialogue, enacted in more or less the manner I pictured them, neither failing to meet nor exceeding my expectations. (The next 30 minutes or so went past the point I’ve read up to in the novel, so I can’t speak to them.)

The 1948 version is a less slavishly faithful adaptation of the novel, but I found it a much more satisfying overall film experience.

The music, lighting, cinematography, set design, and costumes are all passable in the 1935 version, but they’re really stellar in the 1948 version. Duvivier’s film evokes 19th-century Czarist Russia in a more powerful and magical way than Brown’s film did. The wintry, nighttime scenes in train stations — so important in the novel — are dark, snow-swept, and full of portent. The interiors are richly appointed and realistically lighted.

Where Duvivier’s version can’t always compete with the earlier version is in the choice of actors. Fredric March, who played Vronsky in the 1935 version, was for me the most interesting character in the film, while Kieron Moore just doesn’t make as strong an impression in the same role. He’s tall and handsome, but in the end he’s little more than a perfectly coiffed mustache in search of a personality. And Sally Ann Howes, who plays the pretty young Kitty Scherbatsky in the 1948 version, just isn’t as appealing or as good an actress as Maureen O’Sullivan.

Whether or not Vivien Leigh is as good as Greta Garbo, however, is a more difficult question. Garbo casts a long shadow, and is in some sense “untouchable.” For my money, though, Leigh gives a much more interesting performance as Anna. Garbo’s beautiful face is a sort of blank canvas onto which viewers can project their own desires, but Leigh crafts a fully realized character, whether one cares for her or not. In this sense, I think the casting of Moore as Vronsky — the man she falls in love with and destroys her marriage for — actually works quite well. Anna Karenina is not a simplistic novel in which a woman in an unhappy marriage finds true love but is constrained by rigid societal rules. Anna’s essential flaw is that she falls in love with a man who is handsome and charming, but essentially weak, and not worthy of everything she gives up for him. (I’ll still take March over Moore any day, but Moore’s uninteresting performance doesn’t really detract from the greatness of Duvivier’s film for me.)

In the 1935 version, Basil Rathbone gave a terrific performance as Anna’s cuckolded husband, Alexei Karenin, but terrific as it was, it was a one-note performance. Ralph Richardson, however, is just as officious and unlikable in the early going, but he evolves, allowing the viewer to see his pain and anguish despite the fact that Anna is a more natural point of identification.

Of course, what no film can convey is the novel’s epic scope or its meticulously crafted evocation of everyday life. Anna Karenina was published in serial fashion over the course of nearly four years, so characters with whom we spend days, weeks, months, and even years in the novel appear in the film for a few minutes here and there, giving the viewer no real sense of their importance in the grand scheme of the narrative.

But that’s how it goes in the dirty business of film adaptations of great novels.

I liked Clarence Brown’s 1935 version, and I’m glad I saw it, but Julien Duvivier’s 1948 version wove a spell over me. There are certain scenes I can’t stop thinking about, and I loved Vivien Leigh’s performance as Anna. It’s a movie I’m looking forward to seeing again some day. There are many, many film adaptations of Anna Karenina out there competing for your entertainment dollars, and I’ve only seen two of them, but of the two, I much prefer this one.

Call Northside 777 (Feb. 1, 1948)

Call Northside 777 is the latest in director Henry Hathaway’s series of fact-based dramas.

Together with producer Louis de Rochemont, the creator of the March of Time series of newsreels, Hathaway made The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), which were both based on the wartime exploits of the OSS.

Unlike Hathaway’s previous film, Kiss of Death (1947), which was fiction, but made in a verité style and filmed on location, Call Northside 777 is more in line with Louis de Rochemont’s Boomerang (1947), which was directed by Elia Kazan.

Like Boomerang, Call Northside 777 is about a miscarriage of justice.

In 1933, Joseph Majczek and another man, Theodore Marcinkiewicz, were convicted of killing a Chicago police officer the previous year. In 1944, their convictions were overturned when a crusading reporter named James McGuire helped prove that the eyewitness who gave the testimony that sent the two men to prison had perjured herself under pressure from the police.

Majczek is renamed “Frank Wiecek,” and he’s played by Richard Conte. The crusading Chicago Times reporter is renamed “Jim McNeal” and he’s played by James Stewart.

McNeal’s editor, Brian Kelly (Lee J. Cobb), spots a notice in the classified section of the Times — “$5000 reward for killers of Officer Bundy on Dec. 9, 1932. Call Northside 777. Ask for Tillie Wiecek 12-7 p.m.” — and sends McNeal to investigate.

Tillie Wiecek (Kasia Orzazewski) is the convicted man’s mother. She earned the $5,000 by scrubbing floors.

After McNeal interviews Mrs. Wiecek, his wife Laura (Helen Walker) says to him, “I wasn’t thinking about the boy, I was thinking about his mother. You know what it is? It catches your imagination. Nobody knows whether she’s right or not. She’s worked so hard, she’s had such faith that, well, I want her to be right.”

McNeal, on the other hand, is hard-nosed and unsentimental about the case. As he tells Wiecek when he goes to prison to interview him, “She believes you. I need proof. This thing’s gotta have sock — mass appeal. It’s the only way we’ll be able to help you.”

Eventually, though, the evidence begins to pile up, and even the cynical McNeal is convinced of Wiecek’s innocence.

Call Northside 777 was released on DVD in 2004 as part of the Fox Film Noir collection, but there’s very little thematically that marks it as “noir.” The closest the film gets stylistically to being a film noir is toward the end of the picture, when McNeal scours the Polish neighborhoods of Chicago in search of the eyewitness in the Wiecek case, Wanda Skutnik (Betty Garde). These scenes are bathed in shadows and shot through with suspense.

For the most part, though, Call Northside 777 is lit and shot in a neutral, docudrama fashion, which is a shame, since it was the first big Hollywood production filmed in Chicago. There are a few shots of the Merchandise Mart, the Loop, and Holy Trinity Polish Mission, but most of the film takes place indoors.

It’s a good film, but since it’s mostly a hidebound retelling of established facts, it’s never as thrilling or suspensful as a piece of pure fiction like Kiss of Death. It’s interesting, for instance, that Leonarde Keeler, the co-inventor of the polygraph, plays himself in the scene in which Wiecek is given a lie detector test, but it’s not really the stuff of great drama.

The best thing about the film is Jimmy Stewart’s performance. He handles his character’s progression from a cynical reporter who’s “just doing his job” to a man who’s finally found a cause worth fighting for wholly believable and thoroughly involving.

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