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Tag Archives: Edward J. Kay

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.

The Trap (Nov. 30, 1946)

Howard Bretherton’s The Trap, produced by James S. Burkett, was Sidney Toler’s last appearance as Charlie Chan. Toler died on February 12, 1947, at the age of 72.

He inherited the role of Chan, a Chinese detective created by the novelist Earl Derr Biggers, from Swedish actor Warner Oland, who died in 1938. Oland played the venerable old detective from 1931 to 1937. He died at the age of 58 from complications due to bronchial pneumonia, possibly related to his alcoholism. (According to Yunte Huang’s recent book about Charlie Chan, Oland like to throw back a few before playing the character, as it helped his fuzzy, drawling, faux-Chinese line delivery. When Toler took over the character, the producers encouraged him to do the same thing.)

The Trap is a run-of-the-mill B mystery from Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures. A gaggle of showgirls, their impresario, and their press agent all set up camp in a dusty old beach house in Malibu Beach.

After one of them is strangled with a silken cord, the hysterical women telephone Charlie Chan and reach his driver, Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland). If you enjoy politically incorrect humor, you’re in for a treat, as the bug-eyed Moreland mugs and twitches in ways black actors never would again.

Accompanied by Birmingham and his “number 2″ son Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), Chan arrives on the scene, and proceeds to unravel the mystery while spouting nonsensical aphorisms like, “Puzzle always deepest near the center.”

The Trap is a standard “old dark house” mystery, with the regular array of stock characters, such as a severe old battle-axe of a housekeeper and a doctor running away from his past. Kirk Alyn, who would go on to play Superman in two serials in 1948 and 1950, plays a tall, handsome motorcycle cop who assists Chan in his investigation, and doesn’t make much of an impression beyond his mustache and dark glasses. The beach setting doesn’t really jibe with the creepy old house — which has a basement and plenty of secret passages — and seems to exist mostly as an excuse for the pretty showgirls to go swimming whenever they can.

The Charlie Chan films remain a historical curiosity. Neither Toler’s makeup nor acting make him convincingly Chinese, but the series still has its fans, even its Chinese fans, such as Huang, the author I mentioned above.

Beauty and the Bandit (Nov. 9, 1946)

Maybe I should stop watching these Cisco Kid pictures. They’re dead-on-arrival Saturday matinées from Monogram Pictures that have now thrice failed to entertain me. After sitting through The Gay Cavalier and South of Monterey, feeling like a drunk who’d fallen asleep in a grindhouse on a Friday night in 1946 and woken up the next morning surrounded by kids yelling at the screen and throwing popcorn at each other — too hungover to get up and leave — I figured I could call it quits with the series and not miss much.

But Gilbert Roland is a lot of fun to watch as Cisco. While these movies seemed pitched at a pretty young audience, his smooth line deliveries and double entendres are clearly aimed at adults. And the presence of Ramsay Ames as the heroine made it hard to say no to Beauty and the Bandit. I fell in love with Ames in the Universal horror picture The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), and will watch her in anything, although in both Cisco Kid pictures I’ve seen her in she’s skinnier, less voluptuous, and a little harder-looking than she was in her earlier horror-movie appearances in The Mummy’s Ghost and Calling Dr. Death (1943).

In the first scene of the film, Cisco (Roland) gets a tip from his old friend Sailor Bill (Glenn Strange) — who has given up a life of crime for a home, wife, and eight children — that a young Frenchman is traveling to San Marino with a chestful of silver. This young man is played by Ames, who is the least convincing young “man” I’ve seen since Barbara Hale put on drag in West of the Pecos (1945). Perhaps this is by design. If Ames was convincing as a fellow, the scene in which Roland leans forward and lights her cigarette would be the most homoerotic image of 1946, since they stare at each other with more heat and longing than you’d see during a day at the beach with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott.

Later he teaches Ames to drink tequila (with lemon and a little salt) and engages in all manner of sexual teasing, like trying to sleep in her bed and then kicking her out when she objects.

Once the idiotic cross-dressing subterfuge is done away with, Ames looks great in a pair of pants and boots. She has more swagger dressed in men’s clothes with her long hair free than she does in drag, but her accent is still all over the place, and the “n’est-ce pas” that often ends her lines sounds about as French as Steve Martin playing Inspector Clouseau. Her character, Jeanne Du Bois, is trying to buy land from the disgraced and drunken Dr. Juan Valegra (Martin Garralaga), land which was stolen, and which Cisco wishes to return to the peasants. His devotion to the Mexican people of Old California gets in the way of his romance with the headstrong Jeanne, but as usual, a good spanking fixes her right up.

Decoy (Sept. 14, 1946)

Jack Bernhard’s Decoy has built up quite a reputation in recent years. Considered a “lost” film for decades, it was written about in several books about film noir, and its perversity and violence were marveled over, as well as the coldness of its femme fatale.

When a print of the film was unearthed and shown as part of the Second Annual Festival of Film Noir in March 2000 at the Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles, the audience reportedly went wild.

Film critic Glenn Erickson (who also does a commentary track on the DVD) wrote that “as far as violence goes, Decoy was to 1946 what Pulp Fiction is to 1994.” I’m not sure if this is true. Certainly in terms of cultural impact, Quentin Tarantino’s films made a much larger splash in the ’90s than this picture did at the time of its release. And it’s hard to compare Tarantino’s films — which are incredibly self-aware, and which owe so much to every decade of film history that preceded them — to this unselfconscious programmer.

Decoy is based on a story by Stanley Rubin, who wrote it after he got out of the Air Corps in an attempt to make some money. He first sold it to radio, and then, with a few changes, to director Bernhard at Monogram Pictures. The screenplay is by Nedrick Young. It stars British actress Jean Gillie as Margot Shelby, surely one of the most heartless femme fatales in the history of noir. (Gillie was married to the director. They met in England, and they divorced shortly after the film was finished, and she only starred in one other film before she died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 33.)

When the film begins, we see Dr. L.L. “Lloyd” Craig (Herbert Rudley) staggering out of a gas station washroom in the early dawn hours. He hitches a ride into town, and heads for a particular room in a hotel. Once he’s inside, we hear shots. Police sergeant Joe “Jo Jo” Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) rushes down the corridor. The doctor is dead, there’s a wooden box with the lock shot off (MacGuffin alert!), and Margot is lying on the couch, wounded. When Jo Jo hands her the box, she laughs and weeps, and generally acts like a petulant child.

In classic noir fashion, she narrates her own story as she lies dying. Her boyfriend, gangster Frankie Olins (Robert Armstrong) was set to die in the gas chamber, which didn’t make Margot happy. Not because she was going to miss him after he was dead, but because only he knew where the $400,000 take from a robbery was hidden.

In a convoluted scheme, Margot seduces gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris), who has already sunk $45,000 into an appeal for Olins that failed, and gets him to engineer the removal of Frankie’s body from the prison immediately after he dies in the gas chamber. She also seduces Dr. Craig, cajoling him away from his free clinic and his nurse (and possibly girlfriend), who is played by Marjorie Woodworth, whose acting is delightfully terrible.

Dr. Craig is also in charge of autopsies at the prison, so Margot has cooked up a plan in which Dr. Craig will administer methylene blue to Frankie to counteract the hydrocyanic acid he’ll receive in the gas chamber. (Large doses of methylene blue were actually used as an antidote to potassium cyanide poisoning as early as 1933, so kudos to Rubin for making his pseudoscience at least semi-believable.)

After he’s brought back to life, Frankie staggers around like Frankenstein’s monster, even lighting a match at one point and staring at it as though he’s never seen fire before. By the time he breaks down and says, “I’m alive,” it feels as if an hour has gone by.

While Margot not only seduces but murders nearly every man who crosses her path, I didn’t find any of it that shocking, mostly because the tone of the picture is so campy, and Gillie isn’t really a very good actress. The murder that gets talked about the most is the one she commits by running a man over with her car, but the effect of the scene may be softened in the DVD. In Arthur Lyons’s book Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir, he writes that “she runs him over repeatedly,” but in the DVD version she only runs him over once. She puts the selector in drive, steps on the gas, guns the accelerator, and that’s it. Apparently there are two different cuts of Decoy, and people who saw the print at the Egyptian Theatre in 2000 got to see the more brutal version of this murder, but most at-home viewers are going to feel that it’s rather ho-hum, as far as brutal murder scenes go.*

Movies like this all get lumped into a big pile now labeled “film noir,” which is a good designation, and one that’s stood the test of time. It was first used by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, but was completely unknown in Hollywood when “film noirs” were actually being made. Movies like Decoy were called “melodramas” (or sometimes “thrillers” or “suspense” movies) and melodrama is actually a better term to describe this movie than noir, which implies a grander style than Decoy exhibits. The sets are bare bones, the plot is ridiculous, and the acting is campy. There are plenty of night scenes and a few shadows lurking around corners, but in general, the lighting is more utilitarian than chiaroscuro.

This is not to say that Decoy isn’t a lot of fun. It is. And the plotting is clever, especially the “gotcha” ending. But it’s far from a masterpiece, and it’s too silly to be taken very seriously.

*Although both Erickson and Lyons make the claim that Margot runs her victim over with her car “repeatedly,” I’m not 100% convinced that there are two different prints of this film in circulation. The power of suggestion in horrific or violent scenes is a powerful thing, and it can trick the audience, especially after a single viewing of a film. There are critics who swore up and down that they saw the knife slashing Janet Leigh’s skin in Psycho (1960), even though it never actually does, and several critics have memories of seeing a horrific demon baby at the end of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), even though the baby is never shown.

South of Monterey (June 15, 1946)

William Nigh’s South of Monterey is another dreary Cisco Kid programmer from Monogram Pictures. Gilbert Roland, in his second appearance as the character, cuts a dashing figure and is always fun to watch, but overall this one is a real snoozer.

I wasn’t exactly knocked out of my seat by Roland’s first turn as the character in The Gay Cavalier (1946), and his second outing is more of the same, with a by-the-numbers story and an anticlimactic finale. As before, Roland is fun to watch as a smooth Lothario and laid-back hero. It’s everything else about this picture that’s the problem.

This time around, Cisco, his sidekick Baby (Frank Yaconelli), and his merry band of Mexican outlaws have a rival, called “The Silver Bandit.” It should come as no surprise to veterans of Saturday afternoon matinees that Cisco and his crew will be blamed for the nefarious exploits of The Silver Bandit.

South of Monterey combines the two hoariest concepts in these types of films; the evil landowner bleeding the poor farmers dry and the young woman in danger of being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love.

The main villain of the piece is the local tax collector, Bennet (Harry Woods), who repossesses peasants’ land based on non-payment of sky-high taxes and then resells them for a profit. The young woman in danger of being forced into a loveless marriage is Carmelita (Iris Flores), the sister of local commandante of police Auturo (Martin Garralaga). Carmelita is engaged to a fiery young activist named Carlos Mandreno (George J. Lewis), but her brother is angling to have Carlos thrown in jail and his sister married off to his friend Bennet.

The film tries hard to achieve an exciting, south of the border flavor, and occasionally succeeds. Roland doesn’t play Cisco as a Boy Scout — he’s a tequila-drinking, womanizing, cigarette-smoking rapscallion. Also, there are four songs in the film sung in Spanish, one of which leads Cisco to pay Carmelita one of his typically over-the-top compliments, “Your voice has the sweetness of a meadowlark, and the softness of mission bells at twilight.”

South of Monterey isn’t a terrible programmer, it’s just a fairly typical Monogram cheapie. The main reason for me that it was a step down from The Gay Cavalier was the climactic fight, which was a fistfight. Yawn.

As he ably demonstrated in Captain Kidd (1945) and The Gay Cavalier, Roland was a hell of a sword fighter, so it’s a shame to see him swinging haymakers and smashing furniture when his blade was no doubt screaming out for blood. I know I was.

The Gay Cavalier (March 30, 1946)

With this film, handsome 40-year-old actor Gilbert Roland stepped into the role of the Cisco Kid, a Mexican bandit created by O. Henry in his 1907 short story “The Caballero’s Way.” Roland was the fifth man to play the role, after Warner Baxter (in four films, 1928-1939), Cesar Romero (in five films, 1939-1941), Duncan Renaldo (in three films made in 1945), and William R. Dunn, who was the first man to play the Cisco Kid, in the silent short The Caballero’s Way (1914). Roland would go on to play the Cisco Kid in a total of six films released by Monogram Pictures in 1946 and 1947.

In O. Henry’s short story, the Cisco Kid was a vicious and slippery bandit, but by the time Warner Baxter was playing the role, the character had metamorphosed into a noble caballero; a sort of Mexican Robin Hood.

Baby boomers will remember that on TV, the Cisco Kid had a sidekick named Pancho. The first iteration of this character appeared in the 1939 film Return of the Cisco Kid, and he was named “Gordito” (Spanish for “Fatty”). In The Gay Cavalier he’s called “Baby,” and is played by the Mexican actor Nacho Galindo.

Baby gets the first lines of the picture. While Cisco kneels beside a grave, Baby explains to one of his fellow outlaws (presumably one who has just joined the gang and, like the audience, has no idea what’s going on) that Cisco’s father was a notorious bandit. To make up for his father’s exploits, Cisco now robs from the rich and gives to the poor. It’s a clumsy bit of exposition, but no clumsier than most of the rest of the dialogue in the picture. When Baby decides that they’ve spent enough time at the gravesite and he wants to get going, Cisco tells him, “Time is a wonderful thing. It ages wine and mellows women.” Roland is the main reason to see the picture, especially for women who get all hot and bothered for the Latin Lover type. He can really sell lines like this, and not sound too ridiculous.

What Roland is mostly selling, of course, is S-E-X. But not so much that it might offend audiences, or disrupt traditional morality too much. In one scene, Cisco climbs up onto a lovely young señora’s balcony while Baby plays a little music down below. Eventually she reveals that she has a husband who is away on a fishing trip. Cisco responds, “Sometime, when I see your husband, I will tell him the fishing is much better here on land. Adios, beautiful.” He kisses her hand, leaps from the balcony onto his horse, and rides off with his crew and Baby, whose serenade is no longer required.

The Gay Cavalier takes place in California in 1850. The nice thing about old Hollywood westerns that take place in California is that the scenery is authentic, if nothing else. Martin Garralaga, the actor who played “Pancho” in the three 1945 Cisco Kid films with Duncan Renaldo, here plays Don Felipe Geralda, a man who has fallen on hard times. His youngest daughter, Angela (Helen Gerald), is engaged to marry a wealthy American named Lawton (Tristram Coffin), whose money will allow the Geralda hacienda to stay in the family.

Unbeknownst to the Geraldas, Lawton and his partner Lewis (John Merton) are up to no good. In the beginning of the picture, they ambush a wagon carrying a shipment of silver collected from poor people to build a mission in Monterey. They leave one man wounded but alive, and say loudly within earshot of the man, “All right, Cisco, we got what we want. Now we go.”

All of this plays out about as predictably as you’d expect. The enjoyment comes from the particulars. The sultry and beautiful actress Ramsay Ames plays Don Geralda’s eldest daughter, Pepita, and she sings a few numbers that Ames herself is credited with writing. Also, the action is well staged, especially the final showdown between Cisco and Lawton. As he demonstrated in a film I watched last year, Captain Kidd (1945), Roland is a hell of a sword fighter. He and Coffin go at it with no stunt doubles in evidence, although the film is sped up very slightly.

Also, unlike most of the actors who played the Cisco Kidd, Roland was actually Mexican. He was born “Luis Antonio Dámaso de Alonso” in Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1905. He took his stage name from his two favorite actors, John Gilbert and Ruth Roland. He’s a very credible swashbuckler, and a lot of fun to watch, even though The Gay Cavalier is strictly a programmer.

One odd note, the DVD from VCI Entertainment I watched uses a print with a strange ADR issue. It didn’t take long before I noticed that every time someone said “Cisco Kid” it was looped in, and not well. I did some research, but couldn’t find exactly why this was the case. This was originally released as a Cisco Kid feature, and there would have been no restriction on using the name, so the prevailing theory seems to be that the film was dubbed for television release in the ’50s, and the character’s name was changed so as not to cause confusion with the Cisco Kid TV show, and one of those prints was the only one they could find, so they dubbed the original character’s name back in. Whatever the reason, it was weird and distracting.

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