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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Jungle Jim (Dec. 15, 1948)

Jungle Jim
Jungle Jim (1948)
Directed by William Berke
Esskay Pictures Corporation / Columbia Pictures

It’s the end of an era, and the start of a new one. Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) was Johnny Weissmuller’s last time playing Tarzan, and this was his first time playing Alex Raymond’s comic-strip hero Jungle Jim.

Raymond was one of the greatest writer-artists to ever work in the medium of the funny pages, and in addition to Jungle Jim he also created Flash Gordon, Secret Agent X-9, and Rip Kirby.

Unlike other jungle heroes like Tarzan, Ka-Zar, Ka’a’nga, and Sheena, Jungle Jim operated in Southeastern Asia, not Africa, and he wore a full set of clothes.

For the purposes of a Saturday-afternoon flick, however, it’s clear that director William Berke and his production team didn’t spend much time differentiating their highly fictionalized jungle world from the highly fictionalized version of Africa that appeared in most jungle B-movies.

In fact, I’m unclear after one viewing whether this film was meant to take place in Africa or Southeastern Asia. There were references to the Masai, but the “natives” being referred to were not black Africans, but rather the type of “natives” common to films produced by “Jungle Sam” Katzman; in other words, they’re white actors who look like Brooklyn teamsters wearing turbans.

The biggest difference between Jungle Jim and the Tarzan films comes when we see Weissmuller walk out of the jungle in the first shot of the film, fully clothed and wearing a Panama hat, which is an odd sight after so many years of mostly only seeing him in loincloths of various sizes.

But never fear. Most of the things that made Weissmuller an action star are still on display. It takes exactly 2 minutes and 4 seconds from the moment the film begins before Weissmuller takes off his shoes and leaps into the water to attempt to save a terrified native from a man-eating leopard. Even though Weissmuller is older and heavier as Jungle Jim than he was in a lot of his Tarzan films, he’s still an Olympic champion swimmer, and no other B-movie actor could knife through the water like he could. (Well, maybe Buster Crabbe could.)

Reeves and Weissmuller

The plot of Jungle Jim is the typical jungle-adventure-film malarkey. A scientist named Dr. Hilary Parker (Virginia Grey) is searching for the lost temple of Zimbalu, which has great archaeological value. Zimbalu may contain gold, but — more importantly — it might be the source of a substance that could be used to cure infantile paralysis if placed in the right hands. (Paging Dr. Jonas Salk!)

Curing polio is Dr. Parker’s goal, but it’s not the goal of safari member Bruce Edwards (played by George Reeves, who would go on to play Superman on TV in the ’50s). Edwards is only in it for the gold, and doesn’t care who he has to stab in the back to get it.

There’s also a beautiful “native” girl named Zia (Lita Baron), who doesn’t know why Dr. Parker dresses and acts like a man, and is jealous of the attention Jungle Jim pays to Dr. Parker.

Like most low-budget jungle adventures, Jungle Jim employs lots of stock footage. An entire sequence is edited to make it appear as if Dr. Parker’s dog Skipper is interacting with a little monkey. There’s also a crocodile attack, a monkey stealing honey, and a crow smoking a pipe. The emphasis in Jungle Jim is on action above all else. An elephant stampede is immediately followed by a rock slide, which is followed by the shapely Zia dancing spastically around a campfire.

Jungle Jim is dumb, but plenty of fun if you like B-movies set in the jungle. If you like beautiful women, there’s plenty to enjoy, too. Grey and Baron are both stunning. Dr. Parker is supposed to be mannish, but those glasses don’t cut it.

Street Corner (Dec. 3, 1948)

Street Corner

Street Corner (1948)
Directed by Albert H. Kelley
Wilshire Pictures Corp.

Street Corner is one of several “sex hygiene” films that followed in the wake of Kroger Babb’s notorious roadshow presentation Mom and Dad (1945) and attempted to copy its phenomenal success.

Like all exploitation movies from the 1940s, Street Corner had to demonstrate some kind of legitimate educational value in order to show lurid footage that could never make it into mainstream Hollywood entertainment, like syphilitic penises and close-up footage of babies being born.

Street Corner does a much better job of walking this line than a trashy picture like Test Tube Babies (1948). Its call for facts-based sex education for young people is a noble one, although the film is in every way a product of its time.

Dr. James Fenton (played by Joseph Crehan) narrates the film, telling the sad tale of his friends Mr. and Mrs. Marsh (Don Brodie and Jean Fenwick), who didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to prepare their daughter Lois (Marcia Mae Jones) for the realities of grown-up life. Clara Marsh tells Dr. Fenton that Lois is a very sensitive girl and that she’d be shocked. She’ll learn about the birds and the bees “somehow.” Somehow is right, says the doctor, who warns Mr. and Mrs. Marsh that if children aren’t given proper sex education they’ll learn about it on “the street corner” or in “the alley.”

Lois Marsh is 17 years old when she ambivalently loses her virginity to her 19-year-old boyfriend Bob Mason (John Treul) on prom night. He gets her with the old “I’m going to college and this’ll be our last date in a long, long time” routine. The director of Street Corner, Albert H. Kelley, shows that he knows how to wield symbolism as a blunt object by depicting Lois having sex for the first time with a close-up shot of her hand slowly crushing her corsage. (Wink wink.)

Naturally, since this is a sex hygiene film, one night of knocking boots knocks up poor Lois. Her clueless parents offer no help. Her boyfriend rushes back from college to marry her, but he winds up a smear on the highway, and Lois winds up in the hands of the local abortionist (Gretl Dupont).

In the Clutches of the Abortionist

Lois’s visit to the abortionist is shot and scored like a horror movie. Unlike Vera Drake, this abortionist takes payment and doesn’t seem to care very much about the young women in her care.

Dr. Fenton’s voice-over drives home the horror: “Fear and ignorance have combined to add another victim to the ever-mounting toll. Another human life has been destroyed by one of the most malignant practices of a civilized society; abortion.”

People who bought tickets to Street Corner had to wait nearly an hour to see Dr. Fenton’s “clinical demonstration,” his regular weekly clinic of sex education that features explicit short films. The first is The Miracle of Birth, which begins with an animation of an egg being released into the female organs of reproduction, then being fertilized by a lone sperm. Eventually this leads to what Dr. Fenton calls “the ultimate and crowning glory of womanhood, the miracle of birth,” which takes place while the mother is asleep under a light anesthetic. We get to see a baby boy coaxed out of a vagina and then see his umbilical cord cut.

The next film is Birth by Caesarean Section, which I’m sure satisfied any budding gore-hounds in the audience while sickening everyone else.

Then we get Human Wreckage, a film about venereal disease that explains the importance of blood tests before marriage, followed by a series of graphic close-ups of male and female genitals infected with syphilis and gonorrhea, which are meant to caution viewers against neglect, self-treatment, and quack medicine.

Street Corner was made long before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was still illegal in America. Dr. Fenton makes no bones about calling abortion “murder.” And of course there is no mention of any kind of birth control in the film. Apparently just knowing that it isn’t the stork that brings babies will be enough to stop girls from getting green-gowned and knocked up after the prom.

3 Godfathers (Dec. 1, 1948)

3 Godfathers
3 Godfathers (1948)
Directed by John Ford
Argosy Pictures / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

After making the western masterpiece Fort Apache (1948), director John Ford returned to the religious overtones of the movie he made right before Fort Apache, The Fugitive (1947).

3 Godfathers reimagines the biblical story of the three wise men as a story of three bank robbers from Texas who are fleeing a U.S. Marshal in the Arizona Territory.

Unlike Ford’s previous several black & white films, 3 Godfathers is shot in Technicolor. It’s dedicated to the memory of Harry Carey, “Bright Star of the early western sky.” (Carey acted in dozens of Ford’s early films, and died on September 21, 1947.)

3 Godfathers stars John Wayne and Pedro Armendáriz, and “introduces” Harry Carey’s son, Harry Carey, Jr.

I put “introduces” in quotation marks because he’d already had credited roles in several films, including Pursued (1947), Red River (1948), and Moonrise (1948).

The three bank robbers are named Robert Marmaduke Hightower (John Wayne), William Kearney, a.k.a. “The Abilene Kid” (Harry Carey, Jr.), and Pedro “Pete” Roca Fuerte (Pedro Armendáriz). John Wayne’s drinking buddy, Ward Bond, plays the U.S. Marshal who pursues Robert, William, and Pedro after they rob a bank. Bond’s character is named Perley “Buck” Sweet, or “B. Sweet,” a name Robert finds hilarious. Marshal Sweet’s bearlike body and easygoing nature belie his craftiness. When he first pursues the bank robbers, he shoots a hole in their waterskin, then he sets up camp with his deputies at the spot he thinks they’ll have to circle back to in order to get water.

Godfather John Wayne

Wandering through the desert, the three bank robbers find a dying woman (Mildred Natwick), who has just given birth to a baby. She tells them that they will be the boy’s godfathers, and she names her baby after the three of them — Robert William Pedro.

The following section of the film is sort of like a religious version of Three Men and a Baby in the Old West, as the trio of roughnecks try to figure out how to care for a baby in sometimes hilarious ways. When they finally rig up a nursing device and fill the bottle with milk, John Wayne laughs and says, “Boy, he hops to it like a drunkard at a Fourth of July barbecue.”

There are tender moments, too, like the one in which Carey holds the baby and sings “Streets of Laredo” in a beautiful baritone.

The religious aspects of the story are fairly explicit. The three godfathers follow a bright star in the sky toward the town of New Jerusalem, and they do so to the musical strains of “Away in a Manger” as the desert sands blow over the large wooden cross they’ve placed over the baby’s mother’s grave. They also use Bible verses as guides and portents in their journey.

3 Godfathers is based on Peter B. Kyne’s first novel, which was published in 1913. An immensely popular little work, The Three Godfathers was first filmed as The Three Godfathers (1916), a silent film directed by Edward LeSaint that starred Harry Carey. John Ford filmed the story as Marked Men (1919), again starring Carey. Ford made another version of the story called Action in 1921, William Wyler made a version called Hell’s Heroes in 1929, and Richard Boleslawski filmed a version called Three Godfathers in 1936.

I’ll admit that John Ford’s appeal sometimes eludes me. I’m not nearly as in love with some of his masterpieces as others are. But while 3 Godfathers will probably never be counted as one of Ford’s masterpieces, I thought it was a well-crafted, emotionally satisfying film. It’s also the perfect choice if you love westerns and are looking for a good movie to watch around Christmas with your family.

Bicycle Thieves (Nov. 24, 1948)

Ladri di biciclette

Ladri di biciclette (1948)
Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Produzioni De Sica / Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche (ENIC)

Every decade since the 1950s, Sight & Sound magazine has polled an international group of professional film critics to assemble lists of the greatest movies ever made.

For most of the 20th century, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) dominated the lists as the greatest film of all time, but in the very first critics’ poll, published in 1952, Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves was their choice for best film of all time, followed by two Chaplin movies, City Lights (1931) and The Gold Rush (1925). (Kane didn’t quite crack the top 10.)

In the most recent Sight & Sound poll, published in 2012, Citizen Kane was unseated as the greatest film ever made by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), and officially became merely the second greatest film ever made. (Bicycle Thieves was #33 on the list of 250 films.)

“Greatest films of all time” lists are notoriously contentious and usually somewhat arbitrary, but Sight & Sound is one of the few that carries real weight.

I first became aware of De Sica’s neorealist masterpiece when I was 14 or 15 (back when it was still called The Bicycle Thief in English), but I never got around to seeing it until a few days ago.

Watching a widely acknowledged masterpiece for the first time can be a difficult experience. It’s easy to overanalyze it and constantly ask yourself, “Well, what’s so great about this really?”

So when I watch one of the “great films” for the first time, I just try to let it all wash over me and not think about it too hard until the credits roll.

Bruno and Antonio

Bicycle Thieves is based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini. It’s the story of Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), a man with a wife and young son and a baby. Like most of the citizens of Rome in the post-war 1940s, they are poor and struggling, and Antonio is desperate for work. (His son Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola, is only 8 years old, but even he works part time at a gas station to help the family.)

When Antonio gets a job hanging posters throughout the city, it’s the answer to his prayers, but he needs a bicycle to do the job, and he pawned his bicycle some time ago. So his wife, Maria (Lianella Carell), pawns their precious dowry sheets to get the money Antonio needs to get his bicycle out of hock, which allows him to do his job and earn a regular salary.

Antonio’s joy is short-lived. As he’s standing on his ladder one day, pasting up a poster of Rita Hayworth, his bicycle is swiped from the wall where it is leaning next to him.

The rest of the film follows Antonio’s journey through Rome with his son Bruno as they search for the bicycle, the bicycle thief, and the larger network of thieves who helped pull off the theft.

When Bicycle Thieves ended, it left me with a mixture of sadness and exhilaration that I haven’t felt since the first time I watched Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950).

Bicycle Thieves is very different from Los Olvidados, and its tragedies are less earth-shaking, but it affected me in a way that cinematic death and destruction almost never does.

Antonio and Bruno

The Italian neorealist movement started with Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Neorealism rejected Hollywood-style glamor in favor of nonprofessional actors working in real locations. Although neorealist films are shot in a verité style, none of them are documentaries. While De Sica’s actors were all appearing in a film for the first time, he was a seasoned director working with a professional crew. There is even a rainstorm in Bicycle Thieves that De Sica and his crew created themselves.

As Antonio, Lamberto Maggiorani is not always likeable, but he is always relatable and always seems like a real person. Enzo Staiola, who plays his son Bruno, gives a deeply affecting performance. In the beginning of the film he’s a “little man,” and makes a lot of gestures and utterances that are funny because they seem so adult. But in the end, he’s just a child, and his wordless acting conveys so much.

What impressed me most about Bicycle Thieves was the way it used grandness of scale to tell a story of individuals. When Maria pawns her family’s linen at the beginning of the film, we watch it slowly disappear into a huge warehouse of pawned linen. Each bundle tells its own sad story. For the majority of the film, the number of people and bicycles in Rome is overwhelming. But we never stop thinking about that one, precious bicycle that Antonio and Bruno are searching for. The film ends with Antonio and Bruno disappearing into a crowd, just the way the linen disappeared into a warehouse of linen, and the way his bicycle disappeared into streets full of bicycles. The man and his son are just two tiny people in a sea of humanity, but when the film ended, their story meant more to me than I can express.

He Walked by Night (Nov. 24, 1948)

He Walked by Night
He Walked by Night (1948)
Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Bryan Foy Productions / Eagle-Lion Films

He Walked by Night is a police procedural directed by Alfred L. Werker, with uncredited directorial assistance from Anthony Mann. The starkly lighted cinematography is by John Alton, who had previously worked with Mann on two of his most memorable film noirs: T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948).

Docudrama films were a popular genre after World War II. The genre began with documentarian and newsreel producer Louis de Rochemont’s purportedly true espionage stories The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), as well as his fact-based legal drama Boomerang (1947).

Producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin’s film The Naked City (1948) wasn’t based on any single true incident, but it sought to depict realistic police work — a team of detectives recording the details of a crime scene, interviewing witnesses, tracking down leads, and pursuing suspects.

He Walked by Night didn’t invent the police procedural, but it’s probably the single most influential film in the genre. It featured Jack Webb in his first credited role, and his relationship with the film’s technical advisor, LAPD Sgt. Marty Wynn, led to the creation of the radio show Dragnet in 1949. (The series hit television in 1951.)

The film begins with a screen of text explaining that what you’re about to see is a true story, and is based on the case of one of the most diabolically cunning killers ever to be hunted by the police. It ends with the following sentence: “Only the names are changed — to protect the innocent.” Sound familiar, Dragnet fans?

Like every film or book that can properly be called a police procedural, He Walked by Night features a team of police officers and detectives. The lead investigator in the case, Sgt. Marty Brennan, is played by Lawrence Tierney’s little brother, Scott Brady, fresh off a starring role in another docudrama, the “ripped from the headlines” prison escape drama Canon City (1948). The other police officers include Capt. Breen (Roy Roberts), Sgt. Chuck Jones (James Cardwell), and police laboratory technician Lee Whitey (Jack Webb).

Richard Basehart

The meatiest role in the picture belongs to Richard Basehart, who plays Roy Morgan (a.k.a. Roy Martin), an electronics-obsessed former serviceman who — in the tense opening scene of the film — graduates from breaking & entering to murder.

Basehart delivers a lean, mean performance. He has some great scenes with his fence, Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell), but other than that he has very little dialogue. The film hangs on his performance, and he’s completely believable as an endlessly resourceful sociopath who’s able to elude the police through a combination of planning and luck. (The character was inspired by the real-life case of Erwin “Machine Gun” Walker, who went on a crime spree in 1945 and 1946.)

He Walked by Night in the Sewers

It’s a cliche to say that the real star of a film noir is its cinematography, but it’s usually true. John Alton’s photography consistently gives the low-budget film an intense, driving atmosphere. Nearly ever shot in the film is a masterwork of lighting and composition, culminating in the final chase through the Los Angeles sewer system.

He Walked by Night is currently in the public domain, so it can be seen on YouTube (below), and is available on DVD from a variety of companies. The only caveat is that some of them look pretty lousy, so noir fans who want to own this film on DVD are advised to pick up the disc from MGM and to avoid at all costs the cheapo disc from Alpha Video, which looks just terrible.

The Boy With Green Hair (Nov. 16, 1948)

The Boy With Green Hair

The Boy With Green Hair (1948)
Directed by Joseph Losey
RKO Radio Pictures

If you only know Dean Stockwell as the craggy character actor who appeared in TV shows like Quantum Leap and Battlestar Galactica, it might be hard to believe that he was ever an adorable little 12-year-old boy.

Well, he was. Even with a shaved head, which is how he first appears in The Boy With Green Hair, in the 1940s Stockwell was cuter than a barrel of baby pandas.

The Boy With Green Hair was Joseph Losey’s first feature-length film. It’s a lovely little Technicolor parable that opens with the song “Nature Boy.” (You know, the one about “a very strange, enchanted boy”?) Nat King Cole’s recording of the tune was a big hit in 1948, and was the #1 single in the United States for seven weeks. The melody of the song recurs throughout the film.

It’s the story of a boy named Peter Fry (Stockwell), whose parents are dead, but no one seems to want to tell him. He’s shuttled around from home to home, always carrying a letter to show his foster parents (who he refers to as his “aunts and uncles”), although he’s not aware of the contents.

Eventually he settles down with “Gramp,” a former vaudevillian and magician (and current singing waiter) played by likeable old Irishman Pat O’Brien.

Peter thrives under Gramp’s care, feeling good enough about life that he no longer has to sleep with a baseball bat (though he keeps it on the floor next to him just in case). One day, however, his school holds a charity drive for war orphans. As Peter stands in front of a poster with a black and white photograph of an “Unidentified War Orphan,” he’s forced to confront the truth about his parents. They died in the London Blitz, and Peter can no longer deny the horrors of war. All of a sudden, war orphans aren’t just “over there,” they are right here, and he is one of them.

O'Brien and Stockwell

Not long after this revelation, he wakes up one morning with bright green hair. Punks with brightly dyed hair turned heads in the 1970s, and it was even more unheard of in the 1940s. Peter is instantly ostracized by people who happily tousled his hair when it was brown. His teacher, Miss Brand (Barbara Hale), tries to make him feel OK about his condition. He may be the only kid in class with green hair, but there’s also only one boy who has red hair. But nothing stops the bullying and name-calling. The world is cruel to those who are different.

The Boy With Green Hair is told in flashback, as Peter sits in a police station with a shaved head, telling his story to kindly child psychologist Dr. Evans (Robert Ryan). The message of the film might seem simple, but Losey’s direction and Stockwell’s assured performance elevate it to something haunting and strange that can’t be boiled down to a single slogan. It’s a movie that tells a serious, allegorical story about a child that other children can understand.