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Category Archives: August 1946

The Big Sleep (Aug. 31, 1946)

The Big Sleep is a classic of the mystery and noir genres. Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is one of cinema’s most memorable shamuses (a term which everyone in this movie pronounces “shah-mus,” not “shay-mus”). It’s also one of the most quotable movies of all time. When asked how he likes his brandy, Marlowe says, “In a glass.” After an encounter with a young coquette, Marlowe says, “She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.”

And it’s not just Marlowe who gets all the good lines. Nearly every character in the movie makes an impression, even the ones who are only onscreen for a few minutes. Aging cowboy actor Bob Steele, whom I’ve recently seen in several forgettable B westerns, plays steely-eyed killer Lash Canino with icy resolve, and delivers lines like, “What do you want me to do, count three like they do in the movies?” in a way that makes you believe him.

It’s also a great showcase for Lauren Bacall and her chemistry with Bogart. She was still finding her way as an actress, but as Mrs. Vivian Rutledge, the older daughter of Marlowe’s client, General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), her star quality is undeniable. Beautiful and statuesque, with a deep, sexy voice, she doesn’t “perform” as much as she merely exists. After appearing together in To Have and Have Not (1944), Bacall and Bogart famously fell in love, got married, and — despite their nearly 25-year age difference and his three previous marriages that all ended in divorce — remained married to each other until Bogart’s death early in 1957. Of course, in 1945 no one knew whether their marriage would stand the test of time, but that didn’t stop America and the rest of the movie-going world from falling head over heels in love with “Bogie and Bacall.”

Just 20 years old when she made this film, and reportedly still extremely nervous in front of the camera, her performance was disparaged by many critics, most notoriously by infamous NY Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowther, who wrote in his August 24, 1946, review (published a day after the film’s premiere), “Miss Bacall is a dangerous looking female, but she still hasn’t learned to act.”

Time has proven this criticism unfair, and to be honest, Bogart wasn’t the greatest actor to appear onscreen either. But he was — and is — one of the biggest movie stars of all time. It doesn’t matter that his portrayal of Marlowe isn’t significantly different from his portrayal of Dashiell Hammett’s very different P.I., Sam Spade, in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), because he is believable as both. In each of these iconic performances, he serves as the anchor for all of the seamy characters and twisting plot elements swirling around him.

The plot of The Big Sleep is notoriously byzantine. In his review of the film, Crowther wrote, “This is a frequent failing in films made from Raymond Chandler’s books … if you haven’t read the original, as we haven’t, you are stuck.” It’s possible that Crowther never read any of Chandler’s mysteries that were published before this film was released; The Big Sleep (1939), Farewell, My Lovely (1940), The High Window (1942), and The Lady in the Lake (1943). If he had, he might have known that the plots of all of the Philip Marlowe mysteries were incredibly confusing, and that having read one of Chandler’s books was no guarantee that you would understand a film adaptation of it any better than the illiterate person in the seat next to you.

I’ve read The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, and frequently get details of the two novels confused with each other. This would be a criticism if the point of Chandler’s novels were “whodunnit,” but it never was. Plot was secondary to the writing itself, and to the colorful characters who Marlowe met in the course of his investigations. After reading Farewell, My Lovely, you may forget who did what to whom, but you’re much less likely to forget the first appearance of the hulking Moose Malloy, “not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck … arms hung loose at his sides and a forgotten cigar smoked behind his enormous fingers.”

The dark underbelly of Los Angeles was another thing that Chandler evoked brilliantly, and his convoluted plots helped create a sense of constant movement beneath the surface, and of dark goings-on that even his superlative hero could never fully unravel.

Even Howard Hawks, the director of The Big Sleep, was confused by the novel he was adapting. When he wired Chandler to ask who had killed General Sternwood’s chauffeur, whose corpse is found floating in his sunken car, Chandler replied, “No idea.”

The screenplay by Leigh Brackett, William Faulkner, and Jules Furthman, is a fairly faithful adaptation of its source material, although a few significant elements of the novel (e.g., homosexuality, pornography) were perforce glossed over. But there is one significant moment in which Marlowe sits down in the office of the D.A. and the viewer is led to expect that a recitation of the facts of the case is about to occur. Instead, the screen fades to black, and we rejoin our hero after any explanation has come and gone.

I believe that this scene remained intact in the film’s original version. The Big Sleep was originally shot during World War II, but with the end of the war approaching and a backlog of war films in the can, Warner Bros. released one war picture after another before the public’s appetite for them could diminish too much. A mystery picture like this one, on the other hand, was relatively timeless. (Astute viewers, however, will notice a photograph of President Roosevelt hanging in a bookstore, a reference to “red points,” and the presence of a female cab driver.) Starting in January 1946, many key scenes were reshot to focus more on Bogart and Bacall, and make their romance one of the focal points of the film.

Consequently, several scenes involving the coquette I mentioned in the first paragraph, Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers), were left on the cutting room floor, which is too bad. Not only is she beautiful, she’s an interesting and flawed tragic character. Also, the plot was probably made even more confusing. But whether it makes for a less satisfying overall film is debatable. As with Chandler’s novels, the plot is not really that important.

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The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.

Make Mine Music (Aug. 15, 1946)

Make Mine Music

Make Mine Music (1946)
Directed by Robert Cormack, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, and Joshua Meador
Walt Disney Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

From 1937 to 1942, Walt Disney Pictures produced some of their best and most famous animated features — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).

During World War II, however, the U.S. Army contracted Disney to make training and instruction films like Victory Through Air Power (1943), as well as propaganda shorts like Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi (1943), which is still an effective and chilling piece, and Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), in which Donald Duck has a nightmare and imagines himself a factory worker for the Third Reich. (Have you ever wanted to see Donald Duck read Mein Kampf and give the Sieg Heil salute while quacking “Heil Hitler!” over and over? Of course you have. Check it out if you haven’t already seen it.) These films didn’t generate any income for the studio, so in the post-war years Disney’s feature-length animated films were inexpensive repackagings of short subjects; Make Mine Music (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and Melody Time (1948).

Like any compilation, Make Mine Music is a mixed bag. It begins with “a rustic ballad,” as the title card tells us. The King’s Men sing “The Martins and the Coys,” a comedic take on the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud of the late 19th century. Sadly, hillbilly humor is something we’ve lost in this country. As cable TV has spread to the farthest reaches of the nation and more people have moved from remote rural areas to suburbs, barefooted hicks who tote shotguns, sleep with their arm around a pig, drink “mountain dew” (a.k.a. moonshine), and never wear a shirt under their overalls have gone the way of the dodo. In 1946, however, there were still plenty of those “reckless mountain boys” running around, and this segment lampoons them in grand style. The Martins and the Coys blast one another to pieces with shotguns until their clans are each left with just one representative. One a young man, the other a young woman. The punchline? They fall in love, get married, and then the bickering and the feuding start all over again, while their deceased ancestors watch with approval from their perches on clouds up in hillbilly heaven.

The second feature is “a tone poem.” The Ken Darby Chorus sing “Blue Bayou” while what appears to be an egret lazily flies around a blue bayou full of dark, dripping colors. Eventually the egret meets a second egret and they slowly disappear into the sky together. This short is audiovisual heroin, and I felt as if I was being shot up against my will.

Luckily, the third feature, “a jazz interlude” featuring Benny Goodman and his Orchestra called “All the Cats Join In,” really knocks it out of the park. Stylized images are created in a sketch book by an oversized pencil and then come to life. First a cat is drawn, then erased, then replaced by an Archie Andrews lookalike. There are even a few risqué images, with a bobby soxer jumping in the shower to get ready for a date, then running around barely covered by a towel, then jumping into her clothes and exposing her frilly underthings while bent over and rummaging around in her closet. All the while her younger sister mimics her every move. Then it’s into the jalopy with the rest of the gang and off to the malt shop. The music in this one is genuinely good, and the animation style looks about 15 years ahead of its time.

At this point, the structure of Make Mine Music becomes clear, as this fun and jazzy number is followed by another mawkish piece of visual barbiturate — “a ballad in blue” — featuring Andy Russell singing “Without You.” Rivulets of water running down a windowpane create one maudlin image after another, none of them memorable, but all designed to evoke a sense of pretty desolation — trees without leaves against a sunset, etc. Eventually we come back in through the window and the piece ends with the image of a dark blue sky surrounded by black with a single star in the sky, mirroring the lyrics of the song. This short is not recommended for the clinically depressed or anyone who’s just been dumped.

True to the established pattern, the next short is tons o’ fun. It’s “a musical recitation” by Jerry Colonna of “Casey at the Bat.” It opens with a series of turn-of-the-century stills and enlightened lyrics like, “The ladies don’t understand baseball a bit, they don’t know a strike from a foul or a hit,” followed by typical goofy “humorous” Disney animation. It’s all silly fun, and the final strikeout sequence is especially over the top.

Unsurprisingly, this is followed by a “ballade ballet” with animated versions of dancers Tania Riabouchinskaya (listed in the credits as just “Riabouchinska”) and David Lichine, accompanied by Dinah Shore singing “Two Silhouettes.” The white silhouetes are clearly based on real figures, and are gag-inducing, but can’t hold a candle in the gorge-rising department to the chubby white cherub silhouettes who fly in at the very end to drape the dancers with something or other.

Next up is “a fairy tale with music,” which is a version of Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” narrated by Sterling Holloway. If you took a field trip to the symphony when you were a child, chances are “Peter and the Wolf” was on the program, since it’s a great way to introduce young people to a variety of instruments and the concept of musical motifs. Like “Casey at the Bat,” this segment is serviceable, but not wildly memorable.

Following this is the Goodman Quartet performing “After You’ve Gone.” Little anthropomorphic instruments dance around. It’s short and sweet.

Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet

The high point of Make Mine Music is “a love story” sung by the Andrews Sisters, “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.” This one is just adorable. Anthropomorphic hats have the potential to be really creepy, but they’re both pretty cute — especially Johnnie, whose expressive eyes are formed from the divets in the front of the fedora above the hat band. Long story short, Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet sit next to each other in a department store window, fall in love, are separated, and eventually find each other again.

Make Mine Music was the first movie my mother remembers seeing. When I was a little kid, I asked her about the first movie she’d ever seen, and the only thing she specifically remembered was “Johnnie Fedora and Alice Bluebonnet.” She even sang the first few bars of the song, and got the melody just right, although not with the Andrews Sisters’ adenoidal twang.

The final short is an “opera pathetique” performed by Nelson Eddy, who does all the voices for the “tragic story” of “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met.” An impresario from the Met named “Teti Tati” takes off after Willie the whale after reading about him in the newspaper, because he believes that an opera singer has been swallowed by the whale, like Jonah. When Teti Tati discovers that Willie can sing in three voices, he believes that the whale has swallowed three different opera singers. (We get to see a whole lot of Willie’s three vibrating uvulas.) There follows a fantastic dream sequence in which Willie imagines himself in a variety of roles, his bulk spilling out over the stage. He showers himself with “tears” from his blowhole while singing Pagliacci. He appears in flames as Mephistopheles. But unfortunately, it’s all a fantasy, and eventually the impresario succeeds in harpooning Willie. Unlike the duck in “Peter and the Wolf,” however, Willie doesn’t come back. Sure, the conclusion shows us that he’s in heaven singing in “a hundred voices,” but what consolation is that to a five-year-old? Or to a thirty-five-year-old, for that matter?

If you like this movie enough to rent or purchase it on DVD, you’ll find that the first short, “The Martins and the Coys,” has been completely cut out, and the King’s Men have been deleted from the opening credits. Why? Because as a corporate entity, Disney constantly rewrites its own artistic history. When Melody Time was released for the home video market in 1998, a cigarette dangling from Pecos Bill’s mouth was digitally removed. Also, lyrics in the opening song of Aladdin (1992) were altered under pressure from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

This is nothing new. When Fantasia was re-released in the late ’40s, some incredibly racist caricatures were excised. Were they offensive? Of course. Should Disney be allowed to get away with whitewashing (no pun intended) their own work? I don’t think so.

Why was “The Martins and the Coys” removed, anyway? A common explanation given is that it contains gunplay, but so does “Johnnie Fedora.” Was it because of stereotypes of rural Americans? What about the Italian stereotypes in “The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met”? Or the chauvinistic lyrics in “Casey at the Bat”?

Will some day the wonderful “All the Cats Join In” be removed from prints of this film under pressure from the fat-acceptance crowd, since in one scene a bobby soxer is drawn a little heavy in the hips, leading a boy to shake his head until the pencil and eraser come back in to “fix” her?

At least when Disney released Der Fuehrer’s Face on DVD as part of the Walt Disney Treasures — On the Front Lines collection, they didn’t mess with it. All you have to do is suffer through Leonard Maltin explaining that during wartime, stereotypes were sometimes used and abused. (And you do have to suffer through it every time you watch it. The DVD is programmed so you can’t fast forward past it.) Disclaimers like that are fine with me. Rewriting history is not.

Night and Day (Aug. 3, 1946)

If you’re looking for a biopic about Cole Porter that tells the real story of his life, Michael Curtiz’s Night and Day is not for you. If, however, you’re merely looking for a sumptuous Technicolor musical extravaganza starring Cary Grant with great songs throughout, then it fits the bill.

The film was made with Porter’s supervision and full approval, so failures early in his career are blamed on everything but mediocre songwriting and production, and questions about his sexuality are never addressed.

The more recent Porter biopic, De-Lovely (2004), which starred Kevin Kline, implied that he was bisexual, but plenty of other sources claim he was gay, which makes more sense. His 35-year marriage to Linda Thomas was successful, if sexless, but all that means is that the two shared a genuine friendship and enjoyed each other’s company. Also, the seamier details of Porter’s parties during his time in Paris in 1917 and 1918 — “much gay and bisexual activity, Italian nobility, cross-dressing, international musicians, and a large surplus of recreational drugs” — wouldn’t have been appropriate material for a Hollywood production in the ’40s, even if Porter had been completely open about them.

Porter was an undeniably great songwriter — and one of the few Tin Pan Alley composers to write both music and lyrics — but even here the movie sanitizes things, since Porter’s lyrics were notoriously risqué. For instance, when the song “Let’s Do It” is played, you’ll heard about how “educated fleas” do it, but nothing about how roosters do it “with a doodle and a cock.” And musically, Ray Heindorf’s orchestrations tend toward the saccharine. By the end of the picture I felt as if I’d heard the same piece played over and over again.

Some of the whitewashing in Night and Day is purely ridiculous, though. Why was Porter’s first Broadway production, See America First, which was written with his Yale classmate Monty Woolley, a flop? Not because it was a critical disaster, according to this movie, but because the opening night crowd was drawn out into the streets by late-edition newspapers carrying word of the Lusitania sinking. Never mind that in real life, the New York American called the play a “high-class college show played partly by professionals.” In the world of Night and Day its failure was wholly due to a disaster outside of Woolley and Porter’s control. (Incidentally, Woolley plays himself in Night and Day, but perhaps owing to his age, his character is recast as one of Porter’s Yale professors instead of his contemporary.)

While there is no intimation that Porter may have ever produced mediocre work, there are gay undertones in the picture, if you care to look for them. Alexis Smith as Porter’s wife Linda spends a lot of the film looking dissatisfied and neglected. And the dramatic arc hits its climax at the 90-minute mark when Cole and Linda are pulled apart by the pressures of success. “You’ve put me in a small corner of your life, and every once in awhile you turn around and smile at me,” she tearfully tells him. In the film, their marital difficulties are resolved, but in an unconvincing, wordless final scene.

While the drama of Night and Day may be dishonest, the music is not, and it’s a great-looking movie.

Black Angel (Aug. 2, 1946)

Black Angel was directed by Roy William Neill, the dependable craftsman responsible for eleven of Universal’s fourteen Sherlock Holmes pictures. Black Angel isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s slick, well-made entertainment and a nice opportunity to see what Neill was capable of when he stepped outside of the formula of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Holmes films.

The screenplay, by Roy Chanslor, is based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel of the same name. Woolrich was a prolific author, and an instrumental figure in film noir, even though his actual work for the film industry occurred only during the silent era and was brief and unhappy. He apparently wrote a few screenplays under the name “William Irish,” which was one of his pseudonyms. (“George Hopley” was the other.) He was also briefly married as a young man, but it was annulled after less than three years. After that, he headed back to New York City, his hometown, and went back to live with his mother.

Woolrich mostly kept to himself. A closeted homosexual with a drinking problem, Woolrich found his niche writing stories for the pulps. He was a frequent contributor to publications like Black Mask and Argosy. More screenplays for film noirs were adapted from Woolrich’s stories and novels than from the the work of any other crime writer, but that’s not the only reason he was instrumental to the genre. The inky darkness of noir is evident in the titles of his books alone; The Bride Wore Black (1940), The Black Curtain (1941), The Black Path of Fear (1944), and Rendezvous in Black (1948) are just a few. The two novels of his I’ve read were not particularly well-written — he wasn’t a great stylist like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett — but he conveyed in his writing a sense of overwhelming dread and alienation, both emotions that are central to film noir.

Also, perhaps due to his his drinking, Woolrich’s characters frequently suffer from amnesia and alcohol-induced blackouts. In Fright, written in 1950 under the name George Hopley, a young man is convinced he has committed murder while blind drunk, but it’s not clear for most of the novel whether he actually has or not.

This is a theme that rears its head once again in Black Angel, in which a regular Joe named Kirk Bennett (John Phillips) is convicted of the murder of a blackmailing singer named Mavis Marlowe (Constance Dowling). Bennett’s wife Catherine (June Vincent, who bears a fairly strong resemblance to Dowling) believes he is innocent, and sets out to prove it. She enlists the aid of Martin Blair (Dan Duryea), a composer and piano player who seems like a decent guy despite his alcoholism and unhealthy obsession with the murdered woman. (In the memorable first scene of the picture, we see Duryea leaning against a wall, staring up at the high rise apartment in which Mavis lives.) As Bennett’s execution date looms, the two pose as a professional singer and piano player in order to get closer to their prime suspect, an oily club owner named Marko (Peter Lorre).

One of the things I liked best about Black Angel was the opportunity to see Duryea in a sympathetic role. He wasn’t perpetually cast early in his career as villains and sniveling punks because he lacked charisma, he had plenty. But he was whip-thin and had a perpetual scowl, and he was good at playing nasty characters. The poster for Black Angel calls him “that fascinating tough guy of Scarlet Street,” and that movie and this one were both instrumental in creating his new image as a violent, dangerous, and sexy antihero.

Sadly, this would be Neill’s last film. He died of a heart attack on December 14, 1946, while visiting relatives in England. He was 59 years old. Neill was a superior craftsman, and his Sherlock Holmes films were some of the most entertaining and well-made programmers of the ’40s. He made all kinds of films, including the campy horror movie Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (a personal favorite), but Black Angel showed what he was capable of in the hard-boiled noir/mystery genre. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to make more movies like it.