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Category Archives: December 1947

The Sea Hound (15 chapters) (Sept. 11-Dec. 18, 1947)

The Sea Hound, subtitled the “Dare Devil Adventures of Captain Silver,” stars serial superstar Buster Crabbe as Capt. Silver, a broad-shouldered, fearless adventure-seeker who sails the waters of the South Pacific with his faithful crew of oddballs, goofballs, and racial stereotypes. It’s unclear how the crew of the Sea Hound came together, or what their mission is — aside from committing acts of random bravery and wild derring-do — but if you want to enjoy a chapterplay it’s best not to ask too many questions.

The Sea Hound was produced for Columbia Pictures by Sam Katzman. The credits say it was “based on the well known radio program and cartoon magazine.” The comic was published by Avon, but I haven’t been able to find much information about publication dates.

The radio show ran as a weekday serial from 1942 to 1944 on the Blue Network and from 1946 to 1947 on the Mutual Broadcasting System, then briefly on ABC in 1948 as a half-hour adventure show with a complete story each week. The radio plays were focused on Capt. Silver’s youthful crewman Jerry. Jerry’s a character in The Sea Hound serial (played by Ralph Hodges), but there’s no mistaking who the hero is — it’s Buster Motherf—ing Crabbe, that’s who.

Crabbe was pushing 40 when he made The Sea Hound, and he was no longer the trim, leonine figure he was when he starred in the Flash Gordon serials. But after seeing him with his shirt off in The Sea Hound (which happens with alarming regularity) I felt bad about ripping on him for looking out-of-shape in all those PRC westerns he made. Crabbe had packed on some bulk since the Flash Gordon serials, but most of us do when we’re no longer in our 20s, and while he might not look like Flash Gordon anymore, he’s still a square-jawed, muscular hero-type, and he still cuts through the water like only an Olympic Gold Medalist can.

Katzman would eventually be humorously known as “Jungle Sam,” and The Sea Hound uses its ridiculously cheap tropical locations to maximum effect, just as Katzman did with his serial Jack Armstrong (1947). (The Sea Hound actually hits a lot of the same notes as Jack Armstrong. Hugh Prosser even plays nearly exactly the same potentially treacherous ally character.)

The plot of The Sea Hound involves Capt. Silver coming to the aid of Ann Whitney (Pamela Blake), whose father has gone missing on a treasure-hunting expedition. Opposing Capt. Silver is the dastardly Admiral (Robert Barron), who commands the vessel Albatross and has a motley crew of men with names like “Manila Pete” (Rick Vallin) and “Black Mike” (Stanley Blystone).

The wild cards in the story are the deadly tribe of “Ryaks,” who — much like the “natives” in Katzman’s Jack Armstrong — are a bunch of middle-aged men with bare torsos, floral-print sarongs, and headbands.

The Sea Hound isn’t Oscar-caliber entertainment. It’s not even as good as the best of the Republic serials. But for a Columbia serial, I’ve seen a lot worse. It helps that Buster Crabbe is in fine form, and like I said, he’s the motherf—ing king of the serials.

High Wall (Dec. 17, 1947)

High Wall
High Wall (1947)
Directed by Curtis Bernhardt
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Curtis Bernhardt’s High Wall stars Robert Taylor as that most venerable of film noir archetypes — the amnesiac combat veteran who may or may not have committed murder.

Bernhardt was one of many German filmmakers who fled the Third Reich to work in Hollywood, and whose dark artistic sensibilities helped create what we now know as “film noir.” So far I’ve seen two other films he made, the excellent melodrama My Reputation (1946), which starred Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent, and the equally excellent psychodrama Possessed (1947), which starred Joan Crawford and Van Heflin.

High Wall lets Bernhardt flex his suspense-thriller muscles a little, and he’s more than up to the task.

At first glance, High Wall looks and feels like any number of similar dramas from RKO Radio Pictures — tight, well-made, black and white flicks designed for the bottom of a double bill — but it was actually produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, a powerhouse of a studio that wasn’t usually in the “noir” business.

High Wall is a pretty lean thriller, but MGM production values are evident in a few scenes, particularly when the protagonist, Steven Kenet (Robert Taylor), is sent to Hamelin County Psychiatric Hospital. The sanitarium features a big cast of extras; there are legions of brusque, businesslike cops and hospital attendants, and dozens of hapless patients lolling around on beds in the open ward. If High Wall had been an on-the-cheap production for Monogram pictures, there probably would have been one night attendant, two other patients, and sets that looked like they were on loan from a theatrical production.

Most of High Wall is shot on sets, so the exteriors are pretty fake-looking, but not distractingly so. Shooting on a soundstage also allows Bernhardt and his cinematographer, Paul Vogel, to create a dramatic rain-swept finale full of rich textures that probably wouldn’t have been possible if they’d been shooting on location.

Robert Taylor and Audrey Totter

Also, with such a big cast of loonies, it’s more believable that Kenet has so much difficulty seeing his psychiatrist, Dr. Ann Lorrison (Audrey Totter).

Kenet, you see, looks like the most likely suspect for his wife’s murder. Her strangled corpse was sitting right next to him when he drove his car off a bridge in a daze, after all.

But after Kenet finally gets a few appointments with Dr. Lorrison, she starts to believe that he might be innocent. Lorrison is a no-nonsense salt-of-the-earth gal. (This is evident early in the film when she turns down a male doctor’s offer of a date at the opera because she has Red Sox tickets.)

It’s not just Kenet’s good looks, tragic aura, six-year-old son, and Distinguished Service Cross and Silver Star from World War II that attract Lorrison, it’s nagging evidence of his innocence, so she starts helping him escape from the asylum for periods of time so he can investigate upstanding citizen Willard Whitcombe (Herbert Marshall), a middle-aged man who works for Brattle Press Religious Educational Text Books.

Marshall is the perfect villain for this type of melodrama. His bearing is patrician — and his voice is one of the smoothest and most charming you’ll ever hear — but there’s clearly something very wrong with him.

For a good portion of High Wall, it’s possible to be in doubt of the outcome. Kenet looks guilty, even to the viewer, and he suffers from fainting spells. He has a subdural hematoma in the left lobe that’s causing forgetfulness, irritability, and a possible proclivity toward murder and suicide.

High Wall is a fun movie. When it comes to the question of Audrey Totter’s charm and sexiness, I was a little on the fence after Lady in the Lake (1947), but she’s utterly charming in High Wall, and much more natural in High Wall than in Lady in the Lake. (It’s possible that not requiring her to stare into the camera the whole time might have let her deliver a more natural performance.)

I also really like the preview for High Wall. Its claims are actually accurate, too. “So tense. So taut.” That’s true. High Wall is a well-crafted suspense thriller. Also, when the preview says “Robert Taylor — more exciting than in Undercurrent,” that’s an understatement. Undercurrent is really pretty bad, and High Wall is really pretty good:

T-Men (Dec. 15, 1947)


T-Men (1947)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Eagle-Lion Films

Anthony Mann’s T-Men sneaks up on you like a sap-wielding mug in a dark alley.

For the first 10 minutes or so, it seems like just another docudrama about the heroic exploits of undercover government agents — like Henry Hathaway’s films The House on 92nd Street (1945) and 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) — right down to the stentorian voice-over narration by Reed Hadley, the guy who always did the stentorian narration in patriotic docudramas.

The title and opening credits of the film appear superimposed over the Seal of the United States Department of the Treasury as triumphant music plays. Then a disclaimer appears explaining that all the U.S. currency in the film was reproduced with special permission of the Treasury Department, and that reproduction of said currency is strictly prohibited. (Don’t film yourself fanning out a bunch of sawbucks at home, kids!)

Then the former chief coordinator of the law enforcement agencies of the Treasury Department, Elmer Lincoln Irey, haltingly reads from a piece of paper and explains the six units of the Treasury Department: “The Intelligence Unit, which tracks down income tax violators, the Customs Agency Service, with the border patrol, which fights smuggling, the Narcotics Unit, the Secret Service, which guards the president and ferrets out counterfeiters, the Alcohol Tax unit, which uncovers bootleggers, and the Coast Guard. These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard.” (Incidentally, the mild-looking, bespectacled Irey was one of the men who brought down Capone. He also worked on the Lindbergh kidnapping case.)

Irey goes on to say that what we’re about to see is called “The Shanghai Paper Case,” a composite of actual counterfeiting cases tackled by the Treasury Department.

Over the course of the first couple of reels, however, it becomes clear that T-Men is a very different film from The House on 92nd Street, and that its dry, fact-filled introduction is only the tip of the iceberg.

McGraw and Ford

Although Reed Hadley’s hokey narration occasionally dominates the proceedings, the script is tight and the actors are all excellent. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder, who play undercover treasury agents Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro, are solidly believable, and Wallace Ford — who plays “The Schemer” — is always fun to watch, but for my money, the most memorable character in the film is “Moxie,” played by the granite-jawed Charles McGraw. Moxie is a merciless thug who shoots men dead without blinking, breaks fingers as easily as he asks questions, and boils a man to death in a steam bath without changing his expression.

But it’s not just the sudden, brutal acts of violence or the sense of paranoia that suffuses T-Men that set it apart from other films of its ilk, it’s also the dimly lit, “you are there” cinematography by John Alton.

O'Keefe and McGraw

Director Mann and the studio had faith in Alton, and pretty much let him do whatever he wanted. Alton, quoted in the press book for T-Men,* said “…we shot scenes just as they came along. We shot under all conditions. Some of our night shots were made without any lights at all. I know some people thought the scenes wouldn’t match and it would turn out to be a horrible mess. Fortunately, it turned out as I was sure it would.”

T-Men was Mann’s first collaboration with Alton, but it wouldn’t be his last. Together they would go on to make Raw Deal (1948), He Walked by Night (1948) (which Alfred Werker directed and Mann co-directed), Reign of Terror (1949), Border Incident (1949), and Devil’s Doorway (1950).

Alton and Mann’s contribution to what we now call “film noir” is enormous. T-Men is a great picture. It’s tense, violent, and looks amazing. Despite its low budget, it was a big hit when it was released, and it’s still fresh today.

*And cribbed by yours truly from Alan K. Rode’s fantastic book Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy.

The Bishop’s Wife (Dec. 9, 1947)

Some people will tell you that movies made by committee are what’s wrong with Hollywood.

They’re wrong. Movies made by committee have always been around, and like everything else made by committee, they occasionally turn out just fine.

Henry Koster’s The Bishop’s Wife, for instance, is a sweet little Christmas confection. It won’t fill you up, and it will possibly leave you wanting more, but for what it is, it’s delicious.

The original director was William A. Seiter, but producer Samuel Goldwyn didn’t care for what he came up with, so he replaced him with Henry Koster. (Koster’s version had its own problems, so Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett made some uncredited revisions to the script.)

The biggest change from Seiter’s version was that David Niven and Cary Grant switched roles, but there were several other changes. For one, Teresa Wright — who originally played the bishop’s wife — was replaced by Loretta Young.

But Niven and Grant’s role-switching is the big change that everyone talks about, and with good reason.

The priggish but always likable Niven is perfect as Henry Brougham, the Episcopal bishop whose cathedral-building project is destroying his personal life, and Grant is perfect as Dudley, the angel who’s sent to put Henry back on the right track.

It’s as difficult for me to imagine anyone but the ageless and effortlessly charming Grant as Dudley as it is for me to imagine anyone but Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.

Dudley shows up on earth in answer to Henry’s prayer for guidance, but he’s not an unearthly angel who waves a magic wand that sets everything right. While he can move objects with his mind, stop busy traffic on Madison Avenue while helping a blind man cross the street, and presumably do pretty much anything he wants, he mostly just puts ideas in people’s minds … good ideas that they end up thinking are their own.

Dudley is also not an ethereal, androgynous angel whose feet never touch the ground. He’s Cary Freakin’ Grant, and his good lucks and charm have quite an effect on Henry’s neglected wife Julia (Loretta Young). One afternoon — after Henry’s forced to cancel yet another date with his wife due to his work on the cathedral — Dudley takes her to lunch at Michel’s, the French restaurant where Henry proposed to her.

After Dudley orders, Julia tells him, “You speak French beautifully.”

“I’ve had quite a bit of work to do in Paris,” Dudley responds.

And when Dudley takes Julia’s hand to read her palm, oh how the old bluenose biddies tut-tut.

The Bishop’s Wife takes place around Christmas, and it’s a wonderful holiday film. It’s also an excellent comedy, even though its broadly humorous moments are rare. Mostly its just a heartwarming, romantic, and delightful film.

And the scene in which Dudley takes Julia ice-skating and uses his magical powers to make them both glide around the ice like Olympic champions is one of the most enjoyable bits I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Good News (Dec. 4, 1947)

Hey, kids, do you think “nostalgia” is only something for baby boomers hazily recalling Woodstock or Generation X’ers and their ’80s dance parties? Guess again.

Nostalgia has been around since there were people old enough to remember their youth and know that they’d never get it back. Charles Walters’s Good News, for instance, took viewers in 1947 and 1948 back to the good old days of 1927, when people were dancing the Charleston, when Will Rogers was elected mayor of Beverly Hills, when Coolidge chose not to run again, when “flaming youth” ran wild, and when a girl was a “flapper” and a boy was a “sheik.”

Unfortunately, Good News is about as convincing a portrait of the ’20s as Grease (1978) was of the ’50s.

It’s a sanitized Technicolor version of the racy original, which was based on the hit Broadway play that premiered in 1927.

In the special features section of the DVD I watched, there were a couple of scenes from the 1930 version of Good News, and in spite of their static camerawork and unimaginative black and white cinematography they were totally and completely electrifying.

Take a look at the scene below, in which Dorothy McNulty performs the song “Varsity Drag.” It’s an athletic, goofy, wild number, full of sexual innuendo and all kinds of good stuff that would be impossible to have on screen after the enforcement of the Hays Code (like the underwear shot at 3 minutes and 20 seconds).

Incidentally, Dorothy McNulty later changed her professional name to Penny Singleton and starred in the Blondie movies. She was also the voice of Jane Jetson on The Jetsons.

Anyway, the 1947 version of Good News just can’t hold a candle to that kind of wild vivacity. It doesn’t help that Peter Lawford, who stars as B.M.O.C. Tommy Marlowe, was cast more for his appeal as a heartthrob than his talent as a singer. He’s not terrible, but he looks uncomfortable throughout the proceedings, especially when he has to sing and dance at the same time.

His leading lady, June Allyson, who plays shrinking violet Connie Lane, is also a bit of a disappointment, but their funny duet, “The French Lesson,” is an amazing bit of fast-paced wordplay.

The most energetic and fun-to-watch performer in the film is Joan McCracken, who plays the man-hungry Babe Doolittle. Her performance of “Pass That Peace Pipe” is a highlight of the film.

A very young Mel Tormé also shows up for a couple of songs, “Lucky in Love” and “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” so Good News is worth seeing if you’re a fan of The Velvet Fog.

The song “Pass That Peace Pipe,” which was written by Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin, and Roger Edens, was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but lost out to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South (1946).