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Category Archives: February 1947

Jack Armstrong (15 chapters) (Feb. 6-May 15, 1947)

Jack Armstrong! Jack Armstrong! Jack Armstrong!

Jack Armstrong! The aaaaaaaaaaaaaaall-American boy!

If those words stir something deep within you, you’re probably either a child of the Depression or a freak like me who’s always liked to live in the past.

Beginning in 1933, the eponymous hero of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy traveled around the world with his uncle, Jim Fairfield, and his cousins, Betty and Billy Fairfield. The globetrotting quartet battled pirates, evil scientists, gangsters, and restive natives for 15 minutes on the radio every weekday. Sponsored by Wheaties, “the breakfast of champions,” Jack Armstrong gripped the nation’s youth with its blend of high adventure, glacial pacing, and repetitive storytelling until August 22, 1947, when it moved from a quarter-hour, five-day-a-week format to a 30-minute, twice-a-week broadcast.

Beginning in 1945, Jack, Betty, Billy, and Uncle Jim locked horns with the Silencer, a gangland leader who was at war with another crime lord, the Black Avenger. Eventually the Silencer was unmasked and revealed to be Victor Hardy, a brilliant scientist and inventor until a bout of amnesia led him to a life of evildoing (sort of like the Crime Doctor in reverse). After Hardy’s memory was restored, his lent his unique understanding of the criminal mind to Jack Armstrong and his crew. Uncle Jim was phased out of the program, and Vic Hardy became the adult overseer of the group, as well as head of the “Scientific Bureau of Investigation,” or SBI. In 1950, the Jack Armstrong program finally ended and Jack, Betty, and Billy were suddenly grown-ups, heard in a new 30-minute, twice-a-week series called Armstrong of the SBI. The all-American adult version of Jack didn’t last long, though, and Armstrong of the SBI went off the air June 28, 1951.

Wallace Fox’s Jack Armstrong is a 15-part serial from Columbia Pictures. All the major characters from the radio play are present (including both Uncle Jim and Vic Hardy), but after a promising first chapter, the serial devolves into repetitious tangles with “natives” on an island somewhere. I don’t know where the island is supposed to be, but I imagine it’s flying distance from California, since Jack Armstrong and the gang get there in a twin-engine plane. One of the bad guys refers to it as “point X,” and the third chapter of Jack Armstrong is called “Island of Deception,” but I think those are both descriptors, not proper names, so let’s just call it “Crazy Island,” shall we?

In this serial, Jack Armstrong is an all-American “boy” in name only, since the actor who plays him, John Hart, was 28 or 29 during filming, and looked about 30. Hart’s dark good looks and slicked-back hair make him look as if he’d be more comfortable romancing a movie producer’s wife on the dance floor of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub than building a nifty jet engine car with his little buddy Billy (Joe Brown), which is what he’s doing when we meet him in the first chapter of the serial, “Mystery of the Cosmic Ray.”

Billy Fairfield is the obligatory horse-faced, comic-relief sidekick. With his bug eyes and big teeth, Brown looks like Mickey Rooney standing in a wind tunnel. He’s obsessed with food, and most of the “humor” in Jack Armstrong comes from his “But when are we going to eat?” quips. Billy’s sister Betty is played by Miss America 1941, Rosemary La Planche, whom I’ve found delightful in every role I’ve seen her in prior to this. In Jack Armstrong, however, she has the same consternated look on her face in every scene, and is forced to wear an unflattering gray sweat suit that makes her look as if she’s suffering through Army PT.

Jack’s jet engine car has no carburetor, no cylinders, no distributor, and can go 50 miles per hour faster than any other car on the road. Jack never explains why it’s riveted, not welded, or how he can hang outside of it during a high-speed chase without getting his hair mussed, but the action in the first chapter is fast-paced enough that I didn’t really care. (And for my money, sped-up films of car chases never get old.)

I was hoping for lots more high-speed action, but after Uncle Jim (Pierre Watkin), the owner of the Fairfield Aviation Co., announces that they’ve picked up unknown cosmic rays, possibly from another country, he and Jack, Betty, and Billy are off to Crazy Island in the second chapter of the serial, “The Far World,” and things get pretty dull.

Most of Jack’s time on Crazy Island is spent squaring off against evil mastermind Jason Grood, who’s played by Charles Middleton, the man who played Ming the Merciless in the Flash Gordon serials of the ’30s. Remarkably, he’s just as odd-looking without any of his Ming makeup.

Grood kidnaps Vic Hardy (Hugh Prosser) and forces him to work with his henchman, Prof. Hobart Zorn (Wheeler Oakman), who’s discovered a power “several steps above atomic energy,” which they use to create a “cosmic beam annihilator.” Grood sends the cosmic beam into space as part of his “aeroglobe,” which he explains in the following, 100% scientific fashion: “Where the pull of gravity from the sun and outer solar planets equalizes the pull of earth gravity, there you have ‘zero gravity,’ creating a ‘space platform.’ On this, our aeroglobe rests.”

With the ability to train his cosmic beam annihilator at any spot on earth, Grood plans to hold all the nations of the world hostage. While attempting to foil Grood on Crazy Island, Jack, Uncle Jim, Billy, and Betty face the Pit of Everlasting Fire, escape from quicksand, tangle with angry natives, and are helped by friendly natives led by the sexy and beautiful Princess Alura (Claire James). I honestly couldn’t tell the unfriendly natives from the friendly natives. They all have black page-boy haircuts, wear Madras shirts and sarongs, and look about as “native” as Boris Karloff.

Jack Armstrong suffers from poorly staged action and several cliffhangers that are truly awful. In one, bad guy Gregory Pierce (John Merton) is zapped by an intruder alert field. Are we supposed to care about him? Another chapter ends with Jack and a bad guy rolling down a gentle incline while hitting each other. Not exactly “the jaws of death.”

Plausibility, scientific accuracy, and believable dialogue were never requirements for a good serial, but excitement and fun were, and Jack Armstrong suffers from a lack of both.

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The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.

Carnegie Hall (Feb. 28, 1947)

The poster for Edgar G. Ulmer’s Carnegie Hall boasts the following: “Never before … never again … so magnificent an array of artists on one screen!”

That’s true. It’s a film jam-packed with the crème de la crème of classical musicians, opera singers, and conductors from the first half of the 20th century.

What the poster doesn’t tell you is that the dramatic portions of the film are pretty dire. But if you can suffer through violinist Jascha Heifetz and conductor Fritz Reiner reading their lines in monotones as they discuss stage fright with an Irish usher named John Donovan (Frank McHugh), who says he only feels that strange feeling in the pit of his stomach when he’s eaten too much, you’ll be rewarded by hearing Heifetz play the First Movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Reiner.

Carnegie Hall was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the poet of Poverty Row, who directed such minor masterpieces as Detour (1945), Bluebeard (1944), and The Black Cat (1934). Ulmer’s love of classical music was apparent in Detour — the main character is a nightclub pianist who, in one memorable scene, plays boogie-woogie variations on a Brahms waltz. Carnegie Hall is a love letter to great music and musicians, as well as to the eponymous edifice itself.

The plot in a nutshell (and there’s barely enough of it to fill two nutshells) involves an Irish girl named Nora Ryan (Marsha Hunt) who sees her first performance in Carnegie Hall as an adorable little rag-headed immigrant in 1891, and works her way up from cleaning woman to program director. She marries a febrile pianist named Tony Salerno (Hans Jaray, listed in the credits as “Hans Yaray”), who falls to his death while drunk when their son, Tony Jr. (William Prince), is still a baby.

Tony Salerno Jr. grows to maturity while being forced to diligently practice piano by his mother. They experience a rift after Tony Jr. falls in love with a nightclub singer named Ruth Haines (Martha O’Driscoll) and runs away to perform with crooner and band leader Vaughan Monroe. (Monroe is best known today for his version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Ironically, Monroe wanted to be an opera singer, but the economic realities of the Depression coupled with a string of early hits led him to perform popular music exclusively.)

Eventually, Tony Jr. gets a record set released on RCA/Victor called “American Rhythms,” and performs his own composition, “57th Street Rhapsody,” onstage at Carnegie Hall as pianist and conductor of the New York Philharmonic, with soloist Harry James on the trumpet. It’s a performance that blends “high” and “low” music, and brings tears to his mother’s eyes. The end.

The drama is hackneyed and poorly written (and it doesn’t help that Jaray is utterly charmless as Tony Sr.), but the bulk of the film’s 2 hour and 15 minute running time is occupied by great performances — the Prelude to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, performed by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Bruno Walter; soprano Lily Pons singing the “Bell Song” (“L’Air des clochettes”) from Delibes’s opera Lakmé; cellist Gregor Piatigorsky performing Saint-Saëns’s “The Swan,” from The Carnival of Animals (Le carnaval des animaux); mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens performing the end of the introduction and the start of the principal melody of Delilah’s song that seduces Samson in the second act of Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson and Delilah, followed by a performance of the Seguidilla from Act I of Bizet’s Carmen. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The DVD of Carnegie Hall that’s currently available from Kino Video looks great. The print is crisp, the blacks are deep, and the contrast is good. (And the “piano” scene from Detour is included as an extra.) As a dramatic film, Carnegie Hall doesn’t really succeed, but as a showcase for great musicians and singers, it’s a winner.

Nora Prentiss (Feb. 21, 1947)

In 1947, March was “make jokes about Nora Prentiss” month on the Jack Benny show. A week didn’t go by with at least one line like, “She makes Nora Prentiss look talkative.”

I suppose the promotional tagline for the film — “Would you keep your mouth shut if you were Nora Prentiss?” — was irresistible for comedians, especially since it’s selling the picture based on its final 10 minutes, which strain credulity a bit.

If you can swallow a few plot contrivances, however, Nora Prentiss is a fantastic film. The performances are great, Vincent Sherman’s direction is assured, Franz Waxman’s score is rich and expressive, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is crisp and beautiful, as it always was.

The title, poster, and advertising campaign for Nora Prentiss all seem to be modeled on the earlier Warner Bros. “women’s noir” Mildred Pierce (1945), but they’re very different films. Nora Prentiss, which is based on Paul Webster’s short story, “The Man Who Died Twice,” is more about its male protagonist, Dr. Richard Talbot (Kent Smith), than it is about Nora.

The film begins, as so many noirs do, at the end. A man sits in the shadows of a prison cell and refuses to say how he knew Dr. Talbot, or why he was blackmailing him.

Dr. Talbot is a 43-year-old physician with a wife (Rosemary DeCamp) and two teenaged children (Robert Arthur and Wanda Hendrix). He lives in a beautiful house in San Francisco and shares a thriving practice with his partner, Dr. Joel Merriam (Bruce Bennett).

One night, Talbot comes to the aid of a beautiful nightclub singer after she’s knocked down by a car and suffers minor leg injuries. The singer, Nora Prentiss (Ann Sheridan), flirts with him a little as he tends to her, her nylon rolled down on one leg.

The strait-laced Talbot is completely smitten with Nora, but when she finds out he’s married, she resists his clumsy advances. Talbot says he doesn’t see a reason why they can’t be friends, but an afternoon at his cabin in the mountains never seems platonic, no matter what either of them says.

Nora is drawn to Talbot, but she never seems less than clear-headed about the affair. After a short, dreamy period of time with Talbot, she realizes that she doesn’t want to be “the other woman,” and attempts to break it off. He is less clear-headed, and will do anything to be with her, including — but not limited to — promising her he will divorce his wife, using a cadaver to fake his own death, and following her to New York, traveling under an assumed name.

If the logic police tend to kick down your doors of perception anytime the party in your head gets too weird, you’ll probably find yourself picking apart the plot of Nora Prentiss starting around the halfway mark.

But if you can relax, sit bank, and enjoy the ride, Nora Prentiss is an absorbing film about a man who loses everything for the love of a woman, eventually devolving into a paranoid, hard-drinking wreck who never leaves his hotel room for fear he will be recognized.

Kent Smith is very good as Talbot, but the film works as well as it does because of Ann Sheridan’s performance as Nora. Unlike noirs in which a wicked femme fatale with no discernible inner life seduces and ensnares a sad sack Everyman, Sheridan’s Nora is a three-dimensional character. She’s beautiful, intelligent, and sensible enough to pull away from Talbot when things start to go south. This has the effect of making Talbot’s obsession sadder and more believable than it would be if she were just a harpy with a beautiful face.

Ramrod (Feb. 21, 1947)

Ramrod
Ramrod (1947)
Directed by André De Toth
United Artists

They called it God’s country … until the Devil put a woman there! screams the poster for André de Toth’s Ramrod.

That darned Scratch. Goin’ and puttin’ women where they oughtn’t to be.

The woman in Ramrod is Connie Dickason, whose slight frame and small stature belie her will of iron. She’s played by Veronica Lake (de Toth’s wife from 1944 to 1952).

Connie’s fiancé, Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), plans to bring sheep through public grazing land, which hasn’t endeared him to local cattleman Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), who has Connie’s father, Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles), in his pocket.

Alcoholic cowhand Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) has worked for Shipley for the past three weeks. At the request of Connie, with whom he has a history, he backs up Shipley when Ivey and his men attempt to stop Shipley from leaving on the night stage. (If Shipley gets out of town, he’ll come back with sheep.)

Sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) cautions Dave to stay out of it. When Dave says to the sheriff, “I work for Walt,” the sheriff responds, “For three weeks? What do you owe that fool, your life?”

All of this takes place in the first 10 minutes of the film. De Toth drops the viewer into the action in media res. Without a scorecard, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who during the first reel. (And it doesn’t help that Shipley and Ivey look nearly identical.)

Veronica Lake

But things become more clear as the plot rolls forward. Shipley decides that he doesn’t love Connie enough to die for her, so he heads out of town, leaving her his ranch. Connie’s father expects that she’ll do his bidding after Shipley departs, but she throws down the gauntlet with a fiery speech: “From now on I’m going to make a life of my own. And being a woman, I won’t have to use guns. This isn’t just a fight between father and daughter. You’ve pushed Frank Ivey at me ever since I can remember. For years I’ve watched him run things his way. The town, the valley, you, and now me! No one’s ever had the nerve to stand up to him. Well I have!”

Connie hires Dave to be foreman of her ranch, the Circle 66. He in turn hires an old friend of his, a handsome, charming loose cannon named Bill Schell (Don DeFore). Dave is determined that everything the Circle 66 does to fight Ivey be above board, but Connie and Bill have their own ideas. Connie may have made the decent and honest Dave “ramrod” of her outfit, but it’s the violent Bill Schell who is the true instrument of her will.

Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea has the pleasantly handsome, soft-featured face of the dad next door, but he’s tall enough and projects enough quiet menace to be convincing as the ramrod of the Circle 66 ranch. Don DeFore, who usually played pleasant, jovial men, is excellent playing against type as a cold-blooded gunman.

Ramrod is a great western. It’s based on a novel by Luke Short, and de Toth does an excellent job of capturing Short’s hard-boiled western prose and talent for characterization. The tone of the picture is closer to the film noirs of the period than it is to the westerns.

In Ramrod, de Toth creates a grim, violent world in which the righteous are just as likely to die as the wicked. Fistfights in this film don’t end with a bunch of broken furniture, they end with blood. A group of Ivey’s men beat an unarmed cowhand to death in front of Connie. When Bill Schell slaps a man in the face to enrage him, he tells Bill that he won’t be “rawhided” into drawing, so Bill burns his hand with a cigar. When Ivey shoots a man, he steps forward and finishes him off with another shot. Ramrod ends with a shootout, of course, but it doesn’t end with a quick draw or any fancy trick shooting. It ends with a shotgun blast to the gut.

True to the noir tone of the film, there’s a “good girl” to counterbalance Connie, named Rose (Arleen Whelan). The intertwined relationships of Dave, Bill, Connie, and Rose are well-played, and evolve naturally over the course of the film. Character drives the plot of Ramrod forward as much as bullets and fists.

Ramrod premiered on Friday, February 21, 1947, in Salt Lake City, at both the Utah and Capitol theaters. The world premiere event was part of Utah’s centennial celebration as a U.S. Territory. Ramrod went into wide release on May 2, 1947.

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.

Code of the West (Feb. 20, 1947)

Code of the West, a programmer from RKO Radio Pictures, has the same pedigree as Sunset Pass (1946). Both films are based on novels by Zane Grey, the screenplays for both films were written by Norman Houston, both are directed by William Berke, both star James Warren and John Laurenz, and both feature Robert Clarke, Harry Woods, Steve Brodie, and Harry Harvey in supporting roles.

In Sunset Pass, the tall, lean, blond-haired, scowling Warren played a cowboy named “Rocky.” Here, he plays a cowboy named “Bob Wade.” John Laurenz plays the same character, Chito Rafferty, a comical, musically inclined Irish-Mexican. (Incidentally, “Chito Rafferty” was a sidekick character made famous by Richard Martin, who played the character in 33 different westerns from 1943 to 1952. Laurenz was the only other actor to play the character, and he only did so in Sunset Pass and Code of the West.)

While I won’t be able to tell you the plot of either of these films at this time next month, I thought Code of the West was the better picture, largely due to the presence of a young Raymond Burr, who is a smoother and more malevolent villain than Harry Woods was in Sunset Pass.

In Code of the West, Burr plays a land baron (what else?) named Boyd Carter. Carter and his henchmen know that the railroad is coming through town, but they’re keeping the information to themselves as they buy up all the land they can get their hands on. When a young banker named Harry Stockton (Robert Clarke) lends Bob and Chito money to stake a claim of their own, Carter’s men go into action.

If you were drawn to this film by the poster above, be forewarned that Carter’s arson-murder gang that blasts the frontier is mostly a collection of stock footage. But if you squint your eyes, suspend your disbelief, and take another sip of bourbon, you’ll be fine.