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Category Archives: July 1947

The Black Widow (13 chapters) (July 28-Oct. 20, 1947)

Spencer Gordon Bennet and Fred C. Brannon’s The Black Widow is a typically thrilling chapterplay from Republic Pictures. With its shadowy, semi-mystical antagonists and plucky male-female pair of protagonists navigating their way through a slam-bang adventure with plenty of sci-fi elements, it hits a lot of the same notes as The Crimson Ghost (1946), which Brannon co-directed with William Witney.

The Black Widow of the title is the darkly beautiful fortune teller Sombra (Carol Forman), who uses her crystal-gazing business as a front for her espionage activity. Like Fu Manchu’s daughter, she’s the henchwoman for an evil foreign mastermind bent on world domination. Her father, Hitomu, is played by grim monologist Brother Theodore, a.k.a. Theodore Gottlieb.

Hitomu is a weird character, and Theodore’s performance is suitably bizarre. Hitomu looks like a stage hypnotist wearing a turban with a fez on top. His plan for world conquest involves stealing the atomic rocket that Prof. Henry Weston (Sam Flint) is working on. Most of the time Hitomu pulls the strings from the background, giving Sombra his orders, then disappearing the same way he appeared — in a puff of smoke.

To do her bidding, Sombra has a pair of loyal henchmen, Dr. Z.V. Jaffa (I. Stanford Jolley) and Nick Ward (Anthony Warde). She’s also a master of disguise. With just a floppy rubber mask and a camera dissolve, Sombra can assume the appearance of any woman she pleases. It should come as no surprise — if you’re familiar with the conventions of serials — that this talent comes in handy week after week.

Opposing the Black Widow Gang at every turn are plucky Daily Clarion reporter Joyce Winters (Virginia Lee, who’s listed in the credits as Virginia Lindley) and amateur criminologist and mystery writer Steve Colt (Bruce Edwards), the creator of the fictional detective “Rodman Crane.”

Joyce and Steve have a mildly antagonistic relationship that’s supposed to be flirty and playful, but it never quite works because Lee and Edwards are such stiff actors. Occasionally, however, it reaches such insane heights that it’s hard not to go along for the ride, like the scene in which Steve handcuffs Joyce to the steering wheel of their car so she won’t follow him, but she detaches the steering wheel and ends up saving Steve from a gunman by attacking the gunman with the steering wheel.

The Black Widow is full of nifty pseudoscientific malarkey like the “Sinetrone,” which uses sound vibrations to destroy atomic rockets, and a tube of rocket fuel that contains “phosphoro,” a deadly chemical that can only be neutralized by “ciprocyllium acid.”

There’s plenty of action, but none of it’s meant to be taken very seriously. And in case you thought it was, the final chapter of the serial ends with Joyce rushing off to investigate a hot tip that Hitler is hiding in the Florida Everglades and Steve calling after her, “Wait for me!”

Jesse James Rides Again (13 chapters) (June 2-Aug. 25, 1947)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Republic Pictures made the best serials in the business. While you could sometimes find better acting in the Saturday-afternoon chapterplays from Universal and Columbia, neither could top Republic when it came to pure slam-bang entertainment. They employed the best stuntmen in Hollywood, and their serials were action packed.

Jesse James Rides Again, which was directed by Fred C. Brannon and Thomas Carr, could have gone the Poverty-Row route and used its western setting as an excuse to deliver a cheap finished product. They had the Iverson Ranch and plenty of reusable costumes, after all. Throw in some chases on horseback, some fistfights, some gunfights, and you’re golden.

Instead, Brannon and Carr delivered a fast-moving serial with lots of pyrotechnics. Some chapters are more exciting than others, obviously, but I still wasn’t expecting so many blown-up barns, flaming logs pushed down hills, exploding riverboats, and burning oil derricks.

Every chapter opens with a shot of men on horseback. They’re all wearing black robes and black hoods. The exciting theme music by Mort Glickman incorporates elements of Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna.” The black-robed riders look exactly like members of the Ku Klux Klan in photo-negative, and they’re called — not terribly creatively — the Black Raiders.

The Black Raiders are secretly working for a man named James Clark, who’s played by Tristram Coffin, a dependable Republic villain playing the most dependable villainous archetype in westerns, the greedy land baron. Clark knows that the farmers who live in Peaceful Valley, Tennessee, are sitting on a rich vein of oil, and it’s only a matter of time before they find out about it.

Clark’s plan is to have the Black Raiders drive all the farmers out of Peaceful Valley by using violence and intimidation; good, salt-of-the-earth people like Ann Bolton (Linda Stirling) and her crippled father Sam Bolton (Tom London).

So in classic western fashion, into the Boltons’ lives rides Jesse James (Clayton Moore). The ex-Confederate outlaw is on the lam for a crime he didn’t commit (the robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minnesota) along with his buddy Steve Long (John Compton).

Jesse James is traveling under the name “J.C. Howard,” and he’s a modern-day paladin, ready to take up arms in defense of the helpless, like Mr. Bolton and his daughter.

If you know anything about the real-life Jesse James, you’ve probably already realized that Jesse James Rides Again plays fast and loose with the facts.

But who cares? It’s all just an excuse for action and feats of derring-do, and as such, it succeeds admirably. Most of the chapters follow a predictable arc — J.C. Howard ( Jesse James) gets out of whatever scrape the previous chapter left him in, then it’s off to the James Clark Land Office, where Clark and his beefy henchman Frank Lawton (Roy Barcroft) discuss their nefarious plans for the oil under Peaceful Valley, just in case any of the kids in the audience are seeing the serial for the first time. Then Jesse James, Steve Long, and Ann Bolton become embroiled in another of Clark and Lawton’s plans, and have to fight their way out. (Clark’s role as villain is unknown to the protagonists until the last chapter.) And finally, each chapter ends with a cliffhanger, like Ann Bolton unconscious inside a cotton compress, or Jesse James knocked out and left behind in the boiler room of a riverboat that’s about to explode.

As the weeks go by, Jesse James and the farmers eventually discover the oil they’re sitting on, and it becomes a race to register their land, sink wells, and get the oil out of the valley. All the while, Lawton and his boys commit one act of sabotage after another.

The most explosive and exciting chapter is the penultimate one, “Chapter Twelve: Black Gold,” in which Steve Long leads a wagon train carrying barrels of oil through a prairie set afire by Lawton and his boys. There are crackups and explosions galore. It’s not quite The Road Warrior, but it’s still an impressive set piece.

Clayton Moore, who plays Jesse James, is probably best known for playing the Lone Ranger on TV from 1949 to 1957. His role in Jesse James Rides Again sometimes seems like a dry run for playing the Lone Ranger.

Moore isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he’s a solid choice to play a stalwart western hero. Also, I really like the outfit he wore in this serial. Unlike the leather vests and dungarees favored by plenty of B western heroes, Jesse James wears a black hat, a black top coat, a black long string tie, and a dark vest over a white shirt. It’s what every Southern gentleman with a price on his head should be wearing.

Republic would make two more serials featuring Jesse James as a character; The Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948), which again starred Moore as Jesse and co-starred Steve Darrell as his brother Frank, and The James Brothers of Missouri (1949), which starred Robert Bice as Frank James and Keith Richards as Jesse James. (No, not the Keith Richards you’re thinking of.)

Deep Valley (July 30, 1947)

Every student of film noir knows that the genre owes its style to German Expressionism, and to the influx of European directors to the U.S. during World War II.

Jean Negulesco’s Deep Valley doesn’t really qualify as a film noir, although it has some hallmarks of the noir style. Instead, it seems as if Negulesco is drawing from an earlier German artistic movement — Sturm und Drang.

The high emotions of the film are expressed physically — often through the turbulence of the natural world. Ida Lupino plays a simple country girl named Libby Saul who lives in a broken-down old farmhouse deep in the California wilderness with her parents, Cliff Saul (Henry Hull) and Ellie Saul (Fay Bainter). One night, long ago, Libby’s father beat her mother, and her mother has never forgiven him or spoken to him again. Libby speaks with a stutter, and it is implied that it is directly related to the traumatic memory of seeing her father hit her mother.

The rift between Libby’s parents is absolute. Mrs. Saul never leaves her upstairs bedroom, and relies on Libby to wait on her. Mr. Saul never goes upstairs, and roams the ramshackle property in a perpetual foul mood.

Libby has no friends, and is isolated from the world. Her father is cruel to her and her mother, who is an invalid by choice, lives in a fantasy world and has never let go of the idea that she is an aristocratic lady. Libby’s only solace is her dog, Joe, and the woods that surround the Sauls’ property. Her only happy moments are when she is roaming the forest with Joe and communicating with nature and wild animals.

One day, she discovers a crew of prisoners working on a chain gang along the ocean, excavating and dynamiting the coastline in preparation for a highway. This destruction and remaking of the natural world will bring a steady flow of people past the Sauls’ farm, and radically change Libby’s life.

But her life is changed almost immediately when she spots a dark, handsome convict named Barry Burnette (Dane Clark) working on the line.

Naturally, fate contrives to bring them together.

During a dark and stormy night, a landslide destroys the toolshed in which Barry and a couple of other prisoners are locked up. Libby finds Barry in the woods and helps him stay hidden from the posses that are searching for him, as well as from the good-natured but black-hearted Sheriff Akers (Willard Robertson) and the blandly handsome engineer running the highway project, Jeff Barker (Wayne Morris), who has an eye for Libby.

Libby and Barry’s romance begins in an idyllic fashion, but the weight of doom slowly crushes it. It’s not just because he’s an escaped convict. He’s also a violent hothead — never towards Libby or someone who hasn’t provoked him, but when faced with a problem, his first instinct is to lash out and break through, with no thought of what he’ll do next.

But Barry is always a likable character. Dane Clark’s performance is soulful and tortured, and his big eyes and open countenance make him sympathetic, even when he’s crouching in the second floor of a barn with a scythe, ready to kill whoever comes up the ladder.

We root for Barry and Libby, even though we know their love is impossible. As the film progresses, the shots become increasingly full of shadows and menace, and Barry and Libby are forced into smaller and smaller spaces, symbolizing the world closing in on them.

Deep Valley is based on a novel by Dan Totheroh. The screenplay is by Salka Viertel and Stephen Morehouse Avery, with uncredited assistance from William Faulkner.

Wyoming (July 28, 1947)

The last time I saw cowboy star Bill Elliott was in the Red Ryder movie Conquest of Cheyenne (1946), in which he was credited as “Wild” Bill Elliott.

I missed the next picture he made, Plainsman and the Lady (1946), but in both that film and this one, he’s listed in the credits with the more mature moniker “William Elliott.”

Like Elliott’s name change, Wyoming reflects a B-grade product’s aspirations to A-level status.

It’s about halfway successful.

Director Joseph Kane knows how to shoot a western, and Wyoming looks great. It’s full of snowstorms, big cattle drives, and beautiful wide open spaces. Legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt is credited as the second unit director, and the fistfights, shootouts, and horse action are all well-done. (One fight in particular is more brutal than I ever expected from a Republic western.)

But the script by prolific screenwriters Lawrence Hazard and Gerald Geraghty never rises to A quality. It’s full of big ideas and grand themes, but the treatment of those themes is muddled, and the dialogue is hackneyed.

In Wyoming, Elliott plays Charles Alderson, an intrepid pioneer who settles in the territory of Wyoming with his pregnant wife. When she dies in childbirth, Alderson sends his daughter to Europe for an education. While she is away, he builds up an enormous cattle herd, and becomes rich. He does so with the help of his friend Thomas Jefferson “Windy” Gibson (George “Gabby” Hayes), a grizzled old mountain man who says that while he may not look it, he was originally a lawyer from Vermont. But he got too involved with another “bar.” Get it?

Alderson’s daughter Karen returns to Wyoming in 1890, soon after it has been admitted to the union. (Karen is played by Vera Ralston, who also played her own mother in the opening portion of the film.) Alderson is now a cattle baron, but all is not well. Much of his range is now open to homesteaders, who are led by John “Duke” Lassiter (Albert Dekker). Lassiter is a shady character who is involved in rustling cattle, and who is exploiting the homesteaders for his own purposes.

Alderson’s foreman, Glenn Forrester (John Carroll), cautions Alderson that resorting to violence will only make things worse, but Alderson is a prideful, tyrannical man who shoots first and thinks later.

If all of this sounds a lot like Howard Hawks’s Red River (which was filmed in 1946 but wasn’t released until 1948), that’s because it is. But Wyoming never achieves the same impact as Red River.

The biggest problem with Wyoming is Elliott himself. The character he plays, Charles Alderson, is a complicated man who is nearly undone by his own ambition and propensity for violence, but Elliott is not a nuanced actor. I loved him in the Red Ryder westerns because he was so wooden that it added to the comic-book stalwartness of the character, but in Wyoming he seems to be overreaching, and it’s a little like watching Leslie Nielsen play Othello.

Possessed (July 26, 1947)

If you like to see Joan Crawford get her crazy on as much as I do, then you’ll love Possessed.

Curtis Bernhardt’s fevered noir melodrama begins with a surprisingly unglamorous-looking Crawford wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a daze, asking everyone she passes if they’ve seen “David.”

Crawford isn’t wearing any makeup, and her journey through the early dawn streets reminded me of a similar scene that appeared a decade later in Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1958), in which Jeanne Moreau wanders the streets of Paris without makeup. (Was Malle influenced by Possessed? It’s certainly possible.)

The character Crawford plays, Louise Howell, is taken by ambulance to the psychopathic ward of the Los Angeles Municipal Hospital, where she is cared for by Dr. Willard (Stanley Ridges). He gives her narcosynthesis to lift her out of her catatonic stupor, and the tale of what brought Louise to this place is told through a haze of flashbacks and psychobabble.

Louise was a nurse in the employ of wealthy Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). Her job was to care for Graham’s infirm wife.

After a brief love affair with an average-looking but very charming architect named David Sutton (Van Heflin), Louise became hopelessly attached to him. When David told her that he wasn’t the marrying kind, and that he had to break things off with her, it began her spiral into madness. She was convinced that there was another woman, but he assured her there wasn’t.

“Louise, don’t hang onto me. You’ll get hurt,” he said in exasperation, and his words were prescient. The straitlaced, self-possessed Louise began to unravel.

Dr. Willard diagnoses her with a persecution complex. She thought that David breaking up with her was all part of a plan. Everyone was against her. Dr. Willard calls it “typical schizoid detachment … split personality.”

Despite its sometimes overheated story and dialogue, Possessed is a stylistic feast. Franz Waxman’s musical score perfectly underscores every one of Joan Crawford’s scenes, and Joseph A. Valentine’s cinematography visually expresses her madness.

There are recurring visual motifs, most notably water. For instance, when David gets into his boat and leaves Louise sobbing on the dock, the churning water symbolizes her inner turmoil. The doctors hovering over Louise’s bed discuss her case, then the scene cuts to a shot of the carafe of water by her hospital bed that dissolves into a shot of the water around Dean Graham’s home.

When Louise stops the little pendulum of her bedside clock from ticking because it’s “driving her crazy” the sound is replaced by the sound of dripping water outside her open window. She slams the window shut, trying to control her madness.

Possessed could never be called a realistic film. But that’s not its goal. It subjectively depicts an unraveling psyche, and isn’t afraid to veer into territory that sometimes seems as if it would be more at home in a horror movie than in a melodrama.

Crossfire (July 22, 1947)

Crossfire
Crossfire (1947)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk
RKO Radio Pictures

In 1947, social-issue pictures were starting to come out of Hollywood that tackled a formerly taboo subject — antisemitism.

This might not seem like such a big deal today, but it was a big deal at the time.

No matter how artful or moving some of its products are, the film industry is still a business, and any subject that challenges the status quo or that might hurt ticket sales is extremely difficult to make a film about. And despite the fact that in the ’40s the majority of studio heads were Jewish, they preferred to release films that depicted a homogenous, idealized vision of America.

Richard Brook’s 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole is about a homosexual who is beaten to death by his fellow Marines. Producer Adrian Scott convinced the studio bosses at RKO Radio Pictures that an adaptation of the book would pass muster with the production code if the gay character in the novel were changed to a Jewish character.

Crossfire is a social-issue picture wrapped in a murder mystery. It’s likely that many ticket buyers didn’t realize the film would contain a message about antisemitism, and were attracted by the “three Bobs” in the credits (Robert Ryan, Robert Young, and Robert Mitchum) or the lurid promise of violent death in the poster.

Whatever drew people into the theater when the film opened, however, nothing kept them away in the weeks that followed. Crossfire was a big hit, and was eventually nominated for five Academy Awards, although it lost out to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, Twentieth Century-Fox’s more “prestigious” take on antisemitism. (In the case of best picture, best director, and best supporting actress, the awards went to Gentleman’s Agreement. In the case of best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay, the awards went to Miracle on 34th Street.)

Edward Dmytryk, the director of Crossfire, once said in an interview that he used “film noir” techniques primarily to save money, and because he wanted to spend more time working with the actors than doing setups. Dmytryk and his cinematographer, J. Roy Hunt, worked six and a half hours a day, and did about seven setups a day.

Ryan, Mitchum, and Young

Dmytryk was an excellent director, and Crossfire is an exceedingly well-made film.

He shot Crossfire in 20 days, less than the 22 days he was allowed with his $500,000 B-movie budget. Because of this, RKO was able to beat Twentieth Century-Fox’s Gentleman’s Agreement to the box office. (But not, ultimately, in the Oscar race.)

The darkness and shadows that creep into each shot disguise the simplicity of the sets, and the performances from all the actors are exceptional, especially Robert Ryan as the vicious, Jew-hating soldier named Montgomery, and Gloria Grahame as a lonely B-girl named Ginny.

The beating death of the Jewish man, Samuels (Sam Levene), that opens the film takes place in darkness, so the culprit is not seen. But the mystery doesn’t really persist. Montgomery is the likely suspect right from the beginning. His sneering dismissal of the “kind of guy” Samuels was makes his guilt seem pretty obvious during the scene in which he’s interrogated by the police detective, Finlay (Robert Montgomery).

The film quickly switches gears, however, and focuses on the search for a missing soldier named Mitchell (George Cooper), whom the police suspect of the murder. The jaded and world-weary Sgt. Keeley (Robert Mitchum) helps Detective Finlay, but ultimately shields Mitchell, helping him hide in a movie theater while Keeley and his buddies try to sort out what really happened.

Mitchell was pretty drunk, and can barely remember what happened at the party that evening. But the last words we hear Montgomery say in Mitchell’s flashback to the party — “What’s the matter, Jew boy? You afraid we’ll drink up all your stinking wonderful liquor?” — cement Montgomery’s guilt.

Grahame and Cooper

Mitchell’s sad and lonely journey through the night is classic noir stuff. His strange encounters — like the ones he has with B-girl Ginny and later with her “husband” (played by Paul Kelly), whose name we never learn — are haunting.

While Crossfire is occasionally preachy, this can be forgiven, especially considering the time when the film was released.

Unlike Brute Force (1947), which showed what American fascism could look like at the upper echelons of authority, Crossfire is a portrait of the rank and file of fascism — the dumb, mean, resentful men who “just carry out orders,” and do so happily. Ryan doesn’t overplay his role, and he’s all the more scary for it.

Something in the Wind (July 21, 1947)

I mentioned in my review of I’ll Be Yours, which was released earlier in 1947, that Deanna Durbin called the last four films she made “terrible,” and permanently retired from acting in 1948.

But just like I’ll Be Yours, I found Something in the Wind thoroughly enjoyable. The songs are great, the dancing is spectacular, and for the most part, it’s genuinely funny.

I think that Durbin’s retirement from acting had less to do with the quality of the films she was starring in and more to do with her desire for privacy and a normal life. (She apparently hated the public persona she’d been saddled with since she appeared in her first musical comedy, Three Smart Girls, in 1936 at the age of 14.)

Something in the Wind is by no means a great film, but Durbin’s impish sense of humor, beautiful singing voice, and perfect comic timing make up for a lot. It’s also a lot of fun to see tall drink of water John Dall in a light role. (Something in the Wind was made shortly before he would stake his place in cinematic history in 1948 as one of the thrill killers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and again in 1950 as the firearms-fancying protagonist of the noir classic Gun Crazy.)

Dall plays Donald Read, the scion of the wealthy Read family. When he attempts to “make things right” with the woman to whom his recently deceased grandfather has been making regular payments, he confuses Mary Collins (Durbin) with her aunt (Jean Adair), who is also named Mary Collins. Mary Collins (the younger) is a struggling radio DJ with a beautiful voice, and she has no idea what Donald is talking about, but she’s offended by the very nature of his proposal. When she finds out that her aunt has been receiving payments from the Read family after a failed love affair with the late patriarch of the family, she’s doubly offended, and sets out to ruin the Reads.

The Reads are a pleasantly screwball family — the kind that regularly engages in hilarious kidnappings and fun-loving extortion.

Donald is the straight man of the bunch, his cousin Charlie (Donald O’Connor) is the wacky cut-up, and his uncle Chester (Charles Winninger) is the blackmailing con man who will screw over anyone for a buck.

All of this is just an excuse for laughs, music, and dance, of course, but who cares? Donald O’Connor’s wild, no-holds-barred performance of Johnny Green & Leo Robin’s “I Love a Mystery” is the stuff of legend, and must be seen to be believed. And Durbin is a one-of-a-kind star, and as far as I’m concerned, every film she appeared in is worth watching.