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Category Archives: June 1947

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.)

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Thunder Mountain (June 1947)

Thunder Mountain, which was directed by Lew Landers, is one of a long line of RKO westerns that were loosely based on Zane Grey novels, including Nevada (1944), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1945), West of the Pecos (1945), Sunset Pass (1946), and Code of the West (1947).

In some cases, a character’s name was all that remained from the source material, and the use of the name “Zane Grey” above the title was just a way to sell the film.

But even when the plots followed Grey’s novels, the RKO westerns based on his books bore little resemblance to Grey’s feverish prose, larger-than-life Romantic heroes, and old-fashioned dime-novel plots. They were straightforward B westerns with straight-shooting heroes, vicious bad guys, comical sidekicks, and beautiful women. They were rarely much longer than an hour, and they were fashioned solely to entertain.

Thunder Mountain, which stars quiet, understated cowboy star Tim Holt (the son of cowboy star Jack Holt and a veteran of World War II — he served in the Army Air Corps as a bombardier), is solidly in this tradition. Its story about greedy land-grabbers and old family feuds is the standard stuff of horse operas, but it’s still a well-made and enjoyable way to spend an hour.

Marvin Hayden (Holt) returns to Grass Valley, and lands smack-dab in the middle of a long-standing feud with the Jorth family. Hayden is the last surviving member of his family, and his romance with the pretty little Ellie Jorth (Martha Hyer) is cut short as soon as they discover each other’s parentage.

Ellie’s brothers, Chick Jorth (Steve Brodie) and Lee Jorth (Robert Clarke), are itching to put Hayden six feet under, but what none of them knows is that the real bad actors in Grass Valley are Trimble Carson (Harry Woods) and his right-hand man Johnny Blue (Tom Keene), who quickly realize how easy it will be to play Hayden against the Jorths.

But like any good western hero, Hayden has a solid group of compadres — the Mexican-Irish Chito Rafferty (Richard Martin), the feisty Irish bar girl Ginger Kelly (Virginia Owen), and the alcoholic and broken-down old lawyer Jim Gardner (Jason Robards Sr.) — not to mention Ellie and her conflicted feelings about Hayden. It’s a foregone conclusion that Hayden will come out on top, just like it’s a foregone conclusion that his vow to never wear a gun will be broken by the end of the picture, but the journey is a fun one, and well worth watching for fans of ’40s B westerns.

Brute Force (June 30, 1947)

Snitches get stitches.

Or, in the case of Jules Dassin’s Brute Force, they get forced into a giant machine press by a group of cons wielding acetylene torches. They also get tied screaming to the front of a mining cart and used as a human shield during a massive prison break.

Westgate Penitentiary is hell on earth. All the cells are filled to double capacity. The warden is a weak-willed jellyfish who cedes all authority to the sadistic Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn). There are punishing make-work assignments in the dreaded “drainpipe.” Capt. Munsey plants contraband on prisoners just to send them to solitary confinement. And worst of all, on movie night the cons are forced to watch The Egg and I.

Brute Force is director Dassin’s first film noir (and still one of his best). It’s also producer Mark Hellinger’s second great film to star Burt Lancaster (the first was The Killers, in 1946).

In 1947, Lancaster wasn’t the versatile superstar he would eventually become. He was mostly known for playing “The Swede” in The Killers. The Swede was a lovesick former prizefighter; a big, dumb brute who feels pain, but little else. Brute Force allows Lancaster to stretch a little as an actor. The character he plays, Joe Collins, is the biggest, toughest man in Westgate — on the surface, not that different from The Swede — but he’s also a canny tactician who is ruthlessly efficient at getting what he wants. Collins doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, but Lancaster’s physical performance is phenomenal, and would have been at home in a silent film.

It’s a cliche to say that an actor’s body is his “instrument,” but it’s true of Lancaster, a former circus performer who expresses more with his body and his eyes in Brute Force than words ever could.

Collins is the de facto leader of the men in cell R17. He wants out of Westgate Penitentiary, but unlike all the daydreaming, hard-luck sad sacks who are behind bars with him, Collins has a plan, and it’s a good one. But for his plan to work, he has to have the support of the other five men in cell R17, as well as the cooperation and support of a hardened old convict named Gallagher (played with grumpy gravitas by the great Charles Bickford). Gallagher is up for parole, and he’s not sure if he wants to endanger his chances of release by throwing his lot in with Collins.

Brute Force is a film as lean and mean as Joe Collins himself, which makes the sentimental back stories of the convicts feel especially unnecessary. I’ve seen Brute Force at least three times now, and every time I see it I hate the flashback portions of the film more and more. I don’t think Dassin was fully committed to them either, and the abrupt tonal shifts they force on the movie are irritating and unnecessary.

They’re unnecessary because in a prison film about a sadistic captain of the guards and his unfair treatment of the prisoners, the audience will naturally identify with the prisoners without really caring about how they ended up in prison. (Imagine a flashback sequence in Cool Hand Luke that shows Paul Newman saving children from a burning orphanage — what would be the point?)

The fact that the audience knows from the outset of the film that Capt. Munsey arranged to have a shiv planted on Joe Collins in order to throw him into solitary is upsetting enough to most people’s sense of decency and fair play. We don’t also need a ridiculous subplot about Joe’s girl on the outside, Ruth (Ann Blyth), who has cancer and refuses to get the operation she needs unless Joe is with her.

Ditto for the backstory of “Soldier” (Howard Duff, in his first film role — he’s listed in the opening credits as “Radio’s Sam Spade,” the role he was best known for at the time). Duff’s boyish face and incongruously deep, soothing voice do more to elicit the audience’s sympathy than the smarmy flashback in which he’s captured by MPs in Italy and falsely accused of murder while distributed food to the hungry.

Not every backstory in the film is sentimental, nor does every backstory paint its criminal protagonist in a great light. But they are all, in their own way, unnecessary. For instance, the audience doesn’t need to see the flashback in which Tom Lister (Whit Bissell) gives his wife a fur coat with money he’s embezzled to know that he’s a white collar criminal. (Although it’s always nice to see the beautiful Ella Raines, who plays his wife.) Lister’s eyeglasses, his effete appearance, and Munsey’s line — “You’re no hoodlum, like the others in this cell. Why protect them?” — tell us all we need to know about Tom Lister.

The only flashback I enjoyed and would be sad to see excised from the film is the whimsical story Spencer (John Hoyt) tells about the beautiful girl named Flossie who helped him out of a tough jam only to turn around and take off with his money. Not only is the flashback funny and mercifully brief, it ends with the wonderful line, “I wonder who Flossie’s fleecing now.”

In fairness to producer Hellinger, who was largely responsible for the flashbacks, he knew what it took to get a picture made, and how to make a picture that would lead to another picture. The top brass at Universal probably wouldn’t have been crazy about a grim prison movie with no female characters, so the backstories of the prisoners allowed for several beautiful actresses under contract with Universal to draw people into the theater. (And even though I don’t like the flashbacks, I never mind seeing the aforementioned Raines or the beautiful Yvonne De Carlo, who plays Soldier’s Italian femme fatale.)

Also, Hellinger’s skill at wheeling and dealing helped him negotiate the film’s violence around the production code, and helped Dassin get away with things other directors might not have been able to. Brute Force is an extraordinarily violent film for 1947. Of course, it doesn’t show what really happens to human bodies blasted by Thompson submachine guns or .30 caliber machine guns, but it implies enough.

I haven’t said a lot about Hume Cronyn’s performance as Capt. Munsey, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise him. The diminutive, soft-voiced Cronyn is one of the most memorable villains in the film noir pantheon. Cronyn gives “Napoleon complex” a whole new meaning, and he gives lines like “I get quite a kick out of censoring the mail” a creepy, sociopathic edge.

It’s pretty clear that Dassin is using Munsey to make a statement about creeping fascism in America. Munsey is a homegrown little Hitler, and just in case you don’t immediately get the connection when Munsey professes his simplistic, Social Darwinist philosophy, Dassin drives the point home with the set design of Munsey’s office, which includes a giant framed photograph of himself, enormous shotguns that he relishes stroking and polishing, and sculptures and paintings that scream homosexual body worship, not to mention a phonograph on which he plays the overture to Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” while brutally beating a hapless inmate (Sam Levene) with a length of rubber hose for information.

Despite a few missteps here and there, Brute Force is a great film, and should be seen by anyone who appreciates prison movies, film noir, violence in the cinema, finely crafted black and white cinematography, or the brilliant film scores of Miklós Rózsa.

A note about Jules Dassin: because of his French-sounding surname, and the fact that one of his best and most well-known pictures, Rififi (1955), is a French-language film, a lot of people are under the mistaken impression that Jules Dassin was French. He wasn’t. He was an American who was born in Connecticut in 1911 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He immigrated to Europe after he was blacklisted following testimony about him that was given to HUAC in 1951.

Riffraff (June 28, 1947)

Ted Tetzlaff’s Riffraff, which premiered in New York City on June 28, 1947, was Tetzlaff’s first feature film as sole director. (In 1941, he co-directed the John Barrymore comedy World Premiere with the uncredited Otis Garrett and he was the uncredited co-director on Ralph Murphy’s Jackie Cooper comedy Glamour Boy.)

Before he made the leap to directing, Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films. He started working in the silent era, and his last credited film as cinematographer was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). Anyone who’s seen Notorious can attest to how beautifully it’s lighted and shot, and Tetzlaff brings his considerable skill to bear on Riffraff, elevating it from the very run-of-the mill detective story it could have been.

The opening sequence in Riffraff is the most talked-about part of the film. It’s five full minutes of dialogue-free bliss. After the credits roll, the film cuts to an unnerving shot of an iguana placidly lying on a log in the pouring rain. The iguana’s cold, reptilian gaze is a harbinger of things soon to come.

It’s 2:25 in the morning at El Caribe airlines in Peru. A meek, bespectacled man (Fred Essler) boards a cargo plane, the rain sheeting down on him. He sits nervously in the cargo hold, dripping wet and hanging onto his briefcase tightly. He’s sharing the space with a bunch of squawking chickens and an oily, mustachioed fat man with an unnerving smile. (He’s played by Marc Krah, and we’ll find out later in the film that his character’s name is Charles Hasso). The man with glasses watches Hasso fearfully as Hasso stares back at him. Then Hasso stands up and plucks an errant chick from the floor and replaces it gently in its box.

There’s an exterior shot of the cargo plane flying through the rain in the night, then an interior shot of the pilots lighting up a couple of smokes. A warning tone sounds in the cockpit. The co-pilot rushes back into the hold, where the door is wide open and rain is pouring into the plane. “I couldn’t stop him! He jumped!” exclaims Hasso.

Sure he did.

The cargo plane lands in Panama, where Hasso is questioned by the head of the secret police, Major Rues (played by an oddly accent-free George Givot). Hasso is evasive when he’s questioned about his fellow passenger’s death and suggests that the man might have killed himself for love.

Sure he did.

Major Rues’s suspicions (as well as the audience’s suspicions, if they’re awake) are confirmed when Hasso goes to see Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien), president and sole operative of Zenith Services, a detective agency. Hasso hires Hammer as a bodyguard for his two-day sojourn in Panama City, and while Hammer’s back is turned, he takes the map he stole from the man on the plane and tacks it to Hammer’s cluttered bulletin board, where it will remain for most of the film’s running time (there’s no better place to hide something than in plain sight.)

Eventually we find out that the map shows the locations of a number of unregistered oil wells. Hammer is approached by a shady businessman named Walter Gredson (Jerome Cowan), who wants Hammer to find Hasso for him. Hammer talks Gredson and his assistant up to $5,000 to do the job, and of course never tells them that he already knows exactly who Hasso is and where he is staying.

Hammer is a mixture of hero and con man. In fact, nearly everyone in the film is an operator who is looking out for number one. The beautiful girl in the story is named Maxine Manning (Anne Jeffreys) and even her motives are unclear for awhile. (After a scuffle in a bar, she deliberately pours a drink on her dress just so she can get close to Hammer.)

Pat O’Brien is an interesting choice for the protagonist, since he’s a middle-aged character actor with a pear-shaped body. (Although, based on the presence of Marc Krah and Walter Slezak, who plays a vicious killer named Molinar, I suspect Tetzlaff had a fetish for fat guys.)

There’s plenty of violence in Riffraff, and more hard-boiled P.I. clichés than you can shake a stick at, but it’s ultimately not a very dark movie. Aside from all the corpses that pile up, it’s breezy, fast-paced fun in an exotic tropical setting.

Besides the performances, which are all excellent, the film is elevated by Tetzlaff’s direction and the terrific cinematography by George E. Diskant.

It’s too bad there weren’t more Dan Hammer films starring O’Brien. He’s hardly anyone’s picture of a tough-as-nails P.I., but he crafts a great character who I wouldn’t have minded seeing in more pictures. Hammer is the kind of guy who never wears a necktie because someone could choke him out with it, and who says he’s not going to give up on the case not because of any noble conviction, but rather, as he he says, because “I’ve got a lot of time invested in this thing. Plus a good shellacking!”

In case you’re wondering, I looked into it and couldn’t figure out who came first, Dan Hammer or Mike Hammer. (Mickey Spillane’s first novel, I, the Jury, was also published in 1947.) While it’s possible that Spillane took his character’s name from Martin Rackin’s script for Riffraff, or that Rackin cribbed the name from Spillane, it’s equally possible that a P.I. with the last name of “Hammer” was just a good idea whose time had come.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (June 26, 1947)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
20th Century-Fox

Gene Tierney is one of my favorite actresses from the ’40s. (What can I say? I’m a sucker for a cute overbite.) She’s often criticized for being more of a pretty face than a talented performer, but I think that’s unfair. Maybe some of these criticisms spring from her most famous role — Laura (1944) — in which she literally played a painting. I don’t know. What I do know is that when she was given good material and paired with a good director and co-stars, she really shone.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who made another wonderful film starring Tierney, Dragonwyck (1946). Mankiewicz clearly cared about helping Tierney craft a fully realized character. And it doesn’t hurt that in this film, she is paired with the great Rex Harrison, who plays the ghost of the title.

Harrison’s scenes with Tierney are the highlights of the film, and the two actors play off each other beautifully. Their relationship runs the gamut of human emotion, from fear to amusement, anger to warmth, reproach to acceptance, and eventually even into the uncharted territory of human-spectral love.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir takes place in England at the turn of the century. Tierney plays a widow named Lucy Muir who moves with her young daughter Anna (Natalie Wood) and her maid Martha Huggins (Edna Best) to Gull Cottage at Whitecliff-by-the-Sea. Unlike her real estate agent, Mr. Coombe (Robert Coote), who flees from ghostly laughter when showing Lucy the house, Mrs. Muir is sanguine about the prospect of moving in with a ghost. “Haunted,” she says. “How perfectly fascinating.”

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison

Of course, she’s also a skeptic who doesn’t believe that medieval nonsense like ghosts and hauntings could ever exist in the 20th century. The painting of the fearsome-looking former owner of the house — Capt. Daniel Gregg — is certainly lifelike, but it takes the appearance of the salty old seaman “in the flesh” to convince Lucy that she’s not imagining things.

Philip Dunne’s screenplay for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is based on a novel by Josephine Leslie, who published it under the masculine-sounding pseudonym “R.A. Dick.” (I’m not sure if that pen name is supposed to be as funny as I find it.) In the novel, Capt. Gregg was just a voice inside Mrs. Muir’s head. He manifests more literally in the film, but in many ways he still symbolizes Lucy’s personal journey from a black crepe-wearing widow bound by convention to a liberated woman who writes and publishes a very unladylike book entitled Blood and Swash (with Capt. Gregg’s help, of course).

Ironically, the ghost of the Captain has no use for superstition or fear, and his plain, unvarnished speech, peppered with curses, speaks the truths that everyone in Lucy’s life has been too straitlaced to ever acknowledge. Also, because he has no corporeal form, the film is able to get away with things that otherwise wouldn’t have been acceptable under the Hay’s Code, such as a widow and a virile man sharing a room and intimate talk. He insists she call him by his Christian name, “Daniel,” and he decides her name should be something more exotic than Lucy, so he calls her “Lucia.”

“Keep on believing in me, and I’ll always be real,” Capt. Gregg tells Lucy, but eventually a real man enters her life — a slippery lothario named Miles Fairley (George Sanders) who writes children’s books under the name “Uncle Neddy” — and the jealous ghost must fade away.

The scene in which he says goodbye to her might be the most weirdly erotic and deeply romantic scenes of all time. She lies down in bed, her eyes close, and he sits down next to her, his face very close to hers as he says, “It’s been a dream, Lucia. And in the morning, and the years after, you’ll only remember it as a dream, and it’ll die, as all dreams must die at waking.”

Mankiewicz’s able direction is aided by the brilliant cinematography of Charles Lang and the luscious musical score of the great Bernard Herrmann. Together, they craft a film that nimbly moves from horror film to comedy, and then from romance to drama. I can’t recommend The Ghost and Mrs. Muir highly enough for lovers of classic cinema.

Gran Casino (June 12, 1947)

Gran Casino
Gran Casino (1947)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
Películas Anahuac S.A.

When the Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel made Gran Casino, his career was in a downswing. His 16-minute silent short Un chien andalou (1929), which he made with Salvador Dalí, had an impact on film and on the French surrealists that can’t be overstated.

His first feature, L’âge d’or (1930), was even more scandalous, and was widely seen as an attack on Catholicism.

He returned to his native Spain and made a semi-documentary, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933), that depicted abysmal poverty in the mountainous region of Las Hurdes. The film was immediately banned in Spain.

In 1939, with the defeat of the Republican government and the end of the Spanish Civil War imminent, Buñuel moved to Hollywood with his family, hoping to make propaganda films about the war. This came to nothing, however. According to Buñuel, an order came from Washington D.C. forbidding Hollywood to make any films about the Spanish Civil War, no matter which side the film supported.

He worked for MoMA in New York, and was under contract with Warner Bros. from 1942 to 1946. What Buñuel wanted more than anything was to make his own films, but he was continually thwarted. It didn’t help that in 1942, Salvador Dalí had published his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, in which he accused Buñuel of Marxism and anti-Catholicism.

When Buñuel’s contract with Warner Bros. was up in 1946, he moved to Mexico. He had no interest in Latin America, and didn’t like living in Mexico, but he wanted to make films. Better to make them in Mexico than not to make them at all. (And it’s likely that Buñuel saw the handwriting on the wall in Hollywood, and realized that hard times were coming for leftists in the American film industry.)

Producer Óscar Dancigers, an old Communist colleague of Buñuel’s from Paris who had used his labor connections to enter the Mexican movie industry, helped Buñuel get the job of directing Gran Casino. It was the first feature Buñuel made in Mexico. Despite his reputation as a brilliant artist, Buñuel had never really made a linear film with a story, so despite its shortcomings, Gran Casino is an important film in Buñuel’s career.

According to film historian Philip Kemp, when Buñuel recalled being offered the chance to direct a star vehicle for Jorge Negrete, he said that he thought to himself, “This is a little adventure-romance. Is there anything in it that betrays my conscience? No? Well then, let’s get going.”

Is Gran Casino a must-see for aficionados of Buñuel? No. The only way it could ever be mistaken for a surreal film is if you smoked a fat joint beforehand and were wholly unfamiliar with the conventions of movie musicals. But just because it’s not a must-see doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing.

Jorge Negrete, the star of the film, started out as an opera singer, and his good looks and rich voice made him one of Mexico’s most popular leading men. (The only other actor who gave him a run for his money was Pedro Infante). Negrete starred in his first movie in 1937. He most often played a “charro,” or horseman, and just like the singing horsemen of Hollywood matinees, Negrete’s character usually rode into town, set things right, rode away with the girl, and sang a bunch of songs along the way.

Gran Casino follows this formula. Negrete plays a freewheeling charro named Gerardo Ramírez who escapes from jail and goes to work for José Enrique Irigoyen (Francisco Jambrina), the Argentinian owner of three oil wells in Tampico, on the Gulf of Mexico.

Señor Fabio (José Baviera), the owner of the casino of the film’s title, wants the oil wells for himself, and will stop at nothing to get them.

After José Enrique disappears, an apparent victim of foul play, his sister Mercedes arrives to take his place as patrona of the little oil field, but there’s a case of mistaken identity, and she’s able to go undercover in the casino as a singer named “Raquela Ortiz.” Mercedes is played by Libertad Lamarque, who was the “Queen of Tango” in her native Argentina, and her acting might be wooden, but her vocal performances are great.

Unfortunately, she and Negrete have no onscreen chemistry, and they don’t even sing any duets together.

If you’re a fan of Buñuel and you’re paying attention, there are a few surreal bits in Gran Casino, like the blurred reflection of the old Frenchwoman Nanette (Fernande Albany) in a champagne bucket that Negrete turns slowly in a way that seems to demonstrate his boredom at her long-winded story as the scene fades to black.

The best surreal bit comes toward the end, when Negrete approaches a bad guy hiding behind a curtain and smashes his head in with a statuette. There’s a brief, inexplicable shot of a mirror being smashed by the statuette in slow motion. Blink and you’ll miss it, but if you’re paying attention, it’s a jarring and memorably weird moment.

Gran Casino was a flop despite its popular stars, and it would be two years before Buñuel made another film. But as I said, it was an important film in his career. It allowed him to establish a foothold in the Mexican film industry, which led to him making the brilliant Los Olvidados (1950), which is one of the best and most powerful films I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Fiesta (June 12, 1947)

And introducing Ricardo Montalban.

When I sat down to watch Fiesta, those words in the credits floored me. I can’t conceive of what it was like to grow up in a world without Ricardo Montalban. His suave, white-suit-wearing Mr. Roarke, from Fantasy Island (1977-1984), is a mysterious character who was burned into my mind at a young age. Ditto for his insane and weirdly brilliant role as the villain of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). Or his dapper and hilarious bad guy, Vincent Ludwig, in The Naked Gun (1988). Or his work as the pitchman for Maxwell House Decaf.

Maybe it was just the movies and TV shows that I watched, but Montalban seemed ubiquitous.

By the ’80s, he always appeared to be having fun with his “Latin lover” image, but he was never parodying himself. His smooth charm was undeniable, no matter what kind of ridiculous lines were coming out of his mouth. (Like claiming that decaffeinated coffee was “good to the last drop.”)

Richard Thorpe’s Fiesta wasn’t the first film to star Montalban. He’d already appeared in more than a dozen films in his native Mexico. But it was his first Hollywood film, and it was his introduction to American audiences. It was also an opportunity for Esther Williams to perform in a dramatic role that was very different from the roles that had made her famous in MGM’s “aquatic musicals.”

Williams and Montalban play twins, Maria and Mario Morales. Their father, Antonio Morales (Fortunio Bonanova), a former matador, always wanted a son to carry on his work in the ring. After confirming that he is indeed not going to have just a daughter, but rather twins, Morales proclaims his son “The future greatest matador in the whole world!”

Of course, things don’t work out the way Señor Morales expects. His son Mario is a gifted musician and composer who would much rather make music than wear the traje de luces (“suit of lights”) and fight bulls (even though he’s good at it). His daughter Maria, of course, is the one with the real desire to be a torero, but her gender makes such a thing unthinkable.

Mario is torn between his father’s plans for him and the interest that conductor Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas) shows in his music. Eventually, Mario flees the ring when he finds out his father lied to him about a visit Señor Contreras made to their house. He does so out of anger, but his action is viewed as cowardice by the spectators. Naturally, Maria comes up with a plan to don the traje de luces and impersonate her brother in the ring.

Fiesta has the kind of shopworn plot and lifeless dialogue that one can suffer through if they’re merely the framework for a musical packed with great songs and exciting dance numbers. But while Fiesta is often classified as a musical, it’s not a really a musical. It’s a turgid, woodenly acted drama whose only high points are a handful of dance sequences.

If you like dancing, then Montalban’s numbers with Cyd Charisse (playing a character named Conchita) are worth seeing. (I especially liked the number they stomped out to “La Bamba,” the traditional Mexican song that Ritchie Valens later made famous.) The scene in which Mario hears one of his compositions played on the radio by Señor Contreras’s orchestra and listens in rapture before sitting down at the piano in the cantina to play along would be at home in a musical, but it’s an organic moment. There are no scenes in Fiesta in which the characters just break into song.

In short, it’s pretty lifeless, especially when compared with other Technicolor extravaganzas from MGM. Most of the cast isn’t very interesting to watch. The great silent star Mary Astor is wasted in a thankless role as Señora Morales. Montalban is enjoyable to watch, but Williams is terribly miscast. It’s not that she doesn’t look “Mexican” (you can see plenty of women who look like Esther Williams if you watch Spanish-language television). It’s that she looks nothing like Montalban, yet the audience is asked to believe that she is a convincing double for him when she dons the traje de luces and enters the ring. Her own stunt double is also a completely unconvincing facsimile of Williams during the bullfighting sequences. His muscular buttocks, lack of breasts, crotch bulge, muscular neck, and big ears are pretty difficult to confuse with Williams’s slightly different attributes.

I like Esther Williams a lot. She’s beautiful and appealing, not to mention a hell of a swimmer. But this was just the wrong role for her. Also, her “romantic” scenes with Jose “Pepe” Ortega (John Carroll) are dead on arrival.

Although the film begins with a statement of sincere thanks to the Mexican people, the production was a troubled one. The cinematographer, Sidney Wagner, and another crew member both died of cholera after eating contaminated street food. Esther Williams’s husband, Ben Gage, and makeup artist George Lane were both expelled from Mexico after a fight with a hotel employee. And a stuntman died of an infection he contracted after being gored in the groin by a bull.

The largest problem the production ran into had to do with bullfighting, which director Thorpe chose to depict in a sanitized fashion. For example, the first time we see Mario’s moves in the ring, he skirmishes with an uninjured bull who charges at him over and over as he dances around the ring and flourishes his cape, avoiding several near misses. Eventually the bull gets too tired to continue, and the fight is over.

During the bullfights in Fiesta, only the bullfighter’s life seems to be in danger. It is presented as a dangerous sport. In reality, the outcome of a bullfight is rarely in question, and it is less a sport than an artistic, ritualized slaughter in which the torero is judged according to his grace and style, not whether or not he kills the bull. (According to this article, which was published last year in The Guardian, only 52 matadors have been killed in the ring since the year 1700. There are myriad injuries, of course, which range from minor to spectacular. If you have a strong stomach, click here.) In Fiesta there are no banderilleros jamming spikes into the bull’s back, bleeding it out and tiring it. There is no taunting of the bull or clownish antics on the part of the other toreadors in the ring, like grabbing the bull’s tail and skiing through the dirt as the bull circles. And, most important of all, there is no killing of the bull with a single sword thrust — the estocada.

Bullfighting is inextricable from the national identity of most Spanish-speaking countries. The people of Mexico were already angry that their own toreadors could not star in the film, so the depiction of bullfighting as a bloodless spectacle added insult to injury. When Thorpe had finished shooting Fiesta, his unit manager Walter Strohm convinced him that the bulls used in the film should all be killed to assuage the anger of the Mexican people. Thorpe acquiesced, even though the bulls had cost $1,000 each, which is nearly $10,000 in today’s dollars.