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Category Archives: December 1948

Ladies of the Chorus (Dec. 30, 1948)

Ladies of the Chorus
Ladies of the Chorus (1948)
Directed by Phil Karlson
Columbia Pictures

Unless you’re a massive fan of low-budget musicals and comedies from the 1940s, the only reason to watch Ladies of the Chorus is to see Marilyn Monroe in her first big role.

Well, OK. There’s one more reason. If you’re a massive film nerd like I am, it’s also worth watching because it was directed by Phil Karlson. From 1944 through 1947, Karlson directed more than a dozen B movies for Monogram Pictures (later Allied Artists). In 1948, he moved up to making B features for Columbia Pictures. After lensing two westerns for Columbia — Adventures in Silverado and Thunderhoof — he directed Ladies of the Chorus.

Karlson’s best work lay ahead of him. He would go on to direct tough, taut film noirs like Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), and The Phenix City Story (1955), as well as one of my favorite tough-guy vigilante movies of all time, Walking Tall (1973).

But Ladies of the Chorus really has nothing in common with those movies. The only connection is Karlson’s professionalism and attention to detail. It’s a fun little movie, just an hour long, with plenty of music and songs. Musicals and corny comedies aren’t really my thing, but I appreciate any well-made film. And I absolutely love Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn Monroe 1948

Marilyn Monroe turned 22 years old in 1948. This movie was the first time she got her name in the credits.

She plays a girl named Peggy who was born into a life of burlesque. Her mother, Mae Martin, was a burlesque queen back in Boston. When she married a wealthy young man whom she loved, the wealthy young man’s father had him shipped off to Europe and the marriage annulled. But Mae was already pregnant with Peggy.

Mae is played by Adele Jergens, who turned 31 on November 26, 1948. She’s obviously not old enough to be Marilyn Monroe’s mother, so the makeup department put a few gray streaks in her hair.

When the star of the burlesque show, Bubbles (Marjorie Hoshelle), insults Mae’s gray hair and the wig she wears on stage, Peggy attacks her. The stage manager breaks up the fight and shouts, “Fightin’ like a couple of alley cats. What are you tryin’ to do, give burlesque a bad name?”

He sends Mae in to replace Bubbles, but Mae pulls a switcheroo and sends in Peggy instead. Naturally, she kills on stage and becomes a new queen of burlesque. And of course history repeats itself when a young man from a blue-blooded family falls for her.

Peggy’s wealthy suitor is played by Rand Brooks, who’s a bit of a drip. He doesn’t have any chemistry with Monroe, but like I said, she’s the main reason to see this movie. (Although I really like Adele Jergens, too.) Monroe doesn’t quite have the breathy, “baby doll” voice she developed later in her career, but every bit of her megawatt star power is in evidence here. She does a bunch of song and dance numbers, and they’re all wonderful. Well, maybe all of them except “Every Baby Needs a Da Da Daddy,” which has to be seen to be believed.

When Ladies of the Chorus first came out, Adele Jergens got top billing, but Columbia re-released the film in November 1952 to capitalize on Marilyn Monroe’s growing fame. A lot of times when studios do this, the newly minted star whose name gets top billing actually only has a little bit of screen time, but that’s not the case here. This was a star-making turn for Marilyn Monroe, and it’s a lot of fun to watch if you’re a fan.

Ladies of the Chorus 1952

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Force of Evil (Dec. 25, 1948)

Force of Evil
Force of Evil (1948)
Directed by Abraham Polonsky
Enterprise Productions / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Force of Evil was the first film Abraham Polonsky directed. It was also the last film he would direct for a long, long time.

Polonsky was blacklisted after he refused to testify before HUAC in 1951. He went on to write screenplays under a variety of pseudonyms, but he didn’t receive another directorial credit until he made the Robert Redford film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969).

A lot of great directors were blacklisted in the 1950s, but Polonsky’s inability to make more films seems especially tragic. Force of Evil is not only a great film, but it’s the kind of scathing critique of the foundations of America’s financial system that’s lacking from most crime films in the 1950s.

Polonsky wrote the screenplay for Robert Rossen’s boxing masterpiece Body and Soul (1947), which starred John Garfield. Body and Soul was a big hit, and it’s alluded to on the poster for Force of Evil above.

Force of Evil wasn’t as big a hit for John Garfield. There’s even some dispute over the original running time of this film, since M-G-M treated it as a B picture, and wanted it under 90 minutes so it could fit comfortably on the bottom half of a double bill.

Despite all that, it’s a film that’s aged remarkably well. It’s one of the best films Garfield ever starred in, and it’s one of the greatest film noirs ever made.

Garfield upstairs

Force of Evil is based on Ira Wolfert’s 1943 novel Tucker’s People. Polonsky collaborated with Wolfert on the screenplay.

Garfield plays Joe Morse, a lawyer for the powerful mobster Ben Tucker (Roy Roberts). The film begins with a montage of Wall Street and Joe telling the viewer, in voiceover, that he’s about to make his first million dollars.

On the Fourth of July, most of the suckers who play the numbers play “776” as a superstitious form of patriotism. Tucker has a complicated plan that will force 776 to hit on July 4th, which will put all of the smaller numbers operations out of business when they’re forced to pay out. He’ll swoop in and take control of all the numbers rackets, just like he took control of beer during Prohibition.

Joe Morse is young, slick, and on the verge of being fabulously wealthy. His older brother Leo Morse (Thomas Gomez) is old, overweight, and will never be well-to-do. He runs a small, neighborhood numbers racket (or “bank,” as they are known in the film). He may be taking suckers’ money, but the stakes are small, he pays out what he promises, and he cares about the people he employs.

Joe knows what the Fourth of July has in store for Leo and everyone like him. As Tucker’s lawyer, he’s not able to tell Leo exactly what’s going to happen, but he tries to warn him. When that doesn’t work, he tries to pull strings that will force his brother out of the numbers racket before it’s too late, but it only makes things worse.

Gomez and Garfield

Polonsky showed his cinematographer, George Barnes, some of Edward Hopper’s Third Avenue paintings to give him an idea of how he wanted the film to look. Force of Evil uses a lot of single-source lighting and sharp focus, and it’s full of simple but beautiful compositions.

All of the actors in the film give good performances, including Beatrice Pearson as a girl who works for Leo, and whom he considers a daughter, and Marie Windsor in full femme fatale mode as Tucker’s wife Edna.

Thomas Gomez’s scenes with Garfield are especially powerful. Their dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in a stage play, since Polonsky isn’t afraid to elevate their language to poetic, mythic heights.

There’s not a lot of violence in Force of Evil, but what there is makes a tremendous impact. One sequence toward the end of the film is as good as anything Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese did in any of their gangster films. (Incidentally, Scorsese is a great admirer of Force of Evil. His video introduction to the film is the sole special feature on the gorgeous-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.)

Portrait of Jennie (Dec. 25, 1948)

Portrait of Jennie
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
Directed by William Dieterle
Vanguard Films / The Selznick Studio

William Dieterle directed one of my favorite romances of the 1940s, I’ll Be Seeing You (1944), which starred Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers.

Cotten also starred for Dieterle in his film Love Letters (1945), and again in Portrait of Jennie, a romance with elements of magical realism.

Portrait of Jennie is based on Robert Nathan’s 1940 novel, and takes place in New York in 1934. Cotten plays an artist named Eben Adams who is cold, hungry, and poor. Worst of all, he is only painting competent but uninspired still lifes. He is desperate to paint something truly meaningful.

One wintry evening in Central Park, he meets a strange young girl named Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones). She wears old-fashioned clothes and speaks of things that happened decades ago as if they were current events.

Jennie inspires Eben to create a sketch of her. The sketch impresses an art dealer, Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore). Her partner, Matthews (Cecil Kellaway), tells her they won’t turn a profit at the price she paid Eben, and Miss Spinney informs him that she didn’t buy it for the gallery, she bought it for herself.

Eben investigates the mystery of Jennie Appleton while working on his portrait of her. She appears to him at various times, and is years older each time, even though only days or weeks have passed.

Cotten and Jones

I liked Portrait of Jennie, especially the first half, which is one of the most darkly magical lensings of Central Park in winter that I’ve ever seen. Cinematographer Joseph H. August, who died shortly after completing work on the film, was nominated for an Academy Award for his black and white cinematography. The film was also nominated for an Oscar for best visual effects, which it won.

Cotten was 44 when he made this picture, which is a little old to be playing a “young artist,” as he’s described by Ethel Barrymore, but he’s a great actor, so I didn’t mind so much.

Eben’s portrait of Jennie Appleton, which appears in full Technicolor at the end of the film, was a commissioned piece by Ukrainian-American artist Robert Brackman. It became one of David O. Selznick’s most prized possessions, and hung in his home after he married Jennifer Jones in 1949. (They remained married until his death in 1965.)

In my recent review of Act of Violence (1948), I mentioned how rare films from the 1940s were that didn’t open with a full set of credits. Portrait of Jennie goes one step further by not even putting a title card at the beginning of the film, which contributes to its sense of dreamlike fantasy.

Robert Brackman

Whiplash (Dec. 24, 1948)

Whiplash
Whiplash (1948)
Directed by Lewis Seiler
Warner Bros.

Sometimes a good ending is all I need.

I enjoyed Whiplash, and there’s plenty of entertainment packed into its briskly paced 91 minutes, but it’s the ending that really got me. It was a mixture of gallows humor and farce that I didn’t see coming. I don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it, but it had me laughing like I haven’t laughed in a long time, and then chuckling and shaking my head at what I’d just laughed at.

Whiplash is a B noir that stars Dane Clark as a soulful, romantic artist named Michael Gordon who also happens to be pretty handy with his fists. If you think that’s a role that sounds tailor-made for John Garfield, you’re right. Michael Gordon is in many ways an amalgam of a couple of characters John Garfield played not long before this film; the rough-hewn but sensitive concert violinist in Humoresque (1946) and the tortured boxer in Body and Soul (1947).

Since this project wasn’t prestigious enough for an actor like Garfield at this point in his career, the producers and the studio went with the next best thing: Dane Clark. Like Garfield, Clark was a native New Yorker with an appealing mix of street smarts, physical toughness, and soft-eyed sensitivity.

The film co-stars several dependable performers from the Warner Bros. stable; Alexis Smith as the beautiful and mysterious woman who captures Michael Gordon’s heart, Eve Arden as Michael’s wise and acerbic gal-pal, Zachary Scott as the shifty-eyed and power-mad villain, Jeffrey Lynn as an alcoholic doctor haunted by his past, and S.Z. Sakall as the avuncular shopkeeper who proudly displays Michael’s paintings.

Dane Clark and Alexis Smith

The first act of the film takes place in California. Michael falls for a woman named Laurie Durant (Alexis Smith) after she buys one of his paintings. Their love affair burns hot, but she runs off one day without explaining what spooked her.

In the second act of the film, he follows her to New York City and eventually finds her singing in a nightclub. He soon discovers that she is married to a wheelchair-bound man named Rex Durant (Zachary Scott). Rex was a boxer before he was paralyzed, and he still has the sweet science in his blood. If he can’t compete in the ring, he’ll do the next best thing and manage fighters.

When Michael Gordon knocks out one of Rex’s bodyguards, he proves that he’s handy with more than just a paintbrush. Rex sees potential in the young man, and he and his crew rename him “Mike Angelo” to exploit the artistic angle, and they put him on the fight circuit.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in Whiplash that’s never explored to its full potential, perhaps because of the Hays Code. Rex wants to use Mike’s body for his own purposes; as a surrogate fighter. His wife wants to use Mike’s body as a surrogate for Rex. This dichotomy of sex and violence could have made for a lurid and memorable film, but the sex stuff never really gets off the ground, especially after Laurie’s marital status is revealed. I also thought that splitting the action of the film between California and New York unnecessarily complicated the story.

Whiplash was more than lurid enough for the NY Times, however. In their review of the film, published December 27, 1948, they called it “a pointless exposition of brutality,” and went on to say that “if it’s plain, old fashioned mayhem that you desire, ‘Whiplash’ most likely will be to your liking. Otherwise proceed with caution.”

Modern viewers will probably find the brutality in Whiplash pretty ho-hum, but it’s a solid little B movie with a nice, noirish score by Franz Waxman and crisp black & white cinematography by J. Peverell Marley.

And, as I said, the ending is great.

Act of Violence (Dec. 21, 1948)

Act of Violence
Act of Violence (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence opens with a shot of New York City at night. The Chrysler Building is silhouetted against a dark gray sky. Bronislau Kaper’s musical score is ominous and intense. Robert Ryan crosses the street toward the camera. He’s wearing a hat and a trench coat, and his stride is determined despite his limp.

The sound of his limping walk is distinctive. Step, drag, step, drag, step, drag, step, drag. It’s a sound that will haunt the film.

He walks upstairs to a shabby rented room and pulls a semiautomatic pistol from a dresser drawer. He slaps a magazine into the pistol, checks the barrel and the ejection port, and then the title of the film appears onscreen in block letters.

Act of Violence title

Now that’s the way to start a movie. Zinnemann, his cinematographer Robert Surtees, and his editor Conrad A. Nervig build more suspense and engagement in the first minute of Act of Violence than most movies are able to muster in their entire first reel.

It helps that the film drops us right into the action. Most movies in the 1940s began with screen after screen of opening credits; a time-honored cinematic tradition. Act of Violence and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night are the only films from 1948 I’ve seen that eschewed that hoary convention, and both films immediately arrest the viewer.

After the opening, Ryan’s ominous character Joe Parkson takes a Greyhound bus to California, where the viewer meets the other star of the film; Van Heflin. Heflin plays Frank Enley, a World War II veteran, housing contractor, and family man with a beautiful young wife named Edith (Janet Leigh) and an adorable baby boy. (Janet Leigh was just 21 when this film was made. Heflin and Ryan were both in their late 30s.)

We know right from the beginning that Joe Parkson wants to kill Frank Enley, but we don’t know why. For awhile, all we know is that Enley was Parkson’s CO in the war, and that Parkson has a vendetta against him.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan

M-G-M didn’t produce very many noirs, but when they did, they were glossy affairs with high productions values and great actors, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), and High Wall (1947).

Act of Violence is a stylish thriller that looks and feels ahead of its time. The cinematography is meticulously constructed and dripping with noir atmosphere, but it never feels studio-bound and uses real-world locations beautifully. The sound effects in the film sometimes do a better job of creating suspense than any musical score could.

All the actors in Act of Violence are really good. Van Heflin was a sad-eyed Everyman, and Robert Ryan had a physically intimidating presence, but enough charisma to make even his most villainous characters magnetic. Apparently Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were originally slated to star in Act of Violence, but I can’t picture anyone but Heflin and Ryan as these characters.

Janet Leigh has a pretty thankless role, but she has enough star power to make it interesting. Phyllis Thaxter doesn’t have much to do as Joe’s girl Ann, but she’s fine. Mary Astor is wonderful in an unglamorous role as a barfly obsessed with “kicks” who Frank meets on a business trip to Los Angeles, and the always-creepy Berry Kroeger is great in a small part.

I thought Zinnemann’s previous film, The Search (1948) was a minor masterpiece, and I feel the same way about Act of Violence. Zinnemann’s best work may have been ahead of him, but Act of Violence is an exceedingly well-made, visually inventive thriller with enough moral ambiguity to keep it interesting. I think our cultural views have evolved since World War II in ways that make the central conceit of the film even more ambiguous than it probably seemed when the film was first released.

I don’t want to go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but for me there’s a great deal of meaning packed into Enley’s statement to his wife, “A lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn’t understand. Why should you? I don’t understand them myself.”

Jungle Jim (Dec. 15, 1948)

Jungle Jim
Jungle Jim (1948)
Directed by William Berke
Esskay Pictures Corporation / Columbia Pictures

It’s the end of an era, and the start of a new one. Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) was Johnny Weissmuller’s last time playing Tarzan, and this was his first time playing Alex Raymond’s comic-strip hero Jungle Jim.

Raymond was one of the greatest writer-artists to ever work in the medium of the funny pages, and in addition to Jungle Jim he also created Flash Gordon, Secret Agent X-9, and Rip Kirby.

Unlike other jungle heroes like Tarzan, Ka-Zar, Ka’a’nga, and Sheena, Jungle Jim operated in Southeastern Asia, not Africa, and he wore a full set of clothes.

For the purposes of a Saturday-afternoon flick, however, it’s clear that director William Berke and his production team didn’t spend much time differentiating their highly fictionalized jungle world from the highly fictionalized version of Africa that appeared in most jungle B-movies.

In fact, I’m unclear after one viewing whether this film was meant to take place in Africa or Southeastern Asia. There were references to the Masai, but the “natives” being referred to were not black Africans, but rather the type of “natives” common to films produced by “Jungle Sam” Katzman; in other words, they’re white actors who look like Brooklyn teamsters wearing turbans.

The biggest difference between Jungle Jim and the Tarzan films comes when we see Weissmuller walk out of the jungle in the first shot of the film, fully clothed and wearing a Panama hat, which is an odd sight after so many years of mostly only seeing him in loincloths of various sizes.

But never fear. Most of the things that made Weissmuller an action star are still on display. It takes exactly 2 minutes and 4 seconds from the moment the film begins before Weissmuller takes off his shoes and leaps into the water to attempt to save a terrified native from a man-eating leopard. Even though Weissmuller is older and heavier as Jungle Jim than he was in a lot of his Tarzan films, he’s still an Olympic champion swimmer, and no other B-movie actor could knife through the water like he could. (Well, maybe Buster Crabbe could.)

Reeves and Weissmuller

The plot of Jungle Jim is the typical jungle-adventure-film malarkey. A scientist named Dr. Hilary Parker (Virginia Grey) is searching for the lost temple of Zimbalu, which has great archaeological value. Zimbalu may contain gold, but — more importantly — it might be the source of a substance that could be used to cure infantile paralysis if placed in the right hands. (Paging Dr. Jonas Salk!)

Curing polio is Dr. Parker’s goal, but it’s not the goal of safari member Bruce Edwards (played by George Reeves, who would go on to play Superman on TV in the ’50s). Edwards is only in it for the gold, and doesn’t care who he has to stab in the back to get it.

There’s also a beautiful “native” girl named Zia (Lita Baron), who doesn’t know why Dr. Parker dresses and acts like a man, and is jealous of the attention Jungle Jim pays to Dr. Parker.

Like most low-budget jungle adventures, Jungle Jim employs lots of stock footage. An entire sequence is edited to make it appear as if Dr. Parker’s dog Skipper is interacting with a little monkey. There’s also a crocodile attack, a monkey stealing honey, and a crow smoking a pipe. The emphasis in Jungle Jim is on action above all else. An elephant stampede is immediately followed by a rock slide, which is followed by the shapely Zia dancing spastically around a campfire.

Jungle Jim is dumb, but plenty of fun if you like B-movies set in the jungle. If you like beautiful women, there’s plenty to enjoy, too. Grey and Baron are both stunning. Dr. Parker is supposed to be mannish, but those glasses don’t cut it.

Street Corner (Dec. 3, 1948)

Street Corner

Street Corner (1948)
Directed by Albert H. Kelley
Wilshire Pictures Corp.

Street Corner is one of several “sex hygiene” films that followed in the wake of Kroger Babb’s notorious roadshow presentation Mom and Dad (1945) and attempted to copy its phenomenal success.

Like all exploitation movies from the 1940s, Street Corner had to demonstrate some kind of legitimate educational value in order to show lurid footage that could never make it into mainstream Hollywood entertainment, like syphilitic penises and close-up footage of babies being born.

Street Corner does a much better job of walking this line than a trashy picture like Test Tube Babies (1948). Its call for facts-based sex education for young people is a noble one, although the film is in every way a product of its time.

Dr. James Fenton (played by Joseph Crehan) narrates the film, telling the sad tale of his friends Mr. and Mrs. Marsh (Don Brodie and Jean Fenwick), who didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to prepare their daughter Lois (Marcia Mae Jones) for the realities of grown-up life. Clara Marsh tells Dr. Fenton that Lois is a very sensitive girl and that she’d be shocked. She’ll learn about the birds and the bees “somehow.” Somehow is right, says the doctor, who warns Mr. and Mrs. Marsh that if children aren’t given proper sex education they’ll learn about it on “the street corner” or in “the alley.”

Lois Marsh is 17 years old when she ambivalently loses her virginity to her 19-year-old boyfriend Bob Mason (John Treul) on prom night. He gets her with the old “I’m going to college and this’ll be our last date in a long, long time” routine. The director of Street Corner, Albert H. Kelley, shows that he knows how to wield symbolism as a blunt object by depicting Lois having sex for the first time with a close-up shot of her hand slowly crushing her corsage. (Wink wink.)

Naturally, since this is a sex hygiene film, one night of knocking boots knocks up poor Lois. Her clueless parents offer no help. Her boyfriend rushes back from college to marry her, but he winds up a smear on the highway, and Lois winds up in the hands of the local abortionist (Gretl Dupont).

In the Clutches of the Abortionist

Lois’s visit to the abortionist is shot and scored like a horror movie. Unlike Vera Drake, this abortionist takes payment and doesn’t seem to care very much about the young women in her care.

Dr. Fenton’s voice-over drives home the horror: “Fear and ignorance have combined to add another victim to the ever-mounting toll. Another human life has been destroyed by one of the most malignant practices of a civilized society; abortion.”

People who bought tickets to Street Corner had to wait nearly an hour to see Dr. Fenton’s “clinical demonstration,” his regular weekly clinic of sex education that features explicit short films. The first is The Miracle of Birth, which begins with an animation of an egg being released into the female organs of reproduction, then being fertilized by a lone sperm. Eventually this leads to what Dr. Fenton calls “the ultimate and crowning glory of womanhood, the miracle of birth,” which takes place while the mother is asleep under a light anesthetic. We get to see a baby boy coaxed out of a vagina and then see his umbilical cord cut.

The next film is Birth by Caesarean Section, which I’m sure satisfied any budding gore-hounds in the audience while sickening everyone else.

Then we get Human Wreckage, a film about venereal disease that explains the importance of blood tests before marriage, followed by a series of graphic close-ups of male and female genitals infected with syphilis and gonorrhea, which are meant to caution viewers against neglect, self-treatment, and quack medicine.

Street Corner was made long before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was still illegal in America. Dr. Fenton makes no bones about calling abortion “murder.” And of course there is no mention of any kind of birth control in the film. Apparently just knowing that it isn’t the stork that brings babies will be enough to stop girls from getting green-gowned and knocked up after the prom.