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Category Archives: September 1948

Superman (15 chapters) (July 15-Oct. 21, 1948)

Superman Chapter 10
Superman (15 chapters) (1948)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr
Columbia Pictures

Here it is, folks — the very first live-action Superman film.

Superman, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is one of the most popular and recognizable superheroes of the 20th century. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. His popularity grew quickly, leading to a second comic series, simply titled Superman, in 1939, a radio serial — The Adventures of Superman — in 1940, a series of Max Fleischer cartoons (1941-1943), and a third comic series, which debuted in 1941 as “World’s Best Comics,” but was changed after the first issue to World’s Finest, and featured stories about Superman and Batman & Robin, as well as other DC Comics superheroes.

Aspects of all of those source materials can be seen in the 15-chapter serial Superman, which was produced by Sam Katzman for Columbia Pictures and directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr. Katzman produced a ton of cheapjack serials for Columbia, and he was sometimes known as “Jungle Sam” on account of all the action-adventure pictures he made that were set in tropical locations.

I’ve reviewed a few of Katzman’s serials on this blog already — Jack Armstrong (1947), The Sea Hound (1947), and Brick Bradford (1948) — but I’ve barely scratched the surface of his voluminous output. To be honest, I really don’t want to dig any deeper. Katzman produced some fun low-budget sci-fi pictures in the 1950s, but all of his serials that I’ve seen so far have been tedious, cheaply made, and poorly acted, and Superman is no exception.

In 1948, the Max Fleischer animated shorts about Superman were still the most impressive cinematic versions of the character. They were gorgeously animated, full of vibrant color, packed with action, and even featured the talents of Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman on the radio. In short, they were comic books come to life.

In fact, they were so impressive that Katzman’s black and white serial Superman features an animated Superman in all of the flying sequences. It’s a very different approach to a flying superhero than the practical effects featured in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), which for my money is the greatest serial ever made.

Adventures of Captain Marvel featured a dummy that zipped along a wire, which sounds cheesier than it is. The effect actually works quite well, thanks to simple techniques like reversing the film so the dummy can fly upward, shooting in silhouette, and creative editing. The animated flying sequences in Superman, on the other hand, are well-done for what they are, but the technique of turning live action into animation and back again was always jarring for me.

If you’re a Superman fan, this serial is a must-see for its historical value, but it’s just not that great. The low-budget black and white filmmaking is less vibrant than the Max Fleischer cartoons, the storytelling is less inventive and involving than the radio show, and the physical appearance of Superman just isn’t as impressive as it was in the comic books.

At the beginning of every chapter, the Superman comic magazine flashes on screen, then Kirk Alyn bursts from its pages and stands there for awhile looking as if he’s not sure what he should do next.

Alyn was a 37-year-old actor who’d had bit parts in a bunch of B movies, but this was his first leading role. Alyn has the right face and the right hair to play Superman, but his body, mannerisms, and physical presence all feel wrong. (This is another area where Adventures of Captain Marvel excelled. Tom Tyler looked very much like the Captain Marvel of the comic books, and his physicality was impressive.)

Alyn fares a little better as Superman’s alter ego, mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. I like the slightly alien edge he gives the character, but in some scenes his alien peculiarity just seems like bad acting.

My favorite actor in Superman is Noel Neill, who was so good as Lois Lane that she went on to play Lois in the Adventures of Superman TV series with George Reeves that premiered in 1951. The same honor was not accorded to either Tommy Bond (who plays cub reporter Jimmy Olsen) or Pierre Watkin (who plays Daily Planet editor-in-chief Perry White). I actually really liked Watkin as Perry White, but I thought Bond was obnoxious and irritating as Olsen, and not just because he’s the guy who played Butch in the Our Gang comedies.

Also, Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside don’t make for a very convincing Metropolis, but California locations are to be expected in any serial.

The antagonist of the serial is called The Spider Lady (Carol Forman), a master criminal who wears a slinky black cocktail dress and a black domino mask. The Spider Lady is after a MacGuffin called a “reducer ray,” and like every good serial villain, she has an army of disposable goons who carry out her cockamamie plans in chapter after chapter. She also has a henchman named Hackett who is introduced in Chapter 6, “Superman in Danger.” Hackett is a brilliant but deranged scientist who has broken out of prison. He’s played by Charles Quigley, who starred in The Crimson Ghost (1946), and other serials.

Superman Chapter 6

I love serials — even the bad ones — and I certainly enjoyed aspects of Superman. But every superhero movie is only as convincing as its lead actor, and Kirk Alyn just isn’t up to the task. I’m sure in 1948 it was thrilling for plenty of kids to see their hero come to life on the big screen. It was a time when Superman was such a mythic, larger-than-life figure that the actors who played him were never credited. When Bud Collyer made an announcement about something that wasn’t a part of the radio show’s serialized story, he was still introduced as “Superman.” Similarly, in the cast of characters list that flashes on the screen at the beginning of every chapter of Superman, Kirk Alyn is the only actor whose name isn’t listed. The first name in the credits is simply SUPERMAN.

Still, I wonder how many children in 1948 were somewhat disappointed by Kirk Alyn (perhaps in ways they couldn’t verbalize). After all, he doesn’t have the impressive voice of Bud Collyer, and he’s so much scrawnier than the strapping hero of the comics. Worst of all, he flits around like Peter Pan, and his cape frequently gets in the way during the action.

The Fallen Idol (Sept. 30, 1948)

The Fallen Idol
The Fallen Idol (1948)
Directed by Carol Reed
London Film Productions / British Lion Film Corporation

When producer Alexander Korda introduced director Carol Reed to writer Graham Greene, it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration that would produce Reed’s most enduring film, The Third Man (1949).

But before they made that classic, Greene and Reed collaborated on an equally masterful film, The Fallen Idol, which Greene adapted from his short story “The Basement Room.” (Lesley Storm and William Templeton contributed additional dialogue to the script.)

The Fallen Idol is a tale of lies, deception, and half-truths as seen through the eyes of a young boy named Phillipe who lives in the French Embassy in London.

Phillipe — or “Phile,” as he’s more commonly called (it’s pronounced the same as the name Phil) — is played by Bobby Henrey, a nonprofessional actor who was 8 or 9 years old during filming.

This was the first time I’d seen The Fallen Idol, and while I was watching it I was struck by what an unaffected and natural performance Henrey delivered. The events of the film are seen mostly from Phile’s perspective, and his performance is central to the movie’s effectiveness.

So I was surprised when I watched the 2006 documentary short A Sense of Carol Reed and learned that Henrey’s “performance” was largely created by Reed and his editor, Oswald Hafenrichter.

In the documentary, Guy Hamilton, the assistant director of The Fallen Idol, recalled of Henrey, “He couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag. Much worse was his attention span, which was of a demented flea.” According to Hamilton, they’d sometimes shoot thousands of feet of film to get just one line from Henrey.

Bobby Henrey

Reed was patient and had a tremendous facility for directing actors of all ages. He never humiliated actors or cut them down in front of the crew. If he was unhappy with a take, he’d rarely yell “Cut!” until the actor had left the frame. On the occasions that he did, he’d do it in a tricky fashion, such as taking a nail from his pocket, dropping it on the floor, then calling out, “Cut! Can we have quiet, please?” Then he’d quietly say something to the actor like, “Since we have to start over anyway, perhaps you could…” — and get the performance he wanted that way.

I don’t think The Fallen Idol would be as brilliant as it is had it starred a seasoned child actor capable of memorizing pages of dialogue. Henrey may have been frustrating to work with, but all that matters is what’s up on screen. Phile seems like a real child, not an adorable singing-and-dancing moppet with a studio contract.

Phile’s parents spend very little time with him, and his only friend in the embassy is his father’s butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson).

Phile’s nemesis is Baines’s wife, Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), a strict, cruel woman who has no patience for Phile’s antics or his little pet snake, MacGregor.

One day, Phile follows his father figure to a café, where Baines is meeting a young French woman named Julie (Michèle Morgan). And just like that, Phile becomes an accomplice to his hero Baines’s infidelity. He doesn’t fully realize what’s going on — he believes that Julie is Baines’s niece and Baines doesn’t disabuse him of the notion — but any time a child is told by an adult, “No one needs to know about this,” the child will realize that something isn’t quite right.

The film continues in this vein, and the layers of secrecy and deception build until Phile finally believes he has seen Baines do something truly horrid, and he clumsily tries to help his friend by lying to the police for him.

Ralph Richardson

The Fallen Idol is a great film. Vincent Korda’s set design is marvelous, and the spacious interiors of the embassy are as much a character in the film as any of the actors. Georges Périnal’s cinematography is full of unsettling Dutch angles and gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting. All the actors are wonderful, but Ralph Richardson’s performance is pitch perfect — he’s so kind and charming that we can easily see why Phile idolizes him, and when we begin to see the small, tragic man beneath the warm exterior, it’s heart-breaking.

The Fallen Idol is tragic and moving in parts, but Reed and Grahame also have a very light, wry touch, and there’s a great deal of humor and irony in the film. If you’ve never seen it, by all means do so. If you want to make a triple bill of it, first watch Odd Man Out (1947), then The Fallen Idol (1948), and finally The Third Man (1949). They’re as brilliant a trio of films as any director has ever made.

Louisiana Story (Sept. 28, 1948)

Louisiana StoryThe term “visually arresting” gets thrown around a lot, but I can’t think of any other way to describe Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, which was shot by cinematographer Richard Leacock.

I rented Louisiana Story and wasn’t expecting to watch all of it when I first put on the DVD. But from the very first shot of the film, I was unable to move, and watched the film from beginning to end.

I think a lot of people have the sense that black and white is just a low-budget necessity, and that viewers would be able to go even deeper into the world of a film if only it were in beautiful, lifelike color. But Louisiana Story is beautiful precisely because it is gorgeously unreal.

The entire film looks like a photograph by Ansel Adams come to life. Louisiana Story is filmed like a documentary — with all nonprofessional actors — and it’s a shimmering, luminescent, and uncanny view of reality.

It follows a Cajun boy named Alexander Napolean Ulysses Latour (Joseph Boudreaux), who is about 13 years old and spend his days in the idyll of the swamp, rowing his canoe, fishing, shooting, and imagining he sees werewolves behind the trees and mermaids below the water. His father is played by Lionel Le Blanc and his mother is played by Mrs. E. Bienvenu.

Mermaids

Early in Louisiana Story, the quiet of the swamp is rocked by an explosion from a wildcat oil well. The film follows the boy as he rows around the oil derrick, makes friends with the men who work on it, and whiles away his days with his pet raccoon, occasionally running afoul of alligators.

Robert J. Flaherty is best known as the documentary film pioneer who made Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934).

Louisiana Story was Flaherty’s last film. It was commissioned by the Standard Oil Company, which is ironic. The oil workers are all friendly with the young protagonist, and the way Flaherty and Leacock shoot the oil rig is just as beautiful in its own way as the way they shoot the boy’s languorous days in the swamp. But with the constant contrasting between nature and the disruption of nature that the oil well represents, Louisiana Story doesn’t ever feel like a promotion for the petroleum industry.

Joseph Boudreaux

Robert J. Flaherty and his wife Frances H. Flaherty were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story for Louisiana Story.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliant score for the film by American composer Virgil Thomson. In 1949, Thomson won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his score for Louisiana Story. His score was inspired by a field tape of Cajun musicians and was performed by the Philadelphia Symphony under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. It’s unlike any other film score I’ve heard from the 1940s and is the perfect accompaniment to the poetic visuals.

Road House (Sept. 22, 1948)

Road HouseThe second feature in our Jean Negulesco double bill is a tad less serious than the first.

Negulesco’s film Johnny Belinda (1948) is the story of a poor, uneducated deaf-mute girl played by Jane Wyman. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, and won one — Wyman took home the Oscar for Best Actress.

Road House, on the other hand, was nominated for zero Academy Awards.

But they’re both very good films, and watched back to back, they really show Negulesco’s facility with both A-quality material and B-quality material.

A truly good potboiler is as hard to pull off as a truly good drama is, and Road House is a truly good potboiler.

In an interview he gave in 1969, Negulesco recalled being given the assignment to direct Road House by 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. Negulesco said that Zanuck told him, “This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don’t know what they’re doing, because basically it’s quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she’d adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That’s the kind of picture we have to have with ‘Road House.'”

Negulesco knew exactly what kind of picture he was directing, and he directed the hell out of it. The first shot of Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) shows her with her bare leg up on a desk. She’s dealing cards alone, and there’s a smoldering cigarette next to her bare foot.

Lupino was smart, sexy, and talented, and she’s a joy to watch in Road House. When she played a singer in The Man I Love (1947), all of her performances were dubbed by Peg La Centra, but this film finally gave moviegoers an opportunity to hear her real singing voice. As Susie Smith (Celeste Holm) says in the film, “She does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard.”

Lupino may not have been the most impressive chanteuse working in Hollywood, but when she sings “One for My Baby and One More for the Road” in Road House, it’s an emotional scene that tells us more about her character than pages of expository dialogue ever could.

Besides the lovely Lupino and the talented Holm, Road House also features chiseled hunk Cornel Wilde. My favorite scene is the one in which he gives Lupino the angriest, most sexually charged bowling lesson I’ve ever seen in a film.

And last but not least, Road House was the third time Richard Widmark appeared on film, and it was the third time he played a memorable villain. He plays Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins, the owner of the juke joint that gives the film its name, and his character is a scheming chump who just can’t take no for an answer.

Johnny Belinda (Sept. 14, 1948)

Johnny BelindaJean Negulesco’s acclaimed film Johnny Belinda stars Jane Wyman as a deaf-mute girl named Belinda McDonald who lives on the island of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. Wyman was awarded an Oscar for her performance at the 21st Academy Awards on March 24, 1949.

Johnny Belinda is based on Elmer Blaney Harris’s play of the same name. Harris was 62 years old when Johnny Belinda opened on Broadway in 1940. He was a busy man, and by that point in his career he had many plays, films, and screenplays under his belt. Even so, it can’t have been easy for him when the play was savaged by critics. Richard Watts of the New York Herald Tribune dismissed Johnny Belinda as “cheap melodrama” that was full of “shameless sentimentality.” Brooks Atkinson, drama critic for the New York Times, was even less kind when he wrote the following:

Now that Johnny Belinda has reached the stage, there may not be enough drama left to last through the rest of the season. Elmer Harris has shot the works in one evening at the Belasco Theatre. The mortgage is in it; also seduction, childbirth, death by lightning, murder by shotgun, a snowstorm, a Canadian Mounted in scarlet uniform and a court room scene. As minor diversions Mr. Harris throws in a lesson on grinding grain on a water wheel and a scene with a spinning wheel. Being a thorough workman, he also includes the kitchen stove and the kitchen sink.

I’ve never seen the stage play version Johnny Belinda, so I can’t say how sensationalistic or melodramatic it is, but Negulesco’s film version is an excellent piece of work. He took controversial material that could have easily become histrionic twaddle in the hands of a lesser director and used it to craft a deeply affecting movie.

Johnny Belinda has a terrific sense of place. Ted D. McCord’s stark cinematography depicts a windswept, beautiful landscape populated by desperately poor, uneducated people. (McCord was nominated for an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White.) Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score reflects the mostly Scottish heritage of the people of Cape Breton.

Ayres, Wyman, and Bickford

Much of the success of Johnny Belinda is due to its actors. Wyman deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Belinda, beating out Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama, Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, and Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit.

Lew Ayres (nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award) plays Dr. Robert Richardson, the deeply caring physician who teaches Belinda sign language. Charles Bickford (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award), plays Belinda’s father, Black MacDonald. Agnes Moorehead (nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), plays Belinda’s aunt, Aggie MacDonald. And Stephen McNally, who plays the vicious brute who rapes Belinda, is a despicable villain of the first order.

Johnny Belinda received 12 Academy Award nominations — the most of any film in 1948 — but it only took home one Oscar; Wyman’s award for best actress. I think Johnny Belinda is an excellent, well-acted film. My only reservation about it is the use of a dummy in a murder scene that is one of the most egregiously awful things I’ve ever seen. If you can overlook that (and I can … mostly) and accept that its treatment of its themes are of its time and place, then Johnny Belinda is a film worth seeking out.

Johnny Belinda will be shown on TCM on Thursday, April 11, 2013, at 2:45 PM ET.

The Red Shoes (Sept. 6, 1948)

The Red ShoesMichael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s 19th-century fairy tale about a girl who can’t stop dancing after she puts on a pair of magical red shoes. An angel appears and tells her she will continue to dance after death as a warning to vain children everywhere. Her feet keep dancing in the red shoes even after they are amputated.

It’s a potentially wonderful parable for the way ballet dancers suffer for their art, but as a cinematic experience, The Red Shoes left me wanting. I’ve been hearing for most of my life about how wonderful this film is, but for me it was the most disappointing production from Powell and Pressburger that I’ve seen so far.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like it, but I had very high expectations, and I felt let down.

In terms of Powell and Pressburger’s filmography, The Red Shoes lacks the warm, human drama of I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and the sublime comedy of a film like A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It’s most similar to Black Narcissus (1947), in which lush visuals eroticized a slight story.

The Red Shoes is beautiful to look at, and the dancing is marvelous, but the story never completely captured my interest, and I found the performances of the actors campy and overblown.

The intense, youthful-looking 51-year-old Austrian actor Anton Walbrook plays composer and ballet impresario Boris Lermontov, the head of the Ballet Lermontov. For him, dance is a religion, and when Lady Neston (Irene Brown) tries to get him to watch her niece dance at a party, he witheringly replies that he doesn’t care to see his religion practiced “in an atmosphere such as this.”

Her niece has real talent, however, and she soon becomes one of Lermontov’s principal dancers. Her name is Victoria Page (“Vicky” for short), and she’s played by the beautiful red-haired ballerina Moira Shearer.

Shearer

Powell and Pressburger wisely chose to cast real ballet dancers who could act a little, rather than actors who could do a little ballet. For the most part it works, but except for Shearer — whose performance in The Red Shoes I find quite wonderful — the ballet dancers don’t have a lot of range as actors.

When there’s no dancing going on in The Red Shoes, things feel a little lifeless. The film is ostensibly about Vicky being torn between her love for the “attractive brute” Lermontov and her love for the young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), whose creativity is burgeoning as Lermontov’s is failing. I never felt compelled by either of these relationships, however, and it didn’t help that I found Goring utterly devoid of charisma. It also doesn’t help that this plot device kicks in too late in the film to feel authentic.

The Red Shoes is a visual feast with some wonderful ballet sequences, but dramatically, I found it sodden and overlong.

Bodyguard (Sept. 4, 1948)

Bodyguard
Bodyguard (1948)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
RKO Radio Pictures

Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard features Lawrence Tierney doing what Lawrence Tierney did best — knocking down everyone and everything that gets in his way.

In the first sequence of the film, LAPD detective Mike Carter (Tierney) is reprimanded by his lieutenant (played by Frank Fenton) for using his knuckles instead of his brain. Before Mike even has a chance to plead his case to the captain, the lieutenant informs him that he’s already talked to the captain on Mike’s behalf and that Mike is suspended effective immediately.

So Mike uses his knuckles instead of his brain and gets into a glass-breaking fistfight with his lieutenant.

When Mike and the lieutenant are gearing up to throw punches, the film cuts back and forth between the two men as they both step closer to the camera, eventually getting so close their noses are almost touching the lens.

After Mike is bounced from the force, a man named Freddie Dysen (Phillip Reed) approaches him with a proposition. He’ll pay Mike a $2,000 retainer to act as bodyguard to his aunt, Mrs. Gene Dysen (Elisabeth Risdon).

Who can say no to a $2,000 retainer?

Well, apparently Mike Carter can. He’s got better things to do, like spending time with his cute blond fiancée, Doris Brewster (Priscilla Lane, in her final film role), and playing the ponies down at the track.

But when Mike is framed for murder, he’s forced to get into the action. What do Mrs. Dysen and her meat-packing plant have to do with the murder Mike’s been framed for? And was the accidental death of a plant inspector really accidental?

One thing I love is when a B movie gives its peripheral characters interesting lives that in no way advance the plot. For instance, Bodyguard features a scene in an arcade where Mike tries to get the counter girl’s attention as she chats with a couple of sailors. He doesn’t succeed for awhile, and when he finally does, one of the sailors tries to start a fight with him. Bodyguard runs for barely longer than an hour, and has a dense, twisty plot, but it still finds time for entertaining little moments like that.

It also features a ton of location shooting in Los Angeles and great noir cinematography by Robert De Grasse. Bodyguard is unmistakably designed to be the second feature on a double bill, but it’s well-made, well-acted, and holds up as superior entertainment.

The director, Richard Fleischer, had a long career in Hollywood. He was born in 1916 and Bodyguard was only his fourth feature film (he made a number of documentary shorts in the 1940s as well). To put things into perspective, this is the same man who would go on to make The Narrow Margin (1952), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Soylent Green (1973), Mandingo (1975), and Conan the Destroyer (1984).

Bodyguard is also notable for being the first time acclaimed director Robert Altman got his name in the credits. The screenplay is credited to Fred Niblo Jr. and Harry Essex, and the story is credited to George W. George and Robert B. Altman.*

Tierney

*Altman also worked on the script for Edwin L. Marin’s Christmas Eve (1947), which starred George Raft, but Altman’s name didn’t appear in the credits.