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Category Archives: June 1949

Batman and Robin (15 chapters) (May 26-Sept. 1, 1949)

Batman and Robin
Batman and Robin (15 chapters) (1949)
Directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet
Columbia Pictures

Batman and Robin was the second live-action Batman movie to hit the big screen.

The first, simply titled Batman, was also a 15-episode Columbia serial. It starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin, and was directed by Lambert Hillyer, the man who made Dracula’s Daughter (1936), one of my favorite Universal horror movies.

The 1943 version had a slightly darker and more sinister tone than the 1949 version. I believe it featured the first appearance of “The Bat Cave,” and emphasized the Gothic elements of the Batman mythos. The title card and music were far superior to the 1949 version, and Wayne Manor looked a lot better.

Batman 1943

On the other hand, the 1943 version had slightly less impressive stunts than the 1949 version, and was made during World War II, so the 1949 version is probably a better choice to watch with your kids, unless you want to have a conversation with them to explain lines like “a wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed Japs.”

The 1949 version was made by producer Sam Katzman and director Spencer Gordon Bennet, the same creative team behind the serial Superman (1948), which starred Kirk Alyn as the Man of Steel. Batman and Robin stars Robert Lowery as the Caped Crusader and Johnny Duncan as the Boy Wonder.

Katzman and Bennet’s version starts out less impressively than the first Columbia serial. Batman and Robin leap onscreen, ready for action, and then stand there looking around as the music plays and the credits roll, as if they’ve lost something and can’t find it.

Maybe they’ve lost the keys to their 1949 Mercury convertible, which they drive in lieu of a Batmobile.

Batman 1949

Both serials have their good points and their bad points. Unfortunately, neither is a comic-book masterpiece like Republic’s Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), but both are essential viewing if you’re a serious Batman fan.

Katzman’s Batman and Robin is campy fun if you like chapterplays, and I think it works a little better than Katzman’s Superman, if for no other reason than Batman looks great in black & white, whereas with Superman it seems as if something’s missing without those bright blues and reds.

Unlike the 1943 serial, the 1949 version features Commissioner Gordon (played by Lyle Talbot). He has a little portable Bat Signal in his office that he can turn on and wheel over to the window to beam the sign of the bat onto clouds. It’s ridiculously tiny and looks like an overhead projector, and Commissioner Gordon refers to it as “the Batman Signal.”

Gotham Central

Batman and Robin also features Jane Adams as reporter Vicki Vale and Eric Wilton as butler Alfred Pennyworth (the only supporting character from the comics who also appeared in the 1943 version).

Unlike the dimly glimpsed and imposing Wayne Manor of the 1943 version, in the 1949 version Bruce Wayne and his ward, Dick Grayson, live in what appears to be a four-bedroom, two-bath, single-family home in the suburbs. (Incidentally, this version of “Wayne Manor” is the same movie-studio house that Danny Glover and his family occupied in all four of the Lethal Weapon movies.) When Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson relax at home with Alfred serving them drinks and Vicki Vale stops by, there’s barely enough space for all four of them in the living room.

Oddly enough, the antagonist of Batman and Robin lives in a mansion that looks tailor-made to be Wayne Manor. He’s Professor Hammil (William Fawcett), who’s confined to a wheelchair but can turn himself into a lean, mean, walking machine by sitting in something that looks like an electric chair and zapping himself. This pulp lunacy seems to allow him to don the guise of “The Wizard,” a fearsome black-hooded criminal mastermind. The MacGuffin of the serial is a powerful ray that can remotely control any vehicle.

While I enjoyed Batman and Robin, its flaws are legion. Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan are the two most disreputable-looking versions of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson you may ever see on film. Lowery looks kind of like Victor Mature and Johnny Duncan was about 25 years old when this serial was filmed, which makes him hardly a “Boy” Wonder anymore.

Lowery and Duncan

Also, apparently Kirk Alyn — who played Superman — was originally cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, so the costume was designed for his measurements. Lowery was slightly smaller, which means that he’s constantly leaning his head back to see out of the eye holes in his cowl, which is too big for him.

Lowery’s stunt double is fine, but Duncan’s stunt double looks absolutely nothing like him. Unlike Duncan’s full head of dark, curly hair, his stunt double has straight, thinning, light hair, and appears to have a bald spot.

Batman and Robin lacks the technical sophistication of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films and the colorful pop sensibilities of Tim Burton’s 1989 version, but it’s a lot of fun. I think if you’re a Batman fan you have to accept all the iterations of the character — from the excessively dark, grotesque, and violent comic-book adventures of the ’80s and ’90s to the most ludicrously campy and brightly colored adventures of the ’50s and ’60s. Batman and Robin leans farther toward the campy end, but its black & white cinematography and closeness to the era of the pulps make it a little less silly than the ’60s TV series with Adam West and Burt Ward. It’s definitely not going to be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re a Batman fan you should make the time to watch both the 1943 serial and the 1949 serial.

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King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) June 7-Aug. 23, 1949

King of the Rocket Men
King of the Rocket Men (12 chapters) (1949)
Directed by Fred C. Brannon
Republic Pictures

When I was a kid, one of my favorite comic books was The Rocketeer, by Dave Stevens. The protagonist, Cliff Secord, was a stunt pilot who strapped on an experimental jet pack and fought criminals and Nazi saboteurs. As a child of the ’80s who was obsessed with old radio shows and the pop culture of the past, The Rocketeer was amazing. It was a loving homage to the pulp entertainments of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.

As a budding adolescent, the thing I loved best about the series was Cliff Secord’s girlfriend Betty, who was clearly modeled after pinup queen Bettie Page.

Betty

But pretty much everything about The Rocketeer was great. I especially liked how up-front Stevens was about his homages. Cliff Secord’s jet pack and streamlined metal helmet were taken straight from Republic’s “Rocket Man” serials — King of the Rocket Men (1949), Radar Men From the Moon (1952), and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), as well as Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe (1955), which was originally filmed as a TV series but ended up being released theatrically as a week-to-week serial.

King of the Rocket Men is the chapterplay that started it all. It was released by Republic Pictures and directed by Fred C. Brannon, who co-directed (with William Witney) one of my favorite serials of all time, The Crimson Ghost (1946).

King of the Rocket Men shares some similarities with The Crimson Ghost. Both are about a scientific consortium with one member who is secretly a criminal mastermind, and both feature the actor I. Stanford Jolley in similar roles. Instead of the Crimson Ghost, however, the evil genius in King of the Rocket Men is called “Dr. Vulcan,” and he’s the alter ego of one of the members of “Science Associates.”

King of the Rocket Men lobby card

In the first chapter of the serial, Dr. Vulcan — Traitor, noted “cyclotron expert” Prof. Drake, who was working on wild, unpublicized experiments on “flying suits” is killed after his car goes off a cliff (driven by remote control operated by some unseen evildoer, natch).

Our hero, Jeff King, springs into action with one of the flying suits, and blasts, zooms, and punches his way through 12 action-packed weeks of Saturday-afternoon entertainment.

King is played by Republic Pictures mainstay Tristram Coffin, who’s older and more distinguished looking than the average serial protagonist. He was only 39 or 40 when King of the Rocket Men was filmed, but his gray hair and stiffness give him a patrician air.

Rocket Man Title Cards

Every kid has dreamed of strapping on a jet pack and taking to the skies. Part of the appeal of King of the Rocket Men is that the controls of King’s flying suit are so simple even a child could operate them. There are only three controls — ON/OFF, UP/DOWN, and FAST/SLOW — and they all have numbered dials, even the ON/OFF switch, which really doesn’t make sense.

The serial also features Mae Clarke, who starred in much higher-profile films in the ’30s, like Frankenstein (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), in which she famously received a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney.

In King of the Rocket Men, Clarke plays an intrepid reporter named Glenda Thomas. While Jeff King never shoves anything in her face, his treatment of her is occasionally less than gallant. For instance, in Chapter 3: Dangerous Evidence, he tells her to jump out of a speeding car. Miraculously, she doesn’t die or receive any injuries. He jumps too, and flies away, then they reunite while dusting themselves off. She says, “Thanks, Rocket Man! You know, at first I thought you were an invader from some other planet, but it’s plain to see you’re human and you’ve made a great scientific discovery. I’d like to write an article about you for my magazine.” He responds, “I’m sorry, that’s impossible.” He wants to put an end to the mysterious activities of Dr. Vulcan, and he doesn’t want her to publicize his actions. And then, like a true gentleman, he tells her to wait for the bus and he flies away.

King of the Rocket Men Chapter 8

Weird little moments like that aside, King of the Rocket Men is well-made, fast-paced entertainment, and highly recommended for any cliffhanger fans who haven’t seen it yet. It has plenty of stock footage of car crashes and explosions taken from earlier Republic serials, but the Rocket Man himself is unique. The jet pack technology might be pure hokum, but it’s still thrilling for kids and the young-at-heart when he takes to the skies.

The reason for this is the brilliant special effects work of brothers Howard Lydecker and Theodore Lydecker, who ran Republic’s special effects and miniatures department. As they proved in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), simple techniques like a dummy on a wire and running the film in reverse are only as good as the technicians who employ them. The Lydecker brothers were magicians. Prior to Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), I think the effects in Adventures of Captain Marvel and King of the Rocket Men were the best flying-human effects achieved on film.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (June 21, 1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets
Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Directed by Robert Hamer
Ealing Studios

Alec Guinness isn’t the star of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Not exactly. Dennis Price plays the protagonist, a ruthless social climber who attempts to murder his way to a dukedom, but Guinness dominates the film by playing eight different characters of vastly different ages (including one who is a woman).

If the opening credits of the film didn’t clearly show that Guinness plays multiple characters, I’m sure a few viewers would miss that fact, since he disappears into each role.

Greenwood and Guinness

The film tells the story of Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), whose mother was disowned by her aristocratic family, the D’Ascoynes, when she married an Italian organ grinder. (Guinness isn’t the only actor in the film who plays multiple parts. Price plays his own father in a short flashback, sporting a thick black mustache.) Mazzini’s father died when he was a baby, leaving his mother penniless.

Mazzini vows revenge on the D’Ascoynes. He keeps careful track of all the noblemen and noblewomen who stand in the way of his Dukedom. Sometimes the death notices bring good news. Sometimes the birth column brings bad news.

After a chance encounter with his playboy cousin, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, leads to Mazzini losing his job, he decides that waiting for everyone who stands in his way to die of natural causes will take too long, and he coolly takes to plotting murder.

Alec Guinness

Kind Hearts and Coronets is based on Roy Horniman’s 1907 novel Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal. I haven’t read the novel, but by all accounts the film improves on it. The dry, acerbic voiceover by Price apparently owes a lot to its literary source, but the comedic tone of the murders is amped up for the film. In the book, Israel Rank mostly disposes of his victims with poison, but in the film they meet their ends in wildly varied ways; drowning, explosion, falling from the sky, and a well-placed shotgun blast. And yes, a little poison.

Another difference between the film and the book is that the novel’s protagonist has a Jewish father. I think the name “Israel Rank” is a trifle too obvious for a half-Jewish man who attempts to improve his station through murder. And in any case, “Rank” was out of the question as the surname in the film since Ealing Studios’ films were distributed by J. Arthur Rank and most of Kind Hearts and Coronets was shot at Rank’s studios at Pinewood. The scale of the film was simply too large for the Ealing studio.

Price and Greenwood

Guinness is a comedic juggernaut in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Price ranks with Hannibal Lecter as one of the most charming serial murderers in cinematic history, but the film also features two great performances by women: Valerie Hobson as Edith, the noblewoman whom Mazzini schemes to marry, and Joan Greenwood as Sibella, the seductive coquette who rejected him in favor of a boring, wealthy man, but with whom he carries on an extramarital affair for most of the film.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the most pitch-black comedies I’ve ever seen, but it never devolves into mere gruesomeness. The witty and irony-laden script is one reason, but the fact that Guinness plays all of the murder victims is another. It adds a layer of theatricality to the proceedings that makes it difficult to take any of the homicides too seriously.

Ealing scored a real one-two punch in 1949 with Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets. One is warmly human and the other is cold and biting, but they both rank among the best comedies ever made.

Incidentally, the title of the film is taken from one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems, “Kind hearts are more than coronets / And simple faith than Norman blood.”

Kind Hearts and Coronets will be shown on TCM on April 2, 2014.

Whisky Galore! (June 16, 1949)

Whisky Galore
Whisky Galore! (1949)
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
Ealing Studios

I first saw Whisky Galore back in college. It wasn’t part of a class, it was just a Saturday-night feature shown in the film department.

I went to Bard College, which is in a beautiful, rural part of New York State. Procuring booze wasn’t exactly difficult, but it could be a challenge, especially if you didn’t have a car. So this rollicking tale of whisky drinkers on an isolated island suddenly facing the prospect of living without “the water of life” resonated with more than a few audience members. Hell, some of us were probably only there because we couldn’t find any booze.

I enjoyed Whisky Galore the first time I saw it, but I didn’t find it uproariously funny. This time around was different. I now think it’s one of the best comedies ever made.

Except for a few sight gags here and there — like a straight line of footsteps leading into a cave where whisky is hidden and a weaving, curving line of footsteps leading out — most of the humor is subtle and tongue-in-cheek. I realized that I’d completely missed some of the funniest bits of the movie on my first viewing. (If you have even the slightest difficulty understanding English or Scottish accents — or if you’re at all hard of hearing — you’re going to want to watch this film with subtitles. The DVD currently available to rent from Netflix has no closed captioning, and there are several reviews written solely to complain about that fact.)

Whisky Galore is based on the novel by Compton MacKenzie, which was inspired by the sinking of the S.S. Politician in 1941. The screenplay is by MacKenzie and Angus MacPhail.

The film takes place in 1943 in the Outer Hebrides, on the fictional island of Todday. The Second World War is raging, but far from Todday. The Home Guard goes on maneuvers and set up roadblocks that would be ridiculous even without the benefit of hindsight. The Home Guard in Todday is commanded by the puffed-up Captain Paul Waggett (Basil Radford), who is English, and frequently mystified by the peculiarities of the Scottish natives of this far-flung island.

One day, disaster strikes. Not famine or pestilence, but something far, far worse. No whisky.

But then, one foggy night, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, a freighter carrying 50,000 cases of whisky, runs aground on the shoals.

When Waggett gets wind of the locals’ plan to “liberate” as much whisky as they can from the ship before it sinks, he jumps into action. Waggett feels strongly that order must be maintained. Allow a little looting, and anarchy will follow.

Basil Radford

Whisky Galore wrings humor out of more than just forced sobriety and drunken revelry. It’s an extremely well-crafted film about small-town life.

Todday seems to contain just two small villages, Snorvaig and Garryboo. The insularity of Todday is personified by the young schoolteacher George Campbell (Gordon Jackson), who assigns his students a composition assignment, “Why I like living in Garryboo.”

One of his pupils reads his essay aloud: “There are more people in Snorvaig. But they are not so nice as the people in Garryboo.”

Even though Campbell is an adult with a real job, he lives with his mother (played by Jean Cadell), who still treats him like a child. She doesn’t let him use the telephone on the Sabbath, and when he protests, she scolds and punishes him. “Go to your room, George Campbell! There’ll be no church for you in Snorvaig today!” And he sheepishly complies.

All the actors in this film are wonderful, and perfectly cast. Besides the pitch-perfect performances by Radford and Cadell (who have the funniest exchange of the picture when he tries to convince her to let her son out of his room because he needs his Home Guard second-in-command), I especially liked the lovely Joan Greenwood and the stalwart Bruce Seton as the man who loves her.

But, as I said, all the actors are wonderful. And this is a wonderful film. Even the ending, which seems to have been forced on the filmmakers by the censors, is hilarious.

Colorado Territory (June 11, 1949)

Colorado Territory
Colorado Territory (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Most plot summaries of Raoul Walsh’s western Colorado Territory mention that it’s a remake of the great Warner Bros. gangster movie High Sierra (1941), but that fact is curiously absent from the opening credits.

The screenplay is credited to John Twist and Edmund H. North, but there’s no mention of W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel High Sierra, and there’s no mention of the earlier film.

This is strange, since the change of setting from the modern day to the Old West could almost qualify this as a “variation on a theme” rather than a straight remake, but there are so many scenes and characters that are nearly identical to scenes and characters in High Sierra.

I recently wrote a piece on producer Mark Hellinger for the annual “giant” issue of The Dark Pages, which was devoted this year to The Killers (1946). (You can order copies of The Dark Pages and subscribe here: http://www.allthatnoir.com/newsletter.htm).

Hellinger frequently worked with director Raoul Walsh at Warner Bros., so I went back and watched a bunch of their collaborations — The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941). (I still haven’t seen The Horn Blows at Midnight, though. Jack Benny made a running joke of it on his radio show, but it can’t be that bad, can it?)

Walsh was a great director who made unabashedly commercial films with a great sense of scope and memorable characters.

Mayo and McCrea

Colorado Territory isn’t ever listed among Walsh’s greatest achievements, but it’s a damned fine western that I think would be better regarded if it didn’t have such a generic title. If one were to scan through a list of westerns from 1949, Colorado Territory screams “B picture.” With a title like that, it easily could have been an RKO Radio Pictures western starring Tim Holt or a Republic Pictures western starring Roy Rogers (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Joel McCrea plays Wes McQueen, an outlaw who escapes from jail and is on the run for most of the movie. (This is essentially the same as Roy Earle, the role Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, except that Earle was released from prison.) He hooks up with a couple of vicious characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are — Reno Blake (John Archer) and Duke Harris (James Mitchell) — and together they plan a daring train heist. (These two criminals were played in High Sierra by Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis.)

There’s also a beautiful woman to makes things complicated. Her name is Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), and she wears lots of flowing low-cut tops and Southwestern-style jewelry because she’s supposed to be part Pueblo. (This is essentially the character Ida Lupino played in High Sierra, although her fashion sense in that film was a lot more conservative.)

And of course, just like High Sierra, there’s a criminal mastermind behind the scenes of the heist and a sweet, innocent-seeming girl whom our criminal protagonist idolizes for a little while before coming to his senses and realizing that he belongs with a straight-up ride or die chick.

There is, however, no cute little stray dog or “comical Negro” character. (You take the bad with the good.)

In Walsh’s filmography, High Sierra will forever be regarded as the superior film. And in 1949, Walsh also directed his masterpiece White Heat, so Colorado Territory suffers by comparison in that department too. (Virginia Mayo is also in White Heat, and her role in that film is a lot meaner and juicier.)

One of the problems with remakes is that no matter how good they are, it’s nearly impossible to lose yourself in them if you’ve seen the original film, since they constantly evoke it. I like Joel McCrea and think he’s a great actor, especially in westerns. But he lacks the nastiness and cynicism Bogart had in High Sierra, which made his more human side stand out in such sharp relief.

On the other hand, when a remake differs from its source material, it can make certain scenes even more shocking and emotionally affecting than they would be on their own, since you’re really not expecting things to go down that way. Colorado Territory has a few bits like that, and it’s exciting and well-made enough to stand on its own.

The Red Menace (June 9, 1949)

The Red Menace
The Red Menace (1949)
Directed by R.G. Springsteen
Republic Pictures

The Red Menace was one of the first American postwar scaremongering films to explicitly name Communism as a threat. The structure and plotting of the film are similar to both Violence (1947) and Open Secret (1948), but those films dealt with cells of American fascists who used postwar housing and employment crises for their own anti-Semitic and xenophobic ends.

The Red Menace makes no bones about naming the most pervasive threat to America — it’s Communism, brother, and it’s everywhere.

When The Red Menace premiered, Herbert J. Yates, the president of Republic Pictures, released a brochure that explained his motivation for producing the film, and ended with the following cri de guerre:

Even though the picture was made behind closed doors, and there has been no public showing to date, Republic Studios and the Writer Have Already Been Attacked by the Daily People’s World, a Communist Paper Published in San Francisco, and the Daily Worker, A Communist Paper Published in New York.

The attack is more than an open threat. It is an effort to intimidate Republic Pictures and to stifle its right of freedom of speech. We accept the challenge of The Communist Party and its Fellow Travelers, and we declare that the Republic organization will do everything in its power, regardless of expense or tribulations, to make certain that “The Red Menace” Is Shown in Every City, Town and Village in The United States of America and Other Countries Not Under Communist Control.

I assume Yates liberally used initial caps for Extra Emphasis.

RedMenaceBluray

The Red Menace was directed by Republic Pictures mainstay R.G. Springsteen, who had mostly directed westerns for Republic, including several Red Ryder films. (Don’t let his name fool you, kids. Red Ryder was no Commie.)

I really enjoyed some of Springsteen’s westerns, so I was hoping for more from The Red Menace. The main problem with the film is that it’s not ludicrous enough to be truly entertaining, but it’s not realistic or incisive enough to be a great movie.

The opening is shadowy and atmospheric. A young couple are fleeing a pervasive and terrifying menace. They’re driving at night from Los Angeles through Arizona. Could the gas station attendant be part of the conspiracy? They can’t trust anyone.

Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. Returning serviceman Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell, who would go on to play Mr. Boynton when Our Miss Brooks moved from radio to television) is fleeced of his savings by an unscrupulous real estate developer, and he’s not the only G.I. facing a housing crisis. His disillusionment is seized on by the local chapter of the Communist party, who play on his anger toward the system. He’s further lured in by the beautiful Nina Petrovka (played by German actress Hannelore Axman, who’s credited as “Hanne Axman”) and good-time girl Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller). In The Red Menace, sex is the gateway drug to the philosophy of Marx and Engels.

The script is talky, and to its credit much of the back-and-forth debates are interesting. It’s also nice that the film acknowledges American discrimination against Jewish people and African-Americans, and there are two black men in the film who are not stereotypes (Duke Williams and Napoleon Simpson).

The film also correctly points out that Soviet bloc countries were far from paradises for writers, poets, and artists, who were forced to toe the party line or suffer the consequences. The film’s most tragic character is Henry Solomon (Shepard Menken), a Jewish poet who resigns from the Communist party when the party newspaper he works for tries to force him to retract true statements he has made about the evolution of Communist philosophy.

Not every character is three-dimensional, however. The Red Menace features accomplished radio actress Betty Lou Gerson (who would go on to voice Cruella De Vil in the Disney movie 101 Dalmations) as a Communist party leader whose final histrionics are so over-the-top that they are positively hilarious.

Axman

I think it’s easy to look back on the excesses of McCarthyism during 1950s America and see only madness. But let’s keep in mind that Soviet Russia was a totalitarian state in which dissent was met with imprisonment or execution. Millions died under Stalin’s reign of terror. Whatever Communism promised in theory, it miserably failed to deliver in practice.

But the United States was hardly a paradise for dissenters itself. The Red Menace ends with a kindly cowboy sheriff assuring our fleeing protagonists that the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union is that while in Russia there are no second chances, here in the U.S. we give people just as many second chances as they’re entitled to. But this isn’t even what the film itself has depicted, as the poet Henry Solomon was fired from one job after another and driven to suicide after his former Communist affiliations were revealed.

There is a world of difference between Socialism and Communism, but most Americans (including elected officials) could never see that. People who embraced Socialism in the 1930s because they perceived unfairness in the relationship between labor and management were driven out of their jobs and blacklisted in the 1950s because they refused to “name names.”

Despite some nuances here and there, films like this toed their own party lines. While it’s tempting to see a film like The Red Menace as a historical curiosity, fear and hatred are still the driving force behind much of our politics, and we forget that at our own peril.

Neptune’s Daughter (May 22, 1949)

Neptune's Daughter
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Neptune’s Daughter was the third and final pairing of Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban. The two previously starred together in Fiesta (1947) and On an Island With You (1948).

In Neptune’s Daughter, Williams plays Eve Barrett, a swimsuit designer, and Montalban plays a dashing South American polo player named José O’Rourke.

The film also stars MGM’s big comedic draw, Red Skelton, as masseur Jack Spratt, and the manic, wild-eyed Betty Garrett as Eve’s sister, creatively named “Betty Barrett.”

Neptune’s Daughter was the second time Skelton and Williams appeared together. The first was Bathing Beauty (1944). (They both appeared in the revue film Ziegfeld Follies, but in separate segments.)

I love Esther Williams. She’s beautiful, athletic, and charming. And the fact that she was a swimming star made her unique. I also like Betty Garrett, who plays essentially the same man-crazy role in Neptune’s Daughter that she played in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). And Ricardo Montalban is Ricardo Montalban. He’s the smoothest Latin lover in Hollywood history.

Williams and Montalban

But I’m not totally sold on Red Skelton. I just don’t find him that funny. Plenty of his bits in Neptune’s Daughter are amusing, but I didn’t find them particularly uproarious, and I really don’t enjoy all his mugging for the camera.

The musical high point of Neptune’s Daughter is the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” by Frank Loesser. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but there was some controversy over whether it should be eligible for the 1949 Oscars, since Loesser wrote it in 1944 and had performed it at parties with his wife, Lynn Garland. Since it had never been performed “professionally” until its appearance in Neptune’s Daughter, it was deemed eligible and went on to win the Oscar. Loesser’s wife, however, was furious that her husband had sold it to MGM, since she considered it “their song.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is first performed by Montalban and Williams; he sings the “wolf” part and Williams sings the “mouse” part. It’s performed later by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton with the roles reversed; she is the aggressor and he is the shy one.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was used in the film because MGM’s censors decided that the lyrics of Loesser’s song “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China)” were too suggestive. (Which explains its presence in a film that takes place in sweltering heat.)

This is ironic, since “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has lyrics that are more more suggestive than the lyrics of “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China).” Parts of the song even border on suggesting date rape, an aspect of the song that was recently satirized by Key & Peele.

I think some of the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sound worse now than they were intended to. For example, the line “Hey, what’s in this drink?” suggests roofies nowadays, but at the time Loesser wrote the song it was probably meant to imply the sentiment, “Oh my goodness this is a strong drink.”

I think it’s a playful and seductive song, and the fact that Skelton and Barrett reverse the roles when they perform the song adds to the acceptability.

What I found totally unacceptable in Neptune’s Daughter, from a gender standpoint, is the unquestioned assumption that Esther Williams’s character will have to give up her swimwear design business — which she built herself — if she gets married. The idea that she could remain head of a successful company and also be a married woman is unthinkable.

But for the most part, Neptune’s Daughter is a fun, vibrant Technicolor extravaganza. For my money, anything with Esther Williams is worth watching.

Neptune’s Daughter will be shown on TCM on April 6, 2014.