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Tag Archives: Ava Gardner

The Hucksters (Aug. 27, 1947)

It’s hard to watch Jack Conway’s The Hucksters today and not compare it with Mad Men.

While Mad Men is a TV series that began in 2007 and takes place in the early ’60s and The Hucksters takes place during the time it was filmed (the post-war ’40s), they share a number of similarities, and not just because they’re both about advertising agencies.

Both feature at their center a dashing leading man with rugged good looks as an advertising genius who must navigate the tricky waters of love, sex, and difficult clients. Jon Hamm was in his mid-30s when Mad Men began, while Clark Gable was in his mid-40s in 1947, but both of their characters are veterans of the most recent war and inveterate seducers of women.

The Hucksters is based on Frederic Wakeman’s 1946 novel of the same name, which spent a year at the top of the best-seller lists. Wakeman’s novel was based on a four-part exposé in The Saturday Evening Post, “The Star Spangled Octopus,” about talent and promotional agency MCA.

The novel’s racy subject matter was largely responsible for its success. Life magazine called it “Last year’s best-selling travesty on bigtime advertising.”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer paid nearly $200,000 for the rights to Wakeman’s novel in a pre-publication deal. Most of the salacious details, however, never made it into the final shooting script. (Clark Gable’s take on the first draft of the script was, “It’s filthy and it isn’t entertainment.”) For instance, in the novel, Gable’s character, Victor Albee Norman, has an affair with a married woman, but she was changed into a war widow for the film.

Consequently, The Hucksters never quite achieves the satirical bite of Mad Men, but there are number of bits that are funny, particularly if you’re familiar with radio advertising circa 1947.

There are plenty of reasons to see The Hucksters. It was the American film debut of Deborah Kerr, who plays Gable’s widowed love interest, Kay Dorrance, and it also features the beautiful Ava Gardner as a torch singer named Jean Ogilvie. Adolphe Menjou is wonderful as Mr. Kimberly, the head of the advertising agency, and Keenan Wynn is appropriately irritating as a third-rate radio comedian named Buddy Hare.

The most memorable actor in the film, however, is Sydney Greenstreet, who plays Evan Llewellyn Evans, the grotesque and demanding head of Beautee Soap. After Gable’s character, Victor Norman, rejects the more scandalous layout favored by Evans, Evans sits down at the head of the boardroom table, tilts his head back, hawks, and spits on the table. “Mr. Norman, you’ve just seen me do a disgusting thing,” he says. “But you’ll always remember what I just did. You see, Mr. Norman, if nobody remembers your brand, you aren’t gonna sell any soap.”

The Hucksters could have used more moments like that. It’s nearly two hours long, and Gable’s romance with Kerr takes up much of the running time. It’s perfectly well-handled and shot, but it’s a storyline one could see in any number of pictures, while the advertising angle of the story is unique, and the film could have gotten more mileage out of it.

The Hucksters earned a respectable $4.4 million during its domestic release, but was a complete flop overseas, since in those days no one outside the United States was in any way familiar with American advertising or commercial broadcasting.

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Singapore (Aug. 13, 1947)

Note to aspiring makers of B movies — if you’re going to blatantly rip off Casablanca (1942), take a page from director John Brahm’s book. Don’t just change the characters’ names and tack on a happy ending. Do it with real panache and also change the hero’s occupation to “pearl smuggler” and spice up the love triangle by giving the heroine a case of amnesia.

True to its title, Singapore is steeped in the exoticism and heat of the Pacific Rim, but like the film noir techniques Brahm uses to tell his story, it’s mostly just window dressing for a run-of-the-mill potboiler. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Brahm keeps things moving along nicely, and Singapore is a lot of fun if you’re in the mood for a melodrama and you can overlook some contrivances.

When Matt Gordon (MacMurray) returns to Singapore after World War II, it’s clear as soon as he steps off the plane that he has a history there. Deputy Commissioner Hewitt (Richard Haydn) has Gordon brought to his office, and he reminds him that the penalty for removing illegally obtained pearls from a British colony is a minimum of 10 years in prison.

“Before the war it was only eight,” Gordon quips. “But I guess everything’s gone up, huh?”

Gordon sits down in the hotel bar, orders two gin slings, and sits alone, reminiscing about life in Singapore before the war. He fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner), but their whirlwind romance was cut short by the beginning of hostilities with the Japanese.

They were engaged to be married, but before they could tie the knot she was killed in a bombing raid, and Allied forces had occupied his hotel room, where his $250,000 worth of pearls were secreted in the motor of the ceiling fan in his room.

He made it out of Singapore with his life, but that’s all, and now that the war is over he’s intent on retrieving his pearls. (It’s established that Gordon has a service record, and saw combat during the war, perhaps to engender audience sympathy.)

Of course, Linda didn’t really die in a bombing raid. She was injured and stricken with total amnesia. Unable to remember any details of her former life, she was interned in a Japanese concentration camp, where she met Michael Van Leyden (Roland Culver), a British plantation owner who saved her life many times during the war. Now they are married, and her name is Ann Van Leyden. No matter how many times Gordon calls her “Linda,” she just can’t remember their time together, or the love they shared.

So Gordon has two problems — winning back Linda/Ann, and somehow getting his pearls out of the ceiling fan of a hotel room that is now occupied by an obnoxious married couple. The problem of the pearls is compounded not only by the watchful eye of Deputy Commissioner Hewitt, but also by the corpulent gangster Mr. Mauribus (Thomas Gomez), who wants the pearls for himself.

There are a lot of ceiling fans in Singapore, and none of them move quickly. It’s all part of the languorous, overheated atmosphere of the film, but like I said above, it’s all just window dressing. The Asian extras in the background and the crowded streets of the port city add ambiance, but not much else. The action could be moved to any other “exotic” locale, and few details of the plot would have to be changed. (And that’s exactly what happened in 1957 when director Joseph Pevney remade Singapore as a vehicle for Errol Flynn called Istanbul.)

I liked Singapore despite its flaws, and it’s always enjoyable to watch the beautiful Ava Gardner do anything. I didn’t completely buy her relationship with the hulking, thuggish Fred MacMurray — I’ve always thought MacMurray was better in comedic roles than dramatic ones — but it works well enough to keep the film moving.

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.