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Tag Archives: Charles Trowbridge

The Sea of Grass (April 25, 1947)

Elia Kazan’s The Sea of Grass premiered February 26, 1947, in Lincoln, Nebraska. It opened in New York City a day later, and went into wide release on April 25, 1947.

In his review of the film in The New York Times on Friday, February 28, Bosley “The Grouch” Crowther referred to the film as “Metro’s new cow-or-plow drama,” which is the best and most succinct description of the film imaginable.

This was Kazan’s second film — his first was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Boomerang (1947), which I reviewed earlier this year, was his third.

The Sea of Grass is the story of a high-born St. Louis woman, Lutie Cameron (Katharine Hepburn), who marries a cattle baron, Col. Jim Brewton (Spencer Tracy), and leaves the comfortable world of high society for a rough-and-tumble life in a place called Salt Fork, in the Territory of New Mexico. Brewton legally owns very little of the hundreds and hundreds of acres over which his cattle roam, but he fought and bled for the land, and he’ll be damned if any pussy-footing sodbusters are going to come in and reap the rewards he feels he earned for himself. Brewton’s connection to the land is full of mystical reverence, and he’s distant from people, including his wife. Lutie is driven into the arms of Brewton’s mortal enemy, Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) — a lawyer who fights for the rights of homesteaders — just long enough to wind up carrying Chamberlain’s child. Lutie returns to Brewton and bears him a second child, a son named Brock (they already have a girl named Sara Beth).

When Brewton discovers that he has been cuckolded, he gives Lutie a choice. She can either leave and take Brock with her, exposing him as a bastard, or she can leave alone and he will raise Brock as his own son. Tearfully, Lutie takes the latter option, and lives in exile. Sara Beth grows into actress Phyllis Thaxter, and Brock grows up into snivelling punk Robert Walker. Brock’s true parentage seems to be an open secret in and around Salt Fork, and he responds by drinking, gambling, sneering, and throwing lead into anyone who disparages him. He’s an early-20th-century rebel without a cause, and tragedy always seems right around the corner whenever he’s onscreen.

The Sea of Grass is based on the 1936 novel by Conrad Richter. Kazan was so attracted to the material that he specifically asked MGM if he could direct it. (Kazan was under contract with Twentieth Century-Fox at the time, but it wasn’t an exclusive contract, and it allowed him to work with other studios.) His vision was of an on-location shoot that would last months, featuring unknown actors with leathery faces and a grand sense of scale that would express the drama and sadness of a way of life in America that is dead and gone.

There are hints of this in a few scenes. The few sweeping shots of the pre-Dust Bowl prairie land of the Great Plains, with the gently rolling oceans of grass that give the film its title, are unspeakably beautiful. But for the most part, The Sea of Grass is a melodrama that’s soapy enough to wash your car with.

Kazan was restricted by the studio to shooting on soundstages, and he found directing Spencer Tracy nearly impossible. Tracy was in a bad way during the making of the film, and he was drinking heavily. His performance isn’t bad, but it’s muted and deeply subdued, as though he’s only partly present most of the time. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, is histrionic, and very nearly a haughty parody of herself. There are moments of great visual excitement in the film, such as a violent confrontation between homesteader Sam Hall (James Bell) and Brewton’s men during a windstorm. At more than two hours long, however, The Sea of Grass offers very little in the way of the kind of action I look for in a western, and the soapy drama it’s packed with is pretty turgid.

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Tarzan and the Huntress (April 5, 1947)

Kurt Neumann’s Tarzan and the Huntress should really be called Tarzan and the Poachers. The word “huntress” conveys more risqué sexiness than the film actually contains (the same can be said of the poster), and seems designed to draw in the same people who shivered at the sight of the muscular Johnny Weissmuller being clawed by the beautiful actress Acquanetta in his previous outing as the King of the Jungle, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946).

When Tarzan and the Huntress begins, we learn that zoos around the world are facing a post-war shortage of animals. (Did lions and monkeys get drafted? I missed that.)

Enter Tanya Rawlins (Patricia Morison, stepping up from Queen of the Amazons to a higher-quality jungle movie). Tanya is an animal trainer leading a safari that also includes her villainous guide, big-game hunter Paul Weir (Barton MacLane), and the moneyman, Carl Marley (John Warburton).

Meanwhile, a half-naked couple who live in a treehouse with their pet chimp and their boy, who calls his adoptive parents by their first names, are preparing to honor local monarch King Farrod (Charles Trowbridge) on the occasion of his birthday. No, they’re not hippies, they’re Tarzan and Jane, played by Weissmuller and Brenda Joyce. Their adopted son, “Boy,” is once again played by Johnny Sheffield, who looks as if he should probably change his name to “Man” sometime soon (or at least “The Artist Formerly Known As ‘Boy'”), since he’s nearly as big as Tarzan. (This was Sheffield’s last role in a Tarzan picture. In 1949 he struck out on his own in the Bomba, the Jungle Boy series.) When Tarzan inspects the fishing pole that Boy has fashioned for King Farrod, he smiles and says, “Everybody like fishing, even kings.” This might be a lesser entry in the Tarzan series, but the playfulness of Tarzan’s little family group and their idyllic life in the jungle is always fun to watch. If you’ve seen one Tarzan movie, however, you’ve seen them all, and you know that something will soon come to threaten their peaceful existence.

In this case, it’s a perfect storm of Tarzan-related problems — hunters and trappers arriving from the “civilized” world, treacherous locals, and Cheeta and Boy’s shared love of shiny objects.

When Weir tells Tanya that King Farrod won’t allow more than two specimens of each animal to be taken out of the jungle, Noah’s-Ark style, she sputters, “You can’t be serious!” So in a back-door deal, the king’s scheming nephew, Prince Ozira (Ted Hecht), offers Weir and Tanya a “no quota, no restrictions” offer on trapping animals, as long as they pay him a bounty per animal.

One of the members of Tanya’s safari offers to trade Boy a hand-crank flashlight for Cheeta. Boy refuses, since Cheeta’s like a member of the family, but he’s not above stealing a pair of lioness’s cubs in exchange for the nearly worthless bauble.

Tarzan returns the two cubs to their mother and draws a line in the sand. Hunters stay on their side of the river, Tarzan stay on his.

The hunting party doesn’t seem overly concerned, but then Tarzan calls all the animals to him with his powerful jungle cry, and they leave the hunters’ side and come to his.

It’s on.

Tarzan knows just how to handle the greedy poachers when they cross the river into his territory. “Hunters without guns like bees without stings. Hunters not so brave now,” he says, after he steals all of their weapons and hides them behind a waterfall.

That would be the end of the story if it weren’t for that darned Cheeta, who wants Tanya’s shiny compact so badly that she shows the hunters the way to the waterfall.

Cheeta gets her compact, the poachers get their guns, and it’s time for Tarzan and Boy to hand out the punishment, one hunter at a time.

Tarzan and the Huntress was Weissmuller’s penultimate turn as Tarzan. After appearing in Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948), he went on to star in the Jungle Jim series and Lex Barker took over starring in the franchise with Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949).

Weissmuller appears to have gained some weight since he made the previous picture in the series, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, but he’s always fun to watch as the character. Brenda Joyce looks beautiful, as always, but I wasn’t sure what to make of her little slip-on pantyhose shoes.

If you’ve never seen a Tarzan picture before, Tarzan and the Huntress probably isn’t the place to start, but it’s solid entertainment for fans of the series, and offers especially good animal action and hijinks.

Shoot to Kill (March 15, 1947)

William Berke’s Shoot to Kill (also released under the title Police Reporter) isn’t as bad as you may have heard it is, but it still ain’t good.

Berke was a journeyman director, but he was a fine visual craftsman, as can be seen in the crime programmer Dick Tracy (1945) and B westerns like Sunset Pass (1946) and Code of the West (1947).

When he worked with talented actors, as he did in Cop Hater (1958), which he made toward the end of his career, he could produce a damned fine piece of entertainment.

When he worked with untalented actors, the results could be disastrous.

The plot of Shoot to Kill hinges on a contrivance, but that’s not the problem with the picture. The problem is that its male and female protagonists, Russell Wade and Luana Walters (billed in the credits as Susan Walters), are such phenomenally awful actors that every word out of their mouths is like a speed bump.

Just when the narrative is chugging along nicely, and the tension is rising, Wade and Walters sit down to discuss matters, and their frozen-molasses line delivery grinds everything back down to first gear.

The film begins at the end, with a car crash that kills district attorney Lawrence Dale (Edmund MacDonald) and gangster “Dixie” Logan (Robert Kent, billed in the credits as Douglas Blackley). Also in the car, injured but alive, is Marian Langdon (Walters).

What unlikely chain of ridiculous events brought these three characters together? From her hospital bed, Marian Langdon spills the tale.

Dixie Logan was sent to prison by perjured testimony solicited by D.A. Dale, who’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. Marian goes to work for the D.A., and is privy to all kinds of nefarious activity. For instance, Dale is in cahoots with gangster Gus Miller (Nestor Paiva), so when some of Miller’s heavies discover that the kindly old man cleaning up in Dale’s office after hours is really a police plant, they throw him down an elevator shaft. (Murdering someone by throwing them out of a window is called “defenestration.” What’s the word for murdering someone by throwing them down an elevator shaft? If there’s not a word for it, there should be.)

Dale romances Marian while she feeds information to reporter George “Mitch” Mitchell (Wade) on the side. She eventually gives in to Dale’s proposals of marriage, and they get hitched in a midnight ceremony, and survive a 12:10 AM attempt on their lives.

All in a day’s work.

This quickie wedding leads to the contrivance I mentioned earlier. When Dale expects to get down to nuptial business, Walters gives him the cold shoulder, and informs him that she knows the only reason he married her is so she can’t testify against him now that she knows all his dirty little secrets. A wife can’t testify against her husband, after all. (I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure this law — which existed in plenty of states — meant that a wife couldn’t be compelled to testify against her husband in court. If she wanted to, nothing could stop her.)

Shoot to Kill has enough plot for a movie twice as long, but it’s an acceptable way to kill an hour if you can overlook wooden acting and ridiculous twists.

Undercurrent (Nov. 28, 1946)

Undercurrent
Undercurrent (1946)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

The next time you and a friend see a turgid, overlong thriller with too many twists and turns, bogus storytelling, and good actors wasted, and your friend says, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” you can show your friend Undercurrent and prove that they make ’em exactly like they used to.

Pound for pound, Undercurrent might have boasted more talent than any other mystery melodrama in 1946. Director Vincente Minnelli and cinematographer Karl Freund were both gifted craftsmen with numerous acclaimed films under their belts. Herbert Stothart’s music is moody and evocative, especially the film’s haunting theme. Actors Robert Taylor and Katharine Hepburn were both stars of the highest magnitude, and hadn’t been seen onscreen for some time. Taylor had just finished his term of service as a flying instructor in the U.S. Naval Air Corps and Hepburn hadn’t appeared in a movie for a year and a half.

So what’s the problem? While studio tinkering could have played some part, the problem seems to mostly be Edward Chodorov’s screenplay, which was based on a story by Thelma Strabel. In a word, it’s silly. As soon as a promising situation is established, the story goes in a different direction, which serves to undercut the tension. The review of the film in the November 11, 1946, issue of Time called the plot “indigestible,” and said it was like “a woman’s magazine serial consumed at one gulp.”

Hepburn plays a young woman named Ann Hamilton who lives with her father, chemistry professor “Dink” Hamilton (Edmund Gwenn). Ann is herself chemically inclined, and prefers to spend time tinkering in the laboratory than entertaining proposals from eligible young men. All that changes when the handsome, mustachioed, and fabulously wealthy Alan Garroway (Taylor) enters her life. Alan is the inventor of the Garroway Distance Controller, which helped win the war.

Hepburn and Taylor in the shadow of Mitchum

Alan and Ann marry, and he takes her away with him to Washington, D.C., where she feels completely out of her depth in high society. Meanwhile, Alan starts making sinister insinuations about his brother Michael, who supposedly went missing years earlier with a large sum of money embezzled from the family business, and who is offscreen for most of the picture. The film seems to be setting up “What happened to Michael Garroway?” as the central mystery, but if you’ve looked at a cast list with character names, this plot thread won’t be that mysterious for you.

When Alan takes Ann away to his lovely country home in Middleburg, Virginia, the film threatens to settle down and become a solid Gothic melodrama. The estate has no phone line, and Alan’s behavior is increasingly bizarre. And as one critic noted, the central theme of Gothic fiction seems to be, “Someone is trying to kill me, and I think it may be my husband.”

True to form, however, the film goes in yet another direction, with Ann going off to explore Michael Garroway’s ludicrously appointed mansion-cum-bachelor pad, where she explores his musical instruments and books of poetry with copious underlinings, and seems to be falling in love with a man she has never met. I’m sure a good film could be made about a love triangle with one-third of the equation missing for most of the film’s running time, but this isn’t it. As Bosley Crowther said in his review of Undercurrent in the November 29, 1946, issue of the NY Times, “And if that also sounds a trifle senseless, let us hasten to assure you that it is.”

Robert Mitchum — one of my favorite actors of all time, ever since I saw him host Saturday Night Live in 1987 and asked my mom, “Who is that?” — is also in Undercurrent, but he doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the film’s running time, and only has a few scenes.

I may have made Undercurrent sound terrible. It’s not. It’s mediocre popcorn entertainment, and I had fun watching it. And it’s no worse than most of the “neo-noirs” that littered multiplexes throughout the 1990s … it’s just not much better, either.

Secret of the Whistler (Nov. 7, 1946)

Secret of the Whistler
Secret of the Whistler (1946)
Directed by George Sherman
Columbia Pictures

George Sherman’s Secret of the Whistler is a solid but unremarkable entry in Columbia Pictures’ series of bottom-of-the-bill programmers based on the radio show The Whistler. Each film in the series starred Richard Dix, a he-man of the silent era whose star was fading. Dix delivered sweaty, paranoid performances in a variety of roles in The Whistler series; businessman, drifter, private investigator, homicidal maniac. His health may have been failing, but he was still a solid performer.

In Secret of the Whistler he plays a painter named Ralph Harrison who is living the high life on his wealthy wife’s dime. He throws lavish parties in his studio/bachelor pad for people who aren’t really his friends, but who don’t mind eating his food and drinking his booze. Among the many attractive young women who pose for Harrison for big money is Kay Morrell (Leslie Brooks), a beautiful blonde with gams that won’t quit.

Meanwhile, Harrison’s wife, Edith Marie Harrison (Mary Currier), lies in bed at home, at death’s door. When the film begins, Harrison seems to genuinely care for his ailing wife, and she adores him. Slowly but surely, however, Harrison begins to fall for Kay. (And after the scene in which she poses for him wearing a small one-piece undergarment, I thought to myself, “Who wouldn’t?”) He buys her expensive presents and lavishes her with attention. His wife isn’t long for this world, so what’s the harm?

The only problem is that Mrs. Harrison comes under the care of a specialist, and makes a miraculous recovery. (Her cardiologist’s course of therapy seems to mostly involve getting out of bed and taking long walks, which is still good advice today.) When she drops by her husband’s studio unannounced, however, her excitement turns to horror when she overhears her husband pitching woo to Kay. She suffers a major setback and promises to write Ralph out of her will.

Fans of The Whistler radio show will have no trouble predicting what will happen next, or the panoply of complications that will arise. True to the radio show, the Whistler himself shows up several times in the film, always as a dark silhouette or a shadow thrown on a wall, speaking directly to Harrison and revealing his murderous thoughts.

The screenplay for Secret of the Whistler by Richard H. Landau and Raymond L. Schrock is the most thematically similar to the radio show of all the films in the series I’ve seen so far. If murdering your wife was your thing, The Whistler was the best show on the air. Nearly every week it seemed as if someone’s spouse was being bumped off for an inheritance and a chance at life with a younger boyfriend or girlfriend, although things never went according to plan.

With a little more than double the running time of a typical episode of the radio show, Secret of the Whistler has more time to develop its characters and its story. On the radio, there just wouldn’t be enough time to show Ralph’s tepid devotion slowly changing to disinterest. At the same time, though, the film feels a little longer than its 65-minute running time, and while its twist ending is good, it doesn’t have the devious ingenuity of the best twists of the radio show.

Still, this is a really good mystery series, with heavy doses of noir atmosphere and performances by Dix that are always interesting to watch. Secret of the Whistler is a lesser entry in the series, but it’s still a pretty good one.

Shock (Jan. 10, 1946)

Alfred L. Werker’s thriller Shock, which had its premiere on January 10, 1946, and went into wide release on February 1st, stars Vincent Price as the murderous Dr. Richard Cross and Lynn Bari as his manipulative assistant and lover, Nurse Elaine Jordan. If you were to play a drinking game in which you took a shot of whiskey every time one of the characters in the film said the word “shock,” you would likely require medical attention after the first 20 minutes.

Price wasn’t always a horror icon. In Tower of London (1939), which was as much a costume drama about Richard III as it was a horror picture, he was a supporting player. In Brigham Young (1940), he played the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith. In Hudson’s Bay (1941), he played King Charles II. In Laura (1944) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), he was the aggrieved “other man.” A tall, stately man born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1911, Price was educated at Yale, where he studied art history and fine art. He radiated charm and erudition. He was a fine actor, and probably could have distinguished himself in any genre. As chance or fate would have it, however, his vocal delivery and arch facial expressions were perfectly suited to the ironic cinematic world of the macabre, and he is best remembered for his roles in horror pictures such as House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), and the innumerable Roger Corman-produced, Poe-influenced horror pictures that he appeared in throughout the 1960s.

While Shock is not a horror film, it has elements of one, and it’s the earliest role I’ve seen Price play in which he demonstrates some of the ghoulish mannerisms that would later make him famous. He doesn’t come close to the histrionics of some of his later horror roles, but there are some glimmerings.

The film opens in San Francisco, where a young woman named Janet (played by the somewhat sickly looking ingénue Anabel Shaw), is checking into a hotel, where she is to meet her husband, Lt. Paul Stewart (Frank Latimore), a former P.O.W. who is finally returning from World War II. Lt. Stewart doesn’t show up when he is supposed to, however, and as his emotionally fragile wife frets alone in her hotel room, she witnesses a murder. From her balcony, she can see through the window of an adjacent room. A man and a woman are arguing, and eventually the man settles the argument with a heavy candlestick.

Witnessing a murder drives Janet into a state of catatonic shock. When her husband finally arrives, she is unresponsive. When world-renowned psychiatrist Dr. Cross is brought in to consult in the case, Janet doesn’t recognize him, but Dr. Cross immediately realizes that the cause of Janet’s state of shock is the murder she witnessed him committing.

Janet is placed in Dr. Cross’s care, and he ignores the Hippocratic oath in order to save his own skin, giving Janet insulin treatments she doesn’t need, as well as using other unethical methods of driving her deeper into a state of shock so she will never be able to identify him. Cross isn’t portrayed as a total monster, however. That role is reserved for his lover, Nurse Jordan, a Lady Macbeth type who goads him on when his resolve to be wicked falters.

Shock is a programmer, to be sure, but it’s a well-made one, and kept me enthralled for all of its 70 minutes.

They Were Expendable (Dec. 20, 1945)

It has become clear to me that John Ford does something for others that he doesn’t do for me. Active from the silent era through the ’60s, Ford is regularly listed as one of the greatest American directors of all time, as well as one of the most influential.

It’s not that I don’t like his films. I’ve enjoyed most that I’ve seen. But aside from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), I haven’t loved any of them. Ford’s influence on the western is hard to overstate, and I respect what films like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) did to elevate the genre, but I wouldn’t count either as one of my favorite westerns.

They Were Expendable was Ford’s first war movie. It is a fictionalized account of the exploits of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 in the early, disastrous days of America’s war in the Pacific. Based on the book by William L. White, the film stars Robert Montgomery as Lt. John Brickley, who believes that small, light PT (patrol torpedo) boats are the perfect crafts to use against the much-larger ships in the Japanese fleet. Despite the speed and maneuverability of PT boats, the top Naval brass reject Lt. Brickley’s plan, but he persists in equipping the boats and training his men, and they eventually launch attacks against the Japanese, and even use PT boats to evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his family when the situation in the Philippines goes from bad to worse.

They Were Expendable is a product of its time. When the actor playing MacArthur is shown (he is never named and has no lines, but it’s clear who he is supposed to be), the musical score is so overblown that it elevates MacArthur to the level of Abraham Lincoln, or possibly Jesus Christ. The bona fides of the film’s star are asserted in the credits; he is listed as “Robert Montgomery, Comdr. U.S.N.R.” (Montgomery really was a PT skipper in World War II, and did some second unit direction on the film.) And in keeping with the film’s patriotic tone, the combat efficacy of PT boats against Japanese destroyers is probably overstated. (This is also the case in White’s book, which was based solely on interviews with the young officers profiled.)

None of this was a problem for me. What was a problem was the inconsistent tone of the picture, exemplified by the two main characters. Montgomery underplays his role, but you can see the anguish behind his stoic mask. He demonstrates the value of bravery in the face of almost certain defeat. On the other hand, John Wayne, as Lt. (J.G.) “Rusty” Ryan, has swagger to spare, and is hell-bent for leather the whole time. He even finds time to romance a pretty nurse, 2nd Lt. Sandy Davyss (played by Donna Reed). Wayne doesn’t deliver a bad performance, but it’s a performance that seems better suited to a western than a film about the darkest days of America’s war against the Japanese.

Maybe we can blame Ford and Wayne’s previous work together, and their comfort with a particular genre. Reports that Ford (who served in the navy in World War II and made combat documentaries) constantly berated Wayne during the filming of They Were Expendable for not serving in the war don’t change the fact that the two men made many westerns together before this, and would make many after it. Several scenes in They Were Expendable feel straight out of a western. Determined to have an Irish wake for one of his fallen brothers, Wayne forces a Filipino bar owner to stay open, even though the bar owner is trying to escape with his family in the face of reports that the Japanese are overrunning the islands. Even more out of place is the scene in which the old shipwright who repairs the PT boats, “Dad” Knowland (Russell Simpson), refuses to leave the shack where he’s lived and worked in the Philippines since the turn of the century. Wayne eventually gives up trying to persuade him to evacuate, and leaves him on his front porch with a shotgun across his lap and a jug of moonshine next to him, as “Red River Valley” plays in the background.

The scenes of combat in They Were Expendable are well-handled, and the picture looks great. Montgomery is particularly good in his role. As war movies from the ’40s go, it’s not bad, but far from the best I’ve seen.