RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Jerome Cowan

Cry Wolf (July 18, 1947)

Peter Godfrey’s Cry Wolf is a good-looking thriller with two great stars and an intriguing setup, but it never quite fulfills its promise, and eventually peters out with an ending that you can see coming a mile away.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a young widow, Sandra Demarest née Marshall, who arrives at the creepy New England mansion of Mark Caldwell (Errol Flynn). Mark is a cold, imposing patriarch who lives with his brother, Senator Charles Caldwell (Jerome Cowan), and his teenage niece, Julie Demarest (Geraldine Brooks).

Sandra claims she was married to Mark’s deceased nephew, James Caldwell Demarest (Richard Basehart). She says she was working toward her doctor’s degree in geology. Jim came to her as a friend and she helped him. She needed money. He needed his inheritance. (Jim and his sister Julie have money that is kept in trust until they are 30. If, however, Jim were to marry, control of his inheritance would immediately pass from Mark to Jim’s wife.)

Sandra tells Mark she knows he would have preferred to choose a wife for Jim himself — someone placid — and she assures Mark that she is not a placid girl.

Jim gave Sandra $2,000 to complete her studies and she was to divorce him in six months. There were no other strings. They were married five months before his death. She has come to collect his inheritance. Two thousand dollars has become $2 million.

Doubt and mistrust informs Sandra’s relationship with Mark. Mark isn’t convinced that Sandra’s marriage certificate is genuine, and Sandra suspects Mark is up to no good in his mysterious laboratory. Nevertheless, there are clearly romantic sparks between the two. Also, Mark’s niece Julie instantly becomes attached to Sandra, and begs her to stay.

So it’s a perfect setup for a Gothic thriller. Mark struts and preens about the house, a pipe clenched between his teeth, spitting out nasty one-liners like, “Next time you hear some odd noise in the night, just follow the memorable custom of your sex and stick your head under the bedclothes.” And Sandra gets to play at being a grown-up Nancy Drew, pulling herself up to Mark’s lab in a dumbwaiter and then hiding behind a door when he unexpectedly arrives, and later climbing along the eaves of the mansion and dropping down a skylight to spy on him.

Cry Wolf reminded me a lot of Vincente Minnelli’s Undercurrent (1946), which is another Gothic thriller about a not-terribly-romantic love triangle in which one-third of the equation is absent for most of the picture.

Like Undercurrent, Cry Wolf is competently put together, and it’s worth seeing if you like the film’s stars, but it never really takes flight. Franz Waxman’s musical score and Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography are both top-notch, and add a good deal of suspense to the shadowy proceedings, but there’s only so far that atmosphere can take a picture. Ultimately, Cry Wolf is a mystery that’s not terribly mysterious.

Advertisements

Riffraff (June 28, 1947)

Ted Tetzlaff’s Riffraff, which premiered in New York City on June 28, 1947, was Tetzlaff’s first feature film as sole director. (In 1941, he co-directed the John Barrymore comedy World Premiere with the uncredited Otis Garrett and he was the uncredited co-director on Ralph Murphy’s Jackie Cooper comedy Glamour Boy.)

Before he made the leap to directing, Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films. He started working in the silent era, and his last credited film as cinematographer was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). Anyone who’s seen Notorious can attest to how beautifully it’s lighted and shot, and Tetzlaff brings his considerable skill to bear on Riffraff, elevating it from the very run-of-the mill detective story it could have been.

The opening sequence in Riffraff is the most talked-about part of the film. It’s five full minutes of dialogue-free bliss. After the credits roll, the film cuts to an unnerving shot of an iguana placidly lying on a log in the pouring rain. The iguana’s cold, reptilian gaze is a harbinger of things soon to come.

It’s 2:25 in the morning at El Caribe airlines in Peru. A meek, bespectacled man (Fred Essler) boards a cargo plane, the rain sheeting down on him. He sits nervously in the cargo hold, dripping wet and hanging onto his briefcase tightly. He’s sharing the space with a bunch of squawking chickens and an oily, mustachioed fat man with an unnerving smile. (He’s played by Marc Krah, and we’ll find out later in the film that his character’s name is Charles Hasso). The man with glasses watches Hasso fearfully as Hasso stares back at him. Then Hasso stands up and plucks an errant chick from the floor and replaces it gently in its box.

There’s an exterior shot of the cargo plane flying through the rain in the night, then an interior shot of the pilots lighting up a couple of smokes. A warning tone sounds in the cockpit. The co-pilot rushes back into the hold, where the door is wide open and rain is pouring into the plane. “I couldn’t stop him! He jumped!” exclaims Hasso.

Sure he did.

The cargo plane lands in Panama, where Hasso is questioned by the head of the secret police, Major Rues (played by an oddly accent-free George Givot). Hasso is evasive when he’s questioned about his fellow passenger’s death and suggests that the man might have killed himself for love.

Sure he did.

Major Rues’s suspicions (as well as the audience’s suspicions, if they’re awake) are confirmed when Hasso goes to see Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien), president and sole operative of Zenith Services, a detective agency. Hasso hires Hammer as a bodyguard for his two-day sojourn in Panama City, and while Hammer’s back is turned, he takes the map he stole from the man on the plane and tacks it to Hammer’s cluttered bulletin board, where it will remain for most of the film’s running time (there’s no better place to hide something than in plain sight.)

Eventually we find out that the map shows the locations of a number of unregistered oil wells. Hammer is approached by a shady businessman named Walter Gredson (Jerome Cowan), who wants Hammer to find Hasso for him. Hammer talks Gredson and his assistant up to $5,000 to do the job, and of course never tells them that he already knows exactly who Hasso is and where he is staying.

Hammer is a mixture of hero and con man. In fact, nearly everyone in the film is an operator who is looking out for number one. The beautiful girl in the story is named Maxine Manning (Anne Jeffreys) and even her motives are unclear for awhile. (After a scuffle in a bar, she deliberately pours a drink on her dress just so she can get close to Hammer.)

Pat O’Brien is an interesting choice for the protagonist, since he’s a middle-aged character actor with a pear-shaped body. (Although, based on the presence of Marc Krah and Walter Slezak, who plays a vicious killer named Molinar, I suspect Tetzlaff had a fetish for fat guys.)

There’s plenty of violence in Riffraff, and more hard-boiled P.I. clichés than you can shake a stick at, but it’s ultimately not a very dark movie. Aside from all the corpses that pile up, it’s breezy, fast-paced fun in an exotic tropical setting.

Besides the performances, which are all excellent, the film is elevated by Tetzlaff’s direction and the terrific cinematography by George E. Diskant.

It’s too bad there weren’t more Dan Hammer films starring O’Brien. He’s hardly anyone’s picture of a tough-as-nails P.I., but he crafts a great character who I wouldn’t have minded seeing in more pictures. Hammer is the kind of guy who never wears a necktie because someone could choke him out with it, and who says he’s not going to give up on the case not because of any noble conviction, but rather, as he he says, because “I’ve got a lot of time invested in this thing. Plus a good shellacking!”

In case you’re wondering, I looked into it and couldn’t figure out who came first, Dan Hammer or Mike Hammer. (Mickey Spillane’s first novel, I, the Jury, was also published in 1947.) While it’s possible that Spillane took his character’s name from Martin Rackin’s script for Riffraff, or that Rackin cribbed the name from Spillane, it’s equally possible that a P.I. with the last name of “Hammer” was just a good idea whose time had come.

Miracle on 34th Street (May 2, 1947)

When I was a kid, I briefly corresponded with Santa Claus. I’m not talking about the annual “letter to Santa” every kid writes, with a list of everything they want in their stocking that year. I dropped Santa a line in the off-season — June or July — and asked him how summers were at the North Pole, how Mrs. Claus and the elves were doing, and what his reindeer liked to eat.

I was eight or nine years old. I didn’t exactly believe in Santa Claus, but I liked the idea of him. Writing a letter to him felt good. And doing it in the summer made me feel unselfish.

I can’t remember if I was surprised or not when I received a response from Santa Claus.

It was a typewritten letter, and it was postmarked the North Pole. Santa thanked me for my letter, let me know what was going on at the North Pole, told me what his reindeer liked to eat, and told me that he liked my drawing of a train and said he assumed I must live near a railroad and that he sincerely hoped I stayed away from the railroad tracks. I didn’t quite understand that last part. There was a freight train that ran through town, but it wasn’t that close to my house, and I never hung out down there, and why wouldn’t Santa know that? Doesn’t he know everything? Surely “plays risky games on the train tracks” would’ve put me in the “naughty” column, wouldn’t it?

He ended the letter by saying that he thought the stamp I’d pasted to the front of the letter was awfully attractive, and asked if I’d ever considered stamp collecting as a hobby. He may have thrown in some stamps to get me started. I can’t remember.

I figured I should probably take Santa’s advice, so I got into stamp collecting and kept up the hobby for several years. It did occur to me that it was a little strange that the last place I saw my letter to Santa was sliding down the mail slot at the post office and that I got a response from some dude calling himself Santa who seemed to be really into philately. (That’s “stamp collecting” for all you non-philatelists out there.)

Around this time, one of my teenaged foster sister’s friends asked me if I believed in Santa Claus, and I responded, “I believe in the spirit of Christmas.”

Which brings me around (finally) to George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. It was just as funny and enjoyable as I remember it being. I found the scene in which Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) tells a shop owner that his store display features his reindeer in the wrong order more whimsical than factual this time around, and the scene in which we see a man in a chintzy Santa suit, drunk as a lord, really disturbed me when I was a kid. This time around, it was merely mildly amusing. (As a jaded adult, Santa Claus-related hijinks have to be a little more disturbing than public intoxication to get a rise out of me.)

Kris Kringle replaces the intoxicated Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and does such a good job that he’s hired as a store Santa. Unlike most department store Santas, he doesn’t shill for his employer. In his first day on the job at Macy’s, he sends a harried mother (Thelma Ritter) to Schoenfeld’s Department Store, which he says is the only place in town that has the toy her son wants. Kringle keeps a very close watch on the toy market, after all. She’s flabbergasted that a department store Santa would send her to a competitor, but she’s delighted, too, and Kringle’s helpfulness creates an enormous wave of good publicity for Macy’s.

The only problem is that Kris believes he really is Santa Claus, and tells everyone so. When the event director who hired him, single mother Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), finds out that he’s been filling the head of her six-year-old daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), full of such nonsense, she’s upset, and pulls his employment card. It lists his address as Brooks’ Memorial Home for the Aged, 126 Maplewood Drive, Great Neck, Long Island, but his date of birth says “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth,” under “place” he has written “North Pole,” and his eight tiny reindeer are listed as his next of kin.

Dr. Pierce (James Seay), the doctor at Kris’s nursing home, assures Doris that Kris’s delusion is harmless, but a meddling little twit named Granville Sawyer (Porter Hall) who gives psychological evaluations to Macy’s employees conspires to have Kris committed.

In order to prove Kris’s sanity, his lawyer, Fred Gailey (John Payne), announces that he will in fact prove that Kringle is Santa Claus, and therefore not insane. It’s the trial of the century. A series of newspapers blare increasingly wild headlines, culminating in the ridiculous “Kris Kringle Krazy? Kourt Kase Koming ‘Kalamity!’ Kry Kiddies.” (A lot of people will tell you that puns are the lowest form of humor, but they’re not. Alliteration is.)

Miracle on 34th Street is a wonderful film. It walks the tricky line between faith and skepticism without ever going too far in either direction. Every character who has faith is rewarded, but there’s nothing in the film that’s overtly unreal. Doris and Fred find love with each other, and Susan’s only Christmas wish is fulfilled, but in a clever, roundabout way. (There’s no final shot of Kris Kringle shooting out of a chimney or anything.)

It was a little weird to watch this movie in springtime. It created the same type of cognitive dissonance as smelling turkey roasting in August, or attending a Fourth of July barbecue in November. I blame Daryl F. Zanuck, who insisted that the film be released in May, since he said that more people went to the movies in the summer than during the holidays. The studio kept the film’s Christmas theme a secret in its trailer. Also, you’ll note that the theatrical release poster above prominently features Payne and O’Hara, and Gwenn is not dressed up like Santa.

Miracle on 34th Street was nominated for four Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Gwenn), Best Adapted Screenplay (George Seaton), and Best Story (Valentine Davies). It won all of the Oscars it was nominated for except Best Picture, which went to Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement.

My Reputation (Jan. 25, 1946)

Curtis Bernhardt’s My Reputation, which premiered on January 25, 1946, and went into wide release a day later, was filmed in 1944. Prior to its stateside theatrical release, My Reputation was released for military use, and was shown to troops as entertainment during World War II. The screenplay, by Catherine Turney, is based on the novel Instruct My Sorrow, by Clare Jaynes.

On paper, this movie didn’t interest me, and I probably never would have watched it if I wasn’t doing this project. A prototypical “women’s picture,” My Reputation is about a young widow living among the upper crust of Lake Forest, Illinois, in 1942. Once I started watching it, however, it quickly drew me in. It’s a quality picture from beginning to end. The actors all deliver heartfelt performances, the situations and dialogue are realistic, and the direction, editing, and cinematography are all top-notch.

Barbara Stanwyck plays the protagonist, Jessica Drummond. When the film begins, Jessica’s husband has just died, leaving her a widow and their two sons, aged 12 and 14, fatherless. The executor of the late Mr. Drummond’s estate, lawyer Frank Everett (Warner Anderson) clearly has feelings for Jessica, but they are not reciprocated. Jessica’s mother, Mrs. Mary Kimball (Lucile Watson) has worn mourning clothes ever since her own husband died decades earlier. Jessica’s mother is scandalized when Jessica refuses to dress differently after her husband’s death. “Our kind of people wear black,” she says matter-of-factly.

My Reputation reminded me a little of Mildred Pierce (1945) in its nuanced portrayal of a single woman navigating tricky social waters. It didn’t hurt that Eve Arden, who played Mildred’s best friend, here performs a similar duty as Jessica’s reliable gal pal, Ginna Abbott.

When Jessica goes on a skiing vacation with Ginna and her husband, Cary (John Ridgely), she meets the the insouciant and charming Maj. Scott Landis (George Brent), who is on leave from the war. The two strike up a friendship that blossoms into a romance, but Jessica distances herself from him when he becomes too sexually forward. Landis isn’t a heel, but he is a bit of a rogue, and clearly states that he has no plans to marry. Despite this, Jessica can’t get him out of her mind, and when their paths cross again, she gives in to his advances, consenting to at least kissing. Whether more transpires between them is left up to the viewer, but there is no implication that they consumate their love. This doesn’t change the scandalous nature of their relationship, and Jessica quickly finds herself ostracized from the gossipy circles in which she runs. She stands up for herself, but the disapproval of her mother and her friends is nothing compared with the criticism she receives from children, especially her younger son, who says, “But you belong to dad. It doesn’t make any difference whether he’s dead or not.”

My Reputation ends on a hopeful note, but its depiction of an intelligent, sensitive woman living in a stifling social milieu is still hard to watch. The viewer’s frustration is mitigated, however, by the excellence of the production, especially the attention to detail that makes a well-made film such a joy to watch. For instance, in a scene in which Jessica confronts her mother, the shot is framed so that a large portrait of Jessica as a child and her mother as a younger woman hangs in the background between them. The juxtaposition says nearly as much as their heated words.