Gun Crazy (1950)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
King Brothers Productions / United Artists
Before there was Bonnie and Clyde there was Gun Crazy.
Not literally, of course, since Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow robbed banks during the Great Depression. I’m speaking of Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, which is widely regarded as a watershed moment in the depiction of violence in American films. The bloody gunfight that ends Bonnie and Clyde presaged the brutal excesses of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), ushered in a new era in onscreen bloodshed, and helped lead to the ratings system we all know and love today.
None of the shootings in Gun Crazy involve fake blood, but it’s still a significant film in the history of onscreen violence. For one thing, Gun Crazy is not shy about linking sex and violence. Its two protagonists are social misfits who only really come alive when they’re handling firearms or shooting at something.
Barton Tare (John Dall) is obsessed with firearms from a young age, but even though he’s a crack shot, he can’t bring himself to kill anything. He’s in trouble with the law from an early age after smashing a store window to steal a revolver, and is looking at a lifetime of one dead-end job after another until he goes to the circus with his friends and meets British trick-shot artist Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). He does what no other rube has ever done — out-shoots her in a trick-shot contest — and they fall in love. Their love quickly turns into a trigger-happy folie à deux, and they tear across the country robbing banks.
Gun Crazy was based on a story by MacKinlay Kantor that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940. Even though the movie takes place in the post-war era when it was filmed, it has a distinctly Depression-era flavor. It presents a world in which Americans can choose between a life of crime, easy money, and an early death, or they can choose to be honest citizens and slave away in drudgery for chump change.
Gun Crazy was filmed in the spring of 1949 and originally released in theaters early in 1950 under the title Deadly Is the Female. Presumably the producers felt that “Gun Crazy” sounded too trashy and tawdry, and wanted a classier sounding title. After the film underperformed at the box office, they re-released it with its original title, Gun Crazy, in August 1950, but distributors rarely jump at the chance of putting out a film that already flopped under one title, and the late-summer release of Gun Crazy went nowhere.
It wasn’t until the 1970s, when French critics were rediscovering and recontextualizing Hollywood “film noir,” that Gun Crazy started to earn the reputation it enjoys today as one of the all-time great noirs.
Director Joseph H. Lewis was never a household name, but I’ve always been impressed by his ability to inject style into pedestrian material. His last movie, The Undercover Man (1949), was a great example of this.
Gun Crazy isn’t a perfect film, but it’s an endlessly fascinating film to watch. Like most of Lewis’s movies, the pacing is quick, but the reason I keep coming back to it is the weird mix of slightly unreal soundstage sets with hyper-real location shooting.
One of the most talked-about sequences in the film is the robbery in which the camera never leaves the backseat of Bart and Annie’s car.
Originally, the bank robbery was an elaborate sequence, but Lewis wanted to do something simpler and save time and money, so he shot a test in 16mm, then worked with his crew on the details. They removed the backseat from a stretch Cadillac to accommodate a camera that could move forward and back, and pan to the right when Cummins leaves the car to talk to the police officer. All of the dialogue between Dall and Cummins in the car was improvised. The only scripted dialogue is when Cummins gets out of the car to distract the cop.
I find it an incredibly effective scene, but it’s the kind of filmmaking that still divides audiences. For instance, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), the camera never leaves the getaway car during a pawnshop robbery sequence, which some people found tense and realistic. Others, who wanted more “Fast and the Furious” type of action, felt differently.
The Undercover Man (1949)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
The Undercover Man is a tightly paced, hard-driving procedural that grabbed me from the first few minutes and never let go. It’s a fictionalized version of the federal case against Al Capone in which Capone not only never appears onscreen, his name is never spoken aloud. He’s referred to simply as “The Big Fellow,” even in newspaper headlines.
Director Joseph H. Lewis’s two most enduring films — Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955) — lay ahead of him, but he’d been working in Hollywood for more than a decade and had directed more than two dozen pictures (mostly westerns) before he directed The Undercover Man. The only one I’ve seen is The Swordsman (1948). I never thought I’d enjoy a Technicolor swashbuckler starring Larry Parks that took place in the Scottish highlands, but I really enjoyed The Swordsman.
Lewis made stylish films with great pacing. The Undercover Man has a standard story and stock characters, but it kept me involved because it’s paced really well. It’s loosely based on the career of Treasury agent Frank J. Wilson, who was involved with the 1931 prosecution of Al Capone and investigated the Lindbergh kidnapping. The film takes place in the present day, however, and isn’t specifically about Capone.
Glenn Ford plays a fictionalized version of Frank J. Wilson, named “Frank Warren.” The title of the film is misleading, since Warren doesn’t go undercover. The only “undercover man” in the film is a contact of Warren’s who’s gunned down by mobsters in the early going.
The film sticks to the tax evasion angle of the Capone case, and most of the drama involves Warren poring over financial records and butting heads with The Big Fellow’s crooked attorney, Edward O’Rourke (Barry Kelley). So if you’re looking for an accountant who picks up a shotgun and blasts mobsters by the dozen, like Charles Martin Smith does in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), then you might find The Undercover Man pretty boring.
But if you’re looking for a hard-nosed flick about cops and criminals made in a semi-documentary style, you can’t go wrong with The Undercover Man.
Joseph H. Lewis’s Technicolor spectacle The Swordsman takes place in the Scottish highlands toward the end of the 17th century. Clan warfare is what the highlanders live and breathe, and no clan war is as bitter as the one between the MacArdens and the Glowans.
So when Alexander MacArden (Larry Parks) falls into the skirts of the beautiful Barbara Glowan (Ellen Drew) after leaping onto her moving coach (as swashbuckling heroes in Technicolor spectacles are wont to do) he naturally tells her his name is “Duncan Fraser.”
This little deception allows him to go “undercover” amongst the Glowans along with his rotund, Falstaffian sidekick Angus MacArden (Edgar Buchanan).
After the obligatory sequence of highland games (including a javelin throwing competition that I’m not sure is culturally accurate as well as a “walk the greased plank to grab a caged piglet” competition that you probably won’t be seeing at your local highland games anytime soon), Alexander is found out by the Glowans and has to flee.
The rest of the film is a well-paced and exciting adventure story. Alexander and Barbara’s star-crossed love suffers the predictable travails, but I liked that there were few contrived misunderstandings between the two.
Alexander attempts to broker peace between the Glowans and the MacArden, and there’s nothing like a marriage to do it.
But restive elements in both clans work against a truce, and there’s plenty of double-dealing and murder afoot.
Wilfred H. Petitt’s script doesn’t always jibe with what we see on screen. For all the talk of “claymores” I never saw one of those fearsome two-handed Scottish long swords, only rapiers.
Larry Parks will never be mistaken for swashbuckling superstars like Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power, but at this point I can’t remember the last swashbuckling film Flynn made, and while I love Power, there’s no question that The Swordsman contains more thrills per minute than the ambitious but flawed Captain From Castile (1947).
The Swordsman is a really fun adventure picture. The pacing of the film is excellent, and Hugo Friedhofer’s score is rousing and exciting. I wasn’t bored for a single moment of the film’s 80-minute running time.
The Jolson Story (1946)
Directed by Alfred E. Green
Alfred E. Green’s Technicolor extravaganza The Jolson Story purports to tell the story of Al Jolson, one of the most popular singers in the United States in the 1920s and ’30s.
What it actually does is take the bare bones of Jolson’s life story and tell a mostly fictionalized show-biz story of a man’s unalloyed love of music and his tireless quest to touch the hearts of every man, woman, and child in America. That he often touches their hearts while wearing blackface makes The Jolson Story a tricky movie to watch and review in the 21st century.
Apologists for Jolson’s use of blackface usually point to two things; one, Jolson was Jewish, a minority group that itself suffered a great deal of discrimination in the U.S., especially before World War II; two, he genuinely loved the black musical forms that he appropriated. (There are also claims that he fought against segregation on Broadway, but I was unable to find any hard evidence of what he did or when he did it. If anyone has more information, please let me know.)
Unlike the white actors in blackface in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), who blacked up to portray their characters as brutes, villains, and rapists, or the minstrel-show comedians who used burnt cork on their faces to portray “those funny little darkies” as shiftless and uneducated objects of ridicule, Jolson used blackface strictly in the context of musical performance, and there was never anything deliberately mean-spirited about it.
But no matter what the context, it’s hard today to look at a white person with black makeup covering every part of their face except a wide area around the mouth meant to convey the impression of big fat lips and not cringe.
Born Asa Yoelson in 1886, Jolson emigrated from his native Lithuania with his mother and his siblings in 1894. They joined Jolson’s father, Moses Yoelson, who had been rabbi and cantor at the Talmud Torah Synagogue in Washington, D.C., since 1891. Late in 1894, Jolson’s mother died, which had a profound effect on him, and he reportedly became completely withdrawn for seven months. In 1895, however, he was introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves, and by 1897, he and his brother Hirsch (whose stage name was “Harry”) were singing on street corners. The brothers continued in show business for several years, but eventually “Al” and “Harry” had a falling out.
Jolson first appeared in blackface in 1904 in a show at Keeney’s Theatre in Brooklyn. According to John Kenrick, blacking up created in Jolson “a sense of freedom and spontaneity he had never known before.” His blackface performances, and his black character, “Gus,” became wildly popular. Jolson probably wasn’t the first American popular musician who ironically experienced feelings of “freedom” by appropriating the appearance and attitude of a black man, but he was the first and perhaps most significant of the century that also gave us Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley, the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice, and Justin Timberlake.
Jolson’s popularity grew and grew in the ‘teens and ’20s, culminating in his appearance in the film The Jazz Singer (1927), which was the first “talkie,” or film with a synchronized soundtrack. There wasn’t much dialogue in The Jazz Singer, and most of the sound came from Jolson’s songs, but when he said, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” (a phrase he had already made famous in his stage performances), Jolson carved his place into history.
The Jazz Singer tells a fictionalized version of Jolson’s own life. Jolson’s character, Jake Rabinowitz, sings jazz music as “Jack Robin,” and even debuts on Broadway, but he is forever in conflict with his deeply traditional father, who wants Jake to be the sixth generation of Rabinowitz men to sing as cantors in the synagogue. The dramatic conflict is eventually resolved when he nearly misses his Broadway debut to sing the Kol Nidre in the synagogue, allowing his father to die a happy man, and then follows it up with his appearance on the stage, in blackface, in which he goes down on one knee to sing “My Mammy” to his mother, who is sitting in the front row.
In his book Black Like You, John Strausbaugh writes of this scene that, “there’s barely a hint of the racist mockery that’s supposed to be the corrupt heart of blackface entertainment. It’s much more like watching Mick Jagger or Eminem — not mockery, but the sincere mimicry of a non-Black artist who loves Black culture (or what he thinks is Black culture) so dearly he can’t resist imitating it, even to the ridiculous point of blacking up.”
As I said earlier, The Jolson Story takes a lot of liberties with the facts. It begins in Washington, D.C., at the turn of the century. Little Asa Yoelson (Scotty Beckett) is the only boy in the audience at a burlesque theater who sings along with the vaudevillian Steve Martin (William Demarest) when he asks the audience to sing along with him as he performs “On the Banks of the Wabash.” Martin cries, “Give that boy a spotlight!”
Of course, Asa’s Old World parents don’t approve of his love of popular song, especially his father, the cantor (Ludwig Donath). His mother (Tamara Shayne) is a little more understanding.
Little Asa hops a train to Baltimore to follow Martin, who wanted to make him a part of his act, but he gets picked up by a copper and taken to St. Mary’s Home for Boys. His parents come up to collect him, but when they hear him singing “Ave Maria” in the boy’s choir at the orphanage, their hearts soften.
“Singing without his cap on,” Cantor Yoelson tsks-tsks. “It’s not so much what’s on the head, as what’s in the heart,” says Father McGee (Ernest Cossart).
With his parents’ support, Asa goes on the road with Steve Martin. “Give that boy a spotlight” becomes the whole act, with Asa as Martin’s ringer in the audience. When his voice breaks during a performance, Jolson turns it into a whistling performance. He’s a consummate performer, and the show must go on.
The transition from childhood to adulthood in The Jolson Story is nicely done. Scotty Beckett and Larry Parks (who plays Jolson as an adult) look eerily alike, which helps. There’s a montage of Jolson’s performances across the nation represented as postcards sent home to his parents. He performs in all the big cities, as well as smaller towns, like Walla Walla, Washington, “the town so nice they named it twice.” Less than a half hour has gone by, and already his parents (both of whom remain living for the entire picture) are completely supportive of his musical career. The Jolson Story is pretty short on dramatic conflict.
At the half hour mark, we finally see Parks as Jolson black up when he substitutes for a performer named Tom Baron (Bill Goodwin) in Churchill Downs, Kentucky, after Tom wins a “snootful” at the tracks and gets good and drunk. This is Jolson’s breakout moment, and it’s worth noting that the blackface and nappy wig make him anonymous, and indistinguishable from a completely different-looking white performer once he corks up.
Only one person, Lew Dockstader (John Alexander) realizes the deception, and offers him a place in Dockstader’s Minstrels. (A real performing group that Jolson worked with early in his career.)
It’s not long before Jolson bristles against the mawkish and old-fashioned music he performs for Dockstader as part of the chorus. When the group performs in New Orleans, Jolson wanders off into the black part of town. This sequence features the only real black people you’ll see in The Jolson Story, although none of them have speaking parts. Jolson hears genuine ragtime music as he sits in with a band (sans blackface, of course) loving what he is hearing. He goes back to Dockstader and says, “I heard some music tonight called ‘jazz.'” But Dockstader is happy with the show the way it is. “Son, minstrels have been doing fine for fifty years, and we take pride in doing it the way it’s always been done,” Dockstader tells him.
Jolson goes off on his own, and enters a period of creative exploration. He calls the music he’s been listening to and working on, “Music nobody ever heard of before, but the only kind I want to sing.”
By “nobody,” he means, of course, no white people, since the (presumably black) composers and musicians he refers to are never shown. It could have been interesting to see Jolson work with and collaborate with black artists, but after that brief scene in New Orleans, we never see another black person.
Jolson gets a call from good old Tom Baron, and Jolson tells him he has all kinds of music that just needs to be “polished up” a little (no pun intended) and makes his debut on Broadway, singing “Mammy,” in blackface, down on one knee. Interestingly, he does so without a nappy wig — just his dark hair slicked back — and he sounds “blacker” than he ever did before.
Jolson is depicted as a man who is always desperate to make a connection with his audience. During his show “Honeymoon Express,” he even has the house lights turned up, so he can see everyone in the audience. This was also the scene in which I felt that his blackface looked the most insane. There’s a superimposition of his face singing over a left-to-right pan of the crowd, and the closeup shows just how crazy his blackface looks, with a wide area around his lips un-made up, showing the white skin around his mouth, his pink lips, and his small yellow teeth. His eyes are nearly maniacal, he’s clearly sweating under his makeup, and he’s superimposed over a crowd of laughing, happy white people. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
When it comes to Jolson’s personal life, this picture makes Jolson seem like a singing monk, when in reality he was an inveterate womanizer. In The Jolson Story, he has no relationships with women except for his lifelong chaste romance with childhood friend Ann (Jo-Carroll Dennison).
As soon as she marries another man, however, he meets his future wife, producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s newest female sensation, Julie Benson (Evelyn Keyes). He spots her in the audience at one of his shows, and asks her to request a song. After she says, “April Showers,” he practically lies down on the stage in front of her and sings his heart out. Interestingly, this is the first time in the picture he sings a really heartfelt number without blackface on. Maybe it would have been too strange for audiences of the time to see him romance a white woman while blacked up.
After the show, he finds her mimicking his performance of “California, Here I Come,” perfectly copying his resonant voice and wild arm and leg gesticulations, and he falls, hook, line, and sinker.
Even though “Julie Benson” is a complete fabrication, I would have liked to have seen even more of her. Keyes only gets one proper musical number, showing her in action as part of the Ziegfeld Follies, but her dancing and singing were impressive, not to mention the fact that she has one of the best pair of gams I’ve ever seen.
As I said, there’s not much dramatic tension in this picture. Marrying a shiksa doesn’t raise an eyebrow on either one of his parents’ faces, and the only real conflict comes later in the film, as Julie encourages Jolson to quit show business so they can have a quiet life together, but he clearly misses the limelight, even though he claims he is happy.
Jolson was something of a has-been in 1946, and he was no longer one of the most popular singers in America, but this film was a huge hit, and revitalized interest in his music. It even spawned a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). Larry Parks was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, but didn’t win. Parks was a relatively unknown B-movie actor before he was cast in this role, which launched him into stardom. Not too many years later, however, his career would be destroyed by the House Un-American Affairs Committee, when he admitted under pressure that he had once been a member of the Communist Party. He testified against his will in 1951, and was never officially blacklisted, but his career hit the skids.
His performance in The Jolson Story really is excellent. He lip-synched all of the songs to recordings of Jolson’s voice, and the effect is seamless. He plays Jolson as a man who is pathologically addicted to stardom, but never makes him seem maniacal or inhuman.
The Jolson Story took home two Oscars in 1947. Morris Stoloff won one for best musical score, and the film also won an Oscar for best sound recording. William Demarest for nominated for best supporting actor, and Joseph Walker was nominated for best color cinematography (the only other nominee in this category, The Yearling, ended up winning).