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Tag Archives: Josephine Whittell

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Feb. 20, 1947)

Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride has acquired a fearsome reputation over the years, so I wasn’t prepared for how weird and funny it ended up being.

This film has more oddball characters than you can shake a stick at. The protagonist, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North), is a bra and panties salesman driving a 1941 gray convertible who has a bad case of the hiccups and a wine bottle on the seat next to him with a rubber nipple attached to it. It was a gag gift from his buddies, and he swears he only smells like booze. He hasn’t had a nip since before dinner. But he sure seems drunk, especially at the beginning of the movie.

There’s also a detective who keeps his dog in his car and belts his trench coat around his chest, a young gas station attendant who has a funny-looking daughter, an alcoholic night watchman who takes a $1 bet that he can’t drink an entire glass of whiskey like it’s water, and a wrongfully arrested wedding party who prove they’re not the people the cops are looking for by having the groom remove his toupee.

The one character who doesn’t come off like a caricature — and the major reason for the film’s enduring legacy — is Steve Morgan, a sociopathic robber, forger, and killer. He’s played by Lawrence Tierney, an actor whose notorious offscreen exploits — arrests for drunken brawling and driving under the influence — often overshadow his talents as an actor.

Toward the end of his life, in an interview with Rick McKay, Tierney said that he didn’t enjoy making The Devil Thumbs a Ride. He said, “I resented those pictures they put me in. I never thought of myself as that kind of guy. I thought of myself as a nice guy who wouldn’t do rotten things. I hated that character so much but I had to do it for the picture.”

Assuming Tierney wasn’t rewriting history, and he really did hate playing Steve Morgan, none of his discomfort is visible onscreen. Cruelty and duplicity are as natural for Steve as breathing, and despite this, he’s the most likable person in the film. The hapless salesman who gives Steve a lift is too goofy-acting and stiff to elicit much audience sympathy. And the cops who pursue Steve following his robbery of an old man outside of a San Diego bank are too incompetent and obsessed with playing poker to really root for.

Steve controls and manipulates people effortlessly. Within minutes of getting in Ferguson’s car, he’s renamed Ferguson “Fergie” and has picked up a couple of passengers of his own at a gas station — a bottle-blonde party girl named Agnes (Betty Lawford) and her prim, dark-haired friend Carol (Nan Leslie).

The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an hour-long paean to bad behavior. It moves too quickly for the viewer to stop and consider all the contrivances that lead Steve, Fergie, Agnes, and Carol to Fergie’s boss’s beach house in Newport. Along the way, there’s more boozing, lying, property destruction, and running from the cops than you’ll find in most movies twice as long.

It’s not quite a “lost classic” of film noir, like Detour (1945), and its humorous moments outweigh its chilling moments, but The Devil Thumbs a Ride is still well worth seeking out.

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Easy to Wed (July 25, 1946)

Easy to Wed is a remake of Jack Conway’s 1936 comedy Libeled Lady, which starred Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. No actors of that caliber appear in Edward Buzzell’s update, which is a lightweight affair from start to finish.

I haven’t seen Libeled Lady, but it was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and is generally well-regarded in the pantheon of screwball comedies. Easy to Wed is generally regarded as a crummy piece of fluff, and that’s exactly what it is. Like the last MGM Technicolor extravaganza I saw, Ziegfeld Follies (1946), this movie is too long, is jam-packed with everything but a compelling plot and interesting characters, and its humor is mostly of the “painfully unfunny” variety.

The plot can be synopsized on the back of a cocktail napkin. Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn), the publisher of the Morning Star, is all set to marry his girl, Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball), but he and his paper are being sued for $2 million by J.B. Allenbury (Cecil Kellaway) after a story they published insinuated that Allenbury’s daughter, Connie (Esther Williams), is a nymphomaniac who goes after married men. The soundest plan Haggerty can come up with is to finagle his star reporter, Bill Chandler (Van Johnson), into a compromising position with Connie so they can produce photographic evidence that she is, indeed, a nympho who goes after married men. The only hitch is that Chandler is single, so Haggerty needs to hand off Gladys to him for a sham marriage for the duration of his assignment. Ridiculous? Sure.

At the time of the film’s release, one of its biggest draws was its leading man, Van Johnson. His appeal mystifies me. There’s nothing wrong with him, but I find his blandness overwhelming.

It’s not that I don’t like movies he’s been in — Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), in which he plays a heroic bomber pilot, was one of my favorite World War II movies made during the war — but I’d never go out of my way to see a movie just because he was in it, which makes me different from approximately every single woman living in America in the 1940s. I mean, check out that poster above. “Van! … Van! … Van!” What?

Intellectually, I can understand his appeal for the distaff post-war zeitgeist. The metal plate in his head may have kept him out of the war, but he was in enough war movies to give the impression of a returning hero. And unlike the haunted, shell-shocked, sweaty protagonists of countless noirs, Johnson projects nothing but good-natured cheer. He’s the young man you want your daughter to marry, or the even-tempered buddy you introduce to your sister.

The main selling point of Easy to Wed for me was Esther Williams. There are none of her signature water ballet numbers, but she does spend a lot of time in the water. (Her first kiss with Johnson even takes place underwater.) She is beautiful and sexy, and emerges from the water many times in the picture, sleek and dripping, her makeup still perfect. But she’s beautiful on land, too, and looks great in Technicolor, whether she’s playing a board game by the fire or fully decked-out, singing and dancing in one of the film’s several passable musical numbers.

Besides Williams, the only thing I really liked about Easy to Wed was the crazily outfitted Ethel Smith, who performs a wild musical number at the organ. It’s a scene that borders on the surreal, and I loved it.