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Tag Archives: Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco

Courage of Lassie (Nov. 8, 1946)

Pal rides again! In Fred M. Wilcox’s Courage of Lassie, the irrepressible little scamp from whose seed all dogs who ever played Lassie are descended plays an orphaned collie. The little guy is left behind in an idyllic, Technicolor wilderness after the old fisherman who owns Lassie rows off with her and what he thinks are all of her puppies.

There follows a delightful montage of the little collie frolicking in the woods for days with birds, other four-legged beasties, and even a big black bear. This being a kid’s movie, however, you can be sure that gut-wrenching tragedy is right around the corner. Sure enough, the collie puppy and his little fox friend are caught in stormy rapids, and the fox is washed away, presumably to his death. The puppy, balanced on a tangle of branches, safely makes it to shore. Seemingly unfazed by his little buddy’s demise, the puppy’s next move is to happily run off with Elizabeth Taylor’s pants, and a lifelong bond is formed.

Taylor was 14 years old when she appeared in this film. Just like Pal, she’s playing a different role than she played in the film Lassie Come Home (1943). I think Taylor was a fantastic child actor. Just like in National Velvet (1944), she takes material that could be laughable or treacly and performs it with such conviction that you can’t help but be swept along. As Kathie Merrick, she believes in her dog, whom she names “Bill,” even though her family doesn’t think he has what it takes to be a sheep-herding dog.

By the end of the film Bill will prove that he not only has “the right stuff” in the pasture, but that he can be drafted and serve under heavy fire just like any other red-blooded American boy.

Bill goes through a lot in this film. He’s shot by a couple of dopey young hunters with quick trigger fingers, he’s run over by a truck while herding sheep across the road (and carried off by the well-meaning driver who doesn’t realize Bill belongs to someone), he’s renamed “Duke” at Dr. Colman’s Dog and Cat Hospital in the big city, and he’s trained for war and shipped off to the Aleutians to fight the Japanese.

“Duke” performs bravely despite a bloody neck wound, dragging himself through the mud to deliver a message, then leading the reinforcements back to the troops. He saves the day, but suffers from shell shock. He escapes the train that is taking him home and runs off into the area of the country where he remembers being with Kathie. Unfortunately, his PTSD has taken a toll, and he lives as a feral animal, raiding hen houses and killing local livestock. Kathie saves him from a farmer’s bullet, but he’s still put on trial as a mad dog.

Things look pretty grim for Bill until Harry MacBain (Frank Morgan, who played Prof. Marvel and the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz) makes an impassioned plea for understanding. This is the most interesting part of the film, since MacBain has looked up Bill’s war record, and his speech is a thinly veiled reference to human veterans who may be acting differently after their service overseas. Violent, antisocial behavior and drastic personality changes can be a byproduct of serving in combat, he says, and we on the homefront shouldn’t be so quick to judge our returning veterans. Even if they’re not lovable border collies.

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Night Editor (March 29, 1946)

Night Editor
Night Editor (1946)
Directed by Henry Levin
Columbia Pictures

Henry Levin’s Night Editor is — to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes — nasty, brutish, and short. Aside from the happy ending, which feels tacked on, it’s the Platonic ideal of a B noir. The protagonist is tough on the outside but weak and conflicted on the inside. The femme fatale is unfaithful not only to her husband but also her lover, and is excited by violent death. In the world of Night Editor, ambulances are “meat wagons,” and dialogue like, “You’re just no good for me. We both add up to zero,” is what passes for pillow talk. And the movie gets the job done in less than an hour and 10 minutes.

I went into Night Editor not knowing anything about it beyond the title and the fact that it was based on Hal Burdick’s radio show of the same name, which ran from 1934 to 1948. The program was a sort of human-interest editorial column on the radio, with Burdick relating a story and providing all the voices. (There were other characters, and an announcer, but once Burdick got going with his tale, it was all him.)

Night Editor takes place in New York City, and opens with a shot of a neon sign that says “New York Star.” It looks more like a diner sign than anything else, but the Star is a fictional rag, so the prop department was probably feeling expansive. A young reporter named Johnny (Coulter Irwin) walks toward the newspaper office like a zombie, narrowly avoiding getting run over by a street sweeper. He hasn’t been home in two weeks. When he stops in the stairwell to take a slug from his flask, we can see by the thermometer on the wall that it’s 94 degrees in the offices of the Star. These were clearly the days before every office building had central air conditioning.

The newsroom at night is presided over by editor Crane Stewart (Charles D. Brown), who sits with a group of chain-smoking, poker-playing reporters who crack wise about death and destruction. At this point, I thought this picture was going to be a hard-hitting drama about investigative journalists chasing down a big story, like Call Northside 777. But it turns out that the scenes in the city room are just a framing device, as editor Stewart reminisces about a tough cop named Tony Cochrane he once knew, who was involved with a story Stewart covered during Prohibition.

From this point onward, Night Editor is a pitch-black noir. Tony Cochrane, as played by William Gargan, is a working stiff with a good job as a police detective, a dutiful wife, and a young son whom he loves more than anything in the world. But Tony made the mistake of falling for a beautiful blond ice queen, and now finds himself lying to his wife and his colleagues just to sustain an affair that seems to bring him nothing but misery. When Tony picks up wealthy socialite Jill Merrill (Janis Carter) in his car, their first exchange sets the tone of the picture:

“Tony?”
“What?”
“Kiss me before you go.”
“I told you I’d be right back,” he snaps.
“Kiss me,” she says.
“What do you want, blood?”
“Yes, blood.”
“Don’t boil over yet, Jill, it ain’t time yet.”

Their “sweet talk” continues like this for the entire picture. The only thing they share is lust. Other than that they can’t stand each other. Jill says things to Tony like, “I don’t need you. I can buy and sell you.” Tony tells her things like, “You’re worse than blood poisoning.” In my favorite exchange of the picture, Tony tells Jill, “You’re rotten. Pure, no-good, first-rate, high-grade, A-number-one rotten.” She responds by saying, “Tony, I love you.”

Tony drives Jill down to a lonely stretch of beach. He parks the car and they hold each other tightly, whispering sweet words of loathing to each other. Tony compares Jill to a sickness, then to a nightmare with convulsions. She tells him, “You’ll never get away from me, Tony, I won’t let you. You’re like me. There’s an illness inside of you that has to hurt or be hurt. We were meant for each other, Tony.”

Their tryst is interrupted when another car drives down to the beach and parks near them. Jill and Tony see a man step out of the car. The other person in the car, a young woman, remains inside. The man produces a tire iron, and brutally bludgeons the girl to death with it. Tony flashes his car’s lights. The man runs. Tony draws his revolver but Jill yells at him not to do it, to let the man get away. If he doesn’t there will be a scandal, and Tony could lose everything; his job, his house, his wife, and even his son. With anguish on his face, Tony slowly lowers his weapon. He walks to the other car. The corpse’s stockinged legs are sticking out. He looks down at the body, dejected. He returns to his car, but as he starts to drive away, Jill screams that she wants to see the dead body. “I want to look at her, Tony!” she keeps shouting. It’s clear from her frenzied voice and the maniacal look on her face that her interest in the corpse is prurient.

After the murder, Night Editor really gets going. We’re treated to a relatively realistic depiction of police work, at least in terms of how investigative assignments are distributed (which is impressive for any movie made in the days before Dragnet). The movie also does a good job of showing the symbiotic and cheerfully ghoulish relationship between cops and the reporters on the police beat. For the most part, however, the film focuses on Tony’s interviews with suspects, which is as it should be. Tony is wracked with guilt for withholding evidence, but he’s too afraid of what he might lose if he steps forward.

The performances in the film are great. Frank Wilcox is memorable as Douglas Loring, the bank manager whom Tony suspects is the killer he glimpsed after he interviews him. Their scenes together are fraught with tension. Gargan has the face of an everyman, and believably plays the role of hangdog detective with something to hide. (Interestingly, Gargan is one of the few actors who actually was a private detective in real life. He worked for a New York detective agency for about a year for $10 a day plus expenses, but was eventually fired when he lost track of a diamond salesman he was charged with protecting.) Paul E. Burns deserves mention, too. His character, the Scandinavian-accented, milk-drinking detective Ole Strom, could have easily been a foolish stereotype, but Burns invests the character with a sharp-eyed intellect and a real sense of human decency. Janis Carter’s femme fatale Jill is the most one-note character, but she attacks the role with such sadistic brio that it doesn’t matter.

Night Editor is a must-see for noir fans. Originally it was supposed to be the first in a series, but no other Night Editor pictures were ever made. It’s a shame. I like the idea of a series of programmers based on the kind of stories jaded old newspaper editors tell their reporters during the slow periods of the evening.

And Then There Were None (Oct. 31, 1945)

Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, originally published in England in 1939 under the unfortunate title Ten Little Niggers, is tied with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the second best-selling novel of all time (only J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has sold more copies). This makes it the most widely read mystery novel of all time, so hopefully nothing I say here will be giving much away. (But don’t worry … I’m not going to reveal “whodunnit.”)

In And Then There Were None, eight people are invited to an island off the coast of Devon by a Mr. and Mrs. “U.N. Owen.” (Get it?) When the guests arrive, they are informed that Mr. Owen is away, and that the guests will be attended to by servants Thomas and Ethel Rogers, bringing the cast of characters up to ten.

Even 70 years ago, the N-word was a more sensitive topic in America than it was in England. Presumably because of this, the novel was published in the U.S. as And Then There Were None in 1940, the name of the island was changed from “Nigger Island” to “Indian Island,” and the song that provides the structure of the story was changed from the original, which had been a standard of blackface minstrel shows since 1869, to “Ten Little Indians”:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine; One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late; One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon; One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks; One chopped himself in half and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive; A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.
Five little Indian boys going in for law; One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo; A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two Little Indian boys sitting in the sun; One got frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone; He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

Each guest finds a framed copy of this gruesome little poem in his or her room, and is informed over dinner, via a phonograph record, that everyone on the island has gotten away with murder in one way or other, and that all are going to pay. Then the fun begins, as the characters are dispatched in the manner of the rhyme. The first guest drinks cyanide at dinner (choking), the second has an overdose of sleeping pills (oversleeping), the third declares that no one will leave the island and soon after is bludgeoned (one said he’d stay there), and so on.

The novel is a case of truth in advertising. At the end, all the characters are dead. The film is somewhat lighter, and allows a couple of them to escape unharmed. It follows Christie’s own 1943 stage adaptation of her novel, which softened the grim denouement. Given what’s come before, however, the happy ending feels like a bit of a cheat, and modern viewers might find themselves rolling their eyes at the finale.

And Then There Were None is still a great little mystery picture, though, and its cast of veteran character actors play their parts to the hilt. The film occasionally borders on farce, but never in a bad way. I especially enjoyed Walter Huston’s performance as the quietly maniacal Dr. Armstrong, but Louis Hayward as the cat-like Lombard and Barry Fitzgerald as the phlegmatic Judge Quinncannon are both memorable, as well.

Voice of the Whistler (Oct. 30, 1945)

Voice_of_the_Whistler
Voice of the Whistler (1945)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

The Whistler, which was first heard on the Columbia Broadcasting System on May 16, 1942, ran for more than 13 years and was one of the best mystery and suspense programs on the radio. It didn’t feature the well-known Hollywood stars of Suspense (also broadcast on CBS), but its scripts were some of the most clever and intriguing that old-time radio had to offer, and its final twists were always satisfying, whether or not you saw them coming.

The program was hosted by a mysterious character embodied only by the sounds of footsteps and an eerie, whistled theme song. Each program began the same way, with the narrator saying, “I am the Whistler and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.” There were no recurring characters, but the situations were fairly similar from week to week. Greedy or vengeful people driven by dark impulses endeavored to commit perfect crimes, but were undone by a single overlooked detail or their own overreaching. Quite often, each story would contain more twists than just the one at the end. For instance, one program from October 1945 told the story of a man who killed his underworld partner and got away with it. He always wanted to reveal to the police the details of his clever scheme, but of course could not do so and remain a free man. After inadvertently faking his own death when a drifter steals his car and identification, crashes, dies, and is believed to be him, he changes his name and moves out of town. He then writes a mocking letter to the authorities laying out all the details of how he got away with murder. Immediately after mailing it, he hears on the radio that the police have determined that the body in the car wasn’t him after all, so he goes on a furious chase through the state in an attempt to retrieve the letter. He eventually attracts the attention of the police for tampering with the mail and is caught and confesses, only to find out at the end of the program that his letter was returned to his boarding house because it had incorrect postage.

Like Inner Sanctum Mysteries (another popular CBS suspense program), The Whistler was adapted as a series of B movies after it had been on the air for a couple of years. Starting with The Whistler (1944), which was directed by William Castle, the series continued with The Mark of the Whistler (1944), also directed by Castle, and The Power of the Whistler (1945), which was directed by Lew Landers. Each film starred Richard Dix, although he played a different role in each. The films did a great job of capturing the essence of the radio show. The Whistler was seen only in the shadows, just a man in a coat and a hat haunting alleyways and the dark parts of the city at night. Like the radio show, the Whistler’s voiceover often addressed the characters in the story, speaking in the second person, although he never interacted with them directly. (A typical bit might go, “You’ve really done it now, haven’t you? If you leave, they’ll see you, but if stay here, you’ll perish along with your victim. What are you going to do, George? What are you going to do?”)

Voice of the Whistler, which was directed by William Castle and written by Wilfred H. Petitt and Castle, working from a story by Allan Radar, tells the sad story of a successful industrialist named John Sinclair (Dix), whose fabulous wealth failed to provide him with either friends or health. After a breakdown, Sinclair changes his name to “John Carter” and goes away to lose himself. He sees a doctor who advises him to go to the sea coast, get some fresh air, a job, and enjoy himself. “And above everything, try to make friends,” the doctor tells him. “And never forget, Mr. Carter, that loneliness is a disease that can destroy a man’s mind.”

Sinclair moves to the coast of Maine and takes up residence in a lighthouse that has been converted into a private dwelling. Believing he doesn’t have long to live, he convinces a beautiful young nurse named Joan Martin (Lynn Merrick) to marry him. In exchange for her companionship during his last months, she will inherit all of his wealth. Although Joan is in love with a handsome young intern named Fred Graham (James Cardwell), they have been engaged for four years, and have no plans to be married until Fred can make enough money. Against Fred’s protests, Joan marries John, partly because she likes him and pities him, but mostly because his money can give her and Fred the life they’ve always wanted. After John and Joan have been married and living in the lighthouse with their jovial friend Ernie Sparrow (Rhys Williams) for several months, John’s health dramatically improves, and it looks as if Joan might have trouble collecting on their bargain. Meanwhile, John falls more and more in love with her. Eventually Fred shows up for a friendly visit that will have murderous consequences.

Richard Dix, a Hollywood star since the silent era, is great in each Whistler film I’ve seen him in so far. His glory days were behind him, but he was still a fine actor, and was equally adept at playing sympathetic protagonists and villains.