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Tag Archives: Robert Barrat

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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Sunset Pass (July 8, 1946)

Judging by the only Zane Grey novel I’ve read, Riders of the Purple Sage, which was published in 1912, Grey was the most influential and important writer to ever mythologize the American west.

He was also a hack, and his florid prose made me wish for the more psychologically realistic and straightforward portrayals of the west I grew up reading in westerns by Louis L’Amour. Part of this is due to the era in which he was writing. By the ’40s and ’50s, passages like the following would have seemed ridiculous:

Her head was bowing to the inevitable. She was grasping the truth, when suddenly there came, in inward constriction, a hardening of gentle forces within her breast. Like a steel bar it was stiffening all that had been soft and weak in her. She felt a birth in her of something new and unintelligible.

The word “overwrought” doesn’t begin to describe the world Grey creates. His hero, Lassiter, wears an outfit that would make Richard Boone as Paladin in the TV series Have Gun — Will Travel (1957-1963) look positively conservative. Not only is Lassiter dressed all in black leather, but his black sombrero boasts a band of silver dollars, and his long-barreled revolvers are sexualized to a ridiculous degree. And, of course, the action is fast, furious, implausible, and frequently accentuated by exclamation marks. I’d be tempted to call the novel Riders of the Purple Prose if it didn’t contain such raw power in its descriptions of landscapes.

Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose an up-Hinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.

Grey had the soul of a Romantic. In his world, emotion trumps reason and the physical world mirrors the longings and passions of the people who exist in it. For better or for worse, it is this vision of the old west that captured the imagination of the reading public in the early 20th century, and informs the western genre to this very day.

I don’t really know why I’m going on and on about Riders of the Purple Sage, except that William Berke’s film Sunset Pass, which I’m reviewing today, is based on the 1931 novel of the same name by Zane Grey, and watching it made me think back to the only novel by Grey that I’ve read. (There’s an earlier filmed version of Sunset Pass that was directed by Henry Hathaway and starred Randolph Scott. It was released in 1933. I haven’t seen it.)

Sunset Pass, which was released by RKO Radio Pictures, hasn’t gone down in history as one of the great westerns, and it certainly can’t hold a candle to John Ford’s early westerns, but it’s a sight better than the stuff P.R.C. and Monogram were churning out week after week in the ’40s. The print I watched was clean and crisp. The black and white cinematography looked great. Neither Berke’s direction nor Norman Houston’s screenplay, however, capture Grey’s febrile world or antiquated dialogue. This is a by-the-numbers oater with plenty of shootouts, fistfights, chases on horseback, romance, and a few songs.

The film begins with an exciting but nonsensical scene. A cowboy named Rocky (James Warren) and his Mexican sidekick Chito (John Laurenz) tie up their horses in a stand of trees and watch a passenger train chugging toward them. They leave their horses and run alongside the train, which appears to be moving at top speed, and hop aboard. They take their seats, flirt with the ladies, and are in place to attempt to foil a train robbery. I say “attempt,” because a young woman named Jane Preston (Nan Leslie) knocks Rocky’s rifle barrel to the side when he attempts to shoot one of the robbers, allowing him to make his getaway. The men are all masked, but it’s clear that she recognizes him, and intervenes to save his life.

It turns out that Rocky and Chito are undercover agents employed by the railroad to stop robberies. If this is the case, what was the purpose of them not only leaving their horses in a remote area but also boarding the train in the middle of its journey? If anyone can explain it to me, please do. Were they hungover and missed the train? That’s the only explanation I can think of.

With the money stolen, Rocky and Chito are in hot water with the railroad company. Rocky rides off to track down the stolen loot while Chito grabs his guitar and makes love to showgirl Helen “Lolita” Baxter (played by Jane Greer, who exhibits none of the malevolence she would exude a little more than a year later in her most famous role as the femme fatale who ensnares Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past).

Eventually Rocky catches up with the robbers, but he’s shot and badly wounded. Luckily, he’s spirited away by a young man named Ash (Robert Clarke), who turns out to be Jane’s brother.

Clarke gives the best performance of the film as Ash Preston, and when his character faces ethical dilemmas, the movie really comes alive.

James Warren is a decent hero, but his performance is more one-note than Clarke’s. Tall, lean, and blond, with a perpetual scowl, Warren is sort of a Sterling Hayden Lite.

The villain of Sunset Pass, Cinnabar (Harry Woods), is good, too, but his name sounds like a candy bar or a coffee bar chain, and the other characters in the film refer to him a lot by name, which I found unintentionally funny.

Sunset Pass is standard western fare, but it was an enjoyable enough way to while away an hour and 5 minutes.

Just Before Dawn (March 7, 1946)

Just Before DawnJust Before Dawn (1946)
Directed by William Castle
Columbia Pictures

Criminal psychiatrist Dr. Robert Ordway, a.k.a. the “Crime Doctor,” is a fictional character created in 1940 by Max Marcin. Crime Doctor was a Sunday-night program that ran on CBS radio stations for seven years. There are only a few extant recordings of the shows, but the ones I’ve heard are comfortable and formulaic little mysteries, not unlike the long-running Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons.

Like a number of other popular mystery programs, Crime Doctor was adapted as a series of films. Dr. Ordway was played by four different actors over the course of the radio show, but on-screen, he was always played by Warner Baxter. Baxter had been a matinee idol in the silent era, and had won an Oscar for his role as the Cisco Kid in the early talkie In Old Arizona (1928). By the ’40s, however, he was in poor health, and the Crime Doctor series was an easy paycheck for not too much work. Each picture took less than a month to film, and he made roughly two Crime Doctor pictures a year. Baxter doesn’t seem to be coasting in them, though. While he doesn’t ever run or do any stuntwork, he is a fine actor, and his patrician presence is always a treat.

In the first film, Michael Gordon’s Crime Doctor (1943), we learn the character’s origin. A Depression-era crook and racketeer named Phil Morgan is shot and left for dead on the side of the road. Suffering from total amnesia, Morgan calls himself “Robert Ordway” and puts himself through medical school. Once he gets his degree, he focuses on rehabilitating criminals. Eventually, his past catches up with him, but everything works out in the end, allowing him to keep his new name and continue his work as one of the good guys in a series of films released by Columbia Pictures. Crime Doctor was followed by Eugene Forde’s Crime Doctor’s Strangest Case (1943) and Shadows in the Night (1944), George Sherman’s The Crime Doctor’s Courage (1945), and William Castle’s Crime Doctor’s Warning (1945). The film series is less cozy than the radio episodes I’ve heard, and delves into noir territory, with all of its shadows, brutal murders, and mysterious characters.

The sixth film in the series, Just Before Dawn, which was also directed by Castle, begins at night, with a shot of a hulking man (Marvin Miller) walking up to the shadowed entrance of the Ganss Mortuary. He is met by Karl Ganss (Martin Kosleck), who gives him a small leather case that contains a hypodermic needle and a vial of something marked “insulin” that’s not really insulin.

In the next scene, we see Dr. Ordway relaxing at home by the fire with a book when Mrs. Travers (Mona Barrie), his new neighbor, knocks on his door. One of the guests at her party has taken ill, and she can’t get in touch with their regular doctor. This was the good old days, when there was no such thing as dialing 911, but any doctor, even one you’d never met before, would drop everything and walk across the street to your house to take a look at someone who had collapsed on your couch. Dr. Ordway isn’t just any doctor, though, and his reputation precedes him. When he is announced as “Dr. Ordway,” the Travers’s butler Armand (Ted Hecht) excitedly blurts out, “the Crime Doctor!”

The collapsed gentleman in the living room is a diabetic (remember that insulin?) named Walter Foster (George Meeker). Dr. Ordway attends to him, and speaks with Foster’s attractive young sister, Claire (Adelle Roberts), who tells Dr. Ordway that her brother must have forgotten to take his insulin. Dr. Ordway unwittingly prepares a hot dose for Foster, and assures Claire and Mrs. Travers that he’ll be fine. While Dr. Ordway is meeting some of the other party guests, Foster drops dead. He has been poisoned, and the murderer has made Dr. Ordway the instrument of his crime.

The police, generally a bumbling lot in these old mystery series, encourage Dr. Ordway to investigate the crime to redeem himself, especially since he lives right across the street from the Travers home, and it will be easy for him to keep tabs on everyone. I don’t know what city the Crime Doctor series takes place in, but its police force must be one of the laziest in the country.

Dr. Ordway investigates the crime in a by-the-numbers fashion. It turns out that a lot of people at the party (and possibly someone who was not at the party) had reason to want Foster dead. There are obviously nefarious things going on at the Ganss Mortuary, but how they relate to Foster’s murder is not immediately clear.

After the halfway mark, the film really kicks into high gear. After an attempt on his life, Dr. Ordway feigns blindness to lull his antagonists into a false sense of security. He also undergoes a fancy make-up job that turns him into a dead ringer for a vicious killer on the lam named Pete Hastings. Things get really nutty by the end, when Dr. Ordway makes himself temporarily immune to poison by lining his stomach with a heavy emulsion of chalk in order to catch the killer. Just Before Dawn is the only movie I can think of that ends with a shot of the protagonist lying down on an operating table to get his stomach pumped.

I’m a big fan of the director. Castle gained notoriety as a purveyor of high-quality schlock with his “gimmick” films of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Anyone who bought a ticket for Macabre (1958) was automatically insured by Lloyd’s of London, and received a settlement if they died of fright during the picture; House on Haunted Hill (1959) featured a gimmick called “Emergo,” in which a plastic skeleton shot out of a box next to the screen as Vincent Price manipulated his own skeleton on-screen; the gimmick for The Tingler (1959) was called “Percepto,” and involved theater patrons getting their spines buzzed by a wire hidden in their seats; and Homicidal (1961) featured a one-minute “Fright Break” at the climax that allowed anyone who was too scared to keep watching to leave and receive a full refund. Of course, they were lighted with a spotlight as they walked up the aisle and then had to stand in the cardboard “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby until the film ended and their fellow patrons strolled past, so not too many people took advantage of the offer.

Before he carved his unique place in cinematic history, Castle directed dozens of programmers like this one. Prior to making Just Before Dawn, he directed three entries in Columbia Pictures’s Whistler series, The Whistler (1943), The Mark of the Whistler (1944), and Voice of the Whistler (1945). In general, I prefer the Whistler series. The plots are more varied and interesting. I also liked Castle’s prior entry in this series, Crime Doctor’s Warning, a little more than this one. Its depiction of the Greenwich Village art scene and the crazy beatniks who inhabited it was really enjoyable. But Just Before Dawn is, like all of Castle’s movies, still a whole lot of fun for fans of B mysteries and bottom-of-the-bill programmers.

Strangler of the Swamp (Jan. 2, 1946)

Frank Wisbar’s Strangler of the Swamp is a surprisingly good little ghost story. I don’t use the term “little” pejoratively, but as a term of affection, and in recognition of the film’s modest budget and one-hour running time. What Strangler of the Swamp lacks in lavish sets and big stars it makes up for with atmosphere, story, and pacing. Plenty of movies distributed by the Poverty Row studio P.R.C. (Producers Releasing Corporation) ranged from forgettable to completely stinko, but some were genuinely well-made films, and this is one of them.

Director Wisbar was born in 1899 in Tilsit, East Prussia, Germany (now part of Russia). After making nine films in Germany between 1932 to 1938, Wisbar emigrated to England, where he directed a television adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Telltale Heart” for the BBC in 1939, when TV was still in its infancy. In 1945, he directed his first American feature, the P.R.C. potboiler Secrets of a Sorority Girl. Strangler of the Swamp was his second film for P.R.C., and was a remake of one of his earlier films, Fährmann Maria (Ferryman Maria), from 1936.

Strangler of the Swamp takes place in a bayou, presumably somewhere in the American South, but, like a lot of horror movies from the ’40s, regional accents are nowhere in evidence, and geographical authenticity is an afterthought.

Old ferryman Joseph Hart (Frank Conlan) lives in a rude shack by a crossing, and ferries the townsfolk back and forth across a narrow strip of water by hauling his little craft hand over hand along a rope stretched between two trees. His passengers speak in hushed tones of the men they know who have recently died by strangulation. The denizens of the swamp believe that the previous ferryman, Douglas, was hanged for a crime he didn’t commit. They believe that his ghost haunts the swamp, strangling all the male descendants of the men responsible for putting him to death.

Ferryman Joseph does finds an actual noose hanging from a branch as a spectral warning, but most of the strangling in the film occurs in that neat ghost-story fashion in which it could just be a series of freak accidents. The spirit of ferryman Douglas (Charles Middleton) appears to ferryman Joseph with his head wreathed in clouds of dry ice, but Joseph meets his end when he panics and gets tangled up in some branches. The title of this film is the most gruesome thing about it.

After the death of ferryman Joseph, his granddaughter, Maria Hart (Rosemary La Planche), arrives in the swamp to claim her birthright. Fed up with urban isolation and happy to have a place to call her own, she takes up residence in Joseph’s shack and takes over his job shuttling people back and forth. Even though all the billowing clouds of dry ice cover up the set’s limitations, after the fifth or sixth ferry ride, even the least astute viewers will probably notice that there’s no water under the barge.

Blond, fresh-faced, and lithe, La Planche makes an appealing heroine. Her love interest, Chris Sanders, is played by the handsome but wooden actor Blake Edwards, who would end up being much more famous for his work as a director, writer, and producer (of, among other things, The Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, numerous Pink Panther films, and the Peter Gunn TV series).

Prior to appearing in this film, California native La Planche had lots of bit parts and uncredited roles. She was six years old when she made her first appearance on film (in the Louise Fazenda comedy short The Bearded Lady in 1930), but she never became a child star. Once in her teens, she appeared in a flurry of tiny roles and as a dance extra in many films, and was even crowned Miss America in 1941. (She was Miss California in both 1940 and 1941. The pageant rules later changed to only allow contestants to compete at the national level once.) As Miss America, she traveled extensively with the USO, and once helped sell $50,000 in war bonds in a single day. When Wisbar cast her in Strangler of the Swamp, it was her first starring role.

Wisbar brings a dreamy, European sensibility to the proceedings that sets Strangler of the Swamp apart from most of its B-movie brethren. The conclusion, in particular, didn’t fall into the ’40s cliché that anything supernatural had to eventually be explained away.

San Antonio (Dec. 28, 1945)

San Antonio, directed by David Butler (with uncredited assistance from Robert Florey and Raoul Walsh), is a journeyman effort from start to finish. A lavish, Technicolor production, the film looks great, and its stuntwork and cinematography are top-notch. The final showdown, a three-way shootout staged at nighttime in the ruins of the Alamo, is especially well-done. But San Antonio never aspires to be anything more than middlebrow entertainment. It’s a star vehicle for Errol Flynn, a showcase for a couple of musical numbers by Alexis Smith, and not much more.

Flynn plays a rancher named Clay Hardin, one of the survivors of a vicious war that has raged for years between ranch owners and the rustlers who decimate their herds by running nightly raids and then rebranding and reselling the cattle at various points along the more than 1,000 miles of border that Texas shares with Mexico. Hardin was falsely branded a criminal, and when the film begins, we find him living in Mexico in exile. He finally has in his possession evidence that could clear his name, a tally book containing records of all the illegal cattle sales made by Roy Stuart (Paul Kelly), the cattle baron of San Antonio. With the tally book and his good friend Charlie Bell (John Litel), Hardin returns to San Antonio prepared to mete out justice. Along the way, he crosses paths with a singer named Jeanne Starr (Smith), as well as her attendant Henrietta (Florence Bates) and her roly-poly manager Sacha Bozic (S.Z. Sakall, who is curiously listed in the credits as “S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall”). Bozic and Henrietta provide comic relief in helpings that are a little too large, and Jeanne provides romantic interest and a couple of songs.

This wasn’t the first time Smith appeared opposite Flynn. The two starred together in Dive Bomber (1941) and Gentleman Jim (1942). I found their chemistry in San Antonio lukewarm. For a man who was reportedly a stone-cold freak in private, Flynn is remarkably wooden in many of his roles. In San Antonio he’s still working the “dashing” angle he perfected in Captain Blood (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but he looks closer to the “world weary” angle that he would later play to perfection in the excellent black and white western Rocky Mountain (1950).

San Antonio doesn’t drag, and it’s solid western entertainment. The production values are high, the action is well-staged, and Victor Francen delivers a juicy turn as a villain named Legare, but overall it’s just O.K., with a run-of-the-mill story and passable performances by the leads. If you love the music of the period, Smith’s performance of “Some Sunday Morning” will be a highlight, but if you’re a fan of more historically accurate westerns, the songs in the film date it about as badly as Flynn’s perfect coiffure and jaunty red neckerchief.

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.