RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Screen Guild Productions

I Shot Jesse James (Feb. 26, 1949)

I Shot Jesse James
I Shot Jesse James (1949)
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Lippert Pictures / Screen Guild Productions

If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage. —Samuel Fuller

Maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller was shopping scripts around Hollywood when he met producer Robert L. Lippert. Lippert admired Fuller’s 1944 pulp novel The Dark Page and gave Fuller his first crack at directing.

The result was I Shot Jesse James, a low-budget but brilliant revisionist western starring John Ireland as Robert Ford, the member of the James gang who killed Jesse James and collected the bounty.

Fuller had a flair for the dramatic, and when shooting began on I Shot Jesse James, he discharged a round from his Colt .45 into the air instead of yelling “Action.”

Fuller made three films for Lippert, I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1951). The budgets were tiny and the shooting schedules tight, but Lippert gave Fuller the freedom to make exactly the kind of movies he wanted.

Fuller wrote the script for I Shot Jesse James, and based it on an article by Homer Croy in American Weekly magazine. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a roundly reviled historical figure (even if you have no sympathy for Jesse James, it’s hard not to instinctively dislike a man who shot his unarmed friend in the back for reward money).

John Ireland

John Ireland plays Robert Ford as a lovesick man who’s tired of life on the run and just wants to marry his girl, the beautiful actress Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton). He’s tempted by Missouri Governor Thomas Theodore Crittenden’s offer of amnesty for any member of the gang who turns in Jesse James (Reed Hadley), dead or alive.

Fuller depicts the relationship between Jesse and Bob Ford as deeply homoerotic, although the stolid Hadley doesn’t seem aware of anything strange about sitting in a bathtub and asking his friend to scrub his back for him. It’s the tortured Ireland who appears to long for Jesse, and perhaps by killing him he’s killing a part of himself that he despises.

Nothing good comes from it, of course. When Ford tells Cynthy that his killing of Jesse James was legal, she responds in horror, “It was murder.”

He walks through the rest of the picture with a haunted, desperate look on his face. He appears in a stage show in which he reenacts the killing of Jesse James, he dodges bullets from glory-hungry gunmen, and he desperately tries to repair his relationship with Cynthy.

This film explores a lot of the same territory as Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which starred Casey Affleck as Robert Ford and Brad Pitt as Jesse James. The most poignant parts of both films show Ford facing his own terrible legacy, such as when he appears in the onstage reenactment or confronts a troubadour who sings hymns to his cowardice.

I Shot Jesse James has stock music and its minuscule budget is pretty obvious, but it’s a great portrait of a complicated historical figure. Samuel Fuller would go on to have a long and iconoclastic career, and while I Shot Jesse James is never numbered among his greatest works, it’s his opening salvo as a director, and it’s a powerful one.

Advertisements

Bush Pilot (June 7, 1947)

There are two kinds of bad movies, watchable and unwatchable. Sterling Campbell’s Bush Pilot is a watchable bad movie, but just barely. The acting and sound editing are atrocious, but the plot is decent — if predictable — and the whole thing moves along at a nice clip and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Also, if you have a deep and abiding love of Canada like I do, it’s worth checking out, because there just aren’t that many Canadian features from the 1940s.

Bush Pilot takes place in the little village of Nouvelle, Ontario. Red North (Austin Willis) is the hotshot bush pilot of the title. He flies people and cargo where they need to go in the vast north country, and also performs altruistic feats of derring-do, as we see in the first scene of the film.

Red lands his pontoon plane in the water next to a signal fire and flies a little girl with two broken legs back to civilization. When he approaches Nouvelle, however, he’s told by his ground crew that there is zero visibility. No way in. But Red and his gigantic aviator shades always get the job done, especially when a little girl who needs medical attention is in his care, so he looks for the smallest opening in the clouds, and when he finds it, he dives.

Red North’s got it all figured out. He’s built his charter from the ground up, and runs it alongside a sweet old lady named Mrs. Ward (played by Florence Kennedy, who despite her gray hair and makeup looks like she’s about 35). Mrs. Ward runs a summer resort with her daughter Hilary (Rochelle Hudson) and younger son Chuck (Frank Perry). Hilary loves Red, and doesn’t understand why he won’t take a nice, stable job flying for Trans-Canada Airlines. Chuck, a mechanic who sometimes works on Red’s floatplane, idolizes Red, and wants to be a bush pilot himself.

Trouble comes to town in the form of Red’s half brother, Paul Girard (Jack La Rue), who plans to start his own charter. Red tells Paul that he’s put in a lot of work here, and if Paul comes in with a slick new plane and sets up another charter across the lake then he’ll just be skimming off the cream.

Later, Red tells Hilary that Paul has always been a thorn in his side. When they were in the service together Paul would deliberately fly out of formation just to make Red look bad … and a couple of Red’s buddies were shot down over the English Channel because of it.

Brother vs. brother is a classic story, and while not quite enough ever comes of it in Bush Pilot, it’s a decent enough plot to buoy the film for its one-hour running time. Paul tries to move in on Hilary, Red’s girl, and needles her younger brother Chuck into flying a dangerous mission that he’s not ready for. Even the least astute viewer will be able to see the handwriting on the wall when the inexperienced Chuck and his bruised ego take a dangerous shipment of nitroglycerin for a ride.

Rochelle Hudson and Jack La Rue, who get top billing, were both born in the United States, but Austin Willis, who plays Red North, is Canadian through and through. He was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was awarded the Member of the Order of Canada (C.M.) in 2002, two years before his death, for his contribution to the performing arts in Canada.

Willis and La Rue are both good actors, and their scenes together are well-played, except when they’re called on to fight each other and none of their punches connect. Rochelle Hudson (not to be confused with the other “Rock” Hudson) isn’t a very good actress, but who can deliver lines like “You know how I feel about nitro. You should…” and not sound silly?

Frank Perry, who plays Chuck, is the worst actor of the bunch, and delivers his lines as though someone pointed a gun at him and told him to “act natural.”

Bush Pilot is a low-budget B movie — all the plane crashes occur off screen, natch — but it’s passable entertainment, all things considered. The trivia section of the film’s IMDb page says that it was filmed in 1945, but not released in the U.S. until 1947. It certainly seems as if it was filmed in 1946, though. That’s what the copyright of the film says, and if you look closely at the newspapers when they fill the screen with plot-advancing details, you’ll see that it takes place over the course of that crazy summer in 1946 when Red and his half brother Paul dueled over the skies of Canada.

Shoot to Kill (March 15, 1947)

William Berke’s Shoot to Kill (also released under the title Police Reporter) isn’t as bad as you may have heard it is, but it still ain’t good.

Berke was a journeyman director, but he was a fine visual craftsman, as can be seen in the crime programmer Dick Tracy (1945) and B westerns like Sunset Pass (1946) and Code of the West (1947).

When he worked with talented actors, as he did in Cop Hater (1958), which he made toward the end of his career, he could produce a damned fine piece of entertainment.

When he worked with untalented actors, the results could be disastrous.

The plot of Shoot to Kill hinges on a contrivance, but that’s not the problem with the picture. The problem is that its male and female protagonists, Russell Wade and Luana Walters (billed in the credits as Susan Walters), are such phenomenally awful actors that every word out of their mouths is like a speed bump.

Just when the narrative is chugging along nicely, and the tension is rising, Wade and Walters sit down to discuss matters, and their frozen-molasses line delivery grinds everything back down to first gear.

The film begins at the end, with a car crash that kills district attorney Lawrence Dale (Edmund MacDonald) and gangster “Dixie” Logan (Robert Kent, billed in the credits as Douglas Blackley). Also in the car, injured but alive, is Marian Langdon (Walters).

What unlikely chain of ridiculous events brought these three characters together? From her hospital bed, Marian Langdon spills the tale.

Dixie Logan was sent to prison by perjured testimony solicited by D.A. Dale, who’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. Marian goes to work for the D.A., and is privy to all kinds of nefarious activity. For instance, Dale is in cahoots with gangster Gus Miller (Nestor Paiva), so when some of Miller’s heavies discover that the kindly old man cleaning up in Dale’s office after hours is really a police plant, they throw him down an elevator shaft. (Murdering someone by throwing them out of a window is called “defenestration.” What’s the word for murdering someone by throwing them down an elevator shaft? If there’s not a word for it, there should be.)

Dale romances Marian while she feeds information to reporter George “Mitch” Mitchell (Wade) on the side. She eventually gives in to Dale’s proposals of marriage, and they get hitched in a midnight ceremony, and survive a 12:10 AM attempt on their lives.

All in a day’s work.

This quickie wedding leads to the contrivance I mentioned earlier. When Dale expects to get down to nuptial business, Walters gives him the cold shoulder, and informs him that she knows the only reason he married her is so she can’t testify against him now that she knows all his dirty little secrets. A wife can’t testify against her husband, after all. (I’m no lawyer, but I’m pretty sure this law — which existed in plenty of states — meant that a wife couldn’t be compelled to testify against her husband in court. If she wanted to, nothing could stop her.)

Shoot to Kill has enough plot for a movie twice as long, but it’s an acceptable way to kill an hour if you can overlook wooden acting and ridiculous twists.

Scared to Death (Feb. 1, 1947)

Christy Cabanne’s Scared to Death is a terrible film, but I had enormous goodwill toward it after the first reel. I get that way when the front door of a house flies open in a movie to reveal Bela Lugosi and little-person actor-extraordinaire Angelo Rossitto standing on the front porch, wearing matching black suits.

If you don’t know Rossitto by name, you might recognize him by sight. He had an incredibly long career in TV and movies, stretching from 1927 to 1987. He was the quiet, dark-haired dwarf in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and Blaster’s better half, Master, in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a lot to do in Scared to Death, and the sheer awfulness of the movie ground down all my goodwill to dust by the final reel.

Scared to Death is notable for two reasons — Lugosi only appeared in three color films, and Scared to Death is the only one in which he received top billing. Also, it’s a picture that’s narrated by a dead woman on a slab in a morgue. Trust me when I tell you that neither of these things is a reason to run out and see Scared to Death.

The color process used for Scared to Death was Cinecolor, which is a two-color film process, and it just doesn’t look that good, at least in the public domain print I watched. Also, the narration by the dead woman is interesting at first, but it becomes unbearable after the first dozen or so times her corpse cuts into the action to speak its piece. Part of the problem is that the sound editing is so terrible during the transitions that the viewer will start to dread the corpse’s appearance, especially if the viewer is sensitive to loud, abrupt noises.

Scared to Death is only worth seeing if you love corny old horror-comedies or are a connoisseur of bad films. Lugosi and Rossito are always fun to watch, as is George Zucco, but everyone else in the cast is either flat or intensely grating, like Nat Pendleton, who supplies comic “relief” as the dim-witted police inspector.

Bottom line — among films narrated by a dead person, Scared to Death will never be confused with Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Queen of the Amazons (Jan. 15, 1947)

Edward Finney’s Queen of the Amazons is tailor-made for the bottom half of a double bill in the cheapest theater in town. It’s pretty terrible, but worth watching if you’re a fan of cheesy movies with lots of stock footage.

This is the kind of programmer in which a character will exclaim — “Uh oh! Locusts!” — and the scene will cut to some grainy footage of locusts (or something) teeming and swarming in the air. Cut back to our intrepid explorers. “We’d better camp here tonight until the locusts have passed,” the safari leader says. “This bad place for camp, bwana. It’s lion country,” responds the chief bearer.

Will there immediately follow some stock footage of lions? Will there also be a dramatic lion hunt lasting a couple of minutes that is composed entirely of stock footage? I don’t want to give anything away, but … yes, there will be.

Liberal use of stock footage is nothing new, especially in jungle movies (if you’ve ever watched several of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies in a row, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about), but Queen of the Amazons takes it to extremes I’d never thought possible. Certain reels of Queen of the Amazons contain more stock footage than original material, and the plot of the film (Roger Merton is credited with writing both the story and the screenplay) seems built around stock footage, rather than the other way around.

Take, for instance, the fact that while most of the film takes place in Africa, the first reel takes place in India. This seems due less to story concerns and more to the fact that the filmmakers had some cool footage of tigers, restive Punjabis, and an elephant tug-of-war available to them.

The plot of Queen of the Amazons, what there is of it, concerns a young woman named Jean Preston (Patricia Morison), whose fiancé, Greg Jones (Bruce Edwards), disappeared on safari in Africa. She globetrots from the subcontinent to the dark continent in search of him, finding a crew of misfits along the way; a chubby cook named Gabby (J. Edward Bromberg), an absent-minded entomologist called simply “the Professor” (Wilson Benge), a strait-laced military man named Colonel Jones (John Miljan), and a great white hunter named Gary Lambert (Robert Lowery) who hates women and thinks they’re a nuisance.

In the not-quite-there feminism typical of ’40s programmers, Jean proves Gary’s assumptions wrong after handily beating him in a shooting contest, but later in the picture the latter-day Annie Oakley is completely useless when a lion attacks Gary, and she stands there with a semiautomatic clutched loosely in her dainty hand, screaming her head off.

There’s also the matter of a contraband ivory trade, a murderer who may be a member of the safari, and the Queen of the Amazons herself, “Zita” (Amira Moustafa), leader of a “savage white tribe” of women shipwrecked as children. I’m a big fan of dishy gals from the ’40s and ’50s dressed in skimpy jungle gear, so — despite her total lack of thespian ability — I enjoyed Moustafa’s role in the film, although her handmaiden looked about as exotic as a Peoria hausfrau spinning Les Baxter records at a tiki party.