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Tag Archives: Steve Cochran

Storm Warning (Jan. 17, 1951)

Storm Warning
Storm Warning (1951)
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Warner Bros.

Storm Warning is an incredibly frustrating film. It was one of the first films made since D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) to openly depict the Ku Klux Klan, but Storm Warning completely whitewashes (no pun intended) the Klan’s religious and social prejudices and history of racially motivated violence.

About the only good thing I can say about The Birth of a Nation is that it was completely open about its agenda; it was racist propaganda through and through. Storm Warning, on the other hand, is a well-meaning anti-Klan film, but if the script ever contained any pointed messages, they were stripped out one piece at a time until only a few tantalizing details remained.

After I watched Storm Warning I read a bunch of reviews online, and was depressed by the number of people who justified the film’s focus only on white characters by saying that the Ku Klux Klan also killed white people like the Freedom Riders, and that this film just “showed the other side of the coin.” These people are either deeply ignorant or crypto-racists, because to ignore the Klan’s racial animus is to ignore history itself.

I read one review that said the term “Ku Klux Klan” is never spoken in the film, and that the white-robed racketeering organization depicted in the film is only ever referred to as “the Klan” (or possibly “the Clan”), but this is not true. The words “Ku Klux Klan” are spoken once, by a television news reporter outside of the courthouse.

Also, the film takes place in the town of “Rock Point,” which sounds like a coastal Maine vacation destination and looks and feels exactly like a small town in California, which is because that’s where Storm Warning was filmed. Most of the characters don’t speak with a Southern accent, and a few even sound like they didn’t leave New York City before they turned 21. The Klan was active outside of the South, but this film doesn’t take place anywhere. It’s a nebulous Hollywood small-town America that rings as false as the film’s story.

Cochran and Rogers

Storm Warning is a frustrating film because there’s so much good going on in it. I really like Ginger Rogers as a dramatic actress, and I thought she was wonderful in this film. The opening sequence in which she witnesses the Klan drag a reporter out of the town jail and murder him, then flees for her life, is stunning. Carl E. Guthrie’s cinematography is gorgeous and makes me wish he had worked with more prestigious directors instead of toiling in the “B” trenches for most of his career.

Stuart Heisler’s direction is workmanlike, but he keeps things moving along at a nice pace. Doris Day and Ronald Reagan both deliver competent performances, but the most interesting performance in the film is Steve Cochran’s role as Day’s husband — Ginger Rogers’s brother-in-law. To say that his character is lifted directly from Tennessee Williams’s 1947 play A Streetcar Named Desire is an understatement.

Marlon Brando had been playing the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway for a few years when Storm Warning was made, and Cochran’s slow-witted, sweaty, violent, childlike, and white T-shirted brute is incredibly similar to Stanely Kowalski, right down to a penchant for bowling and attempted rape. Is it a coincidence that Warner Bros. — the studio that made Storm Warning — is the same studio that brought A Streetcar Named Desire to the screen less than a year later? I kind of doubt it.

Klan rally

Storm Warning is a great-looking film with some good performances and a laughably milquetoast story considering the subject matter.

It’s curious that the film retains real-world terms like “Klan” and “Imperial Wizard” and details like nighttime rallies, Klan uniforms, lynchings, and burning crosses while barely acknowledging that African-Americans exist, let alone the motivations behind the formation of the KKK in the Reconstruction-era South and its campaign of terror against black Americans and its hatred of Jews and Catholics.

Whatever socially progressive intentions were present in the original script by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks, what ended up on the screen is laughable. Framing the Klan as a greedy racketeering organization who are only opposed to “outsiders,” “troublemakers,” and “busybodies” is cowardly, and framing their victims as exclusively white is ridiculous.

Seeing Ginger Rogers bullwhipped at a Klan rally is the stuff of high camp; it’s more appropriate for the cover of a spicy pulp magazine than any kind of social exposé. Also, the fact that she’s saved by a heroic prosecuting attorney played by Ronald Reagan is ironic, since Reagan would go on to use the term “states’ rights” as a dog-whistle appeal to racist Southern voters when he was campaigning for president in 1980.

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White Heat (Sept. 2, 1949)

White Heat
White Heat (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

White Heat lives up to its name. It starts with a bang and ends with an even bigger bang.

The tempo doesn’t slacken in the middle, either. Director Raoul Walsh had a great sense of scope and pacing, and White Heat is one of his best films.

Walsh is a director I’ve seen a lot of lately. I recently re-watched High Sierra (1941) and watched The Roaring Twenties (1939) for the first time. I’ve also reviewed six of his other films since I started this blog.

I had good things to say about Walsh’s last movie, Colorado Territory (1949), but White Heat is a masterpiece. It features a blistering performance by James Cagney as the psychopathic criminal Cody Jarrett and rolls together elements of gangster films, police procedurals, heist movies, prison dramas, and movies about undercover cops.

White Heat brought the era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie to a close, while laying the groundwork for all the crime and heist pictures to come.

Cody Jarrett headline

The era of the Warner Bros. gangster movie began in 1931 with the release of Little Caesar, which made Edward G. Robinson a star, and The Public Enemy, which made James Cagney a star.

As a contract player for Warner Bros. and as an independent actor, Cagney played all types of roles, but his persona is most closely associated with gangster roles in movies like Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) and The Roaring Twenties (1939).

White Heat is unique because Cody Jarrett lacks any redeeming characteristics. Unlike his previous gangster roles, where glimmers of humanity and acts of redemptive self-sacrifice were commonplace, in White Heat he’s a trigger-happy psychopath.

Even the thing that should make him more human — his relationship with his mother — is twisted. Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) is just as cold-blooded as her son, and has a more important leadership role in Cody’s gang than his own wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo).

In the scene where Cody Jarrett says goodbye to his mother and wife at a drive-in theater, Ma Jarrett is sitting between them and there is clearly more affection between Cody and his Ma than there is between Cody and Verna.

Mayo Wycherly and Cagney

Virginia Mayo was the female lead in Walsh’s previous film, Colorado Territory (which was a loose remake of Walsh’s own film High Sierra), but that role couldn’t have been more different from Verna Jarrett.

In Colorado Territory, she was the ultimate ride-or-die chick, ready and willing to go down in a hail of bullets with her man by her side.

In White Heat she a faithless slattern who’s only out for herself.

She might be a better role model in Colorado Territory, but her performance in White Heat is one for the ages. When we first see her, she’s in bed and snoring. Later, when she’s serving drinks to Cody and another man, she serves herself a big slug of whisky first and gets good and loaded. In one scene, she spits out her chewing gum before kissing Cody. These are all things that were simply not done by Hollywood actresses at the time of the film’s release.

Cagney and OBrien

The memorable villains in White Heat have their stolid good-guy counterpoint in Edmond O’Brien, who plays a Treasury Agent named Hank Fallon. After the daring train heist that opens the film, Cody Jarrett turns himself in for a smaller crime he didn’t commit to beat the bigger rap. The T-men send Fallon into the prison under the name “Vic Pardo” to cozy up to Jarrett. Fallon isn’t a very interesting character, but he’s in an interesting situation, and O’Brien excelled at playing Average Joes up to their necks in trouble.

The T-men who back up Fallon are all interchangeable squares, but their methods are fascinating. Police procedurals and docudramas were extremely popular when Walsh directed White Heat, and the film features modern law enforcement techniques like a three-car tail with radio communication to coordinate cars A, B, and C. The police tail that leads up to the climax of the film involves long-range surveillance that uses two electronic oscillators zeroing in on a transmitter secretly placed by Fallon.

Made It Ma

It might be hard for today’s viewers to see, but White Heat was an extremely current film at the time of its release. The law-enforcement methods are modern, and the film playing at the drive-in where Cody says goodbye to Verna and his Ma was a current release, Task Force (1949).

Most importantly, it’s not a story of romantic gangsters who belong to the past. Cody Jarrett is nothing like the tragic gangster Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, who meets his fate on a lonely mountain range. Cody Jarrett’s last stand takes place amid the gleaming silver pipes and Horton spheres of a Shell Oil plant.

There’s nothing romantic or tragic about Cody Jarrett’s last stand. It’s a violent, psychopathic “screw you” to the world, and one of the most memorable moments in cinematic history.

Copacabana (May 30, 1947)

Hey there! Do you like the comedy of Groucho Marx? Do you like the music of Carmen Miranda? Do you like the sweet song stylings of Andy Russell? Do you like beautiful women with nice legs?

You do? Well then, brother, have I got a picture for you.

Alfred E. Green’s Copacabana is a classic example of a Hollywood product that is designed for only one purpose — to entertain.

The plot of the film is little more than an excuse to showcase Groucho Marx’s wordplay and fast-paced comedic line deliveries, Carmen Miranda’s mesmerizing vocal performances, big musical numbers featuring the 14 beautiful “Copa” girls, and Andy Russell’s syrupy, sentimental songs.

The plot, which can summarized on the back of a cocktail napkin, is this: wildly unsuccessful nightclub performer Lionel Q. Deveraux (Groucho Marx) and his fiancée of 10 years, equally unsuccessful nightclub singer Carmen Navarro (Carmen Miranda), decide that desperate measures are called for. Deveraux has been kicked out of more clubs than he can count, and threats like, “This is an outrage. You’ll hear from my lawyer, as soon as he gets a telephone,” clearly aren’t getting him anywhere.

So Deveraux decides to pass himself off as a top talent agent. He arranges for Carmen to perform for Steve Hunt (Steve Cochran), the owner of the most glamorous nightclub in Manhattan, the Copacabana. Without Deveraux onstage with her, Carmen makes a positive impression, but Steve wants to see more of Deveraux’s acts. Naturally, he has only one act — Carmen — but some quick thinking produces a second act, the beautiful and mysterious “Mademoiselle Fifi.”

Mlle. Fifi is of course just Carmen with a white costume straight out of the Arabian Nights, a blond wig piled atop her head, and a heavy veil to cover her face. Deveraux explains to Steve why she never takes the veil off. “No one but her lover is allowed to gaze upon her face,” he says. “Not even her husband.”

Meanwhile, the starry-eyed Anne Stuart (Gloria Jean) toils away in the office of the Copacabana as Steve Hunt’s gal Friday, unable to tell Steve how she really feels. Will she ever be able tell him? Will the wide-eyed, golly-gee naïveté of singer Andy Russell (played by singer Andy Russell) and his encouragement that she express herself through song help? Will that song be called “Stranger Things Have Happened”? You’ll just have to see Copacabana to find out.

I’m not the biggest fan of musicals, but I’m perfectly willing to sit back and be entertained by one if it’s well put together, and Copacabana features plenty of entertainment bang for your buck. It’s especially entertaining if you’re as much of a sucker for great gams as I am. The Copa girls are blessed with pretty faces, good singing voices (although I’m not sure if they were actually singing during their numbers), dancing ability, and — most of all — shapely getaway sticks, which are on display even when they’re in the background. When Mlle. Fifi sings her first number at the Copa, “Je Vous Aime,” the Copa girls are draped all over the place like leggy cats, listening in rapture.

And speaking of perfect pins, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Gloria Jean’s final song and dance with Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda, in which she wears a shorts and high heels outfit that might be the cutest thing I’ve seen in a movie from 1947 so far.

I believe this was the first film in which Groucho Marx appeared without his classic greasepaint mustache and thick glasses get-up. (His actual mustache and regular glasses aren’t wildly different, of course.) Also, his brothers, Harpo, Chico, and sometimes Zeppo, are nowhere to be seen in Copacabana, but it’s still worth seeing if you’re a Marx Brothers fan. It’s not as sublime as Duck Soup (1933) or A Night at the Opera (1935), but it’s still a funny, entertaining film, and offers the last chance to see Groucho in his classic get-up, when he performs Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby’s song “Go West, Young Man” in a slightly surreal scene. (Click the name of the song to watch the performance.)

Most of the music in Copacabana is written by Sam Coslow. It’s uniformly good, but for my money, the best song in the picture is Carmen Miranda’s performance of “Tico Tico No Fubá,” which was written by Zequinha de Abreu and Aloysio de Oliveira.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Nov. 21, 1946)

The Best Years of Our Lives
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Directed by William Wyler
RKO Radio Pictures

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives premiered in New York City on November 21, 1946, and in Los Angeles a month later, on Christmas day. It was a hit with both audiences and critics, and was the biggest financial success since Gone With the Wind in 1939.

The film swept the 19th Academy Awards, winning in all but one category in which it was nominated. The film won best picture, Wyler won best director, Fredric March won best actor, Harold Russell won best supporting actor, Robert E. Sherwood won for best screenplay, Daniel Mandell won for best editing, and Hugo Friedhofer won for best score. (The only category in which it was nominated and did not win was best sound recording. The Jolson Story took home that award.)

There are several reasons for the film’s financial and critical success. It perfectly captured the mood of the times. In 1946, returning servicemen faced an enormous housing shortage, an uncertain job market, food shortages, and a turbulent economy (price controls were finally lifted by the O.P.A. around the time the film premiered). Combat veterans also faced their own personal demons in an atmosphere in which discussing feelings was seen as a sign of weakness. By telling the stories of three World War II veterans returning to life in their hometown, The Best Years of Our Lives held a mirror up to American society.

The biggest reason for the film’s success, however, is that it’s a great movie. Plenty of films made in 1945 and 1946 featured characters who were returning veterans, but none before had shown them in such a realistic, unvarnished way. The Best Years of Our Lives doesn’t try to wring tragedy out of its characters’ personal situations. It’s an overwhelming emotional experience precisely because it doesn’t strain for high emotions. The film earns every one of its quietly powerful moments. Hugo Friedhofer’s score is occasionally overbearing, and a little high in the mix, but at its best it’s moving, and a fair approximation of Aaron Copland’s fanfares for common men. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography is phenomenal. Every image in the film — the hustle and bustle of life in a small American city, the quietly expressive faces of its characters, and the interiors of homes, drugstores, bars, banks, and nightclubs — is fascinating to look at. (Toland was Orson Welles’s cinematographer on Citizen Kane, and he was an absolute wizard.)

Russell Andrews March

The actors in this film are, without exception, outstanding. Fredric March plays Al Stephenson, an infantry platoon sergeant who fought in the Pacific, and who returns to his job as a bank manager. Myrna Loy plays his wife, Milly, Teresa Wright plays their daughter, Peggy, and Michael Hall plays their son, Rob. Dana Andrews plays the shell-shocked Fred Derry, a decorated bombardier and captain in the Army Air Forces in Europe, who returns home to his beautiful wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married immediately before leaving to serve. Now that the war is over and they are living together, they realize they have very little in common. Harold Russell plays Homer Parrish, a sailor who lost both his hands when his aircraft carrier was sunk.

Russell was a non-professional actor who lost his hands in 1944 while serving with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division. He was an Army instructor, and a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training film. Russell’s performance is key to the success of the film. An actor who didn’t actually use two hook prostheses in his everyday life wouldn’t have been able to realistically mimic all the little things that Russell does; lighting cigarettes, handling a rifle, playing a tune on the piano. More importantly, Russell’s performance is amazing. From the very first scene that the camera lingers on his face as he shares a plane ride home with March and Andrews, I felt as if I knew the man.

Russell is so convincing as a man who has quickly adapted to his handicap that it’s gut-wrenching to watch as his exterior slowly breaks down, and we’re drawn deeper into his world. Homer Parrish has a darkness inside him, and he carries with him the constant threat of violence; bayonets adorn the walls of his childhood bedroom and he spends his time alone in the garage, firing his rifle at the woodpile. His next-door neighbor and childhood sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) keeps trying to get close to him, but he pushes her away. In a lesser film, this all might have led to a violent and melodramatic finale, but it merely simmers below the surface, informing his character. Instead, the most emotional scenes with Homer take place in smaller ways, such as when we see that he is not as self-sufficient as he seems, and needs his father’s help every night to remove his prostheses before he goes to sleep.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a great film, and should be seen by everyone who loves movies and is interested in the post-war era. It’s long — just short of three hours — but it didn’t feel long to me. The running time allows its story to develop naturally as the characters enter and re-enter one another’s lives. It also felt more real than any other movie I’ve seen this year. (I can’t think of another movie that wasn’t about alcoholism that featured so many scenes of its characters getting realistically drunk.) And despite all the personal difficulties its characters face, it’s ultimately an uplifting film, full of quiet hope for the future.

The Chase (Nov. 16, 1946)

Arthur D. Ripley’s The Chase is based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1944 novel The Black Path of Fear, which was adapted as a screenplay by Philip Yordan.

Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings), a sailor who was decorated during World War II, is now bedraggled and broke in Miami. While staring longingly through the window of a lunch counter at a griddle full of bacon and flapjacks, he finds a lost wallet full of $20 bills. He decides to return it to its owner, Edward Roman, whose I.D. says that he lives on Hermosa Drive, but not before he “borrows” a buck and a half to buy himself breakfast.

Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran) turns out to be a smooth-talking criminal who lives in a palatial home with his creepy right-hand man Gino (Peter Lorre) and his beautiful wife Lorna (French actress Michèle Morgan), whom he keeps a virtual prisoner. Roman is sinister right from the get-go, slapping a woman (Shirley O’Hara) who pokes him while manicuring his fingernails before he talks to Scott.

Gino and his boss seem amused by Scott’s honesty. (He even owns up to the 12 bits he liberated.) Roman asks Scott why he brought the wallet back. “Now that I’m here I wonder myself,” Scott says. “I guess I’m just a sucker.”

Roman gives “Scotty” — as he calls him — a job as a driver. Scott doesn’t like or trust either Roman or Gino, but he can’t say no to paying work. Things get weird right away. Roman has a contraption in the back seat that allows him to control the accelerator, speeding the car up to more than 100 m.p.h. to see how Scott handles himself. (My wife probably wishes all cars I drove came equipped with this feature.)

One night, Roman entertains a prominent ship owner named Emmerrich Johnson (Lloyd Corrigan), an overdressed fat man who spends most of his time laughing nervously … he can never quite tell if Roman’s joking or not. Unfortunately for Johnson, he doesn’t see the depths of Roman’s villainy and sadism. He’s never joking.

After Johnson refuses to commit to sell Roman the two ships he wants to buy, Gino takes Johnson on a tour of Roman’s wine cellar. While Johnson is excitedly fussing over a bottle of 1815 Napoleon brandy, Gino slips away and locks Johnson in the wine cellar with Roman’s vicious dog. When Johnson is attacked he drops the bottle of brandy on the floor and it runs out along the floor in a convincing approximation of blood. It’s an old cinematic trick, but a good one.

Meanwhile, Scott and Mrs. Roman are busy falling for each other. After one of their many trips to the beach, where she looks out over the water longingly as he stands behind her, waiting with the car, Lorna offers him $1,000 to take her to Havana. She thinks she can trust him, and she can’t make it on her own. He mulls it over for a little while but quickly gives in, booking passage for two on the S.S. Cuba.

They make it to Havana, but their plan to continue on to South America hits a snag, and Scott finds himself on the run, accused of murder.

Things get really weird an hour into the picture, when Scott wakes up in a room with a bottle of pills on the night table and no memory of what happened to him over the course of the past few days.

I haven’t read The Black Path of Fear, but I have read other novels by Woolrich, and blackouts, amnesia, and lost periods of time were recurring themes in his work. Like a lot of Woolrich’s booze-soaked prose, The Chase starts out as a fairly standard thriller, but by the end it’s hard to tell what’s real and what isn’t. In a better film, like Detour (1945), this could be counted as a real achievement. With The Chase, however, the confusion between dreams and reality seems more the result of slapdash filmmaking than anything else.

Cummings has a pleasant way about him, and is believable as an earnest, soft-spoken Everyman. Morgan is beautiful, but the script doesn’t give her a lot to do. Cochran and Lorre are the real gems in this film. Every scene in which they appear is full of menace. Each man has a calm exterior, but there’s always violence roiling below the surface.

If you’re looking for tight plotting or a clever climax, you won’t find it here, but The Chase has just enough oddball charm to recommend it to noir enthusiasts.