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Tag Archives: Virginia Mayo

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.

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Colorado Territory (June 11, 1949)

Colorado Territory
Colorado Territory (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Most plot summaries of Raoul Walsh’s western Colorado Territory mention that it’s a remake of the great Warner Bros. gangster movie High Sierra (1941), but that fact is curiously absent from the opening credits.

The screenplay is credited to John Twist and Edmund H. North, but there’s no mention of W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel High Sierra, and there’s no mention of the earlier film.

This is strange, since the change of setting from the modern day to the Old West could almost qualify this as a “variation on a theme” rather than a straight remake, but there are so many scenes and characters that are nearly identical to scenes and characters in High Sierra.

I recently wrote a piece on producer Mark Hellinger for the annual “giant” issue of The Dark Pages, which was devoted this year to The Killers (1946). (You can order copies of The Dark Pages and subscribe here: http://www.allthatnoir.com/newsletter.htm).

Hellinger frequently worked with director Raoul Walsh at Warner Bros., so I went back and watched a bunch of their collaborations — The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941). (I still haven’t seen The Horn Blows at Midnight, though. Jack Benny made a running joke of it on his radio show, but it can’t be that bad, can it?)

Walsh was a great director who made unabashedly commercial films with a great sense of scope and memorable characters.

Mayo and McCrea

Colorado Territory isn’t ever listed among Walsh’s greatest achievements, but it’s a damned fine western that I think would be better regarded if it didn’t have such a generic title. If one were to scan through a list of westerns from 1949, Colorado Territory screams “B picture.” With a title like that, it easily could have been an RKO Radio Pictures western starring Tim Holt or a Republic Pictures western starring Roy Rogers (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Joel McCrea plays Wes McQueen, an outlaw who escapes from jail and is on the run for most of the movie. (This is essentially the same as Roy Earle, the role Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, except that Earle was released from prison.) He hooks up with a couple of vicious characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are — Reno Blake (John Archer) and Duke Harris (James Mitchell) — and together they plan a daring train heist. (These two criminals were played in High Sierra by Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis.)

There’s also a beautiful woman to makes things complicated. Her name is Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), and she wears lots of flowing low-cut tops and Southwestern-style jewelry because she’s supposed to be part Pueblo. (This is essentially the character Ida Lupino played in High Sierra, although her fashion sense in that film was a lot more conservative.)

And of course, just like High Sierra, there’s a criminal mastermind behind the scenes of the heist and a sweet, innocent-seeming girl whom our criminal protagonist idolizes for a little while before coming to his senses and realizing that he belongs with a straight-up ride or die chick.

There is, however, no cute little stray dog or “comical Negro” character. (You take the bad with the good.)

In Walsh’s filmography, High Sierra will forever be regarded as the superior film. And in 1949, Walsh also directed his masterpiece White Heat, so Colorado Territory suffers by comparison in that department too. (Virginia Mayo is also in White Heat, and her role in that film is a lot meaner and juicier.)

One of the problems with remakes is that no matter how good they are, it’s nearly impossible to lose yourself in them if you’ve seen the original film, since they constantly evoke it. I like Joel McCrea and think he’s a great actor, especially in westerns. But he lacks the nastiness and cynicism Bogart had in High Sierra, which made his more human side stand out in such sharp relief.

On the other hand, when a remake differs from its source material, it can make certain scenes even more shocking and emotionally affecting than they would be on their own, since you’re really not expecting things to go down that way. Colorado Territory has a few bits like that, and it’s exciting and well-made enough to stand on its own.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Aug. 14, 1947)

Norman Z. McLeod’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a pretty funny film, and sometimes funny is all you need.

It wasn’t all James Thurber needed at the time the film was made, however. The movie was based on Thurber’s 1939 short story of the same name, and he was extremely unhappy with all the changes made to it. He also hated Danny Kaye’s performance as Mitty, since it was nothing like how he had originally conceived of the character.

I haven’t read Thurber’s short story. If I had, this movie and the liberties it took with the source material might have irritated me.

As it was, the only thing that irritated me was the length of some of the film’s musical interludes. Danny Kaye is an engaging and likable performer, but he milks his musical stand-up comedy bits for such a long time that I had more fun watching the amused extras than I had watching Kaye.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a Technicolor extravaganza that follows the misadventures of a put-upon editor named Walter Mitty (Kaye). Mitty lives with his mother (played by Fay Bainter) and commutes into New York City every morning to his job at a company that publishes pulp magazines. He also has a rich fantasy life, and imagines himself as a sea captain, a brilliant surgeon, a gunslinger in the Old West, a … well, you get the idea.

He’s engaged to a girl who doesn’t really love him named Gertrude Griswold (Ann Rutherford), his mother piles errands on him until packages are literally falling out of his arms, his boss Mr. Pierce (Thurston Hall) steals his ideas, and Mitty takes it all in stride. One day, however, the girl who prominently features in all of his daydreams (Virginia Mayo) suddenly appears in the flesh, and Mitty is drawn into a real-life adventure involving stolen jewels and a spy ring. A grim-looking assassin who masquerades as a psychiatrist named Dr. Hugo Hollingshead (played by a perfectly cast Boris Karloff) dogs Mitty’s every move, first trying to kill him, then trying to convince him that the whole affair was just another one of his daydreams.

It may not be a deep film, but The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a lot of fun. It’s a production of The Samuel Goldwyn Company, so of course the luscious Goldwyn Girls are on hand for all those department store dressing-room scenes and lingerie-modeling bits that are integral to the film’s story.

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.