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Tag Archives: Willard Robertson

Deep Valley (July 30, 1947)

Every student of film noir knows that the genre owes its style to German Expressionism, and to the influx of European directors to the U.S. during World War II.

Jean Negulesco’s Deep Valley doesn’t really qualify as a film noir, although it has some hallmarks of the noir style. Instead, it seems as if Negulesco is drawing from an earlier German artistic movement — Sturm und Drang.

The high emotions of the film are expressed physically — often through the turbulence of the natural world. Ida Lupino plays a simple country girl named Libby Saul who lives in a broken-down old farmhouse deep in the California wilderness with her parents, Cliff Saul (Henry Hull) and Ellie Saul (Fay Bainter). One night, long ago, Libby’s father beat her mother, and her mother has never forgiven him or spoken to him again. Libby speaks with a stutter, and it is implied that it is directly related to the traumatic memory of seeing her father hit her mother.

The rift between Libby’s parents is absolute. Mrs. Saul never leaves her upstairs bedroom, and relies on Libby to wait on her. Mr. Saul never goes upstairs, and roams the ramshackle property in a perpetual foul mood.

Libby has no friends, and is isolated from the world. Her father is cruel to her and her mother, who is an invalid by choice, lives in a fantasy world and has never let go of the idea that she is an aristocratic lady. Libby’s only solace is her dog, Joe, and the woods that surround the Sauls’ property. Her only happy moments are when she is roaming the forest with Joe and communicating with nature and wild animals.

One day, she discovers a crew of prisoners working on a chain gang along the ocean, excavating and dynamiting the coastline in preparation for a highway. This destruction and remaking of the natural world will bring a steady flow of people past the Sauls’ farm, and radically change Libby’s life.

But her life is changed almost immediately when she spots a dark, handsome convict named Barry Burnette (Dane Clark) working on the line.

Naturally, fate contrives to bring them together.

During a dark and stormy night, a landslide destroys the toolshed in which Barry and a couple of other prisoners are locked up. Libby finds Barry in the woods and helps him stay hidden from the posses that are searching for him, as well as from the good-natured but black-hearted Sheriff Akers (Willard Robertson) and the blandly handsome engineer running the highway project, Jeff Barker (Wayne Morris), who has an eye for Libby.

Libby and Barry’s romance begins in an idyllic fashion, but the weight of doom slowly crushes it. It’s not just because he’s an escaped convict. He’s also a violent hothead — never towards Libby or someone who hasn’t provoked him, but when faced with a problem, his first instinct is to lash out and break through, with no thought of what he’ll do next.

But Barry is always a likable character. Dane Clark’s performance is soulful and tortured, and his big eyes and open countenance make him sympathetic, even when he’s crouching in the second floor of a barn with a scythe, ready to kill whoever comes up the ladder.

We root for Barry and Libby, even though we know their love is impossible. As the film progresses, the shots become increasingly full of shadows and menace, and Barry and Libby are forced into smaller and smaller spaces, symbolizing the world closing in on them.

Deep Valley is based on a novel by Dan Totheroh. The screenplay is by Salka Viertel and Stephen Morehouse Avery, with uncredited assistance from William Faulkner.

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My Favorite Brunette (April 4, 1947)

Elliott Nugent’s My Favorite Brunette begins with baby photographer Ronnie Jackson (Bob Hope) in the death house at San Quentin. Jackson is set to be executed that night, and he’s hoping for a stay from the governor. When none arrives, Jackson quips, “No word? Well, I’ll know who to vote for next time.”

Jackson takes a look into the chamber where he’s set to die. “Gas,” he scoffs. “You haven’t even put in electricity.”

Like any good film noir protagonist, Jackson gets to tell his story before he takes that last, long, lonely walk. (Of course, Jackson isn’t really a noir protagonist, since My Favorite Brunette is a spoof of hard-boiled detective movies, but he doesn’t know that.)

When Jackson’s story begins, he’s desperately trying to get an adorable little Chinese-American boy to smile for the camera, but he’s hungry for bigger problems. Jackson may be San Francisco’s premier baby photographer, but he idolizes the man who has the office across from him, two-fisted he-man Sam McCloud (an uncredited Alan Ladd, who’s clearly able to laugh at himself). Jackson longs to be a detective, too. “It only took brains, courage, and a gun,” Jackson says. “And I had the gun.”

When McCloud has to run off to Chicago for a few days, Jackson just happens to be sitting in his office when the beautiful and exotic Carlotta Montay (Dorothy Lamour) walks in. When she thinks he’s McCloud, he can’t bear to tell her the truth, and is off on his first case, tracking down Carlotta’s missing husband, the Baron Montay. (Or is he her uncle? The story keeps changing.)

I won’t summarize the plot any further, mostly because it’s beside the point, but also because it’s nearly as convoluted as an actual hard-boiled P.I. story. Also, some of Jackson’s hard-boiled narration is so close to the real thing that it’s remarkable. After he’s knocked out in his office, he says in voiceover, “When I came to, I was playing ‘post office’ with the floor. I had a lump on my head the size of my head. Inside, Toscanini was conducting the Anvil Chorus with real blacksmiths. I looked at the bottle of Old Piledriver and decided to stick to double malts.”

Sure, it’s over-the-top, but so was most of the dialogue in hard-boiled detective films. Threats like, “I’ll fill you so full of holes you’ll look like a fat clarinet,” sound funny when they’re coming out of Bob Hope’s mouth, but they’re no more ridiculous than half of the things Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell growled at tough guys.

Besides the genuinely funny script and manic direction by Nugent, the casting is key to the success of My Favorite Brunette. Dorothy Lamour is attractive and sleepy-eyed enough to be a real femme fatale, and the hulking Lon Chaney Jr. and the sinister Peter Lorre are both on hand to play bad guys. (All that’s missing is Boris Karloff with an eye patch and a hook for a hand.)

I’m not the biggest fan of Bob Hope, but he’s excellent in this movie, and frequently had me in stitches. The comedy mostly comes from the dialogue, but there are some classic bits of physical humor, too. The scene in which Lorre tries to force a false clue on Hope while hiding in various spots in a room, but Hope just keeps missing it, might be the funniest bit in the film.

My Favorite Brunette has fallen into the public domain, and is available to watch at archive.org. You’ll have to wait until the very end for Bing Crosby’s cameo, but it’s worth it.

Along Came Jones (July 19, 1945)

AlongCameJonesAlong Came Jones is a silly little western that verges on being a spoof of the genre, but it’s worth seeing for a couple of reasons. Gary Cooper pokes fun at his stalwart image without devolving into parody, and the gender reversals in some of the action scenes are still surprising.

Cooper plays a singing cowboy (sort of), named Melody Jones. This in itself is funny, because Cooper can barely sing. He’s halfway between a hum and a grumble in the few scenes when he’s called upon to croon a ditty. Along with his crotchety old sidekick, George Fury (played by William Demarest), Jones rolls into the town of Payneville, where he’s mistaken for vicious outlaw Monte Jarrad (played by vicious little squirt Dan Duryea), because his monogrammed saddle has the same initials, “M.J.” The only problem is, it’s not a charade he can keep up very long. Although Jones is tough enough, and can dish out haymakers with the best of them, he can’t handle a gun to save his life (which, by the end of the film, he will be called upon to do more than once). It’s not just that Jones can’t shoot straight, he literally can’t get his revolver out of its holster without it flying out of his hand. At one point, the real Monte Jarrad’s girlfriend, Cherry de Longpre (played by Loretta Young), calls Jones a “butterfingered gun juggler,” and it’s an apt term of derision.

The interesting thing about this film is that Jones never gets any better at handling a gun. Yes, he eventually manages to hold it steady, but he still can’t hit the broad side of a barn. Cherry, on the other hand, is a crack shot who could give Annie Oakley a run for her money. In the climactic showdown, she becomes a distaff John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and the effect is stunning. Nevertheless, Cooper never comes off as unmanly, especially since he’s willing to stand up to overwhelming odds with absolutely no shooting skills whatsoever. And he twice kisses Young in what has to be the most macho way I’ve ever seen in a movie. I don’t want to give anything away. Just see it.