Short Takes: Cagney, Dodsworth and Scream of Fear

Each DawnEach Dawn I Die (***1/2) It is Cagney versus Raft in this classic 1939 Warner Brothers prison drama. Directed by William Keighley, Cagney is Frank Ross an investigative reporter who exposes a political candidate’s corrupt association with a construction company. After the article is published, Ross is snatched by some goons right in front of the newspaper building. He’s knocked out, soused with alcohol and tossed into a speeding car resulting in a car accident which kills three innocent people. Framed for the murders, Ross is sent to prison where he meets big shot Stacey (George Raft). At first, they get off on the wrong foot with Ross continuing to claim he was framed and innocent, all falling on deaf ears. The two become pals when Ross saves Stacey’s life from an attempt by another prisoner to kill him.

The film has all the by now standard prison themes you have come to expect; the innocent man who  was framed, the prisoner who is a snitch, the sadistic guard, the prison system that turns a good man bad, the prison break and the riot. It’s all there but what is most exciting is Cagney! Brash, cocky and full of himself, grinning confidently just the way we like him. Here he gets to face off against, George Raft, who was hooked up with some gangsters in real life and is even better known for giving Humphrey Bogart some of the best roles of his career when he turned down “Casablanca” and “High Sierra.” Raft is fine as Stacey but the film truly belongs to Cagney who goes through an entire array of emotions from a wronged innocent to a crazed bitter jailbird locked up in solitary.

The cast also includes George Bancroft as the Warden, Victor Jory as a corrupt member of the parole board, Jane Bryant as Cagney’s loyal girlfriend fighting for his release and former boxer Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom.

dodsworthDodsworth (*****) Few American films are as honest about marriage as this excellent William Wyler production. Named Best Picture in 1936 with superbly honest performances from Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton and Mary Astor (I don’t think Astor ever looked more ravishing). For anyone studying acting this is required viewing. The characters are complex, full bodied and three dimensional.  Huston’s Sam Dodworth, a middle aged auto mogul is ready to retire while his wife, the status conscious Fran is not quite ready for the old age home. They go on a world cruise but the marriage cords begin to loosen as Fran seeks the high culture and sophisticated men of European society leaving Sam, a more simple and unsophisticated man alone touring more typical tourist like spots.  The split becomes more prominent as the differences in what this long time married couple want in life becomes more apparent. By a twist of fate, Sam meets American widow Edith Cortright (Mary Astor) who is living in Italy. Edith is a warm, caring and down to earth, a woman more in line with Sam’s lifestyle. Fran meets Baron Kurt Von Obersdorft (Gregory Gaye), a younger man, who wants to marry her. Maria Ouspenskaya is memorable as the Baroness and mother of the Baron who bluntly tells Fran she is too old and not good enough for her son. The rest of the cast include David Niven, Paul Lukas, Spring Byington and a young John Payne. “Dodsworth” skillfully captures the sadness, the melancholy of realizing one day that you’re not married to the person you thought you were.

Scream of FearScream of Fear (****) Hammer studio was known for its horror films and while “Scream of Fear” has its share of shocks the film is closer in style to a Hitchcockian suspense thriller than Hammer’s better known blend of monsters and vampires. I first watched this eerie atmospheric film years ago on a rented VHS tape and finally got to watch it again just recently. Directed by Seth Holt, the film keeps you on edge until the final moments of its short 81 minute running time.

The film focuses on Penny Appleby (Susan Strasberg), a wheelchair bound young woman who returns to the creepy looking villa of her father on the French Riviera for the first time in ten years. Its basic plot has been done many times before; a scheming couple attempt to drive a third person mad and kill him or her. Henri Georges Clouzot “Les Diaboliques” is a excellent example. According to her stepmother (Ann Todd) who she just met for the first time, her father was unexpectedly called away on some sort of business. The stepmother makes Penny feel at home but things go sour that very first night when Penny is awaken and she sees her father corpse sitting in a chair! A corpse that no one else, her stepmother or Bob, her father’s chauffer (Ronald Lewis) see. It happens again on another night. Is Penny going crazy? She gets help from Bob in hopes of getting to the bottom of just what is happening here. Is someone trying to drive her crazy? After all, if her father’s dead, Penny will inherit everything. But if she’s dead, well everything goes to her father’s new wife. Like Clouzot’s classic French suspense thriller, this Jimmy Sangster scripted film, directed by Seth Holt, plays its cards close to the vest, revealing a few surprising twists at its own pace.

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10 comments on “Short Takes: Cagney, Dodsworth and Scream of Fear

  1. I really agree with the 5 star review of “Dodsworth”. This movie hasn’t definiately become a favorite of mine. Also, for those that are only used to seeing Walter Huston in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” are in for a big surprise!

    Also, I have just nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award, by the way.

  2. The Lady Eve says:

    John, I’m also a big fan of “Dodsworth” and will watch or record whenever it turns up on TCM. You do a great job in a few words to explain why it stands up to many, many viewings.

    • John Greco says:

      Eve, It’s a terrific film with some very fine performances. Huston was exceptional. This was my first time watching it and difinitely would want to see it again.

  3. Judy says:

    I love both ‘Dodsworth’ and ‘Each Dawn I die’ and you’ve done great short takes on both of them here, John.

    Must admit I usually avoid anything involving Hammer horror like the plague, but your description of ‘Scream of Fear’ sounds a lot better than their usual over-the-top fare!

  4. John Greco says:

    Judy, SCREAM OF FEAR is not really a horror film, it’s more of a thriller/suspense type film. DODSWORTH is one of the best films I have seen this year and I can’t keep saying enough about Walter Huston.

  5. John says:

    Raft finally found a square guy in Cagney, :). If you want to see Cagney and Raft square off in a dance contest try the movie, Taxi.

  6. Bill says:

    Of the three outstanding lead performances in “Dodsworth,” the truly remarkable one (for me, at least) Is Ruth Chatterton. A major star of the early sound era, Chatterton was in her 40′s when the film was made, and was facing many of the same issues as her character. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, she created a character of great depth, who, while basically unsympathetic, was able to elicit great sympathy. Truly brave.

    Chatterton made only two more films, and by the late 1930′s had returned to the stage. Interestingly, 14 years after “Dodsworth” was released, she reprised her role as Fran in a 60 minute television adaption of the film!

    • John Greco says:

      Bill, thanks for dropping by. Chatterton is remarkable but I think all three characters were truly amazing in their roles. I was aware Chatterton was in her 40′s at the time but did not know about her reprising her role for TV years later. During the pre-code years she seemed to be in every other film released.

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