Check out my fifith of seven entries I am writing for the Musical Countdown being hosted by WONDERS IN THE DARK. Here is the link.
For most of us today, theGreat Depression of the 1930’s is something we may have read about in our history books. For anyone still alive during the depression experiencing it was something that would never be forgotten. If these folks shared their memories and lived in a big city like New York or Seattle, they may talk about “Hooverville.” There were “Hoovervillle’s in many cities across the country. If they lived in more rural areas like Oklahoma, they would tell you about the dustbowl that ruined the farmland and the mortgage companies, and banks that foreclosed on their land.
John Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is arguably the most famous film about the depression and was one of the first films selected to be in the National Film Registry. Based on John Steinbeck’s classic novel, the film follows the Joad family from the dustbowl of Oklahoma as they journey to what they hope is a better life in California. Few other films capture the gloom, the harshness, the misery of proud people remaining strong in the face of economic destruction, like Ford’s masterpiece (William Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road” and King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread” are strong competitors). Looking back, this may seem like an unlikely project for director John Ford, a political conservative in his later years however, in an earlier time Ford was a liberal, so his filming of a book that has been a foundation for liberal empathy is not as extraordinary as one may think. Additionally, if you look at the film as a studyof man’s passage to the western frontier, then Ford is certainly in familiar territory as he has made some of the most successful films about the transition and opening of the west with such works as “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Rio Grande,” and “The Iron Horse.” “The Grapes of Wrath” fits right in as a story of families looking for new land to settle and start life anew. Continue reading
At a running time of 67 minutes one sits there wishing it was longer. This pre-code film gives Joan Blondell one of the rare opportunities to have a leading role and she takes it to the hilt. Though released in 1933, Virginia “Blondie” Johnson comes across as a 21st century woman, a prototype of today’s female using her intelligence and wit to climb to the top, in this case the mob world. On the surface the film may seem like just another rags to riches story, though on the wrong side of the track (this is a Warner Brothers film after all). Continue reading
Do not confuse this film with the 1950 Barbara Stanwyck film noir “No Man of Her Own” directed by Mitchell Leisen. This 1932 release directed by Wesley Ruggles was the only celluloid pairing of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. (Technically, Gable and Lombard were in two other films, either in small roles or as extras. Both were silent films and both from 1925, “The Plastic Age” directed by Wesley Ruggles and “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, directed by Fred Niblo).
Made for Paramount, Gable on loan from MGM, the film is a light comedy-drama about a con man named Babe Stewart (Clark Gable) who needs to escape from the big city (New York) to a small town until things cool off with the law. While there, he meets a local librarian, a young and beautiful woman named Connie (Carole Lombard) who is board with the humdrum life of small town living and will do almost anything to leave her dull surroundings. Babe spots her on the street and follows her to the library where she works, though Babe does not seem the type to frequent libraries. Babe pursues the attractive librarian, and Connie is willing to be caught despite a mother (Elizabeth Patterson) who keeps her on a short leash.
On a flip a coin, Connie gambles not only her virtue but also her future. They get married and go back to New York where Babe plans to continue on his career as a con artist. They move into Babe’s luxurious depression free apartment. Connie, unaware of Babe’s real and illegal profession, believes he is working as a broker on Wall Street. With the move to the big city, the audacious Connie suddenly switches gears and goes from an adventurous young woman to spending the remainder of the film trying to reform Babe to the straight and narrow. When she discovers a pair of marked cards belonging to her husband, she realizes that he has been lying about his career and arranges the deck so Babe will lose. Upset with her chicanery, Babe at first wants to give her a couple of thousand and send her back to her mother. Then he decides to go to Rio de Janeiro with his partners to do some big time gambling, however realizing he loves her, he instead arranges to get himself arrested for a ninety-day jail-term. This so he can square himself with the law, while Connie living with her mother during this time, believes he is in South America. Of course, it all ends happily for the couple in the Hollywood tradition.
Released at the end of 1932, this pre-code film is loaded with smart bright dialogue and racy pre-code scenes. We see both Lombard and Gable in separate showers scenes and we watch Lombard strip down to a bra and Victoria Secret style undergarments, running back and forth across a room when Gable unexpectedly knocks on her cabin’s front door. We then see her put on a pair of lounging pajamas, but not before the filmmakers make sure we know she is removing her bra. The most famous risqué scene in the film takes place earlier in the library when they first meet when Gable purposely request a book located high up on the top shelf. Lombard has to climb a latter and lean over just enough and at the correct level for Gable to admire her shapely legs. Today, this scene is not very provocative but at the time, it seemed to irritate the guardians of decency and became a symbol in the fight for cleanup of movies.
There is quite a bit of sophisticated dialogue throughout the film, for example, early on Kay (Dorothy Mackaill), one of Babe’s partners and his mistress tells Charlie (Grant Mitchell) another cohort in the scheme that “next time you play my uncle, cut out those wet kisses.” Later on Connie says “The girl who lands him will say no and put an anchor on it…But isn’t it tough when all you can think of is yes?”
Both lead characters are allowed to be adult and mature, unlike in most of today’s romantic comedies where the characters, male and female, seem to thrive on infantile behavior.
The rapport between Gable and Lombard is easily apparent. Both are young and extremely attractive, however they were not romantically involved off screen for a couple of years yet. On screen, their scenes sizzle. Just check how they look at each other in their love scenes. Gable was still married to Ria and heavily involved in an affair with Joan Crawford. In fact, one of the reasons, MGM lent Gable to Paramount was to get him away from Crawford in hopes of cooling off the romance. Lombard, at the time, was still married to the seventeen year older William Powell. At this point, Gable thought Lombard’s well-known salty tongue was a bit much, though later on he would say proudly that she could out curse any man he knew. Lombard’s feelings toward Gable at this point are best surmised by her parting gift after the shoot was over, a ham with a photo of him on it. Various biographers tell the story that politically Lombard and Gable were at opposite poles, maybe. Lombard was a stanch Roosevelt democrat who hated Herbert Hoover and use to say so loud and clear. Gable, one day, came on the set wearing a Hoover button, which Lombard proceeded to rip off him and said, “You can shove this up Louis B. Mayor’s ass!” Mayor, an unwavering Republican insisted that his stable of stars all vote Republican. It’s not known for sure how Gable voted.
Before Gable was secured for the picture (in a trade that involved Bing Crosby going to MGM to co-star in a film with Marion Davies) George Raft was considered for the role of Babe. Miriam Hopkins was originally scheduled for the role of Connie but was upset about Gable getting top billing and refused to do the film. The supporting cast consists of Dorothy Mackaill, as Babe’s mistress Kay who he unceremoniously dumps early in the film, Grant Mitchell as Charlie, one of Babe’s “gang”, George Barbier and Elizabeth Patterson as Connie’s parents.
Gable’s name is the only one that appears above the title. Lombard, still a rising star and Dorothy MacKaill share second and third billing below the title. While Lombard was yet to reach the height of her star power, during the filming, Paramount was making a big fuss over her to Gable’s dismay. He considered her a bit of a prima-donna and gave a pair of ballerina slippers as a parting gift.
The film seems to be sometimes mislabeled as a screwball comedy however, after watching it there is little to support that label. Screwball comedies usually contain farcical elements, fast-talking dialogue, and slapstick humor. Generally, the couples are mismatched and continually battle each other, none of which applies in to his film. It is also generally considered that screwball comedy did not come to prominence until 1934 with Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night.” Finally, Screwball comedies actually came about largely because of the Production Code that came into effect in 1934 which ended much of the pre-code delights in this and many other early sound films.
While this is no great classic, the film is enjoyable, with some sharp dialogue and pleasant performances and the only chance to see Gable and Lombard together as lovers on film.
Clark Gable: Tormented Star by David Brett
Clark Gable: A Biography by Warren G. Harris
If I choose to like John Milius’ 1973 AIP “Dillinger” more than Michael Mann’s current version of the outlaw’s life in “Public Enemies,” it is certainly not because Mann’s pixel filled opus lacks style. The film struck me as maybe having too much style. Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is way too cool for the times. Since cool as an aesthetic, as an attitude, is something that only became part of popular culture in the 1950’s (like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause), Depp’s brash Dillinger acts more like a modern day anti-hero than a mid-westerner who grew up on a farm in the 1930’s. Depp looks good in the 30’s style clothes; his aura just comes across as too modern. Warren Oates has no such façade, his Dillinger is not the natty dresser we see in Mann’s film and presents a more believable character.
Then there is Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis, who is stoic but rather dull due to an underwritten character. He does not really do much. This unlike Ben Johnson’s version, who is as determined as Bale’s younger and more age appropriate Purvis in “Public Enemies”, depicts a fiercer grunting bear like, cold hearted, meaner and certainly more violent Purvis. Milius, who wrote the script, also gives Purvis some nice characteristic touches like every time he kills one of the FBI’s most wanted, he lights up a cigar, and he lit up quite a few during the film’s running time. Warren Oates’s John Dillinger is tough, handsome, in a rough sort of way, certainly no pretty boy like Johnny Depp, though it is Oates’ John D. who compares himself to movie star Douglas Fairbanks (actually it is Michelle Phillips’, Billie Frechette who compares him to Fairbanks the first time). In fact, Oates bares an uncanny close resemblance to the real John Dillinger. Both films parallel the similar duel stories of Dillinger and Purvis until they merge one faithful violent night outside the Biograph Theater.
Mann’s film is certainly better looking than Milius’ ”B” film, from the scenery to the actors there is nothing that is not “pretty.” If comparing the two, this makes Milius work look gritty. Mann’s constant stylization makes it seem every action in “Public Enemies” is a monumental moment even if the famed outlaw is only jumping over a fence.
Both films are plagued with inaccuracies, then again, you should not be watching a movie for a history lesson. History is sometimes not as neat as fiction. For example, Baby Face Nelson dies in both versions before Dillinger, while in real life, Dillinger died in July of 1934 while Nelson in November. Gang member, Homer Van Meter, also shown dying before Dillinger actually died a month later.
Characterizations change in each film, reflecting the filmmaker’s point of view. While in both versions, John Dillinger is portrayed as a gentleman, well actually, he is more of a gentleman in Mann’s version than in Milius’, where he beats up Billie Frechette pretty badly upon their first meeting. Depp’s Dillinger seems to have more respect for his woman. Frechette in the 2009 film is portrayed as a more tragic figure, and their affair is a central part of the film, where as in the Milius’ version she is pretty much regulated to the background. In Milius’ version of the Little Bohemia lodge shootout, the killing of FBI agents is way over the top with more G-Men dying than we had battlefield deaths in World War 2. John Milius’ love of guns is well known and he was never shy about using them.
Both films are loose with chronology and facts however; both were miles ahead of the 1945 film, “Dillinger” with Lawrence Tierney as Big John. Other than the name, there is not much that is true. Of course, truth is not a prerequisite for a good story.
John Dillinger, like Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boyd Floyd were rural outlaws in the tradition of Billy the Kid or Jesse James more than gangsters like say, Al Capone. They flourished during the great depression when banks were seen by many common folk as the enemy foreclosing on good honest working people. They also thrived because they out powered the law. Dillinger, as well as Bonnie and Clyde, favored the powerful Browning automatic rifles, which they generally stole from National Guard Armories. A trait, never explored in either film is how Dillinger became a master criminal unlike Bonnie and Clyde who John D. looked down on as amateurs and wanted nothing to do with them. In both films, Dillinger is very conscience of his public image.
Milius does not waste anytime in his action packed film; even before the opening credits, which unfold to the tune of “We’re in the Money”, the gang robs a bank. From the get go, the film moves at a break neck speed with rarely a moment to catch ones breath. “Dillinger” was John Milius’ first film as a director. He had built a reputation as one of the 1970’s young and upcoming screenwriters with “Jeremiah Johnson” and “The Life and Times of Judger Roy Bean” to his credit. He also worked, uncredited, on “Dirty Harry.” At the time of its release, “Dillinger” seemed redundant of better films like “Bonnie and Clyde” (the depression, the use of We’re in the Money and even a scene where the “heroes” goes home one more time to see family before they die). Warren Oates is the perfect John Dillinger, the physical resemblance, as I previously mentioned is remarkable. Ben Johnson vividly portrays Melvin Purvis; many will remember Oates and Johnson were on better terms as the Gorch brothers in Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.” Cloris Leachman is Anna Sage, the lady in red and a crazed pre-star Richard Dreyfuss is maniacal as Baby Face Nelson. The Mamas and Papa Michelle Phillips made her screen debut as Billie Frechette. Harry Dean Stanton is Homer Van Meter who dies in a blaze of bullets courtesy of friendly local town folks, after a college student whose car he highjacked at gunpoint drives off leaving him in the middle of town. His final words: “Thing aren’t workin’ out for me today.” Overall, Milius accomplished just as much if not more with this low-budget rural outlaw film than Mann did with his millions of dollars in budget.
Frank Capra takes on the big city slickers vs. the small town yokels in this depression era comedy led by Gary Cooper as Longfellow Deeds and the always amazing Jean Arthur as Louise “Babe” Bennett. Capra was awarded his second Oscar for directing this 1936 classic. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper) Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin in his fifth collaboration with Capra) and Best Recording. The story originally appeared in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post, written by Clarence Budington Kelland.
Longfellow Deeds, greeting card poet and tuba player eccentric has a nice peaceful life in the small New England town of Mandrake Falls, Vermont. Life is turned upside down when his late uncle, multi-millionaire Martin Semple leaves him an inheritance of twenty million dollars. Seduced by the estates attorney, John Cedar (Douglass Dumbriller) who plucks Longfellow out of his safety net of a little town and into the big bad city of New York.
Cedar, of the law firm, Cedar, Cedar, Cedar and Budington is a scheming rodent of a lawyer who will eventually attempt to get Deed’s to turn over to him power of attorney in order to hide his financial thievery. By the way, note the in-joke with the use of the last name of Budginton in the law firm name, which is the same as the middle name of the author of the original story. Cedar hires former newspaperman Cornelius Cobb (Lionel Stander) to keep other reporters away from Deeds; however, a foxy Louise “Babe” Bennett (Jean Arthur) outwits Cobb when she poses as a destitute woman named Mary Dawson, who has been pounding the concrete sidewalks everyday in vain, searching for a job. She gains Longfellow’s confidence who get “a fools notion about saving a lady in distress”, and begins writing a series of newspaper articles exploiting his eccentric behavior (feeding donuts to horses), anointing him with the name of “Cinderella Man.”
Deeds finds himself exploited and the laughing stock of the big city, all due to the constant barrage of newspaper articles by Ms. Bennett. Unexpectedly, Mary/Babe begins to fall in love with our innocent hero and comes to regret her writing the uncaring exploitive articles. Deeds, fed up with the treatment and ridicule he has received and is ready to head back to Mandrake Falls when an evicted farmer breaks into his mansion, verbally attacking him for being insensitive cold hearted, spending thousands on parties when everyday people all over are starving. Instead of feeding doughnuts to horses, how about giving those doughnuts to needy hungry people. The man suddenly pulls out a gun threatening to shoot Deeds. Fortunately, the farmer comes to his senses, realizing what he is about to do, he breaks down, dropping the gun as Deeds, who never wanted the fortune, finally realizes here is a way to give his money away and do good in the process. He will give thousands of homeless farmer’s farmland to work, and if they work the land for three years, it will be theirs to keep.
After Cedar becomes aware of Deeds plan, and realizes he will lose control of millions of dollars, he attempts to have Deeds declared mentally unbalanced in court, by manipulating the only other living relative of the millionaire uncle to take the money away from Deeds before he gives it away to poor people. At the same time Deeds finds out the truth about Mary/Babe and that the fantasy girl he fell in love with has betrayed him.
Deed is put on trial and the predator lawyers attack with a vengeance, to the extent of bringing into court two eccentric old ladies from Deeds hometown to corroborate his peculiar behavior even back in Mandrake Falls. Deeds meanwhile, has sunk into a deep depression losing all hope in mankind, even refusing an attorney to defend him. The strong court case against Deeds begins to fall apart when the farmers and Babe, who declares her love for him in open court, all begin to come to his defense and he himself begins to realize there are good honest decent people in the world.
I have always had ambivalent feelings about Frank Capra’s work, however I found “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” to be one of Capra’s great films, with his classic theme about the common man, overcoming greedy parasites and underhandedness, in this case, from lawyers and newspapers. The film still rings true today and I can imagine it must have had an especially good reception with the depression era population of the 1930’s getting to see a regular guy stand up and win against rich corrupt forces. Capra’s film is just one of many films during the depression to condemn the big city, filled with greedy manipulators and parasites (Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread” is another) vs. the small town filled with friendly genteel folks, “democratic” as an old man in Mandrake Falls states early in the film.
Capra’s women, “Babe”, in “Mr. Deeds” and Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck in the more serious social drama, “Meet John Doe”), are small town girls who come to, and were “corrupted” by the big bad city. Both “Babe” and Ann were newspaper reporters, a cynic’s occupation in many of Capra’s films. There was also Clark Gable’s fast talking disparager who had little use for facts in “It Happened One Night” and Robert Williams Stew Smith in “Platinum Blonde”, who foolishly marries the rich Jean Harlow while his real love co-reporter (Loretta Young) looks on. Interestingly enough, the phrase “Cinderella Man” is used in both “Platinum Blonde” and in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.”
The screenplay was written by Robert Riskin, one of five films he worked on with Capra. Others include “Broadway Bill”, “Lady for a Day”, “You Can’t it With You”, “Meet John Doe”, ”American Madness”, and the Academy Award winning “It Happened One Night.” Capra and Riskin’s relationship was convoluted, a love-hate collaboration developed after many years of Capra taking credit for Riskin’s work on many of their films. Capra in his autobiography downplayed Riskin’s contributions to some of their greatest films, this long after Riskin’s death. Looking to preserve his reputation, Capra put forth his one man, one film theory claiming that many of his screenwriters, Riskin included, did their best work only with him.
Legend has it that Riskin once handed Capra a blank sheet of paper and told him to go ahead and “put the famous Capra touch on that.” In the final years of Riskin’s life, wheelchair bound due to a stroke, he remained loyal to Capra, despite Capra never coming visit him. He admonished fellow screenwriter Jo Swerling when he once commented to Riskin that it was not right Capra never came to visit him, insisting that Capra was his best friend. If so, Capra did not have any reservations about down grading Riskins contributions to their classic works. Fay Wray, Riskin’s wife for the last thirteen years of his life, said while many of Riskin’s friends came to visit him in those final days, Capra was not among them. An uncharitable turn by a man who cherished his reputation as a filmmaker whose films carried the wholesome message on the basic goodness human nature.
Who can play the wholesome ordinary man better than Cary Cooper? No one that I can think of and as for Jean Arthur, I can never say enough nice things about this naturalistic comedic actress who Capra would use again two more times. The film opened to good reviews, upon its initial release at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. Grahame Greene, then a critic for The Spectator called it Capra’s best film. Along with the previously mentioned Oscars, “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”, also won The New York Film Critics award as the best film of the year.
The film was “remade” in 2002 with Adam Sandler in the role of Longfellow Deeds. Sandler’s Deeds runs a pizza shop in Mandrake Falls, which means not even the writers of the remake believed Sandler could write greeting card level poetry. Of course, the inheritance is upped from twenty million to billionaire status and the humor level has been brought down to Sandler’s sub-basement floor level. Other than a lack of wit, charm, intelligence and a heart, there is really nothing wrong with the remake. Why do they bother? Oh yeah, Greed, money, and manipulation by those big city parasites.
The dance marathon became a phenomenon beginning in the 1920’s. Unlike flag pole sitting, another craze of those times, dance marathons had many participants who at first danced for just the pleasure of the wild heady experience, but later on as we entered the 1930’s and the depression, danced out of necessity for much needed money. The winner would get $1,000. Even if you did not win, you were fed, and had a place to keep warm. With the Great Depression going at full speed, there were many people in desperate need looking for any way possible to make a few dollars. The contests were long grueling endurance affairs going on for weeks, even months at a time before there was only one couple left standing and declared the winner.
Rules were different depending on who held the contest. Some allowed 15-minute breaks on the hour allowing time for a bathroom pit stop, sleep and change of clothes. Horace McCoy’s 1930’s novel, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” gives a notable account of what these contests entailed. While the contestants were hard pressed folks out of work and luck, the promoters did create jobs for many other people like nurses, doctors, janitors, announcers, and others involved in putting on the event. McCoy’s novel, not surprisingly, was ignored by the public when first published in the middle of the depression; however, it was eventually made into a magnificent movie in 1969, directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Jane Fonda, Susannah York, Michael Sarrazin and Gig Young.
Over thirty years earlier, Mervyn LeRoy directed the 1933 film, “Hard to Handle”, a James Cagney vehicle, which starts on a somewhat serious tone during the opening dance marathon, providing a realistic harsh look at what these lengthy contests involved, and reminding me much of the Pollack classic. However, soon after, the film moves into a different direction more toward a lighthearted energetic comedy. It could have just as easily turned into a con game/gangster drama from the early tone of the film.
Cagney is Lefty Merrill, who along with his shady partner are running a dance marathon, which, “surprisingly” is won by Lefty’s girlfriend, Ruth Waters (Mary Brian). The opening scenes, reminiscent of Pollack’s excellent downbeat 1969 film, finds Allan Jenkins, in the Gig Young role, as the marathon’s emcee, rousing the audience to cheer on the final two surviving couples who are barely able to stand, (the second couple’s male dancer is a young Sterling Holloway). Watching this scene with the audience’s bloodthirsty cheers edging the couples onward, reminds me of the vulture culture, that today’s TV audience has for shows like “Survivor” and other reality type shows. The similarities between this film and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” quickly end with the marathon scenes conclusion. “Horses” goes on to be a bleak dark vision of the depression times and its toll on a group of people, while “Hard to Handle” veers off in the direction of a fast moving light comedy.
The second dancing couple soon falls by the wayside, and Ruth and her partner are declared the winners. What should be a happy moment for Ruth, her clinging mother, Lil (Ruth Donnelly) and for Lefty turns into a nightmare when Lefty’s partner runs off with all the proceeds from the contest, leaving Lefty to face an angry crowd who believe they have been swindled. Lil is more outraged at Lefty for the loss of the money than Ruth is, but Lefty has more immediate problems, like quickly getting away from the massive angry crowd.
Lefty soon falls on hard times financially when he finds Ruth, now a model, on the cover of Vogue, and finds her dating a successful fashion photographer. He begs to stay with Ruth and her mother just until he can get back on his feet. Lefty, ever the ingenious publicist gets a new idea when he spots Ruth struggling to rub facial cream on her face one day, and comes up with the absurd notion that women can lose calories this way, and promotes the facial cream as a diet treatment! The idea is “unbelievably” successful, and so lucrative that even money conscience Mamma Lil decides Lefty is marital worthy material again for her daughter Ruth.
Lefty financially successful again, next promotes a fund raising campaign for a small college where he successfully raises one million dollars and gains the attention of young student Marlene Reeves (Claire Dodd), who has eyes for him. Marlene’s father hires Lefty to promote a real estate deal in Florida, Grapefruit Acres. Lefty wants to marry Ruth but she is still resistant, saying she will marry him only after he comes back from his big deal in Florida. While in Florida, Lefty is surprised to find Marlene there who makes it plain that she is very interested in Lefty, who defensively, declares his love for Ruth. Ruth and Lil decide to fly down to the sunshine state to surprise Lefty, and are surprised themselves when they find him and Marlene having breakfast together in their pajamas. Lefty claims that nothing happened, though that is hard to believe, since he is in her hotel room in his PJ’s. The Waters women fly quickly back to New York with Lefty chasing after them trying to explain. Soon after, Lefty is arrested for false advertising related to the Grapefruit Acres project. While in jail, he meets his thieving dance marathon partner who happens to tells him he lost weight over the past few days just eating nothing but grapefruit. Lefty’s new idea, The 18 day Grapefruit Diet, which becomes the nation’s latest fad. A success again, and in Mama Lil’s favor again, Lefty finally, with some trickery, gets Ruth to say yes and marry him.
“Hard to Handle” is certainly entertaining enough with the usually fine performance by Mr. Cagney, and a especially entertaining performance by Ruth Donnelly who plays the money hungry Mama Lil, despite in real life being only three years older than Jimmy and ten years older the Mary Brian. Her character has plenty of sharp funny lines, delivered with fine timing, constantly referring to her daughter and herself as “we” when marrying and not marrying Cagney’s Lefty Merrill. Anyone marrying Ruth was definitely getting two for the price of one. While Mary Brian is competent, I would have liked to have seen Joan Blondell in the role of Ruth. She and Donnelly would have been two quick pistols together and the charisma between Cagney and Blondell is always electric. The picture moves at lightening speed, thanks to Cagney’s exceptional flair for rapid speech, which gives no one any time to pause.
The film unfortunately has never been released in the home video format and remains a hard film to see, undeservedly so. Hopefully, Warner Brothers will see fit to release this film in the near future. “Hard to Handle” was originally brought to my attention by Judy of Movie Classics’s who has written her own great review some time back, and as a Cagney admirer, is certainly worth reading to get her perspective on this film and other classics.
To say “Our Daily Bread” is an uneven flawed work is not giving the film its due. At this point in his career Vidor was an innovative forward thinking filmmaker willing to stretch himself and the medium. If he did not succeed one hundred percent here, and he did not, at least he attempted to extend the art of film as a tool of importance. “Our Daily Bread is extension of King Vidor’s masterful classic silent film “The Crowd.” The same lead characters, John and Mary Sims, who came to realize they were just faces in an endless whirlpool of humanity destined to live lives as anonymous nonentities return. It is now the depression years and Tom has lost his everyman job. The couple are about to be dispossessed from their apartment for lack of rent money. With no job opportunities on the horizon Mary’s Uncle offers the couple a farm that he no longer wants and the government is about to foreclose. Though John is a city boy with no farming experience, they accept the uncle’s offer and move out of the concrete jungle to the country.
John does not lack ambition, he sets out to work on the farm but it is not easy, especially since he lacks the skills and knowledge needed. While working the land one day, a truck traveling along the road just outside the farm breaks down. It belongs to an immigrant family of Swede’s headed by Chris (John Qualen). As John helps him repair the truck, he learns that Chris and his family have no home but he has plenty of farming experience. John gets an idea. There’s plenty of room on the farm, why not offer Chris and his family a place to stay on the farm in exchange for helping him work the land. Chris accepts. John decides that if one man can help what can ten men do. He soon takes in other out of work homeless families each man with a different set of skills to contribute. They create a commune where food, money and land are shared by all.
John is voted in to be the boss and he hires a burly quiet secretive man named Louie, who unknown to anyone at the time is on the run from the law, as his strong arm. When one of the testier members of the group tries to push a smaller man off some of the land, Louie intercedes. When foreclosure threatens the commune, Louie shows what he’s made of, saving the day when he turns himself into the law, making sure the commune gets the reward money to help make payments on mounting bills. The commune’s next challenge is Mother Nature in the form of a drought that threatens the corn crops. In the face of this new disaster, John’s enthusiasm and leadership abilities fail him. He has also become distracted by the arrival of Sally (Barbara Pepper), a peroxide blonde floozy who Mary invited to stay though she refuses to do much work, spending most of her day listening to jazz and, it is implied, fooling around with John. He and the low budget Harlow actually run off together however, John, realizing this is a mistake, returns dumping the third rate bimbo. Inspired by Mary, John arouses the cooperative to discover a way to fight the drought and bring back the dying crops.
The ending is one of the most vividly exciting scenes in the film as we watch the farmers digging a two-mile long irrigation ditch from the river to the farm in time to save the crop. Variety called the ending “a glorification of human will power driving man beyond ordinary feats of endurance.” As a “sequel” to one of Vidor’s master works, “Our Daily Bread” is an uneven mix of brilliance and corn bread, good old American know how and socialism mixed and stirred.
Tom Keene is an actor of modest talent; his bouts of enthusiasm and despair range from unconvincing to embarrassing. Best known for low budget westerns, Keene, unfortunately followed in the path of James Murray, who played John in “The Crowd”, and was a hard act to follow; Vidor apparently offered the role to James Murray however, by this time Murray was alcoholic and broke. He refused the role viewing it as a sympathetic handout by Vidor. Murray would soon drown after falling into the Hudson River. The medical examiner would never conclude on the cause of death whether it was an accident, suicide or murder. Karen Morley faired better in her role as Mary. Morley is probably best remembered for her role as “Poppy” the sexy negligee wearing gun moll in Howard Hawks “Scarface.” Then there is the role of Sally, the floozy, who seems to have wondered in from another movie. Saying her character is unsuitable to the mood of the film is being kind. Vidor, in the Charles Higham/Joel Greenberg interview book, The Celluloid Muse admits, “There just wasn’t the audience for too much down to earth stuff – we brought in the extraneous character of the blonde floozy.” He admits it was purely for box office and the Jean Harlow/Mae West platinum blonde look that was then in vogue. Set aside these negative features the film remains a powerful look at the great depression and men finding alternative lifestyles to survive a beaten down economy and the sometimes over powering forces of nature.
Vidor discovered the story when he read a magazine article in Reader’s Digest on co-operative living. He viewed this as a vehicle for his two protagonists from “The Crowd”, who realizing they were just nobodies in a sea of nobodies opted out for the open vastness of life on a farm. He presented the idea to Irving Thalberg who refused to finance it, as did other major studios. Vidor decided to make the film himself, but it was not until Charles Chaplin pledged support, and a guarantee of a release via United Artists, did Vidor managed to get the money he needed from the banks. Vidor is credited with the story, while the scenario is credited to Elizabeth Hill (Mrs. King Vidor) and the dialogue to Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
When the film opened, it received rave reviews from some critics like The New York Times who called it “a brilliant declaration of faith in the importance of the cinema as a social instrument.” However, there were the Hearst newspapers that labeled the film “pinko” Communist propaganda and cited as proof when the film was given an award at the Moscow Lenin Film Festival. Critics seemed to be drawing a line in the political sand. Was “Our Daily Bread” a look at American ingenuity; how folks rolled up their sleeves working together during hard times to survive, or was it socialist propaganda about people, working together without thought of personal profit, stifling American individuality and the dream of personal success? The films political message is as mixed as the rest of the film, for example, the commune seems similar to communal living seen in Russian movies of the period, yet unlike those films, the individual’s needs are respected and attended to. Vidor was not a political animal, subsequently, the mixed political message. Later in life, Vidor was known to be politically conservative. If anyone in the cast, had a left wing political bent it was Karen Morley, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunts after refusing to answer questions before the HUAC. Morley was active in liberal politics in the San Francisco area and later on ran unsuccessfully for Lt. Governor of New York State as a candidate for the American Labor Party.
What we are left with is an essential film of the great depression years, with an inconsistent message along with some tolerable acting and a visually stunning and brilliant ending.
Sources: Senses of Cinema – Dan Callahan
We’re in the Money – Andrew Bergman
Violence against women, alcoholism, child abuse, racy dialogue, gangsters, lust driven interns, bootlegging and sex – “Night Nurse”, a 1932 William Wellman melodrama, has it all. You never have seen so much vice tossed and mixed into one 75-minute cinematic festival of sin. In addition, it stars two of the sexiest, talented and biggest stars of the pre-code era, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell. If you add in a young virile, though nasty Clark Gable, you cannot ask for more.
Lora Hart (Barbara Stanwyck) wants to be a nurse and is at first turned down by the old biddy nurse in charge because she lacks the required education. You see Lora had to quit school to help out with her family. Dejected and on her way out of the hospital, a gentlemen entering accidently knocks her bag out of her hand. Well, it turns out the man is Dr. Bell (Charles Wininger) head of the hospital. To make amends, for dropping the contents of her bag all over the floor, and staring at her legs as he picks up the dropped items placing them back in her bag, he arranges with the nasty head nurse, now all smiles, apologetic and under the assumption Lora knows Dr. Bell, for Lora to start her training on the night shift. She is set up to share a room with fellow nurse the jaded gum chewing Maloney (Joan Blondell). Soon the two are going out partying and undressing together, even sharing a bed after being caught coming in after curfew by the old biddy nurse. On a more serious note, Lora get some real medical emergency education assisting doctors in surgery, sometime successfully and well sometimes not so much. One night, while on duty in comes Mortie, (Ben Lyons), a bootlegger we soon find out, with a bullet wound. Bound by duty to report all bullet injuries to the police, Mortie, who deep down is a swell guy, convinces her not to do so.
Upon graduating, both Lora and Maloney get jobs as private nurses for a well to do family with Lora as the night nurse and Maloney taking the day shift. Their main responsibilities are taking care of two young children, whose father is dead and whose mother is too busy drinking and partying to care of them. The kids are heirs to a large fortune and this is where Nick, the Chauffeur (Clark Gable), enters the scene. Nick is a low life who is arranging, along with a crooked doctor in on the plot, to starve the children to death, marry the widow mother, and get access to the kids’ trust fund. Of course, our heroine, discovered what Nick is up too and with the help of bootlegger Mortie manages to save the day and the kids but only after being viciously beaten by Nick and giving a blood transfusion to save one of the malnourished young girls.
“Night Nurse” was one of the first of the pre-code films released on home video under the Forbidden Hollywood banner back in the 1990’s. Back in those days, the VHS series was hosted and introduced by Leonard Maltin.
The film is dated in many respects but there is much to keep you interested. Racy wild dialogue like when a young intern tells nurses Stanwyck and Blondell that they can’t show him anything he has not just seen in a delivery room and the children’s mother wildly yelling out at one point “I’m a dipsomaniac and I like it!” And what other film ends with the audience being told that Clark Gable has been “taken for a ride.” Mortie, Lora’s bootlegging admirer and the guy who knows the guys who took Nick for his final ride end up with Lora riding off into the urban sunset.
Gable, in an early role, is convincingly evil as Nick the Chauffeur. Had he not become a star he could have had a good career portraying immoral characters as he does here and in some other early performances. With his gruff voice, he is perfect. Joan Blondell is her sexy and sassy self and for anyone who has followed this blog knows Joan, along with Stanwyck, are two of my favorite actresses. This was the second of three films they appeared in together. Stanwyck is wonderful as the strong willed nurse determined to save the children from the cruelty being imposed on them by Nick and an inattentive mother. In one scene, she actually drags the drunken mother across a room hoping to get her to pay attention to what is happening to her daughters and mutters under her breath “you mother!” The part itself does not require much depth from an acting perspective just a lot of toughness and a ‘have been there before attitude’ from Stanwyck, which she does so well. Just how tough was Stanwyck? Well, here she puts the soon to be anointed “King” Clark Gable in his place and just two years later, she cuts down to size a young John Wayne in “Baby Face.” That pretty tough! Interesting enough, Warner Brothers had the chance to sign Gable to a contract but passed on him leaving the door open for MGM to sign the future Rhett Butler.
The screenplay is based on a novel by Dora Macy, aka Grace Perkins. Reading a review of the novel in Time magazine (6/13/30), demonstrates the faithfulness of the screenplay to the book except for the character of Nick who in the movie seems to have replaced an Uncle, along with a sister-in-law, as the brains behind the plot to starve the children.
Directed by William Wellman, who keeps the pace moving, though like many Wellman films it is rough around the edges, but never dull. “Night Nurse” was the first of five films Wellman would make with Stanwyck. The others were “The Purchase Price”, “So Big”, “The Great Man’s Lady” and “Lady of Burlesque.” With at least ten sinful pre-code films in her credits Stanwyck stands up there alongside Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Ruth Chatterton and other queens of pre-code films.
Despite an upbeat ending “Wild Boys of the Road” is one of the darkest, bleakest films of the depression era. William Wellman already had a reputation for going straight to the vein, literary, as in his previous film “Heroes for Sale” and for not beating around the bush. While films like “Gold Diggers of 1933” dealt with the depression, it was mostly light hearted and escapist. “You get no such relief in this 1933 hard core pre-code drama.
Living through The Great Depression was tough for many; there were thousands and thousands of dispossessed youngsters riding the boxcars and living in shantytowns. Wellman, or as he was known “Wild Bill” Wellman was a tough son of a bitch yet he worked within the studio system fighting for good scripts. Legend has it he once dumped a trunk load of manure onto a studio bosses desk along with a script that he felt the same way about (1).
The film opens up on a light note with young Eddie Smith (Frankie Darrow) and his friend Tommy (Edwin Phillips) going to a high school dance with their girls. At first it seems, we could be in Carvel with Andy Hardy and his friends. However, the signs soon point to a different road. Tommy needs to borrow the 75 cents entrance fee because he doesn’t have the money with his mother being unable to find a job. Tommy is even thinking about quitting school to find a job himself. Eddie tells him to wait until he talks to his Dad about helping them out, but when he gets home, it is only to find out that his father has been laid off from his own job at the factory. Eddie sells his jalopy to help with the family finances but after two months, his Dad is still out of work and the rent two months overdue, Eddie and Tommy decide to leave home to relieve some of the burden on their families. They head to Chicago to find jobs.
The boys hop a boxcar where they meet Sally (Dorothy Coonan) a young girl also on her way to Chicago, to live with her Aunt. As they ride the rails, more kids join. Arrving in Chicago, they are unceremoniously greeted by the police and railroad guards with the power to decide who can stay who cannot. They allow Sally and the boys to stay since she is going to live with her Aunt. Other kids are turned away; there are no jobs in Chicago either. Sally’s Aunt, turns out to be a Madame running a Brothel. She is happy to see them, however soon after they arrive, the place is raided by the police and they quickly escape heading back to the rail yards and on to another town. On the road, their hardships mount, as does the number of kids riding the rails. One of the girls, Grace (Rochelle Hudson) is raped by a railroad worker (a young Ward Bond). During an escape from the railroad goons, Tommy falls, his leg is crushed by an oncoming train and is amputated by a kindly doctor. They are run out of one town after a free for all brawl with the police soon ending up in New York where Eddie feels he can get a job and surprisingly does. Only thing is he needs three dollars for a uniform, which he does not have. Two suspicious men offer Eddie five dollars, to do them a favor and take an envelope over to the ticket seller at the movie theater across the street. The woman, they say, will give him a package, which he will bring back to the men. Overjoyed at the easy money, Eddie brings the letter over which contains a demand for money. Seeing two policemen nearby, the woman screams for help. Eddie ducks into the movie theater and the cops chase after him. Inside the theater, James Cagney is on screen in “Footlight’s Parade” (another Warner’s depression film though on a much lighter note) as the police apprehend Eddie, Tommy and Sally. Standing before a judge who at first threatens them with jail time however, after a passionate speech from Eddie the judge offers to help get them jobs if they promise that once they have enough money they will go back to their families.
Despite some outdated dialogue and an ending that seems somewhat out of place, “Wild Boys of the Road” is an agonizing look at the plight of America’s young homeless during the depression, and the lack of government empathy reflected by then President Hoover’s failed approach to ending the depression. His belief that aiding the average U.S. citizen would only make them lazy and depend more on government (2).
The film’s ending is about the only ray of hope in the movie, though to some extent it dilutes everything that came before. The original 1933 review from the New York Times (3) points out “Its tragedy has been over sentimentalized, its drama is mostly melodrama and, by endowing it with a happy ending, the producers have robbed it of its values as a social challenge.” The Times critic, Frank S. Nugent blames Wellman for the failure. While I believe Nugent is partially correct about the ending, I disagee it is it robbed of its values as a social challenge. There are a couple of points to make about the ending. The kindly judge, whose offer to get the kids jobs, symbolizes the new optimism that was brought on by Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Under Franklin, the government was now creating new jobs and putting people back to work. Secondly, the almost cringe like feeling you get when Eddie somersaults outside the courthouse is probably the most awkward scene about the ending. Yet Eddie’s elation, that good gosh golly everything is going to be alright, is put slightly off kilter when after the somersault he stands face to face with Tommy, and he realizes, for him no matter what, life will never be quite the same. It is a short moment that is passed over quickly as the three kids happily jump into the car as the film ends. So is the ending a failure, as the New York Times critic said? Did the studio cop out for a happy ending? Well, yes they did. According to the Goatdog’s Movies blog, Jack Warner changed the ending himself which originally had Eddie going to a juvenile reformatory and Sally getting ten months in prison. (I do find it odd that Eddie’s end up in a reformatory and Sally in prison. They were both kids, why was Sally sent to prison, and what happened to Tommy?). As the film stands the ending does come off as a tacked on happy ending taking away from the power of all that preceded for the past sixty minutes or so. Wellman probably did the best he could under the forced circumstances. As it is, and unlike 1969’s “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” another bleak dark vision of the depression that stayed true to its downbeat course, the ending of “Wild Boys of the Road” did not stay true to its convictions. It gave hope to the public of its day, the sun will shine tomorrow, and maybe they needed that.
Wellman was no stranger to films with social issues, gangster’s in “The Public Enemy”, returning vets and drug addiction in “Heroes for Sale”, mob rule and lynching in “The Ox-Bow Incident” and child welfare in “Night Nurse.” Despite Wellman’ anti-authority outlook in life, he worked well within the studio system mixing genres, such as screwball comedy (Nothing Sacred), westerns (Buffalo Bill), war (Battleground) and adventure (Beau Geste). Of all the genres, Wellman always returned to war and aviation themed films. A World War I aviator, first for the French and later for the U.S., he brought a tough realistic point of view to films like “Wings” (the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture). Wellman would return to aviation themed films late in his career with two John Wayne starring films “Island in the Sky” and “The High and the Mighty”, and in his final film, “Lafayette Escadrille.” “Wild Boys of the Road”, and it should really read “Wild Boys and Girls of the Road”, like most of Wellman’s films of this period, as Dave Kehr (4) points out, has an in your face quality that will remind you of Sam Fuller’s work some years later.
While the film is erratic in its brilliance, there are scenes that are truly disturbing and unsettling. One scene shows the young homeless boys and girls fighting with the police as they try to hold onto their sewer city “home” (Wellman, always on the side of the underdog, presents the police as symbols of an autocratic system). By using an excellent combination of close-ups and editing, the scene in which Tommy’s leg is crushed is brutal and moving. The authenticity of the boxcar and railroad yards scenes filmed on location certainly adds to the film’s realism. “Wild Boys of the Road” is still a strong look at the depression, the forced lawlessness, the poverty and the victimization of youth. The film gives you a strong punch in the gut that you will soon not forget.
One of the films more tongue in cheek scenes has young Eddie whistling, “We’re in the Money” as he walks away from his empty garage after selling his jalopy to help his family financially. The song, of course, was from “Gold Diggers of 1933” which came out only three months earlier than “Wild Boys of the Road.”
The cast led by Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips, Dorothy Coonan and Rochelle Hudson all give good solid performances. Darro, never seemed to out grow juvenile roles, though his career lasted a long time appearing in films like “A Day at the Races”, Saratoga”, “The Babe Ruth Story’ and such serials as Junior G-Men of the Air” and “The Phantom Empire.” Dorothy Coonan, who appeared in “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933” as a chorus girl caught the eye of William Wellman and would soon become the fourth and final Mrs. William Wellman. The marriage would produce seven children. Also in the film are the fine character actors Sterling Holloway, Grant Mitchell and Minna Gombell.
“Wild Boys of the Road” was not a financial success and much like today’s audiences, the public of 1933 seemed to prefer their movies to be of a lighter fare.
Sources: (1) Los Angeles Times – William Wellman: tough taskmaster for tough times
Sam Adams – 3/22/09
(2) Great Depression and Herbert Hoover – Donald J. Mabry
(3) Wild Boys of the Road – New York Times 9/22/33
(4) On the William Wellman Depression Express – Dave Kehr – New York