The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) Sidney Lanfield

Lemon Drop Kid PosterThe 1951 Bob Hope comedy, “The Lemon Drop Kid,” is based on a Damon Runyon story, the second film of Hope’s to do so. Just two years earlier, Hope made the highly successful, “Sorrowful Jones,” co-starring Lucille Ball.  The film was released in time for the holidays, only as you will see if you check out the newspaper ad below, the holiday in question was Easter and not Christmas. The film also introduced the now standard Christmas classic, “Silver Bells” written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. In the film the song is sung by Hope and co-star Marilyn Maxwell, but more on that later.

Hope is a small time grifter known as The Lemon Drop Kid. At a Florida racetrack he unknowingly swindles a gullible woman out of a ton of dough by convincing her to switch her bet to another horse.   Unfortunately for The Kid, the horse comes in dead last and the money the woman bet with belonged to her boyfriend, a hood named Moose Moran (Fred Clark). Moran gives The Kid until Christmas, a few weeks away, to come up with the $10,000 he would have won had his girl bet the money on the winning horse as he wanted. Continue reading

Winchester ’73 (1950) Anthony Mann

This review contains Spoilers!

Was it his personal war experiences that changed James Stewart? Did he come back a changed man, most men do.  Many of Stewart’s post World War II roles began to take on a darker side with haunted ambiguous characters motivated by revenge or other desires. Maybe a steady diet of Frank Capra’s Capra-corn did not have enough substance anymore, after all life was not that simple (Stewart’s darker side was touched upon slightly in “It’s a Wonderful Life” but he is soon back to his sweet genteel self).  “Winchester ’73” was the first Mann/Stewart collaboration, a joint effort that would produce some of the most mature westerns ever made.

Fritz Lang was originally on board to make this film however soon bowed out. After a screening of “Devil’s Doorway” Mann’s first western with Robert Taylor, Stewart agreed to work with Mann.   The Winchester of the title was a special, “one of a thousand” type made in 1873. President Grant owned one so did Buffalo Bill and now Lin McAdams (Stewart) wins one in a 4th of July celebration shoot out exhibition in Dodge City. His closest competitor is Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), his brother who shot their father in the back, though we do not find this out until toward the end of the film. For most of the story we never understand why Lin is so determined in going after Dutch.

The rifle itself gets passed around throughout the film becoming almost a character, or a link, in the film as it moves on from Lin, who won it in the shooting contest, to Dutch who steals it in a fight with Lin, to  an Indian gun runner, to an Indian Chief (Rock Hudson) to the cowardly fiancé (Charles Drake) of Lola (Shelley Winters) the only female in the cast, to gunfighter Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) then back to Dutch and finally back to Lin.

Just about every male character in the film drools over the perfect piece of equipment, an obvious symbol of virile masculinity. The men who possess it show it off and the men who want it are envious. Guns in general are seen as phallic symbols. Later on, as they successfully defend against an attack by Indians Lola returns to Lin a pistol he gave her to defend herself during the attack  with the understanding that the last bullet she should use on herself rather than fall into the hands of the Indians. Returning the gun and the bullet Lin suggest she may want to  keep the bullet. Without hesitation she says “I want it!” leaving no  uncertainty in her tone and look that she is talking more about sex and a life with Lin than just an old bullet. 

Though the story is fiction, original screenwriter Robert L. Richards, later Mann brought in Borden Chase to do a rewrite in the first of their collaborative efforts, surrounds the story in real western mythology; Dodge City where an elderly though respected Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Doc Holiday and company run a tight ship allowing no one to carry guns while in town. The Civil War has recently ended and General George Armstrong Custer was most recently overrun at Little Big Horn all of this invoking a strong sense of time and place in history.

This was the only western collaboration of Mann and Stewart filmed in black and white which may account for some of the noirish lighting in a few scenes, particularly in the fight between the two brothers in the hotel room where Dutch and his boys take the Winchester from Lin and beat it out of town.

As with “The Naked Spur” the theme of revenge is significant in this film as it motivates Lin in going after his brother. Family or the sense of family is also important here, the two brothers whose family was destroyed by the actions of one. Also between the prostitute Lola who is thrown out of town by Wyatt Earp, and the cowardly Steve. Both are outcasts who attempt to have a life together. Finally, and most prominently in Dodge City where an older Wyatt Earp is the friendly but strong willed patriarch (no guns allowed in town) who oversees the family friendly 4th of July celebration where the shooting contest is held with the winner getting the Winchester ’73.

This western is far from the type generally made at the time, more psychological, character driven with a conflicted dark hero. An excellent example occurs early in the film in Dodge City, after Lin surrenders his gun to Wyatt Earp, he enters a bar and finds his nemeses and brother at a card table. The reaction of both brothers to seeing each other is to crouch down and draw their guns. Thanks to Earp neither man has a weapon and a shooting is adverted but it is a disturbing scene as we watch the “hero” react in a way no better than the villain. Still, there is plenty of the standard action audiences would expect, Indian attack on the Calvary, cheating at cards, gunfights, Indian gun trader, a planned bank robbery and a woman in distress.

With this film Anthony Mann found his own John Wayne in James Stewart. Stewart collaborated with other directors (Hitchcock and Capra notably) but in Mann he found his alternate mantra that of an ambiguous hero verging on obsessed, unhinged, psychologically driven behavior.  Ford’s heroes were generally more straight forward white hat types though late in his career Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” and to a lesser extent Tom Doniphon in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are certainly characters who struggle with life’s complexities and Edwards specifically is a man driven by traits that are both good and bad.

Stephen McNally as Lin’s evil brother is convincingly evil and just about as driven as his sibling. Noir favorite Dan Duryea also is adept at playing a malicious outlaw who hooks up with McNally for a bank robbery.   Look for newcomers Rock Hudson as the Indian chief who for a while is in possession of the Winchester and another unknown actor at the time , one Anthony “Tony” Curtis who has a small role as a Calvary solider prominently seen during the Indian raid scenes. James Best also has a small role.    

*****

The Wild One (1953) Laslo Benedek

The Wild One may be the first film to exploit the misunderstood youth vs. the establishment gap. As you watch the film you realized how ingrained so many of the images of Brando with his sideburns wearing   his leather jacket, jeans and a cap have become over the years. Before Wyatt and Bill in “Easy Rider”, before Elvis in “Jailhouse Rock” and before James Dean in anything the image of the young rebel without a cause was cemented in the 1953 Stanley Kramer production.

“What are you rebelling against, Johnny.”

“Whatta got.”

Under the layer of the post war white picket fence traditionalism of the Eisenhower years, the white collar, nine to five, man in the gray flannel suit conformity laid a slow ticking bomb that would explode into a revolution in the sixties. In New York’s Greenwich Village artist like Jackson Pollack and DeKoonig were up heaving the status quo in the art world. Jack Kerouac and the Beats were on the road living and writing life’s experiences. The Weavers and other folk musicians were filling the coffee houses. White teenagers were beginning to listen on the radio to black music stations and in Memphis a young white kid named Elvis signed a contract with Sun Records. Parents, glad the war was over were happy to sit at home with a fairly new invention called television watching and trying to emulate families they saw on the boob tube like Ozzie and Harriet.      

In New York in late December 1953 and in theaters across the country in 1954 a new picture premiered. The screen opens up on an empty country highway. The camera is low to the ground.  A written prologue appears saying what you are about to see really happened in a small town and the public needs to not let it happen again. Then we hear the voice, Brando’s voice, he says “it began for me on this road…it couldn’t happen again in a million years…Maybe I could have stopped it early. But once the trouble was on its way, I Just went with it.”

Slowly we see and hear in the distance a roaring sound. As the visuals come closer the camera is engulfed by forty to fifty members of a motorcycle gang speeding over us. Leading the way in dark sun glasses and sideburns is Johnny Strabler (Brando).  The close up of Brando on his bike is the first of many now iconic images of the brooding sullen itinerant rebel that have been embedded into  our pop culture consciousness.

“The Wild One” plays like a later day version of a western. A group of outlaws come into town and cause havoc. The town’s people decide to take things into their own hands when they believe one of the young women, in this case young Kathy Bleeker (Mary Murphy), has been assaulted. The town’s men beat Johnny up but he manages to get away and back to his cycle. On the way out of town, the vigilante crowd chases after him. A tire iron is thrown, hitting Johnny who falls from his cycle. The out of control bike hits and kills one of the kinder townsfolk. The county sheriff (Jay C. Flippen) and his men arrive and naturally arrest Johnny for murder. The townsfolk are so blood thirsty and law-biding they are ready to practically send Johnny to the electric chair until it comes out that it was the throwing of the tire iron by one of their own town people that caused the death of the old man. The sheriff lets Johnny go but not before spewing a morality lesson on the young delinquent.

If the young in the film are wild and rebellious, the adults are shown violent reactionaries too willing to take the law into their own hands to fight for right, or at least their version of what’s right.

The first film to directly deal with disaffected youth and the motorcycle culture, “The Wild One” was controversial for its time, conservative groups saw the film as a plot to undermine America’s youth and fear arose in some towns that some youth gangs would imitate what they saw on screen. In England, the film was banned by the British censors and not released until 1968!

This was Brando’s fifth appearance on the screen and he acting is still powerful. Just watch the little nuances in his performance. They fill the screen each second he is on. Brando agreed to do the film after reading the original script. Always on the side of the underdog he, along with producer Stanley Kramer, saw the film as an indictment on society’s response to the increasing problem of violence among the youth in America.  Problems began after the script was turned down as unacceptable by the Breen Office. The censors viewed the story as too sympathetic toward the motorcycle gang members and glorified the violence in the story. The script was changed most evident in the introductory narration Brando now had to say at the opening of the film where he would utter the words that this only happened once and could never happen again effectively obliterating  everything that followed.  

The film was not a huge success at the time of its release but over the years has gained an influential reputation beginning with Brando’s wardrobe. That young Memphis singer with the odd name of Elvis found an image to go with his music, leather jacket sales exploded across the country and posters of Brando became best sellers.  Also in the cast was Lee Marvin, still in the early part of his career, here he appears as Chino the gang leader of a second gang. Many of Marvin’s parts at this time were brutal low life’s (The Big Heat) though here there are bits of humor in his performance that are missing from just about anything else he did up to this time but  point his comedic ability that would shine later in “Cat Ballou.”        

The film was based on a real incident that happened in Hollister, California in 1947 over the 4th of July weekend. A story of the incident appeared in a 1951 issue of Harper’s Magazine called “The Cyclist’s Raid” by Frank Rooney. The screenplay was written by john Paxton and was directed by Laslo Benedek who previously worked with producer Stanley Kramer on the 1951 film version of “Death of a Salesman.”

***1/2

They Live By Night (1948) Nicholas Ray

They’re young, they’re in love and they kill people. That was the tag line for Arthur Penn’s classic 1967 masterpiece “Bonnie and Clyde” and it could have been equally appropriate some eighteen years earlier in Nick Ray’s first film “They Live By Night.” Based on Edward Anderson’s 1937 novel “Thieves Like Us” (Anderson only wrote two novels of which this was his second ), and one of the earliest of a loosely banded group of films about young fugitive lovers on the run from the law (You Only Live Once, Gun Crazy, Badlands, Natural Born Killers and Bonnie and Clyde ).

Made in 1948, the film remained on RKO’s shelf for almost two years before new owner Howard Hughes decided to release it (It’s U.S. release was in November 1949). Various producers attempted to get a good screenplay written, however it was not until John Houseman came on board as producer and showed the depression era novel to Nick Ray, who loved the book, wanted to make the film and wrote an adaptation. Houseman had considerable clout as a producer at the time and was able to get first time director Ray an okay to direct the film.

Three men escape from prison, two seasoned bank robbers T-Dub (Jay C. Flippen) and Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) along with young Bowie (Farley Granger) who was innocently convicted of murder.  The three men rob a bank. When Bowie is injured he is brought to Chickamaw’s brother’s place where he meets Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell), Chickamaw’s tomboyish niece. After another bank job, the young lovers take off to get away from Bowie’s two thug partners and a life of crime. Unlike Bowie, his two cohorts quickly blow their share of the money and want Bowie for another bank job which goes bad resulting in T-Dub’s death. Bowie and Keechie are again running only this time instead of running to a new life they are running from the law and straight toward a tragic end.

Like many of Ray’s films, the sympathy lies with those living outside of society, outlaws doomed to a tragic end; in this case an ambush  that foresees Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde.” Like “Bonnie and Clyde”, the young couple are also betrayed to the police by someone they thought they could trust, in this case, Chickamaw’s sister-in-law Mattie (Helen Craig) who Bowie pleads to for help late in the film. During the filming Ray continually worked on the screenplay, written by Charles Schnee, making sure his vision would remain intact. Ray reflects a world with few honest people, even the justice of the peace is corrupt, everyone “are thieves like us”, as Bowie tells Mattie toward the end of the film.

The critics at the time were generally dismissive, Bosley Crowther called it, “a common little story about a young escaped convict” and later on states the film “is misguided in its sympathies for a youthful crook.” He lthen addsh”They Live By Night has the failing of waxing sentimental over crime.” To be honest, the ever straight laced Crowthers does give the film credit for “good production and sharp direction by Nicholas Ray.”

The film’s beginning is unique in two aspects; first we see Bowie and Keechie in close up kissing as the opening credits come on. When the film proper begins we are in an open field, the three prison escapees are in a car on the run. This is all viewed from a helicopter shot high above. I believe this to be the first, or at least one of the first times this technique was used in an action scene giving  the film a fresh documentary touch. We also see the owner of the car taken prisoner by the three fugitives and severely beaten by Chickamaw.

“They Live By Night” (released in England as The Twisted Road) is an astonishing directorial debut, a dark lyrical poetic love story, it has been called a weepy noir, and like their counterparts in “Gun Crazy”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and even “Romeo and Juliet” the lovers are doomed to a poignant fate.  Ray’s background prepared him for the details of this depression era drama. He was a devotee of Southern folk music and worked with Alan Lomax and knew many folks singer of the era like Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, he even had a weekly radio show. He met John Houseman during this period who was influential enough to get Ray his first gig as a director. Ray was also associated with the Group Theater as an actor where he met and befriended Elia Kazan who would invite Ray to study his filmmaking style during the production of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

The cast consist of one superb performance after another from Farley Granger as the sensitive unlucky Bowie and Cathy O’Donnell as the melancholy rural Keechie looking for an escape from nowhere, to character actors Jay C. Flippen and Howard Da Silva as Bowie’s two hardened partners. Granger was at a party when he met Ray who took a liking to him; both he and O’Donnell were under contract to Sam Goldwyn at the time. Robert Mitchum was interested in playing Chickamaw but was deemed a rising star at the time and the role too limited for his newly found status, as a result Jay C. Flippen got the part.

A few aspects of the film have dated somewhat; Bowie admitting his virginal inexperience with kissing and Keechie saying things like “a good woman is like a dog” (they are loyal). Still, these bits aside, the film’s tug and pull between romance and violence continues to work. T-Dub and Chickasaw remain two vivid characters given some nice touches especially when Chickamaw reappears in Bowie and Keechie’s lives destroying a Christmas ornament and in the process their dream of a regular life.

In 1974, Robert Altman made a new version of the film under its original source material’s name, and remained closer “in tone”, as Pauline Kael states in her review, than Ray’s more sympathetic view. Kael called the seventies film “the closest to flawless of Altman’s films – a masterpiece.

****1/2