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, the Great 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 depression era folks shared their memories and they 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 at Ford’s filmography, this may seem like an unlikely project for the director. Ford, though a political conservative in his later years was in an earlier time a liberal. Therefore,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 study of 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
James Cagney most likely did not think much of “Lady Killer,” not even giving it a mention in his autobiography, “Cagney by Cagney.” The film was a typical Warner Brothers programmer with the studio heads ensuring that Cagney’s character was exactly how the public liked Jimmy served; tough, cheeky, a hardboiled know it all with a winning sly smile. He had already in his short career played similar brash characters in earlier films like, “Taxi,” “Blonde Crazy” and “Hard to Handle.” Released at the end of 1933, Cagney already seems to be spoofing his tough guy persona in this rough and tumble comedy/drama.
Dan Quigley, a typical smart aleck Cagney type does not like to play by the rules. Unlike his role of Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” that made him a star, Dan Quigley is more a small time con-artist than a big time gangster. Dan is soon fired from a job as a uniformed usher at Warner’s famed Broadway Theater, The Strand after treating customers shabbily along with other previous infractions including running a dice game in the men’s room. Though he is a con artist, Dan is quickly conned himself when a beautiful dame named Myrna (Mae Clarke) “drops” her purse on the street and he gallantly retrieves it delivering it to her apartment where her “brother” and some friends are playing a friendly poker game. Dan is quickly suckered into the game and loses his money just as fast. As he leaves, just outside the apartment, he runs into another chump delivering another lost purse! Realizing he has been had, Dan intimidates his way into the gang taking charge as the gang sucker more marks into losing their money with the help of a draw full of lost purses. With Dan at the helm, the gang’s cons quickly escalate their fortunes until they are running an upscale nightclub, and scamming better dressed suckers. They soon graduate to burglary until one of the crew kills a housemaid during a jewelry robbery. The entire gang skips town heading west to Chicago and on the L.A. where Dan is quickly picked up and questioned by the police. Held on five-thousand dollars bail, Dan calls Myrna who he gave his money to hold, only to find out she and gang member Spade Maddock (Douglas Dumbrille) are skipping the country heading down to Mexico leaving Dan out to dry.
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
Within four years Cagney made 19 films establishing his brash New York City persona as an alternative to the typical Hollywood male stars of the era. Cagney and the advent of movies were a perfect fit. His fast talking self-confident, cocky style was a perfect antidote to the stiffness of many actors transforming themselves from silents to sound. Besides the cockier Cagney was, the more we loved him.
“Picture Snatcher” is a breezy fast paced entertaining pre-code film that does it all right without ever managing to achieve greatness. The film stars an electric James Cagney as Danny Kean a street wise recently released ex-con who decides to go straight.
After telling his former cohorts, and collecting his share of the last job before his incarceration, that he is quitting the rackets Danny gets a job at a New York tabloid called “The Graphic” through a connection he made with the City Editor Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy) while in the clink. Not really suited for reporting but brash enough to take a job as a photographer when all others are reluctant to go the scene where a crazed firemen is hold up with a rifle after discovering his wife’s remains in bed with another man after a fire. Posing as an insurance adjustor, Danny worms his way into the distraught man’s confidence while his only true goal is to steal a photo of the man’s family to publish in the paper.
Along the way Danny meets Allison (Alice White) a two timing dame who is suppose to be McLean’s girl but has desires for Danny who continually fights her off. Danny does have his principles, he does not fool around with a friend’s dame. He is more attracted to a young journalism student named Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who happens to be the daughter of tough but loveable cop Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert O’Connor).
Danny’s methods as a reporter are no better than they were as a hoodlum; he steals a pass from another reporter to gain entry into Sing Sing to witness an electrocution of a female prisoner. Inside the prison Danny, with a miniature camera strapped to his ankle, gets his money shot which makes the paper’s front page but in the process get s his girlfriend’s father/cop busted in rank as was in charge of security and received the blame for Danny slipping by.
The execution sequence is based on the true story of one Ruth Snyder who in 1928 became the first woman to be electrocuted since the late 1800’s. Snyder and her lover, who was also electrocuted, killed her husband for insurance money (should sound familiar, the case inspired James Cain to use as the basis for Double Indemnity). The New York Daily News hired an out of town photographer from the Chicago Tribune, someone unknown to the prison guards at Sing Sing, to sneak in to witness the execution and snap the photo which appeared the next day on the front page of the Daily News with the headline DEAD!
Danny does redeem himself somewhat by the end of the film when he is caught in an apartment with one of his former hoodlum buddies, Jerry the Mug. He protects Jerry’s frightened wife and kids trapped in the apartment as Jerry recklessly shoots it out with the police. As the battle with the police is about to reach it dramatic end, Danny gets an incredible photo of Jerry as he shot to death by the police.
Written by Allan Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson based on a story by Danny Adhern, “The Picture Snatcher” is overall a light hearted fast moving film filled with gangsters and newspaperman directed by Lloyd Bacon and played to the hilt by Cagney. The films generally low opinion of the news media, whether intentional or not, remains relevant to today with the onslaught of all the in your face vulture paparazzi we see brought to the extremes today in gossip magazines and TV. To say the least it is Cagney’s film all the way, his exhilarating performance drives the film and must have been a revelation to audiences of the day who were used to more suave refined leading men than the in your face anti-authoritarian character Cagney is here and would perfect in so many films yet to come.
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.