Haunted Gold (1932) Mack V. Wright

During the opening credits a bat is seen flying across the screen. We find ourselves in a dark eerie deserted town filled with slamming doors and strange howls in the night. Joe Ryan and his gang are playing poker in the dark, waiting for the return of Ed, one of their own from the Sally Ann mine. He left hours ago and there has been no sign of him since. Suddenly Ed’s horse returns with a note attached warning the same fate is waiting for anyone else who dares to enter the Sally Ann mine. The men are spooked to say the least.

What starts out as a seemingly old dark house spook fest is in fact a John Wayne western, and after this slick and unique opening, gradually slides back into the standard western of its day.   “Haunted Gold” is a remake of a 1928 silent called “The Phantom City”  that starred Ken Maynard. This low budget remake is even filled with stock footage from earlier Maynard silent westerns.

Wayne is John Mason, a high voiced rancher who comes to the ghost town to take a look at the abandon mine, half of which was left to him by his father. Along with Mason is his sidekick Clarence (Blue Washington Brown).  Mason discovers Ryan is now the other half owner of the mine having cheated the rightful owner, Bill Carter,  out of his share. Also on hand is pretty young Janet Carter (Sheila Terry), the daughter of the cheated owner. She like Mason received a mysterious note requesting their presence by someone only known as the phantom, a mysterious figure whose eyes we see peering through peepholes throughout the film.

After this fairly interesting beginning the film turns into a standard western. Ryan and his boys want the gold that is in the mine somewhere.  Janet will find herself in danger, tied up deep inside the mineshaft. Good guy John Wayne, err I mean John Mason comes to her rescue only to be caught and tied up by Ryan and his boys. Duke, that’s Mason’s horse, returns rider less to the ranch and rounds up the ranch hands to come and help Mason but of course by the time they arrive,  Duke, that is John Wayne not the horse, has everything under control with the help of his stumbling partner Clarence. And of course he wins the girl heart in the end.

The most interesting aspect of this film is that the cinematographer is the great Nick Musuraca and his talent is used to great display in some of the eerie scenes that take place in the dark spooky ghost town  during the early scenes in the film. Unfortunately the rest of the film is handicapped by  mediocre acting, (Wayne has yet to develop his screen persona), a lame story and a disturbing light hearted racist attitude toward character actor Blue Washington Brown who plays Clarence.  Brown who seems like a talented actor is handicapped by the cultural stupidity of the times forced to play foolish characters with little intelligence, act scared and quote stereotypical  dialogue for laughs. One has to remember that this was just a reflection of the times in which the film was made and while not acceptable by today’s standards, understandable for the period in which it was made.

Directed by Mack V. Wright who made a few films together with Wayne and Duke, the horse during these early years including “Somewhere in Sonora” and “The Man From Monterey.” Wright’s career was mainly in low budget filmmaking. He also worked with other western stars like Gene Autry (The Singing Cowboy, Comin’ Round The Mountain) and Robert Livingston (Riders of the Whistling Skull, The Vigilantes  Are Coming).

**

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) John Ford

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“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” was John Ford’s final great work, though he continued to work and made a few more films; none had the intensity nor reached the level of art his previous films achieved. The film is based on a short story by western author Dorothy M. Johnson, who also wrote “A Man Called Horse” and “The Hanging Tree”, both of which were adapted to the screen.

The story begins with the return of Ransom “Rance” Stoddard (James Stewart) a well-known and respected senator, of an unnamed western state who along with his wife, Hallie (Vera Miles) comes back to the town of Shinbone for the funeral of small time ranch owner Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). The town’s newspaper editor is curious to know why the famed senator renown for being “The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance” (Lee Marvin) would make the long trip from Washington to pay his respects to this local unknown. Stoddard tells him the story ….

Liberty LC   Rance is a young attorney who believes in law and order though he refuses to carry a gun. On his way to the town of Shinbone, he is attacked and beaten during a stagecoach robbery by the outlaw Liberty Valance and his gang.  Rance is found by rancher Tom Doniphon and taken to the home of some friends who take care of the tenderfoot and nurse him back to health. Doniphon believes that in these parts “a man needs a gun.” Despite their philosophical differences, the two men become friends and rivals for the young and beautiful Hallie (Vera Miles). Valance continues to terrorize the town and Rance until one day the tenderfoot lawyer is forced into a showdown with the gunfighter. Though wounded during the gunfight, Rance shoots and kills Valance. Hallie’s true feelings come out for Rance driving Doniphon off in a drunken rage. Rance finds himself a hero as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He is selected to be a delegate as the territory applies for statehood. Feeling unworthy and guilty for becoming a hero based on killing a man, Doniphon reveals to him what really happened. Rance, relieved to know he is not riding on the coattails of a dead man, becomes the delegate, goes on to marry Hallie, and become the State’s first Governor and a three time Senator. While the death of Liberty Valance triggered a brilliant career for Rance Stoddard, for Tom Doniphon it led to a life of drinking, loneliness, and alienation.

liberty    After the Senator finishes telling his story to the paper’s editor and the truth about how Valance was killed, the editor tears up his notes and throws them into the stove to burn. Stoddard asks him why isn’t he going to use the story.  The editor replies, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”

When I recently compiled my list of the best films of the 1960’s for the Wonders in the Dark blog, I inexplicitly did not include this John Ford masterpiece. This is one reason I hate making lists and I should be horsewhipped the same way Liberty Valance horsewhips James Stewart in the film for this omission. “Liberty Valance” is a classic western that stands up against the best of John Ford’s work. It is a work of an elder statement taking a darker, morose look at a period in America he had glorified in earlier times.  It is a turning point in the history of the American west, Statehood was on the horizon; the law and civilization were coming. Tom Doniphon knew his days were over and that Stoddard and his breed represented the future.

libertyvalance-c   John Wayne is an actor that I have always had mixed feelings about. When used correctly, mostly by Ford, his persona and the role merge into a “perfect storm” as they do in “The Searchers”, “Rio Bravo” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Wayne was never much of a real actor though he played ‘John Wayne’ better than anyone could. Moreover, rarely has a Wayne character displayed the vulnerability that he does here.  I always enjoyed James Stewart as an actor more than Wayne, however here I find his character, Rance Stoddard, a bit annoying, somewhat stubborn and naïve. While Wayne and Stewart are the stars of the film, it is Lee Marvin’s menacing performance that ‘stirs the drink.’ Marvin has portrayed many violent and evil characters in his wonderful career but Liberty Valance has to be at or near the top. He is brutal, intimidating and just plain evil. Reese (Lee Van Cleef), one of his gang members, twice has to stop him from whipping his victims to death. Vera Miles is the woman in the middle, in love with Doniphon, and as the film goes on, she develops a growing fondness for Stoddard and marries him. At the end of the film as they ride the railroad back to Washington, Ford subtly tells us, though she has been married to Stoddard for many decades her true love is left behind in a wooden box. “Liberty Valance” is not just Wayne, Stewart and Marvin, the film is rich in terrific performances with character actors like Edmond O’Brien as the newspaper editor, Andy Devine as the cowardly sheriff, Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin as Valance’s two thugs in crime. The wonderful Woody Strode as Pompey. Also in the cast are John Carradine and Denver Pyle. All these colorful characters make the film interesting, giving it depth and making up for the less than expected gunplay you would assume to see in a western. The film is also filled with rich black and white photography courtesy of cinematographer William Clothier who had photographed many western, “The Horse Soldiers”, “The Comancheros” and “McLintock.” Other works include “Merrill’s Marauders” and “Donavan’s Reef.”

Finally, this is the film where John Wayne imitators latched on to the phrase “pilgrim.” Doniphon constantly refers to Stoddard by that name.

Baby Face – Before and After

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     The first time I saw “Baby Face” was back in the 1990’s when it was released on VHS as part of the “Forbidden Hollywood series.” The film had a well deserved reputation for being one of the racier films to be ever made with sex, prostitution and plenty of morally corrupt individuals. Now on DVD as part of volume one in the “Forbidden Hollywood” collection, I finally got around to watching the disreputable pre-released version. Discovered back in 2005 in the Library of Congress film archives, this version was unearthed when a request was made for a new print to be struck. Mike Mashon, curator at the Motion Picture Division of the Library of Congress, received a print that was struck from the original camera negative however; he was told there was a dup negative that was about five minutes longer. Intrigued, Mashon requested a print from the dup negative. After viewing the five-minute longer version, he knew he had struck gold. Typical for the times, “Baby Face” prior to its release was submitted to various state censor boards, in this case the powerful New York State Board of Censors and was rejected. Without the approval of the State Board, Warner Brothers knew the film would never play in the major New York City market. Subsequently the film was edited removing the Boards objectionable scenes. The recut film was released and opened at the Strand Theater in New York to mixed reviews.

   babyface-intro1 In viewing both versions, the dramatic changes are significant enough to change the tone, the pre-released version being darker and certainly more sordid. Barbara Stanwyck is Lily a young woman who is pimped by her own father to the slimy characters who frequent his Erie, Pa. speakeasy. This is explicitly shown in the uncut version where a coarse local politician pays dear old Dad hard cash to spend some quality time with Lily. When the politician fondles Lily’s leg, she pours hot coffee on him. Next, he crudely grabs her breasts and Lily retaliates by grabbing a beer bottle hitting him squarely on the head. In the officially released version, this scene was cut dramatically. No cash exchanges hands between Dad and the politician; the fondling of Lily’s leg is shorter and there is no groping of her breasts. In other scenes, dialogue was changed or cut to meet the censors’ requirements. When her father tells her she can’t talk to him so rudely Lily goes on a tirade about “What a swell start you gave me….” She goes on about him being a lousy father and about all the rotten lousy men of which he was the lowest. What was cut from the released version of this rant is a line about Dad pimping her out at the age of 14! baby-face-vhs2

    Soon after, her father is killed when his still accidentally blows up. A local Cobbler, who in the original version comes across as more of a father figure, tells her to seek her fortune by going to New York. He tells her a beautiful young woman like her can get anything she wants but she must remember there is a right and wrong way to go about getting ahead in the world. In the pre-censored version, the cobbler’s advice is not as fatherly as he encourages her to read Nietzshe’s Thoughts out of Season and to “Crush out all sentiment.”  He tells her, a beautiful young woman like her can get anything because she has the power over men. “Use men, don’t let them use you”, he advises her. He goes on to say that she must be the master and not the slave. Use men to get the things she wants. Like Lily, this version of the film follows Nietzsche’s advice and crushes out any and all sentiment.

 .    Lily puts the cobbler’s advice to quick use when she hops a freight train with her friend and helper, Chico (Theresa Harris). Caught by a railroad inspector Lily using the new found power of her body seduces him as they ride the rails. In New York, Lily, with no work skills nor any education, seeks to get a job at the Gotham Trust Co. A personnel clerk asks her if she has any experience to which she replies “Plenty” with a knowing smirk. Telling Lily there are no jobs available she proposes they could work something out as she makes her way into the bosses empty office. The clerk follows closing the door behind him. Lily climbs to the top as she sleeps her way from the Filing Room, to the Mortgage Department to Accounting where she meets Ned Stevens (Donald Cook) who is engaged to Ann Carter (Margaret Lindsay), daughter of bank head J.P. Carter or at least he is until Lily becomes responsible for breaking up the romance. Stevens is so hooked on Lily that when he finds his future-father-in-law Carter in Lily’s bedroom he shoots him and commits suicide. Unperturbed by the violence, Lily nonchalantly calls the police telling them there has been an “accident.”

 babyface1   At this point, with all scandal Lily is sent off to the Paris branch of the Bank, which is somewhat ludicrous, why not just fire her. In Paris, she meets Courtland Trenholm (George Brent), who falls in love with Lily. They marry and Courtland showers Lily with jewelry, clothes and money.  They eventually come back to New York when the Bank and Trenholm are having financial problems. He ask Lily to return some of the gifts and securities he has given her so he can pay his debt, she refuses. Despondent Courtland attempts suicide. As Courtland is taken away in an ambulance with Lily as his side, the censors strike one more time. They did not like the idea in the original version that Lily is shown as not “paying” for her sins. Warner’s was forced to tack on an artificial ending instead of the pre-censored version, which is more ambiguous and yet hints at the chance that Lily and Courtland will live happily ever after.000004115.JPG

    “Baby Face” is not a great film and is remembered today more for its place in film history as one of the most salacious films ever made. The discovery, in 2005 of the pre-released version only cemented its place in history. The first half of the film holds up well from a story point of view however, the second part of the film somewhat shaky. Still the film is a thrill to watch mainly due to Stanwyck who gives us an early version of one of her classic bold ice-cold characterizations that she would play to perfection later on in films like “Double Indemnity and even on TV in “The Big Valley.”  Also a pleasure is Theresa Harris as Chico, Lily’s helper and friend who hums the bluesy “St. Louis Woman” throughout the film, subliminally reminding us of Lily’s immoral roots. Her role is a rare example of a non-stereotypical black character that is treated as an equal, especially by Lily. Harris appeared in many well known films, generally, as a maid or waitress. Her impressive list  include “Morocco”, Horse Feathers”, “Gold Diggers of 1933”, “Hold Your Man”, “Jezebel”, “The Women”, Phantom Lady”, “Cat People” “ The Dolly Sisters” “Miracle on 34th Street, “The Big Clock”, “The File on Thelma Jordan” and “Angel Face” among many others. In the Jack Benny starring “Buck Benny Rides Again,” Harris had the opportunity to show off her singing and dancing talent in a duet with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson. Unfortunately, because of the times this talented lady was never given the opportunity to climb the ladder to stardom.  Also, look for a young John Wayne is a minor role as one of Lily’s conquest and character actor Nat Pendleton in a small role as one of Lily’s Dad’s slimy speakeasy customers.  Pendleton appeared in over 100 films including “Manhattan Melodrama”, “The Thin Man”, “Another Thin Man”, “Buck Privates” and “Buck Privates Come Home.”

  babyfacex  The film was directed by Alfred E. Green, who started in the silent days and continued to work up until the late 1950’s.  “Baby Face” is probably his most famous or more fittingly his most infamous film. Most of Green’s output consisted of fairly routine programmers. The screenplay was written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola based on a story by Darryl F. Zanuck writing as Mark Canfield. Zanuck’s career with Warner’s Brothers would end shortly thereafter, only partially due to his part in creating tawdry films, “straight from the newspaper headlines”, such as “Baby Face” and probably more to do with disputes with Jack Warner and his own desires to run a studio. He would soon be a co-founder of Twentieth Century Pictures and a few years later, they would buyout Fox Pictures forming Twentieth Century Fox.

An interesting aside I came across is from an article by Molly Haskell in the New York Times on how so many pre-code heroines were called Lily or Lil. Beside Stanwyck’s Lily Powers, there’s Marlene Dietrich’s Shanghai Lil’ in Von Sternberg’s “Shanghai Express”, Jean Harlow as the gold-digging secretary Lil’ Andrews in “Red Headed Woman” and Lily, alias Mlle. Vautier in “Trouble in Paradise.” The character called Lady Lou played by Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong” was based on the play “Diamond Lil” written by West. Paramount changed the character’s name in hopes of reducing the notoriety that preceded the play.