Half a Hero (1953)

This post is my contribtuion to the CMBA’s HIDDEN CLASSICS BLogathon. These are the forgotten gems, the underrated ones that deserve more attention. You can discover more “Hidden Classic Gem” by clicking on this link.

America in the early 1950s was on a high. The war was over; the boys were home, a baby boom was in full swing and the economy was growing. Many folks were leaving the city and heading out to the white picket fence world of the suburbs. In the suburbs, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, people were living what many thought was the American Dream. 

      Released in 1953, Half a Hero is a small low budget programmer that had nothing on its mind other than providing a few laughs. Written by Max Shulman (Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys!, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis) and directed Don Weis (I Love Melvin, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis), this was the kind of small film that television helped kill. But time has been good to this little film. Make no mistake, this is no lost masterpiece. What it is though is a reflection, or a mirror held up to a time and place in America that reveals the country’s mood and emerging middle class during this period. [1]

   That may seem like a lot of weight to place on a small lightweight programmer that stars comic Red Skelton, but it’s true. Skelton plays Ben Dobson, an unemployed writer who gets a job at a magazine where his new and frugal boss, Mr. Bascomb (Charles Dingle), approves of Ben and his wife, Martha (Jean Hagen), living in a small tenement building on the West Side of Manhattan. Bascomb hates the newfangled fad of people moving out to the suburbs or as he calls them, the slums of tomorrow, where they are living above their financial means, borrowing money on credit which he rails against claiming it will ruin the country.  

Ben starts off as a rewrite man, checking and correcting other writer’s work. His boss likes his work, but the frugal employer does not offer a raise. Meanwhile, Ben’s wife (Jean Hagen) informs hubby she is pregnant. She’s pushes for Ben to ask for an increase or quit! It works. Ben to his surprised is valued.

    With a family now, Jean hints their small apartment feels cramped. They need more space. She suggests they look for a house; where else but in the suburbs? Ben is against it, however, he reluctantly agrees to ‘look.’ He sets the amount they could afford to spend on a house and swears they cannot wavier from it. Naturally, the houses in the price range Ben was limiting their financial sights on are small and not what his wife wants. And just as naturally, she gets her way with a house costing more than Ben wanted.

   Expenses soon mount as bill after bill arrives. It seems never ending. Ben, by the way, has not told his boss about his move to the suburbs, so when the boss man informs Ben he wants him to write an Exposé on how suburbanites are living above their means, Ben who is unhappy with his living in the burbs, hopes that if he writes the article, to be called The Slums of Tomorrow, about the folks in his own hometown they will hate him and his family so much they will feel forced to move back to the city.

   Surprisingly, there are quite a few serious moments in a film that is basically a comedy. It manages to jump smoothly back and forth. Skelton, a comic handles it all well. Along with Jean Hagen (Singin’ in the Rain, The Asphalt Jungle) as his wife and Charles Dingle (Talk of the Town, My Favorite Brunette) as his cheap boss, the cast includes Mary Wickes (The Man Who Came to Dinner) and Frank Cady (Ace in the Hole) as potential buyers of their suburban home, King Donovan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Dorothy Patrick (Come to the Stable) as fellow suburbanites along with Kathleen Freeman, Burt Mustin and Polly Bergen who appears as herself singing the song Love.

       By 1953, when Half a Hero arrived in theaters, Red Skelton had already moved toward television. Sure there were more films, (Public Pigeon No, 1, The Great Diamond Robbery and some cameos in films like Susan Slept Here and Ocean’s 11) but more and more his work was on the tube. His hit television show began in 1951 and ran for an amazing twenty years.

Footnotes:

 HYPERLINK “https://d.docs.live.net/d1a7fc87681f81d0/Half%20a%20Hero.docx” \l “_ftnref1” [1] Nicholas Ray’s 1956 film, Bigger than Life, presents a darker view of the 1950s American suburban dream.

Singin in the Rain (1952) Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

I’m singin in the rain

just singin in the rain

What a glorious feeling

I’m happy again

I’m laughing at clouds

So dark up above

The sun’s in my heart

And I’m ready for love

Is there anything more exuberant than watching Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ in the rain? Generally considered one of, if not, the grandest of all musicals, and whom am I to argue, “Singin’ in the Rain” is a joyous delight, celebrating movies, music, dance and the talent of a cast and creators who rarely were better. Critics over the years have been in agreement, from Pauline Kael who called it “the most enjoyable of musicals” to David Kehr, who said it is “one of the shining glories of the American musical’ to Roger Ebert who wrote, “There is no movie musical more fun as ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ and few that remain as fresh over the years.” Even New York Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowthers wrote at the time of the film’s release, “Guaranteed to put you in a buttercup mood.” And let’s face it, if a film can put old sourpuss Crowthers in a “buttercup mood” that my friends, is one hell of a movie! (1)

Surprisingly the film, while it met with good reviews, was not considered the instant classic, top of the heap, musical it would be judged in later years. Sure, it was a hit financially but overshadowed in accolades by Kelly’s previous film, Vincent Minnelli’s “An American in Paris,” released only five months earlier and destined to win Best Picture of the Year for 1951.(2) The Kelly/Donen film’s only Academy Award nominations were for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Jean Hagen and Best Musical Score for a Musical Picture (Lennie Hayton). This was the year of DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” generally considered the worst film to ever win Best Picture. Other nominees that year included Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” thought to be the early favorite, John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge,” John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” and the mediocre “Ivanhoe.” Hard to believe no one thought the joyous MGM musical was worthy of a spot on the Best Picture nominee list that year. Continue reading

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) John Huston

Note: There are spoilers in the article.

Everyone has a weakness, and if you let it consume you it just might do you in:  young girls, high living, horses, it does not matter, they can all become vices and destroy you. That what happens to the various characters in John Huston’s classic caper film “The Asphalt Jungle.” Written by Huston and Ben Maddow, based a  novel by W.R. Burnett whose tough yet effortless style is responsible for such other memorable films like “Little Caesar” and “High Sierra.”

“The Asphalt Jungle” is the first caper movie to detail in a realistic, gritty style, a step by step process on how to pull off a heist job.  It definitely set the standards for future heist films to come like  “Rififi,” “The Killing,” “The Anderson Tapes,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Reservoir Dogs”  and even a lesser film like “Ocean’s 11” all of which owe a debt of gratitude to this film. The characters that we are now familiar with in so many other heist films are all there, the brains behind the plan,  the brawn,  the safecracker, the getaway guy, the stoolie, and the double-crosser who wants everything for himself. The women are there too, Doll (Jean Hagen) and Angela (Marilyn Monroe) whose biggest weaknesses are they love their men too much.

Doc Reidenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is just out of prison and wants to pull a big heist, one he had planned long before being sent away. He hooks up with a small-time bookie, Cobby (Marc Lawrence) who brings in the money man, a slimy lawyer named Emmerich (Louis Calhern), who is in debt up to his neck. Despite being married, Emmerich has a beautiful and very young mistress named Angela (Marilyn Monroe), a woman with expensive taste. Emmerich and his thug partner Bannerman (Brad Dexter) convince Cobby to put up the front money; you see they have plans to steal the jewels from Doc and company and fence it on their own. Doc brings in Dix (Sterling Hayden) as strong arm, Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) as the pro safecracker and Gus (James Whitmore), as the getaway guy. The heist goes well except during the getaway, Louis is critically wounded. This is the first of a series of actions that unravel their “perfect plan.” Gus is soon picked up by the police, Cobby turns stoolie after being beaten up by a former friendly corrupt cop. Dix will kill Bannerman when he and Emmerich try to take the jewels; however, Dix has been wounded himself from a shot Bannerman got off before dying. When the cops come to pick up Emmerich at his house, he commits suicide. Doc decides to get out of town heading for Cleveland but is picked up by two police officers at a pit stop when he waited a few minutes too long drooling over a young teenage girl dancing to music on a jukebox. Dix plan is to head back to his home in Kentucky. He and his girl Doll (Jean Hagen) take off but that wound is still bleeding, and as he reaches the ranch he collapses and dies in his field of dreams.

From the first shots where we pick up Dix roaming the dark, deserted city streets trying to avoid the police to the approximately 10 minutes heist scene, to the final scenes where Doc and then Dix meet their fate Huston films it all with  a commanding  intensity and strong atmospheric camerawork, extracting a series of excellent performances from the cast.

Their perfect plan is done in by the weaknesses of the men. Doc would have escaped from the city had his weakness for young girls not held him back a few extra minutes. He had to watch the young teen girl boogie to the tunes on the jukebox. Emmerich was simply done in by greed, a common theme in Huston films (Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon). Even Dix had to try to make it back to his old Kentucky home and the horses he loved only to die trying.

Huston cast the film with an excellent group of actors. For Sterling Hayden, this was his first leading role in a major film. Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe and Jean Hagen were known entities but lacked marquee strength. Marilyn Monroe was still a starlet in what was essentially her first substantial part in a major film. She was not even Huston’s first choice for the role; he originally wanted Lola Albright. Monroe does not have much screen time as the young plaything to the sleazeball lawyer but she manages to make a big impression with her limited exposure, and she looks great.

In 1958, a western called “The Badlanders” (available via Warners Archive Collection) starring Alan Ladd was a loose remake. An even looser version was tried as a TV show in 1961. Basically, they used the title and changed everything else turning it into a standard cops and robbers series.  Needless to say, the show did not last long.  Other remakes include a 1963 film called “Cairo,” with George Sanders, and in 1972, a blaxploitation version called “Cool Breeze” was released with a cast that included Pam Grier.

The film received four Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Sam Jaffe), Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.  Interesting enough MGM had two other films they pushed for best picture that year, “Father of the Bride” and unbelievably “King Solomon’s Mines” were both nominated.

“The Asphalt Jungle” holds up very well retaining a sense of realism, three-dimensional characters, darkly lit noir lighting, and claustrophobic close-ups. The film is more visually representative of Warner’s ripped from the front pages of newspapers 1930’s style than the glossy films you would expect from MGM.

Watch this film, and you will see everything that is missing in the unrealistic thrill seeking super acrobatic capers that today’s stars like Tom Cruise and others attempt to entertain us within multiplexes.

No Questions Asked (1951) Harold F. Kress a

No Questions posterage

“No Questions Asked” opened in the late summer of 1951 to mostly seen it all before reviews. The film stars Barry Sullivan, as Steve Kiever, an insurance company lawyer who finds that working for a corporation can be a slow path on the road to success. His beautiful girlfriend Ellen (Arlene Dahl), has expensive taste is just returning from a trip.  Steve is ready to put a ring on her finger and settle down to a blissful married life. Only problem is he does not have any money.

After being turned down for an increase, Steve learns from his boss that the company is willing to make any kind of a deal to get some recently stolen furs back with no questions asked (this would be cheaper than paying out on the policy). As a man who is motivated to climb the corporate ladder, Steve comes up with a plan and starts to make connections within the underworld, arranging a deal. The insurance company will pay ten thousand dollars for the return of the stolen furs with no question asked. For Steve, the company will give him a two thousand five hundred dollar bonus for arranging the exchange. With the bonus from the company, Steve buys a ring and goes over to Ellen’s apartment ready to pop the big question, only she’s gone. Packed up her bags, got married to a man she met on her trip and went off to Europe.

Steve continues to broker deals between the mob and the insurance company for other stolen property. He is oblivious as to who is doing the actual robberies; he does not want to know. All he does is make the connections. In the process making himself a fistful of dollars, enough to open up his own law office and move into a swanky penthouse apartment with a new girl, Joan (Jean Hagen) a former co-worker at the insurance company who has had a crush on him.cuvvb1txm59tt1mv

For a while, life is good for Steve, though the police are monitoring him. While he is not doing anything illegal, crime statistics have gone up because the underworld now realizes they can steal goods, call on Steve who will negotiate a financially satisfying deal for them to return the stolen items, no questions asked. They no longer have to worry about fencing stolen property. It all goes down smoothly until Ellen and her husband return from overseas. The ending turns out to be pretty standard stuff, the double crossers get their due, Steve manages to survive and find true love with Joan, all with a production code approving crime does not pay finale.

Barry Sullivan is stoic as Steve, and for some reason reminded me of David Janssen. He is good though somewhat uninspired in the role.  Arlene Dahl as Ellen, the double crossing first love who aspires to a rich life style is down right dull, managing to look good but that is about all. Part of this is due to a script that really does not bring out the danger of her character. The acting highlights, as they are, belong to Jean Hagen who gives a good performance as the caring former co-worker, Joan who has waited a long time for Steve to finally, realize she was the one.

The script, written by Sidney Sheldon, who also wrote quite a few screenplays before becoming a best selling author. Harold F. Kress, best known as a film editor of such films as “East Side, West Side”, “How the West Was Won, The Teahouse of the August Moon, “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” among many others, directed the film.

The film does have some nice noirish qualities, with some sleazy like locations and dimly lit streets, though this NYC is definitely located on an MGM back lot.  “No Questions Asked” gets a recommendation to watch, though the question remains open if you would want to revisit.