Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Friday, May 27, 2011

Auditioning for Immortality

I ordered the Warner Archive's Vitaphone Varieties collection because the transition to sound is one of two periods in movie history that particularly fascinate me (the other is the early "outlaw" years circa 1888-1912 with its patent wars, jockeying for supremacy and feverish experimentation). I also hoped that this new batch of 60 shorts would provide the grist for a post or two, like the MGM shorts package I wrote about here and here.

I got half a loaf. I found the collection interesting, but I don't know if anyone else would agree if they don't already share my penchant for the period.

Scott Eyman's The Speed of Sound (perfect title!) chronicles the dizzy suddenness with which silents went out and talkies came in, even as many Hollywood insiders said it was only a passing fad. Only in hindsight do they look to us like dodos standing neck-deep in water shouting "There isn't going to be any flood!" And only in hindsight does it look like it happened overnight; there were three long and confused years before silents finally bit the dust.

That's the period covered by this collection, and it's actually a little less than claimed at the WA site. There are no shorts from 1926, the earliest in the collection being the first, The Revelers (from April 1927, six months before The Jazz Singer). And truth be told, this batch of shorts is a little drab compared to an earlier 6-disc set, Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy Shorts. That one covered nearly a full decade, 1931-38, with more familiar names than you'll find in this one. The new collection has a lot of seven-to-ten-minute turns by vaudevillians that I for one had never heard of, and whom I couldn't find in any of my vaudeville references.

They're not all strangers. An amazingly young-looking Jay C. Flippen shows up in The Ham What Am from 1928. Still years from his character-actor heyday in pictures like Brute Force, Winchester '73 or They Live by Night, or singing that the farmer and the cowman should be friends in Oklahoma!, Flippen regales us -- from the usual incongruous Vitaphone parlor set -- with a couple of songs and a lot of jokes, all while flashing a toothy, Joker-size smile and brandishing a cigar the size of a horse's leg.

And here was a surprise: the husband-and-wife vaudeville team of (Frank) Orth and (Ann) Codee. According to Joe Laurie Jr.'s chatty history Vaudeville: From the Honky Tonks to the Palace, written when many of the people he chatted about were still alive and working, Orth and Codee played their act all over the world in five different languages (she was Belgian-born). Like George Burns and Gracie Allen, she started out as straight-man to him, but he wound up playing straight-man to her. When the vaude circuits dried up, they both stepped easily into character work in movies, often uncredited. Orth's stock in trade was cab drivers, waiters, bartenders (or barflies), and newsmen. If the face is familiar but you can't quite place it, try this: he was Duffy, Cary Grant's beleaguered assistant in His Girl Friday

Codee may be harder to place from this picture, but her accent and dignified look kept her busy as Madame This or That: Mme. Borodin, the owner of Margaret O'Brien's ballet academy in The Unfinished Dance; Mme. Bouget in That Midnight Kiss, and so on. Any sci-fi fan will especially remember her, as I do... Dr. Duprey, one of Gene Barry's
scientific colleagues in George Pal's The
War of the Worlds (shown here with
Sandro Giglio as Dr. Bilderbeck,
seeking refuge in a church during
the destruction of L.A.). 

There are a few more familiar names and faces -- comedian Joe Frisco, character actors Montagu Love, Franklin Pangborn and Henry B. Walthall -- but they're not plentiful. For the most part, what the entertainers in this collection have in common more than anything else is their utter and absolute obscurity, then and now.

Who are these people? Some of them seem to have based their act on the premise that they have no talent whatsoever. Like Jack Born and Elmer Lawrence here, using floppy shoes, a Jew's harp, and a sad-sack dead-pan delivery in a vain effort to make themselves (and their jokes) funnier than they are. Did they ever really connect with an audience? We can't know because the audience is, by and large, as gone as they are. Nothing ages like comedy, which is why when we find someone who's still funny -- a Chaplin, a Keaton, a Groucho Marx, even a Moe or Curly Howard -- it tells us something. All we know for sure about Born and Lawrence is that they're not funny now. (Neither, for example, is one Charles "Slim" Timblin, dolled up as a blackface preacher in Revival Day [1930]. Here we have confirmation that at least some people at the time weren't amused: Sitting in Rev. Timblin's congregation are a number of bona fide African Americans, and they don't think he's funny; rather, they look sullen and disgusted at the thought of what they must put up with for -- what, a measly five bucks a day?)

For some reason, during this young lady's nine-minute Cycle of Songs ('28) I had something of an epiphany. Her name is Florence Brady, and she's just one of literally dozens of people in Vitaphone Varieties whom I, who have been studying vaudeville history for nearly 40 years, have never heard of. She's nothing particularly special, but she's not bad; she has pep and a nice voice, and she presents herself well to a camera that is not entirely hostile (she's like a young Rosie O'Donnell who can sing, and without the overweening anger). But I wondered: Did she make this short (and one other earlier in the year) because she was a name in vaudeville, or because she hoped to become a name in vaudeville?

Thousands of vaudevillians were thrown out of work when the two-a-day went belly-up, done in by the one-two punch of talkies and commercial radio. Some of them -- the smart, the quick and the lucky, the Frank Orths and Ann Codees, the William Demarests and Jack Bennys and George Burnses and Bob Hopes -- rolled with it and found work where the new money was. But for every one of them, there must have been many who struggled to sell themselves in a drying-up market until it was too late, then wound up teaching school or clerking in a bank or selling candy at Woolworth's -- and counted themselves lucky to get that. Maybe Florence Brady was one of those, along with Slim Timblin and Born and Lawrence, and Oklahoma Bob Albright, Carlena Diamond, Harpist Supreme, and Frank Whitman That Surprising Fiddler.

Or maybe not. Maybe these shorts aren't really acts but auditions -- a gig in a novelty medium, the Vitaphone short, that they hoped would get them some attention and a season's contract with Alexander Pantages or B.F. Keith. Even as late as 1930 only the farsighted could see that vaudeville was dying -- it had been around for over half a century, after all -- so it could have looked like a smart career move in a competitive biz. (They just didn't know how competitive it was about to become.) Unless somebody out there remembers these people (and surely somebody might) and fills us in, I guess we'll never know. 

A recent 16mm acquisition confirms that these kinds of auditions didn't die with vaudeville -- and, not incidentally, restores my faith in Warner Bros. shorts, so badly shaken by Vitaphone Varieties. It's Toyland Casino from 1938, another Vitaphone short (although by this time, of course, "Vitaphone" was an in-name-only thing). The premise is short and simple -- a bunch of pesky kids annoy a hotel manager with their playing around in the lobby, so they compromise by having the kids stage a night club revue to entertain the guests. The picture gets that out of the way in a quick 45 seconds or so; the rest of the 20 minutes is devoted to song, dance, or both from every kid Warner Bros. could find who wanted -- or whose parents wanted them -- to become the next Shirley Temple or Jackie Cooper. The kids give it their best respective shots, with varying degrees of success, but for most of them there would be this one short and then -- at least according to the IMDb -- nothing more.

But not all. Take five-year-old Francine
Lassman, for example. Born Abigail
Francine, she dropped the first name
for this appearance -- where she looks
and sounds like Our Gang's Darla Hood,
singing "Five and Ten Cent Soldiers on
Parade" before a phalanx of tap-dancing
kids in satin uniforms -- and for childhood
appearances on radio. In time, though,
she would drop "Francine" and rework
"Abigail Lassman" to become...

Abbe Lane, the sultry songstress and
wife (1952-64) of bandleader Xavier 
Cugat. Lane once boasted that she was
considered "too sexy for Italy" -- hard 
to imagine unless you've seen pictures 
like this.

 Then there's 13-year-old Bobby Hastings. He shows up in 19th century garb a la Irish tenor Chauncey Olcott singing "In the Gloaming" with a sweet old-fashioned lilt. Hastings would go on to a pretty amazing run. He shortened his name to "Bob" and in the late 1940s played teen comics hero Archie Andrews on radio. There followed a long career as a journeyman actor in which he appeared in an astonishing range of TV series in the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s: The Phil Silvers Show, The Untouchables, The Donna Reed Show, Ben Casey, Dennis the Menace, The Twilight Zone, Emergency, Adam-12, The Rockford Files, All in the Family, General Hospital, Lou Grant, The Dukes of Hazzard -- you name it. If you remember the original McHale's Navy, you might recognize him... Lt. Elroy Carpenter, perennial suck-up to Joe Flynn's Capt. Binghamton. 

I'm pleased to report that both Abbe Lane and Bob Hastings are still with us, 78 and 86 respectively at this writing. Continued good health to them both.
Right about the two-thirds mark Toyland Casino pops a real surprise -- the Moylan Sisters, Peggy Joan (6) and Marianne (8), ride out on carousel horses and sing a close-harmony version of "My Little Buckaroo" that ties the whole short up in a ribbon and sets it in our laps. They sing with the sort of joined-at-the-hip sibling harmony that would later distinguish the Everly Brothers (without the rock-n-roll, of course). There are quite a few talented kids in Toyland Casino, but the Moylans are stars -- and they know it. The other kids are doing their best to sell themselves, but Peggy Joan and Marianne are already beyond that -- they're selling the song.

The Moylan Sisters made it to stardom for a while, but not in movies (they made only four shorts like this one). Starting in 1939 they had their own 15-minute radio show Sunday afternoons on the NBC Blue Network. They continued at it through World War II and dropped out of show-biz about 1951. You can learn more, and hear samples of their singing, here. I understand that Marianne passed away in the early 1990s, but as far as I've been able to learn, Peggy Joan is still with us. If so, and if she reads this, I'd be delighted to hear from her.

I'm going to close with a real treat. Of all the auditions for immortality in Vitaphone Varieties and Toyland Casino, I think the Moylan Sisters deserved the best shot at it, so here's a YouTube clip of their rendition of "My Little Buckaroo". The song was written by M.K. Jerome and Jack Scholl for Warner Bros.' 1937 The Cherokee Strip, where it was introduced by Dick Foran. It was a huge hit on record for Bing Crosby, and was covered by just about every singing cowboy from San Antonio to Gower Gulch. But I don't think the song ever got a better performance than it does here from these two little grade-schoolers from Sag Harbor, Long Island. (If M.K. Jerome's grandson R.J. happens to read this post, I'd be interested to hear his take.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lost & Found: Alias Nick Beal

The Paramount mountain dissolves to a slate-colored sky pouring a torrential, whistling rain, riven by claws of lightning and rumbling thunder. There's a crashing fanfare from composer Franz Waxman that sounds magisterial, commanding and insinuating all at once, then descends into a tortured, frantic violin scherzo. Next the names of the three above-the-title stars -- Ray Milland, Audrey Totter, Thomas Mitchell -- then the title itself. Alias Nick Beal is under way.

Alias Nick Beal is another "supernatural noir", the subgenre I mentioned in my post on Night Has a Thousand Eyes. It may be the only other example. Of all the movies with supernatural plots, I can't think of any but those two that dressed their stories so fully in the trappings of film noir. (If you know of any, please speak up; I'll gladly kick myself for not having thought of them first.) 

Beal came hot on the heels of Night Has a
Thousand Eyes for director John Farrow,
writer Jonathan Latimer and producer Endre
Bohem -- so close, in fact (the pictures
were released less than five months apart),
that I have to believe Beal was being prepared
while Night was shooting, and being shot while
Night was being readied for release. Without
access to Paramount's detailed records I can't
confirm that, but the two movies are simply
too close a match, variations on a theme of
frail little humans trapped in a web of which
they can see only the dark and shadowy outline.
The difference between them -- the variation --
is this: Night Has a Thousand Eyes speaks of
sinister and mysterious forces beyond our
understanding; in Alias Nick Beal the sinister
mystery is entirely comprehensible, and it has
a name -- most of us were raised on childhood
tales of it -- but as adults, our belief in our own
sophistication blinds us, makes us willfully
refuse to see it until it's too late.

The screenplay for Alias Nick Beal was by Jonathan Latimer, from an original story by Mindret Lord. Lord's name isn't a familiar one even to movie-trivia buffs; he is sometimes misidentified as "Mildred". In fact, he was born Mindred Loeb in Chicago in 1903. His early years haven't left much trace in the permanent record, but by the late 1920s he was an aspiring writer and had embarked on a long affair with the opera singer Marguerite Namara, 15 years his senior.

In 1934 Lord met an old flame of Namara's, tenor Hardesty Johnson, and his wife Isabel, daughter of Hamlin Garland, a popular early-20th century writer whose fame would pretty much die with him in 1940. Isabel had ambitions to be a writer like her father, so she and Lord had something in common; by this time he had begun selling stories to the pulps, detective fiction to magazines like Black Mask and tales of horror and the supernatural to Weird Tales and the like ("pot boiling" he called it), and he mentored Isabel on her own writing. They began an affair that eventually finished off his liaison with Marguerite and her marriage to Hardesty. Lord and Isabel were married on December 21, 1936.

Mindret and Isabel collaborated (as "Garland Lord") on several mystery novels while he continued to boil pots for the pulps; he never really broke into the "slicks", as they were called, though he did eventually get four short-short stories (fictional anecdotes, really) into The New Yorker in 1942 and '43. By then he had contributed some sketches to New Faces of 1936 on Broadway, done some script doctoring for a wealthy Park Avenue wannabe-playwright, and picked up work writing for sundry radio series.

This got him a foothold in Hollywood (sort of), writing for independent producer W. Lee Wilder (Billy's younger, far less talented brother), who released his movies through Poverty Row's Republic Pictures. Lord began drinking heavily, his marriage fell apart, he had an affair -- though in what order, and which caused what, is anybody's guess. In 1948 and '49 he sold two stories to Paramount which became The Sainted Sisters and Nick Beal respectively. He wrote for a few second-string syndicated series in the early years of television, one last C-picture for Wilder, and finally, the script for The Virgin Queen (1955) with Bette Davis as Elizabeth I and Richard Todd as Sir Walter Raleigh. Near the end of that year, Lord committed suicide at 52. It's not hard to imagine why -- his writing career had never really gone anywhere, and he died one day after what would have been his wedding anniversary -- but if anybody knows the real reason, or even how he did it, they didn't leave the information lying around where I could find it.

Jonathan Latimer, who turned Lord's story for Beal
into a screenplay, was also born in Chicago and wrote
for the detective pulps in the '30s, but he was another
case entirely -- a more successful career, a longer life,
and death from natural causes at 76 in 1983. Latimer
started out as a crime reporter for the Chicago Herald
Examiner -- and later for the Tribune -- where he
became personally acquainted with Al Capone,
Bugs Moran, and other Chicago underworld
celebrities. In the mid-'30s he turned to fiction
with a series of hardboiled, semi-comic
mysteries featuring private eye Bill Crane.

Latimer branched out into non-crime fiction and non-series mysteries. One of the latter, Solomon's Vineyard (1941) was so violent and sexy it came out only in England; it wasn't published in the U.S. until 1950 (as The Fifth Grave), and then it was heavily expurgated (Latimer's original text finally appeared in the States in 1982). It's a good solid mystery that doesn't waste a word, but it is violent, with at least a dozen killings (only about half of them offstage), and a surprising amount of hot and kinky sex, especially for 1941. It also has one of the greatest I-dare-you-to-stop-reading opening lines in the history of pulp fiction: "From the way her buttocks looked under the black silk dress, I knew she'd be good in bed."

At a time when The Thin Man had spearheaded a vogue for comedy/mysteries, Universal bought three of Latimer's Bill Crane books for a short-lived series starring Preston Foster: The Westland Case (from Headed for a Hearse) in 1937 and two more the following year, The Lady in the Morgue and The Last Warning (from The Dead Don't Care). Those scripts were written by others, but in 1940 Latimer tried his own hand at screenwriting, first contributing the story for Phantom Raiders (with Walter Pidgeon as detective Nick Carter), then in 1941 co-writing the script for Topper Returns.

Like many newspapermen accustomed to deadlines, Latimer worked well in Hollywood, and he got some assignments that have aged gracefully among movie lovers: the 1942 remake of The Glass Key with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake; They Won't Believe Me ('47) with Susan Hayward, Robert Young and Jane Greer; and The Big Clock ('48) with Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. The Big Clock was directed by John Farrow, and Latimer reunited with him for Night Has a Thousand Eyes -- then, in '49, with both Farrow and Milland for Alias Nick Beal. In fact, Latimer worked with Farrow more than with any other director (and Farrow more with him than with any other writer), ten pictures in nine years, and the titles would be among the best on both men's resumes -- there were also Plunder of the Sun, Botany Bay and Back from Eternity.

Like Lord, Latimer also got into television, but at the other end of the food chain, writing for important network shows: Hong Kong, Checkmate, Markham (Ray Milland's one-season half-hour crime series), and a whopping 31 episodes for the original Perry Mason -- that last gig was as high as a writer could go in early-'60s TV. Latimer's last credit was another top-of-the-heap assignment: a 1972 episode of Columbo guest-starring his old friend Milland.

Alias Nick Beal is arguably the best thing Jonathan Latimer ever wrote, and it's certainly the absolute pinnacle of Mindret Lord's rather lackluster career. It takes place in an unnamed big city, one that closely resembles Lord and Latimer's native Chicago: corrupt, crime-ridden, and ruled by oily political boss Frankie Faulkner (Fred Clark), so secure and arrogant that he doesn't even bother to conceal his scheming or veil his threats.

However, Faulkner may have met his match in district attorney Joseph Foster (Thomas Mitchell), a paragon of legal rectitude and civic virtue -- in his spare time he helps his friend Rev. Garfield (George Macready) manage an after-school recreation program for boys at risk of delinquency -- who is prosecuting Faulkner's underling Hanson on corruption and racketeering charges, hoping to bring down Faulkner's organization brick by brick. But Faulkner isn't that easily dismantled; through crocodile tears he informs the prosecutor that Hanson's books, which Foster had subpoenaed only that morning, were destroyed in a fire the night before. Foster is stymied, checkmated; he had been careful to make it appear that he wouldn't seek the books, then had sprung his subpoena at the last moment, just to forestall something like this. But Faulkner was a step ahead of him. Foster's got to nail Hanson if he wants to clean up the city, and there's nothing he won't do to get him.

That's when Foster receives a cryptic summons to a dingy dive down by the waterfront: "If you want to nail Hanson, drop around the China Coast at eight tonight." The man he meets that night (Ray Milland) is clean-shaven and dapper, impeccably groomed and dressed, cutting a figure entirely at odds with the sqalid little tavern where Foster finds him. His card reads simply: "Nicholas Beal, Agent". "Agent for what?" asks Foster. Beal grins slightly. "That depends. Possibly for you."

Beal takes Foster to a nearby building, a rundown, darkened cannery where he presents Foster with the evidence he had sought that very morning -- Hanson's books, saved from the flames after all. Foster hesitates. He can't take them, he says; he has no warrant. I thought you wanted Hanson, Beal says; here's your chance. Foster continues to peruse the books. He doesn't speak but we can imagine his thoughts: Here they are, can I take the chance on losing them again? I can always get a warrent tomorrow. When he looks up, Beal is gone.

Foster decides. He tucks the books under his arm, puts out the light, and makes his way out of the cannery by the beam of a flashlight Beal left behind. In the pitch dark of the outer room, his light startles a rat on a shelf. The rat sqeaks plaintively and stares at Foster, eye to eye. We can almost read the rat's mind, as clearly as if he were speaking: Welcome to my world.

Foster gets his conviction and becomes a hero in the press.
He's still vaguely troubled about his hocus-pocus with the
warrant, but shrugs it off. Still, Beal isn't finished with him.
No sooner do representatives of the state's Independent
Party arrive, asking if Foster will allow his name to be placed
in nomination for governor, than Beal shows up in his study to
collect for services already rendered. But what seems like a
sly piece of blackmail takes an odd turn when Beal offers to
contribute to his political campaign; he already knows about
the overtures from the Independent Party ("I hear things.").

That night, on the foggy boardwalk outside the China Coast, Beal takes the next step in whatever scheme he has afoot. A down-and-out slattern (Audrey Totter) gives him a come-on, but is taken aback when he knows her name, Donna Allen. He knows her history, too: a couple of years of college, ambitions to be an actress, then seduced and abandoned by an actor she called "Boysey" -- who turned out to be married. They fought, he fell down a flight of stairs. "An accident, they said." How do you know about Boysey, she asks; you a friend of his? "I met him once."

Beal leads her to an expensive penthouse apartment,
smart and stylish but somehow foreboding and
unsettling, with Daliesque frescoes painted on the
walls. It's hers, he says, along with a wardrobe of
silks and sables, diamonds and sapphires. She tries
to bolt, but the delivery boy is at the door, and
everything is just too tempting -- and it all has
her name on it. "What do I gotta do, murder?"
"Just the opposite," says Beal, "reform work.
In a boys' club."

In the next scene Donna has made herself indispensible, organizing the boys' club office and writing large checks for donations -- and coyly flirting with Foster. It's a scene she's played often since her days with Boysey, but usually only for cheap drinks, and never with such lavish sets and costumes. Men are all alike, right? Boysey was married and here's another one; this time she's wised up, and if Beal wants her to tickle his vanity she'll play along. Why should she care? 

As time goes on Donna will slowly realize that neither Foster nor Beal is the kind of man she thought he was. Neither she nor Foster can see what we see: that Beal is slowly, carefully drawing his net around them both. Every step, beginning with Foster's compromise on the warrant and Donna's following Beal from the waterfront to that apartment, calls for just a slight stretch of the conscience, a tiny little disregard of misgivings, moving them off true center by degrees they simply don't notice. 

We see other things the characters don't. Beal's plans involve conspiracy, duplicity, bribery, double-dealing, seduction and murder. Things come to a head as Beal prepares to spring his trap. He shows up at Donna's apartment, telling her that Foster is on his way after a fight with his wife. Beal tells her how the conversation will go -- what she's to say, what Foster will answer, what she's to say to that. She sneers at the melodrama; who would ever spout those cornball lines? Never mind, he says, just remember your part.

When Foster arrives their talk runs more or less as Beal said it would. Then, hearing her cue and hardly knowing what to expect, Donna segues into the words Beal gave her -- and so does Foster. With growing horror, she tries to stop things, and her words take on a different, more frightening meaning -- but they're still Beal's words! Try as she might, she can't not say what Beal told her to. It's a brilliantly written scene, and brilliantly played by Audrey Totter, the finest five minutes in her career.

Donna Allen becomes the first to sense the truth: Nicholas Beal isn't just some slimy, amoral political operative. He is, in literal fact, the Devil Himself.

I'm not spoiling anything here; this isn't a please-don't-reveal-the-ending mystery. We've tipped to this long before Foster or Donna or Rev. Garfield. Beal knows things before they happen. He can't stand to be touched. He refuses to read from the Bible, or even touch it. He cold-shoulders Rev. Garfield, who can't quite place where he's seen Beal's face before. ("Did anyone ever paint your portrait?" "Yes, Rembrandt in 1655.") The beauty of Alias Nick Beal isn't that Beal's character is revealed to us in a sudden, shocking whoa-didn't-see-that-coming revelation. It's that we can easily believe that the other characters can't see him for what he is. To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, they see but they do not observe. We're sitting watching a movie, but they're living their lives; after all, this is the 20th century, and things like that just don't happen, do they? But as Rev. Garfield finally says, "Maybe the Devil knows it's the 20th century too, Joseph."

Foster passes control of his soul to Beal by increments, one step at a time. The first step is both the smallest and the biggest, because once he's started it gets harder to turn back, easier to go on, until finally he stands bewildered, unable to recognize himself. How did I get here?, he wonders. In a moment of self-knowledge, he realizes: "It's not Beal, it's me."

Naturally, the mainspring of Alias Nick Beal must be Ray Milland's performance, and he's superb. His Beal is smooth, quiet, confident, glib. Nothing ruffles him. But don't try to touch him. "I don't like to be touched." He says it simply, almost apologetic, but his meaning is clear: you won't like what happens when you do something he doesn't like. When Beal once flares in anger, it's over in an instant and his calm demeanor returns, but the moment is unnerving; though his eyes are angry slits in that moment, we can almost see the fires of Hell banked behind them.

Milland won a well-deserved Oscar for his tour de force in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, but I'm not sure he isn't even better here -- more subdued, certainly, his face often registering only the slightest movement of an eyebrow, a cheek muscle, the corner of his mouth. He's the master puppeteer with no wasted motion, supremely in control, confident that his puppets will never feel the strings. Milland worked four times with director Farrow (not incidentally, all but one of them written by Jonathan Latimer), and they were an excellent match, never more so than here.

Alias Nick Beal is superbly directed, too, by the underrated Farrow,
whose name is more familiar now thanks to his daughter Mia's career
than to his own. He was Australian-born in 1904, naturalized American
in 1947, twice Oscar-nominated (1942 for directing Wake Island; 1956
for co-writing Around the World in 80 Days, which he won). He was also
something of a polymath -- author of plays, novels, short stories, a Tahitian-
English dictionary and biographies of Thomas More and Father Damien.
Besides the Oscar, he was also awarded an honorary Commander of the
British Empire (by Queen Elizabeth II) and a Knighthood of the Grand
Cross of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (by Pope Pius XI). In Nick
Beal his hand is firm but not heavy, and he doesn't overplay it. Scenes
move sinuously from one to the next (the black fog of the waterfront
becomes the back of Foster's suit as he steps away from the camera
in his study), and the story moves with the slithery grace of a serpent.
Notice too the performances of minor characters -- Donna's maid,
a railroad depot bartender, the grizzled denizens of the China Coast.
Farrow is a director who tends to the details. After all, isn't that
where the Devil is?

The phrase "banality of evil" was years in the future when Alias Nick Beal came out, but the theme is on display here. The banality of evil, but also its seductiveness, and the good intentions that pave the road to Hell. Above all, its persistence. You may vanquish the Devil, but he won't give up; he'll be back, and he's patient. Beal tells us as much when he and Foster overhear a sidewalk Salvation Army convert's testimony: "Glory be! I've wrestled the Devil and thrown him. I've pinned his shoulders to the mat..." Beal turns ironically to Foster. "I wonder if he knows it's two falls out of three."

Friday, May 6, 2011

Lost & Found: Night Has a Thousand Eyes

In using the heading "Lost & Found" for this post, I don't mean to suggest a "lost" film in the sense that historians and archivists have come to mean it. I mean a movie that was once readily available -- at least on TV, and in my neighborhood, in the days of local stations' film libraries and syndication packages -- but that now seems to have vanished entirely except for the occasional 16mm print or bootleg video.

John Farrow's Night Has a Thousand Eyes is one of those movies. It presumably still exists in the vaults at Universal Pictures (proprietors of Paramount's pre-1950 library), waiting for the day Universal finds it worth their while to issue a white-market DVD. The day may yet come; the picture does have its following. I tried to bid on a 16mm print on eBay a couple of years ago, but the price quickly went out of my range -- and this at a time when 16mm features were hardly moving on eBay at all.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes originated as a novel by Cornell Woolrich, one of the more unusual creeps in the history of Hollywood (where creeps have never exactly been an endangered species). Born Cornell George Hopley-Woolrich in 1903, his parents separated when he was little. He lived with his father in Mexico until he was 12, then moved to New York to live with his mother -- which, except for one brief interval, he did for the rest of her life. He dropped out of Columbia when his first novel Cover Charge promised success as a writer. 

His first six books were sort of faux Scott Fitzgerald, and while that particular line didn't pan out, when he turned to crime fiction it was another story. He began writing for the pulp magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective, cranking out short stories by the fistful -- in time over 300 of them -- and, later, novels for the same audience. He never got rich at the magazines' penny-a-word rates, but he wrote fast enough to pay the bills. 

Before that, his Fitzgeraldesque books had earned him a job in Hollywood writing for First National Pictures -- that's the brief interval I mentioned. Whether anything he wrote made it to the screen is an open question. His IMDB page lists several titles, silent and early talkie, on which he was credited as William Irish; on the other hand, in an article for Time Magazine, Richard Corliss says that Irish was another writer at First National whose name Woolrich later appropriated as one of his noms de plume.

Another thing Woolrich did in Hollywood was get married, in 1930, to 20-year-old Gloria Violet Virginia Blackton, daughter of silent movie pioneer J. Stuart Blackton. The marriage was never consummated, and Gloria eventually had it annulled in 1933, after Woolrich had gone home to Mother. According to Corliss (who cites Woolrich biographer Francis M. Nevins), when Woolrich moved out on Gloria he left behind a diary for her to read. In it, for starters (says Corliss), he had written that "it might be a really good joke to marry this Gloria Blackton." The diary also went into "sordid and dreadful detail" about his daily sexual adventures with anonymous men; as Corliss says, while he never consummated his marriage, he was hardly celibate.

I say it again, the man was a creep -- not because he was gay, but because of the diary, and because he left it behind for Gloria to read. Then there's the fact that he lived with his mother until he was 53, when she died. By itself that would just be kind of odd; taken with everything else it tends to red-line the creep factor. (It sounds like Sebastian and Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer.) When his mother died in 1957, Woolrich fell to pieces and wasted away. Literally. He neglected a minor foot infection, dulling the pain with booze, until it became gangrenous and they had to amputate his leg above the knee. When he died, alone and miserable in 1968, he weighed only 89 pounds.

The doom-laden fatalism and frustrated self-loathing that lurk under the thin skin of Woolrich's life surfaced in his writing when he turned from Fitzgerald Jazz Age society to the dank, shadowed recesses of crime fiction. It may not have made him rich or famous, but it kept him eating, and as luck would have it he caught the leading edge of the wave -- first of the pulp-fiction detective magazines of the 1930s and '40s, then of the dark, morally ambiguous movement in 1940s Hollywood that would become known as film noir. There were no fewer than 15 movies made from his novels and stories in the 1940s alone, and dozens more (for theaters and TV) since then. Probably the best of the lot -- certainly the most famous -- is Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), originally published as "It Had to Be Murder" in Dime Detective Magazine (Feb. '42). But there were others: Val Lewton's The Leopard Man (1943, from Black Alibi), Phantom Lady ('43), Deadline at Dawn ('46), The Window ('49, from "The Boy Cried Murder"). More recently, too: Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black ('68) and Mississippi Mermaid ('69, from Waltz into Darkness), Mrs. Winterbourne ('96, from I Married a Dead Man), Original Sin (2001, Waltz into Darkness again).

Night Has a Thousand Eyes was published in 1945 under one of Woolrich's pen names, George Hopley (his two middle names); later, in this '50s-vintage paperback, under his other one, William Irish. But in 1948, when Paramount and director John Farrow filmed the novel, the screen credits named Cornell Woolrich as the novel's author.

If Woolrich bothered to see the movie (and my guess is he simply took the money and ran -- or rather, stayed home; he doesn't seem to have gotten out much in those days), he might have had trouble recognizing it. The novel is told from the alternating viewpoints of its two central characters: New York police detective Fred Shawn and heiress Jean Reid, whom he saves from a suicidal jump off a bridge one night while walking home from work. Shattered and timorous, Jean recounts the events that have driven her to such a desperate pass.

Jean and her wealthy widowed father Harlan Reid were happy and secure until some weeks before, when he planned to fly west to San Francisco and back on a business trip. Overhearing the plans, a servant girl blurts out to Jean that her father mustn't fly back; a "friend" has told her that the plane will crash. Jean tries to dismiss the idea, but her sense of dread grows by the hour, and she is devastated when the plane does indeed go down in Colorado. Seeking answers, the grieving Jean tries to meet her maid's friend but he refuses, sending word that she should go home; she'll see her father again. At home she finds a telegram: her father missed his flight and is unharmed; he'll be coming home by train.

The Reids eventually meet the mysterious prophet: Jeremiah Tompkins, a shrunken, broken little man who disdains their gratitude, refuses money, and demands only to be left alone. Yet even as he rebuffs them, he speaks in riddles -- and every cryptic remark is borne out by events that he could never have foreseen. Harlan Reid is hooked, returning to Tompkins time and again, seeking advice on business matters and always profiting by what he learns, and always offering payment which Tompkins always refuses. Finally Tompkins tells him that further advice is useless: Reid has only a few weeks to live. Unwilling to speak but unable to stop, Tompkins tells him the exact date and hour when he will meet his death "in the jaws of a lion." The robust, confident Reid becomes a shocked, hollow shell of himself, waiting only to die. Jean, meanwhile, glimpsing a hostile, uncaring universe without free will, in which she and her father are trapped like insects in amber, has despaired and tried to kill herself, only to be rescued by Shawn.

Shawn senses some subtle, diabolical scam afoot and persuades his superiors to launch an investigation in the few days remaining. What is Tompkins up to? Is he up to anything at all? The novel then becomes a blend of police procedures, as detectives try to trace Tompkins' "predictions" to their roots, and Shawn and Jean's vigil at the Reid estate. As the two seek to raise Harlan Reid's spirits and head off the perplexing prophecies, their forlorn efforts take on the futile aura of a death watch. It's no spoiler to say that, along with a few unexpected turns, events work out precisely as Tompkins said they would. The novel ends on a note of trembling hope, but with the characters sensing that they are playthings in the hands of unbreakable fate, and that they'd have been far happier without that glimpse of the abyss.

Even Woolrich's most admiring fans know that elegant plots were not among his strengths, and much of Night strains credulity; indeed, the supernatural element is often more credible than the ordinary goings-on (which may have been the whole idea). Nor was he much of a stylist; he often overwrites like a man who gets a penny a word and is determined to squeeze every cent he can out of his story. Sometimes his novel reads like the hardboiled Mickey Spillane parody "The Girl Hunters Ballet" in The Band Wagon, as funny unintentionally as Comden and Green were on purpose.

Rather than plot or style, what Woolrich's novel has is mood -- in spades, and maybe even to a fault -- the chilling sense of being in the grip of some insensate force and powerless to resist. If Woolrich did happen to swing by New York's Paramount Theatre when the movie opened there in October 1948, he might have noticed that that mood is preserved on the screen, even as his entire story and most of his characters are jettisoned.

Elements of the novel remain, recognizable but altered, as in a dream. The tormented oracle, of course. The opening scene of a young woman saved from suicide -- only now her name is Jean Courtland (Gail Russell), and her rescuer isn't a stranger but her fiance Elliott Carson (John Lund). The plane crash -- only this time Jean's father (Jerome Cowan) is on the plane and goes down with it. The police-procedural investigation by William Demarest as Lt. Shawn, the only surname to survive from the novel -- only this time the aim is not to avert Jean's father's death, but her own. And as in the book, there are the cowardly servants deserting Jean, and treachery within the doomed tycoon's circle of associates. Even the mysterious reference to a lion remains, and is similarly borne out.

The screenplay of Night Has a Thousand Eyes is by Barre Lyndon and Jonathan Latimer, and for me there's no getting around the fact that they made major improvements in Cornell Woolrich's original. The story is simpler and more interesting -- positioning Jean as the damsel in distress is a much smoother sell than asking us to worry about a broken old man giving up and sitting around waiting for death.

Lyndon and Latimer's biggest and most satisfying change is in the character of the psychic, the reason the story exists in the first place. Woolrich, with a typically heavy hand, gives us Jeremiah Tompkins ("Jeremiah," yet!), cursed and burdened his entire life with a "gift" he doesn't understand or want and can't control, crushed by it long before he meets Jean or her father. He's given up. He's a haunted zero. 

In the movie Tompkins becomes John Triton (Edward G. Robinson), a vaudeville and nightclub mentalist with a phony mind-reading act. Or rather, that's what he was some twenty-odd years ago, as he describes things to us in flashback. As he plies his act in theaters and saloons from town to town, he finds himself -- and he's not even sure exactly when it started -- getting genuine flashes, glimpses into the future: the winner in a horse race, the son of an audience member who is playing with matches at home and about to set fire to the house, an investment opportunity that will pay off. 

Triton has an additional connection with Jean Courtland supplied by Lyndon and Latimer: his partners in the act (Jerome Cowan and Virginia Bruce) are -- will be -- Jean's parents, although the woman will die in childbirth and Jean will never know her. Triton sees this coming and thinks he can prevent it by running out on them, so he does (he still believes his visions are mutable and can be changed or forestalled). Courtland grows wealthy on the predictions he got from Triton before he disappeared, and for twenty years Jean has heard tales of Triton from her father, who believed the man was dead. Now Jean's father himself is dead, and Triton knew it would happen. He knows as well that Jean too will meet...what?...death?...something...but he can't...quite...make sense of his jumbled and fragmentary vision.

Carson, Jean's fiance, sees in Triton a carnival con-man running some kind of game to fleece a wealthy and vulnerable orphan, and he takes his concerns to the police. But Triton's game, if there is a game, is a subtle one. He asks no money, does nothing illegal, and cooperates with the police one hundred percent. "He puts up a good show," says a skeptical psychiatrist. What is this man up to?

There is simply no end to the ways in which Night Has a Thousand Eyes is better than the novel it's based on. The book may be a work of art that expresses the author's nightmarish vision of an overpowering and inexorable universe (though I have my doubts on that score), but the movie was made by craftsmen who had the story sense (Barre Lyndon and Jonathan Latimer) and fluid style (John Farrow) that Cornell Woolrich lacked. In John Triton, the movie has a protagonist more complex, dramatic and interesting than the cringing troll Tompkins. Triton is a true Cassandra, a prophet fated to be disbelieved -- not because people think he's mad, but because they think he's too sane, a slick and calculating huckster with a smooth line of patter. Which, once upon a time, he was.

In addition, and perhaps more important, the movie has Edward G. Robinson. Robinson once said of himself, "Some people have youth, some have beauty -- I have menace." In one of his other 1948 pictures, Key Largo, he menaced Bogart, Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor and anyone else who entered a room with him. Billy Wilder used that menace to great effect in Double Indemnity, where Robinson played, in fact, a good man who (without knowing it) menaced the picture's protagonist and actual villain, perennial nice guy Fred MacMurray. 

In Night Has a Thousand Eyes Robinson's menace is turned in on itself, a serpent eating its tail for so long it's hard to tell where the serpent ends and the tail begins, or what is eating whom. Triton can't un-see his visions, and he knows that trying to change events will make them happen, but he can't keep himself from trying anymore than he can keep them from happening. In the end we can't decide whether Triton embraces his "gift" or surrenders to it. Neither, perhaps, can he.

We need a good professional DVD of Night Has a Thousand Eyes. The nocturnal motif of the title, the looming sense of prying, encroaching darkness, plays out in the relentless charcoal shadows strewn across the frame by Farrow and cinematographer John F. Seitz (I discussed this great cameraman in my essay on director Rex Ingram), and without a proper transfer elements of their images can be (and no doubt have been) lost in the murk of careless reproduction. Still, even in the gray-market renditions currently available, this is a sinister and unsettling movie in the best sense of the phrase, one that seems to have a foot in two different worlds -- one the world we live in, the other a world that just may have its foot in us. 

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a specimen of a rare subgenre: supernatural noir. There aren't many examples of that; parapsychology, the "spirit world," and such things are not to be easily grafted onto the gritty, cynical urban landscapes of movies like Laura and Double Indemnity. But John Farrow, Jonathan Latimer and producer Endre Bohem would do it again the following year in their next picture together, just a few months after finishing this. The result would be a neglected classic -- forgotten now but, once seen, unforgettable. I'll write about that one next time.

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