Essential: HUNTED (1952)

Part 1 of 2

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Dirk Bogarde and Jon Whiteley

TB: Dirk Bogarde said HUNTED was his personal favorite of all the motion pictures he made, and it’s easy to see why it was such a special experience for him. I think he does a remarkable job, and nearly all his scenes occur with young Jon Whiteley. Whiteley was a novice to moviemaking but he’s a natural. Thoughts on their working relationship, and the relationship between their two characters, Chris and Robbie?

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JL: I saw at least one documentary on Dirk’s career but did not know what films were his favorites. It is a different kind of role for a leading man of romantic films at this early stage of his career, so I can understand why he liked it. Later, of course, he took on equally curious and sometimes sinister roles for Luchino Visconti and others in the more “international” period of his career. No, he does not look like the killer type, but that is based on how stereotypical killers are portrayed on screen.

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JL: Jon Whiteley is a natural, as is Hayley Mills (who will be discussed next week). However this is the only role I have seen him in. I have not seen THE SPANISH GARDENER. He reminds me of the two most famous on-screen Oliver Twists. Not Jackie Coogan, but John Howard Davies and Mark Lester. Obviously these boys contrast from spunky Hayley who is a bundle of energy and has little trouble taking care of herself. The character of Robbie constantly needs somebody’s personal care.

Chris and Robbie

TB: On screen the relationship between Chris and Robbie evolves considerably. At first, Chris is a bit rough with Robbie (not unlike the boy’s abusive adoptive father). But gradually Chris softens. It’s an unusual sort of redemption story. Would you agree?

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JL: The way Chris grabs Robbie by the arm and drags him about reminded me of the way both of my parents were with me. They were very impatient with me, even though they weren’t criminals on the run like Chris here. That is why the key scene with the boarding house lady (Jane Aird) is so important. She notices he has been through abuse and we, the viewers, know it is not on account of Chris.

TB: We do not get too much of Robbie’s backstory.

JL: From what we gather, Robbie was playing with matches and burned his stepmother’s curtains but thinks he burned down the house. Believing he is a criminal at the tender age of seven, he is running away…and winding up with another criminal that he discovered standing over a corpse. Chris is a sympathetic character we find ourselves oddly rooting for. We do not see the murder take place and are not entirely sure if it was partly an accident and partly a result of Chris getting caught up in his passions, but murder is still murder and his running away is not helping his case.

Fugitives

TB: The premise doesn’t seem like it would generate strong box office. We have a violent killer running off with a troubled boy. Initially, nobody they meet seems to suspect them of being fugitives. But things do get more difficult for them when Chris makes the front page of the newspaper. Do you find them being able to take off so easily a realistic thing?

JL: You say he is a “violent killer” but that is major problem here for me. We don’t see how the murder is committed and whether it was done in cold-blood or more accidentally. He does appear dazed and upset when we first see him as if he is trying to process what had happened. We also don’t see Chris particularly “violent” during the rest of the movie.

TB: Yes, that’s correct. Chris does not exhibit violent tendencies after the murder.

JL: Regarding whether or not the police was too slow in responding (testing our sense of realism here), what I found particularly interesting were all of the scenes of bombed out buildings that hadn’t been rebuilt after a war that ended six or seven years ago. It sent a message that Great Britain still had plenty of “rubble” to sort through and that it was rather easy for certain criminals to get a head start in their escapes.

Two lost souls

TB: I read a comment in a user review on the IMDb that I think is worth bringing up. A reviewer said “They are two lost souls traversing the countryside together. They are two people of different ages teaming up for a common cause.”

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TB: Do you agree with this? At what point, do we take the rose-colored glasses off and say you know what, this is really a story about child abduction? I think society in late 1951 when this movie was filmed, obviously was very different from society now. It would be a tough sell to make this film today and try to market it as a feel-good buddy film. Also I think people would automatically assume he abducted the boy for sexual reasons. It wouldn’t seem so innocent now. What’s your take on that aspect of the film?

JL: On the surface, it seems like Robbie has been kidnapped as a witness to a crime and his step-parents are with the police trying to find him. Yet Robbie wants to stay with Chris. It is not like Chris is mean at him at all.

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JL: We do not know all of the plot details right away, which makes the story all the more interesting. For example, we are merely teased early on who the corpse is in a newspaper Chris reads, but much later find out, after confronting his wife (Elizabeth Sellars), that he was her boss whom she may have been having an affair with. Likewise, we only much later learn, as they are staying at a boarding house, that Robbie has bruises on his body that did NOT come from Chris. No, home is not a happy place for him to be.

TB: How do Chris and Robbie relate to one another? They form a rather strong bond in a short period of time.

JL: Chris can relate to Robbie’s lack of family love. His own brother refuses to take them in, although he was still nice enough to feed them, because of his “reputation with the community.” These two are outsiders who have nobody but each other. They bond like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (in THE DEFIANT ONES) while on the run, even if running is not the best option for seven year olds who happen to get sick… and, as a result, Chris must make the ultimate decision in the dramatic climax aboard a herring boat.

Postwar poverty and the influence of Italian neorealism

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TB: Let’s switch gears a bit and discuss the overarching theme. Or at least one of the main themes, which is postwar poverty. HUNTED conveys a sense of gritty realism and there’s very little sentimentality, except in a few key scenes. Robbie doesn’t smile until halfway into the story. And he doesn’t laugh until near the end. But then he gets sick, so his sunny disposition doesn’t last long. There really isn’t a lot of joy in this movie. Any specific thoughts on that?

JL: I saw a lot of similarities to the Italian imports, the neorealism of Vittorio de Sica, Roberto Rossellini and future Bogarde director Visconti. One key smiling scene of Robbie eating pasta with Chris and his brother reminded me of a similar scene in the pessimistic THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which topped the Sight & Sound poll the same year this film was released to theaters and was a benchmark of sorts that many “artistic” film-makers were imitating.

TB: Tomorrow Jlewis and I continue to discuss HUNTED and what makes it so special.

Please be sure to join us for Part 2…

Part 2 of 2

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More about Italian neorealism

TB: Okay, we’re back to continue our discussion of HUNTED. When we left off yesterday, we had been discussing how the film’s director (Charles Crichton) was probably influenced by Italian neorealism. Anything else you’d like to say about that?

JL: This film is quite similar to other thrillers of the period that made great use of locales, but NOT in a tourist “pretty travelogue” sense. The Italians were presenting their country warts and all. The Brits and Yanks were impressed enough to do the same, but we do get some lovely countryside later on.

TB: Yes, good point.

JL: I am not sure if Visconti’s OSESSIONE had much of a release in the U.K. by this time and whether or not Chris Crichton and cinematographer Eric Cross saw it before doing this one. My guess is that they had only seen THE BICYCLE THIEVES, which was a gargantuan international box-office smash.

Memorable scenes

TB: A few scenes stand out to me. Meaning I thought they were expertly staged and acted. Number one, I loved the scene where they jump off the old bridge on to the train. It’s a nail biter.

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TB: Also, I consider the scene where Chris tells Robbie the bedtime story to be very memorable. It’s a clever way to use to reveal some of Chris’ backstory. And I think the scenes at the end are particularly effective– the part where Chris turns back the boat, and when he carries a very sick Robbie off the boat.

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TB: Did these scenes affect you, too? Or were there other moments that stood out for you in HUNTED?

JL: The train scene was great, but we get a lot of those in these types of films. I also liked all of the shots of gulls at the end.

TB: There’s a lack of background music in many of the scenes. This helps us focus on what the characters are saying and thinking. Did you notice this?

JL: Yes, there were scenes with no music but I didn’t notice it as particularly unusual, but that is an interesting perspective.

Camera work

TB: What are your thoughts on the way it was filmed?

JL: There were some great opening shots done from a small boy’s eye level. The first part of the movie showcases Robbie’s point of view; lots of low angle shots, close ups of horses startled in the city streets and adults looking down at the viewer. Later, when the emphasis shifts to Chris the adult lead, the camera compositions change.

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TB: Yes. I hadn’t considered the different vantage points, in terms of how the characters were photographed.

JL: All of the earlier shots focus on Robbie’s point of view with the camera angles presented accordingly. Also we don’t see the actual crime committed but come into the aftermath scene just as Robbie does. Therefore, we can understand why he becomes attracted to Chris and does not fear him as a murderer.

TB: The camerawork seems to change when they reach the boarding house. There are group shots, from more of an omniscient point of view.

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JL: There are also some very nice Hitchcockian set-pieces too, including the all-important railroad track narrow escape scene. One particularly good scene earlier in the movie predates Cary Grant at Grand Central station in Hitch’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Chris tries to get quick cash on a coat but the pawnshop owner gets suspicious and gets on a phone in the next room. While he pretends he is only calling a potential buyer rather than the authorities, Chris knows better. Outside the window, a cop is questioning Robbie why he isn’t in school. Like Cary’s Roger, he is not waiting around to find out what happens next.

The film’s conclusion

TB: What about the end of the movie?

JL: Love those shots of gulls flapping past herring boats, symbolizing Chris’ need to literally… fly away.

TB: The final sequence of HUNTED is very visual. The long tracking shot at the end where he brings Robbie up from the boat while the crowd and the police are swarming along the dock is certainly memorable. And things are left unresolved in a way– will Robbie go back to live with his adoptive parents, or will he be placed in a new home? What will happen to Chris and his wife?

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TB: Also, will Chris’ brother ever acknowledge him? There are a few plot threads dangling, which makes us wonder what happens next. It’s a great movie, and it gives us so much to consider.

HUNTED may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Movie horoscopes

ARIES

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Dear Aries, you are never one to back down from any sort of confrontation. But you’re now realizing that the best course of action may be to chill out before blowing up at others. This will help you find a moment of peace and then you can more successfully express your fiery and often combustible temper.

TAURUS

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Gossip is circulating in your peer group. Yes, they’re rumors about you. But before you go full speed ahead seeing red, take a step back and breathe. Don’t panic! Take the time to think about how you want to deal with these issues.

GEMINI

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You’re feeling a little lost these days. It’s time to ponder and reflect on the goals you once had. You may decide that you want to change the direction you’re heading in, or to slow down the amount of projects you’ve started. Spend time relaxing.

CANCER

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It’s good to take the high road sometimes. But even if you know that you’re right in a situation, it’s wise to see where others are coming from, too. In other words, be aware of your role in resolving conflicts and show some empathy. Particularly with people who are close to you.

LEO

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You’re proud. And you are learning to control your passions. Continue to assert your feelings in matters that are important to you. However, keep in mind that the viewpoints of others may not always be diametrically opposed to your own. It’s possible to achieve greater understanding, dear Leo.

VIRGO

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Start taking back your power and standing tall. This will allow you to feel confident and strong again. Also it’s important that you shift the focus away from others who do not appreciate you or your sentiments. Instead give yourself all the space you need.

LIBRA

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Fluctuations in your daily routine may be sapping too much energy from you. This ongoing state of flux means you have been feeling as if your life is spinning out of control. Take some time to restructure your schedule. Devise plans that are realistic. You do not have to solve every single problem or rule the world.

SCORPIO

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Set boundaries with others. Yes, this may not be easy for everyone, especially when you have difficulty maintaining limits that you require from others. But take some time and try to be honest with what you want and need. Then, you won’t find yourself in all of these sensitive predicaments!

SAGITTARIUS

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Life is about learning to balance the relationships in your life, especially the most intense relationships. Be careful not to give your all to a partner or demand a lot of attention. Remember that being together requires a fair amount of give and take. If you are able to find a middle ground in your relationship, it will keep you both from acting foolish. 

CAPRICORN

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Okay, you are not known to be very domestic, that’s a given. But this month, you feel inclined to begin a cooking project or a sewing project to pass the time. You may even want to do your taxes on your own this year. These projects and activities will keep you busy and productive, even when the rest of the world is in the doldrums.

AQUARIUS

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Dear Aquarius, life is always so full of drama. But not everything is the end of the world, is it? Why not step back and count your blessing for a change. Seek out some new hobbies and make some new friends. It certainly wouldn’t hurt.

PISCES

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You need to start facing your fears. And come up with the answer to a really important question. What do you really want? Situations might cause you to choose between your actual way of life and a more suitable way to live it. Don’t fret about the unknown. Take a chance and change your old habits.

Essential: M (1951)

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TopBilled:

Next week we will be reviewing THE 13TH LETTER, also from 1951. What’s interesting is that when I chose these films with Jlewis’ input, I didn’t realize ‘M’ is the 13th letter of the English alphabet. I suppose M in both these cases stands for ‘Murderer.’ 

In this remake of the well-known German original, the lead character is played by David Wayne and his name is changed to the more American-sounding Martin W. Meaning that our thirteenth letter could also signify his first initial. (In the 1931 version his name was Hans.)

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David Wayne was a stage-trained performer, having already earned a Tony in the late 1940s. He would earn a second Tony award a short time after this film was made. I mention Wayne’s theatrical roots, because I think you can detect that in his performance. Though I must say he does manage to give a somewhat naturalistic performance, even if the script doesn’t lend itself to that.

Some costars in this picture give less naturalistic performances. For instance, Martin Gabel plays a crime boss whose business is affected by M’s killings. Ironically, the crime boss and his thugs end up doing the ‘right thing’ by helping the cops nail M. Gabel presents a very highly stylized interpretation of his character.

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However, the campiness found in some of these performances makes the entire affair even more of a guilty pleasure. Probably Luther Adler, as a booze-addicted mob mouthpiece, gives the campiest portrayal which I am sure was intentional. He barely reins in the excesses of the character he’s been assigned, which sort of makes his on-screen death near the end much more of a relief!

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I have to single out one of my favorite actresses of the 1930s: Karen Morley. She was an MGM contractee back in the day and starred in several notable motion pictures for the Lion.

By this point in her career she was reduced to minor supporting roles, but she is nonetheless quite effective. The scenes with her playing the mother of a little girl who may become M’s victim are nail-biting. In a series of emotionally tense moments, she desperately tries to track down her missing child. In a way I wish her role had been expanded because more than anyone else, she conveys the pathos of the situation at hand.

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Today of course we have Amber Alerts, so when a child is abducted law enforcement agencies are much more organized to deal with these types of situations. But back in 1931 and back in 1951, the police (and psychiatrists) were less equipped to deal with child kidnappings and child homicides; and though this is a straight-forward drama it easily veers into the realm of horror. Martin W, our M, is a monster.

One thing both films neglects to show is why the guy became obsessed with kids. Is it because he was still childlike himself? Or had he been abused as a child when he was younger, and he was now acting out bits and pieces of what might have happened to him? There is even the unexplored idea of what shoes mean to him.

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The writers don’t exactly tell us why M is the way he is psychologically. I guess if we knew more about him, he might become less monstrous and more sympathetic?

In Jlewis’ review, he talks about how director Joseph Losey and many members of the cast were blacklisted. That definitely hovers over this picture, and the hideousness of M’s situation is transferred to the screen as an allegory of sorts about the hideousness of the McCarthy era, where progressives are hunted down and treated like criminals. The final sequence in the movie which includes a dramatic confrontation in a car park seems to be a form of therapy for this particular troupe.

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One final thing I want to mention here is the on-location filming. An extended sequence in the middle of the story takes place at the Bradbury Building in downtown Los Angeles.

When I lived in the L.A. area from 1991 to 2004 I would sometimes go downtown shopping and walk around the historic Bunker Hill district. There is a subway stop near the Bradbury Building. I would amble over and step into the courtyard of the Bradbury because it was so grand, I just wanted to be part of the place for a few moments. Nobody was hunting me down. My first initial is J, not M.

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***

Jlewis:

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Heard of this updated version even if I had not seen it before. It is often considered inferior to the original by many high brows in movie history books, but it is still referenced a lot as a pretty typical film noir of the fifties worthy of watching.

Curiously, it seems far less “noir”-ish than others since so much of it is filmed in broad daylight with only a few shadowy scenes at night.

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It more closely resembles a 1930s-40s “Crime Does Not Pay” 2-reeler from MGM, expanded to feature length. Intriguingly both versions of M share the same producer, Seymour Nebenzel, who had left Nazi Germany just like Peter Lorre (who is not in this version) and built a career for himself in Hollywood. His son Harold served as associate producer.

Have to backtrack to the first film M and the news events of 1931. Apparently that year was one in which many parents were feeling more protective of their children than usual and horror films frequently involved child killers.

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We also have the popular FRANKENSTEIN from Universal showing a scene of Boris Karloff the monster somewhat innocently tossing a little girl into the water and drowning her.

In the opening shots of this one, set in Los Angeles, we initially see people shown only below the waist and stepping onto a bus as newspaper headlines feature the latest murder, suggesting that the citizens of the big city are getting used to them. Also shots of various little girls talking to strangers, including an Asian American and African American one to show the villain does not care about race in determining his potential prey. Or does he?

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He zeroes in one one Caucasian girl named Elsie who just accepts a fair ground trip with him. Meanwhile we cut to scenes of her mother worrying about her not getting home in her apartment. We never see the crime committed but her ball and balloon bought at the fair are seen by themselves.

With the news coverage increasing in strength, paranoia in the community sets in. Any male adult not defined clearly as a father of kids of his own is considered a suspect. One helping a girl innocently is attacked by his neighbors. This reminds me of the “scare” films that Sid Davis produced later for the LA Police like BOYS BEWARE that suggested any unmarried man may be a homosexual who has eyes on your innocent teenager.

One character calls another a communist, instantly relating this film to the McCarthy Era that was going full throttle at this time. In fact, this was filmed in June-July 1950 just as the Korean War was getting started overseas. Yes, this is a liberal leaning film making commentary on America’s conservatives and their fear mongering. (Note the garage sign behind the killer in his final round-up scene: “Keep to the Right”.)

A couple familiar faces here. Jim Backus (voice of Mr. Magoo, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Gilligan’s Island, etc.) plays the selfish mayor. Also Raymond Burr has a smaller role pre-REAR WINDOW and Perry Mason.

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The inspector is played by Howard De Silva, who experienced some blacklisting off screen due to his own political leanings and would stick strictly to the stage for a decade (no movies for a decade after SLAUGHTER TRAIL), but he enjoyed renewed stardom of sorts in the 1970s and ’80s with many TV appearances.

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Sharing some of the same screen credits as De Silva is Martin Gabel, playing Charlie Marshall the news boss, this being a key first in-front-of-the-camera role for the ex-Mercury Player (with Orson Welles). Luther Adler the attorney Dan Langley is probably the least recognizable to me but he too was prolific on screen.

The villain himself is shown right away so we viewers don’t have to guess. David Wayne is, fortunately for him, more famous today for his comic roles in ADAM’S RIB and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE.

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Since there isn’t a lot of mystery in regards to the criminal’s identity, the primary focus is to show “how they catch him” as investigators and also provide some insight into the psychology of killers. We see him get aggressive when the music stops on the radio, relating his killing urge with some drug addict “fix”. Wayne’s best scene is his last when he expresses his whole tortured background to a crowd, much like Lorre in the earlier version.

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I enjoyed this as a relic of the period with beautiful cinematography (Ernest Laszlo likes to shoot from high angles) and expert direction of the actors (Joseph Losey), although it may not have wowed me with anything particularly new and novel that I haven’t experienced before in my long life of movie watching.

Most interesting to me is the fact that many involved with this movie had some sort of conflict with the HUAC so they were all making commentary on how mass “red scare” fears can destroy the rights of individuals a.k.a. not everybody who does not fit a certain cookie cutter role in society should be judged a criminal but you can’t stop mass hysteria. Also it is unusual for a murderer to presented in a positive…sort of… light, at least in a way for viewers to understand the “why” of his crimes (cue the big speech by attorney Dan Langley).

M (1951) may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: THE 13TH LETTER (1951)

TopBilled:

THE 13TH LETTER is a very moody, atmospheric remake shot on location in Quebec, though one gets the feeling a lot was lost in translation from the original French picture. Reviews of the earlier film say it offers a biting social commentary, but this film seems to shy away from that. Instead, Zanuck and Preminger have focused on the more entertaining elements of a man’s life unraveling because of adultery, and it has hardly anything to do with society at large, unless the suggestion is that all society’s upstanding citizens are perverse in some illogical way.

The casting of THE 13TH LETTER is somewhat intriguing if not problematic. Charles Boyer is perfectly suited to the role of Dr. Laurent, but as much as one enjoys Michael Rennie, he’s a little too British to be believed as an immigrant who has lived in Quebec for any length of time in this picture. Undoubtedly, there are British immigrants in Canada; but an American actor like Gregory Peck could just as easily have filled the role, since there are Americans in Canada, too.

Even more out of place is Irish-born Constance Smith chosen as Boyer’s wife. Was it that Zanuck wanted to cast the picture with the very best actors under contract, and most of those performers happen to hail from Europe? Why not cast the roles more authentically with Canadian actors, or at least hire gorgeous Micheline Presle as Cora Laurent, or perhaps Danielle Darrieux, and with such casting allow Boyer to speak more French with his on screen wife.

The one role, after Boyer’s, that is cast well belongs to Francoise Rosay as Mrs. Gauthier. In the hands of a lesser talent, the part of the vengeful townswoman would have been wasted. Rosay’s character, more than any other, drives the narrative forward. For it is her quest, along with ours, that determines to get to the bottom of the poisonous letter writing campaign that has exposed passions and stirred up a hornet’s nest of trouble in the local village.

Finally, there is Linda Darnell as Denise Turner, a bedridden woman who may or may not be a true invalid. Darnell is once more playing a devious-minded female, this time trying to get her hooks into the doctor played by Rennie. Though the film is technically a noir, Darnell is not exactly playing a femme fatale, because on some level the character’s disabilities will engender some sympathy from the viewer.

Darnell and Rennie certainly generate sparks, but Preminger does not always photograph Darnell like he should. In this film, she sinks into a rather large bed and only when the director chooses to give her the obligatory close-up do we see some life radiating from under the covers. Because of Darnell’s apparent unimportance to Preminger’s cinematic world, she becomes a specialized but muted ensemble player. One would never know that she has received top billing from the studio for this picture coming in on the proceedings after the opening credits.

***

Jlewis:

Funny how certain movies remind me of other movies that have little in common with each other apart from a few plot details. Multiple characters, including a good doctor and his patients, receive ominous “scarlet pen” letters with a hand drawn feather included. For some strange reason, I instantly thought of THE FOUR FEATHERS, most notably Zoltan and Alexander Korda’s glossy Technicolor 1939 version (out of several based on that book), in which feathers are enclosed as a symbol of being a coward during war time. I was not clear what they meant in the context of this movie at first.

The letters, as a whole, cause trouble for multiple people with some sort of I-know-what-you-did revelation. One recipient, an unseen Mr. Gauthier, is even driven to suicide. Michael Rennie (Klaatu in THE EARTH STOOD STILL) plays the good doctor Pearson, whose letter warns him to stop his “affair”, although he doesn’t seem to be having any despite him raising the temperatures of lady patients like Linda Darnell’s Denise (who ultimately gets him in the end) and Constance Smith’s Cora Laurient, who is married to Pearson’s older mentor Dr. Paul, played by Charles Boyer.

Other cast members include Judith Evelyn as the “good” nurse Sister Marie Cohen who may not always be good and June Hedin as ornery teenager Rochelle. I have to make special note of Françoise Rosay making the most of her supporting role as Mrs. Gauthier; she was a veteran of the French cinema since 1911.

Speaking of the French, this is a remake of LE CORBEAU (THE RAVEN), directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1943 while the nation was under Nazi occupation. A definite French atmosphere is reflected here in the bilingual town of St. Hilaire in Quebec that poses as background setting. Plus we get Boyer and Rosay in the cast.

Interesting to me the number of church scenes here. The residents of this community receiving scarlet letters are all worried about cleansing their souls. The ominous letter writer “does not respect the church” (per discussions) by sending them into the air during the mass being held.

This is a pretty good who-done-it with a you-will-never-guess-the-outcome, but it has unfortunately fallen through the cracks over the decades. One reason may be its modest production values, compared to the more ambitious LAURA and other classics that same director Otto Preminger and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle collaborated on. In a way, it may share too much in common with other films of its particular genre and, therefore, be easily forgotten by most average viewers including those who enjoy it like me. Sometimes a movie can be too slick and professionally done for its own good. Alex North’s subdued score isn’t as memorable here as in other films he worked on.

Most entertaining for me is Howard Koch’s dialogue, particularly coming from Charles Boyer’s Paul, touting whiskers that make him resemble an elderly Edward G. Robinson at times. (Koch, by the way, also worked on THE LETTER that we previously profiled.) When Paul swings a lamp and tells Pearson about the nature of light versus dark and asks “how can we be sure where one side begins and one ends?”, Pearson replies that all one needs to do is stop swinging the lamp.

Without spoiling anything, it does stop swinging…

Essential: THE LETTER (1940)

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Jlewis:

This is one of the great ones Bette Davis did during her Warner Brothers glory years. It isn’t as much fun as the wonderfully delirious IN THIS OUR LIFE, as far as Big Bad Bette pics go. For the record, DARK VICTORY and NOW VOYAGER feature Bette the Benevolent, JEZEBEL Bette the Buoyant and quite a few others boast Bette the B*tch.

Yet THE LETTER has been showered with praise from the critics over the decades and is still considered the great Warner star-power counterpart to Errol Flynn’s THE SEA HAWK in that all important year of 1940. This was the same year that Warner’s most popular “shortie” star Bugs Bunny made his debut (and would later quip “Bette Davis will hate me for this” when he over-acted with Elmer Fudd). Bette was Oscar nominated for THE LETTER…as was Bugs, but sadly not Errol. Since she had already won for DANGEROUS and JEZEBEL, Ginger Rogers got it this time around.

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W. Somerset Maugham’s sordid murder saga, based partly on the Ethel Proudlock case, first became a movie in 1929. This version, shot at Paramount’s claustrophobic Astoria studios in New York City, has been discussed quite a bit on the TCM forum in the past. It’s a nice early talkie pre-coder which Warner acquired copyright control over and released as part of their Archive collection.

In the 1929 version Herbert Marshall played Geoffrey Hammond, the murdered lover of a Mrs. Leslie Crosbie (Jeanne Eagels, who played the role a few months before her passing and received a posthumous Oscar nomination). Mrs. Crosbie is married to a man named Robert, a Singapore area rubber plantation owner.

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When Warner Brotheres decided to do a remake with William Wyler in charge and Bette became Leslie a.k.a. Ethel, Marshall got to play the naive husband Robert this time around and, come to think of it, we don’t see Mister Hammond on screen after his faceless moon-lit death scene. Apparently the very curious marital set-up involving Davis-Marshall pleased director Wyler enough that he cast the two again in his subsequent THE LITTLE FOXES (made for Goldwyn/RKO as a loan out effort between studios). Herbert sure displayed plenty of patience around Bette!

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The title refers to an incriminating piece of evidence: a letter that reveals Leslie’s affair with the murdered and, thus, countering her excuse that it was “in self defense.” Add to this the “spicy” detail that he too was a married man…and to a woman outside his race too. Then we get the usual blackmail situation involving a huge sum of money, eventually sucking up the plantation funds of hubbie Robert.

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Much of the fun is in the whole build-up with Bette’s performance. I always love that opening scene each time I watch it: one full-moon night at the plantation and a barely seen Hammond falling about as Leslie loosens the rod in a non flinching manner. Then she switches back into gentle “Jekyll” form, almost like a parody of post-cruise Charlotte Vale in her later equally famous role. As innocent as she could possibly look.

Even the Crosbies’ attorney and close friend Howard Joyce is mighty impressed at how well she can relate the “events of that night” in the exact same detailed manner each time. Howard is played by James Albert Stephenson, who was also Oscar nominated but, sadly, had only a year more to live, a fate echoing Jeanne Eagels.

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In the original Proudlock case of 1911, the murderess-assumed was eventually pardoned. In the ’29 version, she still survives any death penalty for her crime. By 1940, the Production Code demanded that “crime does not pay” so our beloved Bette must suffer the same fate as IN THIS OUR LIFE, but without any crashing chrome and wheels involved. Instead she meets her fate with a dagger she admires in local “Chinatown” and under the same moonlit setting she committed her initial crime.

A couple Oscar nominations were shelled out besides Davis and Stephenson. Again, no statuettes. These included Best Picture (losing to REBECCA), William Wyler’s direction, Max Steiner’s usual over-the-top orchestration (although more subdued here than elsewhere), Tony Gaudio’s cinematography (resembling George Barnes’ work in REBECCA that year with noir-ish silhouettes and frequent use of curtained windows and blinds highlighting the tortured, prison-like confines of our central characters) and George Amy and Warren Low’s editing, which deserves some additional attention here…

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Apparently there were two separate endings edited here. The unused version is an extra on the DVD. Initially she just meets her doom and the lace she had been working on is shown on the floor.

There was also no final scene between her and her husband shown before her demise. The released version is much meatier, thanks to the final spousal confrontation a.k.a. you deserved a better wife than me. Also a dagger she admires in the pawn shop is ceremoniously seen by her, then disappears. As if hypnotized by some force from above, she literally walks to her doom, fully aware that justice will be served. The fade-out involves a LOT of lace that she was working on…since she agreed with Howard about the intricate work helping her maintain her composure.

Let’s not forget that memorable line she tells her husband: “And, with all my heart, I still love the man I killed!” (This was the very last line in the ’29 version apparently, but we get more stuff after it in this one.)

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I guess her role was too short be Oscar nominated, but Gale Sondergaard sports a wonderful poker face as the revengeful Mrs. Hammond. In the original, her character was Chinese but, again, the Production Code made sure that was changed this time around. One thing so many of us forget in regards to 30s-50s Hollywood is that heterosexual relationships between different races were just as polarizing on screen as any “deviant” same sex one and Hollywood was first and foremost a business that needed to avoid any unnecessary public outcry. A Chinese woman marrying a European Caucasian was a definite no-no for the screen even if the guy is killed early on. Therefore, she herself is “Eurasian.” Go figure!

On the plus side, Sen Yung still gets a prominent role in this Asian-set story. He may never have been a star player like Sessue Hayakawa or Anna May Wong apart from his ongoing roles in the Charlie Chan series, but he still kept busy in so many supporting roles. Also getting billing are Willie Fung and Tetsu Komai, even if the latter is merely “head boy.”

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I also have to call out my beloved Cecil Kellaway of THE BEAST FROM 20, 000 FATHOMS and GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER fame even though his role is a bitty one.

Had this film been made today in our #MeToo era, the racial aspects would be emphasized as social commentary. The original case that inspired the play and movies was notorious in regards to social and racial inequalities of the era, with a European woman getting the light sentence that “natives” generally did not get.

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Consequently the cheeky Howard Koch screenplay adaptation here emphasizes a bit of this for good measure. For example, we see all of the well-to-do all well-dressed and well-fed at a party after Leslie is declared not guilty in her case. Granted, Leslie is earlier very appreciative that the “boys” do “take such good care of us” as servants, but they are still “boys.” Inter-mixing is taboo, as even Howard declares: “It’s strange that Hammond was able to keep his life so hidden. That gambling house he owned and especially the Eurasian woman. I think it was finding out about her that turned opinion so completely against him.”

We are reminded of how The Other Half live in crowded quarters working on the plantation at the start of the film and, later, Leslie and Howard make a visit with great hesitation and disgust to the all-Asian territory to retrieve the important letter.

Yet even there, Leslie is fascinated with all that is foreign and dangerous to her. Including strange men with provocative ways, unlike her workaholic but devoted husband, and daggers in a pawn shop. This woman was already in a prison before she committed any crimes.

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Essential: THE LOVE BUG (1968)

Jlewis:

THE LOVE BUG was filmed between March and July of 1968, a rather interesting time period in both United States history and Hollywood entertainment. As star Michele Lee reported in an interview, a major scene that made the final cut (but I am not sure which one, off hand) was filmed on the very day that they all learned of Martin Luther King Junior’s murder. This brings up the rather ominous fact that hardly any live-action Disney films prior to this one (the one infamous exception being SONG OF THE SOUTH) showed much diversity in their casts in terms of racial skin tones.

Although Walt Disney approved preliminary storyboard work just before his death in late 1966, there wasn’t much optimism that this comedy would fare any better than, say, BLACKBEARD’S GHOST. In total surprise to both the studio and the industry, it triumphed over both Sam Peckinpah’s THE WILD BUNCH and Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER, which were filmed simultaneously during that same four to five month period and also put on the market in 1969. Yes, even though the latter film received more printed commentary than THE LOVE BUG, those Harley Davidson “Captain America” motorcycles still got out-driven by a clean-cut Dean Jones in a run-down Volkswagen Beetle. As two San Francisco teens confess in a drag race through the streets against Herbie the Love Bug: “Outta sight man! I would have never believed it!”… “Groovy, Pop, groovy!”

During a recent re-watching, I was reminded a lot of Pixar, the company that Disney eventually took over decades later. It made its fame with the computerized feature TOY STORY, but also refined its techniques with a series of fascinating short subjects in the years leading up to it. The most famous of these was LUXOR JUNIOR which featured cute desk lamps, of all things, displaying distinctive human personalities. One would not expect an automobile to behave in a humanized fashion, despite cartoons that Disney made earlier like SUSIE THE LITTLE BLUE COUPE (with eyes added to the windshields to create a “face”), but this is a classic example of how creative entertainers can add a “soul” to just about anything mechanical, non-human and even non-animal.

Classic scene: Herbie attempting suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge and Dean Jones’ Jim Douglas out to stop him. This is after his jealous rage over Jim expressing more love for a rival Lamborghini and banging the cr!p out of it. The whole set-up a.k.a. “No, Herbie, don’t!!!!” is wonderful with its murky fog prevailing much like the London imagery displayed in a key scene previous in MARY POPPINS, which the British-born Robert Stevenson also directed. It is not so much what the car itself does, but the clever editing and the atmosphere that reflects Herbie’s emotions and “state of mind”.

The human performers are all very appealing here even if they must play second fiddle to a set of four wheels. The top trio featured: straight-laced Dean Jones as race driver Jim Douglas, Michele Lee as Carole, the secretary of Thorndyke’s car sales who winds up as Jim’s love interest in the end, and the always wonderful Buddy Hackett (later a key voice in another Disney, THE LITTLE MERMAID) as Tennessee, the bumbling auto mechanic who had recently visited Tibet like the Beatles and “discovered my real self”. Naturally he is the one to first discover that Herbie has a human soul after “it” follows Jim home from the car dealers. Among the multiple minor character actors is the frequently cast Joe Flynn, who milks his usual side-kick role in the climactic car race sequences with Peter Thorndyke.

Ah, yes… Peter Thorndyke is our resident funny-villain. The British-born character actor David Tomlinson made three Disney features, two of them musicals that I fleetingly mention elsewhere in this review. Yet his greatest performance for the mouse house is certainly this straight-forward comic one. Watching a YouTube montage like “The Best of Peter Thorndyke” makes one wonder why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar here. OK… maybe I should not go that far. I understand that a lot of the comedy here is slapdash slapstick with dialogue to match.

Much of the fun for me comes from Tomlinson’s little touches here and there in his Thrifty-shifty Thorndyke role. For example, when first meeting Jim, he is impressed enough to offer him sherry. Then he promptly pours it back in the bottle once Jim says he is only spending seventy five to eighty dollars. The scenes with him infiltrating Tennessee’s garage are loaded with classic little moments: when Tennessee tells him that “the secret of the little car” is its “heart”, something our star villain obviously does not have, he hilariously states that he’s “certainly going to make a note of that” and then promptly tosses his pen in a cup! The lines between these two are quite surreal in an Abbott & Costello sort of way: Thorndyke: “What part of Ireland did you say your mother came from?” Tennessee: “Coney Ireland”.

The story is pretty basic. Jim is a down and out race car driver who hits pay dirt with Herbie, a car with a human personality, but there is a lot of doubt and skepticism on his part. Ultimately the feisty Thorndyke tries to sabotage his chances in a wild country road race, with Herbie even getting dissected along the way and literally “coming apart” just before he hits the finish line. Despite the overall simplicity in story, the comic lines are vastly superior to other sixties Disney “comedies”. It is also fun having a no-nonsense Garry Owens provide announcer commentary as all of the high-jinks occur.

I tend to view a lot of Disney films, both those made when Walt was alive and those made in the two decades following his passing, in two separate camps. There are those that are not very good, but have little things that hold my interest; a good example being the 1977 version of PETE’S DRAGON, a colossal mess that had me scratching my head in the theater as a preteen, but still manages one really great song that Helen Reddy handles, “Candle in the Water”. In contrast, THE LOVE BUG is an example of a generally very good film that still… somehow… disappoints in little spots here and there; its rather Mickey Mouse-ish style of music gets quite annoying after a while.

Clearly this movie was written by the over-30 crowd that was not quite comfortable with the changing times. Although Dean Jones is convincing in a secondary role as a hippy, delivering the memorable line of “We’re all prisoners, Chickie Baby. We are all locked in…”, his subsequent comment on our star characters being “a couple of weirdos” is intended to be taken as put-down self-criticism. Being that the writers were still working in a pre-Stonewall era, there are also subtle homophobic digs tossed here for good measure: his middle-aged male companion is dubbed “Guinevere”, referencing both Vanessa Redgrave’s character in CAMELOT (released shortly prior) and the popular belief among the older generation that men who wear their hair long have a gender identification problem. (A popular road sign that went up across the country in 1968 read “Beautify America. Get a haircut.”)

This brings me to the way the Chinese American characters are portrayed here. To be fair, it is a vast improvement over BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S in which Mickey Rooney poses as “Chinese”. Here we have Bensin Fong playing Mr. Wu, who takes ownership of Herbie and backs our stars financially in their race. He and the others (Brian and Harold Fong receive no on screen credit) are actually Asian-Americans getting key screen roles at a time when Hollywood films were mostly devoid of them. (Note too that we see hardly any African Americans on screen apart from an un-credited and non speaking Eddie Smith.) At first, there is limited stereotyping: one highlight involves Tennessee talking in Chinese and later learning that Wu is perfectly fluent in English once “money” is discussed.

The one key scene that will likely make many modern viewers squirm involves a “Chinese camp” in which an older fellow purposely behaves like an “oriental” Steppin Fetchit servicing Thorndyke’s car. His son translates in broken English that he “says hurry is waste [and] waste is cracked bowl never that know rice”. There is not anything specific here that is outright offensive but there’s an overall attitude that the creators of this movie view the Asian Americans as “others”.

Again, one must always accept films as time capsules of the way we were, both the positive and the negative. Note how cheap the gas prices were back then! Also the fashions with Michele Lee’s miniskirt and short cropped hairstyle is making a comeback in the 21st century. Note too how simple car racing was in the sixties compared to the modern corporate sponsored NASCAR era.

Predictably the enormous success of this film spawned three sequels and a remake. It is rather curious that it took a full five years for the first of these to get made. HERBIE RIDES AGAIN was not nearly as good as the original (and neither were the others) but it does have special appeal for me personally as the first “all new” movie that I got to see in a movie theater. (My first movie theater experience was LADY AND THE TRAMP, an “old” Disney feature being reissued.)

Another curiosity about the Herbie franchise that I always found strange is that it generated far less merchandise than so many other Disney hits despite such a lovable central character. Although there were die-cast model replicas for the toy car trade and a trio of excellent View-Master reels, there were not all that many chapter and coloring books out on the market in 1969 compared to the competition. It was not until 1974 that Herbie would grace the cover of one of Western Publishing’s Little Golden Books.

No doubt, this was due to the confusing state of the Disney company in those hypersensitive years shortly following the founder’s death. As long as brother Roy was still in charge, there was still some level of stability, but his death in December 1971, following the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida and the lackluster response to BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, would provide a further blow… and push the company even further away from its big and small screen entertainment roots and more towards merchandising and theme parks, which were generally no more stable in revenue. That special confidence that Walt gave the company took a long time to recover, having to wait until the era when Roy’s son and Michael Eisner took over. THE LOVE BUG was a colossal hit that could have impacted the company for the better, but was, instead, just a fluke phenomena that the company wasn’t sure how to milk properly.

Postscript:

I re-watched HERBIE RIDES AGAIN for either the third or fourth time. Not sure which. I first saw it in a movie theater at age six and absolutely adored it. Did not see it again for another dozen years or so, probably on TV or VHS in the eighties as a teenager. By then, I had seen enough of these types of slapstick car-crash affairs that it failed to impress me all that much. May have seen it again a decade after that but I am not sure. In any case, I decided to re-watch it again with a new set of eyes since you said you favored it over THE LOVE BUG.

My final analysis… OK. I still don’t like it as much as THE LOVE BUG but it is still a fun if, perhaps, uninspired Disney comedy. What is great about it are the stunts, far more ambitious than in the former. My guess is that the budget was bigger and it shows in the production values. Although a product of the early seventies (filmed in ’73 and released ’74), the fashions are not too retro; everything Ken Berry and Stefanie Powers wear is pretty much up to date with today’s styles. Powers sports a hair style more representative of the Watergate Era, like Michele Lee’s was five to six years earlier.

Except for the occasional seventies look here and there, what I find most interesting is that the story and editing style, along with the special effects, resemble something made a decade earlier. Also the gags: note the great soap bubble disaster echoing another film we reviewed, MOVE OVER, DARLING with Doris Day that was filmed in 1963. The scenes on the high rise were no different than countless comedies of yesteryear going back to 1923 and Harold Lloyd’s SAFETY LAST and, yes, the special effects with the matte work is pretty obvious (although still good for the early seventies). Robert Stevenson and Bill Walsh were previously more edgy, poking fun at the flower power movement in the earlier film, but are more hesitant about rocking the boat here. Like far too many films of this type, we get our usual romance between the leads that involve a wedding at the end and even Helen Hayes’ Mrs. Steinmetz gets a love interest with John McIntire (remember him in PSYCHO?).

Speaking of Hayes, I found her much “cuter” in earlier viewings than I did this time around. Yes, it is fun seeing Berry’s Willoughby constantly worrying about her while she just ignores all danger and acts uber-confident, but a little of her “cute” factor goes a long, long, long way with lil’ ol’ me here. Keenan Wynn’s greedy Alonzo Hawk is much more enjoyable on screen but even his character seemed a bit too uninspired for me as a villain, except in the memorable dream sequences with multiple Herbies attacking him. No Asian Americans but we do get Don Pedro Colley playing a high profile construction tycoon putting Hawk in his place, something you would NOT have seen in a Hollywood film made a decade or more earlier unless there was some social commentary attached.

I do like both Barry and Powers as performers but also felt both characters were less fully developed than Dean Jones and Michele Lee’s characters in the previous film. She rather instantly takes a liking to him with virtually no hesitation, despite her talk with “grandma” about wanting to manage her own dating life without her help… and despite initially punching him in the face and later slapping him with a hot lobster. Wish he commented more on that humorous behavior when he decides to marry her, but that was just a one-off joke the writers soon forgot about. There was also a lot more tension between Jones and Lee in their portrayals, with Herbie playing a key role in uniting them together. Herbie does nothing for these two, as if he is merely their shared pet dog. It was as if writers just needed “a” couple at the end of this and weren’t terribly concerned so much about how-we-get-there as long as we-get-there. No fault of the performers. Just the material they were given.

I did miss Buddy Hackett and David Tomlinson. They put a lot of energy into their performances and helped make THE LOVE BUG a cut above so many other Disney live-action comedies. Still enjoy HERBIE RIDES AGAIN and do think the overall premise is a good one, even if Herbie himself was not all that relevant to an old lady’s house potentially being bulldozed for a high rise skyscraper.

Essential: THE SCARLET LETTER (1926)

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Though it does not air much on TCM (once every three years or so it seems), this is a well-known MGM classic. Of course it is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s equally well-known novel, a work hailed as a masterpiece of 19th Century American literature. It is no surprise the book has inspired so many film adaptations.

By the time MGM made this one with Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson in the lead roles, it had already been adapted a half dozen times for the big screen. Under Victor Seastrom’s careful direction, it feels faithful to Hawthorne’s text if not overly poetic. (Seastrom would also helm THE WIND two years later, again with Gish and Hanson as the leads).

When I watch THE SCARLET LETTER, its story captures me, not necessarily its cinematic techniques. I focus on the main character and ponder what it’s like to be Hester Prynne, then AND now.

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We still live in a society that reviles any Hester Prynne in our midst, especially gay Hester Prynnes who do not conform to a specific religious morality.

Not long ago I chided a liberal friend of mind I’ve known since college. I suggested he’s a fake liberal still holding on to a conservative moral view when it comes to his not-very-understanding ideas about LGBT people. As long as he’s not gay or bisexual, he can support those who are, which of course is like saying he will support a charity for cancer but god forbid, he doesn’t have cancer himself. Or in the case of Hawthorne’s narrative, he will be sympathetic (not empathetic) towards those who wear the Scarlet Letter A, but he himself has never been publicly branded in such a way and would never allow himself to be branded that way.

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I read an interesting commentary that said the “A” goes from being defined as Adultery to Able, since Hester is fully able to live her life despite her branding as an adulterer. We should also mention that her daughter Pearl (a symbolic name) is the outward proof of Hester’s adultery, because the child was conceived when Hester’s husband was away.

I do love the irony that the child’s father is a minister, a man of the cloth tasked with upholding the common good and the common decency of the Puritan community. Though watching a minister fall from grace is almost a cliche in our modern society.

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There’s an intriguing triangle that develops when Hester’s husband returns under an assumed named. The minister eventually confesses and sort of takes on Hester’s role. I like what that suggests.

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The original story and this 1926 version culminate with Hester holding the dying minister in her arms. It’s strangely uplifting but not altogether happy.  However, the much-maligned 1995 version with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman depicts Hester leaving with the minister after her husband’s death. She discards the Letter A to go on and live her life anew, now unfettered by any sort of warped morality.

This takes me back to the ‘quarrel’ I had with my liberal friend. I told him I don’t subscribe to much of our society’s morality since I feel it’s often a construct to falsely judge and control. Instead I advocate an individualistic approached informed by one’s own inner principles. We all have our own code of how we need conduct ourselves, our own code of how we need to live life and find the truth in that.

So how about “A’ for absolved…or “A” for alleviated from an overly restrictive form of wrong and right.

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***

Jlewis:

I had not seen the 1926 version in its entirety, but clips were featured in LILLIAN GISH: THE ACTOR’S LIFE FOR ME (1988) and a few extracts can also be seen on YouTube. Gish said she favored the lead role of Hester Prynne, having a child out of wedlock in Puritan Massachusetts, because it countered the sweet, “don’t touch me” virginal types D.W. Griffith often had her cast as. It was, I think, the fifth…or maybe the sixth?…cinematic adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous novel. The first one came out in 1908 and was much more abridged in its running time.

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Many of us Americans had to read the 1850 original in high school. A key theme that I found interesting, apart from the unflattering portrait that Hawthorne made of 1640s America and its “puritanical” shaming, was how a woman who is out in the open for her “sin” successfully carries on with her life while the secretive father is the tortured one. In other words, the truth will always set you free regardless of the consequences.

I tried to find the Gish version of 1926 online, but it is mislabeled on YouTube over the 1934 Colleen Moore public-domain version.

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Now…that version is an interesting one, since Colleen herself was a major silent star who made very few talkies, unlike Gish. Many of us movie buffs have seen clips of her and her distinctive flapper hair-do; she being one of the most talkative stars in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s classic HOLLYWOOD series even if only a few titles of hers like ELLA CINDERS and LILAC TIME ever get any attention today.

THE SCARLET LETTER turned out to be her final major film (she made four back-to-back in 1933-34 after a four year break from the screen), as she was quite eager to make a career change with her interests in doll house promotion and real estate. (Despite the tabloid fairy tales, surprisingly few silent screen stars completely “fell” into obscurity. A great many lived long lives as they settled into many non-screen careers and refrained from cigarettes, an addiction of the celebrities of the Depression and WW2 years.)

The studio producing it, Majestic, was certainly not in the same league as the one who made the earlier version eight years previously, MGM. Likewise, the director, Robert Vignola, sure-as-heck wasn’t in the same league as Victor Seastrom and this is not a production to watch if artsy cinematography is your bag.

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Intriguingly it does share with the original a lead star opposite Colleen: the cheating wife’s husband Roger Chillingworth is played once again by Henry B. Walthall. In addition, some of the sets are also recycled from the original as well since, well, Hollywood was always economical during the Depression.

The producer was the legendary tycoon of the “B’s,” Larry Darmour, who was also responsible for many modestly budgeted comedy shorts such as Mickey Rooney’s Mickey McGuire, a clear knock-off of Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” series. The Darmour stamp is evident throughout with the much lighter and slightly slapstick-ish comic tone, a contrast to the other, far more serious, novel adaptations.

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Therefore, we get “comic supporting roles by William Kent as Samson and Alan Hale (who needs no introduction to movie fans since he was literally everywhere on screen in Hollywood’s Golden Age) as Bartholomew to keep viewers from falling asleep. Not that the critics were pleased with this approach at the time, but it does make for some highly entertaining, if off-beat, entertainment.

The Production Code was in all of its glory by now and one senses that the prudes enjoying their brand-new power wanted revenge on the “sins” of the roaring twenties. Enter our prologue: “This is more than the story of a woman– it is a portrait of the Puritan period in American life. Though to us, the customs seem grim and the punishments hard, they were a necessity of the times and helped shape the destiny of a nation.” Or… rather, what certain individuals wanted a nation to have as a destiny.

Our first shot shows a lady in town with her tongue literally “tied” in pain, punishment “for laughing on ye Sabbath” as two hunters taunt her. Nonetheless she and another fellow with his hands clamped down are presented rather comically with some jokes involved. Just like one of Darmour’s 2-reelers.

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Colleen Moore plays into the all famous story set-up, having a child and not revealing who “tempted” her… he being the well respected and dashingly handsome minister Arthur Dimmesdale (Hardie Albright). Thus, the scarlet letter “A” must be worn by her and her daughter gets taunted by other children when she reaches school age.

Hester’s “sin” was committed while husband Roger was out of town and thought to be either a victim of one of the Great Plagues of London (but not the one ended by the Great Fire since we are two decades off) or lost at sea. That is, until he arrives dressed a bit like Robinson Crusoe and is informed about his wife by one of the lady gossips. The plot all boils down to Roger being a relentless “investigator” to the secret and Hester gives him a pretty good damning speech at one point in regards to his behavior.

I will watch literally anything made in the thirties since the crackling soundtracks and monochrome visuals are so soothing to my cranium. No, this is not the definite version of The Book. Not that you should stick to The Movie and ignore The Book anyway. Yet it has a wonderful quirky charm.

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Colleen is not as interesting here as she was in her earlier silent era classics since the period costumes do her no justice, but her performance is still pretty good and, from what I gathered, the reviews of her, if not the movie itself, were favorable at the time. She apparently shared Gish’s interest in Hester because she is a strong woman who stands up for herself in a very judgmental world.

Essential: Rawhide – ‘Incident of the Married Widow’ (1963)

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I’ve written this before, but I feel the best episodes are found in the middle of the show’s run, primarily season 4 and season 5. We are wrapping up our month-long discussion of Rawhide by focusing on a fifth season offering that plays like a western rom-com. It’s quite enjoyable to watch.

As always, we have a notable guest star. This time it’s Patricia Barry in the form of saloon owner Abigail Fletcher. Barry started in motion pictures in the mid-1940s but by the 50s had transitioned to television where she most undoubtedly made her mark. She guest-starred in countless primetime series for nearly 50 years and also was a mainstay on daytime soap operas. Soap fans fondly recall her role as homespun Addie Horton on Days of Our Lives; her feisty portrayal of a southern madame named Miss Sally on Guiding Light; and her turn as a blueblood matriarch on Loving. Even people who don’t know this actress by name probably remember the face and of course that lovely voice of hers.

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On Rawhide she is cast as a sympathetic but scheming woman who has become a successful business owner in a rough and tumble western town. Some of the drovers have time off and head into this town to unwind. While there, they visit Abigail’s saloon and see a portrait of their boss Gil Favor on the wall behind the bar. It’s a flattering image of handsome Gil in his old military uniform, and apparently Abigail has been passing him off as her late husband! Of course the men return to camp and tell Mr. Favor about this.

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The next part of the story is slightly far-fetched but a lot of fun. Gil goes into town and sees the portrait and talks with Abigail. Apparently they did know each other years ago but never married. Gil agrees to keep up the charade so Abigail doesn’t have to lose face, but she will have to sell the saloon and vamoose. Gil then presents himself to the townsfolk as Abigail’s husband come back from the war, very much alive. The drovers go along with this, though they are somewhat confused. They wonder if Gil really did marry Abigail years ago and had abandoned her. 

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The story works for me because it’s an interesting contradiction for Gil, given his true backstory. We know that he was actually married to a society woman back in Philadelphia and has two daughters. It also works because of the fine chemistry between series lead Eric Fleming and Ms. Barry. Another bonus is an excellent dance party held inside the saloon to celebrate Gil and Abigail’s “marriage.” Plus we get some highly charged dialogue in a farcical bedroom scene that plays like a version of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a clever episode with a proper denouement and I highly recommend it.

***

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Jlewis:

This episode is cleverly tied with the preceding ones we’ve covered, thanks to a strong female character and a role that offers commentary on both 19th century and 20th century gender battles. Intriguingly, it dates a full year after the others and, even more intriguingly, the same year as two polarizing books covering the state of American womanhood in 1963: Betty Frieden’s The Feminine Mystique was unveiled just three weeks before INCIDENT OF THE MARRIED WIDOW was aired and, eight months later in the week of the JFK assassination in Dallas, Helen Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood came out as the counter point.

Now…I will not comment on any books here, since it will get us into a whole different topic, but note that something-something was already starting to brew in the cultural background that would explode during the following decade. Although our TV writers were merely producing entertainment for the Tiffany Network, they were always aware of changes in the air.

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Patricia Barry is Abigail Fletcher, a successful owner of Silver Slipper Saloon (but pronounced “salawn”). Again, we have a woman taking on a profession dominated by men. She also had to do a bit of fibbing to get to where she is, even using our star character Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) to her advantage.

Rowdy (Clint Eastwood) has his masculine pride in jeopardy when he flirts with her. “For such a little girl, that is a mighty big package,” he comments as she exits the general store. Her reply: “For such a big boy, that is a mighty tired try.”

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Rowdy isn’t the only man using that line (a.k.a. James Murdoch’s Mushy) and she gleefully looks back at Rowdy with a “see what I mean” remark that explains it all. However Rowdy loves a woman who takes charge: “There goes a dream with feet.” Paul Brinegar’s Wishbone is less awed. “Jezebel had feet too.”

Yup. It is obvious which book Abigail would be reading if she was around in 1963. I am assuming the time period of this episode is the 1880s, so she would be living in her following incarnation if not a centenarian by then.

Dabbs Greer is one of those TV familiars modern viewers will recognize here as store owner Jeb Haddlebird; he also appeared in contemporary Twilight Zone and Gunsmoke episodes and, just over a decade later, became more familiar with the masses as Reverend Robert Alden in Little House on the Prairie. Always sweet with her…and Abigail clearly admires him to a degree, he is still a product of the male dominated ol’ west and suggests that she sell her sa-lawn to him since men are better at managing such things. His girl chum…or is she his wife?… Shela Bromley’s Thelma agrees.

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In two earlier shows, I commented on crooked pictures on the wall that may or may not have subconsciously referenced women struggling against the odds. Here, we have a picture that is not crooked in anyway and is placed strategically on the wall of the sa-lawn. A photo of her late husband sports the name of Gil Favor and also his very likeness. In no time, the real Gil gets confronted by Rowdy and Wishbone about his possible “wife.” When he meets up with Abigail, “it is clearly not a case of mistaken identity.”

This is probably my favorite of the shows for various reasons. It has just enough mystery in the beginning. Although she admits the truth right away with Gil, regarding her shame over her other husband, we are still kept in the dark about why Gil decides to go along with her charade. There is plenty of clever wordplay in the dialogue to keep one engaged throughout, being that the tone is far more more comedic than the other shows. Fun stuff.

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More importantly, it showcases just how much struggle any woman had to undergo just to succeed in life like a man. Even Gil jokingly goes along with the restraints of the times to mock those not in on the joke: “Since when does a husband need a wife to close a deal?” One thing most of us forget, living in 2021, is that many women struggled…even in 1963…just to do the simplest things we take for granted today like applying for a credit card “without a husband’s approval.”

Alas…Gil…not Abigail…makes it clear who still wears the pants. He even spanks her! Nonetheless… he times were a-changing as Bob Dylan would sing later that same year. Oh…and Clint Eastwood sings too! Or was he dubbed? Well… he was not immune to musicals, as we would discover later that decade.

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***

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Bonanza did quite a few comedic episodes, and so did GunsmokeRawhide doesn’t venture into comedy too much, but when it does, I find the results quite good. With his exasperated line deliveries, Fleming’s a natural with this sort of material.

Yes, Clint does sing occasionally on the show. It’s his real voice, not dubbed. Sometimes they have him do part of a tune out on the trail. And there was an episode where he performs in a stage production and has a fairly substantial solo number. I am assuming Eastwood asked the producers/writers to put these bits into the scripts for him, so he could demonstrate his musical talents. 

Essential: Rawhide – ‘The Boss’s Daughters’ (1962)

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This is an interesting episode of Rawhide and I chose it for one main reason. Not because of the writing or the performances, though those aspects are not bad. But because it’s a good example of what’s known in filmic writing circles as the “long story.” The long story is everything from the backstory up through the present scenario, and into the future. When we have a continuing weekly television program, audiences needs to know where their favorite characters came from and where they will probably end up, beyond the plot of the current episode. 

In this case, we learn more about Gil Favor’s ongoing life as a trail boss AND as a father or two young girls. Gil’s backstory is quite interesting, and when the writers tap into that, we get a richer characterization. His wife died and he turned over the raising of his girls to the wife’s sister, their aunt.

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Aunt Eleanor (Dorothy Green) has been rearing Gillian (Candy Moore) and Maggie (Barbara Beaird) back in Philadelphia. A season earlier the audience first glimpsed Gil’s sister-in-law and kids when he visited them back east. This time they arrive out west to be with dad on the trail. The premise comes with built-in drama because the daughters are being brought up by Eleanor to fit into high society. A dusty cattle drive is probably the last thing she wants them to experience. But Gil is determined to spend time with the girls.

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What complicates things is that Aunt Eleanor meets a handsome man who proposes marriage. He offers to adopt the girls and give them a full-time father. This puts him directly at odds with Gil, since it may undermine, possibly even eliminate, Gil’s relationship with Gillian and Maggie. 

To some extent I think the writers were experimenting with the idea of freeing Gil from his parental responsibility but don’t quite go there. So ultimately the aunt does not marry her new suitor and things go back to how they had been before, with her returning to the east with Gillian and Maggie to continue raising them for Gil.

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The girls are mentioned in later episodes but never seen again, which I think is a shame. They could have been brought back when they were older, like when one of them was of marrying age. We might have seen Gil become a father-in-law and potentially a grandfather. I think that Gil would likely have married Eleanor, and she would not have remained a spinster. At least that’s how I would have written the long story.

I should point out that Candy Moore was known for playing Lucille Ball’s daughter on The Lucy Show around this time. Also, she had two recurring roles on The Donna Reed Show. So she was very familiar to television audiences. At the end of the seventh season, Gil Favor leaves the series (due to Eric Fleming’s exit) and it is not stated why he has left the herd for Rowdy to take over. But I like to think that he retired and became a full-time family man again in Philadelphia.

***

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Jlewis:

The daughters in question, Gillian and Maggie Favor (Candy Moore and Barbara Beaird), arrive with their aunt Eleanore (Dorothy Green) by stagecoach. They come into town to witness a town brawl started by daddy Gil (Eric Fleming) who makes one misbehaving resident display a little more respect for saloon gals.

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Taking charge as “chaperone” Vance Caldwell (Paul Richards) says: “It is not much like Philadelphia, I’m afraid. Out here, we settle our differences swiftly and directly.” “And crudely,” Eleanor adds. She often disapproves of her brother-in-law and the way he presents himself in front of his daughters.

Vance, whose ranch is a barrier to the cattle roamers, is a thorn on Gil’s side in this show as he woos his sister-in-law a bit. There isn’t much conflict in this show since everybody is nice and cordial.

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Vance addresses Gil’s fathering issues and wants to become the girls’ new father. The daughters overhear many of the adult conversations and decide to take matters into their own hands. This increases the role of Wishbone (Paul Briniger) in this episode.

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A few little odds and ends that amuse me…

Apparently the wardrobe department forgot what century this storyline is set in. When riding a horse, Candy Moore sports the same ribbon in her hair, “rustic” blouse and jeans as, say, Ann-Margret or Patty Duke would sport during this time period. Again, so much of the charm of those old shows is how they reflected their concurrent times (in this case, the Kennedy Camelot years) instead of the times they were supposed to depict.

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Although her clothes were chosen more thoughtfully, actress Dorothy Green as Eleanor still reminds me a little too much of Janet Leigh, but behaving more like she does in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE or BYE, BYE BIRDIE than in any western. All females in this episode are blonde bombshells and, even in monochrome, you can easily see that one daughter is blue-eyed and the other resembles dark pupil-ed Pop more.

Oh… silly trivia bit. Barbara Beaird did some Disney stuff, including a voice bit in 101 DALMATIANS. Left the profession as she finished high school.

Many TV westerns combined outdoors scenery with too-too obvious indoor sets with recreated shrubbery and painted backdrops. Looks antiquated today but audiences of the day overlooked such details that the post-“cgi era” viewer would be far more persnickety over. Since this show is in black and white, it is less noticeable than in the all-color Bonanza.

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No Clint this show but…hey! We get Sheb Wooley as Pete Nolan in this one. The Purple People Eater is first seen getting “acquainted” with the saloon ladies. Then brushes himself off to be “presentable” to greeting Eleanor. Pretty much disappears from the screen afterwards.

I am not seeing these shows in the same order that they were aired and will be posted in reviews. This is the fourth one I sat through and, to be honest, I found it to be less interesting than the others. Nothing is particularly wrong with it, but it differs little from so much other standard prime-time “let’s get over our differences on account of the kids” material.

Essential: Rawhide – ‘A Woman’s Place’ (1962)

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This is one of my favorite episodes of Rawhide. It was written by the show’s star Eric Fleming. It’s a shame he didn’t script more episodes of the series. Not only does he nail Gil Favor and Rowdy Yates, he nails the supporting characters. He gives them all important scenes and meaningful lines of dialogue.

I think if an actor has the ability to write well, then he should be encouraged to do so. Actors usually know what other actors need in order to flesh out their characters and situations. They also know what doesn’t work. Sometimes writers that lack acting experience fail to give the actors what they need. Fleming gives them all what they need– there’s conflict, lots of it, and humor too.

The main conflict found in this episode is a conflict that had been explored on other western television series. Jane Wyman was a woman doctor at odds with narrow-minded travelers on Wagon Train. Vera Miles faced opposition as Dr. Sam Tavish on a special episode of Gunsmoke when Milburn Stone’s Doc was out of town and folks in Dodge City needed medical attention.

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Here on Rawhide there’s a lady physician, feeling mighty unwelcome, and she is played by Gail Kobe. Kobe specialized in presenting strong female characters, both as an actress and later as an executive producer in charge of Guiding Light.

What makes this story work for me is the inspired subplot. Mala Powers portrays a townswoman who seeks out medical advice from Kobe’s character. Powers is dying and plans to go away to do it with dignity.

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Before Powers goes, Kobe steadfastly treats her even though another doctor that carries out barbaric practices is creating problems. He attempts to get the townsfolk, including Powers’ husband the mayor, to run the woman doctor off. But this gal’s practice won’t be thwarted. The women in the community need her, they need a doctor who understands their unique problems. 

Into the story comes Gil Favor, Rowdy Yates and some of their men. They arrive fresh off the trail with an injured drover, who needs treatment.

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Of course Gil– progressive that he is– sides with the lady doc and works with Rowdy and the others to make sure the townsfolk see sense. It’s a compelling piece of western television drama, with fresh perspective laid on top of the genre’s most familiar tropes.

***

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Jlewis:

Gail Kobe is our star actress here. She also appeared on three episodes of The Twilight Zone (but not tonight’s show, “The Little People,” that aired on the Tiffany Network at 10PM this March 30, 1962, after Route 66 and Father of the Bride and with RAWHIDE airing earlier at 7:30). Later in the seventies and eighties, she became a successful behind-the-scenes producer of many popular soap dramas. This was an occupation once dominated by men and, not surprisingly, she plays the very animated Doctor Louise Armadon struggling in another male dominated profession.

At first, Gil Favor (Eric Fleming) and Rowdy (Clint Eastwood) are not certain about her since they are (obviously) accustomed to men as doctors but Gil…always Gil since he is the the 20th century progressive man operating in the late 19th century much like Michael Landon’s Charles in Little House on the Prairie…is most supportive of her. At least he does not behave like patient Harv (Herbert Patterson), suffering from a major wagon-turned chest injury.

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Harv shouts “no woman is going to examine me!” (Spoiler alert: all works okay in the end and Harv gains new respect for the “weaker sex” in what all they can do.)

Although she is a standout in her performance, I do feel that Gail plays her role a bit too strongly here. At least in the beginning. Later she tones down her character to become a little less one-note, so that we viewers can root for her more. 

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After all, she is a 19th century fighter who is up against far more than the women of the early sixties were (“They [men] taught me that, in a man’s world, you connive and you cheat and you look out for yourself!”), but sometimes she behaves too much like Barbara Stanwyck in the previous one we discussed…and with the gun often positioned accordingly. Gets repetitive after a while, but at least this set-up allows Gil to talk “reason” with her, reminding her that she is her own worst enemy. Also Wishbone (Paul Brineger) takes a liking to her too, so not all men are out to stop her.

There is, of course, one who does. Jacques Aubuchon plays her arrogant and pompous competitor in town, who is more “new age” in his treatment (using leeches and astrology charts).

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The mayor in town (Eduard Franz) has a wife (Mala Powers) who is trying to keep her leprosy hidden after Louise diagnoses her and she would rather pretend she must leave him on “infidelity” issues rather than tell him the truth. This results in a pointless accident involving a gun and, later, her body having to be dug up as “evidence.”

What I consider most interesting here, even if it is not addressed concretely on screen, is that Gail’s profession is in jeopardy due to a woman’s actions (or, rather, inaction by not telling the truth) than any specific man…and Jacques’ “Professor” Daniel Pearson pretty much bungles his efforts in attack.

Like THE CAPTAIN’S WIFE, we get plenty of crooked pictures on the walls surrounding the alpha-female star. Wonder what the art/set department was thinking here?

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Not a particularly memorable episode for Clint fans. He does little but comment on everything like a Greek Chorus. This was Gail’s show, just like the previous one we discussed was Barbara’s, and even Eric Fleming must stand aside at times.

Essential: Rawhide – ‘Grandma’s Money’ (1962)

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Last week’s episode was notable for being part of Gil Favor’s long story. This week’s episode does not feature the trail boss at all. It’s one of the stories that follow ramrod Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood) away from the drovers’ camp. Since the producers were turning out over 30 episodes per season, it saved time to have a second crew in an alternate location filming another script simultaneously.

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This production model resulted in Eastwood getting more screen time. Eventually, as we previously mentioned, he did graduate to series lead in the series’ final season. 

What’s fun about ‘Grandma’s Money’ is that it provides the venerable actor with a chance to play a bit more western comedy. He is paired opposite special guest star Josephine Hutchinson. However, Hutchinson’s grandma is not very grandmotherly. She appears sweet and innocent on the surface, but underneath she’s a very accomplished con artist. She entangles Rowdy in some of her schemes, which typically includes bilking people out of their money. Of course, Rowdy ultimately gets wise. 

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There is no real “justice” at the end, since Grandma evades capture and we are to assume she’s moved on to the next con somewhere else. Probably the door was left open for a follow-up episode where Rowdy would cross paths with her again. Fortunately for Rowdy (but unfortunately for viewers) that didn’t happen.

***

Jlewis:

Not sure how many of these episodes are available online, but you can read full episode synopsis, spoilers included, with so many other memorable shows of CBS here: https://www.paleycenter.org/collection-2/.

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In a previous review of ‘The Captain’s Wife,’ I commented that the episode “was progressive in some ways and backward in others” because it was, after all, representative of network TV in early 1962. No better and no worse than, say, a contemporary episode of The Twilight Zone that, as wonderful as it is to watch even today, does occasionally reveal its age. My one nit-pick was Barbara Stanwyck’s Nora being anxious to be treated as a man in charge but giving in just before her death by telling Favor that she always wanted a “strong man, one who would command me.”

Nothing wrong at all with that statement, but I suggested that a modern writer would have adjusted it to fit the changing times since women are far less dependent on men these days. ‘A Woman’s Place’ pushed much farther in the direction that ‘The Captain’s Wife’ attempted. Despite my nit-picking, there is no denying that shows like Rawhide were still progressive in all of their social commentary, often far more than the viewers watching them.

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‘Grandma’s Money,’ directed by Sobey Martin, is also blessed with a strong and defiant female character, played by the great Josephine Hutchinson, a veteran who started in the teens as a silent juvenile lead, enjoyed her prime in the golden thirties with some classics like SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and rounded out her career with guest spots on TV like this one and a later Little House on the Prairie episode.

Remember that this was before The Golden Girls redefined what all an “elderly lady” could do in prime-time. Although the actress is much younger than the role she is playing, she still impresses in her very first scene by shooting a mean gun from her carriage stuck in the mud. In response, Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates declares: “Hey lady, cut it out! Just trying to help you out.”

Modern viewers will mostly focus on early vintage Clint as Rowdy here, who states earlier with another typical Eastwood line: “Look, when Mister Favor isn’t here, I’m boss of this outfit and, me being boss of this outfit, I’m gonna pick the man who goes…and I’m pickin’ me.” His arrogance here is important to our story plot because, as we all know, those who think they know best are the last to know about a lot of things.

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He is later falsely accused of bank robbery and temporarily goes to jail this episode, without realizing he’s been “had”! We root for him though when he admits that he is a “sucker” in the end.

Back to sweet Abigail Briggs, who isn’t what she seems to be. Age is something humans judge others by, often unfairly. Also sometimes those judged accordingly use those very same judgments to their advantage. Gayla Graves plays the wife of Col. Agee (Frank Wilcox) who is “old enough to be her father” and the couple receive some commentary on that before they even appear on screen, but we learn that they should be judged as fairly as “Grandma” is…for better and for worse.

I especially like how “Grandma” fusses that she is vulnerable to bandits who try to rob her, but little does Rowdy and the others initially know just how good she is at both defending herself and taking advantage of others…

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Should I spoil anything further here?

Two supporting characters are worth mentioning in an episode in which the regulars apart from Eastwood (Eric Fleming, Paul Brinegar, etc.) are pushed to the background. Jonathan Hole has a fun supporting role as Otis Eames, the easily swindled poker player; he was a famous radio voice who made the successful transition to supporting on screen roles, mostly on TV with Dragnet in the fifties, and seemed to be literally everywhere on the small screen throughout the sixties, including three other episodes of Rawhide, plus The Real McCoys, The Addams Family, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Bewitched, Petticoat Junction, etc.

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Also, Ann Daniels plays Jane, Clint’s woman-of-interest for this episode and resembles a calmer, less feisty Shirley Jones; my only complaint is that she isn’t dressed by the wardrobe department as Victorian Age like other ladies on the show but looks more contemporary early sixties.

One little detail I found striking…and you all know that only lil’ ol’ me would notice: the forest location this show used (with its impressive low hanging trees) had not changed since THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD. Okay. Maybe it wasn’t shot in the same locale but the locale on screen sure looked the same to me.

At first I thought that, despite all that she does, our star lady does the right thing in the end with Rowdy since TV network shows, just like that MGM landmark short series predating the TV era, prove that Crime Does Not Pay. Yet this episode actually lets her get away with a lot this episode that would not be acceptable with so many other characters. She reminds me a little of Helen Hayes in her later naughty self-defiant roles in AIRPORT and HERBIE RIDES AGAIN who does not exactly reform in her ways.