Monday, April 29, 2013

CONQUEST OF THE AIR (1936/1940) and VICTORY THROUGH AIR POWER (1943)

There was something in the air in the early 1940s -- Messerschmidts, primarily -- that must have caused studios on two different continents to release documentaries involving the history of flight in peace and war. From Britain came Conquest of the Air. Hollywood's contribution was Victory Through Air Power, a Walt Disney movie whose lasting fame is right up there with Moon Pilot, Savage Sam and Nikki, Wild Dog of the North.

It's no secret that for many years -- oh let's just come out and say it: decades -- the UK film industry was far behind Hollywood's both technically and creatively. So Conquest of the Air -- originally released in 1936 but re-released in an expanded version four years later to cover the war with Germany -- doesn't differ much from something you'd have slept through in history class. Flat black & white cinematography, crude historical recreations, monotonous narration and hollow audio dubbed-in after the fact take up much of its 70-minute running time. (That some scenes are slightly better than others testifies to five directors being involved.) 

Oh yeah, that'll work.
The most fascinating fact Conquest of the Air presents is that there were a lot of idiots back in the pre-Renaissance day who thought that if they strapped on 50 pounds worth of phony wings and jumped off a tall building, they could fly. I mean a lot of idiots. Like generations worth. The only one who begged to differ was a budding Superman who thought a cape would do the trick. I think they're still scraping pieces of him off a piazza somewhere.

One odd directorial choice is keeping the face of the actor playing Leonardo DaVinci away from the camera at all times. Was the budget too low to afford a phony beard?
"Get-a your tootsi-frutsi ice cream!"
Then there's Laurence Olivier playing foppish hot-air balloonist Vincent Lunardi with the zaniest Italian accent this side of Henry Armetta. Olivier might have killed onstage in his salad days, but he ignored the "less is more" flag waving on the movie set. I mean, he makes Lionel Barrymore look like Warren Oates. On the other hand, with his two-minute cameo he's the only memorable actor in Conquest of the Air, so maybe he knew what he was doing. Attention must be paid and all that. 
"We should begin our descent
in approximately 144 hours."

Where Conquest of the Air really shines is the documentary footage of early flying machines. A weird contraption -- it looks like a Volkswagen Beetle -- spins over what appears to be Central Park, just waiting to be declared illegal by Mayor Bloomberg 75 years later. Interesting facts abound -- the narrator is astonished, for instance, that it was possible to fly from London to South Africa within a week. Today, it takes that long just to get through Security.

The footage of the Hindenburg explosion nicely illustrates, I'd say, the pros and cons of using hydrogen for fuel. (Although I think it was a conspiracy involving the Illuminati, the World Bank and the Fox Movietone Newsreel wanting an awesome exclusive.) British war planes are shown getting ready for battle while the narrator sadly reminds us that peaceful usage for flying will be on the shelf for the duration. Winston Churchill reminds his fellow Brits that their war with Germany was going to be won by air power.  

Nobody had to tell that to Col. Billy Mitchell, who, in the 1920s, urged the U.S. Army to focus on air power in future combat and was court-martialed for his trouble. Russian-born-turned-naturalized-American Major Alexander DeSeversky was so impressed by Mitchell's arguments that he published Victory Through Air Power not long after our involvement in the War. Walt Disney, in turn, was so impressed by the book that he decided to make a feature-length adaptation. Today, the jokers who run the studio would ask, "Where are the vampires?"

As with Conquest of the Air, Victory Through Air Power opens with a history of Man's attempt to fly. Unfortunately, its silly animation appears to be aimed at your average mentally-challenged two year-old chihuahua. Stung by the failure of Fantasia three years earlier, Disney was now moving into the middle-of-the-road crap that had already neutered the once-anarchic Mickey Mouse.


So what follows couldn't be more of a contrast -- a live-action lecture by DeSeversky interspersed with chilling animation that brings to life the perils of underestimating the Axis' strength. As with Billy Mitchell, DeSeversky seemed to have been in possession of a crystal ball few took seriously. Among the very first words he speaks:

As soon as the airplanes that are already on the
drafting boards of all the warring nations take to the air, there will not
be a single space on the face of the earth immune to attack. [...]
The distinctions between soldiers and civilians will be erased. And I believe
that it is only a matter of time before we here in America will suffer
our share of civilian casualties.

Major Alexander DeSeversky
explains it all to you -- with a really big globe.
Give that guy a Purple Heart for Prognostication. 9/11, drones, Syria, Chechnya -- it's all there in Technicolor. As obvious as it seems now, this was heady stuff in 1943. It makes you wonder who the Pentagon is ignoring today.

DeSeversky was blessed with the gift of taking rather complex military theories and presenting them in such a way that the average idiot (e.g., me) could understand. His soft Russian accent has just enough of a lulling effect to draw you into what he's saying without putting you to sleep -- except to audiences in 1943, but more on that later. 

Uh oh.
The animated sequences that accompany the lecture aptly bring to life the need for air power over the more conventional ground combat. Whether talking about Germany or Japan (Italy gets short shrift here, apparently being the kid who goes along with whatever his big brothers suggest),
DeSeversky explains clearly how our goals will be reached with current warfare techniques vs new thinking. The war
I prefer my Japanese octopus
on sticky rice.
with Japan, for example, would last until 1948 by merely hopscotching from base to base until finally reaching Tokyo. Or we could shorten the war via "long range air power" -- bigger planes with more fuel. The ultimate solution, he believed, would be building airbases in Alaska from which our bombers could take off. Brilliant thinker that he was, DeSeversky never considered a weapon like, oh, the atomic bomb to get the job done. 
Disney explains what an airplane is
to Major
DeSeversky.

Typical for World War II animation, the bad guys are thoroughly raked over the coals in a way that would make today's p.c. crowd weep. There's something refreshing, even liberating, to see evil portrayed as evil. Now if someone would only do the same thing with Jeff Zucker, we'd be making progress.



Disney thought he was doing his patriotic bit by producing Victory Through Air Power. At the same time, he was first and foremost a businessman, which explains why he was hedging his bets when it came to promoting it. Posters, like the one a few paragraphs up, played up the war angle (albeit with the slogan, "There's a Thrill in The Air!", which would fit quite well with a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald operetta). Others, like the one to the left, made it seem like just another Disney cartoon -- different, as one of the captions reads, but nothing that Donald Duck couldn't handle. 

If Louella says it's so, it's so.
Critics, recognizing something special, got behind Victory Through Air Power in a big way. Newspapers and magazines provided free promotion. Everything was in place for audiences to sit enraptured. Everything, that is, but the audiences.  Ultimately, all that Walt Disney had to show for his efforts were an Academy Award for Special Achievement and $400,000 in red ink. Coming on top of the almost $2,000,000 loss Fantasia suffered, Disney would later call Victory Through Air Power "a stupid thing to do."


While DeSeversky beams with pride at the Oscar,
Disney wonders how much he can hock it for.
It doesn't seem that way now. Victory Through Air Power is probably the most fascinating movie Disney ever made, a fine example of what live action and animation were capable of. It probably plays better on home video than it did on a big screen in the middle of the War when escapism, not a lecture on technological warfare, was the entertainment choice of the day. As with his other cinematic experiments, Disney put monetary considerations on the back burner, certain that audiences would appreciate what he was doing -- no matter how often he was proven wrong. 

The current Disney regime has certainly learned, though. Upcoming releases include Jungle Cruise (based on the Disneyland ride), Monsters University (a prequel to Monsters, Inc.) and National Treasure 3 (no explanation needed). Unseen and forgotten since its original 1943 release, Victory Through Air Power made its DVD debut in 2004 in a limited edition of 250,000 copies. Nine years later, unopened copies can still be found on Amazon. We're not going to be seeing Victory Through Air Power: The Drone Years any time soon.



                                                    *******************

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

LADY IN THE DEATH HOUSE (1944)

Back in the 1940s, if a neighborhood theater manager wanted to put fannies in the seats, he couldn't do better than Lady in the Death House. The title alone is rich with promise. But there's also that fabulous poster with the blood-red silhouette, the woman in the lower corner looking on disbelief and a tagline hyping a whole new genre: soap opera noir.

Then there are the opening credits -- the shadow of an electric chair, the title spelled out in letters resembling electricity. And the great Lionel Atwill in the lead! All of this is what B-movie fans salivate for. You could probably watch it in your head without ever actually having seen it. A couple of unexpected twists, along with a cast game for anything, ultimately made this PRC release worth the time it took to tell its strange, convoluted story. Maybe because it's only 55 minutes long.

A typically-subtle PRC touch.
Convict Mary Logan is finishing up a letter to criminologist Dr. Charles Finch before she walks the last mile. The warden obviously didn't get the memo about shaving prisoners' heads before they're electrocuted. Judging by her bouffant, this prison must have a Rodolfo Valentin outlet on the premises. My wife would gladly kill me for this kind of pampering.
Just as Mary's ready to take the hot squat, we flashforward to Dr. Finch talking to a gaggle of reporters at his apartment. That's a common thing in old movies -- newspaper reporters hanging around their subject's living room, partaking in his liquor and cigarettes, no sense of competition among them. Nobody's taking notes because their hands are filled with booze and smokes. It's a wonder that cities like New York could afford 12 daily newspapers. 

"At least we weren't smoking.
Mayor Bloomberg would kill us!"
Finch gives the lowdown on how Mary wound up in the death house. One evening, Finch was at his favorite restaurant, the Grotto. Or, actually, the only restaurant set PRC could afford. (It's pretty funny when, in a later scene at the Grotto, Finch says, "Let's find a booth," when we know it's going to be the same goddamn booth we've seen three times in the last 20 minutes.) He had struck up a conversation with Dr. Dwight Bradford when they were distracted by a typical accident you see when dining out: a woman's dress catching on fire thanks to a flambe knocked over by her drunken date. Bradford uses Finch's coat to put out the flames, because, well, who wants to ruin their own coat?

"But honey, I'll bring them back!"
As you might have guessed, this immediately leads to true love. Unfortunately, the only thing standing between the couple and the altar is Bradford's job: he's the executioner at the state prison. Not that he particularly enjoys it; it simply pays the bills while he's working on a formula to revive the dead. (That prison must execute a hell of a lot of people to finance a hobby like this.)  Here's the beauty part: Mary can't abide by his perfectly legitimate government job, yet has no trouble with him trying to bring corpses back to life. Dames!



"You look guilty. That's good enough for me!"
Mary has a secret of her own: she's being shaken down by Willis Millen, a former associate of her late father, a two-bit crook, in exchange for not telling her boss her real identity. Millen is found dead in her apartment; circumstantial evidence points to Mary being the killer. (As a cop on the scene says, "This isn't one of those cases that depends on clues." Just the guy you want in public service.) Finch isn't convinced, and starts his own
investigation. 

A crazy slut, at that.
Finch is suspicious of Mary's younger, sluttish sister Susie. ("Although emotionally unstable," Finch admits in hindsight, "she was not vicious." No, just a slut.) He knows Susie is hiding something, but can't get her to talk even when her sister is sentenced to the chair. And fulfilling the fantasies of every guy who's been dumped by a woman, Bradford is scheduled to pull the death switch on Mary. High-five!

Had the makers of Lady in the Death House continued on this path, news of Mary's innocence would have arrived seconds after she got fried. Bradford would then drag her back to the lab and pull a Dr. Frankenstein on her. Mary's eyes would have blinked open and next thing you know, it'd be honeymoon of the living dead. Although I'm not keen on happy endings for crime films, I'd have found that acceptable.

Prisons had really cool lighting in those days.
But that's not what the boys in re-write went for. Instead, Bradford chickens out and not only refuses to execute his ex-honey, but tries to prevent anyone else from doing it, too. Finch finds the real killer (it isn't important how -- suffice it to say he was inspired by a flashing neon sign reading RICHARDSON ALE). Only the Governor has the power to cancel Mary's execution, but he's at a roadside diner with his driver and no security detail whatsoever. This being over a half-century before cell phones became pandemic, it's up to a radio announcer to order the Governor to call the prison before Mary goes the way of Reddy Kilowatt. 

All ends well. Mary moves to Chicago with Bradford, who gets a new job that doesn't involve killing innocent prisoners, freeing up his time to reanimate the dead. For some reason, this still doesn't seem strange to anyone concerned.

It's not just the plot of Lady in the Death House that gets you dizzy. It's constantly going back and forth in time, with opticals between scenes resembling a particularly hyper windshield wiper. Other times, the special effects department varies things a bit by wiping clockwise, then counterclockwise, often within the space of mere seconds. This is the earliest example of cinematic ADD I've ever seen. 

Low-budget movies like this, stuffed with no-name actors, give you a good idea of what "regular" people looked like then. Everybody, other than Lionel Atwill, looks just different enough to step in front of a camera, but not for an important production. They can memorize and recite their dialogue more or less convincingly. All the men wear pencil-thin mustaches, that apparently being the style of the day. Marcia Mae Jones, as Susie, really does look like a crazy slut and plays it accordingly. She seems wholesome in other photos online so maybe she's a better actress than I give her credit for.  And as for Jean Parker -- the woman who plays Mary Logan -- I recognized her from Laurel & Hardy's The Flying Deuces and nothing else. But when you're in a Laurel & Hardy movie, other credits are superfluous.

"It's Wednesday -- what
movie am I making today?"
And what would a PRC release be without an actor you know by face but not by name -- like Byron Foulger, the mousy guy who can switch from nice to nasty in the drop of a script. In Lady in the Death House, he's the creep who insists on testifying that Mary was the killer even though all he could see were silhouettes on a shade. (This movie is actually the best argument against the death penalty I've ever seen.) An actor around forever, his CV boasts 468 gigs from his first movie in 1932 to his final TV appearance in 1970. Did this guy even take a nap?

America's most debonair orgy-meister.

Lady in the Death House is a far cry from Lionel Atwill's glory days in movies like Murders at the Zoo where he sews shut the mouth of a romantic rival in the very first scene. But you'd never know it by watching him. As with other character actors of his time -- Henry Daniell and George Zucco, to name just two -- Atwill immediately elevates any movie he's in with his stage-trained polish, diction and charisma. He's a pro no matter how skimpy the budget or bizarre the script.

Atwill was once a reliable player in A-pictures -- the one-armed policeman in Son of Frankenstein, the not-so mad scientist in Dr. X among the best-remembered -- until a perjury conviction involving one of his legendary porn-fueled orgies made him actor-non-grata among the studio-head hypocrites who were guilty of far worse. 

Atwill spent his last years shuttling between low-rent jobs at Universal and PRC.  Always dependable for a good quote ("All women love the men they fear. All women kiss the hand that rules them"), he's kind of like Claude Rain's mysterious step-uncle. Perfectly civilized, a wonderful raconteur, but someone you wouldn't want to babysit your kids. 

But damn, could he throw a porn-fueled orgy. High-five!

                                                   **************************

Sunday, April 21, 2013

FRIENDS AND LOVERS (1931)

Friends and Lovers asks the question, "Can two men remain friends when they both love the same woman?" We all know the answer to that one, but the movie spends 68 minutes teasing us with the possibilities -- kind of the way the woman in question does.

Captain Geoffrey Roberts and Lieutenant Ned Nichols (not to be confused with bandleader Red Nichols) are stationed in India when they discover they've both had affairs with a married woman, Alva Sangrito. Roberts tries to settle matters by sending Nichols on a fatal mission, only to wuss out and rescue him at the last minute. Having decided to put Alva behind them, the two men unexpectedly meet her (and her new fiance) in London at the kind of weekend sleepover rich people indulge in.  Realizing that Alva and Roberts are still in love, Nichols takes a wild shot at him, only to miss. Alva, finally realizing she's caused enough trouble for these idiots, leaves the party. Roberts, at Nichols' urging, successfully wins her back.

"Yes, it's true, I'm
devilishly handsome."
Director Victor Schertzinger must have thought Friends and Lovers a work of art, his name appearing as an ostentatious signature on the credits. But it's the actors who make it worth a look. For Friends and Lovers marks the American movie debut of Laurence Olivier, whom RKO Radio Pictures anticipated would be the new Ronald Colman. Unfortunately for both the studio and Olivier, Colman wasn't going anywhere. Within a year or so, Olivier was back on the British stage where he belonged. (You can take that last remark any way you'd like.)


"Don't let the door
hit you on the way out, Larry!"

As Nichols, Olivier is outclassed by Adolphe Menjou's Rogers in more than just military ranking. There's a 17-year difference in their real-life ages, giving Menjou a leg up not only in the art of movie acting but in life itself. Opposite a foxy film veteran like Menjou,  24 year-old Olivier is alternately juvenile (which may be the point) and playing to the balcony of the Old Vic (which definitely isn't). If you weren't aware that he would some day be considered one of the the great actors of his time, his impact on you would range somewhere between zero and so what.


"Love to hate...
or hate to love?"
Viennese-born Erich von Stroheim as Alva's husband, Victor, is the cyanide-laced frosting on the cake. Promoted early in his career as "The Man You Love To Hate" (an honorific now owned by Ashton Kutcher), von Stroheim is terrific as the guy who's been forcing his wife to engage in extramarital affairs just so he can blackmail her lovers for money. The way he bemusedly catches Rogers and Alva in a lie that he's set up is wonderfully funny in an icky way. And when demanding £5,000 to keep the couple's fling quiet, Victor informs Rogers that he's already gone to the trouble of finding out where he banks.
"Thanks for lending me
your wife, buddy!"
The equally-bemused look on Menjou's face signals that we're in the company of two old pros -- both the characters and the actors themselves -- who appreciate each other's jaded world-weariness. (Von Stroheim's innocent defense, "Blackmail is such an ugly word," instantly created a cliche that would launch a thousand comedy sketches.)


http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-BVVTdCmBQDU/UXKf2ToZ9HI/AAAAAAAAEm4/iikz0jIFlvw/s1600/FRIENDSSTROHEIMDAMITA1.jpg
This is similar to the
way my wife & I hang out
at home.

Victor, by the way, needs the money in order to indulge in his hobby, collecting porcelain -- the most fragile piece being his own wife, who can't even fight back when he whips her with a riding crop, leading their butler to fatally shoot him. I wish he'd accidentally shot the wife, because von Stroheim's icy presence is missed for the remainder of the movie. A truly underrated actor, von Stroheim was appreciated far more in Europe, to Hollywood's lasting shame. 

You may remember the actress who plays Alva, Lily Damita, from a previous piece about the 1932 sex farce This is the Night. Damita's sex-kitten persona in that movie is all but negated here, as she apparently confuses languor for heartache. She must have been mighty hot in real life, because I still can't figure out why Errol Flynn married her, let alone why she's the object of desire by four sapheads in this movie, two of whom were willing to kill each other over her. I guess men weren't as choosy during the Depression.


The only actor to have
starred alongside
Laurence Olivier
and
Wheeler & Woolsey.
A couple of supporting actors are worth mentioning, not so much for their talent as for just being in the movie. Hugh Herbert plays McNellis, Rogers' valet, with a singularly unconvincing Scottish accent. Herbert, best known as the rubber-faced character actor from a hundred or so Warner Brothers' comedies, seems weirdly out of place when sharing scenes with Laurence Olivier. Your brain reacts to it as it would to, say, Shemp Howard playing opposite Max von Sydow: This makes no sense whatsoever.

"I was born in 1858.
Have some respect, sir!"
As the host of the sleepover, Frederic Kerr trots out his old codger routine seen in Frankenstein the same year. All's that missing is the fez. I bring him up only because he was 72 at the time -- and how often do you see actors who were born 155 years ago?

"Are you convinced I'm wonderful?"     
Watching a somewhat-better-than-average melodrama like Friends and Lovers convinced me that you can pull any Adolphe Menjou role off the shelf and never find a bad performance. His style might not have differed much from role to role -- Menjou doesn't even attempt a British accent in Friends and Lovers, his crisp diction being enough -- but no matter the genre, he was consistently good, occasionally great, always convincing.


"Oui! I am, how you say,
un grand hambone!"
In movies, Laurence Olivier, was inconsistently great, often histrionic, not always convincing. (He couldn't have bettered the job done by Menjou as the despicable martinet in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory.) Check out The 49th Parallel some time, where his French-Canadian trapper (left) could be substituted for Swift's Premium Ham in your grocery's meat section. For every movie like The Entertainer -- brilliant, a role in which Olivier really loses himself -- there's The Boys from Brazil, The Betsy, The Jazz Singer ("I haff no son!"), Inchon... And, of course, the legendary Polaroid commercials for which he was paid the princely sum of one million dollars. Having coveted the dough more than his reputation, it was one of his more credible jobs.
 
But none of that matters in a piece of sophisticated fluff like Friends and Lovers. Because in real life, Roberts wouldn't have saved Nichols back in India, and Nichols would've shot Roberts through the head at the sleepover. Alva, in turn, would've stayed with her fiance, just to make the survivor that much more miserable. And no amount of great acting would change that.

                                                  *****************

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

THE SIN OF NORA MORAN (1933)

If the world were just, The Sin of Nora Moran would be known for something other than possessing the most startling movie poster of the 1930s. But as its ill-fated heroine learns, justice sometimes depends on who you know and where you're from.

Nora Moran isn't exactly leading a charmed life. She lost her adoptive parents as a teenager, is later raped by the man she worked for and is found guilty of a murder she didn't commit. Nora willingly takes the fall for the real killer, the married man she loves -- who happens to be the spineless Governor who refuses to pardon her, and who ultimately blows his brains out moments after her execution.

Even by pre-Code standards, this is pretty grim stuff. In the wrong hands, it would have been either unwatchable or howlingly melodramatic. But thanks to talented people in front of and behind the cameras, The Sin of Nora Moran is fascinating not only to watch but to study. That "New Marvelous Screen Technique" mentioned in the poster is what sets it apart from most of the Hollywood herd released back then.

The Sin of Nora Moran opens with District Attorney John Grant telling Nora's story to Edith Crawford, the widow of the late Gov. Dick Crawford. From that point, the narration bounces back and forth to any number of characters, including Nora herself via sedative-induced hallucinations while awaiting execution. Flashbacks contain flashbacks, then suddenly jump to the present before returning to Nora's fantasies and other characters' memories. People suddenly appear from the darkness only to disappear again. Images pile up on each other like Legos. Dizzying montages mark the passage of time. Nora Moran's storytelling makes that of Citizen Kane look like "Jack & Jill." 

At times, you don't know what's real and what's merely the by-product of pharmaceuticals (either Nora's or the director's). One bizarre scene features Nora's vision of her own funeral, attended by Grant and Crawford, featuring the kind of dialogue not spoken in other American movies in 1933:

 
CRAWFORD: What's the matter with her?
GRANT: She's dead.
CRAWFORD: I don't like the way they've fixed her hair.
GRANT: They've shaved part of it off. 
CRAWFORD: Why? Why did they do that?
GRANT: So the current would go through her head.
CRAWFORD: It doesn't go through her head?
GRANT: It goes through her head, her arms and legs.
CRAWFORD: It's a lie!
GRANT: It goes through her head, her arms and legs. If you don't believe it, come to the execution tonight. They're going to kill her again. The warden wasn't pleased with the way that she died.

For audiences weaned on mainstream fair like 42nd Street, Little Women and Dinner at Eight the same year, this  must have been a very strong drink indeed. Whether it was deliberate or not -- and I'd like to think it was -- The Sin of Nora Moran's low budget actually aides the visuals in avant-garde scenes like the funeral and the climatic meeting between Nora's spirit and Crawford. "There's nothing to fear in death," she assures him. "I'm not dying for all the things you did. I'm dying for all the good things you're going to do. And I'm dying rather than giving up something precious to me." Nora Moran is the victim of every man she's ever met, yet ultimately the strongest character in the movie.

The language in The Sin of Nora Moran is pretty coarse for its time -- four "damns" and one "hell"  by my count, with an "Oh my God!" or two thrown into the mix. Early scenes in a moth-bitten circus where Nora works as the assistant to an alcoholic lion-tamer who eventually rapes her -- and whom is eventually murdered -- set the appropriately depressing mood. (The actor's stand-in repeatedly punches the lion in the head -- a crowd-pleaser no longer featured by Ringling Bros.)  Even the brief scenes of happiness between Nora and Crawford are shrouded in doom -- we know from the opening moments that Nora kept an appointment with the electric chair. 

But the others involved ultimately pay the price as well. Crawford, by committing suicide. And Grant -- the District Attorney who not only tried to make the murder look like an accident but urged Crawford not to pardon Nora -- by a heavy conscience that will haunt him the rest of his life. Nobody gets off easy in The Sin of Nora Moran. Not even Crawford's scheming harpy of a widow (right), who realizes too late that her husband danced to her own foul tune as much as to Grant's. 

Special commendation to Phil Goldstone for the revolutionary style later credited to any number of later directors. It's especially interesting considering that Goldstone directed only 11 other movies, none of them of particular interest today (unless you count Damaged Goods, his grimy 1937 exploitation shocker about syphilis). And it's a loss to movies that The Sin of Nora Moran would be the only screenplay by somebody with the fancy-pants name of W. Maxwell Goodhue, the author of a bunch of now-forgotten stage plays. 

And speaking as someone who reads too much into coincidences, I do wonder if Phil Goldstone cast Zita Johann as Nora because of her resemblance to Renee Falconetti
in the 1928 French classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc (left). If so, The Sin of Nora Moran has to be the only B-movie influenced by a silent art film directed by Theodor Dreyer. 

By and large, the cast is made up of second-tier names who made their living as character actors. Alan Dinehart (left), as John Grant, seems to appear in every other movie run on TCM. British-born Paul Cavanagh (right), as Dick Crawford, specialized in dashing heroes and oily villains, eventually making dozens of TV appearances throughout the '50s. (As it is today, TV was the salvation of actors no longer appreciated by movie producers.)

Henry B. Walthall (right), who plays the priest that arranges the young Nora's adoption -- and presides over her phantasmagoria funeral -- made his movie debut in 1908 under the direction of D.W. Griffith. He appeared in over 300 movies, including The Birth of a Nation, over 28 years. Contrast that Warren Beatty, who's made only 22 movies from his first in 1961 to his most recent in 2001. That's 40 years. Hollywood definitely honors the wrong people.

Zita Johann was the closest of the bunch to a star at the time, having been Boris Karloff's object of desire in The Mummy a year earlier. She plays Nora Moran with the right touch of sorrow, confusion and, ultimately, relief (coming from death) and compassion (for the living). In 1934, she returned to Broadway after only seven movies. Fifty-two years later, Johann  made her eighth movie, the low-budget sci-fi hybrid Raiders of the Living Dead, no doubt at the request of a movie fan involved in the production. According to her 1993 obituary in the New York Times, "In recent decades, she worked with disturbed children and gave private acting lessons," which sounds redundant. Trivia alert: Zita Johann was married to producer/director/writer/actor/commercial pitchman John Houseman from 1929 to 1933 (above, left). They looked like a real happy couple.

The Sin of Nora Moran could only have been made by a two-bit studio like Majestic Pictures. (Even the name "Majestic Pictures" sounds like something from a Three Stooges comedy.) The majors would rarely, if ever, make a movie with such an atypical style. Independents had the freedom to take a chance just to get noticed. Sometimes, it was their only choice.

Such is the quandary of The Sin of Nora Moran. Without a strong family named Warner, for instance, to guide it into the age of home video, it was doomed to be forgotten, winding up in the wilds of YouTube while far less interesting movies went on to lasting fame with promotion undeserved. The real sin of Nora Moran, as with its heroine, is its fate.



                                                          ****************

Friday, April 12, 2013

GANGWAY FOR TOMORROW (1943)

Stop me if you've heard this one. Six carpoolers are on their way to work at the munitions factory. The driver breaks the silence by telling the others his fantasies of what they used to do before their current occupation. Instead of telling him to shut up and mind his own business, they each have their own little dramatic flashback of the events that led them to where they are today.

That's Gangway for Tomorrow, a patriotic B-movie with a script by Arch Oboler, one of radio's most celebrated writers. Released in 1943, smack-dab in the middle of World War II, Gangway for Tomorrow is a "portmanteau" movie made up of the memories of five different characters. As the movie runs a zippy 69 minutes, that makes the average length of each flashback roughly 13 minutes long (or, more accurately, short), not including the wraparound scenes. I wish I had the kind of life to create 13 minutes worth of memories.

Is your carpool this interesting? Front, left to right: Robert Ryan, John Carradine and Charles Arnt.
Rear, left to right: Amelita Ward, James Bell and Margo.

 (Despite the terrible tinting in the photo, the movie is in black & white.)

There's gotta be easier ways to
avoid the military.
As with all memories, some are more interesting than others. One tells the tale of Joe Dunham, a driver at the Indy 500 who gets a blown tire and winds up in the hospital with injuries making him ineligible for military service. That's it, nothing more to see here, folks. The only thing that makes it worth watching today is 34 year-old Robert Ryan, still several years from stardom, as Dunham. And although he plays a good guy, it's my memories of his roles in Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock and Beware, My Lovely that make me uneasy throughout.

A mink coat won't keep you warm at night,
Miss America! On second thought,
maybe it will.
Then there's Amelita Ward as Mary Jones, a former Miss America who realizes that her crown and a role in a Broadway musical mean nothing without a man. Especially when her scenes in the play are cut on opening night. Serves you right for ignoring your boyfriend, Miss A! Ward, an actress I confess to being unfamiliar with, appears to have had a six-year run in movies, about half of which are as the every-popular "Uncredited." She later married Leo Gorcey of the Bowery Boys. Which fate would you have preferred?

"That's 'heaubeau' to you!"
As with the Indy 500 segment, sometimes all it takes to make something worth watching is the star. And so it is with John Carradine as a hobo who's guilt-tripped by a small-town judge into doing his part to help win the War. With his impeccable manners, 50-cent words and cultured diction, Carradine appears to be poking good-natured fun at his off-screen chum John Barrymore. His throaty delivery shows the signs not only of Shakespearean stagecraft but probably four packs of Luckies a day. Nonetheless, Carradine proves beyond all doubt that homeless people were more fun when they were called hobos.

Warning to all singers: if these are
your fans, it's time to find a
new profession.

One of the two completely serious segments -- and the only one that could have been expanded to feature-length -- stars the mono-nomenclatured Margo as Lissette Rene, a one-time member of the French resistance. A nightclub singer popularwith the local Nazi leaders, Lissette is arrested, along with her confederates, when her performance of "Les Marseillaises" disrupts Hitler's radio broadcast.

The one segment of Gangway for Tomorrow that's explicitly war-related, it's filled with memorable moments. The Nazi general recognizing Lissette's voice on the radio. The resistance members, spanning from teenager to elderly, being ordered to their execution while a traitor tearfully waits behind in the jail cell. And the firing squad scene itself. Lissette and her boyfriend, Jean, hold hands as the rifles are readied. At the last minute, the general offers to spare the women's lives if they agree to entertain German troops. In a close-up of their hands, Jean willingly lets go of Lissette. They give each other a final look before she walks away, the rifles sounding before she's even out of the courtyard.

From this, we've devolved to
Greta von Sustern.
Escaping to freedom on her way to the front, Lissette returns to her hideout where, via radio, she warns her allies of the traitor in their midst -- and promises the Nazis that their days are numbered. Delivered in one intense take, Margo delivers her message looking straight at the camera, a sequence still effective today. 


By the way, Margo's real name was Maria Margarita Guadalupe Teresa Estella Castilla Bolado y O'Donnell. I know what you're thinking -- "O'Donnell?"

For me, the best segment is the one that has nothing to do with the War. Tom Burke, a prison warden, is awaiting the electrocution of
"Do I have to join
Executioners Local 27?"
career criminal Dan Barton when he gets word that the executioner is unavailable. Should the electrocution be postponed? Burke replies that he'll do it himself. On his way to the execution chamber, Burke recalls the events that brought him to this point (yes, it's another flashback-within-a-flashback so beloved on this blog). It turns out Tom and Dan are brothers. And it was Dan's final crime -- murdering four people in a bank robbery -- that killed their mother from grief on Christmas Eve.

Dan, screaming for mercy, is placed in the electric chair. Ignoring his brother's cries, Burke places his hand on the switch. Suddenly, the phone rings. It can only be a call from the Governor's office. The camera focuses on Burke's hand on the switch. He squeezes... but lets go... Squeezes... and lets go again, the phone ringing incessantly all the while. Finally, and defiantly, he pulls the switch. The lights dim as the electricity courses through Dan's body. It's only when Dan's dead that Burke picks up the phone. "Yes?" he whispers hoarsely. "Yes, this is he... It's too late, Governor. The execution has taken place. And  Governor. One other thing. I just sent you my resignation." End of scene. Your only response is, Wow.

James Bell
Erford Gage

A mini-film noir, the segment succeeds not only through style -- it doesn't resemble any other part of Gangway for Tomorrow -- but the lead actors, both forgotten today. James Bell plays Burke with grim determination, taking no joy from executing his brother even though he believes it good and necessary -- and as a little bit of his own soul dies with him. Erford Gage, resembling a cross between Gary Crosby, Richard Widmark and Dennis Hopper, is a near-revelation as the born-to-be-bad Dan Barton, a guy you hate from the get-go. Had he been born ten years later, Gage could have been a mainstay of '50s crime movies; not a star, necessarily, but a character actor who worked steadily in supporting roles in little movies like this before moving on to television. 

Oh, and I misspoke slightly when I said this segment wasn't War-related. Shortly after appearing in Gangway for Tomorrow, Erford Gage joined the army. He was killed in the Philippines just a few months before the end of the War.

Gangway for Tomorrow is typical not only of the flag-wavers produced by the studios at the time, but also of the several-stories-in-one pictures like If I Had a Million and Tales of Manhattan. The genre all but disappeared until the recent releases of Movie 43 and 
InAPPropriate Comedy (yes, that's how it spelled), two low-budget monstrosities that received some of the worst reviews since the invention of Rob Schneider. Maybe somebody can make a sequel to Gangway for Tomorrow featuring workers on their way to the missile plant once we have nuclear war with North Korea. Those memories are going to be really short.

 

 **************************************