Friday, June 28, 2013

"Hi, Nellie!," or Stop the Dresses

For all of his other formidable talents, playfulness did not come easily to Paul Muni.

You can tell that by watching him in the 1934 film "Hi, Nellie!" He delivers a light touch when the script calls for it, but he's more comfortable during his character's darker moments, where he upends a desk in anger or does some heavy drinking at a bar.

"Hi, Nellie!" is probably the closest Muni came to making a comedy, and probably the closest he came to making a pure genre picture. It's a by-the-book newspaper movie, the kind that Warner Bros. cranked out in the 1930s and '40s like Hershey made chocolate bars.

True, it is directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who guided Muni through the classic "I Am a  Fugitive From a Chain Gang," and true, it's got a solid cast of Warner regulars like Glenda Farrell, Ned Sparks, Robert Barrat and Edward Ellis; but "Hi, Nellie!" is only average at best. The wisecracking, fast-thinking newspaperman was the province of actors like Lee Tracy ("Advice to the Lovelorn," "Blessed Event"), Pat O'Brien ("The Final Edition," "The Front Page") and Edward G. Robinson ("Five Star Final"). Muni's performance is like the movie itself -- good enough, but nothing distinctive about it.   

Muni plays Samuel "Brad" Bradshaw, the managing editor of the New York Times-Star. He is the kind of guy who wears his hat in the newsroom and always has something tobacco-related in his mouth (pipe, cigar, cigarette -- I don't think he pinched snuff, but he might have snuck some in).

Brad is an all-right guy but tough when it counts, see? For instance, here's how he deals with a new reporter, straight from college and kind of smug (he doesn't even wear a hat in the newsroom), who muffs a story:



When a local bank is hit by an embezzlement and the bank president disappears, every newspaper in town connects the two events and accuses the president of pilferage. But not Brad -- he knows the guy and can't believe he would do something like that. The pompous publisher (Berton Churchill) explodes because Brad won't plaster the paper with hysterical headlines and fires him.

But Brad has an iron-clad, fireproof contract. So the publisher gives him the most humiliating job possible -- to assume the identity of Nellie Nelson, the paper's advice columnist. This comes as a great joke to the current Nellie, reporter Gerry Crayle (Farrell), and to everyone else in the newsroom:



Crayle was given the lonely hearts assignment as punishment for blowing a story, but Brad's move lets her back into the city room. (A romantic relationship between the two is hinted at, but not really demonstrated -- maybe Muni remembers how Farrell turned him in to the cops in "Fugitive.")

Brad has to cede control of the paper to his rival, Dawes (Douglas Dumbrille), and the transition to Nellie is tough for him. After a few months of frustrating work on the job he explodes and leaves the office in a huff. Gerry follows him to a bar, where she lets him have it:



From then on, Brad gets wise to himself and starts writing the column like he means it. But when it soars in popularity, he risks becoming Nellie permanently. Then an opportunity arises -- a heartthrob client has a connection to the missing bank president, and Brad and reporter Shammy (Sparks) do some investigating at a shady nightclub. This seems like a good time to introduce a Ned Sparks clip:



Anyway, Brad and Shammy uncover that the bank president was murdered and then framed for the bank embezzlement. Their scoop releases the city from control of a political machine and Brad from the clutches of the advice column, and the evil rival Dawes looms as the next Nellie.

Here are the complete credits for "Hi, Nellie!" and a trailer:    

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Neglected Post Theatre: "Three on a Match," or Ladies and the Tramp

This time on Neglected Post Theatre, we look at the friendship of three women and how it's affected by infidelity, kidnapping and nose candy. I give you "Three on a Match," or Ladies and the Tramp. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"Below the Sea," or Love and Depth

Ronald Reagan is credited with a great line about his days of making B-movies: "They didn't want them good, they wanted them Thursday."

And that's the standard rap -- they were projector fodder destined to belong at the bottom of double features with forgettable actors, mediocre scripts, blah blah blah blah.

But the thing is, despite low budgets and tight shooting schedules, the Hollywood assembly system in the 1930s was still capable of cranking out movies that were better than they had any right to be. "Below the Sea" is a good example. This 1933 film boasts a script by Frank Capra collaborator Jo Swerling, creative direction by Al Rogell and vivid performances by Ralph Bellamy, Fay Wray and Frederick Vogeding.

Frederick Vogeding?

Vogeding appeared in several dozen movies between 1933-42, usually in small parts as doctors or military men. Beginning with 1939's "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" he made frequent appearances as Gestapo officers. "Below the Sea" features one of his rare leading roles.

We open during the final days of World War I, in a German sub commanded by Vogeding's character. The men converse in their native tongue, with no subtitles. And right around the time one of them says something that sounds like "I want a Zima," there's an explosion.

Then, in battle footage thrillingly borrowed from the RKO movie "Suicide Fleet" (and who knows where else), the sub, she is sunk. There are only two survivors -- the captain and some other guy. Both of them are aware that the sub was carrying a load of gold bricks, and while they dry off on a desert island the other guy draws up a map of the location, which gives the captain nasty ideas:


(By the way, in a post-code movie the guy just would have fallen off the cliff; only in a pre-code movie would you see the body go all the way down, bouncing off outcroppings along the way.)

Fast forward twelve years, and the captain has changed his name to Schlemmer. He's been waiting all this time to retrieve the precious stash, and he's talked a waterfront bar owner/floozy (Esther Howard) into financing the trip in exchange for a cut. He's also hired a deep sea diver, Mac, played by snarling Ralph Bellamy.

Their first trip out to get the treasure is doomed because there's a big storm, and because Schlemmer keeps the destination a secret, so the crew doesn't know where to go. This doesn't quite make sense to me, but it gives Bellamy a chance to wear a rain slicker and hat like the Gorton fisherman on those old TV commercials.

Another three years pass, and Schlemmer has signed on as the captain of a scientific expedition, and he's bringing Mac with him. They're aboard the good ship Adventure, funded by socialite Diana Templeton (Fay Wray in full-blown hottie mode). Templeton is sincere about science, but she also knows the power of public relations, so she does things like pose for photos in Mac's diving suit.

Mac in turn is so nasty to her that there's really no doubt how he really feels, especially since Diana gives as good as she gets:



The byplay between Wray and Bellamy is one of the highlights of "Under the Sea." He scowls and puffs his pipe as she runs around the boat wearing anchor-accented outfits. And she kisses other guys in front of him just to get him hot. But when she puts on Mac's diving outfit and goes down without his permission, that's a bridge too far. He purposely takes his time rescuing her and she passes out. He gets in trouble for it, but she shows her mettle by apologizing to him. And he finds himself torn between Diana and the loot in the sub:



Meanwhile, Schlemmer and his floozy are ready to bring the gold to the surface and cheat Mac out of his cut. They drug him and take off to collect the booty. Mac awakens just in time to discover that Diana is down in the diving bell again and it's being attacked by an amorous octopus, so instead of heading off Schlemmer he changes into his suit and dives in to rescue her:





This also seems like a good time to mention that the diving bell looks just like the isolation booth on the 1950s quiz show "The $64,000 Question," except that the diving bell doesn't have a giant lipstick on each side of the window (the show's sponsor was Revlon).


In the end, the captain's nefarious scheme comes to naught, and Diana and Mac end up together. As a couple they generate actual heat -- it's nice to see Bellamy playing something other than the milquetoast role he essayed in romantic comedies, and Wray's character is tough and likable. Their clinches seem unusually enthusiastic -- makes you wonder if something was going on in real life between them, as well.

Here are full credits for "Below the Sea."


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "The Voice of the City"

The 1929 film "The Voice of the City" is, without question, the finest gangster film to feature a regular on the sitcom version of "Dennis the Menace."


Yes, Sylvia Field, who played Mrs. Wilson, Dennis's nice next-door neighbor (as opposed to grumpy Mr. Wilson, played by Joseph Kearns until he died and was replaced by Gale Gordon), is the female lead. She's pretty and has a fresh manner, but her performance is shaped by her work on the stage, and out of habit she pitches some of her lines and expressions to the back row of the theatre. 

But the real star of "The Voice of the City" is Willard Mack.

Yeah, Willard Mack, bitchez!

The same Willard Mack who wrote the Broadway hit "The Noose"! The same Willard Mack who is credited with discovering Barbara Stanwyck! The same Willard Mack who, long before Frank Capra, John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, was a triple hyphenate whose name was above the title of this movie!



"Willard Mack's The Voice of the City," as this here title card states, was written and directed by Mack, and he also plays one of the leads, police gumshoe Biff "Biff" Meyers. By 1929 Mack had been writing and acting in plays for over 20 years, and like many early talkies "The Voice of the City" is really a filmed play. Each scene is at least five minutes long and the action takes place on static sets that might as well be on stage; there are virtually no closeups, quick cuts or outdoor photography.

Oh -- there's no music on the soundtrack, either. When the opening credits begin, you wonder if you're watching a silent movie.

Then the movie opens with a suspenseful jailbreak, where the sound effects seem a little lacking -- or maybe the jail guards are using pop guns:



The escapee is Bobby Doyle (Robert Ames), who's been serving time for murder but he's innocent, you hear? Innocent!

We cut to an apartment, where Bobby's bezark Beebee (Field) is waiting anxiously with Bobby's sister Mary (Duane Thompson) and family friend Johnny the Hop (Clark Marshall). The gals have hollowed out a couch where Bobby can hide. Then, hark! Outside! A fire engine! (Which we can't see because the budget is too tight, so all we see is Beebe and Mary looking out the window at something.)



Bobby has staged the false alarm as a diversion, and Bobby and Beebee, which is fun to say, have a blissful reunion. But here comes Biff, and Bobby jumps into the couch-hidey-thingy. The prisoner is nowhere to be seen, but Biff is undeterred:


 
Biff (to Johnny the Hop): Your friend Doyle is going back to Sing Sing and he's goin' back chained to my wrist. Shoot that in your arm, Hop. Either arm.    

Johnny has a secret hideout at his place, so once Biff leaves, Bobby disguises himself as an old woman and gets one of Beebee's friends (Alice Moe, wearing the hat in the clip above -- she's kind of a second-string Zasu Pitts) to escort him/her out without raising suspicion.

Meanwhile, Biff is beating the bushes to bust Bobby, and someone else is on the trail -- gangster Wilkes (John Miljan), who used to be Bobby's boss. He claims he wants to help Bobby get out of town, but his concern seems fishy. And he keeps visiting Beebee to seesee how he can help, which makes Bobby burn. Burn, Bobby, burn.

To make a long story short, if it isn't already too late, Biff finds out where Bobby is hiding, but Bobby escapes after faking a suicide. Everyone ends up at Beebee's place, where Biff gets his man. But is it Bobby? Or what?

After "The Voice of the City," Mack wrote, directed and starred in a few more movies over at Columbia Pictures during its poverty-row days. He had a talent for somewhat hard-boiled dialogue and clever plot twists, but his film direction is a little, um, stiff. At one point in "The Voice of the City," a clinch between Bobby and Beebee isn't long enough, so the editors just repeat the same clip. Take a look, and this is not a GIF:



Here are full credits for "The Voice of the City."       

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Discovering Smith and Dale: "The Heart of New York"

When teenagers Joe Sultzer and Charlie Marks wanted to form a comedy team, they got a deal on business cards from another team that had already broken up. So Sultzer and Marks became Smith and Dale, and they performed together for almost 70 years, from vaudeville to "The Ed Sullivan Show."

Their act, heavy on ethnic humor and malapropisms, and their career together were the inspiration for Neil Simon's "The Sunshine Boys." But despite their stage stardom, Joe Smith (1884-1981) and Charlie Dale (1885-1971) made very few movies.

And truthfully, the 1932 film "The Heart of New York" isn't their best showcase. Their vaudeville sketches were more suited to short films. But the movie is worth a look because it does offer a few glimpses of Smith and Dale, and because it's the most Jewish-flavored Hollywood film this side of "The Jazz Singer." It's another reminder that pre-code film making wasn't just about snappy dialogue and racy situations -- it also offered an open view of ethnic diversity that wouldn't resurface until the late 1960s.

Based on the play "Mendel, Inc.," "The Heart of New York" takes place on the Lower East Side, where the heavily Jewish presence is amusingly demonstrated in the opening scene:



Our hero is plumber Mendel Marantz (George Sidney), who spends all his time turning down jobs in order to concentrate on his prize invention, an automatic dishwasher. At the beginning of the movie Mendel is portrayed as being lazy and selfish -- he won't do any outside work even though his family is starving, his daughter needs clothes and his son has bad teeth. And, oy, they're two months behind on the rent!

The family pooh-poohs Mendel's dreams of success -- the only person who stands behind him is neighbor Bessie (Aline MacMahon, bless her heart, nailing a Yiddish accent).

Enter Smith and Dale as Shnapps and Strudel -- matchmakers, real estate brokers, travel agents and anything else that can help them make a quick buck. Shnapps is Mendel's brother-in-law, and he's ready to fix up Mendel's oldest daughter (Ruth Hall) with a nice attorney (Donald Cook).

Shnapps, he will be the first to tell you, is as honest as the day is long. "I don't like monkey business," he says. "I like monkeys separate and business separate." He's come to collect the rent from Mendel, who sells him a part interest in his dishwasher business instead.

Through some plot complications that aren't worth going into, Mendel still ends up in financial trouble and Shnapps and Strudel end up turning Mendel's front window into their office space. And here's where we get their only prolonged sketch together:



Mendel then sells his dishwasher idea and the family is in clover. Everyone else wants to move uptown, but Mendel wants to buy the family's tenement, tear it down and build a mansion. Through the kind of misunderstanding that would take two minutes to clear up in real life, the family thinks Mendel wants to stay in the old building and everyone abandons him -- except the loyal Bessie.

Meanwhile, Mendel's daughter and the attorney have gotten married. Shnapps tells the daughter, "I bet you're surprised I fixed something up for you, huh? That's the way I am -- I've always got something on my sleeve."

Mendel hires Strudel to be his stand-in of sorts, doing all the things that rich men are supposed to do, like playing polo and going to parties. Shnapps visits Mendel and sees Strudel in his white polo outfit. "You look like a bottle of milk," he says.



In the end, when Mendel's wealthy partner tries to cheat him out of his millions, the lawyer in the family steps up and foils the plot. The partner leaves in a huff, with this benediction:

Shnapps: Walk under a streetcar!

Strudel: And turn left!
 
Smith and Dale are more than just the spice of "The Heart of New York" -- without them, the movie would barely be worth watching. The soggy plot requires Mendel to turn from a selfish slob into an indulgent father, and neither side of his character -- or anyone in his family -- is worth caring about. Even director Mervyn LeRoy -- with "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" on the horizon -- seems at a loss. He utilizes scene fadeouts that look like a descending curtain, emphasizing the static, stage-bound quality of the story. 

As for Smith and Dale, they made a few comedy shorts in the 1940s, but their ethnic humor was going out of style. Their career lay dormant until the advent of television. Variety shows were tailor-made for their act, and they appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" 21 times between 1950-61. Legend has it that, after one appearance, Sullivan told them they needed new material and gave them some money to pay for it. They pocketed the money and went right on doing the old stuff.

Here are the complete credits for "The Heart of New York," and a trailer:        



And here's another glimpse of the boys in a 1931 short:

Monday, June 3, 2013

"He Walked by Night" and the Dawn of "Dragnet"

In 1948, Jack Webb was an actor with a couple of small movie roles under his belt. If he was known at all, it was for his radio work, especially "Pat Novak for Hire," a detective series where he played the title role.

The show was really a parody of the genre -- Novak spoke dialogue intentionally and beautifully overwritten by Richard Breen, such as "She had blonde hair and was kind of pretty, except you could see that somebody had used her badly, like a dictionary in a stupid family."




Then came "He Walked by Night," a semi-documentary style film based loosely on the crime spree of Erwin "Machine Gun" Walker, who terrorized Los Angeles in 1945-46. Walker, a World War II vet, had worked in police station radio departments before the war. He kept one step ahead of the cops because he knew how to monitor the police radio and how to switch his modus operandi from break-ins to store robberies to avoid being tracked. He also carried an arsenal of weapons, hence his nickname.

Filmed at real locations and using a cast of novice and little-known actors, "He Walked by Night" was made on a shoestring and supervised by Bryan Foy, who'd built a career on producing B-movies at Warner Bros. dating to early talkie days.

Webb had a small part in the picture, as crime scene technician Lee no-last-name. During breaks in shooting, Webb shot the breeze with LAPD Sgt. Marty Wynn, the movie's technical adviser and one of the officers who had captured Erwin Walker. Wynn offered the opinion that real police cases  -- even if they were just routine crimes -- often contained more human drama than fictional ones, and cited a few examples.

And Webb, with his extensive radio background, got an idea.

But first, the movie.

At the beginning of "He Walked by Night" is a foreword talking about how the story is based on true events. "Only the names are changed ... to protect the innocent."

Catchy. At least Webb thought so, because the same phrase would be part of the memorable opening of each "Dragnet" episode -- and, in the process, a kind of cultural catchphrase.








An eerily effective Richard Basehart plays our criminal, here named Roy Morgan. In the first few minutes of the movie he gets caught trying to break into a radio supply store and kills the officer who catches him.

Morgan is a loner who stays in the shadows. He asks for help from no one -- in one harrowing scene, after he's wounded in a gun battle, he sterilizes medical instruments and removes the bullet himself. He lives in a nondescript apartment filled with radio equipment, weaponry and his one companion, a dog. He has a collection of license plates that he puts on stolen cars to cover his tracks. But his preferred method of conveyance is running -- through the extensive network of storm drains under Los Angeles, which are dry most of the year.

We first get a glimpse of this in a scene describing Roy's crime wave, narrated by Reed Hadley and beautifully photographed by John Alton:



The police call the robbery victims together in the hope of assembling a composite image of the thief. Captain Breen, played by Roy Roberts, runs the show. Webb's character mans the slide projector, adding a high-tech touch! He loads different facial images as everyone chimes in about what he looked like:



Once the image is decided upon, copies are sent to all media outlets and Det. Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) visits every local police department to see if Roy worked in its radio department. At one department he finally gets a nibble -- a letter with Roy's signature and a Hollywood postmark. Brennan talks to the area postman and checks out Roy's neighborhood in disguise. Roy observes from his apartment, an island of darkness in the California sunshine:



The final chase underground is a memorable one, with flashlight beams dancing about and gunfire reverberating through the storm drains. And after the killer has been caught, there's a "Dragnet"-style sense of accomplishment, but with the awareness that tomorrow will bring another case.

Shortly after "He Walked by Night" was released, working with Marty Wynn, Webb approached the Los Angeles Police Department with the idea of presenting true cases. On June 3, 1949 "Dragnet" premiered on NBC radio with little fanfare, and that was fine with Webb. He wanted time to shape the show, to infuse it with the kind of deliberateness and authenticity that hadn't been heard on radio before. Six sound effects men worked on each episode -- at least twice as many as on any other radio show. If a character called long distance you heard every operator at every exchange sending the call along. Webb knew the number of steps a cop would take walking from one office to another and made sure the exact same number was heard on the air. He utilized police jargon and code. And he made sure that his character, Det. Sgt. Joe Friday and his partner, Det. Ben Romero (Barton Yarborough) had an easy rapport.

By 1950, "Dragnet" was gaining in popularity, and it deserved it. On radio and in its early days on TV (the video version premiered in 1951) the show was far removed from the better-known late-1960s revival, which was weighed down with Webb's sermonizing and simplistic scripts. By that point the guy who got his start parodying detective shows with "Pat Novak for Hire" was now parodying cop shows, but he didn't know it.

Here's a "Dragnet" radio show from 1950. Note the multi-layered sound effects and how the silences between lines of dialogue are sometimes as important as the lines themselves. Note also that Friday and Romero are blinded to the suspect's identity almost until the end. But also note their attempts to get the suspect to confess -- they're almost comical, but deadly serious. And I think the ending of this episode builds palpable suspense out of just three people talking -- it's a perfect example of radio's ability to ignite the theatre of the mind.


"He Walked by Night" is in the public domain, and here is the entire movie:



Here are the credits for "He Walked by Night."