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Saturday, June 25, 2022

JANE WYMAN TURNS INVISIBLE in THE BODY DISAPPEARS (1941)

 

Imagine a movie where Willie Best plays Igor to Edward Everett Horton’s Dr. Frankenstein who is trying to reanimate dead bodies. Instead he creates an Invisible Man who falls in love with Jane Wyman who then ecstatically sheds her undergarments to become The Invisible Woman. Well, imagine no more as The Body Disappears (1941) is that film.

With all those horror tropes mixed together in one story you’d think that this fluffy Warner Bros. romantic comedy would be better known, or at least better referenced by fans of the Universal Monsters whom this film is gently riffing on. I suspect that if this film had of been made two years later, Willie Best would have turned into a werewolf as well!

Alas, despite checking many of the iconic horror touchstones (including a homage to the famous ‘It’s Alive!’ scene), its suburban university town setting keeps it several steps removed from that genre. With no crackling laboratory machinery or megalomaniacal rants due to the effects of monocane, most audiences at the time would have probably completely missed the multiple hat tips to the classic monster films.

The story is only slightly more complicated than it needs to be. Jane Shotesbury’s (Wyman) absent-minded professor father (EE Horton) is working on a formula to bring the dead back to life. When he and his manservant Willie (Best) borrow a corpse from the med school’s cadaver bank, it turns out to be the ‘only wishes he was dead’, severely hungover Peter Dehaven (Jeffery Lynn), placed there as a gag by his buddies after his stag party. Horton’s resuscitating formula not only wakes Peter up, but turns him invisible which in turn complicates the police search for him when Pete fails to turn up for his wedding. Jane and Peter fall in love, of course, but they still have to deal with Pete's gold digging fiancĂ©, Jane's father being suspected of murdering the disappeared Peter, and Jane becoming invisible. All this leads to a lot of cross-purpose chaos that propels the otherwise standard 1940’s ‘B’ movie romcom plot. The Body Disappears tries hard to reach screwball intensity, but it never quite ignites. Despite that, it still makes for a pleasant, although unsophisticated, diversion thanks to its modest 72 minute running time. 

The most interesting parts of this film are those you don’t see (not a necessarily a bad thing) as the naked (but invisible) Jane and Pete scramble to free her father. An invisible Jane flaunts her lingerie and then doffs it while driving the rescue car, throwing it over the head and around the neck of poor Willie Best in the back seat of the seemingly driverless vehicle. Despite the fast pace of the film’s third act, it’s hard to understand how the censors could have let an unmarried, naked couple sit literally (butt) cheek to cheek and in the presence of a black man. 

Where the movie does succeed is thanks to the services of Wyman, Horton and Willie Best.

Wyman has little to do here but look gorgeous, which she succeeds at with gusto. Her introduction is in a ‘designed-to-be-noticed’, cut to the waist, backless dress that once seen makes one forget that her character is as light and thin as a soap bubble. In the early 1940’s, Wyman was still trading on her effervescing, scatter-brained, ray of sunshine persona that had originally gotten her noticed. She used it to give Glenda Farrell a run for her money as Torchy Blaine in the last official film in that series (….Plays With Dynamite, 1940). For those of you who enjoyed her performance in that film (I did!), I suggest that you check out Private Detective (1941). When that last Torchy film failed to be a blockbuster, Warner Bros simply changed the character’s name to ‘Jinx’ Winslow and filmed the next Torchy script with Wyman playing essentially the same character.

Most of the comedy in The Body Disappears is left to Horton and Best, either separately or together. No one played flustered, absent-minded, self-important boobs like EEH. There is an entire scene towards the end of the film where EEH’s character has to defend himself from insanity charges brought against him by his university colleagues that feels tacked on in an attempt to pad out the film's running time with extra ‘screwballiness’. As much fun as is it to watch EEH in these situations, the script by Scott (The Ghost of Frankenstein, 1942) Darling and Erna Lazarus does not give him much to work with (or against). It does, however, accomplish the plot point of getting him into a sanatorium so Jane can use his invisibility formula to break him out.

The real star of the film is perennial ‘Stepin Fetchit’ character actor/comedian, Willie Best (above). Despite having as much, or more, screen time than any of the other actors in the film, he is only 8th billed. Mercifully, his stereotypical, dim-witted black comic relief is significantly dialed back and he gets all the best lines in the film as he reacts (not inappropriately) to the nonsense going on around him. I laughed out loud when he first comes upon Pete’s ‘corpse’ and mutters, “This one's got a lily in his hands. He may be dead, but he's neat about it.

For Willie Best and most black actors of the day, serious roles were mostly non-existent, with women being relegated to, at best, servants or nursemaids, and the men (e.g., Mantan Moorland) being confined to the stereotype ‘scared & sputtering’ comic relief role. Although the characters they played might now be repugnant, that doesn’t take away those actors considerable skills in carrying them off. Best play this role to better effect in the previous year's Bob Hope/Paulette Goddard film, The Ghost Breakers (1940) where he ends up being the inadvertent hero of the story.

Some of the other actors in the film to call out here include Herbert (Dennis the Menace’s father) Anderson as Peter’s medical student-best friend who puts Pete in the morgue after he carries out one too many practical jokes at his stage party; Craig (Peter Gunn) Stevens as Peter’s fiancĂ©’s secret boyfriend; David (The Mad Ghoul, 1943) Bruce; Todd (From Hell It Came, 1957) Andrews; and William (20 Million Miles To Earth, 1957) Hopper. Also watch for Natalie (Gillian’s Island’s Mrs. Howell) Schafer in her first full length feature film role, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Leslie Brooks from one of my favourite poverty row noir’s, Blonde Ice (1948), as a bridesmaid.

Is The Body Disappears Worth My Time? It’s a nice Sunday afternoon timewaster, especially for those who love the old Universal Monster films. Willie Best steals the show, but Jane Wyman looks stunning and Edward Everett Horton does his best to keep the comedy going. Top billed Jeffery Lynn is so bland and boring that I forgot to mention him in this review. Since he’s invisible for most of the film he’s easy to overlook. The invisibility special effects are substandard, but they don't distract from the story where their believability is largely irrelevant. The direction by D. Ross Lederman and the cinematography by Allen G. Siegler are both competent and completely in keeping with their extensive, mostly B-picture work.

Availability: I can’t confirm an official DVD release. There is currently a nice copy up on YouTube. It’s embedded below. Enjoy!


 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

JOAN BLONDELL is BLONDIE JOHNSON (1933)

 

LOVE made her beautiful… WANT made her daring… MEN made her ruthless!

Joan Blondell steps into her first big lead role for this Warner Bros Pre-Code gangster film with a twist. For the first time, it’s the rags to riches story of a female criminal, but she gets there by using her brains and not her body – and without any machismo strong arm tactics.

Victoria ‘Blondie’ Johnson’s backstory is told in a quick secession of powerful opening scenes that lets Blondell show off her considerable, although frequently underused, dramatic acting chops. At the end of her rope like so many others during the Depression, a disheveled Blondie is denied government assistance after she loses her job for not giving in to the advances of her boss. Her sick mother dies, following on the heels of the death of Blondie’s younger sister (from an implied, but unstated illegal abortion) who had ‘got into trouble'. Lectured not to lose hope by a well meaning, but clueless priest, Blondie now knows how to take on the world;

 “I know what it's all about. I found out the only thing worthwhile is dough! And I'm gonna get it, see!

Scraping together enough money to buy a snappy looking dress, but otherwise broke, Blondie has one thing going for her – brains. She’s quick enough to figure out the best angle for whatever it’ll take to move her ahead. Hitting town, she teams up with her taxi driver (Sterling Holloway, above) to run a small scale sob story scam fleecing dough out of men dopey enough to give her taxi fare, plus a bit extra for the sake of her big puppy dog eyes. His leads to her meeting Danny Doyle (Chester Morris), the not-too-bright, but handsome, right hand man to mob boss, Max (Arthur Vinton), who is running this part of town.

Blondie sees Danny as her next step up the ladder and so enters into a business partnership with him to advance his career – with her pulling the strings. Blondie and Danny are also clearly hot for each other, but Blondie won’t give in to sentiment until she’s acquired her goal of being on top.

 “I got plans. Big plans! And the one thing that don't fit in with 'em is pants.”

 Danny also wants a success, but he’s not smart enough to see Blondie’s end goal – all he can see is a gorgeous blonde. His inability to think with his head and not his dick will be the wedge that ultimately splits the partnership apart, with potentially deadly consequences.

Blondie starts by engineering a courtroom stunt to free Danny’s immediate boss, Louie (Allen Jenkins, above right), from an iron clade case against him. She pretends to be Louise’s pregnant bride-to-be, and swings the jury to a Not Guilty decision with a funny, over the top performance. Everyone is happy except Max, who had intended for Louie to take a fall to get the heat off his back. When Max plans to retaliate against Danny, Blondie steps in to smoothly take control of his gang and engineers to have Max rubbed out.

Blondie then starts up a large front operation with Danny as titular head, but with her running the operation behind the scenes. The office is massive, employing more staff than most large newspapers. What the business is supposed to be is never clarified, but it’s related to the ‘insurance’ scam that Max had been previously running.

Danny continually pushes Blondie to give in to his advances. Even her girlfriends wonder why she’s holding out when she clearly loves the big palooka. When she refuses, Danny’s man-child reaction is to be a jerk. He takes up with Max’s ex-main squeeze (Claire Dodd) and neglects the business. Things come to a head when the gang rallies behind Blondie as she pushes Danny out of the gang and the head office, and into the gutter. 

The business is running smoothing with Blondie now the official public face until Louie gets fingered for Max’s murderer. Who sold him out? The gang is convinced that Danny squealed and demands that Blondie give the order to have him silenced. In a tense scene, we watch Blondell’s face display her conflicted emotions at giving that order. But can she go through with it?

Without giving too much away, the film ends two minutes too late on a quasi-happy note, not dissimilar to Barbara’s Stanwyck’s exit in Remember the Night (1940). The very long leash given to Blondie’s criminal activities and her refusal to defer to a man throughout the film is suddenly snapped back in what feels like a studio mandated ending designed to send the audience away in an upbeat mood. The penultimate scene between Blondie and Danny would have made for a very satisfying finale without betraying the arc of the film or its characters. Alas, such ‘happy’ endings were de rigueur for many films of the day and would certainly be the norm starting a year later when the Code began enforcing its own rules.

Blondie Johnson gives Joan Blondell what might well be her best sustained performance in any of her many films (she made an amazing 38 movies between 1930 and 1934). She gets to run the gamut of emotions while still maintaining her high quotient of quotable quips that she was noted for. Joan is believable both as both a beaten down waif and as the glamorous Queenpin of a powerful criminal organization.

Chester Morris is Blondell’s perfect match in the film. Most noted for his long run playing the title character of the Boston Blackie films in the 40’s, he is convincing as the semi-ambitious, handsome, but slightly dumb lump of clay that Blondie can mold to get what she wants. Morris isn’t required to show a very wide range of reactions, but that’s what you would expect from a guy like Danny.

The film is stuffed full of great character actors, lead by The Falcon’s (Tim Conway) sometimes right hand man, Allen Jenkins. Jerkins specialized in playing sidekicks to detectives, cops and gangsters. Even though he arranges to have his old boss rubbed out, you get the feeling that Jenkins could never do you any real harm (watch him opposite Lee Tracy in The Blessed Event, 1932, as an amusingly nonthreatening thug). Jenkins’s was born to play the comedic foil and he will always have a special place in my heart for voicing Officer Dibble on Top Cat (1962).

Also keep an eye open for Tom Kennedy, who played the poetry-reciting cop in the Torchy Blaine series and for Mae Busch who was Oliver Hardy’s long suffering wife in several Laurel and Hardy films. I recently watched her give a great performance as Lon Chaney’s girlfriend in The Unholy Three (1925). Also spotted was the quintessential pencil-necked sourpuss, Charles Lane, making a brief appearance as a cashier.

Although technically a drama, the actors deft handling of the script gives Blondie Johnson the feeling of an edgy romantic comedy, a feeling greatly enhanced by Blondell’s sharp, acerbic dialogue. Minus the gangster angle, the plot of the film parallels Baby Face (1933) that would open just four months after Blondie Johnson. Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Baby Face also maneuvers to the top of the world, but unlike Blondie, she’s explicitly gets there on her back. The much darker and richer Baby Face would be one of the last straws for the industry before the Code clamped down on ‘amoral’ female leads, shutting them up and putting them back in the kitchen where it believe they belonged.

Blondie Johnson is perhaps the definitive feminist gangster film, showing the world what a criminal organization run by a woman would be like. Although Blondie is no less ruthlessness than her male counterparts, her decisions are not ruled by testosterone. She gains the complete loyalty of her gang not through fear and intimidation, but through the good management techniques of treating them with respect and not welshing on their share of the take.

Blondie’s inner circle of confidants are two women who were with her from the beginning – Mae Busch and Toshia Mori (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, 1932)(both above). Pay attention to how they are framed whenever they appear on screen. In their almost every scene, they are interacting only with Blondie and without the presence of men, or at least putting them in the positions of on-lookers. It’s never made clear as to what their role in organization is, but they whatever they do, they clearly have clout.

Blondie Johnson was directed by Ray Enright and Lucien Hubbard from a screenplay by Earl Bladwin (Doctor X, 1932; Wild Boys of The Road, 1933). Tony Gaudio, prolific cinematographer and frequent cameraman for Bette Davis, knew his way around a gangster story, having helped to establish the Warner Bros look in the 1930’s. He won an Oscar for his work on Anthony Adverse (1936), with his best-loved work probably being for the breathtaking Technicolor cinematography of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

Is Blondie Johnson Worth My Time? A two-thumbs up, yes. Almost everything works in this 67 minute film that is a showcase for Joan Blondell's huge talent. It’s relatively light touch also makes it the perfect 1930’s Warner Bros gangster film for people who don’t like 1930’s gangster films.

Availability: Warner Archive released Blondie Johnson a few years ago on DVD. It’s also currently playing on a variety of streaming services. 

 

Monday, March 28, 2022

I WALK ALONE (1947) with Burt Lancaster & Lizabeth Scott

 

ONCE I TRUSTED A DAME... NOW I WALK ALONE!

Fourteen years ago, Frankie Madison (Burt Lancaster) and Noll ‘Dink’ Turner (Kirk Douglas) were small time bootleggers making a reasonable living running whiskey to supply their little speakeasy bar. But, when one fateful run goes bad, the two split up over a handshake promise to get the other a good lawyer and a guaranteed 50% stake in their business if one of them gets caught & sent up the river.

Now it’s 1942 and prohibition has been over for nine years. Frankie's released from prison and goes looking for the 50% cut of his 14 years of accrued profits, plus interest. But times have changed. Dink has parlayed the speakeasy into a respectable, high class joint, The Regent Club, which he has no intention of splitting with his old partner. Frankie’s Age of Bootleggers & Gangsters has now been replaced by a slick, post-war Brave New World where illegal activities don't use Tommy guns, just a fountain pen entry in a ledger book. Can Frankie’s old school strong arm tactics be enough to trump Dink’s savvy brand of legalized corrupt capitalism? 

A showdown is coming and the only wild card in the scenario is, of course, a dame – Kay Lawrence (Lizabeth Scott).

I Walk Alone (1947) is based on the play The Beggars Are Coming to Town by Theodore Reeves, with a an adaption by Robert Smith (99 River Street, 1953) & John Bright (The Public Enemy, 1931), and a screenplay by Charles Schnee (Red River (1948) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)). The ‘I’ in the title seems to be directly referring to the nation of disoriented WWII veterans who had fought a war where the strength of their hands and spirit, derived from generations of rugged pioneer life, was enough the win the Big Prize. But, like Frankie, they’ve came home to find their former reality erased and replaced by a capitalist system based not on success by hard work, but rather by manipulating the rules and red tape that can conceal and legitimize any criminal activity.

When Frankie pulls together a new gang to force Dink into giving him what he believes he deserves, the film shifts into what amounts to a cold-hearted lecture aimed squarely at the ex-servicemen in the audience about how the new post-war America actually works. The always boring to watch Wendell Cory channels his own bland personality playing Dink’s accountant, Dave, as he dryly explains the tangled shell game of dummy corporations that leaves Dink in charge of his operation, but only owning a small percentage of it. Frankie’s gang slowly realizes that there is nothing to muscle in on and drifts away – how do you threaten a bunch of intangible laws and regulations? They even apologize to Dink on their way out, probably hopeful for future work with his winning side.

Can Frankie rally his now outdated skills to beat Dink at a game he doesn’t really understand? Fortunately he has two things on his side – the love of Kay who’s just been dumped by Dink as he sleeps his way up the social register, and the finally pushed-too-far Dave, whose illegal second set of ledgers for The Regent Club could end Dink’s high life career.

In the fateful final showdown, it boils all down to this statement by Frankie to Dink,  

When it comes to stocks and papers, and books that don’t balance, you’re better than me. But, when it comes to guns, you’re down on my level.” 

The last act of the film shifts into high gear after the steady build up of its first two-thirds, making the audience hold on through multiple sharp turns that will leave them guessing (well, maybe not too hard) as to the final resolution.

Three main stars of the film – Burt, Kirk and Lizabeth were only one or two years into their careers at this point, but they already had the charisma and acting chops would carry them on to their varying degrees of stardom.

Burt Lancaster plays Frankie as a man uncomplicated by any deep understanding of his world – does a fish even notice the water it's swimming in? Some reviewers have criticized Lancaster’s two note performance – dumbfounded or rageful – as lacking depth, but I don’t see any other way that the character could have been portrayed. What Frankie wants he takes by the strength of his hands and a willingness to take big risks – easy to do when you have nothing to lose. Lancaster would specialize in characters who didn't like to be pushed around.

Kirk Douglas was establishing himself as an actor who could smoothly inhabit any cool & ruthless crime boss who always has an angle to play. Douglas’s role as Noll (always 'Dink' to Frankie, but nobody else) is just a slightly different take on the part that he had just played opposite Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947). Aspects of this character would be a hallmark of the rest of Kirk’s career.

Lizabeth Scott’s unusual beauty and husky voice made her a natural for the film noirs that she would become noted for. Groomed as a Lauren Bacall clone, she and Bacall had one defining difference that would always separate the two. No matter how down on her luck Bacall’s character may have been, she could never help but radiate sophistication and class. In contrast, Scott was always a ‘dame’ – and we loved her for it. Always on the wrong end of bad deal, you knew that no matter how hard Scott tried, she was always going to end up unhappy (e.g., Pitfall, 1948).

I always enjoy watching the supporting actors with small parts in these old films. Among the notables here is fan favourite, Mike Mazurki (Dan) (above), one time member of the Frankie-Dink Gang, now holding down a job as Dink’s Doorman/Bouncer/Muscle. Mazurki was sort of the Dwayne Johnson of his day. A former wrestler, the 6’5” Mazurki was a busy actor almost always playing a beetle-browed heavy. He was likely hired for this part because he would have been the only actor in Hollywood who could have been believable in taking Burt Lancaster out with one punch. Also watch out for Former World Middleweight Boxing Champion, Freddie Steele, as a member of Frankie’s short lived gang. He may be best remembered for starring alongside Robert Mitchum in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945).

The number one reason to watch this film is for the storytelling skills of director Byron Haskin. Every shot is perfectly composed and lit for maximum noir-like effect. Normally I’d credit this to the cinematographer  – Leo Tover, the highly regarded lensman behind a number of terrific films from the 40’s & 50’s – but Haskin’s strong hand makes what is frankly an average, oft told story, compelling. Every scene is a master class in how to have your characters interact for maximum audience engagement, even when the dialogue seems more theatrical than real.

Haskin’s early career began with him directing in the 20’s before becoming a cameraman and special effects expert. From 1937 to 1945, he headed up the Special Effects Dept. for Warner Bros, earning four Academy Award nominations. I Walk Alone was his first credited directorial role in the talkie era, a career that lasted into the late 60’s. He was a frequent collaborator with producer, George Pal (e.g., directing War of The Worlds, 1953), and is responsible for directing arguably the two best Science Fiction stories ever filmed, The Outer Limits episodes Architects of Fear (1963) and Demon With A Glass Hand (1964).

Is I Walk Alone Worth My Time? Definitely. While not a true Noir (as I would interpret the genre), it pulls no punches in its depiction of ruthlessness and treachery that end up getting their requisite karmic sting in the end. At 97 minutes, it’s a nicely streamlined, if not original story, featuring three great actors at the dawn of their careers and peak of their beauty.

Availability: I Walk Alone (1947) finally got a nicely cleaned up DVD release from Warner Archives in 2018, having gone missing since being in heavy rotation on television in the 60’s and 70’s.