Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Editor's note: Always good to find another website seriously devoted to classic film. This article is from Classic Film Freak. Enjoy the gothic Spiral Staircase

“I’m never more witty than when I’ve had a little nip. I see better, I hear better and I feel much better. . . . I’d keep a much better eye on Helen if I had a little nip.” — Mrs. Oates

No, the staircase of the title is not the wide, straight staircase in the living room of the Warren house, but the staircase—yes, spiral in design, with a thin, metal railing—that descends to the basement of that house, to the dark, cluttered basement where a candle is a must. And, who knows, where someone might be watching while, say, a maid is searching for a bottle of wine.

The Spiral Staircase (1946) begins at a hotel. Judging by the cars in the opening shot of the town and the attire of the people, this is the 1920s, and so the film being shown on the first floor is a silent one, The Kiss—an actual film starring Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel. The pianist, accompanying the screen, has played a bit of a Chopin waltz and then some clichéd theater music of her trade before she excerpts Beethoven’s “Appassionato” Sonata.

As the audience enjoys the film, the camera tilts to the ceiling. In the upstairs Room No. 9, a young woman (Myrna Dell) limps to her clothes closet, and Roy Webb’s orchestral score takes up the dark Beethoven. The clothes hangers in the closet move, and a large, leering eye and the eerie, quavering sound of the theremin fill the screen. It’s actually director Robert Siodmak’s eye, and the electronic theremin was introduced by Miklós Rózsa in Spellbound and The Lost Weekend, both released the year before. The young woman slips a nightgown over her shoulders, and the arms she lifts above her head abruptly stiffen and her fingers become spastic, impotent claws.

The impressive stars of the film, made by RKO, recreate some diverse characters, not many of them likable. Helen (Dorothy McGuire), also watching the film, is a young girl who has been unable to speak since witnessing years ago her parents’ death in a fire. She is employed—it’s never clear what she does—in the Warren household, the home of Professor Albert Warren (George Brent, whose string of Bette Davis films—Jezebel, Dark Victory, The Old Maid, The Great Lie, In This Our Life, etc.—had recently ended).

Also living in the house are the professor’s invalid and cantankerous mother (Ethel Barrymore), the maid/cook Mrs. Oates (Elsa Lanchester), her husband (Rhys Williams) and Albert’s womanizing stepbrother Steven (Gordon Oliver). There are also Albert’s secretary Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), pursued by Steven, and Mrs. Warren’s abrasive nurse (Sara Allgood). Dropping in from time to time are Doctor Parry (Kent Smith), who attends Mrs. Warren and courts Helen, and the constable (James Bell).

Seen only once in the opening scenes, uncredited, are Ellen Corby, Esther in the TV series The Waltons, and Erville Alderson, who did many bits as historical figures: Jefferson Davis in Santa Fe Trail, Stonewall Jackson in Abe Lincoln in Illinois and General Joseph Stilwell in Objective, Burma!

So—a lot of suspects loose in an isolated house plagued by, seemingly, constant thunderstorms, of which script, camera and score make the most. One of the best thrillers/mysteries of the era. Leslie Halliwell called The Spiral Staircase “a superior ‘thunderstorm mystery,’ ” far superior to the pathetic 1975 British remake with Jacqueline Bisset and Christopher Plummer, where the intrusion of color ruins things from the beginning. “Best forgotten,” Halliwell says. What, now, is that general rule regarding remakes?!——

The milieu of the Warren dwelling and the thunderstorms recalls The Old Dark House from 1932, And Then There Were None, the Hitchcock Psycho and many others, even such a trifle as Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers.

Besides the hotel murder, there are further, early evocations of the sinister and unexpected. In Helen’s walk home through the woods Webb’s score gradually shifts from gentle forest murmurs to dark premonitions. There’s that unnerving sound as she runs a stick along an iron fence, much as a policeman does in the 1944 Gaslight, and, lurking in the rain among the trees, the back of a raincoat-clad figure.

The constable had hit it on the head about the murder in Room No. 9, and Mrs. Oates has seen the pattern, too: “First the girl with the scar on her face, then that simple-minded one and, now, the cripple in the hotel. Seems like—” She doesn’t finish. The constable finishes her thought in one of his visits to Professor Warren, as if, he said, all the victims were targeted because of their physical defects.

In one of the film’s best and eeriest scenes, Albert and Mrs. Oates descend the staircase to fetch a bottle of brandy, since the ether used as a stimulant for Mrs. Warren has oddly disappeared. The maid blows out the candle and tosses it away, and while she misdirects the professor to look in a dark corner—“I think it rolled under there, sir.”—she lifts a bottle from its rack and slips it under her apron.

Despite the noir shadows and cryptic score—both atmospherically expectant—nothing untoward happens. This candle trick, which Mrs. Oates later brags to Helen as one on the professor, will inspire the young girl herself when she is alone in the basement with Steven and is able to lock him in a storeroom.

In another terrifying scene, in the climax, when Helen is finally pursued by the killer—as was bound to happen—for she, too, has an impairment, she beats on an upstairs window to get the attention of the constable, who is about to leave in his horse and buggy. He hears the sound, even stepping down from his seat. Thinking it’s only the banging of a shutter or the rain—it is, of course, raining—he drives away.

And just who is the killer, this person who announces, “There’s no room in the whole world for imperfection”? There are numerous suggestions, clues and omens. The window that is found open, the rain splashing in: “I closed that window when the storm started,” Mrs. Oates mutters. The arrival of the raincoated Mr. Oates soon after Helen enters from the storm: “Anything wrong, Albert?” The arguments between Albert and Steven: “I don’t like you,” says the professor. “I never have.”

One scene in particular narrows down the field, so to speak. While Helen is admiring herself in a full-length mirror, perhaps imagining how it would be to have a voice and see her lips move with matching words, the camera pulls up the staircase and moves along an upper landing, revealing the trousered legs of someone—and then the ever-watchful eye and, yes, the theremin. Mirrors, like staircases and thunderstorms, are a motif in the film; there are three alone in Mrs. Warren’s bedroom, including one on the medicine cabinet door.

Well, one thing is for sure, then: the murderer is in the house! And, yes, presumably a man. Now, if the viewer is keeping track of things—— Was Dr. Parry visiting at the time? Where was Mr. Oates? The constable is always dropping in, once to warn everyone that the murderer has been traced “to this vicinity.” Where in the house was Steven? And the professor? And so on.

Mrs. Warren has been warning Helen to leave the house, even begging Dr. Parry to take her with him when he goes to town. She asks Steven, who has just recently returned from Europe, “Why did you have to come back? . . . There’s always trouble when you come, Steven.” Does she know something, or does she just, well, suspect something, or is her pointing finger a deliberate red herring?

Dorothy McGuire is a totally sympathetic heroine, and she is perhaps the one person who is above suspicion. Even Mrs. Warren, confined to her bed, can be ruled out. Or should she be? Yes, it’s ridiculous to consider her—ridiculous, though as many times as not characters in beds and wheelchairs end up being the ones who do the doing in, even someone without legs, as in Night Monster—figure that one out!

It’s true that Albert lacks personality (as usual, a sedate performance by Brent), Steven is thoroughly unlikable (it’s obvious why Blanche avoids him) and Dr. Parry is tepid as a romantic (sincere, it seems, to the core). The maid is the possible culprit, though “not the type.” Blanche, for one, can be eliminated from the list of suspects, for that best reason of all.

Besides The Spiral Staircase, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and composer Webb brilliantly combined their talents in a number of high-class, though low-budget horror films of the ’40s: Cat People, Bedlam, Curse of the Cat People and The Ghost Ship, all produced by Val Lewton. Webb also scored The Body Snatchers (1945), Notorious, one of my top-ten favorite films, and Top Secret Affair, a guilty pleasure, Mickey-Mousing and all.

It’s often assumed that second-string film composers, less well-knowns like Frank Skinner, Laurence Rosenthal, Les Baxter, the impressively named Daniele Amfitheatrof, Antony Hopkins and so many others, have no stylistic personality. Granted, some don’t. Even those just listed haven’t the strong musical fingerprints of a Korngold, a Herrmann or a Rózsa, perhaps the “biggies” with the most identifiable sound.

But some of those obscure composers—clearly Roy Webb—have a recognizable style, to some degree and with the right esthetic challenges. If for output alone—he scored more than 250 films between 1930 and 1958—Webb should be regarded, which he isn’t, as a major film composer. As proof that he has a degree of style, personality, whatever it’s called, there is Helen’s first scene with Mrs. Warren when moments in the score recall Webb’s work in Notorious. Self-plagiarism maybe. Maybe something else: the spark of originality.

Written by by Greg Orypeck at Classic Film Freak

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Come On (1956)

“A woman like you needs a good beating at least once a week.”
Park Avenue, the best schools, a rich family — Anne Baxter came up easy. Her grandfather was Frank Lloyd Wright, for heaven’s sake. He built her a theater at age three, and by ten she knew she’d be an actress. She was on Broadway at thirteen, studying with the great Maria Ouspenskaya. Baxter soon looked west, and breezed into the movie business with the same sense of ease that she had always known. She lost the role of Maxim’s young wife in Rebecca to Joan Fontaine (Hitch thought her too young), but Daryl Zanuck was still tickled to sign her at Fox, where she enjoyed featured player status until breaking through in Welles’s 1942 The Magnificent Ambersons. She really scored in 1946, winning an Oscar for her role supporting Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney in The Razor’s Edge. That same year she got hitched to block-of-wood noir-guy John Hodiak, and began trying in vain to balance marriage and work. When she landed the to-die-for role of Eve Harrington in the 1950 juggernaut All About Eve, she was as close to the top of the Hollywood heap as she’d ever get. Instead of building her star power with another plum part, she decided to get pregnant.

Baxter took some time off to give birth and made only one picture in 1951, playing the Hawk’s wife in Follow the Sun — hardly the appropriate follow-up to a mega-hit with fourteen Academy Award nominations. Upon her return it seemed that audiences had moved on, infatuated with Lana, Liz, and Deborah. Baxter couldn’t vamp it up with the younger, more sexualized honeys like Carroll or Marilyn either, dolls who could mug for the camera in a way that the refined, brainy actress just didn’t seem to have in her. But she was tenacious about working, and by the time she starred in Fritz Lang’s 1953 film The Blue Gardenia, she and Hodiak were quits. Anne kept her Oscar and daughter Katrina; Hodiak moved in with his parents, went back to work himself, then kicked the bucket — dead of a heart attack at 41.

Baxter soldiered on, a divorced mother on the bad side of thirty. She kept plugging, but was obligated to make-do in the occasional B picture between better parts. (Just like Edward G. Robinson (who had his own troubles) Baxter eventually got a DeMille-sized boost via 1956’s The Ten Commandments.) Which brings us to The Come On, a movie with a good cast but standard (meaning completely sub-standard) Allied Artists production values. Yet unlike so much of Poverty Row’s typical fodder, The Come On had an ace up its sleeve: a great cast put together by producer Lindsley Parsons, who knew how to do a lot with a little, and proved it in a string of cheap but good noir pictures, including Cry Vengeance (1954), Loophole (1954), Finger Man (1955), and Portland Exposé (1957). The Come On sports two bona fide movie stars: femme fatale Baxter and fan favorite Sterling Hayden. The movie ties them up romantically, but suffers a little for their lack of chemistry — but that’s the thing about good actors: even without romantic fireworks they can still make almost any film interesting. It’s too bad Hayden doesn’t get one of the movie’s cop parts — he just never seems quite as interested when he doesn’t have a badge on. That being said, I’d still queue up just to see the guy standing around smoking.

I won’t waste time trying to relate much of what happens in The Come On, because this is the sort of plot-driven movie where 'what happens' is all that matters anyway. Besides, the story is absurdly complex — serpentine, silly, and stuffed with the sort of happenstance and circumstance that’s only palatable in Poverty Row pictures. However I’ll give The Come On, and its veritable team of writers, this much credit: it has a million twists, even one or two you might not see coming. Here’s the setup in a nutshell though: Rita Kendrick (Baxter) is sunbathing on a deserted beach somewhere south of the border when she catches fisherman Dave Arnold (Hayden) giving her the once over. She tries to play it cool, but is thwarted by the wind and a beach towel that just won’t lie down. Cue the big fella, who helps with the towel then steals a kiss. Sparks fly, and before long the two are sharing a smoke and making plans for a late-night rendezvous on Dave’s trawler, Lucky Lady. Coy and mysterious, wearing a painted-on white dress straight from Lana Turner’s closet, Rita shows up, but turns skittish and flees Dave’s boat as soon as he tries to get physical. Later he sees her at the bar and gets wise — she’s sitting with two men, one of whom is her husband Harley (John Hoyt), much older and all kinds of drunk and disorderly. Dave saunters over to introduce himself, assuming Harley is Rita's father, which peeves the old guy and somehow earns Rita a whiskey-spiked smack across the face. Dave then lays him out, leaving the third man to clean up the mess. Later that night, Rita returns to Lucky Lady with a confession on her lips. Harley isn’t really her husband — nor is that even his real name —*he’s her partner in a blackmail grift they’ve been working for the past three years, using her "come on" to bilk rich geeks out of their dough. The schmuck at the table was their latest patsy. But now that she’s met Dave, she knows what real love feels like and wants to break free from the scheme. She wants a picket fence life back in the states — and maybe she and Dave could have it if only Harley didn’t have his hooks dug in so deep, if only she could get at her share of the grift money, if only there were some way to get her “husband” out of the picture…

The Come On is obviously a B movie, warts and all, but the performers and the filmmakers put forth an undeniably sincere effort. Its shoddy production values and pedestrian photography are made up for by its story — complicated but coherent — and even more by it’s cast. Career television actor John Hoyt practically steals the show as Baxter’s lowlife partner; while Jesse White — known to generations of Americans as the Maytag repairman — is a spectacularly oily private eye. Admittedly, no one could possibly argue that Hayden is at his best, but Baxter gives it everything she’s got. Sometimes a performer’s personal circumstances equip them to play a role so well that an otherwise inconsequential film becomes special — a raging Edward G. Robinson in Black Tuesday comes to mind — in her own way Anne Baxter is that good in The Come On. (BmacV even calls her a “trouper.”) In spite of her upbringing, it’s plain to see how Baxter’s later misfortunes had changed her. Gone now is what Zanuck called the “bitch virtuosity” that had made the pampered star into the perfect Eve. The woman on display in The Come On is wary, vulnerable, desperate, tired, and to tell the truth, trying just a little too hard. In other words, she’s perfect. In the years since All About Eve, Anne Baxter had seen her marriage fail and her ex-husband die. She struggled mightily to maintain her status in Hollywood, all while trying to raise a daughter that too often she left in the care of others, and wading through an endless but excruciatingly shallow pool of male suitors, praying that one might make a suitable father. She was lonely, wracked by guilt, caught up in a life that bore little resemblance to the one she had enjoyed in the forties. She was perfectly equipped to play Rita — a beautiful woman standing at a crossroads, neck-deep in trouble and unable to move forward, needing someone to help her make the right choice and get her life once again moving forward.

Written by The Professor
his blog is Where Dagner Lives

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Caged (1950)

Editor's note: Alan Rode has let us use his fantastic article on 1950's Caged for this week's NOTW. It was originally used in the Noir City Sentinel. Find out more about Noir City at the website. (The immortal BmacV wrote the previous Film Noir of the Week article on Caged back in 2005.)

By Alan K. Rode

I was initially startled when Warner Brothers released Caged (1950) on DVD as part of a Cult Camp Classic Boxed Set back in 2007. Although grateful that one of my favorite films was finally available on a remastered DVD, it was perplexing why a classic noir, nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Actress—Eleanor Parker, Best Supporting Actress—Hope Emerson, Best Original Story and Screenplay-Virginia Kellogg and Bernard Schoenfeld), would be packaged in this manner.

The metamorphosis of Eleanor Parker from a tear-streaked pregnant teen,imprisoned as a robbery accomplice, into a steely eyed, con prostituting herself for parole, is compelling cinema that holds up magnificently after six decades. Caged remains a groundbreaking picture that seamlessly melded social commentary with high drama. Caged also initiated important censorship battles that would prove a harbinger of future changes in the Production Code Authority (PCA).

Why was this distinguished film released with an aged-in-vodka Joan Crawford costarring with an ape-man in the forgettable Trog, and Lana Turner portraying an ersatz Norma Desmond on LSD in The Big Cube? No doubt it was due to a Hollywood-created paradigm that caused the public to assume that any film about women in prison couldn't be taken seriously.

From their inception, women in prison movies have been mired in clichés that quickly evolved into parody; Ladies of the Big House (1931) starred Sylvia Sydney as a florist framed for murder who pulled hard time in full makeup and coiffed hair, while Barbara Stanwyck, in Ladies They Talk About (1933), wore negligees and enjoyed manicures in a prison that was more like a spa.

Women’s Prison (1955) put the sex front-and center, with convict Warren Stevens sneaking over to the women’s side of the Big House to impregnate his wife (Audrey Totter), proving that not even separate cell blocks can keep a happily married couple apart.

As censorship strictures evaporated, lust and mayhem behind bars became viable—and profitable: exploitation flicks The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1971), Black Mama, White Mama (1973) and Caged Heat (1974) permanently enshrined Pam Grier as The Incarceration Queen; prison seemed desirable with her as a cellmate. In short order, such over-the-top sexploitation fare stifled any trace of realism in women’s jailhouse dramas. Tom Eyen’s 1975 stage parody Women Behind Bars, in which the warden was played by transvestite star Divine, took WIPs (as they are now called) into gay territory—a move that has retroactively managed to reclassify all such films as “camp.”

What made Caged different from the prison pictures that preceded and followed it was the vision of producer Jerry Wald.

Wald had ascended to the top rank at Warner Brothers in 1945 when major-domo producer Hal B. Wallis departed for Paramount, his long relationship with Jack L. Warner having imploded over contractual hassles—and which of the two titans would keep the Best Picture Oscar for Casablanca.

Originally a newspaperman, Wald scripted some of Warner Bros. best films during the late 1930’s-early 1940’s: The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive By Night (1940), Out of the Fog (1941), and Manpower (1941). Moving into production, he scored repeatedly, at the box office, with the reconstituted Joan Crawford—Mildred Pierce (1945), Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947) and Flamingo Road (1949)—while producing some of the most distinguished and successful of Warner’s postwar titles, including Key Largo (1948), Johnny Belinda (1948) and Task Force (1949).

Wald was a whirling dervish. It has been said that Wald was the model Budd Schulberg used to create the unforgettable character of Hollywood hustler Sammy Glick in What Makes Sammy Run? He creatively shaped his films, using more of a coach’s style compared to the autocratic Wallis. He was also a ceaseless cheerleader. Endless memos on casting, story, dialogue, publicity, set design, location, titles,thank-you notes, script changes, etc. spewed from his typewriter,blanketing everyone from Jack L. Warner down to the most minor supporting players.

Wald’s original notion for Caged was set forth in a May 1, 1948 memo to Jack Warner: It was called Women Without Men, and was to star Bette Davis as a reform-minded prison warden alongside Joan Crawford as a hardened prisoner. The concept foundered due to differences between the stars and the fiscal realities of the postwar movie market.

The producer was also inspired by his screenwriter brother, Malvin Wald,who’d researched police files and observed autopsies while writing The Naked City (1948). By the late 1940s, escapist fare—Mickey Rooney playing Andy Hardy or Maria Montez in a sarong—had taken aback seat to forceful stories with a dark, authentic edge, such as Brute Force (1947), Crossfire (1947), Boomerang! (1947) and The Snake Pit (1948). These films put studios in greater conflict with the Production Code Authority—but they also created longer lines at the box office.

Women without Men was the brainchild of Virginia Kellogg, a former L.A.Times reporter, now under contract to Warner Bros., who had been writing for movies since the 1930’s. More a story developer than a screenwriter, she possessed a laser-like focus for authenticity and a reputation for integrity.

It’s worth noting that Virginia Kellogg earned a screen credit for the original story of the classic White Heat (1949), which was thematically similar to her story for T-Men, released by Eagle-Lion the previous year. Precious little from her final White Heat treatment, other than the title and opening train heist, made it onto the screen. Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts expanded upon her work and created the script that forever emblazoned Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in public consciousness. Although Kellogg would be nominated for a Best Writing Oscar, she was aware that Goff and Roberts did most of the heavy lifting on White Heat. She was eager for a project she could call her own. Kellogg’s idea was to spend time inside a woman’s prison,developing a realistic story of life behind bars. Jerry Wald enthusiastically agreed, arranging to have his writer visit several prisons incognito, a plan made easier via WB’s juice and contacts Kellogg retained from her reporting days. In a letter to his screenwriter, Wald stressed the need for authenticity:

“Our story will be a success only if it is an HONEST portrayal of life in prison and because the women in it behave the way women would under the circumstances in which we find them. I have always felt that presenting a story on the screen is not an excuse for not having your actors behave like human beings.”

During the final month of 1948, Kellogg spent two weeks in various prisons,“…in the East and one in the Middle West.” Some of her notes, gleaned from the Caged production files:

New York December 17, 1948
“One down two to go, Material incredibly good have enough for book so far…About Monday tackle Michigan then Ohio. Last two worst except South.”
Chicago,Illinois, December 28, 1948
“Caroled with colored through cell blocks Christmas dawn saw clipped heads and seamy side you want contrasted with hilarious comedy incidents. Also two crime syndicates actually recruiting inside prison… Shocking facts far surpass Snake Pit. Am not quite stir bugs yet.”

Kellogg’s article “Inside Women’s Prison,” published in the June 3, 1950 edition of Colliers, was timed to coincide with the release of Caged. It exposed the horrific conditions she witnessed during her undercover prison sojourn, including a young inmate collapsing in the kitchen and hemorrhaging from advanced syphilis, as well as routine practices such as solitary confinement, hair shearing, and immersion in cold water baths. Kellogg expressed contempt for the prison matrons, several of whom she asserted were on the payroll of organized crime syndicates:

“Most of the guards were broad-beamed Amazonian spinsters,” she wrote,“who are somehow related to politicians or are decrepit widows of men who had influence, hanging on long enough to get a pension.”

Interviewed later by a Boston paper, Kellogg admitted to being “haunted” by her prison experiences. She reportedly began carrying a revolver in her purse for protection.

Jerry Wald engaged Bernard Schoenfeld, whose noir resume included Phantom Lady (1944) and The Dark Corner (1946), to collaborate on the screenplay and refine Kellogg’s sensational material. He contributed original material and polished the dialogue,but in the end needed a Writer’s Guild arbitration decision to earn a shared screen credit with Kellogg.

John Cromwell was hired to direct the film, now titled Locked In, after Michael Curtiz and Vincent Sherman expressed no interest in the assignment. Working for a flat fee of $40,000 and no profit percentage, Cromwell came relatively cheap. He’d bring the picture in five days over schedule, at a cost just under $1 million.

Casting the virtually all-female ensemble was a particular challenge for Wald. The only male character with more than a single scene was the crooked politician played by Taylor Holmes, who got the part after Norman Lloyd turned it down.

For the lead role of Marie Allen, the producer contemplated Doe Avidon, Betsy Drake and Ruth Roman, whom he equated to “…a young Bette Davis” in a gushing memo. Wald’s enthusiasm could at times trump common sense.

The producer also struggled with the casting of Warden Benton, mentioning it casually to Joan Crawford—who arched a dissenting eyebrow—and Patricia Neal, who angrily rejected it, telling Warner’s production chief Steve Trilling that “… she didn't want to support whoever played the plum role of Marie.”

After arranging a test with the consummately professional Agnes Moorehead as the warden and studio contract star Eleanor Parker as Marie Allen, Wald had his two principal players. Casting the sadistic matron, Evelyn Harper, was a no-brainer. Wald had noticed Hope Emerson throttling Richard Conte in Cry of the City the previous year, and after she tested Wald instantly offered her $1,250 a week with a five-week guarantee. The towering actress—6’2”and 230 pounds—abandoned a job offer at Universal and signed on.Her presence would ensured that Kellogg’s first-hand reporting of the worst type of prison matrons would be accurately recreated.

Betty Garde, Jan Sterling, Ellen Corby, Lee Patrick, Olive Deering, Jane Darwell and Gertrude Michael rounded out the cast, all handpicked by Wald.

Glamour was not permitted on the set. Wald told make-up czar Perc Westmore: “I am in complete agreement with you that none of the women should wear make-up of any kind at all. This is important in order to give the film the documentary feeling we want.” The lone concession:five wigs designed by Westmore to show Eleanor Parker’s various tonsorial transitions.

Principal photography began on July 18, 1949 and proceeded without incident; shooting was entirely on Warner sound stages, except for brief sequence of Parker working in the prison laundry that was shot in Culver City, and another in which the old Power and Light building in downtown L.A. was used as the prison exterior. The always-prepared Parker gave the performance of her career, and reportedly she and the rest of the splendid cast required little direction.

Jerry Wald loathed the title Locked In and peppered Jack L. Warner with memos begging him to change it: House of Correction, The Outcasts, Condemned, The Damned Don’t Cry, Behind Iron, Girls Like Us, The Forsaken, and Fallen Women were all suggested.

The Cage was approved, but the studio couldn't obtain the rights to it. Wald spewed more memos with additional title recommendations. Fed up, Jack Warner issued a directive on September 19, 1949 announcing the title of the picture would be Caged. A routing sheet was attached on which everyone of prominence at the studio was required to sign off on the boss’s selection. Wald’s signature was first on the list.

The next, and biggest, hurdle for Caged was obtaining a Production Code Authority seal. The Code had governed Hollywood since the Legion of Decency and local censorship boards threatened a boycott in the early 1930’s. The PCA had been managed since its inception by prelate censor Joseph I. Breen. Locked In was in pre-production when Breen met with Kellogg, Schoenfeld and John Cromwell. The quartet struggled to find a middle ground in which the movie would pass through the PCA without its sharp edge of realism and social commentary being dulled.

During her research Virginia Kellogg had been shocked by the availability of narcotics in prison, and as a result she created a character called “Twitch,” who was clearly an addict. Breen found this to be the most insoluble problem in the script, as the Code specifically forbade the subject: “We pointed out that this would be a clear-cut Code violation for which we had no immediate solution.” Neither did Warner Bros., except for inclusion of a subtle line from Evelyn Harper asking Marie if she could help her with “…a habit that is hard to break,” all mention of drugs was deleted, and “Twitch” was eliminated. Drug addiction wouldn't be mentioned until five years later, when Otto Preminger released The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)—without the PCA’s Seal of Approval.

The other touchy issue was Marie, in Breen’s words, “… presumably leaving prison at the end of the story to join a house of prostitution.” Breen agreed to Bernie Schoenfeld’s notion of “simply emphasizing the fact that she seemed to have some talents as a booster.”

A significant dispensation by the PCA board was allowing Jan Sterling to play a prostitute and state openly that it was the reason she was in prison. This acknowledgment, which seems absurdly trivial now, was a major censorship concession in 1950 and an indication that the PCA was beginning to give ground on some prohibitions.

Joe Breen cherry-picked individual lines of dialogue for excision,including an inmate remarking that she looked forward to “…helping a pro football team break training,” and another commenting that“…it don’t come wrapped in cellophane.” In a laughable missive, Breen warned Warner Bros. that “the showing of a toilet would be unacceptable.” After viewing the film’s final cut, Breen issued the PCA approval code stamp.

The battle wasn't over. Individual states, provinces and municipalities all had their own censorship boards, which frequently demanded cuts before allowing movies to be shown. In some cases, films were simply banned outright. Caged stirred up a hornet’s nest of protest like no WB picture had since I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang in 1932.

Caged was rejected outright by the Kansas and Pennsylvania censorship boards, as well as being banned by specific cities. The Detroit censor—a policeman—refused to issue an exhibition permit because Jan Sterling stated she was a “C.P.—common prostitute.” Matters were even tougher in Canada, with the WB representative in Winnipeg complaining to the New York office:

“Basically my efforts to get this picture passed are being hindered somewhat by the fact that Universal’s Brute Force was turned down two years ago and they are still working on both censor boards to get it passed. Both Vaughan and Mrs. Young kept throwing this picture up to me and kept insisting that Caged was a female version of Brute Force.”

Ohio’s Division of Film Censorship became furious after viewing the film and discovering that Virginia Kellogg had been seen inside one of their prisons. Warner’s reminded the censor board that the picture did not specifically represent any of Ohio’s institutions. Nonetheless, Ohio’s chief censor branded Caged,“…definitely harmful to the rehabilitation programs of our prisons.”

The American Prison Association weighed in with a letter to Jack L.Warner stating that the film caused “considerable resentment among the wardens and superintendents in regard to the production of Caged with its sweeping condemnation of correctional policy and administration.”

Censor boards in Montreal and Worchester, Massachusetts specifically rejected the movie due to prison scandals that were being covered up.Warner’s branch manager in Montreal wrote that, “The particular reason is … what is actually brought out in the picture. The FullumStreet jail which houses women inmates has been a thorn in the side of the Provisional Government for some time. Not too far back this whole thing was aired in the local press…”

Clearly, Jerry Wald and Virginia Kellogg had touched a nerve—precisely as they had intended.

Warner Bros. gradually tamped down the uproar and eventually got the film exhibited in most locales … but it wasn't easy. Caged was approved for exhibition in Canada only “after a terrific struggle,”with a special preamble spliced in before the credits stating that the movie was fictional and “intended to emphasize the problem of administration in penal institutions.” Included was a reminder that“… every effort was made to rehabilitate inmates so that upon release they can be restored to society.” Cuts were extensive: the suicide of an inmate seen only in shadow, the hair-cutting scene with Parker, Hope Emerson drinking whiskey and being stabbed, Ellen Corby philosophizing about murdering her husband, and the oft-quoted opening line of “Pile out, you tramps!” were all excised in Canada and several U.S. States.

Despite all this, Caged reaped mostly positive reviews, and by July 1950, it was grossing as much as any movie in release other than Father of the Bride. It was included on most of the year’s best film lists, along with such well-received titles as All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, No Way Out, Cyrano De Bergerac, Broken Arrow, and The Asphalt Jungle. Jack Warner was pleased that Wald had produced a prestige picture that made money for the studio, even if it did not win any of the three Oscars for which it was nominated.

Eleanor Parker would leave Warner Bros. After Caged, inking a new contract with Paramount. Her new deal specified one picture per year,and allowed her to make movies at other studios; a freedom never experienced by the actress during her seven years at Warner Bros.

Jerry Wald would win the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award the same year he made Caged. He soon left Warners the following year and signed an exclusive production deal with RKO. Working for Jack L. Warner, he learned, was heaven compared to working for Howard Hughes; he left RKO and worked as an independent producer, garnering two more Best Picture nominations,until he died of a heart attack in 1963 at only 52 years of age.

Virginia Kellogg continued working, but most of the stories she sold to studios never made it onto the screen. She never had another project like Caged. Kellogg married Frank Lloyd, the director of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) in 1955. She passed away in 1981.

Caged was mostly forgotten until it resurfaced on television, where anew generation could enjoy its heartrending performances and memorably pithy dialogue. During my formative years, it was a staple on WOR-TV’s “Million Dollar Movie” in New York.

As Marie Allen would say, “Kindly omit flowers”— and ignore the packaging of the film’s latest incarnation on DVD. Caged was, and remains, classic film noir—not camp cinema.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Wild Party (1956)

An Over the Top Jazz Noir!

With a title like this, I had no idea what I was going to get. Was I surprised! The credits pop up and the cast includes Anthony Quinn, Carol Ohmart, Arthur Franz, Jay Robinson, Nehemiah Persoff, Paul Stewart and Kathryn Grant.

The story is about a group of losers who have the ultimate bad night.

We start with Persoff, who is also the film's narrator. He is a hep-kat ivory tickler who needs some cash to get back his union card. Being broke for a living, “just ain’t cool for a jazzman”.

Quinn is a former pro-football player who has fallen on hard times. He owes money all over town and is down to rolling drunks for a few bucks.

Kathryn Grant is the last hanger-on from Quinn's glory days. She has been around the block so often that she says "I have 40,000 miles on me". She needs cash to pay her rent.

Jay Robinson is a knife happy, small time con-man, who needs cash to get out of town before the Police grab him.

Quinn gathers this group together and they go looking for a score. Robinson cruises an upscale jazz club looking for a mark or two. He overhears a couple talking about jazz and butts into the conversation. Robinson says he knows a great club, THE FAT MAN, where the “real cats swing”.

Carol Omart and Arthur Franz, play the couple. They agree to give it a whirl and grab a cab to have a look see at this club.

Waiting for them at the club, is Quinn and his bunch. Quinn gives Omart a couple of twirls around the dance floor, then, hustles her and Franz out to his car. But instead of dropping them at a taxi stand, Quinn and his crew drive the pair to an abandoned building.

A simple roll job has now turned into a kidnapping. Omart offers up her fur and jewels but Quinn wants more. Franz says he can lay his hands on 10 large from a nightclub owner he knows.

Quinn agrees and leaves Robinson and his switchblade to guard Omart. Franz takes Quinn and Persoff to a club where they meet Paul Stewart. Stewart can tell something is funny with this picture and refuses to pony up any cash. He figures Franz lost big gambling and that Quinn is the muscle trying to collect. Stewart pulls a .45 and suggests they leave.

Quinn, Franz and Persoff head back to the hideout, there, a less than happy Quinn decides he will have his way with Omart. Franz tries to defend Omart, but Quinn gives him a nasty beating.

While all this is going on, Persoff and Grant realize Quinn has gone over the edge. They decide to beat the feet and leave before murder is added to the kidnapping beef.

After they leave, Grant, who loves Quinn, talks Persoff into returning to the hideout. She wants to try and get Quinn to give it up and leave town with them.

Quinn is not amused and goes after Persoff with murder in his eyes. Grant finally sees Quinn for the rat he has become. She jumps in the car and drives it into Quinn, crushing him against the building.

Omart and Franz escape while Persoff watches Grant, sitting in the dirt, holding Quinn’s hand, as he dies.

Not a bad use of 90 mins in my humble opinion. Quinn is quite good here as the ex-jock who just can't deal with life as a nobody. Same thing with Grant, she is excellent as the world-weary tramp.

The story and screenplay was by John McPartland. He also had a hand in, No Time To Be Young, Street of Sinners, and Johnny Cool.

The director was Harry Horner. He helmed Beware, My Lovely, Vicki and A Life in the Balance. He also won two Oscars for art direction for The Heiress and The Hustler. He is also the father of composer James Horner.

The d of p was Sam Leavitt. His work included The Thief, Crime in the Streets, Time Limit, The Defiant Ones, The Crimson Kimono, Cape Fear, Johnny CoolAnatomy of a Murder, and Brainstorm.

For the jazz fan there are several sets by Buddy de Franco and his Quartet.

Written by gordonl56

Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley