Mystery is my genre of choice, but my first love was the musical. Picture a kid of seven, reclining on his tummy in front of my parents’ enormous wi-fi stereo console. There I wore down the few cast albums we owned: Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza in South Pacific, Judy Holliday and Sydney Chaplin in Bells Are Ringing, and, of course, the soundtrack to Gigi, the first movie musical I ever saw, perched on my grandma’s lap so I could see the screen better.
Mysteries and musicals. I’ve written before about how rarely the genres cross on the stage, and with what decidedly mixed results. Most of these are played for laughs, so can you imagine crossing a musical with film noir??!? The closest we get on stage is City of Angels, full of venal men, the women who betray them, and multiple murders, all set to a cool jazzy score. But, as usual, the musical dominates the mystery, and the noir aspects are pretty much stomped out by a tacked-on Hollywood happy ending. Given the ratcheting up of emotion in both the musical and film noir, what a crazy experience watching such a mash-up on film would be! Thankfully, courtesy of my weekly class on film noir, I finally got to see such a phenomenon. And of course, it was made by Warner Brothers.
Sure, I was weaned on all those pretty MGM musicals: I mentioned Gigi, which is genuinely sophisticated. And there’s Singin’ in the Rain, which expertly lampoons the transition from silent films to sound, and On the Town, which is tuneful and hilarious. I have to say, though, that most of those scores sung through Technicolor smiles run together for me. Give me Fred and Ginger at RKO in glorious black and white, supported by the likes of Victor Moore and Eric Blore, pushing past those inane plots to give us those glorious numbers.
Most of all, give me Warner Brothers and those glorious Busby Berkeley musicals of the ‘30’s: taut, tart extravaganzas that often resembled their gangster pictures, with dialogue that moved at a rat-a-tat pace and the genuine presence of danger. I think all the heroes of the Berkeley musicals get roughed up at some point, whether by gangsters or Golddiggers doesn’t matter. I strongly recommend the first three Berkeley extravaganzas – 42nd Street, Footlight Parade (both directed by Lloyd Bacon) and Golddiggers of 1933 (my favorite, with Mervyn LeRoy at the helm). The quality may level off after that, but there’s something special to see in nearly all of them.
In a Busby Berkeley musical, the songs and dances push the same boundaries of decency that the early crime pictures did – resulting in the dreaded Hays Code taking hold of Hollywood and nearly ruining it. Songs like “Honeymoon Hotel” and “Pettin’ in the Park” have an earthy lewd charm about them; there’s never a question about what these men and women are up to. And we get a true sense of noir in numbers like “42nd Street” where a woman jumps out a window after her lover is shot, “Lullabye of Broadway,” (from Golddiggers of 1935) which is a brilliant tragedy in miniature, or that paean to the Depression, “My Forgotten Man.” Unlike the sunshiny fantasies produced at MGM or those frothy RKO romances, the Warner Brothers musicals, for all their snappy patter and outrageous musical numbers, never shy away from the harsh realities of violence and poverty that people faced when they left the theatre.
Warner Brothers infused its own high energy style into films of every genre. This week in class we studied three of the studio’s films from 1940, 1941, and 1942 – a woman’s melodrama (starring one of Warner Brothers’ greatest female stars), a musical, and a gangster movie (marking the last time this particular actor would play a gangster for the studio). By fusing the elements of film noir with each of them, the studio came up with some interesting variations: a gangster movie with some real pathos, a musical mystery hybrid that’s kinda weird and kinda fabulous, and a melodrama that shows its star off at her tragic best.
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Our main film was 1941’s Blues in the Night, which sprang from the talent of one of the greatest and most controversial film directors of all time: Elia Kazan. In 1940, directing movies was a concept buried in Kazan’s future; his life was on the stage. A graduate of Juilliard and a veteran of the Lee Strasberg’s Group Theatre, his dream was to be a great actor, but Strasberg and the other Group Theatre leaders saw Kazan’s career heading on a different path and allowed him to direct plays for the company.
Kazan bought the option to an unproduced play called Hot Nocturne and tried to turn it into something better for Broadway. In the end, he sold the rights to Warner Brothers and agreed to work on the screenplay with Robert Rossen. Kazan allowed his screenwriting credit to be removed when he took a role in the film, that of aspiring jazz clarinetist Nickie Haroyan. The central germ of the movie is wholly musical, chronicling the bumpy rise of a youthful group of musicians who band together to play a new sound: the blues. Those “bumps” – the conflicts and tragedies they endure along the way – are what make this film a musical/noir hybrid.
Nickie’s the catalyst, but he’s not the central character of Blues. That would be pianist Jigger Pine, and he was set to be played by fellow Group Theatre veteran John Garfield. Like many stars of the Hollywood system, Garfield had a tempestuous relationship with the studio that had made him a huge star. He balked at bad scripts that were offered him and demanded time off to continue some form of stage career. Between 1940-41, Garfield appeared in seven pictures. He had tried to enlist in the second World War but was declared unfit due to a heart condition, so he poured his patriotism into homegrown efforts, becoming the co-originator (with Bette Davis) of the Hollywood Canteen, which fed and entertained troops from October 1942 to the end of the war.
I wonder if Blues in the Night would be better known and regarded if Garfield, a fine Method actor who inspired a generation of younger, better known performers like Marlon Brando and James Dean, had played Jigger. However, the role ended up going to Richard Whorf. I had never heard of Whorf, but he worked as both an actor and a director throughout the 1940’s – 50’s; fans of this blog will be interested to know he helmed the second version of Love from a Stranger (1947), based on the short story “Philomel Cottage” by Agatha Christie.
I’m not trying to suggest that Whorf brings the film down. He plays the intense part of Jigger with great sensitivity and doesn’t command all our attention, the way Garfield might have done. For Blues is about a band, not just one musician, and Whorf fits nicely into an ensemble that boasts no big stars. (WB superstar James Cagney had been considered for the main antagonist, but that role ended up going to Lloyd Nolan.)
The great thing about this film as a noir musical is that the music is central to what makes this film a noir. The concept goes that those musicians sensitive enough to be “infected” with the blues never want to go back to playing straight music again. At the start of the film, Jigger and his gang are playing in a little honky-tonk in St. Louis when Nickie, who has given up law school for music, insists that they should all become jazz musicians. When Jigger starts to play a riff, it’s clear he has the talent; it also becomes apparent that jazz is considered anathema by some patrons when a drunken customer starts a fight.
The musicians all land in jail for the night, where they find a group of black prisoners in the cell across from them singing the title song. Their rendition here is the highpoint of the film: as it is sung beautifully in a capella, you can see the transformation take hold of Jigger, and he agrees to form a blues band. The boys head to New Orleans to learn their craft and along the way pick up a hot trumpet player (Jack Carson) and his beautiful songstress of a wife (Priscilla Lane).
Lane’s character is called . . . Character. (Evidently, her name is Ginger, but I had to find that out in Wikipedia!) Character is a fine example of a noir “good girl”: ever loyal to her ever-philandering husband, even as it becomes clear that she is falling for the sensitive Jigger (later in the film she becomes pregnant, and Jigger is the only one thoughtful enough to notice). She also sings like Priscilla Lane, which is not a bad thing at all.
The band hops trains along the Eastern seaboard, cooking, sleeping and playing loudly (the trainman who comes upon them always looks askance, charmed by their music and friendly personalities. But one day, they take on a new stowaway, and he turns out to be Del Davis (Nolan) a gangster who has escaped from prison to find the partners who let him take the rap for a robbery they all committed. He pulls a gun on the band, but they are so kind about giving him what little they have that he puts his sociopathic tendencies aside and invites them to New Jersey, where his fellow gang members are running a club.
All of this takes place in the first ten minutes of the film, and there are two or three musical numbers jammed in as well. Pure Warner Brothers, and you can bet the next 78 minutes are going to fly by as well. It becomes clear from the start that gangsters and jazz musicians make bad bedfellows, and this is exacerbated by Del’s ex-girlfriend Kay, who lies and cheats and snarls – and, yes, sings – her way through this picture. Kay is a femme fatale in the nasty vein, like Vera in Detour and, with twenty more minutes of film than Ann Savage has in Detour, Betty Field (pictured right, with Priscilla Lane) can have more of an emotional field day playing Kay. She’s such a creep that it’s hard to see why Jigger falls for her, although he does get to play Pygmalion in a fun, if standard, montage of scenes where Jigger teaches Kay how to sing the blues. Falling in love with his creation proves a bad move that costs Jigger his job, his sanity for a while, and maybe his life. Kay is an equal opportunity hustler: she threatens to break up the marriage between Leo the trumpeter and Character, throws one crime partner under the bus (fatally, it turns out) and abuses one her discarded paramours, a former musician turned cripple named Brad. (You don’t do that to guys named Brad, see?)
Yes, there are many bumps in the road when you just wanna sing the blues, but I can’t think of too many musicals that end unhappily. (Even Jean Valjean goes to heaven, singing prettily.) It’s still a little early in the noir game for the femme fatale to win out over the girl with Character. And it can’t be too much of a surprise to imagine that a guy named Brad is going to save the day. The real question we’re left with at the end of the film is: can musicians ever really play the blues without experiencing them? I think not.
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Humphrey Bogart started out at Fox, but by 1942, most of the 40+ movies he had made were Warner Brothers pictures. Playing a good guy wasn’t beneath him, but Bogie’s specialty was the gangster, and his resume includes characters named Nick “Bugs” Fenner, Hugh “Baby Face” Martin and, perhaps most notably, Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936) based on a play that had made Bogart a star. (Yes, he even played gangsters on stage.) Most of his roles were secondary, and in most he went down in a blaze of glory.
That all changed in 1941 when a friend of Bogie’s named John Huston co-wrote High Sierra and cast his drinking buddy as Roy Earle (yeah, a gangster, but the main one!). The film’s success led Warner Brothers to offer Huston a chance to direct, and he decided for his first project to re-make (for the second time) an old WB warhorse called The Maltese Falcon. For the leading role of private eye Sam Spade, the producer wanted George Raft, but he wouldn’t work with a neophyte director. And so Huston cast his pal, and Bogart finally got to play the hero in one of my favorite mystery films of all time.
In 1942, Bogart would go on to play Rick Blaine in Casablanca. This film and Falcon are two of the movies where I can sit and recite dialogue along with the characters. Between the screenplays and the glorious ensemble of actors in both films, this is cinematic gold we’re talking about. If I meet you and you like both these movies, well, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship . . .
There’s something special when a movie tough guy shows his sensitive or funny side. James “Top of the world, Ma” Cagney could sneer with the best of the bad guys, but I love him most when he dons a pair of tap shoes and sings to his Shanghai Lil. Edward G. “You Dirty Rat” Robinson was certainly at home with a tommy gun, but his dyspeptic gentleman of an insurance claims adjuster is the highpoint of Double Indemnity, and his tempted husband in Woman in the Window is brilliantly pathetic. Bogart had the steely eyes and stiff demeanor, but when his lip trembled and that eye twitched, you knew he was feeling it. In To Have and Have Not, he kind of makes you wish you were Lauren Bacall, and when he really lets loose on a river in The African Queen, he almost makes me wish I could have matched him drink for drink.
The five post 1940 Bogart movies I’ve mentioned above are classics; The Big Shot is not. It was the second of four movies the actor made in 1942 and the last time he would play a gangster for Warner Brothers. But this is not a typical crime role for Bogie: the circumstances that envelop Joseph “Duke” Berne are truly the stuff of noir. For one thing, Berne is not a successful criminal but a three-time loser who, after completing his latest prison sentence, is warned that one more strike will mean jail for life.
Determined to go straight, Berne falls prey to pretty much everyone he comes across: his former partners try to get him to lead a new job, and when he refuses they let him take the fall for the crime anyway. And Lorna, the girl he left behind (played by Irene Manning) has gone and married a crooked attorney who tries to lure Duke back into his old ways. It’s inevitable that our hapless anti-hero will end up in prison again, and bad luck follows him there.
What keeps this from evolving into one of those irritating Kafka-esqe tragedies is that we all can see the innate goodness in Bogie’s poor shlub of a crook. And since the whole movie is basically a flashback from Duke’s deathbed in prison, we know from the start how it’s going to end. The question here involves something bigger than survival: redemption. Berne’s soul becomes inextricably linked to that of an innocent man who made the mistake of doing Berne a favor for love. George Anderson (Robert Travis) wants to marry the lovely Ruth, but her father won’t have it. George needs money to be worthy of Ruth’s hand, and so he fakes an alibi for Berne (who, you must remember, shouldn’t have had to provide an alibi in the first place.)
The Big Shot isn’t great, particularly when you place it in-between The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. The best moments occur in automobiles – a surprisingly violent (for its time) gone wrong and a super-exciting (if sped up) climactic chase on icy roads – and there are some nice scenes in prison where you find yourself shouting “Don’t do it, Duke” at the screen every time Bogart makes a bad decision. The worst part of the film is a strange idyll where Duke and Lorna play house in a cabin in the woods, but this doesn’t last long enough for them even to make pancakes. And I wish that the term “big shot” hadn’t been uttered ironically about twenty times.
In the end, you may or may not agree with the prognostication that The Big Shot is a footnote in Bogart’s fabled career. But the actor does a great job in a conventional noir role, that of the man who is trying to make good but can’t catch a break. Sometimes in film noir, a character has no option but to set aside any chance for happiness and simply try for a decent way to end it all.
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In hindsight, perhaps most of the best films noirs were low-budget and had no big stars. And yet, most of the big stars – at least the ones who worked for Warner Brothers – made one or more noir pictures. Bette Davis was one of the studio’s greatest stars and perhaps their most fearless. She took on the roles no other actress wanted – the misfits, the ugly and unsympathetic souls that repelled and fascinated audiences. She even took on the studio itself, becoming one of the first stars to walk out on her contract, complaining about the mediocre roles she was being assigned. In 1936, Warner Brothers sued Davis for breach of contract and won – and yet they then rewarded her with some of the greatest roles of her
career. When she didn’t get cast in Gone With the Wind, they gave her Jezebel, which is arguably a better picture. They let her die dramatically in Dark Victory (1939), rule over England in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), destroy her entire Southern family in The Little Foxes (1941 – and they all deserved it!), and transform from an ugly duckling into something much more complicated than a mere swan in my favorite Bette Davis film, Now Voyager (1942).
Today we’re going to talk about The Letter. Before this class, I thought I had seen The Letter. I had certainly seen the opening shot, where a beautifully quiet night on a Malaysian rubber plantation is disturbed by gunshots, and a man emerges from a large house followed by a woman who shoots him again and again and again and again . . .
It turns out that I had never seen The Letter, not really. Made in 1940, the film is based on a 1927 play by Somerset Maugham, which was itself inspired by a true-life incident of a school headmaster’s wife in Kuala Lumpur who shot a male friend to death in 1911 and was ultimately acquitted of the crime. Davis plays Leslie Crosbie, the wife of the plantation owner (Herbert Marshall) who calls him back from one of his frequent business trips to tell her that she has killed a family friend who tried to rape her.
Husband and wife turn to another friend, lawyer Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) to get Leslie out of whatever legal scrape might ensue from this act of obvious self-defense (of her life and, more important, of her honor). But complications arise when Joyce’s Malaysian clerk (Victor Sen Yung, who accompanied Sidney Toler in many films as Charlie Chan’s #2 son Jimmy) brings him a letter, purportedly written by Leslie to the victim, that casts a new light on the whole affair.
Part of the joy of The Letter is watching how the case against Leslie twists and turns and how she herself plays a part in determining her ultimate fate. Few people can accuse Bette Davis of having been a subtle actress, but this film makes a good argument for it. She is absolutely brilliant in this role, and since there are so few female protagonists in film noir, she holds a special place and inhabits it proudly.
We know from the opening moments of the film, as we stare into her cold dead eyes while she pulls the trigger long after she has run out of bullets, that Leslie Crosbie meant to kill Geoff Hammond. We watch her lie with ease to her husband and her lawyers, and when she is caught up in one lie, she makes up another. We watch her face off against her lover’s widow who, despite being swathed in old-time Oriental mystery by a non-Asian actress (the amazing Gale Sondergaard), is wholly sympathetic.
But I have to tell you: I was with Leslie – and Davis – all the way. Her husband is so boring. He has dumped her on this plantation, all alone, and when things go wrong, he suggests taking her to an even more remote job in Sumatra. All the men around Leslie applaud her courage, her defense of her womanly honor, her meek submission as a good wife to this stultifying existence. And although we never meet the dead guy, we learn about him: a ladies man who dallied with all the British women until he found someone more exotic.
Leslie has tried to have it both ways, but depending on her husband and lover made that impossible. When she takes matters into her own hands, things go spectacularly wrong. Maybe she’s thinking mostly of herself when she lies about the murder, but she’s thinking of her husband, too – of his feelings and of the scandal. The men want her to be a nice woman, so she’ll play the nice woman. Throughout the film, she sits with glasses perched primly on her nose, making this little thing of lace that grows bigger and bigger.
I loved the scene where the lawyer, who is realizing more and more what a complex woman his client is, starts to understand exactly why she does this lace work. In his words and demeanor, you can see the combination of disgust and sympathy he feels at that moment.
The most breathtaking aspect of the film is its ending, which I don’t want to describe in detail here. Suffice it to say: men make the rules about how women should behave and then decide how any transgression will be handled. I’m sure the men here feel they have done right by themselves and by Leslie in the end, but Bette Davis excelled at playing women who chafe bitterly at male control. In Jezebel. Julie Marsden breaks social propriety and emerges a heroine. In Dark Victory, Judith Traherne dies on her own terms. In Now, Voyager, Charlotte Vale refuses to resign herself to a conventional romantic fate. And in The Letter, Leslie Crosbie takes the rescue her husband and attorney have brought about and shoves it in their faces. In reaching one of the most unusual understandings between two women ever seen in film, Davis’ and Sondergaard’s characters reclaim control over their own lives and fates.
I wonder if this is what’s supposed to happen to leading women in noir: men typically lose control while women find it (as we shall see again in next week’s films). That’s too much of a blanket statement. Perhaps more accurate a premise would be that men in noir cause trouble for women as much as the ol’ vice versa. In Blues in the Night, we watch two very different women, Character and Kay, respond quite differently to the men who cheat on or reject them. In The Big Shot, Lorna who once rejected Duke because of his gangster tendencies, re-involves herself in his life to save him from her equally criminous husband, only to suffer the fate that befalls too many good Samaritans in noir.
In The Letter things may not end well for Leslie on the surface, but ultimately she takes the power and she makes the choice – mastery of her fate over the dull safety of British rectitude. The result makes for powerful, devastating cinema.
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Next week, our two films delve into the twisted mind of a master of literary noir: Cornell Woolrich.