Monsters and Matinees: How Roger Corman’s ingenuity created a film legacy

How Roger Corman’s ingenuity created a film legacy

It started, appropriately, with Monster from the Ocean Floor in 1954.

That was Roger Corman’s first film and everything about it, including that fun title, was a taste of what he would give us during his 60-plus years of filmmaking.

When Corman died May 9 at the age of 98, he left behind an amazing legacy of nearly 400 films (he often worked uncredited, so it’s hard to get the full tally), directing 50 and producing the others. And while his low-budget independent movies earned him the title of the King of the B-movies, he also played a large role in launching the careers of many A-listers.

For his first film, Roger Corman produced Monster from the Ocean Floor in 1954.

Corman’s remarkable life and career have been documented in the many books written about him – and by him – so it seems almost ridiculous to try and sum up his career in a 1,500-word story. Yet I try. Why? Because he stirred my sense of wonder.

The Beast With a Million Eyes. Attack of the Crab Monsters. Not of This Earth. The Wasp Woman. She Gods of Shark Reef. Bloody Mama. Galaxy of Terror. Carnosaur. Sharktopus.

Just reading those titles sparks my imagination again, as the films did the first time I saw them. Even today, when I see Corman’s name in the opening credits, it’s a reassurance that I will be entertained.

Right from Monster from the Ocean Floor, Corman had creative ideas on how to make movies despite lacking resources and budget. His ingenuity was his gift as a filmmaker, and he shared it with us.

Here’s how he did it.

Roger Corman’s first film credit was as producer of Monster from the Ocean Floor. What evil lurks in the nearby sea cove?

Pay it forward. Corman took the money he made from one film, and paid it forward to finance his next project. He used the meager proceeds from his first script called House in the Sea to make Monster from the Ocean Floor. (The script became the 1954 film Highway Dragnet starring Richard Conte and Joan Bennett. Oh, and Corman added to his experience by working as an associate producer on the film for free.) He was proud that he made his first film with $12,000 in cash from selling the script, with a $5,000 deferment for lab costs. Monster made a profit of $100,000, which went toward financing the next film, and so it went. A legacy was created.

Hide the monster. Working with low budgets meant there wasn’t money for special effects so creatures were shrouded in darkness or only partially shown. Seeing only the giant claw in Attack of the Crab Monsters was much scarier than the full plodding creature.

Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman was ahead of its time in its statement about women and the business of beauty. But it was one of the films when the creature was best kept under low light.

Keep talking. You’ll notice Corman’s films can be talkative (with lots of scientific mumbo-jumbo in his horror/sci-fi films) and they utilize narration, sometimes in odd spots. It was to help tell the story and fill in blanks when there wasn’t money for additional scenes or special effects.

Blame radiation. Raise a glass of cheer when you hear the word “radiation” in his films, because it helps make any creature you can imagine come alive. A giant, talking crab? Blame radioactive underwater tests. A huge devil-like sea creature with a glaring red eye? Ditto. The mutant walking around a post-apocalyptic world? Just a poor guy suffering from radiation poison.

Cheap & quick. That’s how Corman was able to make nearly 400 movies. Little Shop of Horrors, starring Jack Nicholson, was filmed in two days for $35,000. The Wasp Woman in about five days for $50,000.

When he had a “fortune” to spend – like the $350,000 on The Raven, he still directed it in only two weeks. And that brings me to my favorite Corman story: how he made The Terror.

Roger Corman not only reused sets and actors for The Terror, Jack Nicholson (at left) wore the coat originally worn by Marlon Brando in Désirée.

The Raven was the fifth in Corman’s eight-film “Poe Cycle” (1960-64). By that time, he wanted to “out-Poe” the author and “create a Gothic tale from scratch,” Corman is quoted in his indispensable and entertaining book How I Made Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime. Boris Karloff had two days left on his contract for The Raven so Corman, not one to waste good talent or money, kept the actor on the set for the weekend and used the footage as a base for another movie that still needed a script. That would become The Terror.

Corman’s three-day wonder, as it has since been called, was cobbled together like Frankenstein’s monster using bit and pieces from other films and sets, and at times it looks as patchwork as that sounds.

Even the uniform that Nicholson wears was recycled: It was originally used by Marlon Brando in Désirée.

A studio system. Corman worked with people like he ran an old-time film studio as he used a stable of young, undiscovered talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Jack Nicholson made his film debut as The Cry Baby Killer (1958). It was one of eight films he starred in for Corman, who also produced three of his screenplays all before Nicholson became a star with Easy Rider.

Robert De Niro, William Shatner, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, Ellen Burstyn and Sandra Bullock were others whose talent he recognized and utilized. Beverly Garland starred in four of his films (Gunslinger, Swamp Women, It Conquered the World and Not of This Earth), Susan Cabot in six (Sorority Girl, War of the Satellites, Machine-Gun Kelly, The Wasp Woman, Carnival Rock and The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Great Waters of the Sea Serpent. Great character actor Dick Miller starred in too-many Corman films to list, but they include The Terror, War of the Satellites, A Bucket of Blood, Carnival Rock, Apache Woman (he had two parts!), Not of This Earth and X: The Man with The X-Ray Eyes.

Then there’s a guy named Vincent Price who starred in seven films in Corman’s “Poe Cycle.”

That’s a fresh-faced Roger Corman at left playing Jimmy the deck hand in a scene from the first film he made,Monster from the Ocean Floor.

And who is that handsome young deckhand in his first film? That’s Corman, offering a towel to the scuba-diving tourist played by Anne Kimbell in Monster from the Ocean Floor. Though he didn’t make a cameo in every film he made like Hitchcock, you can catch him now and again.

This brings us to the people behind the camera and the …

Roger Corman Film School. We’ve all watched movies from the filmmakers who were part of what was affectionately called “The Roger Corman Film School.”

James Cameron, Gale Anne Herd, Joe Dante, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Hanson and Ron Howard are among some of the many filmmakers who started out working with Corman in various ways. Additionally, composer James Horner and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, both Oscar winners, worked early with Corman.

Oscar-winning director James Cameron has frequently spoken about Corman, proclaiming that he “came from the Roger Corman film school.”

Corman gave Cameron his first film work as art director and visual effects on Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and he produced Cameron’s first full-length feature Piranha II: The Spawning (1982). Two years later, Cameron blew the doors off the film industry with The Terminator.

And there’s more

With nearly 400 films in his career, Corman wasn’t exclusively making horror and sci-fi films. You’ll find racing films, westerns, rock ‘n roll quickies, “teen girl noirs” and his, ahem, “nurse cycle” which included Night Call Nurses.

Perhaps the most underrated part of his career was how used his New World distribution and production company to release an impressive array of prestigious foreign films into U.S. theaters including Ingmar Bergman’s Crimes and Whispers, Francois Truffaut‘s Story of Adele H and Small Changes, and Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, which won an Academy Award as best foreign language film.

If you haven’t seen Sharktopus, you should. Corman was executive producer and made a cameo in the 2010 made-for-TV sci-fi film.

Let’s watch

So where do you even start if you want to become familiar with Corman films or revisit them? Since this column is called Monsters and Matinees, we’ll stick with Corman’s horror and sci-fi films, many that I’ve already mentioned.

In the mood for undersea creatures? Start at the beginning with Monster from the Ocean Floor then head toward the end of his career with one of my favorite films ever – the miraculously titled Sharktopus.

Looking for an end-of-the-world film? Day the World Ended, Last Woman on Earth.

Alien attacks? Not of This Earth, The Beast With a Million Eyes.

Out of this world adventures? Galaxy of Terror, Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet.

Want some Lovecraft with your Corman? The Dunwich Horror, The Haunted Palace.

Finally, how about some Poe, too? Head straight to Corman’s “Poe Cycle” films and start anywhere: House of Usher, The Pit and the Pendulum, Tales of Terror, The Premature Burial, The Raven, The Haunted Palace (part Lovecraft, part Poe), The Masque of the Red Death and The Tomb of Ligeia. The eight films are enough to keep you entertained for a while and stars like Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Barbara Steele, Lon Chaney Jr., Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre make them a special delight for horror fans.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a writer and board member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and also led the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

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Western RoundUp: High Noon

High Noon (1952)

I’ve seen High Noon (1952) multiple times over the years, including a memorable theatrical screening at the FilmEx festival when I was in my teens. The FilmEx screening, which took place in Century City, California, was part of a 50-hour movie marathon honoring the 50th anniversary of the Oscars!

High Noon Poster

That said, despite my love for Westerns and its vaunted reputation, High Noon has never been a favorite of mine and consequently I hadn’t seen it for roughly two decades. I was thus very interested to take a fresh look at the film via the new Special Edition Blu-ray just released by Kino Lorber. I find that sometimes seeing a film in a new context, including having viewed many more movies in the intervening years, provides an interesting new perspective.

As many will already be aware, High Noon tells the tale of Will Kane (Gary Cooper), who has just married a young bride, Amy (Grace Kelly), and retired as the marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico.

Will and Amy are on the point of leaving town when Will learns that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), who Will sent to prison, has been inexplicably pardoned and is on his way to town to exact his revenge on Will. Members of Frank’s gang (Robert J. Wilke, Lee van Cleef, and Sheb Wooley) are already waiting for Frank at the train station.

High Noon Gary Coope, Grace rKelly 2
Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly

The town judge (Otto Kruger) immediately hightails it out of town, and Will initially agrees to leave with Amy as planned. However, he feels that dealing with Frank is his responsibility and heads back to town, despite Amy threatening to leave him. Will’s concern that they would forever be looking over their shoulders for Frank to show up in their new town also fails to move Amy.

Amy, we learn, became a Quaker pacifist after her father and brother were gunned down, but she eventually has second thoughts about abandoning her new husband after a heartfelt discussion with Will’s former lover, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado).

Meanwhile Will is shocked when no one in town will help him, as the clock ticks ever closer to noon…

High Noon Gary Cooper

High Noon received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director (Fred Zinnemann). Cooper won the Best Actor trophy, and the film also won its Editing nomination, with Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad taking home Oscars.

As implied by its Oscar nominations and wins, the film is nicely crafted, running a well-paced 85 minutes; a running time under an hour and a half is always a plus for me. I’ve enjoyed the film enough to go back to it every now and then — always hoping that this time I’ll end up loving it, yet it never quite happens. I wouldn’t precisely say I dislike it, as it has a few positive aspects, but my issues with it if anything have become more strongly felt with the passage of time.

It’s been said in many quarters that High Noon is a film for people who don’t like Westerns; being a Western fan I can’t say if that’s true, but I did feel that, other than the actors, it may have been made by people who don’t like Westerns.

High Noon. Grace Kelly

The film is curiously lacking in joy, with a sour, negative tone. I revisited this film exactly a week after seeing the new restoration of John Ford’s masterpiece, The Searchers (1956), and was struck that although the Ford film is about a very, shall we say, complicated man and the film goes to some very dark places, it’s also awe-inspiring; The Searchers deeply moves the viewer with its powerful story and great beauty.

I never get those feelings from High Noon, despite being prepared to love it because of its great cast of familiar faces. As I’ve analyzed it, I feel that it’s actually kind of a self-consciously, deliberately nasty movie, and a key flaw is that not one male character in it is admirable.

I include Will Kane in that assessment. On the one hand I do appreciate his sense of responsibility to the town, but I felt he didn’t simultaneously show enough responsibility and concern for his wife. One might blame his not taking time to hash things out with her at length due to the ticking clock — indeed, “I don’t have time” becomes his somewhat whiny refrain over the course of the film — but he showed far too little concern for his brand-new wife’s feelings.

High Noon Gary Cooper 2

And as the film goes on, Kane’s character begins to seem negative right alongside the townspeople hiding in their homes. It certainly seems that Kane has never actually been a leader, because not one person will follow him, least of all his feckless former deputy, Harvey (Lloyd Bridges).

The movie expands on a theme seen in at least one film on Wyatt Earp, that once a town has been cleaned up, the citizens begin to resent it, including sometimes the negative financial impacts. That discomfort seems to be part of the explanation here, but it’s not explored in enough depth to help us understand what’s going on, and it becomes tiresome simply watching people turn down helping their former marshal.

The ladies are a different story and part of what makes the movie worthwhile, despite its deficiencies. Although the movie starting at the moment of Will and Amy’s wedding robs us of much background and character development for the relationship of Will and his (much) younger bride, Amy’s reactions are reasonable and understandable, especially after she explains her pacifism to Helen. And after struggling over what to do, I find Amy’s ultimate decisions admirable.

Katy Jurado, I commented on Twitter recently, is a “goddess” in this film, so compelling that I honestly find her the main reason to watch; indeed, I think she deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Whether she’s sharing scenes with Cooper, Kelly, or Bridges, she commands attention.

High Noon Poster Foreign

Though one might question why such a smart woman has been having an affair with Harvey, the overall picture of Helen is of an intelligent, ethical woman. Her discussions with Amy are for my money the best scenes in the film, and I also really love the small, almost throwaway scene in which Helen decides to sell out and leave town, as it illustrates her business savvy.

Left unanswered for the viewer is why Helen and Will broke up, though one might infer she was not the “kind” of woman a man like Will married in that era, whether due to her business or even her ethnicity. Their brief exchange in Spanish — which I was able to understand due to many months of Duolingo — was moving.

Among the female characters, let us also not forget the wonderful character actress Virginia Christine, who has a scene in which she tries but fails to rally fellow churchgoers to Kane’s side.

High Noon Gary Cooper 1

The screenplay by Carl Foreman was based on the story “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham. Much has been written over the years analyzing High Noon and its screenplay as political allegory, but I choose not to go there in this piece; that’s a complicated discussion which deserves more words than I have room for here. I find it sufficient to judge High Noon simply as a Western among other Westerns and say that for me it comes up short.

The musical score is Dimitri Tiomkin, with lyrics for the title song by Ned Washington; Tex Ritter is the singer. Days later the music is still reverberating in my head!

The black and white cinematography was by Floyd Crosby. A fun bit of trivia is that he was the father of David Crosby of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Supporting cast members not already mentioned above include Thomas Mitchell, James Millican, Lon Chaney Jr., Harry Morgan, Eve McVeagh, Ralph Reed, Lee Aaker, Jack Elam, and John Doucette.

High Noon Gary Cooper, Lon Chaney Jr
Lon Chaney Jr. and Gary Cooper

Kino Lorber’s fine print is from a new HD master from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative. In addition to the Blu-ray I reviewed, it’s also being released by Kino Lorber in a 4K edition.

This Special Edition Blu-ray release comes with a reversible cover and cardboard slipcase. The nice selection of extras includes not one but two separate commentary tracks, one by Alan K. Rode and the other by Julie Kirgo. Although I haven’t yet listened to these tracks, I’ve heard many other tracks over the years by both Rode and Kirgo so am confident saying they will each be worthwhile.

High Noon KL Bluray

The disc also includes half a dozen featurettes; the trailer; and a gallery of trailers for seven other films available from Kino Lorber. Kino Lorber has done its usual stellar job, and this is an excellent way to see High Noon.

If nothing else, High Noon is a thought-provoking film, and I welcome discussion pro and con in the comments.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

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Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At: Metropolis (1927)

A Closer Look At: Metropolis (1927)

Metropolis

By the mid-1920s, cinema had reached incredible heights. Lighting and cinematography had evolved into fine art. The camera itself was liberated from the stagnant wooden tripods, made to float along elaborate tracks and swing from ceilings. The screen captured epic war stories, romance in distant lands, and chapters from history. It could also bring striking feats of imagination to life in a way no other medium could. The timing was just right for a grand, strange, artistic sci-fi epic like the German mega-production Metropolis.

Metropolis 2

Based on a book by screenwriter and novelist Thea von Harbou, the wife of renowned director Fritz Lang, Metropolis would have a futuristic setting with universal themes. Von Harbou wrote the book specifically with a film version in mind, and Lang, an imperious personality already known for Destiny (1921) and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), agreed to collaborate with her to bring it to life. Since it would be produced by UFA, the German media conglomerate, the budget would be considerable – around 5 million Reichsmarks.

The story was set in a dystopian future where society is divided by the wealthy elite living in vast skyscrapers and the workers who toil underground on huge machines. Thousands of extras would be enlisted and filming would take a year and a half to complete. Eugen Schüfftan was put in charge of the special effects, including the elaborate miniatures of the Expressionist city and its stop motion cars and planes. His “Schüfftan process” used mirrors to capture live actors and miniatures in the same smooth shots. Supposedly the look of the metropolis was also inspired by Lang’s trip to New York City in 1924, when he gazed at the cityscape from the deck of the S.S. Deutschland.

Metropolis 3

A film with Metropolis’s scale needed a stellar cast, and fortunately fate played a hand. The story goes that Lang was working on his mythological epic Die Nibelungen (1924) when von Harbou received a letter from Gretchen Schittenhelm with an enclosed photo of her teenaged daughter Brigitte. While Brigitte only had experience in school plays, Gretchen was hoping to get her some work in the movies. Von Harbou liked Brigitte’s looks and Lang agreed to have her come in for an audition. The teenager recalled that she was asked to put on screen makeup and simply read from a letter as a motion picture camera cranked away. As she was reading, an actor suddenly stormed the stage and started shouting at her. Startled, she shrank back–and Lang called for the cameraman to cut, having gotten the authentic reaction he had hoped for. Brigitte Helm had unwittingly nabbed what turned out to be the role of a lifetime, the saintly Maria in Metropolis–and her evil doppelganger, the robot who unleashes violence on the city.

Metropolis Brigitte Helm 1
Brigitte Helm

Initially, a different actor was cast in the role of Freder, the son of the city ruler. During a shoot with a number of extras, von Harbou noticed Gustav Fröhlich in the background and thought he looked suitable for the part. After shooting lackluster scenes with the original Freder, Lang listened to von Harbou and gave Fröhlich the role. It was his first breakthrough role on film, having mostly played bit parts in the past. The city ruler would be played by theater actor Alfred Abel (it would be his best-known role) and the mad scientist Rotwang was portrayed by Rudolf Klein-Rogge – von Harbou’s previous husband.

Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm and Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Metropolis
Alfred Abel, Brigitte Helm and Rudolf Klein-Rogge

The frosty Lang was already legendary for his high expectations and obsessive work ethic, and both actors and extras were expected to spend long hours in a studio that was routinely too hot or too cold. Endless retakes were demanded for the simplest scenes. The weak economy of Weimar Germany made it easy to hire extras – even when Lang required a thousand to shave their heads for the Tower of Babel sequence. 500 children were hired for the flood scenes, which dragged on for two weeks. Von Harbou later said they were fed well, housed comfortably, and glad to earn some money – although Lang did keep the water unreasonably cold.

Helm had an especially difficult time wearing the robot costume, which could be very hot and also caused cuts and bruises. It was created from a plaster cast of her body and sculpted from a type of wood filler that had a bit of flexibility while still appearing metallic. Some shots didn’t even show her actual face, but Lang insisted no double could be used, claiming he needed to “sense” her presence in the costume.

Brigitte Helm in costume, Metropolis
Brigitte Helm in costume

By the time Metropolis was in the can it was 150 minutes long and well over budget, but promised to be a spectacle like no other. It also featured a dramatic orchestral score by Gottfried Huppertz, who drew inspiration from Wagner, “La Marseillaise” and “Dies Irae.” Its world premiere was held in Berlin at the UFA-Palast am Zoo on January 10, 1927. Some reports claimed the film had a tepid reception, while others mentioned audiences cheering at some of the showstopper scenes. All in all the film seems to have had mixed reviews, with many finding it silly or merely weird, although the special effects were widely praised. It would be heavily edited for its U.S. release, much to Lang’s fury, who swore: “I love films, so I shall never go to America. Their experts have slashed my best film, Metropolis, so cruelly that I dare not see it…”

Gustav Fröhlich Metropolis
Gustav Fröhlich

It took decades, but in time Metropolis was reassessed by critics and historians and proclaimed a masterpiece, one of the silent era’s greatest achievements. Its reputation was further cemented by careful restorations, especially the 2010 “definitive” restoration using footage discovered in Argentina in 2008. Today we can see that it’s not only the great-grandfather of our many sci-fi films, but a unique work of art that was somehow both “of its time” and very much ahead of its time.

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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Noir Nook: Spring Trivia – Laraine Day, Van Heflin, Robert Taylor and More

Spring Trivia – Laraine Day, Van Heflin, Robert Taylor and More

Classic movie trivia and the budding of spring – two things that go great together . . . at least, they do here at the Noir Nook! This month’s Nook celebrates the new season with some tasty tidbits about six great performers and some of their noir roles. Enjoy!

Laraine Day

Laraine Day
Laraine Day

In 1946, Laraine Day starred in RKO’s The Locket, which she would later call her favorite film. In it, she plays a kleptomaniac who destroys the lives of every man who is unlucky enough to fall for her beauty and charm. The story, originally called What Nancy Wanted, unfolds through a series of flashbacks – in fact, the film serves up flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. According to Day, she almost didn’t get the role; after she’d expressed interest in the film, William Dozier, who was in charge of RKO at the time, decided he wanted the film to star his then-wife, Joan Fontaine. Day said that she and her agent “put up such a battle that we finally got it.”

…..

Barry Sullivan

Barry Sullivan
Barry Sullivan

Speaking of favorite films, The Gangster (1947) was one of Barry Sullivan’s. He starred in the feature as Shubunka, a neurotic, scar-faced mobster. Critics of the day weren’t impressed by the film; the critic for the New York Times described Sullivan as “stern and tight-lipped” and Viriginia Wright of the Los Angeles Daily News opined that the film suffered from a “confused and over-written script.” Sullivan disagreed, however. He appreciated the “rather artsy” look of the film, provided by director Gordon Wiles, who was an Academy Award-winning art director, and he found the screenplay to be the best part of the picture: “[Screenwriter] Daniel Fuchs had been a teacher in New York, knew the milieu and really had a handle on the sort of small-time gangster the picture portrayed.”

…..

Signe Hasso

Signe Hasso
Signe Hasso

The House on 92nd Street (1945), based on actual FBI files, started a trend for crime films shot entirely on location, according to the picture’s star, Signe Hasso. She played the owner of a dress shop who ran a Nazi spy ring in New York, masquerading as a man known only as “Mr. Christopher.” Hasso explained that the real-life head of the spy ring was a man masquerading as a woman, “but the censors wouldn’t allow that. [But] a woman posing as a man was all right.” She recalled once arriving on set dressed as Mr. Christopher: “Someone came up to me and said, ‘No visitors on this set!’ I said, ‘It’s me!’ No one had recognized me as a man.”

…..

Van Heflin

Van Heflin and Joan Crawford
Van Heflin and Joan Crawford

Van Heflin starred in 1947 opposite Joan Crawford in Possessed, in which she played a mentally ill nurse obsessed with Heflin’s engineer. When he first met the actress in the early 1940s, Heflin recalled that he was “very snooty,” dismissing Crawford as “just a movie star.” He changed his tune when the two appeared together in Possessed, stating that he “found in her a tremendous knowledge of acting. She knew everything about the camera. She knew everything about those lights. She knew everything about the psychopathic girl she was playing. She knew everything, period.”

…..

Ann Savage

Ann Savage
Ann Savage

Although Ann Savage enjoyed a screen career that spanned six decades, she is best known today for her role as the snarling, hard-boiled, take-no-prisoners femme fatale in Detour (1945). She recalled that it took less than four days to film her role but added that Edgar Ulmer was the best director she’d ever worked with. “He gave me a click-click-click tempo that he wanted me to use as the character, and I kept that approach throughout the part,” Savage said. She also said that Ulmer combed cold cream through her hair “to make me look a believable wreck. Remember, this was still the period in Hollywood when everyone was looking their best, when your face never got messed up when you cried, when you awoke in the morning with a fresh make-up job.”

…..

Robert Taylor

Robert Taylor and Lana Turner
Robert Taylor and Lana Turner

Robert Taylor was openly complimentary about his Johnny Eager (1941) co-star Lana Turner – and that’s putting it mildly. He recalled that her face was “delicate and beautiful” and said that he had “never seen lips like hers.” He added that her voice was like that of a breathless child: “I don’t think she knew how to talk without being sexy.” Although he was married to Barbara Stanwyck at the time, Taylor reportedly became romantically involved with Turner during shooting, telling reporters that he “was never known to run after blondes, [but] Lana was the exception.” For his performance on screen – which was one of Taylor’s first as a “heavy” – the actor earned raves from critics. The Variety reviewer labeled his performance “soundly socked and . . . very convincing,” and the critic for The Hollywood Reporter raved, “Robert Taylor is brilliant in projecting a relentless mobster, hard as nails and twice as sharp.”

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

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Silver Screen Standards: Transformative Drag in Some Like It Hot (1959)

Transformative Drag in Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like It Hot (1959) is widely celebrated as one of classic Hollywood’s greatest comedies, even though its cross-dressing plot roused conservative ire and caused the movie to be released without Hays Code approval in 1959. Thanks to the brilliant direction of co-writer and producer Billy Wilder and the outstanding performances of Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe, the movie went on to earn six Oscar nominations, which probably infuriated its detractors even more, and its success helped to nail shut the coffin of the waning Motion Picture Production Code. After 65 years, one might expect Some Like It Hot to have lost some of its relevance, especially in its depiction of gender identity, but the movie holds up surprisingly well. I think its continued appeal stems in part from the fact that it doesn’t just play the cross-dressing of its protagonists for laughs. Instead, the film treats the experience as transformative, allowing its male characters to learn and grow as a result of their time inhabiting female identities.

Some Like it Hot Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in garage, witnessing massacre
Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) go on the run after witnessing a gangland massacre.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon star as jazz musicians Joe and Jerry, who find it tough to make a living in Chicago during Prohibition. Living becomes even tougher after the pair accidentally witness a gangland massacre carried out by Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his henchmen, so Joe and Jerry disguise themselves as women in order to leave town with an all-female band. Presenting themselves as Josephine and Daphne, the two make friends with fellow performer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and arrive in sunny Florida, where surprising romances develop for both of them even as Spats and his fellow gangsters arrive at the same hotel for a gathering of organized criminal groups.

Some Like it Hot Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as Josephine and Geraldine Closeup
As Josephine and Daphne, Joe and Jerry join an all-female band on a train headed to Florida.

Each of the two men starts out behaving like a stereotypical heterosexual male in the most negative sense. Joe manipulates the women around him for his own benefit; he flatters them and pretends to care until he gets whatever he wants out of them. We see Joe’s success with these tactics at the agent’s office, but we also see the secretary’s resentment of this behavior, which we understand to be habitual. Before their speakeasy gets raided, Jerry mentions that the two have borrowed money from every woman working there, so we know that they have a long history of taking advantage of women (most of whom get arrested during the raid while Joe and Jerry slip away). If Joe is a heel, Jerry turns out to be more of a wolf, a trait we first see after they board the train in Chicago as Josephine and Daphne. Jerry/Daphne gleefully imagines himself enjoying the female bandmates like a kid set loose in a pastry shop, suggestively comparing them to jelly rolls, cream pies, and cherry tarts. Both men are sexually attracted to Sugar Kane but are initially frustrated by their inability to pursue her due to their disguises, which lead Sugar to think of them as sympathetic girlfriends.

Some Like it Hot Marilyn Monroe on the Train
Joe and Jerry both find Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) extremely attractive, but their female identities force them to behave as friends instead of suitors.

Joe and Jerry have unique transformative experiences thanks to their cross-dressing, which introduces them to situations they have never had to consider as men. As Josephine, Joe learns how Sugar has been hurt in the past by men just like him; he transforms himself into a fake millionaire because that’s the kind of man Sugar says she has decided to pursue. Although he lies to her about his background and wealth, Sugar also lies to Joe, and Joe cares enough that he tries to comfort her when it looks like he’ll have to abandon her to avoid being murdered by the gangsters. Instead of trying to sweet talk her out of her money to aid his escape, Joe gives Sugar a valuable diamond bracelet (which doesn’t belong to him, to be fair, but still represents money he and Jerry badly need for themselves). Being Josephine gives Joe the opportunity to form a different kind of relationship with a woman and become a better man as a result.

Some Like It Hot Joe E Brown and Jack Lemmon, Tango
Osgood (Joe E. Brown) wins Daphne over with a night of romantic tango dancing.

While Joe spends a lot of time in his Cary Grant millionaire persona, Jerry commits more fully to his feminine identity as Daphne, which leads to a more dramatic blurring of gender roles. Jerry/Daphne is initially flummoxed by the romantic advances of wealthy wooer Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), but their passionate tango night marks a turning point in the relationship. Daphne accepts Osgood’s marriage proposal and worries more about the details of the wedding and the opinion of Osgood’s mother than the problem of revealing that Daphne is also Jerry. In the memorable finale, even that revelation fails to dissuade Osgood, who merely replies, “Well, nobody’s perfect!” Because the movie ends there, we don’t know how being Daphne will affect Jerry’s life going forward, but it has definitely altered his sense of himself and allowed him to question the very nature of his identity. Neither Jerry nor Joe will ever be perfect, but they both seem much improved as a result of their experiences as Daphne and Josephine.

Some Like It Hot Joe E Brown and Jack Lemmon, Ending
In that famous final scene, Osgood is blissfully unphased by Jerry’s bombshell confession.

Jack Lemmon’s performance as Jerry/Daphne earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and Billy Wilder picked up nominations for both Director and Screenplay, but the film’s only win was for Orry-Kelly’s costume design. For more of Wilder’s transgressive comedy, see The Major and the Minor (1942), in which Ginger Rogers tries to romance Ray Milland while pretending to be under the age of 12. Wilder also directed Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960), Irma la Douce (1963), The Fortune Cookie (1966), and The Front Page (1974). If you want to explore the history of drag in classic films, check out any version of Charley’s Aunt (the 1941 version stars Jack Benny), or look at silent and Pre-Code films in comparison with those made after the collapse of the Hays Code. Some of the most memorable Hollywood depictions of drag and cross-dressing include Queen Christina (1933), Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Glen or Glenda (1953), Victor/Victoria (1982), Tootsie (1982), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), and The Birdcage (1996), but there are plenty of other noteworthy examples.

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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Classic Movie Travels: Beverly Bayne

Classic Movie Travels: Beverly Bayne

beverly bayne
Beverly Gayne

Pearl Beverly Bain was born on November 11, 1893, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Augustus and Jessie Bain. When she was six years old, her family moved briefly to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before settling in Chicago, Illinois. There, she attended Hyde Park High School.

At the age of 16, she visited Chicago’s Essanay Studios where she was discovered by a director and encouraged to work at the studio because she had a “camera face” and brown eyes, preferable for photography of the period. She ultimately adopted the stage name Beverly Bayne. Her salary at the studio gradually increased, as did her popularity among audiences.

Bayne made initial film appearances in The Rivals (1912) and The Loan Shark (1912). While Bayne was under Essanay’s employ, so were actors Gloria Swanson and Francis X. Bushman. Bushman often demanded that Bayne play alongside him as his leading lady. Soon enough, they were a recognized romantic duo. The two stars appeared in Romeo and Juliet (1916) and married in 1918, three days after Bushman divorced his wife, Josephine Duval.

Bayne and Bushman’s marriage was largely kept secret to prevent their popularity from diminishing. Nonetheless, they are often credited as the first romantic team in films. The duo left Essanay Chicago for Metro Pictures in Jacksonville, Florida. They appeared in Man and His Soul (1916), now considered a lost film. Additionally, they starred in a play called The Master Thief from 1919-20. The couple had a son named Richard before divorcing in 1925.

Francis X Bushman and Beverly Bayne film Modern Marriage
Francis X Bushman and Beverly Bayne, Modern Marriage

Bayne appeared in a silent adaptation of The Age of Innocence (1924) in a starring role, but the film is also considered lost. Bayne’s final silent film was Passionate Youth (1925).

After Bayne and Bushman divorced, Bayne’s popularity declined sharply. Before long, both of them were no longer appearing in films.

In 1937, Bayne married Charles Hvass and the couple lived on a farm in Piscataway, New Jersey. They divorced in 1944.

At this point, Bayne turned to appearing in stage productions throughout the 1930s and 1940s, in addition to performing on radio. She also became involved in raising funds for British War Relief during World War II.

Bayne’s sole sound feature film, The Naked City (1948), would also be her last. She is uncredited for this performance.

Bayne retired from performing altogether in 1950, and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. She lived there with her son, Richard, until his suicide in 1967. Bayne passed away from a heart attack on August 18, 1982, at age 87. She was buried in Paradise Memorial Gardens, 9300 E. Shea Blvd., Scottsdale, Arizona.

Today, there are some remaining points of relevance in relation to Bayne’s life and career.

The former Chicago Essanay Studio is located at 1345 W. Argyle St., Chicago, Illinois.

In 1920, Bayne resided at 435 Riverside Dr., New York, New York with Francis X. Bushman. The building stands today.

435 Riverside Dr., New York
435 Riverside Dr., New York

In 1922, she resided at the Majestic Hotel, New York, New York. In 1930, she resided at 400 149th Pl., Queens, New York. Both locations no longer remain.

In 1940, she resided with Charles Hvass at 414 E. 52nd St., New York, New York. This location remains today.

414 E. 52nd St., New York
414 E. 52nd St., New York

In 1946, she lived at 127 E. 55th St., New York, New York. In 1960, she resided at 2025 Watsonia Ter., Los Angeles, California. Both of these locations no longer stand.

In 1967, Bayne and her son resided at 4917 N. 73rd St., Scottsdale, Arizona. The apartment building remains.

4917 N. 73rd St., Scottsdale, Arizona
4917 N. 73rd St., Scottsdale, Arizona

Bayne has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame honoring her work in motion pictures. It is located at 1752 Vine St., Los Angeles, California.

Beverly Bayne Hollywood Walk of Fame star

The documentary The Beautiful Lady (1977) celebrates her career and features Bayne herself as a narrator.

Bayne’s papers are housed at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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Robot Monster: Movie Monster Legend 3D Graphic Novel

Returning Robot Monster
to its Comics-Inspired Roots

I’m very happy to share that there is a Kickstarter Campaign to help return sci-fi cult classic, Robot Monster, to its comics-inspired roots, spearheaded by film historian Bob Furmanek of the 3D Film Archive. The campaign is ending in about a week, so please check it out (info below), and if you can’t donate, please help us spread the word. Thanks so much!

Inspired by the classic 3-D film, ROBOT MONSTER, the exciting 64-page hardcover project, ROBOT MONSTER COMICS IN 3-D returns the film’s iconic characters to their comic book roots. Filled with “what if” tales that imagine what may have happened both before and after the events in the film, it’s  filled with stories and art from luminaries from the worlds of comics, film, and pop culture… and of course, it’s printed in 3-D! Find out more at Robot Monster Kickstarter.

As a side note here, of all the film restorations done by the 3-D Film Archive since 2014, Robot Monster was the most successful — so I’ll end with a quote from Bob Furmanek taken from the Intro Video on Kickstarter: ‘There’s a lot of love for Ro-Man”. 🙂

–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

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Western RoundUp: Western Film Book Library – Part 8

Western Film Book Library – Part 8

It’s been just about a year since my last column on books on the Western movie genre, so it’s time for a look at some more interesting books in my collection!

The books featured in this post range from one of the earliest books in my collection to recently published titles.

I’ll start with an “oldie but goodie,” Shoot-Em-Ups by Les Adams and Buck Rainey.

Shoot Em Ups

Shoot-Em-Ups was published by Arlington House in 1978. It’s a large, heavy hardcover which clocks in at 633 pages.

For those of us who became classic film fans in the pre-IMDb era, this kind of book is how we looked up movie casts! In between the credits listings are interesting, educational chapters on the history of Westerns. Books like this one helped spur my interest in Westerns; as I read and enjoyed the photographs, I’d make lists of movies I hoped to see one day.

Shoot Em Ups 2
Shoot Em Ups 3

Singing Cowboy Stars is a delightful little volume by Robert W. Phillips. It was published by Gibbs Smith in 1994.

Singing Cowboy Stars

The book reviews 25 Westerns stars in 95 glossy pages. The book covers some of the expected stars, such as Tex Ritter, Ray Whitley, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Dick Foran, and Eddie Dean; it also makes room for John Wayne and his “Singin’ Sandy” days at Monogram.

Best of all, there’s even a 10-song CD in the back of the book!

Singing Cowboy Stars A
Singing Cowboy Stars B

Women in the Films of John Ford was written by David Meuel for McFarland Books, published in 2014. Meuel is also the author of The Noir Western which I recommended in a book column a few years back.

The book covers female characters in a variety of Ford films in its 196 pages; naturally, many of them appear in Westerns, including Stagecoach (1939), Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956), to name a few. Meuel offers detailed analyses of both characters and performances. It’s an enjoyable read for those who love Ford films and also serves as an interesting introduction for those who are newer to his movies.

Women In the Films of John Ford

Another McFarland book on this list is The Films of Budd Boetticher by Robert Nott, who also wrote a book on Randolph Scott featured here last year. The Boetticher book is 192 pages and was published in 2018. Like the Ford book, not every film covered is a Western, but there are many to be found within its pages.

Nott discusses each film’s production history and reception, as well as offering his own critical analysis. The book also has a nice selection of black and white photos. This well-written book is engaging and informative.

Films of Budd Boetticher

The next pair of books, Cowboy Movie Posters and More Cowboy Movie Posters, were found by a good friend at a Canadian antique mart and sent to me as a gift. Needless to say, I was delighted!

Western Posters

The books were published by Bruce Hershenson in 1994 and 1998, respectively; they’re part of a larger series of books from the founder of a poster sales website. The images are beautifully reproduced on glossy pages, with brief accompanying text written by Brian Cook. A visual treat for Western fans!

Western Posters 1
Western Posters 2

The final book featured this month is The John Wayne B-Westerns 1932-1939, written by James L. Neibaur and published by Bear Manor Media.

John Wayne B Westerns 1

This 268-page book is a must for Wayne fans, as it traces the evolution of Wayne’s career throughout the 1930s. The author provides detailed information on each of Wayne’s “B” films while also conveying their significance to his overall career.

Wayne had charisma from the outset, but it’s fascinating tracking his growing ability to command the camera; as I noted in a full-length review at my personal blog last year, “It’s almost paradoxical, but as Wayne learned to be more subtle and reactive, he simultaneously became more interesting to watch.” And beyond Wayne himself, many of the films described by Neibaur are simply fun viewing.

For many more ideas on Western film reading, please visit my lists from July 2019November 2019May 2020January 2021July 2021August 2022, and May 2023.

Thanks to James L. Neibaur and Bear Manor Media for providing a review copy of The John Wayne B-Westerns.

– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

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Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars: The “It” Girl Clara Bow

Silent Superstars: The “It” Girl Clara Bow

Clara Bow
Clara Bow, the ‘It’ Girl

When novelist, screenwriter, and supreme arbiter of taste Elinor Glyn declared in 1927 that Clara Bow had “It”–her term for a rare type of magnetism–the public must have heartily agreed. After all, the beautiful, vivacious young woman with the big brown eyes and mop of curly red hair was one of the brightest stars on the silver screen, lauded by many as the “quintessential” flapper. Indeed, Glyn didn’t simply say Bow had “It,” but endorsed her as the official “‘It’ Girl.” It’s a title that the sparkling actress has retained to this day.

Bow’s fame was especially remarkable when we consider that she was, to a point, self-motivated. Were it not for her love of the movies and decision to take the wildest of chances, she might never have been discovered by a fan magazine “Fame and Fortune” contest.

Clara Bow 2

Saying that Clara Bow grew up in unfortunate circumstances is an understatement. Her father Robert was a shiftless man often described as “strange,” and her grim mother Sarah suffered from mental illness. The couple lived in a series of shabby New York tenements at a time when they were severely overcrowded and unsanitary. Sarah bore two daughters who both died at birth, and then against all odds had a healthy girl, Clara. What little love the girl received was largely from her grandfather, who doted on her before suddenly passing away from an apoplectic fit.

As a child the tomboyish Bow was largely shunned by the local girls and mocked for her threadbare clothes and tendency to stutter. She found little solace at home, since Robert could be violent and Sarah’s mental illness was steadily worsening. In time Sarah began suffering from seizures, with usually only young Bowand to try and help her. Once she woke up to see a crazed Sarah standing over her with a butcher knife. She would suffer from insomnia for the rest of her life.

Clara Bow 3

But there was one comfort Bow had: the movies. They were a true escape from her troubled home life, offering visions of beauty, romance and adventure. She began to have dreams of appearing on that wonderful screen herself. An avid reader of fan magazines, she came across Motion Picture Magazine’s announcement of the 1921 “Fame and Fortune” contest looking for screen talent. All it required was to send in a portrait with the entry coupon fastened to the back. She conspired with her father to have a couple cheap portraits taken at a Coney Island studio. Since the office accepting the entries was in Brooklyn she took the streetcar to deliver hers in person. After a number of weeks, several screen tests, and a gradual dwindling of contestants, the winner was declared: Clara Bow.

It was a surreal moment of triumph for Bow, who had taken all the screen tests wearing the single dress she owned. Despite the win she still had to hustle to actually get a film role, finally getting a small part in Beyond the Rainbow (1922). Her first lead was–fittingly–as a tomboy in the whaling picture Down to the Sea in Ships (1922). As small roles kept coming her way, Sarah suddenly died from epilepsy-induced heart failure. Troubled though their relationship was, it was another traumatic event for the sensitive Bow.

Clara Bow 4

In 1923 Bow arrived in Hollywood itself and soon nabbed the sort of role that would define her career: a “flapper type” in Black Oxen (1923). It was a supporting role, but critics praised her nonetheless. Determined to continue “making good,” she would appear in 8 films in 1924 and an incredible 15 films in 1925. The hit film The Plastic Age (1925) sealed her outgoing, warm-hearted flapper image for once and for all. Clara Bow, Brooklyn-accented girl of the tenements, was finally one of Hollywood’s glamorous stars.

Clara Bow 5

In general Bow’s screen characters were working girls, unabashedly flirty and quick to stick up for the bullied or to give a lecherous man a sock on the jaw. Some of her notable appearances were in Dancing Mothers (1926), Mantrap (1926) and the epic World War I picture Wings (1927) costarring Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen. Her hit feature It (1927), costarring Antonio Moreno, happily capitalized on Elinor Glyn’s “‘It’ Girl” endorsement.

Clara Bow It

Warmly outgoing and eager to please, Bow was popular at the studios, although her informal nature made her an outsider at the fancy dinners and parties thrown by Hollywood’s elite. Her personal life gave plenty of fodder to the papers as she flitted from boyfriend to boyfriend, appearing in divorce court more than once as the “other woman.” As time passed, she was starting to be regarded as unstable.

Clara Bow 6

The talkies presented even more challenges as Bow struggled with “mike fright,” especially during the shoot of Kick In (1931) where she fled from the set. This stress was compounded tenfold when a tabloid published a fabricated “expose” accusing her of everything from wild promiscuity to bestiality. The ugly attack triggered a nervous breakdown, and Bow’s boyfriend Rex Bell insisted that she recuperate for a time at his Mojave desert ranch.

During this much-needed rest, the couple were married. After a successful return to Hollywood in Call Her Savage (1932) and Hoopla (1933), Bow decided to retire from the screen for good. She and Rex would raise two sons, Tony and George, and try to live a comparatively peaceful life on their ranch.

Clara Bow and family - Rex Bell and sons Tony and George
Clara, Rex and two sons Tony and George

Unfortunately, Bow wasn’t quite destined to live happily ever after. Perhaps inevitably due to her family history, she began to be plagued with mental problems. In the 1940s she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and in 1950 she had to live separately from her family under a nurse’s constant care. Her final years were spent in Culver City and she would pass away from a heart attack in 1965 at age 60. While her legacy has been obscured throughout the years with ugly rumors and falsehoods about her personal life, more recent research has mercifully set many records straight. And happily her shining talent still lives on in her films, revealing her to be one of Hollywood’s most exceptional stars.

Clara Bow 7

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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Noir Nook: Five Things I Love About New York Confidential (1955)

Five Things I Love About New York Confidential (1955)

I can’t recall how or when I first came across New York Confidential (1955), but I clearly remember being sucked into the film from practically the opening scene and counting it among my noir favorites by the last.

Directed by Russell Rouse, the film centers on Charlie Lupo (Broderick Crawford), the hard-nosed head of a New York crime syndicate; his loyal and efficient enforcer, Nick Magellan (Richard Conte); and his beautiful daughter, Kathy (Anne Bancroft), whose life is a misery because of the way her father makes a living. Others in the Lupo sphere include his right-hand man, Ben Dagajanian (J. Carroll Naish), who exists primarily as Charlie’s combination sounding board and nerve soother; his fretful mother (Celia Lovsky); his high-society girlfriend, Iris Palmer (Marilyn Maxwell), whose roving eye lands on Nick; and Arnie Wendler (the always great Mike Mazurki), a member of Charlie’s crew who ultimately has his own  best interests at heart.

New York Confidential Broderick Crawford
Broderick Crawford

The plot stirs this divergent cast of characters into an action-packed stew that depicts the struggle of the high-powered syndicate leaders to maintain the status quo, and the circumstances that converge to bring it to them to their proverbial knees. This month’s Noir Nook serves up five reasons why I love this first-rate feature. (Incidentally, it’s currently available for free on several streaming platforms, including YouTube and Tubi.)

  • The film is narrated by a distinctive baritone voice that makes you sit up a little straighter in your chair – you have the feeling that matters of consequence are being imparted. The narration comes courtesy of Marvin Miller, who I know from his performance as the luckless sidekick of Morris Carnovsky in Dead Reckoning (1947), but his voice is familiar, too. He did tons of voice work during his lengthy career, starting with his first screen gig, a 1944 short called Hell-Bent for Election, and including such films as Forbidden Planet (1964), where he voiced Robby the Robot; children’s shows like The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo and Electra Woman and Dyna Girl; and, perhaps most notably, the long-running TV series, The F.B.I. In addition, Miller was the star of The Millionaire, a CBS-TV series where he played the executive secretary to a mysterious billionaire and dispensed a check for a million dollars at the start of each episode.
New York Confidential Richard Conte and Anne Bancroft
Richard Conte and Anne Bancroft
  • Little touches are sprinkled throughout the film that humanize the otherwise ruthless gangsters. Charlie Lupo and Ben Dagajanian were certainly no pushovers when it came to the crime game, but in a couple of their scenes together, they manage to make the viewer briefly forget that they are killers at heart. In the first scene, after discussing a recent hit gone wrong, Ben shares photos of his grandchildren with Charlie. “Hey, these are wonderful,” Charlie says admiringly. “This young one – spitting image of you, Ben. Believe me, spitting image.”  And later, we learn that Charlie has digestive ailments when he downs a dish that “tastes like something you put wallpaper on with.” He watches with envy as Ben washes down his hefty meal with a cold beer and grouses, “What I wouldn’t give for a salami on rye and a kosher pickle.”
New York Confidential Anne Bancroft
Anne Bancroft
  • The scene where Nick receives an English lesson from Kathy Lupo. After Nick admonishes her regarding an argument she’d had with her father, Kathy informs Nick that he has “a penchant for interfering in other people’s affairs.” Puzzled, Nick repeats, “Penchant?” And Kathy explains, “Penchant means a strong inclination towards. And I’d appreciate it hereafter if you’d mind your own business.”  Minutes later, when Charlie shares with Nick his plans to buy him a new wardrobe, Nick expresses his appreciation and adds with confidence that he has “a penchant for nice things.”
New York Confidential Marilyn Maxwell
Marilyn Maxwell
  • Richard Conte’s performance. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I could happily watch Richard Conte read names out of the phone book for an hour. And his portrayal of Nick Magellan (I even love his character’s name!) did nothing to dissuade me from this stance. He frequently plays ice-cold dudes in his films, but Nick might just be the ice-coldest. In just one example of Nick’s persona, late in the film, he is attacked by a couple of hoods as he enters his apartment. In the next scene, the two men are in an office, congratulating themselves over the beating they gave Nick, and one crows, “He might have been a pretty boy once. I wonder what he looks like now.” A split second after this braggadocious musing, the office door flies open and Nick is standing in the doorway, gun drawn. He slowly, deliberately walks into the room, then says, “Take a good look.”
  • The film’s end. I’m not going to spoil the movie for you but let me just say that the ending is absolute perfection. The last few minutes build to a crescendo that will leave you on the edge of your seat, and Marvin Miller’s narrator gets the last word, telling us, “The circle of self-destruction has claimed new victims. It has stilled the lips that might have revealed the secrets of the syndicate. . . . The syndicate still exists. The rules still hold. This is how the cartel works. This is New York Confidential.”

You gotta love it! I sure do.

– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

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