Pre-Code Crazy: Two Seconds (1932)

•December 7, 2017 • 6 Comments

Before I decided to choose Two Seconds (1932) for this month’s Pre-Code Crazy pick, I’d only seen the first five minutes of it – I’d never made it any further.

Boy, was I a dope.

This is a really good one, y’all. Trust me.

What’s it about?

To be honest, it was really hard for me to do the write-up for this one – I didn’t want to give away a single plot point or unexpected twist. But here goes. The film centers on John Allen (Edward G. Robinson) who, at the film’s start, is on his way to death in the electric chair. We learn from the prison doctor that after the current is turned on, his body will be paralyzed, but his brain will continue to function for approximately two seconds – “long enough for him to relive his whole life.”

Not exactly a gleesome threesome, if you know what I mean.

The rest of the film is a flashback that shows how John came to such an end. We learn that John and his best friend, Bud (Preston Foster), work as riveters on a skyscraper. One night, after Bud’s steady girl shows up with a gal pal for John who looks like “a truck horse,” John exits stage left and winds up in a local dance hall. There, he meets Shirley (Vivienne Osborne), a seen-it-all, take-no-crap taxi dancer who takes a liking to John.

And that’s where I’m going to stop my description. I really want you to discover every bit of this gem the way I did – with no clue about what was going to happen. (Unless, of course, you’ve already seen it, and in that case . . . well, never mind.)

What’s good about it?

First off, it’s got a real noirish feel to it – knowing from the start that John Allen is fated to die puts an undeniable air of doom over the proceedings. You can’t help wondering what could possibly happen to make such a stand-up guy commit a crime that would lead to his conviction and execution.

John and Shirley. A match made in …?

As an Everyman who thinks he’s got it all together but gets more than he bargained for at the hands of a woman, Edward G. Robinson indulges in a bit of scenery chewing – but he’s never boring, that’s for sure.  I’ve seen Robinson in countless films, but this film gave him a role that he could really sink his teeth into. And he wraps up his performance with a nearly four-minute monologue that you simply have to see to believe.

Vivienne Osborne was a revelation. She was in a few of my favorite pre-Codes (and she played the mother in one of my most beloved MST3K movies, I Accuse My Parents), but she was really something here. Shrewd, sexy, and self-absorbed, and as hard-boiled as they come, she spit her lines out like she didn’t like the taste. She was absolutely riveting.

One of the best things about the film was the pre-Code lingo and fantastic lines. Here are just a few of my favorites:

“Say, big boy – you sure are a swell little hoofer.” (It’s not an unusual line or anything – I just love the use of the words “Big Boy,” “swell” and “hoofer.”)

“What have you got to live for, that you’re so afraid of dying?”

One of the most chilling shots in the film. (Thanks to Danny at Pre-Code.Com for his skills!)

“I know her kind – she’s a softy. She got tired of grubbin’ for her own keep and you looked like three squares and a flop to her, so she hooked ya.”

“Since when did you examine a dollar to see who its father was?”

“Don’t make me laugh – it’ll crack my lips.”

“When it comes to playin’ around with a dame or poundin’ on a stick of dynamite, the real smart guy chooses the dynamite.”

“I know your kind. And so do lots of other guys, I’ll bet.”

“The worse thing you ever did was gettin’ born!”

“Any time I take a dame out, she knows what it is to be out. I satisfy.”

This is Peggy Joyce.

Anything else?

Early on, Bud and John are talking. Bud’s girl, Annie, is going to fix John up with a blind date, but John is reluctant – Annie doesn’t exactly have a promising track record in this area. Bud assures him that this latest date has class, but he admits, “I ain’t promisin’ you no Peggy Joyce.” Joyce was an actress and model who became known more for her personal exploits than her professional achievements – she was married six times (and, according to her, engaged more than 50), had affairs with such notables as Charlie Chaplin and Walter Chrysler, and was an extravagant spender who once proclaimed that “true love was a heavy diamond bracelet, preferably one that arrived with its price tag intact.” It’s reported that on her wedding night to husband number three, she locked herself in the hotel bathroom and refused to come out until he’d written her a check for $500,000! (There’s a book out on her, released in 2000 – called Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce by Constance Rosenblum. It’s totally going on my Christmas list.)

Check out Two Seconds on TCM December 12th. You. Will. Not. Be. Sorry.

And don’t forget to visit Speakeasy to find out gem Kristina is recommending this month!

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Day 30 of Noirvember: Trivia Tidbit Thursday

•December 1, 2017 • 5 Comments

Young Ava.

It’s hard to believe that another Noirvember has come and gone – it flew by like a bird on the wings of night. For my final post of this year’s month-long shadowy celebration, I’m serving up some trivia about some of our favorite noir performers. I hope you’ll learn something you didn’t know before about some of the fabulous men and women who made film noir come to life. Read on!

At the age of 17, Ava Gardner enrolled in the Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, North Carolina, where she studied business education and secretarial science. But her career plans went in a new direction the following summer when she visited the New York home of her eldest sister and her husband, Larry Tarr, owner of a photography studio. After Tarr placed a picture of Gardner in the window of his studio, it caught the attention of Barney Duhan, a clerk for the legal department of MGM. At Duhan’s request, Tarr delivered a dozen portraits of Gardner to MGM’s New York office, which ultimately led to her first screen test. Shortly afterward, the studio expressed interest in offering Gardner a contract, and as she later stated, “Movies may not have been a dream of mine, but I admit, straight away, that when I compared the idea of a secretarial job in Wilson, North Carolina, with the chance of going to Hollywood and breathing the same air as Clark Gable – well, the choice was not hard to make.”

Sterling Hayden’s final television appearance was in the 1982 mini-series The Blue and The Gray. He played John Brown and sported the wild, gray beard he’d worn since the late 1970s. On several occasions, he’d been asked to shave the beard for a role, but he refused. “Sounds silly, huh? But I like being bearded,” he told an L.A. Times reporter. “If I take it off, it reminds me of those old Hollywood days when I was a male starlet. And I don’t care to remember them.”

A face that would melt in your mouth. Heh.

Speaking of male starlets, early in his career, handsome, curly-haired Victor Mature was tagged with such labels as “Glamour Boy,” “Beautiful Hunk of a Man,” King of Beefcake,” and “A Face That Would Melt in Your Mouth.” The monikers didn’t faze Mature a bit. “I don’t mind being called ‘Glamour Boy’ so long as that check comes in on Friday,” he once said.

When Jean Hagen was a struggling artist in New York, she supplemented her meager income by selling cigarettes at a nightclub and ushering at the Booth Theatre, where she got her first big break. The play on stage at the Booth was Swan Song, authored by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and one night Hecht asked the attractive usherette what she thought of the play. “’It stinks,’ I told him quite frankly,” Hagen recalled. “He argued with me, and asked me how I would like to appear in it. Did I!” Hagen was given a small part in the play, replacing a departing cast member, but before she was able to assume the role, she contracted appendicitis and was hospitalized. After her recovery, she took over the part, making her Broadway debut in 1946.

George Raft quit school and left home when he was 13, sleeping in subways and mission homes, and making ends meet by performing odd jobs like shoveling snow or delivering orders for local stores. After an unsuccessful attempt at a minor-league baseball career, he put his street fighting prowess to use as a professional boxer, but after fewer than 25 bouts, he switched vocational gears again. This time, he capitalized on his natural dancing ability, first landing a job as an instructor at the Audubon Ballroom and later working as a “taxi-dancer” in local cafes.

Annie Laurie Starr as Amber?

Following a much-ballyhooed search for an actress to play the title role in 20th Century Fox’s production of Forever Amber, the part was given to 19-year-old Peggy Cummins. But just a few months into filming, Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck halted the production – he later explained: “We realized that Peggy could act the role, but she could never look it. She was too young. So we decided to start all over again.” Cummins seemed to view the experience philosophically, saying “You can let yourself ache over your loss – or you can think instead of how wonderful and exciting it was while you had it.” Although the film – with Linda Darnell as Amber – was a box office hit, it was totally trashed by critics, and years later, Cummins admitted, “When I saw it, of course, I just felt relieved.”

George Macready got his distinctive facial scar while a student at Brown University. While Macready was riding in a Model T Ford with six of his frat brothers, the car hit an icy road and struck a telephone pole, and Macready went through the windshield. The only doctor around was a veterinarian, who sewed him up, but Macready contracted scarlet fever because the vet hadn’t washed his hands properly.

While a student at Western High School in Washington, D.C., Jane Greer was president of the dramatics club, but her budding interest in the arts appeared to be forever thwarted when she awoke one morning, at the age of 15, to find that the left side of her face was completely paralyzed. She was diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, a neurological disorder. Determined to overcome this obstacle, Greer later stated, “I had always wanted to be an actress, and suddenly I knew that learning to control my facial muscles was one of the best assets I could have as a performer.” She was cured by undergoing strenuous physical therapy and by age 16 she had resumed her activities as a model.

Thanks for helping to make Noirvember the best month of the year!

After rising to fame as a crooner in more than 30 Warner Bros. musicals, Dick Powell transformed his screen image from “pretty boy” song and dance man to hard-boiled tough guy, then switched gears again, tackling directing and producing, and becoming the head of a television empire. “I started out with two assets,” Powell once said, “a voice that didn’t drive audiences into the streets and a determination to make money.”

And that’s it for another year!

Thanks so much for joining me and making this the best Noirvember yet! I appreciate each and every one of you.

See you in the shadows!

Day 29 of Noirvember: The Battling Bogarts

•November 29, 2017 • 2 Comments

The beginning.

Every film noir lover knows about the era’s favorite couple, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. They’re like shadowy elegant royalty, with almost a dozen noir credits between them. But before Bacall, there was Mayo – Mayo Methot, that is, Humphrey Bogart’s third wife, to whom he was married for seven years.

As I’ve mentioned here previously, one of my favorite possessions is my collection of old movie magazines, one of which – the November 1943 issue of Silver Screen – contains a fascinating article about Bogart and Mayo entitled “How to Keep Your Marriage Alive.” Today’s Noirvember post takes a look at this article and the relationship between Bogart and Wife Number Three.

Bogart and Mayo Methot met in 1937, on the set of Marked Woman, a Bette Davis vehicle in which they both were featured. (Incidentally, if you’ve never seen this film, try to track it down – it’s really good stuff.) The couple married the following year, but their union was a volatile one from the start. Literally. During their honeymoon stay at New York’s Algonquin Hotel, Bogart and Mayo got into a huge fight that caused $400 worth of damage to their room. Before long, the duo became known as “The Battling Bogarts” – they frequently indulged in both public and private brawls, including one occasion when Mayo stabbed Boagart in the back, and another when she fired a gun at him.

Bogart and Mayo met on the set of Marked Woman.

The couple’s boisterous skirmishes became almost commonplace among their friends as well as the press – in the New York Times, columnist Earl Wilson once recounted a phone conversation he’d had with the actor, during which a crashing sound could be heard in the background. “My wife just missed me with an ashtray,” Wilson quoted Bogart. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her aim lately.”

The Silver Screen article didn’t shy away from referencing the Bogarts’ explosive relationship, although it did offer a flowery spin, calling the marriage “provocative” and stating: “Their delectable arguments are the talk of the town. Their differences of opinion are like legends.” The majority of the piece is one long interview with Bogart, during which he waxes philosophic about what makes a good marriage. Among his sage offerings are that a married couple shouldn’t have too much in common – “Too much sweetness and light can get pretty cloying after a while,” he said. He also claimed that couples should “argue and keep on arguing if you feel like it. Arguments keep your minds active and alive.” And Bogart insisted that separations among married couples were no good – his wife accompanied him “everywhere,” he said.

Happier times.

“We are never apart. It may give us more chances to argue, but that’s the way we like to live,” Bogart said. “When a husband goes away by himself, there’s always temptation for him to face.” Toward the end of the article, Mayo joined the conversation, sharing her views on the topic of jealousy and frankly admitting that she was jealous of her husband: “He thinks that there is really no need for jealousy until there’s a reason for it. I say it’s too late then. But why shouldn’t there be jealousy in marriage? How can you help it?”

From The Battling Bogarts to Bogie and Bacall.

Well, as it turned out, Mayo had plenty of reason to be jealous. Not long after the publication of this article, Bogart met Lauren Bacall on the set of their film To Have and Have Not (1944).

I don’t know where Mayo was at the time, but suffice it to say that Bogart and Mayo divorced less than two years later, on May 10, 1945. Bogart married Bacall 11 days later.

So much for keeping your marriage alive!

Join me tomorrow for (sniff, sob!) the 30th and final day of Noirvember!!

Day 28 of Noirvember: Armored Car Robbery (1950)

•November 28, 2017 • 5 Comments

A noirish conversation if I ever saw one.

The more I see William Talman, the more I like him. That is, the more I see him outside of a courtroom with Perry Mason. That’s where I first met this actor and first grew to view him with equal parts dislike and disdain. But boy, his film noir performances are a whole ‘nother thing.

One of his best is in Armored Car Robbery, a small noir with a first-rate cast headed by Talman as Dave Purvis, a highly intelligent crook with an ultra-careful mode of operation (“No loose ends,” he insists) and no qualms whatsoever about using his rod. Purvis puts together a crew to knock off an armored car parked outside a ballgame – the heist is pulled off (almost) without a hitch by Benny McBride (Douglas Fowley), Al Mapes (Steve Brodie), and Ace Foster (Gene Evans). Unfortunately, like the best-laid plans of mice and men, this intricately devised effort goes off the rails, with an ending you’ve just got to see to believe.

Yvonne LeDoux. What a dame. What a name!

Favorite character:

My first thought was to say Dave Purvis, but my true favorite is Benny’s estranged wife, Yvonne LeDoux (Adele Jergens), who makes a living by shaking her money maker down at the Bijou Theater. She’s practically the only female in the whole movie, but she’s no dyed in the wool femme fatale. Yvonne doesn’t use her feminine wiles to coax any weak-willed gents into doing her bidding – but she doesn’t shrink from a stack of c-notes when they make their appearance, if you get my drift. Basically, she’s a straight-shooting sister who knows what she wants, knows how to get it, and knows who to get it from.

I like that in a dame.

Favorite quote:

“Look Dave, I know she’s strictly high-rent, and I’m broke, but I can’t forget her that easy.” Benny McBride

Day 27 of Noirvember: Remembering David White

•November 27, 2017 • 1 Comment

1916 – 1990

Hear the name “David White,” and you might offer a blank stare and a shrug to indicate your lack of recognition.

See a picture of David White, and you’re likely to instantly think “Larry Tate from Bewitched.”

But not me. I summon up a vision of Otis Elwell, that smarmy, unscrupulous, and just plain awful columnist White played in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). And boy, did he play that role!

White died of a heart attack on November 27, 1990. Today’s Noirvember post is dedicated to the life and career of this talented, underrated performer.

Born April 6, 1916, in Denver, Colorado, Daniel David White and his family moved several times before finally settling in L.A., where White studied drama at Los Angeles City College. After serving in the Marine Corps during WWII, White honed his acting craft at the famed Pasadena Playhouse and made his Broadway debut in 1949 in Leaf and Bough, in a cast that included Charlton Heston and Coleen Gray. It closed after only three performances. (“Leaf and Bough – it bowed and left,” Gray once quipped.) His later stage work included a run in the successful The Anniversary Waltz, starring MacDonald Carey and Kitty Carlisle. His first television appearance came in the early 1950s, with Grace Kelly in “Rich Boy” on the Philco Television Playhouse.

As the oily Otis Elwell (love that name) in Sweet Smell of Success.

White’s big screen debut was in Sweet Smell of Success, in which he played the small, but pivotal role of a columnist who plants a false blind item in his paper in exchange for sexual favors from a down-on-her-luck cigarette girl. He was in only a couple of scenes, but he made the most of them, impressively holding his own in a cast that included powerhouse stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. White’s other feature films included The Apartment and Sunrise at Campobello, both in 1960, but it was in television that he really made his mark. In addition to his eight-year run on Bewitched as Darrin Stevens’s ad exec boss, White enjoyed a small screen career that spanned four decades. His final role was in a 1986 episode of Dynasty.

Off-screen, White’s life was touched more than once by tragedy. In the mid-1950s, he married stage actress Mary Welch, and the two had a son, Jonathan, in 1955. Before the end of the decade, at the age of 35, Mary died of complications during her second pregnancy. White later found happiness with actress Lisa Figus, with whom he had a daughter, Alexandra, but in 1988, Jonathan was killed in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. On route to New York from London, the plane exploded 35 minutes after take-off, and all aboard were killed. White retreated from public view after Jonathan’s death and died just two years later, at the age of 74.

White’s memorial niche at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

White’s remains are inured at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in the Hollywood Memorial Park Cathedral Mausoleum, which is a stately structure with a main hallway flanked by marble statues of the 12 apostles. Inside a glass-fronted niche, White’s ashes are alongside a memorial urn belonging to his son. The niche also contains photos of White and Jonathan, and a “Larry Tate” bust sculpture, which is a prop from a 1969 Bewitched episode. (I had the honor of viewing the niche in person, during a visit to L.A. for the TCM Film Festival several years ago.)

Next time you check out the dark and cynical Sweet Smell of Success, be sure to give an extra long look at the performance turned in by David White.

And remember his name.

(And join me tomorrow for Day 28 of Noirvember.)

Day 26 of Noirvember: City That Never Sleeps (1953)

•November 26, 2017 • 2 Comments

I fell in love with this movie the first time I saw it. I can’t exactly put my finger on what it was that took such a hold of me – maybe it’s the way it opens with a voiceover by the city itself. (“I am the city . . . I am the voice, the heartbeat of this giant, sprawling, sordid and beautiful, poor and magnificent citadel of civilization.”) Or the fact that the “city” in question is none other than Chicago, which happens to be where I was born and raised. Or perhaps it’s because it takes place on a single night.

Or it could be the way the film weaves together the stories of its rich set of characters: Johnny Kelly (Gig Young), a disillusioned cop who plans to resign from the force the next day, leave his wife, and run away with his mistress; Johnny’s lover, Sally “Angel Face” Connors (Mala Powers), a nightclub dancer; Gregg Warren (Wally Cassell), who performs as a “mechanical man” in a department store window and who’s also in love with Sally; crooked attorney Penrod Biddell (Edward Arnold),  who hires Johnny to put the finger on an overly ambitious man on his payroll; Hayes Stewart (William Talman), the ambitious man in question, a former magician-turned-thief; and Biddell’s beautiful but duplicitous wife, Lydia (Marie Windsor).

Johnny isn’t too fond of the Mechanical Man.

Favorite character:  

This was a tough one, let me tell ya. There aren’t a whole lot of lovable characters in this one, you know what I mean? Not even characters that you love to hate. Or hate to admire. So I’m going to go out on a limb and choose the mechanical man, Gregg. Not because I was particularly fond of him – he was actually pretty pathetic up until the last five minutes of the film. But one thing I can say is that he definitely made an impression. I first saw this film nearly 20 years ago, and I primarily remembered two things: (1) I liked it, a lot, and (2) the mechanical man.

Favorite quote:

“I feel like I’m in a cement mixer getting slowly chopped and pounded to death. I’ve seen all that I can stand to see.” Johnny Kelly

Day 25 of Noirvember: The Great Flamarion (1945)

•November 25, 2017 • 4 Comments

A pal I met through the World Wide Web sent me a DVD of this movie, and it literally sat languishing in my home for years before I decided to check it out. Boy, what a bonehead! First off, the film stars director-turned-actor-turned pulp fiction writer Erich Von Stroheim (perhaps best known as Max, Norma Desmond’s butler in Sunset Boulevard), and noir veteran Dan Duryea, who would hold my riveted attention if he were on screen scraping bird poo off of his car. The film also features Mary Beth Hughes, who never rose to great cinematic heights but is a personal favorite of mine; she starred in I Accuse My Parents, which was skewered by the guys over at Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Von Stroheim is the title character, an expert marksman who makes his living demonstrating his craft in a vaudeville show. Hughes plays Connie Wallace who, along with her dipsomaniac husband, Al, works as Flamarion’s assistant in his act. The plot heats up when Flamarion falls for Connie and they find that Al stands in the way of their happiness. Betcha can’t guess how they solve that little problem.

How could a femme fatale have such a sweet and innocent face?

Favorite character:

Connie Wallace is just about the prettiest, sweetest-looking femme fatale on screen. With her flowing locks, peaches and cream complexion, and velvet-soft voice, you’d never suspect that she was more like a deadly viper than a sympathetic saint. At one point in the film, she was not only juggling her husband and Flamarion, but she also added a third ball to the rotation in the form of a fellow vaudevillian. She was one industrious sister.

Favorite quote:

“If you think I’m gonna let you go so that some other guy can have you, you’re off your nut!” Al Wallace