Thursday, October 16, 2014

"The Death Challenge" - Quincy, M.E. - 1979


“The Death Challenge” brings together Ann Blyth and Don Ameche as a show-biz couple on whom the glare of the spotlight is focused after a long period of being ignored—but they also attract the attention of the police and our intrepid medical examiner, Quincy, played by Jack Klugman, when a stunt goes terribly wrong.

It’s the first of two episodes of the TV program Quincy, M.E. on which Ann Blyth appeared.  We’ll discuss the second one next week.  One of the sublime joys of episodic television in the 1970s and 1980s, for lovers of classic films at least, is that a huge roster of players from Hollywood’s heyday took their final curtain calls as guests on these shows.  

 “The Death Challenge,” from season 4 of the series, was broadcast March 24, 1979.  In the seventies, Ann played only one other role on television, a guest appearance on another detective show, Switch, starring Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert as an ex-conman and an ex-cop, respectively, joining forces.  Sharon Gless, who later starred in her own cop series Cagney and Lacey, played their girl Friday.  The episode was called “Mistresses, Murderers, and Millions,” broadcast December 23, 1975.  I haven’t seen this episode yet, but I hope to in the months ahead, and if so, I’ll include a more detailed discussion of Ann’s role on this show in the book next year.

Both Switch and Quincy, M.E. were Universal television productions, filmed on the Universal lot.  It gave Ann a chance to return to her old studio.  A 1976 interview shares her perspective on returning after first entering those gates in 1943:

“It was a beautiful place then, full of lawns, trees, and cottages.  I thought of it as sort of a college campus.  Now it’s huge, busy, and full of modern buildings.  They bulldozed the old schoolhouse eight or nine years ago.”
Ann isn’t sentimental about the studio.  She’s a clear-eyed pragmatist.

Ann had spent the better part of the 1970s on stage in musical theatre, as we discussed in this previous post, but when a reporter asked her if she would like to do another musical film, she responded, “I would rather have a good dramatic role instead.”  At the time of this 1976 interview, she had hoped to star in a “Movie of the Week” for TV, “although admitting it has been difficult to come up with a good story.”

The “Movie of the Week” never happened, but the decade ended with a gig on Quincy, M.E., where she was reunited with star Jack Klugman, who had earlier guest appeared with her on the TV show Name of the Game in 1969,which we discussed in this previous post.


Ann Blyth, throughout her film career, was starred with some of the greats of Hollywood’s leading men, including Charles Boyer, Frederic March, Paul Newman, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Bing Crosby, Robert Taylor, William Powell…and we can see by the list that most of the leading men were much older than she.  “The Death Challenge” gives her one more opportunity to star with a handsome, and older, leading man, Don Ameche.

Mr. Ameche is in fine form here, trim and fit at 70 years old to Ann’s 50 years old in this pairing.  They are a longtime couple devoted to each other.  He is a former magician, and one of the delights of this show brings us to some real-life Los Angeles locations—here the Magic Castle on Franklin Street, a private club and fraternal organization for magicians.  The other is the TAV Celebrity Theater on Vine Street, where the Merv Griffin Show used to be filmed.

Ameche, no longer a headliner, is reduced to being a kind of maître d' in the restaurant of The Magic Castle.  He is as dapper as ever in his evening clothes.  Ann works at the front desk, and together they manage as best they can, with their glory days behind them.

As the episode begins, Ameche appears on television introducing a new young magician—his protégé—performing the dangerous stunt known as The Death Challenge.  The protégé is tied up, locked in a chest, and submerged in a tank of water.  He is supposed to escape before he dies.

He doesn’t.  He dies.

Jack Klugman soon has a new corpse in his autopsy room and he suspects, guess what, that the drowning wasn’t accidental.  The protégé was murdered.

Our suspects include Bobbi Jordan, who is good in this episode as the not-so-bereaved widow.  She was abused by her no-good budding magician husband, and she has a new relationship with the stage manager, played by Martin Kove, who leaves his shirt unbuttoned down to his navel, just so we don’t forget it’s the 1970s and he’s macho.  The not-so-bereaved widow had assisted her husband with the stunt on stage, and later actually attempts to step into his shoes and perform the stunt herself—hoping to take some of the glory and all of the money.

Martin Kove could have bumped him off, hating him and wanting his wife.  Then, too, we have the down-and-out, but dignified couple Don Ameche and Ann Blyth.  Don, a former student of the great Houdini, taught the protégé everything he knew, but then was cut out of the act and humiliated.  Ameche, furious, threatened him.  I love Don Ameche in this role.  Listen to that wonderful speaking voice, so measured and well modulated.  I wish newscasters would speak that way instead talking too fast, too loud, and too much as they do.  They might be worth listening to if they spoke well.

Ann stays in the wings during the act, adoring her husband, concerned and yet, enigmatic.  There is an archness, a fey expression of wonder on her face, a mask of heavy makeup and insecurity behind the pose of serenity.  We are compelled to look for cracks in the brittle brave façade.

Or Rufus, the surly growling co-worker at The Magic Castle?  Or Ron Masak as the smarmy TV host who’ll do anything for ratings, whose insurance rates must be sky high with so many accidents on his show.  Dependable Mr. Masak is like the Lou Gehrig of TV, he’s been on everything.


 The horrified studio audience reaction three times during three different performances of this dangerous stunt makes me wonder if they just had the same people move to different seats, or if they bothered with costume changes?

Toward the end of the episode, our Don Ameche steps into the tank himself to prove he can still do it.  A nice scene where, in his dressing room before the act, Mr. Ameche sits before the well-lighted mirror while Ann lovingly touches up his stage makeup.  She proudly fastens his magician’s cape on him.  She is dressed in the gown she wore when they were presented to the queen on a long-ago English tour.  They have kept their figures even if their faces are lined.  They are young again even while entering their golden years, the magic of love creating a double image for us as they share the promising kiss of devotion of a bride and groom before he heads for the stage.

Jack Klugman figures out who the murderer is, of course, being very clever about math and chemicals and stuff.  I normally don’t give away the endings on mysteries, but I’m going to this time.  After the break of lines below, I’m going to talk about the ending, so if you are allergic to spoilers, run away now.
Ready?  Here we go…






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Okay.  If you’re still here, the guilty person is….

Ann.

I’m not going to explain the whys and wherefores, I’ll leave that to you to watch the episode, but there’s a final scene, where, confronted by Quincy and the detectives who come to arrest her husband for the crime, she breaks down and admits she did it.  She couldn’t stand seeing her adored Don Ameche treated so shabbily and just wanted to see him be the star one last time.  Tears flood her eyes in an instant, she sobs uncontrollably, and we are reminded, who may not have seen her in recent years on stage and remember only her film roles of long ago, how deep she dives in character to bring up emotions on that still lovely face, and uses her whole lithe body to purge them.

For somebody who was tagged with a good girl image that, in some respects I think hamstringed her career (despite, as we’ve discussed before, her several “bad girl” roles), one must smile at the thought that Ann, presented with this script must have relished being the murderer.  ("Hurray!  I get to bump somebody off!  Where do I sign?”)

Ameche is natural and understated, quietly commands every scene he’s in, and it’s no wonder his film career revived for a brief, if glowing, few years in the 1980s.  The younger cast members seem ersatz, unfinished and underdeveloped compared to these two finely polished actors.


Come back next Thursday when we discuss Ann Blyth’s second appearance on Quincy, M.E., from 1983, where several friends and colleagues—all played by stars from Hollywood’s heyday—are trapped in a snowbound cabin.  Also present are Quincy and his new bride.  And a murderer.

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Milwaukee Journal, January 27, 2976, syndicated article by Vernon Scott, p. G1.

Springfield (Mass.) Daily News, September 1, 1976, article by Sam Hoffman, p. 25.
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As  most of you probably know by now, this year's TCM Classic Cruise will set sail (proverbially) in October, and one of the celebrity guests is Ann Blyth.

Ann will be doing a couple hour-long conversation sessions, and will also be on hand for a screening of Mildred Pierce.

Have a look here for the rest of the schedule and events with the other celebrity guests. Unfortunately, the cruise is booked, so if' you're late, you can try for the waiting list.

I, sadly, am unable to attend this cruise, but if any reader is going,  I invite you (beg you) to share your experiences and/or photos relating to Miss Blyth on this blog as part of our year-long series on her career.  I'd really appreciate your perspective on the event, to be our eyes and ears.  Thanks.
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 THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
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TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
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 HELP!!!!!!!!!!
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Switch, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

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A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.


I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Katie Did It - 1951 - A Lost Movie, An Overlooked Career



Katie Did It (1951) has become an elusive sort of “holy grail” quest for me during this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  I left this spot open towards the end of the year figuring I would have either the movie to discuss, or else have a metaphor for reason the bulk of Ann Blyth’s career is largely forgotten and that she is looked upon by those who do recall her work fondly as an “underrated actress.”

Ann plays Katherine Standish, a prudish small-town New England librarian.  Mark Stevens plays a big-city commercial artist who comes to town, causing scandal when he paints Ann in a provocative pose for an advertising campaign.  Directed by Frederick de Cordova, this comedy also features Craig Stevens and Cecil Kellaway.

There are no reviews on the IDMb website, only the sound of crickets.  Critic Leonard Maltin, as posted on the TCM page for this movie, says:

“Ann Blyth is perkier than usual as square New England librarian who becomes hep when romanced by swinging New Yorker Stevens.”

Not much to go on, but “perkier than usual” might seem to indicate that Mr. Maltin has actually seen the film himself.  I wonder.  Even the mighty TCM website (on which I confess, like the IDMb website, I have found disappointing errors from time to time) is otherwise silent on this unaccountably obscure film.

In the timeline of Ann’s movie career, Katie Did It is sandwiched between two big hits: the drama Our Very Own (1950) which we discussed here, and the musical, The Great Caruso (1951), which we discussed here.  It seems to have been obscured by them both.

We do have, however, a brief glimpse into the filming of this movie from an article that discussed Ann’s “first day jitters” at the start of a film.

“Everything is fine until the minute I walk on the set for my first shot,” Miss Blyth said, “Then my knees sort of buckle, sweat trickles out on my forehead and my tongue seems to stick to the roof of my mouth…Yet I feel somehow that if I didn’t feel that way, something would be wrong.”

“At the very beginning, Freddie (director Frederick de Cordova) suddenly switched scenes on me,” she said, “Instead of doing the sequence I came prepared for, he announced we’d shoot an entirely different scene.”

It made her so busy learning new lines and shuffling into another costume, that Ann didn’t have time to remember to be jittery.

“Then he told me that this was a deliberate attempt to put me at ease—after we’d made the scene.  I was rather cross about it at first, until I made the discovery that I’d breezed through the almost-unrehearsed sequence with no trouble at all.”

The movie was never released on DVD or VHS, and to my knowledge, has not been shown on TCM, but I hope someone will correct me.  Failing this, I’m hoping that the film may exist in a private collection or somebody’s warehouse or attic in 16mm form.  If so, I’d be interested in buying it.

No film yet, but the metaphor?  I would hesitate to hang Ann Blyth’s current reputation among many to be an underrated or even unremembered actress just over one “lost” film, not when there are so many other movies to give ample evidence of her being a very gifted actress.  But there is something else niggling in her legacy to classic film buffs.

Here I quote from my discussion on my pal John Hayes’ blog Robert Frost’s Banjo a couple months ago:

Blyth is perkier than usual as square New England librarian who becomes hep when romanced by swinging New Yorker Stevens.Blyth is perkier than usual as square New England librarian who becomes hep when romanced by swinging New Yorker Stevens.Blyth is perkier than usual as square New England librarian who becomes hep when romanced by swinging New Yorker Stevens.
This woman had been the flavor of the month all through the late 1940s and most of the 1950s, on enough magazine covers to choke a horse, and as famous in her day as any young star could be.  Today, she is nowhere to be seen in that kitschy souvenir shop universe where classic film fans can easily snag T-shirts and coffee cups and posters of Clark Gable and The Three Stooges, Mae West and Betty Boop, and, of course, the ever-exploitable Marilyn Monroe.   

Where was Ann Blyth?  She never retired from performing.  She had, unlike most other stars of that era, performed in all media from radio to TV to stage, and was successful in all of them.    Far, far more talented than any other 1950s glamour girl, yet she is not as well known today among younger classic film fans.  I wanted to know why.

Not that I am calling for Ann Blyth key chains and Veda Pierce car mats, but if many have forgotten her reputation as one of the best actresses of her generation—and she was clearly regarded as such by her peers and the industry in the late 1940s and early 1950s—then we have also forgotten about her name and face in popular culture as a star.  This lofty place was undeniably due to her exquisite beauty, for the only thing more prized in Hollywood than talent is being photogenic.  

I would compare Ann’s introspective, working from the inside-out skill as an interpretive actress similar to two other actresses slightly older than she: Teresa Wright and Dorothy McGuire, who both conveyed a soulful depth to their characters.  Neither of those two tremendously talented, and very serious actresses, who cared more for their art than for stardom, could reach the power (or were offered the opportunity) of Ann’s evil Veda Pierce, her venial coquetry of Regina Hubbard, or her sleazy-cum-brokenhearted and ultimately reformed characters she played in Swell Guy and A Woman’s Vengeance.  And neither of them sang.  Ann was a most valuable player. 


Also, unlike those two ladies, Ann actually was as much a “star” as a dedicated actress, who, despite pursuing her purposeful private life with unruffled determination, still seemed to enjoy being a movie star and attending industry functions, cooperative with the publicity department and whatever the studio asked of her.  You can rub elbows with her on the TCM Classic Cruise in two weeks.

She never shirked autograph hounds, but patiently tackled every slip of paper that was shoved in front of her, leaving that bold, elegant signature that, like her beliefs, her manners, and her sense of responsibility, never wavered. 

But, though we might dispense with souvenir kitsch, we also are left a surprisingly scant discography.  Music is a marketable product that lifts the soul and does not just collect dust.  This woman was a beautiful singer, with a trained voice, but where are all the albums?  Celebrities who could sing cranked them out, and those who could not sing still unaccountably found themselves with record deals.  To my knowledge, Ann had made few records.  I have read of her intention to make albums, particularly a collection of Irish songs, and including at least one with her brother-in-law, Dennis Day.  Do they exist?

At the 32nd Academy Awards held on April 4, 1960, Ann Blyth accepted the Oscar® for Documentary Short Subject won by Bert Haanstra for Glass (which I’ve never seen, but even so, I can’t believe it beat out Donald in Mathmagicland, which we covered here.  No really, I’m serious.  Really.  Stop laughing.)

Mitzi Gaynor handed the statue to Ann, and for a moment, Ann Blyth fans, and perhaps even herself, had a fleeting and thrilling vision of the formerly nominated actress (in the Best Supporting category for Mildred Pierce) to finally get her due.  But Ann herself slapped down that daydream and remarked, though clearly excited to be holding the award, “Gee, I guess this is the closest I’ll ever be to getting one.”

Many superb actors and actresses finished their careers without an Oscar®, but we film buffs remember, most defiantly, who they are.  (This clip from the award ceremony is currently on YouTube here.  Scroll to 18:00.)

Surely, being overlooked, or even unknown today, doesn’t all boil down to a film career that lasted only 13 years?  Grace Kelly’s career was even shorter.  Audrey Hepburn’s film appearances stretched over more decades, but she made less films.  Though both were Oscar® winners, deservedly so for those winning roles, neither enjoyed the range of roles, or displayed the acting range of Ann Blyth; neither possessed her powerful lyric soprano (both gamely tried musicals, but had weak, if pleasant, singing voices); and neither, despite their obvious radiant beauty, were more beautiful.  But they had long ago reached icon status and stayed there.

Both gave up films—for long periods or forever—and abandoned Hollywood for Europe.  Ann never walked away from her career, she only modified it to her personal tastes and her family’s needs.  (And her home, for decades, remained in North Hollywood, only a few miles from the studios.)

Is her forgotten status due, perhaps, to a combination of circumstances unique to Hollywood—that because the quiet stability of her private life did not make headlines she therefore couldn’t be exploited for profit, because the bulk of her films are hardly, if ever, shown today, and because, unlike those tragic stars who died young, or younger, she outlived all her co-stars?

Had she done more television, she might have regained recognition among younger audiences. (For instance, like Angela Lansbury, who without Murder She Wrote might be known only to classic film buffs and theatre fans, but not have household name recognition in the U.S. and around the world.) Still, though her staunch fans might mourn her lack of icon status, I doubt Ann would.  Truly, she got the best of the bargain in a rich and rewarding private life—long and happy marriage, five children, ten grandchildren, life-long friends in and out of the entertainment industry, charitable work—and satisfying career in proportions she could deal with, and never expressed regret. 

Have a look at the two videos below at the wedding of the year where the movie star becomes a bride.



The wedding and reception footage begins in this second video at 1:38. Before that we have a glimpse of Stanwyck on location.  This shutterbug really got around.



We have a few more TV appearances to discuss the rest of this month, and then a few more films to round out the series in the coming weeks that demonstrate a variety of genres: a western, a war picture, a bio-pic, musicals…and a look at her “third act” career—as a singer in concerts and nightclubs.

Come back next week to 1979, when Ann and fellow Hollywood star Don Ameche come under scrutiny in a murder only Jack Klugman can solve in an episode of Quincy, M.E.



My thanks to the gang at the Classic Movie Blog Association for voting this Year of Ann Blyth series as the Best Movie Series for 2014.  Congratulations to all the winners and nominees in all categories.

And congratulations to the three winners of my recent Goodreads Giveaway, who will each receive a paperback copy of my book on classic films: Movies in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century.
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CriticalPast.com
Hartford Courant, July 9, 1950, Part II, page 15, syndicated UP article.

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As  most of you probably know by now, this year's TCM Classic Cruise will set sail (proverbially) in October, and one of the celebrity guests is Ann Blyth.

Ann will be doing a couple hour-long conversation sessions, and will also be on hand for a screening of Mildred Pierce.

Have a look here for the rest of the schedule and events with the other celebrity guests. Unfortunately, the cruise is booked, so if' you're late, you can try for the waiting list.

I, sadly, am unable to attend this cruise, but if any reader is going,  I invite you (beg you) to share your experiences and/or photos relating to Miss Blyth on this blog as part of our year-long series on her career.  I'd really appreciate your perspective on the event, to be our eyes and ears.  Thanks.
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 THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
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TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
****************************
 HELP!!!!!!!!!!
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Switch, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

***************************
A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.

I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Brute Force - 1947


Brute Force (1947) remains a giant among prison movies.  Visually stunning, it has a noir foundation on which is hung an unusually sensitive (for noir) study of men trapped by their circumstances, their sins, their weaknesses, their fears, their anger, and even by their ability, those that still have it, to feel the pain of those around them.

Burt Lancaster heads a sterling cast, even the most minor character is vivid and memorable in this film.  That’s what happens when you have a crisp, literate, and biting script, and most especially, a director and cinematographer who freely turn what could have been a stiff sort of docudrama, or clichéd melodrama—how most prison stories tend to be filmed—into unabashed art.  We are treated to a generous array of stunning close-ups and interestingly framed shots that tell us volumes about the men, especially since they are in a setting where they are close-mouthed, unlikely to tell us everything that’s going on inside them.

Expository dialogue goes to the administrators in the prison.  We have Richard Gaines, so dependable in officious roles as the severe, pompous superintendent, always pressuring the anxious, ineffectual warden, played by Roman Bohnen.  The warden complains of cutbacks in funding, that the prison is overcrowded, that the men need job training…all of which the superintendent balks at, saying what the men need is more discipline. 

The soft voice of the head of the prison security force, played by Hume Cronyn, belies his sadistic nature.  The little man enjoys the fear he excites in the hardened men, most of them much larger and physically imposing—but Cronyn wields power he’s swiped in a vacuum of leadership, tortures them physically and psychologically, and he has Ray Teal following behind him with a billy club like a human swagger stick.

The cast is a feast of favorite character actors, like Sam Levene, and Charles McGraw in one of many uncredited roles that filled the first several years of his film career. 

The wonderful Charles Bickford is the level-headed old timer, who breaks up fights in the prison among the other cons, and bides his time until his hoped-for parole.


Sir Lancelot sings calypso rhymes he makes up on the spot to narrate what he sees, as either a funny jest, or a warning, or a requiem for yet another dead prisoner.

There’s Jack Overman as one of the cellmates, an easygoing, simpleton ex-fighter.  One of my favorites, he has a bigger role here for once.  We’ve seen him in a non-speaking minor role in Once More, My Darling (1949) here, and also in Swell Guy (1946) here.  Sadly, Mr. Overman died in late 1949 at only 32 years old.

His cellmates include Whit Bissell, as a small-time embezzler, a sad, brittle fellow who, obsessed his shallow wife, played by Ella Raines in a flashback segment, fearing losing her love, steals from his employer to buy her a mink coat. 

John Hoyt is a stylish grifter, mainly in phoney stocks, a man-about-town with a charming easy-come, easy-go attitude.  I love his line, “I wonder who Flossie’s fleecing now?”

Howard Duff, in his first film, is a former soldier who took the rap for Yvonne De Carlo, an Italian woman he falls in love with during the war.  She has murdered her father to save Duff, but though he takes the blame to save her, I don’t believe his current imprisonment is for that crime.  He remarks about always wanting to get back to Italy to see her, but “one rap led to another.”

The best lines, and probably the best role of the film happily goes to Art Smith, who plays the prison doctor.  He’s just as fatalistic as the cons, and drinks heavily to dull the pain of this miserable place.  It's a terrific performance.   

But unlike the weak warden Roman Bohnen, who gives in to the bullying Richard Gaines and the devious machinations of Hume Cronyn, Mr. Smith is still a man of strong conscience.  He gets into shouting matches with them all, gets right in their faces and bleeds his anger and sarcasm all over them.  Again and again, they slap him down.

Burt Lancaster, whose character as the leader of his cell, and one of the most respected by the other prisoners for his toughness, is beautifully lit, if you can call his deadly cold glare and vicious snarl beautiful. 

We first see him standing in the prison yard in the pouring rain, but with his soaking wet shirt tucked neatly into his soaking wet prison trousers, he strides back to his cell, his shoulders straight, his head held high with an air of nobility.  Though he has just come out of solitary confinement, he is not broken.  He is angrier, and more charismatic to us and to the other prisoners, than ever.  The other men light his cigarettes as a mark of his leadership.  The only one who ranks him is Charles Bickford, who freely reaches into Lancaster’s prison jacket in another scene and swipes a match from Burt’s shirt pocket to light his own cigarette.  Burt lets him, hardly noticing, as if the older man could be his father and is allowed such liberties.

Because this is a setting of confinement, much of the film has the feeling of theatre, and the action that takes place is muted and judicious, until the very end of the film when we have the attempted prison break.  Director Jules Dassin and writer Richard Brooks have the perfect marriage of script and cinematography, where each supports the other, and the pace of the movie flows beautifully, building tension, and then releasing it a bit at a time in unexpected moments of black humor, and when, where the men watch the 1947 comedy The Egg and I starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert, it seems surreal.

Ann Blyth, like the few other women in the cast, save for the officious and severe secretary of the warden, is shown in flashback.  The women on “the outside” show us what the men’s lives were like before they went to prison.  There has always been a debate as to whether the flashback scenes with the women are necessary to the film.  Some critics and viewers feel they are fitting to the story, and others feel they slow the story down and detract from the intensity of the prison scenes. 

Even director Jules Dassin apparently did not want to use the flashback device.  Author Alan K. Rode in his biography of Charles McGraw, Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, reveals that Dassin gave in to producer Mark Hellinger and the studio brass to include the four flashback scenes that show women who have influenced the lives of some of the men in the cell.  He quotes Dassin:

“Truly, the film is demeaned by the inclusion of ‘the women.’  I had to choose between not making the film and yielding to having the women nonsense.  Many years later when I looked at the film…I do not forgive myself.”

I don’t know how screenwriter Richard Brooks felt about the women scenes, but I’m inclined to think Mr. Dassin’s dislike of them might be, in part, a director’s usual, and quite understandable, bristling at having to shoot the film to someone else’s vision.

On another note, Mark Hellinger had to fight toe-to-toe with the Breen office because the MPAA wanted to censor many of the films violent scenes, a reference to marijuana, and even to exclude the word “cancer” when referring to Ann Blyth’s diagnosis because the very word was upsetting to the public.  Perhaps Hellinger threw Breen a bone when he has the doctor, Art Smith, reassure Burt Lancaster that, “These days, cancer doesn’t have to mean death at all.”

That’s another reason why Burt has to bust out of prison.  There’s a time element to Ann’s needed operation.

Others have suggested that the flashbacks represent a societal misogyny, or some statement to the effect that these are regular Joes who’ve been led astray by dames.  Again, here I disagree.  They show the men, more than the women, to be flawed.  Though John Hoyt has his car, his gun, and his gambling winnings stolen by a floozy, he was obviously willingly, knowingly taking chances in an underworld game of roulette, and the odds were against him this time.  He shrugs it off, amused and unrepentant.

Whit Bissell’s wife’s cooling ardor for him, and her greed for the mink coat which she clearly treasures more than her husband, leads to his downfall, but she did not force him to embezzle, had no idea he was doing it.  Bissell was not led astray, he was a fool who turned to thievery, and his obsession with his wife was such that it leads to his suicide when Hume Cronyn tells him (whether true or not) that his wife is divorcing him.  “I get quite a kick out of censoring the mail.”

Howard Duff’s taking the rap for Yvonne De Carlo does not make her a villain, her act of love is to protect him; his was to protect her.  But thinking this paints Duff as a hero wrongly placed in prison is also erroneous.  He is not in prison for assuming the guilt for her murder of her father; he plainly tells us he’s had other “raps” since.  Besides, he would have been incarcerated in a military prison were that so.  Look at the scene where he, John Hoyt and Jeff Corey go after a “stoolpigeon” prisoner with blowtorches, forcing him to be crushed in a stamping machine.  Look at their expressionless faces.  These regular Joes are killers. 

We could probably dispense with their flashback scenes (indeed, Anita Colby as Hoyt's floozy girlfriend never even gets any lines), but the one with Burt Lancaster and Ann Blyth I think is important to the film.  We don’t know if Lancaster has committed murder on the outside, but we see he is tied in with a gang he gives orders to, and probably is involved in something more like bank robbery.  Just before he leaves on another “job,” he stops by the house where Ann Blyth lives, an invalid in a wheelchair.  Lancaster hands a caregiver an envelope with money, “See that she doesn’t need anything.”

Ann is at first asleep, then he wakes her, and in their tender scene shows us that Lancaster is tired of running, that this will be his last job, and then he will come back to her for good.  He tells her that when he met her, he was a guy who “found the first important thing in his life.”  She doesn’t know what racket he’s in, but she senses he is troubled.  She wants to help him, wishes she weren’t sick so that she could help him.

“There are all kinds of sick people, Ruth.  Maybe we could help each other.”  The scene is gentle, affectionate, somewhat sad.  Ann’s character is not a gun moll, she’s a sweet, decent girl who trusts him.  This is important because it bolsters the visual image we already have of Burt Lancaster in the film as more a wounded animal than a psychopath.  

Indeed, at the very end of the movie when he is shot in the prison escape, he rears back with a single roar of pain and rage, like an animal in a trap, cut short as he fires several rounds into the guard who wounded him.  Bookending his cold expression of anger through most of the film is the softened, relaxed look of tenderness on his face when he sees her sleeping, and at the very desperate end when he sees that the escape plan has failed, and he looks for a moment like he could cry.

We need this scene with Ann Blyth, maybe all of “the women” scenes, not to remind us that the men are human, but because we are.  We can’t root for criminals to break free from jail, not unless we have some emotional stake in their success.  Without emotion, it becomes as academic as a watching the outcome of a dog race, and without the betting.

Interestingly, their scene ends with the camera remaining focused on Ann after Burt has left the room, tears welling in her eyes, heartbroken, frustrated, and fearful.  Dassin's touch, or Hellinger's?

One wonders what private demons she might have faced in the brief scene.  She was eighteen years old.  In the previous two years she had spent several months really in a wheelchair as a result of her spine injury, and her mother really died of cancer, both discussed in our intro post to this series.  Life's coincidences are occasionally macabre.

Producer Mark Hellinger may have had yet another reason for putting Ann Blyth and Burt Lancaster together.  He had hired her for Swell Guy (1947), and him for The Killers (1946).  They were two of Universal’s most talented up and coming stars, and he may have wanted to turn them into a team.  According to syndicated gossip columnist Dorothy Manners who wrote this in May 1946:

Mark Hellinger, always good for a bright idea, said to me, “Where are those swell romantic teams that used to make the fans goggle-eyed over their love scenes…It’s time the love team is revived on screen,” and Mark is the boy who is going to do it with his two young stars, Ann Blyth and Burt Lancaster…he wants to make three or four with Ann and Burt.  This Blyth girl is the real star stuff—young, tempestuous and definitely a screen personality.  If you saw her as Mildred Pierce’s daughter, you know what I mean.

Having played in her previous two films as young women of dubious, or downright evil, character, her role as the kindly, gentle Ruth in Brute Force would be the first important break in a string of roles that could have left her typecast, and farther away from ever doing the musicals she hoped to make.  But Ann Blyth was not done with bad girls yet: A Woman’s Vengeance (1948), discussed here, and Another Part of the Forest (1948), discussed here, were on the horizon.  She’s in Brute Force all of only about three or four minutes, but her scene is indelible, and does more for Burt Lancaster’s character than the awe the other prisoners show for him.

Their romantic team never did materialize.  Both went on to other films, and Mark Hellinger, who might have made a pet project of bringing them together again on screen, tragically died about six months after Brute Force was released.

Come back next week to Katie Did It (1951), a movie I can’t find, and a few thoughts about that and on Ann’s career as we round the corner and head for the home stretch on this series.


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Milwaukee Sentinel, May 31, 1946, syndicated column by Dorothy Manners, p. 4.

Rode, Alan K.  Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy, (McFarland, 2007), p. 32.


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As  most of you probably know by now, this year's TCM Classic Cruise will set sail (proverbially) in October, and one of the celebrity guests is Ann Blyth.

Ann will be doing a couple hour-long conversation sessions, and will also be on hand for a screening of Mildred Pierce.

Have a look here for the rest of the schedule and events with the other celebrity guests. Unfortunately, the cruise is booked, so if' you're late, you can try for the waiting list.

I, sadly, am unable to attend this cruise, but if any reader is going,  I invite you (beg you) to share your experiences and/or photos relating to Miss Blyth on this blog as part of our year-long series on her career.  I'd really appreciate your perspective on the event, to be our eyes and ears.  Thanks.
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 THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.
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TRIVIA QUESTION:  I've recently been contacted by someone who wants to know if the piano player in Dillinger (1945-see post here) is the boogie-woogie artist Albert Ammons. Please leave comment or drop me a line if you know.
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 HELP!!!!!!!!!!
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from Switch, the Dennis Day Show (TV), the DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

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A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.

I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.