Thursday, March 29, 2012

Murder on the Blackboard - 1934

“Murder on the Blackboard” (1934) keeps the teachers after school to find the killer when one of the staff is murdered. This is the second appearance of the superb Edna May Oliver as amateur sleuth and full-time teacher Hildegarde Withers. James Gleason is back as her foil and friend, Inspector Oscar Piper. They first teamed up for “Penguin Pool Murder” (1932), and would be back again for “Murder on a Honeymoon” (1935). Later entries in the series would feature Helen Broderick and Zasu Pitts in the role.

Caricatured by Hollywood cartoons for her weak chin and long face, but never as expertly as when she caricatured herself in every patented facial flinch and body English, Miss Oliver was perfectly cast in this role, bringing humor and depth, as she always did whatever part she played. One gets the sense she never considered any line a throw-away. Everything, like a good vaudevillian, was milked, every opportunity in script, in props, in gestures, was used to her advantage.

In this story, a young woman who was a fellow teacher is murdered in her New York school, and the cast of suspects includes two other teachers played by the ruggedly handsome Bruce Cabot, and by Gertrude Michael. They are in love, and secretly planning to marry. When Miss Michael is questioned, Mr. Cabot heroically comes to her defense. Miss Oliver responds,

“I like you for that, young man, but the police, though they may be fools, are not sentimental fools.”

She gets the best lines, and as usual in these stories, the cops are not as good at detective work as she is. A young Regis Toomey is James Gleason’s assistant. Gleason, though sometimes two steps behind Edna May, is no fool, and the repartee between them is funny, argumentative, and even awkwardly flirtatious. They are meant for each other.

One comic bit between them: He is about to help her through a trap door, and standing behind her, he grasps her underarms. She whoops and wiggles like a girl being fondled under the bleachers and remarks, “Oscar, this is no time for fooling.”

Annoyed at her misinterpretation, he drops her through the trap door like a sack of cement.

Gleason’s detective style is a bit more direct than Miss Oliver’s. He tells the principal, “Do you talk, or do I let the boys go to work on you?”

The smarmy principal, played by Tully Marshall, who chased the murder victim behind his wife’s back, is also under suspicion; as is the sloppy drunk janitor.

The title comes from a set of musical notes written on the blackboard by the murder victim, who taught music. One of the funny elements to the movie is that Edna May whistles the short series of notes to everyone she meets to try to judge their reaction and determine their guilt. They all look at her as if she is loony.

She sometimes comes off that way even to Gleason, who we see has great respect for her abilities. When they are in the hospital room of an injured police detective, the coroner, played by Gustav von Seyffertitz (who I have to mention just because I love his name so much) -- in the striking combination of wing collar and laboratory apron -- bows low and kisses Miss Oliver’s hand with European courtesy. They animatedly begin to discuss the details of the murder victim’s autopsy. The squeamish wounded policeman protests, and Gleason responds, “What do you care? You’re lucky they’re not both in bed with you.”

It is a movie that starts slow, but picks up with several excursions from the upper floors of classrooms to the cellar, where Edna May’s fluttering hands and occasional nervous nipping at from whatever bottle comes her way tell us that she is not yet hardened to this police work. However, when she knows the answer, she victoriously shouts “Eureka! I’ve got it!”

It’s a quick and neat little mystery, but the real charm is Edna May Oliver and James Gleason, most especially because they look like they’re having fun.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Let's Do It Again - 1953

“Let’s Do It Again” (1953) gives us a last look at a frivolous musical comedienne Jane Wyman before a long stretch of more “soapy” roles. To be sure, she had her serious talents already explored in her Oscar-winning performance in “Johnny Belinda” (1946), and “The Lost Weekend” (1945) with Ray Milland, with whom she’s teamed again in this movie.

It’s a different matter to take on a frothy role after one is already established; we see her character is not like the old ditzy chorus girls she used to play when she was younger. Her dignity, partly due to age and party due to simply paying her dues, helps her stand out in this otherwise lightweight movie.

I'll bet your house parties look like this.  I know mine do.   

The film will be inevitably compared (unfavorably) with the original comedy “The Awful Truth” (1937) with Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, and Ralph Bellamy. Most remakes, a lot of us would agree, are disappointing. I wouldn’t look at this as a do-over, though. It’s just another take on a scenario, only with music and set in a 1950s bubble bath. Step right up here, we got your modern furniture, we got your off-the-shoulder gowns. You say you want opera gloves? Sister, we got opera gloves.

Ray Milland is a Broadway composer who, much to the chagrin of his wife, Jane Wyman, spends much of his time on the town carousing without her. She is a former musical star who retired to be a wife. She attempts to make him jealous with a tall tale about staying out all night with his rival composer, played by Tom Helmore. When Milland balks at her story about spending the night with Mr. Helmore in a motel, she, completely unruffled, comforts him, “Darling, don’t look so worried. It was approved by the auto club.”

She plays the scene well, and we see Wyman has not lost her flare for comedy. As their fight moves briskly to the bedroom, she does a does a modest striptease, a few cheesecake poses, singing and never spoiling her perfect makeup in the shower.

Ray Milland gets a few funny bits, especially one later on in the film with Helmore as they discover they have the wrong hats, but for the most part it’s Miss Wyman’s movie. She sings, she dances (Milland is dubbed), and looks great.  Her best scene, when she tries to win him back after he dumps her for another lady, is when she crashes a party for his fiancĂ©e and her parents. She pretends to be Milland’s sister, a world-traveling chanteuse and anthropologist.

Her performance in this scene is terrific, purposefully over-the-top, and a 180-degree turn from the prim, pouting neglected wife. Her suddenly low, husky voice announces for us a bawdy extrovert, sexually charged, and swinging a long cigarette holder like a drum majorette with a baton. She greets her “brothers” Ray Milland and Leon Ames with a sensual kiss on the mouth, and asks Leon, “The thing been giving you any trouble lately?” Her slang-infused repartee is hysterical.

Then, with little provocation, she launches into a song and “interpretive” dance taught her (and sung earlier) by nightclub singer Valerie Bettis. Wyman refers to it as the Zambezi Puberty Ritual. Here it is below.

Please remember to scroll down to the bottom of the page and mute the music so you can hear the video.

Aldo Ray is a rich uranium miner from Alaska who has long had a crush on Miss Wyman back in her performing days. He is cute here, a clean-cut boy, a country bumpkin who can do a mean mamba dance, and who romances Wyman in anticipation of their honeymoon, “this time next month we’ll be moose hunting."

Aldo Ray, with his whiskey-rasp of a voice had better roles ahead of him, but was one of those actors who never seemed to get real breaks. Here’s a great commentary on his work over at Where Danger Lives.

Mary Treen plays the maid (of course), one of Hollywood’s most stalwart supporting actresses, who still did occasional TV roles in her later years. Have a look here at this earlier post on Mary Treen.

Trivia for you younger folks: with the advent of mp3, the term of a music “album” is probably used less these days, last used for CDs, but it came from the days -- as we see when Jane Wyman plays a record -- when 78rpm records were issued in an album set. That is, a bound book with five or six sleeves to hold as many records. In this case, Miss Wyman holds an album of several song hits by popular singer Dick Haymes. Broadway cast albums (I think “Oklahoma” was the first to be issued) held the entire show, two songs per record, several records for a whole show, in the many sleeves of a rather heavy photo album-type bound book.

You think mp3 revolutionized the industry? You have no idea what 33 1/3 long-playing records did for the industry (especially as regards classical music). Long playing (LPs) were introduced to the general market in 1948, and according to this article from Billboard magazine (August 2, 1952), the year before “Let’s Do It Again” was released, they (along with 45’s) had accounted for half the sales -- 78s were still hanging in there.  Only for a couple more years.

Here’s a cast album from the Broadway hit “Brigadoon” in 78rpm (the paperboard album long since has fallen apart after moldering in someone’s cellar for decades) and also in LP. Would we have the patience today to wait for “side 10” to hit the spindle?

One last look at Jane Wyman’s musical talent, and off-the-shoulder gown, and opera gloves.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Matching Drapes and Couch

This shot from “More than a Secretary” (1936) intrigued me when I first saw it. No, not because of Jean Arthur, although she is swell in anything she does. I mean the drapes behind her. Plaid drapes in 1936. We seem to be unconsciously foreshadowing the war years.

You know what I mean. Never mind the men in uniform or the patriotism. War-time movies really stand out because of those plaid drapes. Here we are in “Since You Went Away” (1944).

The drapes in this movie are to decorate the wide arch between the living room and the hall, and between the living room and the dining room.

But -- and here is the kicker -- they match the cushions on the couch.

Look at the back of this chair in the foreground. The chair matches the plaid pattern as well.

A 1940s fashion? Look here at “My Reputation” (1946). More plaid drapes and matching couch.

The fashion was tweaked a little bit at the end of the decade for “Tension” (1949), where we see a checkerboard pattern Richard Basehart’s apartment.

Not only do couch and drapes match, but the easy chair and desk chair match as well.

Yes, this is why I watch old movies.  I care nothing for acting or story line; it's the drapes.  It was always all about the plaid drapes. 

Can you think of other examples?

Monday, March 19, 2012

This and That

Catching up on a few odds and ends today. First, special thanks to Dorian of “Tales of the Easily Distracted” for including me in her list of recipients for the “7x7” award. I appreciate her thinking of this blog. However, instead of answering the seven questions about myself and picking seven others to receive the award, I’m just going to sit this one out. Have a look here on Dorian’s other pics for this award, and for her interesting answers in the game.

Next up, this is to announce that my ebook “Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red” is being re-issued in a second edition with a new cover by Casey Koester. You know her better as fellow classic film blogger Noir Girl.

Terrific artist, isn't she?  Have look at Casey’s blog here.

I've decided to commit to turning this into a series ("Double V Mysteries") featuring our two unlikely amateur sleuths, and the next book will be published this summer.  It will be called "Speak Out Before You Die".  Lurid-sounding, isn't it?  It's actually a line in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  More on that later.

Casey's "Cadmium" cover, and future covers for this series will have a stylized "noir" look suggestive, but not imitative, of the pulp novels of the era in which these stories take place. I hope to carry these stories right up through the 1950s.

Casey's own unique style represents a fresh approach to nostalgia-inspired graphic art, and I am pleased and privileged to have her work associated with mine. 

“Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red” is a “cozy” mystery set in Hartford, Connecticut in 1949. Here’s the blurb:

Juliet Van Allen, a museum administrator, discovers that her artist husband is having an affair with another woman. Elmer Vartanian, recently released from prison for a museum robbery, is coerced into helping scout the museum for a heist by a gang that has kidnapped his daughter. Juliet’s husband is found murdered. Elmer signs on as her alibi in exchange for something he wants. Together, dogged by the scandal-monger newsman, the shrewd police detective, and scrutinized by the even more judgmental eye of Hartford’s elite, the rich widow and the ex-con try to outrun them all in a 1948 Lincoln Cosmopolitan, in a world where Modern Art meets old-fashioned murder.

YES, IT’S NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK. “Cadmium Yellow, Blood Red” will be available as a print book in paperback beginning in April. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online shops will carry the book, but I’m not sure how wide the distribution will be yet. I may also offer it on my own personal website and through this blog. I haven’t worked that out yet. This is all kind of a new experiment for me.

You can read the first chapter in this previous post here.

Finally on the docket today, I’d like to pass the word along, if you haven’t heard already, that the For the Love of Film Blogathon is once again gracing the blogosphere. The dates are May 13-18th, hosted by the dynamic duo of Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films, ably assisted by This Island Rod.

The theme this year is Hitchcock, and the goal is to help the National Film Preservation Foundation stream "The White Shadow" (1923), free for us to see for four months and record the score. As Marilyn Ferdinand so ably puts it, the “For the Love of Film Blogathon to raise that money so that anyone with access to a computer can watch this amazing early film that offered Hitchcock a chance to learn his craft, with a score that does it justice.”

Hop on board the effort to raise money for this worthy cause or just keep on the lookout for the blogs participating in this event. I’ll be posting on “North by Northwest” (1959) on Monday, May 14th.

I think that’s it. We return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Storm Center - 1956

Storm Center (1956) asks the question -- what is the meaning of the phrase free public library? Bette Davis plays a widowed librarian who defends free speech against the town council, and the town, that is uncomfortable with it. We have several shots of the library where she works, on which is chiseled in stone FREE PUBLIC LIBRARY. Director Daniel Taradash wants us to remember this.

The library, by the way, is an old friend to us movie buffs. You may recognize it is the same library where Teresa Wright bolted in the night to get information from newspapers on her sinister uncle in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Both movies were filmed in Santa Rosa, California.

 Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt

Another shot from Shadow of a Doubt
 The movie starts out with a bold title sequence and music theme that, like the movie we discussed on Monday, Trial, seems forward-looking and carries a hint of a turmoil of the early 1960s. The title sequence is by Saul Bass, another favorite among old movie buffs.

Similar in style to the title sequence of Vertigo (1958), we have a face, in this case a pair of eyes superimposed over the typeface of a book. The eyes are eagerly reading the pages as if searching for some information. We hear the ominous sound of the kettle drum and soon the words and the blinking eyes are enveloped in flames. It is a premonition of things to come.

The movie has an interesting premise. Bette Davis carries a book in her library about communism. It is a kind of manifesto on the idealized communist society. We don’t really know too much about the book, except that we are told it is propaganda. Bette Davis admits herself that it is propaganda, and she believes it is a foolish book. We are told from the beginning that she is an open-minded guardian of free speech. She keeps the book in her library not because she agrees with its premise, but because she believes it will educate that the communist way of life is unappealing, false, and inevitably strips the citizens of such a society of their freedoms.

The film wants the viewer to know this right off about her to have no doubts about her sincerity (or her being a nice person), and the film is not very subtle in pointing out who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. The film’s chief problem is its lack of subtlety. The other problem is that the movie was not made earlier. As noted in Monday’s post, by 1956, the worst years of the communist witch hunts both in Hollywood and in America had begun to fade by this time, when people began to wise up that repression is repression whether its imposed on us from other nations or home-grown. It would have been better had this movie been made in 1950, that certainly would have been a bold move. Hollywood is famous for concocting films as an afterthought.

Bette Davis’ work in this film is interesting in two respects. First, we see again her admirable willingness to work as a character actor. She found character parts far more interesting and this probably gave longevity to her career. On the other hand, this is one movie where Bette Davis performs at her most heavily mannered. Her prim and proper intonation becomes somewhat grating after a while. I think her finest scene in this film is towards the end where she breaks down under the heartbreak of having lost the affection of the town’s children.

Her character has been widowed many years. She lost her husband early in their marriage when he was killed in World War I. She never remarried, she never had children. We are meant to see that the kids in town, on whom she dotes, are like her surrogate children. When the children follow their parents’ example and shun Miss Davis, she falls apart. It gives the film a needed human touch to it, because for most of the time we are dealing with very intellectual matters. Freedom of speech, civil liberties, repression, and taking a stand politically is often based on airy notions rather than gut wrenching and heartfelt responses to a social issue. Her emotional scene here reminds us that she is not just an intellectual middle-aged woman fighting for some intangible belief like freedom of speech; she’s a lonely woman who lived for her town and is now an abandoned by it.

Another nice scene, very brief, is when she is discussing her plans for a new children’s wing for the library with Paul Kelly, who is a local judge and a longtime friend. We last saw Kelly in Split Second in this post. Kelly often played villains but in this film he plays a man on the fence, a decent man who was caught in the spokes of a wheel being turned by others. They stand together in the stacks, (for anyone who has never worked in a library, the stacks are the rows of bookshelves) and as he talks she stands behind him and picks lint off his shoulders. It is a nice homey touch.

Later on in the film Kelly gets a monologue where he seems to give us a hint of their youth, that perhaps he regrets that her husband was the one who won her.

Brian Keith is an up and coming young city official who leads the movement to have this book removed from the library, and when Bette Davis refuses, he heads the movement to remove her. Keith is good in this role; he was in any role he took. Bette's chief nemesis is not played by a stereotyped close-minded ignorant bigot. Keith is intelligent, smooth and professional. We know he has political ambitions, but he never comes off as a man who willingly would destroy the lives of others for his own purpose, even though that is what happens. He does not seem hypocritical or insincere. When he talks about the book’s propaganda message, he says we’re in a war, and we can believe that he means it. It would be nice to know more about his character, but we really don’t see too much of him.

Much of the story is devoted to a young boy who becomes a symbol of what intolerance can do in a community, and becomes the catalyst for change in a tragic event. The boy is played by Kevin Coughlin, who was about nine or 10 when he did this film. This was his first movie. Before this he worked for four years as a minor character, T.R. Ryan, on the TV show Mama, which was taken from the book and film I Remember Mama. Young Kevin makes a big impression in this movie. I would not say that he was a terrific child actor, indeed his performance is almost as stilted and mannered as Bette Davis’ is. However, he plays a boy who is high strung and obsessive. He throws an extreme amount energy in just about every scene he plays. Whether he is happy, tired or pleased, frightened or angry it all pretty much comes out the same way, like a burst of uncontrollable agitation. One wonders if the little guy was exhausted by the time filming was over. Again, it’s not a great performance technically, but you have to admire the energy with which this boy attacked this part. He gave it all he had.

Kevin’s dad is played by Joe Mantell, an average palooka in a loud shirt who wishes his son would get his nose out of a book and act like the other boys. Bette Davis, who apparently counsels parents on the side, tells him, “Stop wishing Freddie were somebody else…we put far too much stress on conformity in this country.” That’s something, to hear that in the middle of the 1950s.

She tells him to value his son’s differences, forward thinking surely, but when Bette Davis recommends to Freddie a book called “Stories from the Bible”, we know we are being told by the director and the producer, and the studio, that even though she thinks conformity is lousy she still has “real” American values. We’re being condescended to. For the audience, it’s a little like being made to ride a bicycle with training wheels. We’re big kids and we don’t need training wheels.

Kim Hunter plays Bette Davis’ assistant at the library. Miss Hunter is also Brian Keith’s girlfriend. He wants to marry her, but she is reticent because she has been married previously and is afraid of making the same mistakes. Whether or not she had ever been married before has nothing to do with the story, so it’s interesting that they chose to put that in.

Kim is a defender of Bette Davis.  When Brian Keith complains that Miss Davis is being stubborn by not taking that book out of the library, Hunter explains that Davis is a proponent of civil liberties and intellectual freedom, just a harmless old lady set in her ideas. The phrase “civil liberties” strikes a chord in Brian Keith and he gets the germ of an idea. He tries a new tactic.

In a smooth and almost sinister manner he asks Miss Davis about organizations to which she has belonged or to which she has donated money, and he rattles off the names of a few of them. It seems that many of these organizations later turned out to be communist fronts. She says that she knew that and that is why she no longer belongs to them. Mr. Keith’s interrogation is not hysterical or barking the way Joe McCarthy conducted his public events, and for that reason it is all the more eerie because of his controlled manner. He makes no accusations, he only asked questions that are veiled insinuations, and these begin to turn the minds of the fellow council members. They all start to feel uncomfortable with this little old lady librarian. When she walked in the door she was their old friend, but now she’s a spy for the Kremlin.

Bette Davis defends her decision again about the book by saying she also kept Mein Kampf in the library. She says it made her sick to her stomach to see people take it out, but that it did not lead to the spread of "Hitlerism" in this country, because people were able to read for themselves that nazism was monstrous. She believes that given a choice, intelligent people will always decide intelligently.

But, intelligent people often lose their intelligence when gripped by fear and paranoia.

They fire her.

The rest of the film is meant to take place over a series of months as Bette Davis is slowly shunned by townspeople and then finally by the children. What she does for an income is not explained. Kevin Coughlin begins to obsess more and more on what his father has told him about the librarian. Joe Mantell recalls her remark about there being too much conformity in this country, and he calls that “Pinko talk”. Freddie becomes increasingly hostile to people and to books, which he once loved. He feels that he has been betrayed.

Some of her old friends are torn by what has happened to Bette Davis and begin to feel guilty that they did not stand by her, Paul Kelly included. Look for Kathryn Grant, who would marry Bing Crosby the following year, the mayor’s daughter. She is one who supports Bette Davis. The movie has a very large collection of people in minor roles and in bit parts. The whole town shows up for the dedication ceremony of the new children’s wing of the library.

A pair of identical twin sisters, interestingly named  Dora Dee and Laura Lee Stansauk, sing a hymn to the library.  I think this was their only film. They sing well, and one wonders how they came to be in the film, if perhaps they were Santa Rosa locals, much as the standout Edna May Wonacott in Shadow of a Doubt? If any reader knows more about them, please give us a shout.

Bette Davis pretty much gives up her protest about free speech and prepares to slink away from town. Not before Paul Kelly decides enough is enough and brings her to the dedication ceremony. Young Kevin confronts her and calls her communist, his shrieking echoing in the loudspeaker.

She is so rattled by his repeated shouting, that she slaps him several times in the face. It is a very weird scene, and one today is inclined to laugh. A wee bit over the top, yes indeed.  And one wonders why no one in the crowd objects to the ex-librarian hitting this young boy in the head and shaking the stuffing out of him. One can only assume that they are tired of Kevin’s shrillness as well. By this time we all need a break from Kevin.

Kim Hunter breaks up with Brian Keith because she’s pretty sick of the whole mess. She’s got a nice piece here:

“Whatever was the issue? Do you remember? A stubborn woman was fired. The council blew itself up with civic virtue. The city got something to buzz about. I got a better job. You got a platform.”

Keith is offended and responds, “You make it sound like a grab bag.”

“What do you think it was? Patriotism?” A great scene of weary sarcasm, disgust, and despair.

Okay spoiler time.

Kevin burns down the library.

You still with me? Should I have given you more warning? Sorry, I was only talking to myself and I forgot you were there.

No sir, not subtle at all, this movie. We have a close-up on the titles of several books that are burning, including Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and The Story of Jesus.

The townspeople are now contrite that they have fired a nice old lady and driven a high-strung little boy to lunacy. Bette’s lesson is that she should have stood her ground and fought back.

Hard lessons, easy platitudes. Both Trial and Storm Center reflect on a dark era in our history, but do it from a safe distance. Both raise interesting questions, but sometimes handle them clumsily. Nevertheless, the films give us a taste of the turmoil of those years. It is very easy to decry extremism, whether it be left wing extremism or right wing extremism. The trouble is it’s always the other guy who’s the extremist. We rarely recognize it in ourselves. In this respect, these films remain quite timely. Particularly in an election year when slapping labels on people is an easy way to get attention.

That impressive old brownstone library in Santa Rosa I believe no longer exists. Maybe some readers can tell us more about that.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Trial - 1955

This week we take on two films which examine (or in Hollywood fashion, exploit) the era of communist witch hunts. Trial (1955) and Storm Center (1956) were both made after the most threatening period had ended, yet still timidly take a tentative stance on the violation of civil liberties. They both seek to make us understand the plight of the innocent caught in a web of social repression. However, neither takes the bold and rather obvious step to point out that nobody was ever indicted in this country of being a communist -- despite the showmanship of the McCarthy hearings -- simply because to affiliate oneself with communism is not illegal in a nation that guarantees no discrimination based on creed.

That neither of these films could address that is itself a testament to the intimidating politcal climate.

Trial (1955) is a film that is both typical of that era, and yet a bold move into new territory. Many complex issues are raised, including bigotry, political extremism on both the right wing and the left. Personal commitment is challenged, and the very idea of justice. The movie raises many questions, but supplies few answers. In this sense, it seems more modern than many of the films of its day in its cynical approach.

This fence sitting may make the film seem unsatisfying to classic film fans who are accustomed to enjoying simple resolutions. Fans of modern films will likely see this movie as an example of 1950s stereotypes and melodrama. The melodrama, I think, is part of what is fascinating about this movie. One downfall to the film is that it has so much going on. Issues too difficult to solve are dropped for other issues.

Ironically, what makes the film resonate to the modern viewer is the conflict between the right wing and the left wing, still so strong today. There are messages here against left wing extremism and they may make a liberal democrat offended (the image that by merely belonging to a labor union one might be considered a communist). There are also messages against a right wing extremism that may make conservative republicans offended (the image that town fathers, the sheriff, and other representatives of the establishment are racist and bloodthirsty for the death of a young Mexican boy).

If one is to take from this movie any singular message, it might be that all extremism is bad. However, most of us whatever our political beliefs, do not regard ourselves as extremists. It’s always the other fellow. This movie dramatizes cartoonist Walt Kelly’s famous slogan from his Pogo comic strip: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Trial begins with a very 1960s feel to it in the opening title sequence, crashing at us with a rapid cymbal beats, piano riff and timpani rumbling that makes us feel we are heading into 1960s political divide.

Rafael Campos is a young Mexican boy. He wanders to a Southern California beach at night crowded with people necking, drinking and generally having a good, illicit time. A sign says this is a private beach. Rafael later tell us that what this means is it is a restricted beach. These night-time beachgoers are all Caucasian.

After the first flush of the bebop theme music we hear Campos calling for help and the camera zeroes in on a young girl lying at his feet. The girl is dead. He is Mexican and he is not supposed to be here.

We cut to Glenn Ford, a law professor being booted out of his faculty position because he has no criminal trial experience. We are told that he has an excellent war record, four battle stars and a silver star. That, and his determined pacing and his pressured speech, and his perpetually pained expression tell us that he’s the hero of the peace.

He needs to get some criminal trial experience to keep his professor’s position. Arthur Kennedy, in one of his best smarmy roles (he would receive an Oscar nomination for this role, and would win a Golden Globe for it), decides to hire him. Kennedy is slick, street smart and goes ambulance chasing for young Rafael’s case.

Kennedy’s gal Friday is Dorothy McGuire. McGuire is an interesting choice for this role. She carries a pedigree of being a lady. Her soft spoken, well-modulated voice indicates, just as Glenn Ford’s clean cut World War II hero image, that she naturally is the heroine. She’s smart, ladylike, decent, and a little sexy. So, why is she working for a snake like Arthur Kennedy?

We soon learn that she and Mr. Kennedy have much in common.

Arthur Kennedy plays a complex character. We may see him first as an irascible fighter for justice, the kind of lawyer whose brusque manners put everyone off, but if he’s your lawyer you love him because you know he’ll fight to the death for you.

Then, when he approaches Katy Jurado, the accused boy’s mother, to take their case he puts on a show with a bit too much fake bravado. There is a glint in his eye and a fire his belly. He’s a showman. He slips the sheriff 20 bucks to let him in the jail to see the boy. Glenn Ford sees him pay the bribe, and in only the first of many of Glenn Ford’s patented worried grimaces of disgust we begin to see the chipping away of an American hero. We begin to see the compromise of conscience.

Arthur Kennedy grills the boy and even slaps him around a little in an ugly scene to get him to tell the truth. The boy is scared and confused. He explains that he knew he was not supposed to be on the restricted beach, but when he saw the girl coming up the stairs she recognized him from school and they struck up a conversation. He says she became friendly with him, talked to him, held his hand, placed his hand on her knee.  When he tried to kiss her and touch her, she pulled away from him and ran up a set of wooden steps. Then she collapsed and died.

Because the girl was underage when she died, after a possible assault, the charge against him is murder. It seems a very difficult case, and is made even more difficult and more interesting by the fact that the girl had been known to have a weak heart due to rheumatic fever, and had collapsed only the year before and required months of bed rest.

In this circumstance, is Rafael Campos guilty of murder or manslaughter, or innocent of any crime? This issue at the very heart of the case gets dropped very quickly in the movie. We move on to other issues that are so big they linger today. Society steps in and the sharks are circling.

The town has a very virulent anti-Mexican bias. Hence the restricted beach. People are up in arms already that the girl died at the feet of a Mexican boy who put his filthy paws on her. They want to hang him.

Arthur Kennedy wants Glenn Ford to take on the trial, while he himself raises public awareness of the trial and raises money for the defense. We are introduced to the prosecuting attorney played by John Hodiak. He is teased at being called Jack Armstrong - the All American Boy (old radio show, if you’re unfamiliar with that), but he gets a good line here, teasing Kennedy:

“I may be a native-born white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but in my heart I like to think I’m as good an American as if I just stepped off the boat.” There is much contemplation on racial perspectives in this movie. Later at a rally, Katy Jurado will complain to Kennedy that the obvious choice of Mexican food so often at the fundraisers is milking her heritage a bit too much. She sarcastically relates that she often just has meat, potatoes and vegetables at home like any white person. Kennedy exploits the symbolism of Mexican cuisine.

Arthur Kennedy and Glenn Ford persuade the mother of the dead girl to hold a private funeral, because they fear a public exhibition will rally the bigots in town and turn the case into a circus. Her parents are obviously heartbroken, but her mother is a brave, conscientious woman, sees the ramifications, and agrees to a private funeral. At the funeral the next morning as the services conclude by the gravesite and the mourners are walking away, the town’s bigots come to make a show of it. They ostentatiously wear black armbands, make a speech and rally round the grave. It is an ugly, threatening scene, where the vigilantes bully the minister into presiding over a prayer of revenge invoked over the grave that announces they are, “…going to see to it that people live with their own kind the way it used to be.” There are members here of the Ku Klux Klan, and other white supremacists. They bark the word “Amen” in the same crude, bloodthirsty manner that other people once said, “Heil Hitler.”

Then we have a scene at the courthouse where crowds attack the door with a battering ram to take Rafael Campos out of his cell and hang him. But, the jovial sheriff, played by Robert Middleton, is persuaded that he will look like a great guy if he a makes them go away. After all, the kid is probably going to lose the trial anyway and be hung legally. Otherwise, he could care less.

Robert Middleton often played these kind of oily roles, and he is as much a type as Glenn Ford and Dorothy McGuire are types. The minute we see him we know he is a man whose palm has to be greased before he’ll do anything. I can’t help wondering if it would be a more interesting picture it Glenn Ford played the corrupt sheriff and Robert Middleton played the hero law professor.

The movie is essentially a story about hypocrisy, but it is also a story about there sometimes being no right answers. We know in life that is sometimes true, but this does not always make a satisfying movie. The movie jumps around quite a bit it, so it appears convoluted. The traditional love story gets thrown in, in a most untraditional way.

Working late one night, Mr. Ford takes his suitcase and says he does not even have a hotel room. There is an interesting shot of Miss McGuire standing in the doorway silhouetted in the darkness, telling him to come on. Is she going to find him a hotel room or is she taking him home? We’re not given the answer, except in the querulous expression on Glenn Ford’s face.

Arthur Kennedy offers Ford the use of his country cabin while the case is going on and Dorothy McGuire goes with him now to be his girl Friday.

At the cabin Ford works on his notes. He has trouble with an electric blanket, and Dorothy fixes it. She has experience with it. She has fixed it before for Arthur Kennedy. What else has she done for Arthur Kennedy?

“I used to help him. Used to. Not for over a year. Any questions?”

No, Ma’am, we don’t have any more questions. He kisses her, happy to take on both Kennedy’s trial and his old girlfriend. We are allowed to assume Ford and McGuire are sleeping together.

Suggestive as this may be for era, by far the boldest move taken by this movie is to have the role of the judge played by Juano Hernandez.  He is probably the first dark-skinned man to play a presiding judge in classic films. This opens up the question of bigotry one step further, but not from the bigoted whites in town as we might expect. A question on his impartiality is raised first by Rafael Campos, who overhears one of his jailers telling him that he is even more likely to be convicted by a black judge because a black judge will want to keep his job and impress the whites.

Glenn Ford will express his own doubts and suggest that he prefers not to have a black judge. Ford says, “I think you were selected so that after the conviction they can say, of course, the Mexican had a fair trial. Sure. He even had a Negro judge.” He is in profile saying his lines, so we are allowed to concentrate on Mr. Hernandez as the judge silently seethes next to him. The judge responds,

“I’m sure that you consider yourself completely without race prejudice, but you’d bar me from the bench in this trial because of the color of my skin.” He puts Ford put in his place.

But, I particularly like in gentler moments when the judge calls Glenn Ford, “boy,” the prerogative of an older man addressing a younger man. That simple line said in an affable manner probably made white supremacists in the audience choke, and I hope they did.

I also like the way Miss McGuire busily feeds Ford information during the trial like a catcher throwing signals to the pitcher. Too bad she’s not the lawyer, she’s the smartest person on Campos’ defense team.

Most of the movie is taken up simply trying to pick an impartial jury.

Another problem looms on the horizon. Glenn Ford is summoned to fly to Kennedy’s side to attend a rally in another part of the country. It is a fund-raising rally for Rafael Campos’ defense. In the auditorium, we see Kennedy approaching members of something called the “All Peoples Party Club” to raise collections. This is a communist front organization. Ford, with that squeamish expression on his face, protests to Kennedy that they should not be dealing with communists. Kennedy frankly tells him that money is money no matter who gives it and these people are willing to give it. Just as we had seen Kennedy slip the sheriff $20 early in the movie, we now see him making deals with organizers of communist groups and labor unions to split the money raised.

The rally is an impressive scene. It takes place in a public auditorium and is absolutely full to the rafters with extras. There are banners and songs, and it has the flavor of an old revival meeting. Glenn Ford is disgusted. When he tries to make a few statements in the microphone, Arthur Kennedy orders him cut off and it is almost like that scene in Meet John Doe (1941) discussed here, where Gary Cooper is silenced at the hands of fascists.

Then we see Kennedy work his magic with the crowd, a combination of Charles Foster Kane and Aimee Semple MacPherson. He tells the crowd to give their money, but tells them to not trust anybody. It is an anti-establishment shout, a forerunner of everything we will hear in the 1960s. We have another interesting shot of Glenn Ford slinking out of the arena in the bowels of the auditorium. Stylistically there are many fine camera shots in this movie.

Ford feels he has been duped, not only by the two-faced Kennedy but by McGuire. He wants to know just how deeply involved she is with communists. Apparently, her intimate relationship with Kennedy is no longer of interest in him. If it ever was.

She can be a woman of easy virtue, but her political beliefs are what taints her.

Dorothy McGuire next has a scene where she explains how she came to be involved with communists. She tells him that she drifted when she was in college. That she was “one of a thousand freshmen and I wanted to be different. And I found out they were clubs and meetings, and if went to them you were different. Suddenly people pointed you out and you became kind of campus curiosity… Suddenly you had friends who were going to change the world with you.”

It is a rather dishwater way to explain one’s move toward a new political perspective, even if for many it happened that way. Dorothy McGuire’s role, possibly simply because she was played by Dorothy McGuire the all-American girl type, was never meant to be a card-carrying communist. She is portrayed only as someone who was duped even as Glenn Ford has felt himself duped in this movie, who went astray and who regrets her actions.

She tells him that the communists dumped her. Because she was “…hopelessly bourgeois. They were right. I could never really accept the party line. The way it kept changing. Monday’s truth would be Tuesday’s lie.”

A great line, but the movie fails to consider the very irony that one of the biggest and most shameful actions of the McCarthy era is that people who had a minor role or even nothing to do with communism were painted with the same brush as the dictator Joseph Stalin. Stalin was unreachable to them, so they bullied and persecuted anybody at hand, usually for fame and profit. Indictments were slim in “un-American activities” trials; bribes were more common.

The movie moves on to the trial, after an arduous jury-picking process.

Mr. Ford questions the girl’s cardiologist about her weak heart. The doctor is played by Richard Gaines, who we saw before as the delightful bore in The More the Merrier (1943) as well as in Strange Bargain (1949) here. He can give no proof that her heart would not have given out anyway. A montage of witnesses testify. Glenn Ford intends to wrap up his defense quickly and not bring Rafael Campos to the stand because that would jeopardize the case, but Arthur Kennedy shows up to take over. He puts Rafael on the stand.

Meanwhile, a man stalking Ford turns out to be a Elisha Cook, Jr. in a minor role, who turns out to be a process server. It seems a local red baiter, a state congressman named Battle has subpoenaed Ford to testify before his own Un-American Activities Committee. Ford is really up to his ears in trouble now. Just by going to Arthur Kennedy’s communist rally he’s tainted himself.

We never get to see the character named Battle and that is a shame because it would be a much more courageous movie if this character were depicted. Today we might infer that Battle is meant to be an ersatz Joe McCarthy, and he is, but he really has a closer real life counterpart in a California State Senator named Jack Tenney. Tenney conducted anticommunist investigations in California in the 1940s and early 1950s. Among hundreds of people, the most famous entertainers he attacked were singer and actor Paul Robeson, and Edward G. Robinson. As is usual with these witch hunts not one single person in eight years of harassment resulted in one single indictment. It was a ploy to further his career, just as it was Joe McCarthy’s. Like Joe McCarthy, Tenney’s career petered out into oblivion eventually, but not until much harm was done.

Back to the trial and a very strange sort of grand finale. The jury finds Campos guilty of murder. The sentencing is put off until the next day. Glenn Ford decides to put an 11th hour bid to save the boy, runs off to the library (libraries feature big in our films this week, that haven of solutions -- I believe librarians are superheroes) and tries to find answers.

He addresses the court and raises an obscure ruling where Campos might, instead of being sentence to death, be committed to a juvenile offenders’ detention center for an undetermined period of time. Arthur Kennedy does not want young Rafael to be saved. He wants him to be hung as a martyr to the communist cause. He tries to scuttle Ford’s tactic.

We are never sure in this movie if Kennedy is a dedicated communist or whether he is just a flimflam man on the make for bucks. He attacks the judge with racist remarks, trying to make the judge angry, calling Hernandez a “handkerchief head” and an “Uncle Tom.” But, Judge Hernandez will not be baited.

In another switch, John Hodiak, the prosecuting attorney, agrees with Ford that sending Campos to the detention hall is the right thing to do. The judge so orders, and Campos is saved. Arthur Kennedy gets 30 days in jail for contempt of court.

We are also told that the red baiter Battle will drop his case against Glenn Ford because Ford is a fighter, and Battle only takes on fights he can win. A convenient end, and a cop-out.

This movie attempts a great deal, but if it were really bold it would have attempted it in the early 1950s or late 1940s when this movie is set. It would have featured Battle. Or more to the point, it would have answered one last question for us…

If Rafael Campos was really innocent, as we are made to believe he was, why is it right that he should go to a detention center, still having a criminal record to his name? The movie is not really about justice, but about expedience, and how sometimes we trade one for the other.

Come back Thursday for more fellow-travelers and red baiters, and libraries, in Storm Center (1956).


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

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