INDICT, PROSECUTE, IMPRISON TRAITOR TRUMP.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Interview with David C. Tucker on his book: S. SYLVAN SIMON, MOVIEMAKER

 


Last week we discussed author David C. Tucker’s new book:  S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker – Adventures with Lucy, Red Skelton and Harry Cohn in the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Have a look at that review here.  Today I’m pleased to continue the discussion with an interview with Mr. Tucker….

JTL:  In your preface you describe discovering S. Sylvan Simon's credits years ago as a fan of Lucille Ball and The Fuller Brush Girl. How did you come to explore the possibility that Simon might be a person whose career you'd like to learn more about and write about in a book?

DCT: In many of the books I’ve read about Lucille Ball, it seemed as if her prowess with physical comedy went completely unnoticed in Hollywood prior to I Love Lucy. As I said in my book, Jess Oppenheimer deserves a huge portion of credit for making My Favorite Husband a hit radio show, and giving her the showcase of a lifetime on TV. But when you look at films like Her Husband’s Affairs, Miss Grant Takes Richmond, and especially The Fuller Brush Girl, all of which Simon either produced or directed, and all of which preceded I Love Lucy, it’s abundantly clear that he recognized quite clearly what she did best. When you add to that the fact that he directed some of Red Skelton’s best films, and also collaborated with Abbott and Costello, this is someone whose mastery of comedy is undeniable. I initially started the project unsure whether I could uncover enough material to give Simon the tribute he deserved, since so much time had passed. But the material just kept coming, and it reinforced my belief that this was a story that should be told.

JTL:  I admire the thoroughness of your research regarding the many details of his filmography and also the aspects of his career that are often given short shrift by entertainment biographers: regional theatre, radio, etc. I was very interested in reading about the collections of short plays he wrote for youngsters. What were the particular challenges of research on Simon and how did you meet them?

DCT:  Thank you! I knew going in that it would be difficult to find people who had known him personally, nearly sixty years after his death. But I persisted, and was able to interview not only several former child actors who’d appeared in his movies, but also people like his 98-year-old nephew.  

            The single biggest break, of course, was when his family provided me access to the leather-bound scripts of the films he directed. They often had notes in the margins, pages showing dialogue changes, on-set photographs, and sometimes memorabilia. There was a hilarious series of notes from his friend Chuck Granucci, a prop master, making mock complaints about life on the set. I was also fortunate to be in touch with the daughters of character actor Arthur Space, and consult his extensive letters and diaries that talked about working with Simon, whom he had known since they were both affiliated with a theatrical troupe before their Hollywood days. Another lucky break was locating a man who had copies of the newsletters from a summer camp where Simon attended as a boy, and where he later worked as a faculty member.

JTL:  It is fortunate that Simon's children are still connected in different ways to the film industry and contributed to your project.  How did you approach them?

DCT:  When I began seeking information on Mr. Simon, I quickly became aware that his daughter, Susan Granger, was a published movie reviewer, and that her brother, Stephen, had written a book about his own Hollywood experiences. That made it fairly easy to contact them both, and they agreed without hesitation to contribute to my project. With both of them so supportive, willing not only to give me interviews but point me toward other people, the project became much more feasible. I particularly admired the fact that Susan, with whom I worked the most, never tried to control what I published, but as a writer herself understood that I needed to go wherever my research led.

JTL:  It must have been a great thrill to interview by phone Jane Powell, Margaret O'Brien, and Arlene Dahl. What was that experience like?

DCT:  That was very exciting, as was interviewing Terry Moore, still a newcomer when she appeared in Simon’s film Son of Lassie. Margaret O’Brien has an amazing memory for those films she made as a little girl, and really made me feel as if I had been there when Bad Bascomb was filmed. She was later kind enough to tell me that she enjoyed the book, learned a good bit about Simon’s career, and intended to keep it in her personal library.

JTL:  It was evidently a great loss to the film industry for Mr. Simon to have died suddenly so young at 41 years old.  You movingly describe Frank Sinatra's and Lucille Ball's gratitude toward him for his contribution to their careers. Could you recount that here?

DCT:  In the last few weeks of his life, Simon had James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, as a houseguest, working on adapting the book to the movie screen. Though he didn’t live to see it to fruition, Simon envisioned Sinatra as Maggio, and threatened to quit his job at Columbia when Harry Cohn overruled him. As most people know, Ava Gardner later took up the challenge of getting Sinatra the job, but he never forgot that it had been Simon’s idea, and expressed his gratitude to Stephen Simon years later. Similarly, Lucille Ball knew she owed a debt to Simon, who was not only a personal friend but truly a mentor in terms of encouraging and developing her flair for comedy. Even years after his death, she told people so, often getting teary when the subject came up.

JTL:   Is there a particular pleasure for you in pursuing a topic not covered by other entertainment biographers, plowing new ground, so to speak, rather than covering more well-known subjects?

DCT:  Absolutely. I’ve always liked Joan Crawford, for example, but there have already been so many books about her. As a fan, I’d buy a book expecting to get fresh information, not a rehash of what’s already out there. My publisher, McFarland and Company, has been very generous about supporting my wish to write about the topics that interest me most. And I enjoy doing original research, and bringing readers information they haven’t seen before.

JTL:  Aline MacMahon is a favorite of mine and I was interested to learn in your book of her family connection to S. Sylvan Simon. Any plans to follow the thread and write a book on her?

DCT:  It’s definitely something I’ve considered. She’s another one who becomes more difficult to research as time passes, but I was able to draw on letters she wrote to her husband, Clarence Stein, a well-known architect. Naturally I concentrated on the material pertaining to Sylvan Simon and the movie they made together, Tish. But she and Mr. Stein were often apart during their marriage, pursuing their individual careers, and they wrote to each other faithfully. 

JTL:   You write that Simon's family felt that the great stress of his work contributed to his early death.  Can you speculate what his goals, and his legacy might have been had he had taken over Harry Cohn's position at Columbia?

DCT:  When Simon became Cohn’s second-in-command at Columbia, the movie industry was running scared, feeling the looming threat of television becoming the dominant entertainment medium. Columbia’s long-profitable B-movie series and comedy shorts were falling by the wayside, and no one was entirely sure how to get viewers to leave the house and buy a movie ticket. I think Simon had a keen sense for how to do that, and would have kept the studio in the black while making some of the movies he wanted to make. Though Simon was quite capable of handling war movies, murder mysteries, and pretty much anything else, he did have an enduring love for comedy, and I think you would have seen that reflected in Columbia’s output.

Final thoughts from author David C. Tucker:

            I love doing a project that combines library and archival research, genealogy, newspaper files, and personal interviews, but I also make it a point to view as much of the subject’s work as I can. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch another movie. Thanks to you, Jacqueline, and your readers for plowing through this!

            *******

S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker – Adventures with Lucy, Red Skelton and Harry Cohn in the Golden Age of Hollywood is available at the publisher’s website, McFarland, here.  It is also available here at Amazon, as well as a variety of other online shops.

Have a look here for links to some of David C. Tucker’s previous books on movie and television notables:

Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record

Martha Raye: Film and Television Clown

Eve Arden: A Chronicle of All Film, Television, Radio and Stage, Performances

Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record

Joan Davis: America’s Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy

Lost Laughs of ‘50s and ‘60s Television

Pine-Thomas Productions: A History and Filmography

Have a look here at David C. Tucker’s blog.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Review: S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker - David C. Tucker's new book


It’s my pleasure today to post on a new book on the director/producer S. Sylvan Simon by David C. Tucker.  S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker – Adventures with Lucy, Red Skelton and Harry Cohn in the Golden Age of Hollywood is a look at the achievements of an over-achiever who accomplished much in his young life and whose early death was a blow to several who were grateful for his unique contributions to their careers, including Lucille Ball.  Next week I'll follow up with an interview with author David Tucker.

A few years ago, I posted a review and interview with Mr. Tucker on his book about actress Gale Storm.  I admired his thoroughness in researching the “nuts and bolts” of her career and what some entertainment biographers might consider to be minor and unimportant details to which they invariably give short shrift.  His newest book on S. Sylvan Simon is similarly blessed with a wealth of details on Simon’s path from humble and hardworking beginnings in Pittsburgh, a stage-struck young man (whose cousin was Aline MacMahon, already making a name for herself on Broadway) who cut his teeth on camp and amateur shows, theatre in high school and college.  He eventually heeded the call to Hollywood as a talent scout and casting director, gradually taking over the reins and directing films and producing them.  By the end of his career, he was being groomed for studio head Harry Cohn’s job at Columbia.  It was an astonishing climb, and cut short by his death at 41 years old.

The first section of the book “Early Stages” recounts his biography up until the time he left for Hollywood, corrects several errors that have been published over the years.  The second section “Go West, Young Director” and third section, “Mr. Simon Takes Columbia” explore his Hollywood career utilizing valuable resources provided by Mr. Simon’s children, including notated shooting scripts. Interviews with Jane Powell, Arlene Dall, and Margaret O’Brien, among others, provide insights and entertaining memories of their experiences being directed by Simon. 

The extensive filmography section of the book is especially useful to fans and students of Hollywood’s heyday and would be, no doubt, of special interest to classic film bloggers for its completeness and fascinating detail, including anecdotes on several of the movies, and contemporary reviews by syndicated columnists of the day.

I knew very little about S. Sylvan Simon before I read this book, and I enjoyed the book very much.  David Tucker did a masterful job tying in all the threads of the life and career of this individual who, had he lived longer and taken the helm at Columbia, might have left an even greater legacy.

S. Sylvan Simon, Moviemaker – Adventures with Lucy, Red Skelton and Harry Cohn in the Golden Age of Hollywood is available at the publisher’s website, McFarland, here.  It is also available here at Amazon, as well as a variety of other online shops.

Have a look here for links to some of David C. Tucker’s previous books on movie and television notables:

Gale Storm: A Biography and Career Record

Martha Raye: Film and Television Clown

Eve Arden: A Chronicle of All Film, Television, Radio and Stage, Performances

Shirley Booth: A Biography and Career Record

Joan Davis: America’s Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy

Lost Laughs of ‘50s and ‘60s Television

Pine-Thomas Productions: A History and Filmography

Have a look here at David C. Tucker’s blog.

 

The author provided a review copy for the purpose of this review blog post.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Happy Easter and a look back at My Dream is Yours (1949)


Happy Easter!  Here's a throwback
post on My Dream is Yours (1949) starring Doris Day, Jack Carson, Eve Arden, and Bugs Bunny in a colorful Easter dream!

Thursday, March 25, 2021

A drive-in move coming to a theater near ME!


I have just heard some wonderful news.  It seems that drive-in movies are coming to a theater near ME!

In a town just across the Connecticut River from me, called West Springfield, is a large fairgrounds where annually the Eastern States Exposition (The Big E known hereabouts) is held in September showcasing all six New England states.  So instead of a state fair, it's a six-state fair. (More heavy on crab cakes, chowder, baked potatoes, apples, and maple sugar candy than corn dogs, but you can get those, too.) Part of the grounds include extensive parking areas, of course, and somebody got the bright idea to utilize the space in the spring and summer evenings, apparently on into the fall as well (taking a hiatus for the weeks the fair is held).

It's going to be called the West Springfield Drive-In, with space for 600 cars and two screens.  They've announced that one screen will show current films, and the other will show "classics."

Ah, now here is the material point, she said, glowering at the jury.  When they say "classics" do they really mean it?  Or do they think some high school hijinks film from the 1980s is a classic?  I am hoping with all my very might that they mean movies produced before 1965.  I have my doubts.  But I'll let you know.  I'm just happy that a drive-in is coming to my neck of the woods.  

There are no other close drive-ins in my area; you may recall this previous post where I visited a Connecticut drive-in, the first time I'd been to one in almost 50 years.  This other previous post notes the many drive-ins that were once in my area and in the nation in the 1950s and 1960s.

I hope I'll be able to attend a movie at least once this coming summer.  There has been a resurgence of drive-ins, even temporary setups, spurred by COVID restrictions.  Are there any near you?  When's the last time you went to a drive-in movie?

Friday, March 19, 2021

TV's Decoy - "Fiesta at Midnight" episode, 1958


Beverly Garland starred in a weekly police procedural drama called Decoy that ran only one season from 1957-58.  It was a ground-breaking program and far ahead of its time in many respects.  It achieved something rare during what was called the Golden Age of Television, and what is sad -- it’s even more rare today: a well-written, well-acted, sharply produced weekly show with a female protagonist that presents a refreshingly unselfconscious view of her abilities, intelligence, and emotions.


This is our entry into the “7th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon” at Terrence Cowles Canote’s A Shroud of Thoughts blog.

It’s a rather long entry.  Sorry.  Go get a snack.

She plays a policewoman, as the term was used then, named Patricia Jones, who frequently is referred to by her nickname, “Casey” Jones.  She uses both names, seemingly without preference.  She is smart without being brilliant – she sometimes gets it wrong and learns from her mistakes.  She is courageous without being a thrill-seeker; she knows fear but also knows that’s human.  She does not forsake being human in order to be a good cop – she follows procedure with the dogmatic persistence of Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet and sometimes sounds like him, but she is also empathetic and seems to take quiet pleasure in observing the troubled humanity she meets on her cases.

We see little of her personal life, we do not know about her family or much about her past, only that her fiancĂ©, also a police officer, was killed in the line of duty.  She is not driven to revenge, to drink, to wallowing in angst, but she deals with the occasional stabs of pain from the memory as the price everyone pays for being alive, loving, and remembering.  She is sensitive, but also pragmatic.


We sense that the creation of Officer Jones is entirely a collaboration between director, writers, producers, and actress, and as such, she is a most polished enigma.  In an era of “Hi, honey, I’m home!” sitcoms, she does not take insecure pains to reaffirm her femininity.  On the contrary, she is unconsciously sexy, perhaps never more so when breaking into a brief Mona Lisa-smile in odd moments that remind us her mind is always working and her heart is always open.

Also unusual for the day – and for females represented on TV shows for decades after – her male colleagues do not belittle her, or makes passes, or treat her in any way other than as friendly professionals who rely on each other.  While some of her duties are quite routine, she often must go undercover, which means she is rather like an actress.  She must be a society woman one episode, and a secretary in another. 

If the show were filmed in later decades, she would spend every other episode victimized by being tied up or her vulnerability capitalized on, and the threat of rape would be implied to a degree that makes an intelligent person wonder what has happened to our society that that would be entertaining for the female to always be in danger.  Or she'd be swinging on that insane pendulum between dealing with her private demons with compensating addictions or supercharged overcompensating aggression, both to show that she is a "real" woman dealing with the pressures of her career.  This keeps the actress and the writers busy, but can ironically make for a less interesting character.  One of the most appealing aspects of Officer Jones is her stoicism.

The range of crimes Officer Jones investigates from white collar crime to arson to murder is such that not every episode is peppered with a hail of gunfire.  The show might be too slow for today, but that is one of its strengths.


From a production perspective, one of the most intriguing aspects is that the show is filmed largely on location in New York City.  We see neighborhoods, buildings from the late fifties, the street scenes, the nightlife.  The cameras were hidden, so what you’re seeing happen in the background is real.  The old Penn Station, long gone, is beautifully filmed.  There’s Coney Island, theater marquees, an array of interesting sites.  Many of the interiors are also shot on location, so when you see an office in a factory, that’s where you are.  There is no clean, fake scenery, no set flats.  We see the grime of the factory walls, the old, uneven floorboards and the overstuffed file cabinets. We see the rain-washed streets with real people pulling racks in the garment district or walking in a park.  Everything is real.


Perhaps just to punctuate that, or perhaps just to add an unusual style – Officer Jones breaks the fourth wall at the end of the episode and talks to us.  Sometimes it’s a little startling, even when you know it’s going to happen, because she does not break character.  She suddenly turns and her eyes lock onto yours and she comments about the case, as if she knows we were there every step of the way, as if we are the rookie cop she is teaching.  Sometimes it's to wrap it up, or tell us what happens next.  Sometimes it’s just a final thought.  In one episode, “Night of Fire” she discusses not the case, but ruminates on one character in that episode.  It’s the story of a suspicious factory fire, and she is placed undercover as an office worker.  Another worker in the office is a young woman with a history of being treated for mental illness.  The other workers are hostile to her, tease her, and even suspect her of being the arsonist.  However, she’s only a patsy, and Officer Jones figures out who done it.  At the end of the episode, she breaks the fourth wall and talks not about the crime, but about that young woman.

“Tomorrow she’ll be looking for a job.  I hope she finds a good one, a place where people are enlightened about things like mental illness.  If she comes to your office…give her a break.”  That brief, sad, enigmatic smile, a flicker of warmth in her lovely dark eyes, and she turns away.  She’s said her piece.  No need to beat it to death.  I wonder how many bosses and fellow employees took it to heart at work the next day.

After this rather long introduction to Beverly Garland’s character and the program, (are you still with me?) I’ll move on to the single episode I’d like to discuss for this Blogathon.  It’s “Fiesta at Midnight”, episode 32, broadcast on May 19, 1958.  The director is Michael Gordon.  We discussed his wonderful directorial work on Another Part of the Forest (1948) in this previous post.  The scene is set at Hunt’s Point Palace; again, a real venue.  There’s a dance hall up a flight of stairs, where tonight it’s a Latin combo playing for an energetic crowd of romantic young people.  We listen to the music, watch the couples dancing in the dim evening light as if it’s a documentary and they have no idea we’re observing them.  Maybe they don’t.


Hunt’s Point is in the Bronx, and the Hunt’s Point Palace around a century ago brought swing music to fans in the 1920s and ‘30s, and by the late 1940s, jazz bands gave way to Latin music as a new Puerto Rican population came to the neighborhood.  The ballroom held about 2,500 people, and top bands played here for decades.  Salsa music was coined in the 1970s, but the Palace closed in the 1980s.  The building still stands, but now it’s an office complex.

But in “Fiesta at Midnight” we’re still in 1958, the first flush of Puerto Rican immigration to New York City, only months after West Side Story hit Broadway, so Decoy was not the first pop culture exploration of the problems of Puerto Rican immigrants, but it was certainly among the vanguard. 


With moody shots up and down the staircase that leads to the music from the hall, we meet three people on the town:  Anita, played by Gloria Marlowe, and her fiancĂ© Raoul, played by Dario Barri.  They will be married in a week.  With them is Anita’s cousin, Maria, played by Miriam Colon.  Maria wants to remain at the bottom of the stairs, not going into the dance, but just listening, dreamy-eyed, where she is.  They urge her to come, but she insists she just wants to listen and to contemplate.  She is not looking for a date for the evening: she reminds them she is going to be married tomorrow.

They leave her alone and go up to the dance.  After a moment, Raoul leaves Anita, says he has to meet a man around the corner.  She warns him against getting into trouble again, but he is a charmer and tells her he will be right back. 


Seeing she is alone, a young newly arrived immigrant from Puerto Rico approaches Anita.  He is Juan, played by Tomas Milian.  He asks her to dance, but she tells him she is engaged to be married.  Juan is a quiet, shy young man and he confesses that he cannot get anyone to dance with him, that all the girls are paired off with husbands or boyfriends.  Anita, half in sympathy and half teasing, suggests he go down to the bottom of the stairs and talk with Maria, maybe she will dance with him.


He meets Maria, but she will not dance with him either.  Again, what he dreads to hear: she will be married tomorrow.  She is a lovely young woman, and he is very taken with her and they chat a moment, at least until the midnight church bells signal that, like Cinderella, she must leave the ball.  He respects that she is off limits and he leaves the dance hall without following her.


We walk through the dark street with him, past storefronts, and about to cross a dark alley when a man runs towards us out of the blackness, topples Juan, and runs away.  Followed close on his heels are the cops, who grab Juan, thinking he's the guy they are chasing.  Poor Juan gets dragged to jail for the armed robbery of a store.


Officer Patricia Jones gets called in on the case, not undercover this time, but a routine investigation.  She visits the store owner in the hospital, a middle-aged white woman named O’Connell, played by May Michael, who was shot in the robbery.  She is conscious, and furious at the cops’ apparent slowness to understand what a menace the Puerto Ricans are.  She is asked,

“Are you sure the man who shot you was Spanish?”

“I’m sure, all right. Don’t I hear them jabbering all day long?”

Discussing the case with her chief, Officer Jones remarks, “Somebody steals an apple from a fruit cart and they’re ready to lynch anybody by the name of Jose or Pablo.”

She interrogates Juan (and even demonstrates a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish), who is scared stiff and desperate to find someone who will believe him.  She begins her drudge work of questioning leads to find out if his alibi – talking to a girl named Maria at midnight when the crime happened – is real.


She eventually finds Anita at home, a week later and now married to Raoul.  Anita is closed-mouthed and denies meeting Juan, denies even knowing Maria.  We begin to understand that she suspects Raoul, because he left her for a few minutes, to be the one who actually committed the robbery.  She is trying to protect him.  When “Casey” Jones leaves, Raoul comes back to the apartment and Anita confronts him.  “Casey” returns when it is reported by neighbors that Raoul beat her up.

Still, she attempts to protect her husband, and “Casey” gives her the sensible advice, “You’re a fool to let him get away with it, honey.  He’ll do it again sometime.  Maybe that time you won’t be able to complain.”

Then the O’Connell woman in the hospital dies.  It’s a murder rap now, for Juan unless “Casey” can prove his alibi is true.


Running down all the logical prospects and getting nowhere, she wonders if perhaps the woman called Maria – who was supposed to be married the next day after the incident – did not marry after all.  Perhaps the wedding was called off and that’s why Officer Jones can’t find any public record of it.  She goes to the neighborhood church to ask the priest if he can confirm this.  He is in the middle of a First Communion rehearsal with a group of little girls, so she has to wait for him.  She spots Anita kneeling in one of the pews, her Rosary beads in hand.  “Casey” tries again to work on her, but Anita is stubborn and won’t tell her anything.

It’s a small thing, but because we don’t know Officer Jones’ own personal religion, I find it quite touching as well as a sign of the times that she pauses before she enters the Catholic church to pull her scarf over her head.  In pre-Vatican II days, head covering for women was required, and still is the custom in some countries.


We are actually teased with religious symbols throughout the episode, but unless you’re really observant, or have seen the episode a couple times, you won’t know that director Gordon means them for clues:  the large cross Juan wears in the neck of his open shirt, the crucifix on the wall of Anita’s apartment framed behind Officer Jones’ head.  It’s all pointing to a solution that only hits “Casey” when she’s given up on Anita, and, about to leave the church, smiles at the passing procession of girls walking down the aisle to the altar to practice receiving their First Communion.


Then it hits her – but not us yet.  Next, she drags Anita, Raoul, and Juan to another place where she has located Maria.  We are in a hallway, which has a figurine of the Virgin Mary on a heavy piece of furniture – another last-minute clue.

Then the door opens and Maria enters. 

She’s a nun.


When she said she would be a bride the next day, she meant she was joining a holy order and become the “bride of Christ.”  Juan is shocked, but Anita and Raoul are only uncomfortable because now that Maria has been found, she will undoubtedly tell the truth, if she remembers talking to Juan at midnight.

She does, and recognizes him.  Raoul is off to prison. Juan’s free, if still pained by his crush on Maria.  Anita is just plain crushed, and Sr. Maria is wondering what’s going on.

Officer Jones realized that Maria could be a nun when she saw the little girls in their white dresses walking down the aisle towards the altar, looking like a row of little brides.  She figured out Maria’s use of the phrase “tomorrow I will be a bride” as if it were a riddle. 

It’s a shame Decoy lasted only one season.  Several future stars appeared on the program, such as Colleen Dewhurst, Peter Falk, Martin Balsam, and Suzanne Pleshette.  Many of the episodes are in public domain and have been released on DVD, but the three-disc set released by Film Chest MediaGroup is excellent and contains a booklet with facts about the show and a synopsis of episodes.

One interesting fact the booklet relates: Between 1949 and 1990 there were around 555 dramatic television series.  Only about 36 starred women.

I hope you can catch up with the series Decoy sometime, and please visit the rest of the blogs participating in this “7thAnnual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon” at Terrence Cowles Canote’s A Shroud of Thoughts blog.

----------

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.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Blogathon entry tomorrow!


Come by tomorrow when I join the “7th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon” at Terrence Cowles Canote’s A Shroud of Thoughts blog.  Our entry:  Decoy, a police procedural drama about a female cop that ran one season from 1957-1958.  The episode we'll discuss:  "Fiesta at Midnight."

See you tomorrow!

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Black Legion - 1937

 


Black Legion (1937) reveals how a factory worker from the Midwest is lured into a white supremacist gang, commits atrocities in fellowship with them, and what happens to his family, friends, and community. It should have made Humphrey Bogart a star, but that would have to wait a few years until the studio decided to promote him as such.  But Warner Bros. showed no hesitancy to rush to produce this film barely a year after the real-life incident on which it was based.

 


One is drawn to obvious social and political parallels today about the recurrence of violent fascism in our country, culminating most recently with the attempted coup and overthrow of the government with the Trumpist-militants’ terrorist attack on the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.   The depressing thought that such lunatics have always existed in this country is certainly shameful, but Black Legion is a film that one should view not just with sober realization of an evil undercurrent in our country; the movie should be recognized with pride as an important film that Hollywood had the guts to make.  America is uniquely forthright in airing our dirty laundry, so to speak, and uniquely able to reboot, again and again.  Our ability to address social ills and repair injustice, as difficult and slow as that is, should be a source of pride and something to which each succeeding generation should aspire.  Movies like Black Legion informed a Depression-era audience by reflecting their own times, their own world.  It was current events. The uncomfortable topic wasn’t trivialized, hidden, or given the asinine “both-sides-ism” treatment in order not to offend people who might take revenge. (Of course, Warner Bros. execs didn’t have to fear MAGA goons walking around the streets in those days with military-grade automatic weapons.)  It was just a story about a guy.  That happened to be true.

 


Humphrey Bogart plays Frank Taylor, a factory worker who is seemingly happy in his life. He’s got a steady job – something to be grateful for in these Depression days – a good marriage, a good, healthy son played by Dickie Jones, and some good buddies like Dick Foran.  We learn early on that Bogie, though he likes his job, is not exactly a go-getter.  Like some of the other fellows, he teases a fellow machinist on the line who spends his lunch hour studying so that he might earn a promotion.  His name is Joe Dombrowski, played by Henry Brandon in one of eleven films he did that year.  Oh, the life of a bit player.  It’s a wonder he had time for lunch at all.

 


John Litel is the foreman (he did nine films released in 1937). He’s moving up the ladder to a better job and the company will choose from among the workers to take his place.  Bogie thinks he’s got seniority and is better at this job than anyone on the line, convinces himself the job’s in the bag.  He’s so sure, he’s walking on cloud nine and plans to buy a car to celebrate, plans on fixing up the house and buying his wife a vacuum cleaner.

 

But Joe Dombrowski gets the job. Bogie is humiliated, and angry.  The charming scenes with his wife at home, and listening to a children’s adventure show on the radio with his boy are wiped away in his growing resentment of being passed over.  Bogie is very skilled in showing the, at first, subtle change in his character.  The early lighthearted scenes are a far cry from the usual brooding gangster he played in his early film career, but he is entirely believable at creating a very likable persona. 

 


Then being passed over clouds his mood, and later, his judgment.  Suddenly, the home and the job are both dissatisfying.  His resentment grows, and it’s not directed at the company he works for but rather the fellow who got the job.  Joe Dombrowski lives with his widowed father on a small farm on the outskirts of town.  His father is an immigrant from Poland.  We don’t know if Joe was born in the U.S. or not, but he and his father get labeled as foreigners, one strike against them in this apparently fairly homogenous white Midwestern town.  Another strike is they are likely Roman Catholic, in what is apparently a largely Protestant community.  Put these two together in a fellow who got a job that a “real American” considered was his, and we have the typical trigger for a vigilante group looking for any excuse to start trouble.

 


Bogie, following a trail of hints and whispers of a brotherhood who will give him a sense of belonging, not to say superiority, stumbles upon the Black Legion in the basement of a drugstore in town.  The druggist, and other prominent businessmen, are members, “free, white and 100 percent American.”

 

They take him into the gang and in an initiation ceremony late at night in the woods, he kneels like a postulant before a group of men clothed in Ku Klux Klan-style robes and hoods, and takes an oath:



“In the name of God and the Devil, one to reward and the other to punish, and by the powers of light and darkness, good and evil, here under the black arch of Heaven's avenging symbol, I pledge and consecrate my heart, my brain, my body, and my limbs and swear by all the powers of Heaven and Hell to devote my life to the obedience of my superiors and that no danger or peril shall deter me from executing their orders. That I will exert every possible means in my power for the extermination of the anarchist, the Roman hierarchy and their abettors…”

Taking an oath in the name of Satan is peculiarly appropriate for a mob intent on such evil activities, and Bogie falters over some of the words, seems bewildered and nervous about what he is doing, wondering what it means and what might really be expected of him.  He seems surprised at what he is reading on the card, but he adjusts quickly to his new brethren when he is offered a robe and hood (for $6.50) and his very own revolver (for $14.95.)

The scene back at home when he poses with his new revolver in front of a mirror, admiring his tough image, swaggering a little – we have seen that many times since, not only on feature films (Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver – 1976), but in countless sickening cell phone videos posted to the Internet by self-described avengers.

He spends more time away from home in the evening, and tells his wife, played by Erin O’Brien-Moore, that he has joined a lodge.  She is concerned, and she suffers his road to hell on the sidelines.

Bogie goes out with them at night to terrorize the Dombrowski farm, meaning to teach the “undesirable alien” a lesson.  They beat up father and son, kidnap them, set fire to the home, and then dump the Dombrowskis on a freight train.  The thugs drink and celebrate at a bar later on.

Bogie comes home drunk for the first time, gets Dombrowski’s job as shop foreman (not only did Joe Dombrowski not show up for work the next day, he was never seen again), buys a new car, and tries to get his pal, Dick Foran to join the Black Legion.  Mr. Foran’s response, “That’s for half-wits.”


Bogie is understandably put off by this insult, but Dick Foran knows nothing about the group, not really.  He rooms at the home of their older fellow worker, Mike Grogan, played by Clifford Soubier.  Old Mike has a beautiful daughter, played by Ann Sheridan.  Dick Foran and Ann Sheridan are sweethearts.  Their bliss will soon be shaken by forces building around them.

The Black Legion goes on more raids, smashing the store windows of “cut rate” shops, i.e., immigrant-owned, Jewish-owned.

The militant group requires membership dues and each member is required to sign up two new recruits.  Now that Bogie is the shop foreman, he’s in a position of authority to pressure his workers on his line to join. 

He asks one worker what church the man goes to, and the man replies he goes to none.

“Are you willing to protect your job?” He takes another tack, plays the foreigner taking his job angle, and the guy agrees to join.


Bogie tends more to the Black Legion than he does his job, and there are problems on the production line.  He messes up and asks people to cover for him with management.  Bogie is demoted and his foreman’s position is given to someone else – Pa Grogan.  Uh-oh, Mr. Grogan has an Irish accent.  He wasn’t born in the U.S.  He’s an immigrant taking the job of a “real” American.

No surprise, the Black Legion goes after Grogan next.  He is brought out to the woods, stripped to the waist, tied to a tree, and whipped.  “That ought to give the Irish something to remember us by.”


Old Grogan is hospitalized, and Dick Foran gets suspicious and asks Bogie’s wife about his lodge meetings.  Bogie takes up with the town floozy, played by Helen Flint.  Foran confronts Bogie, laying down the law to him when Bogie comes home drunk and hits his wife.  Bogie, in a drunken panic, exclaims he can’t leave the group because they won’t let him.  He fears their power.  Fascists are always cannibalistic; they always destroy their own.

Dick Foran is now the target. He is kidnapped, taken to the woods, but in an attempt to run away, he is shot dead.  All the thugs run away except for a shocked Bogie, who tearfully, haunted, tells Foran’s lifeless body, “I didn’t mean it!”

There is a suspenseful manhunt sequence as he stumbles away in the darkness, goes to a truck stop to pull himself together, flinches at the sight of motorcycle cops and spooked by the radio report of a body being found. 


The cops nab Bogie, and through a series of scenes we see the mop-up of the terrorist gang.  Bogie is imprisoned, and when his wife is brought to him, he falls on his knees, throws his arms around her, and cries. 


But he has another visitor to his cell, a rep from the Black Legion, who wants him to keep quiet.  He threatens to kill Bogie’s wife and child if Bogie talks.  He is told to tell the judge that he killed Dick Foran in self-defense, and to not implicate anyone else who was there. There is a plot to defame Dick Foran, and a courtroom full of Black Legion thugs smirk at each other in anticipation of their victory.


But Bogie, overwhelmed at the faces in the courtroom, including his wife, his mind reeling at the events of the past months, cracks, confesses, and names names.

We are dashed into a conclusion of headlines and the judge reading from the Bill of Rights, but perhaps the most profound impact is the last shot of Humphrey Bogart as he is being led away to spend the rest of his life in prison.  He throws a look to his wife.  It is half-apology and half-plea for an explanation, as if to say, “How did this happen to me?”  It is perhaps the bewilderment even more than the remorse that cuts to the audience.

How many real-life members of the Black Legion were moved by this film we won’t hazard a guess; they were undoubtedly more directly hit by the investigations that came their way after their kidnapping and murder of Charles Poole, a French-Catholic organizer for President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration in Michigan in 1935, resulting in the imprisonment of nearly 50 of them.  The fascist organization was against Blacks, Catholics, Jews, union members and leaders, Communists where they could find them and tagging people with that label when they could not.  They counted businessmen, pillars of the community in their ranks, as well the disgruntled uneducated mobs who were their willing foot soldiers. 

Read this fascinating article in The Detroit News for more on the Black Legion and the incident that inspired the movie. 

Note that the article was published in 1997.  Note that Michigan is again plagued by fascist terrorists, some of their leaders charged after their plot to kidnap and murder Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer was foiled by the FBI. 

For more on classic films that explored and exposed fascism, have a look at my book Hollywood Fights Fascism, available in print and eBook:


Hollywood Fights Fascism
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References:

The Detroit News, “The Murder that Brought Down the Black Legion,” August 4, 1997.

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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.  Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.

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