Richard Layne, Nicky Smith, Helen Vincent and I discuss Quick Millions, part of the early sound Fox films programmed at this year´s Ritrovato. We discuss it in relation to other gangster films of the era such as Public Enemy and Scarface, the passage of time montages, the iconography of the suit, Newsies, and the presence of both Spencer Tracy and George Raft, who makes quite an impression dancing. As we wrap up, Bertrand Tavernier walks past.
The film is on youtube and can be seen below: the difference in image and sound quality between this and what we saw in Bologna is reason enough to go to Ritrovato. George Raft´s dance can also be seen below just under the film itself,
We continue our Michael Curtiz kick with Angels with Dirty Faces, a James Cagney gangster film with surprising subtleties. We consider Cagney’s stardom and how he remains unique, the film’s themes of hero worship and glorification of crime, and the interesting relationship between Cagney’s gangster and Pat O’Brien’s priest.
A film that’s very much of its time but remains an interesting and entertaining watch.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
In Warners films of the 1930s, Montreal seems to be the place rich women send their discarded lovers to. InFemale(Michael Curtiz, 1933) when rich Ruth Chatterton’s boytoys ‘get love-sick and start demanding more, she buys them off; and if that doesn’t work, she ships them out to Montreal, which in this film is like outer Siberia’. Poor gangsters take advantage of Montreal’s reputation as both a ‘free city’ where women, jazz, and booze abound but one that also has a lot of woods to hide in: as you can see in the clip below from Lady Killer (Roy Del Ruth, 1933), Montreal’s a good a place to go on the lam to when escaping the heat in the States:
Running a movie theatre was evidently a military operation in 1934; certain customers expected a different level of service.
In the film, Cagney will start as an usher, get involved with a criminal gang clipping gamblers, and end up a movie star. The bit in Lady Killer above is very evocative of cinema as a social institution and part of an enormous and wide-ranging apparatus in America. But, at least as relates to film theatres, things were not too different in Britain. In ‘Working at the Gaumont,’ an unpublished interview Sheldon Hall conducted with Dennis O’Grady, who’d worked at the Gaumont in Sheffield for many years, in 2009, O’Grady tells us: ‘
‘The hours at the Gaumont were long: we started at 9 am and worked until the cinema closed at whatever time of night. We did have a break of two hours in the afternoon and one hour in the evening – unpaid, of course! We started the day by polishing every bit of brassware in the cinema, and there was plenty. The front entrance was a large marble-floored area which was scrubbed daily by an army of cleaners who used bars of hard soap and scrubbing brushes. Each woman had an area of “the marble”, as it was called, to scrub clean – it was rather like a scene from Dickens! While they scrubbed, we polished – the front doors then had brass handles, the stair rails to the circle were brass and there were about six steps up to the stalls area, which had brass hand rails.
Around 11.20 we went to the staff room and changed into our very smart uniforms. The uniform then was pale blue with silver trimmings. We also wore a high peaked cap and a pair of white cotton gloves slipped through one of the shoulder epaulettes. There was then a staff parade where all the uniformed staff were inspected, usually by Barbara. The manager changed into evening dress from 6 pm. A great deal of pride was taken in looking smart as the Gaumont was then the number one cinema in the city centre, although we had in opposition the Cinema House, the Hippodrome, the Palace, Union Street, the Classic, and on the corner the Wicker and the Don. I can’t recall the exact date of the Odeon opening in Flat Street [16 July 1956] but we had very little to do with them.
The programmes were continuous throughout the day, starting with the main film, then the adverts and trailers for the following week (there was not then the endless stream of the same type of film trailers we get now in the multiplexes). There was also a newsreel and the second feature. The only breaks were for the sale of ice cream and drinks when at least eight sales girls went round the whole auditorium. The adverts for the various ice creams and drinks on sale advised patrons to “kindly remain seated – the sales staff will visit all parts of the auditorium”.
It was not considered at all unusual for patrons to enter the cinema halfway through a film, watch the programme until they reached the point when they had entered, then leave having seen the whole programme. At busy times there would be a large queue outside the cinema and the usherettes would advise us that we had, say, “three doubles and six singles” as people left the cinema. A doorman would then go to the queue and announce “Three doubles and six singles” to the front part of the queue, moving up the queue if the first people did not want the seats. At the end of the evening we all went round emptying the ashtrays on the backs of the seats before changing to go home. Unlike today there was very little litter on the floor; there was no popcorn and hot dogs were a novelty, sold from a barrow in the foyer. I dare not think of the mess if performances were continuous in today’s multiscreens.’
Michael Fisher, who managed several cinemas into the nineties, says tells me that, ‘Staff parades were carried out before premieres. Probably still are. It was written into Odeon Manager’s contracts to change into Dinner jackets after 6pm. This continued until the 1990s at least. I was on the Uniform Committee for a while. Every time there was a new Managing Director there was a change of Uniform to show they had arrived and were doing something. The worst one had the Odeon O over the left tit of the usherettes’ blouses. Just like a target’.
Seeing the clip also reminded Chris Schneider of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’: ‘You’re the top, you’re the pants on a Roxy Usher’. The cinema in the clip is the legendary The Strand, Warner’s New York showcase, and one of the first luxurious movie palaces built to show only motion pictures.
I grew up in Montreal, where Elvis was King en français.The local commercial French station, TVA Canal Dix, showed Elvis films regularly: the dialogue was in French but Elvis rocked in English. I must have seen all of them and had firm favourites: Viva Las Vegas (George Sidney, 1964) with Ann-Margaret, Blue Hawaii (Norman Taurog, 1961), and this one, King Creole. I now see that it’s perhaps significant that these were all directed by old-timers of the studio system who knew their craft.
Some fans prefer Jailhouse Rock (Richard Thorpe, 1957), and certainly its famous and eponymous number is a delight. But King Creole is arguably Elvis’ best film. And it’s part of the tragedy of his film career that even his best film is but a derivative and pulpy melodrama. Themes of teenage rebellion, the relationships of fathers and sons, and children looking on pityingly at what they see as the emasculation of their fathers by society and societal institutions, are all themes that are better dealt with, in this very same period, by Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
As a teenager, I’d read and enjoyed the Harold Robbins novel the film is based on, A Stone for Danny Fisher. And Curtiz’ film follows the plot quite closely, if exchanging Brooklyn for New Orleans, the boxing world for that of the nightclub scene on Bourbon Street and the 1930 Depression setting for the film’s present.
Presley’s Danny Fisher, a talented singer, is busing tables at a nightclub whilst trying to graduate from high school. The money he brings in is needed to keep the family afloat. His father’s given up. He’s been a prominent pharmacist but lost it all when his wife’s death led to a spiral of depression and drink. They lost their house and now live in a slum tenement next to a brothel. Fisher keeps failing High School’s cause he’s just got too much to do. In the meantime the streets offer lots of opportunity for easy money. Danny’s father is willing to lower himself so that his son can get a diploma but Danny can’t bear to see his father so bullied and humiliated. Also, he can make easy money singing. The tangles of family, show-business and the underworld lead to tragedy. King Creole is a mix of teen film, musical, and noir. There are few musical performers more exiting to watch in this period than Elvis. And almost no one in the Hollywood of this time is better at using the camera than Michael Curtiz. Elvis performing and how Michael Cutiz films him performing are what propel this otherwise pulpy melodrama into something great.
King Creole is one of the few Presley films, the only one I remember, where he’s presented as a real film star. He gets a great star entrance with the ‘Crawfish’ number, a duet with rhythm and blues singer Kitty White, written by songwriters Ben Weisman and Fred Wise as a street vendor’s cry, that starts off in the pre-credit sequence, continues on Kitty White post-credits, then cranes up and dissolves to introduce us to Elvis, who is framed behind lace curtains, in turn framed by the window, in turn framed by the shutters, in turn framed by balcony railings.
Elvis opens up the curtains, and comes out, to us, like a fancy chocolate in a box within a box within a box and next to flowers. As the song continues, Elvis is intercut with Kitty passing by on her cart, finally we get a reverse shot that shows us the other side of the street, with the ‘hostesses’ on the balcony on the nightclub next door soliciting Elvis. In the shot when he responds, ‘No you don’t, ya gotta pay me’, his sister appears on the right hand side to offer him breakfast. Curtiz masterfully presents what people have paid to see — Elvis — makes us wait for what he’s got to offer, frames him, teases us, and reveals his talent, desirability, family relations and a context in which the drama can unfold all in one scene. It’s a brilliant mise-en-scene of stardom. Something Curtiz is so expert at and that so few other directors ever offered to Elvis.
What Elvis was famous for in 1958 was conveying sex to teenagers. The Los Angeles Mirror-News entertainment editor wrote that ‘what Elvis offers is not basically music but a sex show’ (cited on p. 438 in Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis (438). Guralnick writes that Leber and Stoller’s ‘Trouble’, a Muddy Waters-styled blues was intended somewhat tongue in cheek but was delivered by Elvis with untempered ferocity. ‘It sounded sort of comical to us, but strangely enough to the mass market it wasn’t. It was somewhat generational and somewhat cultural, but they bought it’. (p.449).
In the film, Curtiz stages that sexy ferocity as a challenge to the gangster played by Walter Matthau, as something to entice the gangster’s moll played by Carolyn Jones, and as a source of conflict between the two nightclub owners. That talent, sex and ferocity are once more put in the scene in the context of different narrative threads where his very power and desirability originate the source of the tragedy to come. It’s a lesson in how to mobilise a star persona in narrative and how to narrativise stardom.
Julie Lobalzo-Wright in Crossover Stardom’ writes that there can be no doubt that Presley represented the rebellious image of the 1950s, both within America and worldwide, and his cultural impact cannot be overstated. (p.59)…Presley’s early live performances on The Milton Berle Sow, The Steve Allen Sow, and The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956) created a stir displaying Presley’s overt sexuality that consistently presented his sexualized body as an object of desire. Thomas. C. Carlos has described his early television performances as ‘so sexy, not white sexy, not coy sexy, but so humping swaggering black r&b sexy” that they led to a national uproar’.
I’d also like to comment on the quieter ‘Young Dreams’ number (see above). This is such a joyful performance, the dip in his shoulder, the shake of his head during ‘kiss you morning, noon and night’ then again dipping his shoulders and opening his mouth in the pause as if to say, “‘wow’ isn’t this naughty and marvellous’. Presley conveys the saucy and the tender filtered through a joyful amazement, sex combined with feeling in gleeful wonderment. No wonder his girlfriend in the audience is on the verge of tears with longing. Seeing him, we understand her, and understand why Elvis was so appealing to both men and women for so long. It’s a quiet number in the film, but powerful. And made more so by Presley being at the centre of a pool of light amidst the shadows and darkness of the nightclub, a light also highlighted by wearing a shirt that photographs white. Thus in a longer shot he’s the focus bathed in light, and then of course, there are the close-ups, when it’s his singing, his sensuality, and the effect that these things are having on his girlfriend that Curtiz draws our attention to.
As we can see in King Creole Crutiz constructs a mise-en-scene of and around Presley’s stardom, both as a musical performer, a sensation really, and as a movie star. I’ve commented on some of the numbers above. But let me just draw your eye to other aspects:
See, for example, how in the scene where he takes his girlfriend to see his old home, the focus is on him even when she’s doing all the talking; and note how he’s lit (see below):
See also how Curtiz present Presley to us in and through through light. Lighting is accentuating his features, his feelings, his very presence. He’s often shown coming in and out of the light. See some of the pictures below but further down you can also see how he’s lit as a kind of noir hero/film star in the scene were he watches his father get attacked.
Ultimately, the story is hackneyed but professionally told. Curtiz knows how to make his stars shine and how to use what they represent to create context, plot and convey feeling. Elvis’ stardom is part of the mise-en-scene of King Creole. It’s the same kind of care others took to present Judy Garland, Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire; it’s the same kind of care Curtiz used in his musicals with James Cagney and Doris Day; it’s the kind of care Elvis rarely got from any of his other directors.
A heist film where the heist itself is secondary to the exploration of racism, of which there is no greater indictment in 1950s American Cinema than this great Robert Wise film, Odds Against Tomorrow. According to Phillip French in The Guardian, ‘This was the favourite film of Jean-Pierre Melville, who saw it 120 times before directing his noir masterwork Le deuxième souffle’.
The film’s noirishness comes not only from depicting lives being lived underground, mainly at night, in jazz bars and seedy hotels; where the edges of criminality are crossed and re-crossed, in a black and white often filmed in infra-red stock so that the skies themselves seem black, but also by making race the film’s over-arching theme: from the moment an ex-con affectionately picks up a young girl playing on the sidewalk and says, ‘you little pickanniny, you gonna kills yourself playing like that, yes you are!’, the first line spoken in the film, to the last one, where two policemen look at the charred bodies of the two failed bank-robbers played by Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte and say, ‘which is which, take your pick’.
In the grand scheme of things the colour of one’s skin might not matter, but in the day to day it can push you out, kick you over and burn you up to the point of extinction. Odds Against Tomorrow depicts that trajectory in a noir style, using practically every noir trope in the book, making the most of the black and white photography it deploys and experiments with, and making black and white the very subject of the film.
The plot revolves around a heist organised by Burke (Ed Begley), a disgraced cop who feels he’s got a sure thing pulling a bank robbery in a small town in upstate New York with a big enough pay-off to dig him out of the hole he finds himself in: ‘They sure changed the colour of your skin when they rehabilitated you at Sing Sing’; ’50 grand can change it back!’
To get the job done, he brings in Earl Slater (Robert Ryan) for muscle and Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) to drive the getaway car and also to impersonate the diner delivery boy who is the key to opening the back door of the bank. Both initially refuse but are then driven to accept: Earl due to the self-hatred incurred by living off his girlfriend’s money; and Jonny by the mob’s setting of a deadline on which to pay his gambling debts or risk violence to his ex-wife and child, something to heed as this is a film in which even a child’s playground is rendered a world of shadows and violence (see above). The trio, tenuously held together by greed at the beginning, is fatally fractured by Earl’s racism: ‘You didn’t say nothing about the third man being a nigger!’. This is a film in which racism infects and destroys everything, even a bank heist.
Has New York ever seemed so bleak, lonely, alienating? Has Central Park ever been so empty? Wise and cinematographer Joseph C. Brun show an external world of skyscrapers, with puddles full of junk, and the junk that doesn’t end in puddles windswept past our protagonists, often pictured alone in empty streets, framed against black skies and looming skyscrapers.
Indoors, people tend to be filmed from a low angle looking up at characters cramped in by life’s burdens and low ceilings (see below), and in wide-angles that distort the edges of this world whilst highlighting the spaces between people.
There are a lot of zooms also, deployed here not only to show us what the characters see but to emphasise the great distance between people, barely within sight and far away but connected, coming into view from great distance. Even upstate New York’s normally majestic countryside is here used to isolate the characters, and when we get a closer look we see that here too people’s lives are framed by flotsam, jetsam, barbed wire, shadows (see below).
In what must be one of the earliest instances in the history of Hollywood Cinema of a black star packaging their own films, Harry Belafonte produced and gave himself a great, multi-layered and spectacular role. His Johnny is a man of great talent and beauty, catnip to women but angered by the knowledge that, as he sings in the last line of the clip below, ‘I just can’t make that jungle outside my front door.’
Johnny refuses the assimilationist tendencies pursued by the ex-wife he still loves, angered by what he sees as her bringing up their child believing in another white man’s con. He’s torn by a love of a fast life he can’t afford — his white sports car, the clothes, the clubs, the horses — and his attempts to at least be a good father. In this tension he’ll be brought so low that even a punk faggot messenger boy on the edges of the mob will feel he’s got enough power over him to make a pass. The clip of that moment excerpted below — a rare moment of gay visibility in in one of the few genres that would accommodate it — encapsulates a contest of power and conflict by two types of subalternity in which power, desire and anger commingle, and is one of the many great moments in the film.
The extent to which men’s bodies are put on display — and the various ways in which that display is made meaningful — is extraordinary. One would expect Harry Belafonte’s looks to be made much of. How could a film starring one of the handsomest men of the 1950s avoid that? However, see also Robert Ryan’s Earl Slater in the two clips with Gloria Grahame excerpted below. Earl’s an aging con, out of prison and unable to find a job because of that. He’s being kept by his girlfriend Lorry (Shelley Winters) who’s crazy in love with him. He knows it too, and there’s a suggestion that he’s not without feelings for her. But as he says, ‘I spoil everything I can’t help it. I just have to spoil everything’. He spoils it with her when he so much as tells her that what she likes about him is the fucking she gets but what will happen when he gets old? ‘You’re already old!’ she says as she flees the room crying. After that he feels free to get it on with the upstairs neighbour he’d turned down earlier, the glorious Gloria Grahame, who makes the most of her two short scenes here (see clip below).
First meeting with Gloria
Earl’s a man whose only power has been that which his big and powerful body has afforded him…and he’s ageing. He’s worried about getting old but know he’s still got enough power to beat the young soldier at the bar (a young and skilled Wayne Rogers in one of his early roles, over a decade before M*A*S*H made him famous). In the clip above, see how the camera shows him taking his shirt off, first for us and then so that Gloria Grahame can make her usual memorably sexual entrance and say, ‘what’s going on in there, an orgy?’ And you get the sense that, if there was, she’d like to join in; and if there wasn’t, she’d like to start one with him.
In the second clip excerpted below note how this time Earl is receptive, sweet-talks her into coming into the apartment and then note the way he sits on the chair, showing her the body he’s got to offer, and his confidence in what that body can do to and with her. It’s a scene full of sexual tension and danger that emanate from a male body on display, a male body powerful enough to have killed a man.
Second Meeting with Gloria
One of the things that makes this film so great is that it is patterned and cohesive but also that the expressive rendering of those elements that clearly contribute to the whole leave room for the ineffable. The scene below is about the emotional strain Johnny’s under. As Annie (Mae Barnes) tells us at the end of the sequence, ‘that boy is in big trouble’. But the reason he’s in big trouble is not just that he owes money he doesn’t have to the mob, it’s that loving his child and ex-wife as he does makes him vulnerable. ‘Don’t Ever Love Nobody,’ he screams at the crowd. Thus the song, ‘All Men Are Evil’ points to the way that Johnny is and is not. It dramatises the ambivalence, the way human beings are complex, multifaceted, with feelings and impulses that are often contradictory. But joy in the ineffable offered by the clip below is to me simpler and more complex than that. It’s the movement in Mae Barnes chest and shoulders as she moves to the music before beginning to sing her song. What does that convey: confidence, sass, ease, defiance. I’m not sure why I love it so.
There are many other things one can discuss about this film: It was written by Abraham Polonsky, my favourite writer of hard-boiled dialogue in the Studio Era (e.g. ‘life is just addition and substraction — everything else is conversation’, from Body and Soul). Polonsky was blacklisted in those years and had to use a front. The film was credited to John O Killens before Ponlonsky’s credit was restored in 1996.
In a very interesting piece for Sight and Sound, filmmaker Paul Ticknell also discusses the film’s relation to the heist film. ‘Odds Against Tomorrow is best described as a noir-ish heist movie,’ he writes. ‘The heist movie often concerns itself with process – a minute but exciting examination of some spectacular robbery or kidnap. It also likes to linger over the fallout when the job goes wrong. But Odds Against Tomorrowshows little interest in the planning and mechanics of its heist – a bank robbery in a small industrial town outside New York. What really distinguishes the film is its concentration on what goes wrong beforehand – so much so that the robbery only occurs at the very end of the film’.
The film also features the most extraordinary use of the vibraphone I’ve ever seen in film and the jazz score for the film continues to be highly praised. The film was screened as part of a restrospective featuring great jazz scores at MOMA in New York and J.B. Spins’s review noted:
Effectively supporting the film is a moody, dramatic score composed by pianist John Lewis, best known for his work with the Modern Jazz Quartet and his Third Stream jazz-classical innovations. There were actually two official Odds Against Tomorrow LPs, both involving John Lewis. The first was the actual soundtrack of Lewis’s jazz-flavored orchestral themes and cues. It was recorded by a large ensemble, including Jim Hall, Joe Wilder, and Lewis’s three colleagues from the MJQ (Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay), with Bill Evans filling the piano chair.
The MJQ with Lewis on piano also recorded a full jazz album in which they stretch out and elaborate on some of his Odds themes. The soundtrack album is pleasant enough, but the MJQ record is an underappreciated classic, at times much more upbeat than its original source material (let’s hope for another reissue in the near future). Not appearing on either record is a brief vocal performance by Mae Barnes appropriately singing “All Men are Evil.”
It’s aspirations are evident in what it borrows from, and we can see how the ending is an homage to/ borrowing from Cagney’s great last gasp in the marvellous White Heat (see below). But there it was all ‘Top of the world, Ma’; here it’s race can’t be discerned from charred corpses, inside we’re all the same.
Odds Against Tomorrow is a great work that, in spite of all the praise heaped on it recently, remains relatively neglected and deserves to be more and better seen.
Bombshell has an opening montage that is very instructive in how studios and audiences perceived the life and function of a film star. We see Jean Harlow as Lola Burns in film magazines, in newspapers, awarding prizes, being the subject of scandal, in advertisements selling hosiery, and on film-screens — bigger than life — with an audience enraptured as she’s embraced by Gable; celebrity, scandal, glamour, the personal and the social, significance and signification, already all rolled into one. One of the many interesting things about the montage is that we see men reading Modern Screen, Photoplay, Silver Screen and other movie magazines as avidly as women, which, even whilst keeping in mind that Lola Burns/Jean Harlow is meant to be a sex-symbol, is not exactly what one expects. We see audiences enraptured by the image, copying Lola’s stockings and perfumes, her name in lights and finally a hypnotic reunion in the dark where audiences identify, desire and long to that image provided by Burns/Harlow; and of course Harlow does seem to burn up the screen with joy, and wit and life as it all unfolds: A glorious beginning to an entertaining film.
Warners has a less showy version of stardom in 1933 with James Cagney playing a character clearly influenced by George Raft in Lady Killer (Roy del Ruth, 1933):