Frank Lovejoy would have turned 100 today, March 28, 2012. He died at the age of 50 on October 2, 1962, nearly 50 years ago. He was an actor who had a ten-year run of lead and second lead roles in a steady stream of westerns, war movies, dramas and crime thrillers before he moved into television, starring in two series, “Man Against Crime” and “Meet McGraw” and guest-starring on numerous other shows. He generally played good guys—in the military or law enforcement—and his gruff, no-nonsense professionalism usually masked a warm core. He was thoroughly believable in every role he played, an everyman drawn into service and trying to do the most honest and professional job he can.
This still is from Nicholas Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), in which he plays a Los Angeles police detective investigating a murder in which his friend, a temperamental screenwriter with a short fuse, has been implicated. The friend is played by Humphrey Bogart.
The only other still I have of him is from I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI (1951), which told the story of Matt Cvetic, a Slovenian-American in Pittsburgh who works undercover for the FBI while serving as the Chief Party Organizer for the local branch of the Communist Party.
In the still, Cvetic and the two leading Pittsburgh communists, played by James Millican and Edward Norris, are giving instructions to a group of hired thugs brought in to rough up scabs at a wildcat strike at the steel mill where Cvetic works. In the course of the film, Cvetic suffers tensions with his family, particularly his son and his brothers, and develops a relationship with his son’s teacher (Dorothy Hart), who’s also a communist party member but has second thoughts after she learns that Cvetic is working for the FBI and refuses to turn him in to the party bosses. It gets downright suspenseful at times, with Cvetic protecting the teacher and trying to shepherd her out of town after Millican gives the order to kill her. There’s a nicely done escape scene, a couple of fights, a stabbing, a chase and a shootout before it all gets resolved. It’s all sharply directed by Gordon Douglas and much of it was shot on location.
It’s not a film designed to please liberal sensibilities. The House Un-American Activities Committee is treated in a most favorable light and there are some veiled swipes taken at the Hollywood Ten and other “unfriendly” witnesses who were called before the committee and refused to answer questions about their party affiliation. The film was made just as HUAC was preparing a new round of hearings into communist infiltration of Hollywood and I suspect that Jack Warner produced this film to help take the heat off his studio and make a show of cozying up to Washington. After all, it was Warner Bros. that had at one time made the most socially conscious films to come out of Hollywood and the studio most likely to be targeted by the committee. They’d even made the pro-Soviet wartime film, MISSION TO MOSCOW (1943).
Regardless of its politics, the film gives Lovejoy one of his strongest, most layered roles, as well as a rare chance to carry an entire movie from beginning to end. He plays Cvetic as a man torn between his duty and his desire to live a normal life again. He angrily demands release from the assignment in a couple of scenes with his FBI handlers, but each time is talked back into continuing. He has to maintain a hard-line exterior when dealing with the wavering teacher in front of other communists and talk the party line with seeming conviction. But it pains him to hear his brother call him a “slimy red” and hear his son call him a traitor, among other things. He has to take it and not break his cover even when his brother physically attacks him. The only time he breaks is when he writes a letter to his son revealing all and gives it to a priest to hold and give to the son in case anything happens to him. The letter eventually winds up in the wrong hands, but it has a conscience-changing effect on the person who gets it. Lovejoy did not have traditional matinee idol looks but looked, instead, just like the kind of guy who’d have a background like Matt Cvetic and it gives the film an authenticity it might not have had with a bigger star in the role.
Lovejoy’s probably best known these days for his role as the police lieutenant investigating a series of murders connected with a wax museum in HOUSE OF WAX (1953), a horror film starring Vincent Price which was the first release in 3-D from a major studio (Warner Bros.). This is one of only two DVDs I have of films with Lovejoy, so I was able to get some screen grabs.
Lovejoy was also one of the three-member main cast of the film noir drama, THE HITCH-HIKER (1953), one of a handful of films directed by actress Ida Lupino. Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien, two prominent tough guys of the era, play ordinary vacationers on a hunting/fishing trip who become captives of a fugitive homicidal maniac who gets a ride with them as a hitch-hiker and then holds them at gunpoint, proceeding to humiliate and abuse them in the course of the ride. William Talman plays the hitch-hiker and he’s genuinely scary, even to these two. At one point, O’Brien opens the trunk and has access to a shotgun but is too scared to pick it up and turn it on Talman. (Talman later played the D.A. who kept losing to Raymond Burr on “Perry Mason.”) This is the other one I have on DVD and here are some screen grabs of Lovejoy’s grim visage:
Lovejoy’s war and military-themed films included BREAKTHROUGH, RETREAT, HELL, BEACHHEAD, and STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND. He’s particularly good in BEACHHEAD, in which he and Tony Curtis go on a behind-the-lines mission on a Japanese-held Micronesian island during World War II and have to shepherd a French planter (Eduard Franz) and his daughter (Mary Murphy) to safety with a map showing locations of the mines laid by the Japanese in the island’s harbor. Lovejoy plays Sergeant Fletcher, a 26-year Marine veteran who is saddled with a blemish on his record from the loss of his platoon on Guadalcanal and has a lot to prove. There’s a scene involving a Japanese prisoner and a Melanesian native that ends on a note of startling cruelty, based on a decision Fletcher has to make to protect their mission, that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a war movie before. This is as rugged a war film as I’ve seen from that era and was shot entirely on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. Even Curtis, a rising star at Universal at the time, looks like he’s taking a lot of punishment and gripes more than usual. He’s not the happy-go-lucky swashbuckler of BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH or SON OF ALI BABA here.
Lovejoy’s westerns include CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER (1953), another Warner Bros. 3-D release, and one with a “Dirty Dozen” theme, in which army prisoners out west are recruited for a mission in Indian country. Lovejoy plays the Lee Marvin role, the officer who is charged with leading the misfits on their mission. I’ve seen both this and HOUSE OF WAX in 3-D. Lovejoy also played the title character in COLE YOUNGER, GUNFIGHTER (1958), his last film and one of the few in which he was the star. He plays the famous outlaw as more of a grizzled old saddle tramp, dispensing advice to his younger companion, Kit Caswell (James Best), a fugitive rebel who is more the central figure in the piece. No mention is made of Cole’s notorious exploits nor his more famous associates, such as Frank and Jesse James. In fact, he never actually commits any acts of outlawry in the course of the movie, going so far as to get a steady job and make an honest living on a cattle crew at one point. Leave it to Lovejoy to rehabilitate a famous bandit.
After making the film, Lovejoy made no more films but chose to appear on television regularly for the next four years until his death from a heart attack. He was born in the Bronx, my home borough, and died in New York.
Other films of Lovejoy’s that I would recommend, in addition to those cited above:
HOME OF THE BRAVE (1948): Based on a play by Arthur Laurents about a Jewish soldier who copes with prejudice on the frontlines. The film made the central character a black soldier and Lovejoy plays a sympathetic sergeant.
BREAKTHROUGH (1950): A good straightforward WWII combat film.
TRY AND GET ME (aka THE SOUND OF FURY, 1950): I’ve never seen this, but it’s a drama about lynching and was directed by Cy Endfield before he was blacklisted. Lovejoy plays a family man who gets drawn into a crime because of money worries and then has to suffer the consequences. It’s certainly a change of pace for him. Has this ever even aired on TV?
GOODBYE, MY FANCY (1951): Just to show how schizophrenic Hollywood could be, this was a liberal drama about freedom of speech on campus, made the same year by the same studio as I WAS A COMMUNIST. The stars are Joan Crawford and Robert Young. It’s been years since I’ve seen this and I’ve forgotten what role third-billed Lovejoy played.
RETREAT, HELL (1952): A Korean War drama directed by Joseph H. Lewis.
THE SYSTEM (1953): Lovejoy plays a mobster, one of the few times he portrays a man on the other side of the law. But even here, he’s never all bad and turns out to be something of a good guy.
SHACK OUT ON 101 (1955): Lee Marvin steals the show in this comic crime caper. I remember finding this pretty wild when I saw it on TV decades ago, but I don’t remember what role Lovejoy played.
Lovejoy was one of those solid, dependable professionals in the studio system who did whatever he was assigned and gave it his best no matter what. He was not a showy actor but simply burrowed into the part and stayed there for the whole of the film. I don’t know if he ever made a bad movie or not, since I’ve liked everything I’ve seen him in. People like him make so many of the movies from that era so believable and so enjoyable.
In exactly two months, on May 28, look for my centennial tribute to John Payne: