I was sick for a few days this month and had trouble completing a couple of planned blog entries, so I wound up watching a lot of films at home while I recuperated. Three of them star Joseph Cotten because they were all on a tape recorded off TCM on a day they paid tribute to Cotten. Here are notes on five of the films, all watched on VHS tape. I don’t have much in the way of illustrations.
TALES OF MANHATTAN (1942) is one of those anthology films that were in vogue for a while in the 1940s (this may, in fact have been the first), meaning it has several different unrelated stories in it (with different casts and different writers, but all coordinated by one director), with a pretty tenuous connection linking them. In this one, the connection is a used suit coat with tails, required for certain social occasions, that passes from one owner to the next and leads to various complications for each of them. In one story, it’s used to substitute for a playboy’s suit coat which has to be attributed to his best friend so that the playboy gets off the hook when his fiancée finds a love note from the playboy’s secret mistress in the playboy’s actual suit coat. When the fiancée tries to match up the love note with the milquetoast best friend, she suddenly starts to look at the milquetoast with new appreciation and winds up dumping the playboy for him. It’s all completely implausible, but the fact that it’s played by Cesar Romero as the playboy, Henry Fonda as the best friend and Ginger Rogers as the girlfriend makes it quite watchable. The final sequence features Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and Clarence Muse in a tale of a poor black village in the south, far from Manhattan, which gets the suit coat after it’s dropped from a plane with $40,000 in its pockets. (The previous owner was an armed robber fleeing a caper who pulled off the coat after it has caught fire in the plane.) The story in this segment revolves around attempts to divide up the money among the town’s residents fairly. While it’s great to see these powerful performers all in one place without having to play servants and defer to white actors, there is an awful lot of racial stereotyping in the episode and it proved highly controversial at the time, with Robeson disavowing it and swearing off films for what turned out to be the rest of his career.
In any event, the reason I pulled this tape off the shelf is because it’s got a sequence with my favorite comic actor, W.C. Fields, that was cut from the official release version and only restored about 17 years ago, which is about when I bought this tape. (Why it took me so long to finally watch is something I can’t easily explain, except to say that my instincts probably told me it might not exactly be worth the long wait, to which I can only conclude that my instincts were correct.) The good thing about the Fields sequence is that it gives us a few minutes of previously unseen Fields on film. The bad thing is that it’s not terribly inspired and is little more than an excuse for Fields to bluster on in his verbose way addressing a temperance meeting while sipping a cup of alchol-laced tea that gets him (and his listeners, all sipping from the same bowl) drunker and drunker as the scene progresses. Margaret Dumont is on hand, but she and Fields don’t spar the way they did so memorably in NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK, made the year before. The short segment doesn’t add anything to the larger movie and was obviously cut because of the jarring change in tone it causes. Yes, it’s fun to see Fields share screen time with Dumont, but the material is not quite worthy of them. However, another actor who shares screen time with Fields in the segment is none other than the star of one of TV’s greatest sitcoms (“Sergeant Bilko”), Phil Silvers, who plays the store owner who sells Fields the coat in quite a memorable swindle. It’s an unusual pairing connecting two distinct and disparate eras of comedy. Silvers’ partner in the store is played by a onetime member of Jean Renoir’s stock company, Marcel Dalio. The film’s director, Julien Duvivier, a French filmmaker working in Hollywood for the duration of the war, also directed the following year’s supernatural anthology, FLESH AND FANTASY (1943).
WALK SOFTLY, STRANGER (1950) is one of those intriguing postwar Hollywood melodramas that seeks to avoid strict genre classification. It’s got crime film elements, occasional noir stylistic touches, a slowly developing romance between its two leads, and an almost documentary-style treatment of an American town in the immediate postwar era, but it’s hard to pin down as one genre or another. Which makes it fresher and less predictable than many of its more formulaic counterparts from other studios. Joseph Cotten plays a drifter who rents a room from the woman who now owns the house he grew up in and has her believe he’s staying in his old room. He courts the daughter (Alida Valli) of the town’s factory owner after he has told her that he worshipped her from afar when they were much younger. She’s been disabled in an accident and is in a wheelchair and the two begin to date and fall in love. He turns out not to be who he says he is and gets involved in a crime, staged far away from the town, in order to help an old buddy who’s in dire straits and on the lam. Eventually, the crime catches up with him and his buddy and he has to take drastic measures. The ending is more hopeful than not, an interesting twist when you recall that the two leads, Cotten and Valli, played lovers in THE THIRD MAN (1949), which had a most unhopeful ending as you may recall. Even more interesting, this film turns out to have been shot before THE THIRD MAN, but released afterwards. The director here, Robert Stevenson, directed Orson Welles in one of his best films as an actor in the 1940s, JANE EYRE (1944). Cotten, of course, co-starred with Welles in THE THIRD MAN and, much earlier than that, CITIZEN KANE (1941). Another actor from CITIZEN KANE, Paul Stewart, plays Cotten’s hapless buddy in this film. Another surprising cast member here is none other than future late-night talk show host Jack Paar, in the role of one of Cotten’s co-workers at the factory. Paar even sets him up with a local hottie, played by the ever-cute Jeff Donnell, who usually played best friends/comic relief, but is genuinely sexy for a change. However, Cotten stands her up for Valli, something I can’t quite forgive him for. It’s a subplot (shades of Lorraine Bracco in GOODFELLAS) that gets dropped and I wanted to see more of it. The screenplay is by Frank Fenton and it’s a good example of the kind of clever, adult writing, relatively short on contrivances, that once characterized Hollywood studio filmmaking.
THE MAN WITH A CLOAK (1951) offers Joseph Cotten as a struggling poet in 1848 New York who calls himself Dupin and gets involved with Madeline (Leslie Caron), a newly-arrived young Frenchwoman sent to appeal for financial help for the cause of the French Republic from General Thevenet, a retired French military officer (Louis Calhern) whose grandson is Madeline’s boyfriend. The general is living in a large house in lower Manhattan where his staff, led by Barbara Stanwyck, the general’s girlfriend/partner/manager/nemesis, is conspiring to let him drink himself to death and otherwise neglect his failing health, so they can get all his money when he dies. The intervention of Dupin and Madeline puts a crimp in their plans, especially when Thevenet calls in his lawyer to change his will. It’s a lightweight tale, enlivened by its powerhouse cast of stars and character players, including Margaret Wycherly as an Irish maid, Roy Roberts as a diligent cop on the beat, and Jim Backus as an indulgent Irish bartender. The ending includes a revelation of Dupin’s real identity, a famous writer of the time who was much better known in 1848 than the movie would have us believe. I already knew his identity from having seen the movie before on late-night TV a few decades ago, but it was fun spotting the clues placed in the frame from time to time, including the unusual pet bird the General owns. Directed by Fletcher Markle and also written, with some colorful dialogue, by Frank Fenton.
THE STEEL TRAP (1952) is a crime caper about an ordinary bank officer who suddenly gets bitten by the bug that makes people with access to lots of money suddenly think they can successfully make off with it. The basic premise is completely absurd because the character, Jim Osborne (Joseph Cotten, again), is a family man with a wife and child in suburban California who’s been working at the bank for eleven years and decides to rob the bank pretty much on a whim and then leave the country—with his wife—all in a matter of two days, without giving the whole operation quite enough thought to pull it off as cleanly as he’d like. What makes it harder is that he only has half the numbers to each of the bank vault’s different combination locks and must rely on other officers to know the other numbers and all have to jointly work together to open the safes each morning to remove the metal cash drawers. How he gets around this is never adequately explained (at least to me) and soon he’s off with a suitcase filled with $500,000 in cash in a mad dash to the Brazilian embassy to get their passports and visas in time to make the necessary flight that will take them to New Orleans to connect with a flight to Brazil before the bank officers get wind of the theft. (He’s chosen Brazil because it had no extradition treaty with the U.S. at the time.) He’s told his wife a story about getting assigned to take loan money down to Brazil for a big construction project and she seems to swallow it whole, even though he’s never been involved with international loans on the bank’s behalf before. As the journey progresses, almost everything that can go wrong does, yet he manages to emerge unscathed time after time even in situations where he should have been arrested or, at the very least, taken in for questioning. The upbeat resolution, while satisfying, I’m sure, to Cotten’s fans, defies all credibility. Despite the ludicrous plotting, the film works because it focuses on Osborne’s mental state each step of the way and his wavering resolve to continue in spite of certain failure looming at every step. The film also emphasizes the details of each step in the plan and its dependence on hair trigger timing and what to do if glitches appear—as so many do. It is, when all is said and done, genuinely suspenseful.
The casting makes it even more interesting because Cotten’s wife is played by none other than Teresa Wright who’d so memorably played Cotten’s loving niece, Charlie, in Alfred Hitchcock’s SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943) and their relationship here perfectly mirrors the relationship between Charlie and Uncle Charlie in the earlier film, starting out as one based on affection and trust and slowly deteriorating as the Cotten characters dissemble and reveal their horrible secrets. Watching Wright’s face in this film as she comes to realize exactly what her husband has done provides the emotional core this film needs.
The film was shot on location in Los Angeles and New Orleans. As far as I can tell, no shot was done in a studio. It was written and directed by Andrew L. Stone.
UNTAMED (1955) is one of those grandiose epic historical dramas shot in color and Cinemascope and designed as a vehicle for a studio’s two biggest stars, the studio being Fox and the stars being Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power. It was largely shot on location in South Africa and is based on a novel by Helga Moray, with a screenplay co-written by our new best friend, Frank Fenton, that tells the story of Katie O’Neill, an Irish woman (Hayward) who goes to South Africa with her new husband in the 1840s to find her fortune but to also follow the man she truly loves, a Dutch pioneer named Paul Van Riebeck (Power) who heads the Commandos, a group intent on creating the Dutch Free State. Complicating matters is the presence of another powerful Dutchman in the region, Kurt Hout (Richard Egan), a friend of Van Riebeck, who sets his sights on Katie himself, once she becomes widowed after a battle with Zulus. Eventually, of course, after much violence, death and turmoil, the two stars manage to ride off to a happy ending. The director is Henry King, Fox’s go-to guy for widescreen location epics in the 1950s.
The action scenes are quite plentiful and masterfully staged. It’s the kind of thing a big budget and location shooting could accomplish at the hands of a competent director in the age of studio filmmaking. In one sequence a full complement of thousands of Zulu warriors in full regalia and armed with spears and shields attacks a settlers’ wagon train where 50 men with rifles hold them off and successfully rout them. (Yes, this is a lot like a western.) The scene where the Zulus amass and surround the circled wagons and dance and chant before they attack is quite beautiful. Later on, in a lawless town run by an outlaw gang led by Kurt, diamond miners are subjected to harassment and robbery and only Van Riebeck and his Commandos can save the day in a spectacular final battle.
Through it all, Katie (now called Katia to conform with the local dialect) struggles to make a go of it, plowing the land to create a thriving farm, with Kurt’s considerable help, and then losing it all in a natural disaster. She bounces back by paying the natives in trinkets to purchase the diamonds they’ve found in the nearby caves and winds up losing that fortune as well, after going to great pains to recreate the life of luxury she’d lived in Ireland. Power comes into her life off and on, as the duties of his mission in life frequently take priority. Hayward dominates the film and plays this idealized character like the true movie star she was. Her scenes with Power where they profess their love for each other sparkle like the expert, if insincere Hollywood creations they are. (Somehow I can’t imagine their contemporary counterparts in Hollywood, say, Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson, quite pulling these scenes off today.)
The film opens on Katie’s father’s estate in Ireland where Van Riebeck has come to purchase horses. She and Paul seem to fall for each other rather quickly and the whole scene is reminiscent of the next year’s GIANT (1956), where Texas rancher Rock Hudson’s visit to a Virginia horse farm results in his taking a new bride, Elizabeth Taylor, back to Texas with him. The plot takes quite a different turn in UNTAMED, but the parallels are there. There’s also a strong resemblance here to GONE WITH THE WIND in its tale of a strong-willed Irishwoman with multiple partners against a backdrop of farming, civil upheaval and exploited black people.
Kurt has a longtime lover in Julia, a hot-tempered local beauty of indeterminate ethnic origin played by Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno. (I’m guessing the character was half-black in the novel.) Interestingly, Richard Egan and Moreno played similar roles the same year in SEVEN CITIES OF GOLD (1955), another color/Cinemascope Fox historical epic filmed on location, this time in the American Southwest for a tale of 16th century Spanish conquistadors looking for the title cities and setting up various Catholic missions along the way. Egan’s conquistador has an affair with Indian girl Moreno and when it’s time for the Spanish to move on she expects to accompany him, only to get his “It’s just one of those things” routines at which point the poor girl, who simply doesn’t get it, throws herself off a cliff. Fortunately, Moreno sticks around for the duration of UNTAMED, although Egan’s treatment of her isn’t much better, since he’s always pining for Hayward.
Van Riebeck has a loyal black sidekick/bodyguard named Tschaka, played by American actor Paul Thompson, whose filmography is dominated by native roles in 1950s jungle movies. Plenty of other Hollywood actors are on hand, including Agnes Moorehead, Hope Emerson, Brad Dexter, Henry O’Neill and child star Kevin Corcoran, as opposed to local recruits from the region where they filmed, which leads me to conclude that interiors were all shot in Hollywood and only location shots in South Africa.
Oh, and should I add that the Dutch Free State that is ultimately successfully established by Van Riebeck and company was one of the precursors of the apartheid state of the Republic of South Africa? And Van Riebeck is the good guy! It’s interesting to note how Hollywood’s attachment to celebrations of colonialism, empire-building, and exploitation of native populations continued to thrive in the same year that saw the Montgomery bus boycott and the rise of Martin Luther King onto the national stage. 1955 was also the year that saw the creation of the Freedom Charter in South Africa, described on Wikipedia as “the statement of core principles of the South African Congress Alliance, which consisted of the African National Congress and its allies – the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress. It is characterized by its opening demand; “The People Shall Govern!”
There were other films I viewed, but this entry is kind of long already and NINJA ASSASSIN doesn’t quite fit easily into this group.