Saturday, November 29, 2014

Stubs - Each Dawn I Die


Each Dawn I Die (1939) Starring: James Cagney, George Raft, Jane Bryan, George Bancroft. Directed by William Keighley. Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine, Warren Duff. Based on the novel Each Dawn I Die by Jerome Odlum (Indianapolis, 1938). Produced by Hal B. Wallis (Exec. Producer) Run Time: 92 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama, Prison

We’re wrapping up our celebration of the 75th anniversary of Hollywood’s Golden Year, 1939, on Trophy Unlocked with Each Dawn I Die. There were so many great films that came out of that year there is no way to write about them all and do much of anything else. While we wanted to highlight some of the great films from that year, like Stagecoach and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we also wanted to pay homage to some of the lesser films from that year as well: Indianapolis Speedway. Not every film was Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.

Films about men and women behind bars have been popular since the 1930’s, when the production code shifted emphasis away from gangsters committing crimes to showing the punishment for criminal behavior. Films like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) showed that harsh punishment can be handed out to the innocent as well. Each Dawn I Die touches on some of those same themes, but is not nearly as dark or message-laden.

Frank Ross (James Cagney) is a crusading newspaper reporter who is on the trail of a crooked District Attorney, Jesse Hanley (Thurston Hall). We watch as he stakes out the Bantom Construction Company and observes Hanley and his accomplice, W.J. Grayce (Victor Jory), burning the company’s books and ledgers to thwart a possible investigation and derail Hanley’s campaign for Governor. When Ross files his story, his editor, Patterson (Selmer Jackson), isn’t initially behind the story, but changes his tune when Hanley calls him to threaten the paper. Knowing that they are really onto something, Patterson tells Ross to keep writing.


Frank Ross (James Cagney) really thinks he's onto a big story. His editor, Patterson
(Selmer Jackson), tells him to keep writing. Fellow reporter and love interest,
Joyce Conover (Jane Bryan), looks on.

But Hanley makes good on his threats. One day after work, Ross is indentified by Shake (Abner Biberman) and knocked out by Polecat Carlisle (Alan Baxter). Still unconscious, Ross is put behind the wheel of a car and covered in whiskey. The car is then sent down the street where it collides with another car, turning it on its side and catching it on fire, killing the three young people inside.


An unconscious Ross is set up to take the fall for an accident that kills three.

The crowd gathers around a still groggy Ross and loudly declares his guilt. This carries over to the courtroom where, prosecuted by Hanley and Grayce, Ross is found guilty of manslaughter while driving drunk, a crime made more heinous by Ross’ previous reporting about the horrors of DUI.

On the way to prison, Ross is handcuffed to “Hood” Stacey (George Raft), a hardened criminal and notorious racketeer who is serving a 199 year term for murder, the state they’re in does not have a death penalty.


On the train trip to prison, Ross finds he's handcuffed to Stacey (George Raft), a hardened criminal.

John Armstrong (George Bancroft) is the warden at the prison, who tries to be hard, but fair, to his prisoners. Ross and Stacey both work in the prison’s twine manufacturing plant. The two become friends when Ross saves Stacey from a knife thrown by another inmate, Limpy Julien (Joe Downing). Intending to get his own revenge, Stacey takes a shiv to a prison showing of Wings of the Navy (1939), but someone else kills Limpy.


Prison warden John Armstrong (George Bancroft) is tough but fair.

Stacey offers Ross a deal. If Ross will implicate him, Stacey will be tried in the courthouse; there, he can make an escape. When he’s out, he can find Shake, whom Ross knows identified him to whomever framed him. At first Ross does not want to be a part of it, but a visit from his fellow reporter/girlfriend, Joyce Conover (Jane Bryan), who has brought his mother (Emma Dunn) with her, changes his mind.

Ross' mother (Emma Dunn) and his reporter/girlfriend, Joyce Conover (Jane Bryan), visit him in prison.

When Ross gets back to the twine factory, he accepts Stacey’s deal as his best bet to get out. But, being a newspaperman, Ross can’t resist tipping off his paper to cover the trial heavily. Ross is in the courtroom, as a witness for the prosecution, and watches as Stacey makes an escape, jumping out the window, landing in a truck filled with down and escaping in a waiting car driven by one of his cohorts.


Under a table in the twine factory, Ross accepts Stacey's deal.

Stacey feels betrayed by Ross because of all of the press coverage. Ross is treated back at the prison as an accomplice, beaten by the brutal guards and sentenced to five months in solitary confinement, or, as it is known, “the hole”. In solitary prisoners are handcuffed to the bars in the dark and fed bread and water once a day at noon. While Stacey had warned Ross of this treatment, Ross is changed by it, becoming hardened and unruly. He keeps thinking Stacey is looking out for him, but it takes Joyce, who arranges a meeting through Stacey’s attorney, Lockhart (Clay Clement), to convince the criminal that Ross is worth helping.


Ross is hardened by his time in "the hole".

She goes back to the prison and convinces the Warden to give Ross a second chance. He agrees and puts him up for parole after he’s turned himself around. But now Governor Hanley has appointed Grayce as the head of the parole board. Because Ross insists he’s innocent of the crime he was charged with and since he isn’t repentant, Grayce tells him that they can’t grant him parole. Ross lashes out and has to be physically restrained. He then breaks down and asks for forgiveness. The parole board, of course, turns him down and says he can reapply in five years.


The parole hearing doesn't go Ross' way.

On the outside, Stacey’s men find Shake, who gives them the name of the man who hired him, Polecat, who turns out is back in prison, sent there for cover. The only way for Stacey to make good for Ross, who he’s convinced is "square guy", is to go back to prison and root out Polecat. Ross is unaware that Stacey is back until he sees him being taken to solitary. Ross is convinced Stacey can’t help him.


At Joyce's request, Stacey has his men find Shake in an effort to clear Ross.

Stacey’s presence instigates a prison breakout, led by Dale (Edward Pawley), as part of his plan, arming the men in the twine factory with guns. Ross doesn’t want to be a part of it, but is forced along. He does manage to keep one prisoner from getting involved by knocking out the Fargo Kid (Maxie Rosenbloom). Ross tries to stop the riot, but is forced at gunpoint to participate. Stacey, who is freed from solitary, orders the prisoners to bring along Polecat.

A prison guard is killed when he tries to disarm a convict. While the warden and some of his men are held as hostages, the National Guard is called out to stop the riot. Armed with machine guns, gas and hand grenades, they trap the rioters in solitary and hold them down. Under fire, Stacey forces Polecat to confess to framing Ross with the warden and his men as witnesses. Stacey, who is wounded, forces Polecat to go with him and be killed so he cannot recant his confession. All the rioters are killed, with only Ross spared.


During the aborted escape attempt, Stacey gets Polecat Carlisle (Alan Baxter) at gunpoint
to confess to setting Ross up for the crime that sent him to prison.

The warden helps to have Ross released and Governor Hanley and Grayce are indicted for murder. I’m not sure what this film says about the justice system in the 1930’s or at least how it was perceived. Men like Ross get convicted of crimes they did not commit and confessions taken with a gun to one’s head are enough to free men from prison.

While both Cagney and Raft were well known for their portrayals as gangsters at Warner Bros., this is the first and only time the two shared leads in a film. While we’ve written before about Cagney’s career at Warner Bros., we haven’t had an opportunity to discuss the career of George Raft except when discussing roles he’d turned down, including the role of Chips Maguire in It All Came True (1940) and Rick in Casablanca (1942), both of which went to Humphrey Bogart. He would also pass on Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), another role that would have a significant impact on Bogart’s career.

Having made a career as a dancer in New York and London, Raft moved to Hollywood in 1929 to act in the film Queen of the Night Club (1929) starring Texas Guinan, a saloon keeper and actress in who’s stage act Raft had danced. Raft had such prowess as a dancer that the great Fred Astaire would remark in his autobiography that Raft was lightning fast and did the fastest Charleston he’d ever seen.

He had small uncredited roles in some early Cagney films such as Taxi! (1932), in which he played a dance competitor, and Winner Take All (1932). That same year he would also draw attention as a nickel-flipping second lead alongside Paul Muni in Scarface (1932). So strong was Raft’s identification as a gangster that he was often thought to have been a former gangster himself. Raft was friends with some very famous underworld figures, including Bugsy Siegel and Siegel’s old friend Meyer Lansky. Raft reportedly interceded on behalf of Gary Cooper when the actor’s romantic escapades led him to inclusion on one gangster’s hit list.

Even though he would move to Paramount Pictures, Raft would continue to be a major gangster star, along with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, throughout the 1930s. Bogart, who would ultimately be the bigger star, was a distant fourth in popularity. Raft is also credited for giving Mae West her first break in Hollywood, when he got her cast in Night After Night (1932) after the studio refused to cast Texas Guinan as Maudie Triplett because of her age, even though the character was based on her.

The success of Each Dawn I Die led Warner Bros to signing Raft to a long term contract. However, his career would peak in the early 1940’s. Following the release of Background to Danger (1943), a film meant to capitalize on Casablanca’s success, Raft demanded termination of his contract with Warners. Offered a $10,000 settlement, Raft inexplicably sent a check for that amount to the studio, rather than the other way round.

After that, Raft continued to make movies, but they were of declining quality and were often made overseas for tax benefits. During the 50’s he spent a lot of time as the greeter at the Capri Casino, of which he was a part owner in Havana, Cuba, a well-known haven for organized crime. He appeared on the syndicated television series I’m The Law (1953) which ran for one season. While he made the occasional appearance in films, his career got a definite boost when he appeared in Billy Wilder’s comedy Some Like it Hot (1959) as Spats. Raft followed up that part with the role of a casino owner in the Rat Pack starrer Ocean’s 11 (1960). He made a brief cameo in Casino Royale (1967) after going to the UK in 1966. Raft’s last film appearances were in Mae West’s Sextette (1978) and The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980). He would die of leukemia in Los Angeles at the age of 85.

While I’ve always found Raft to be a little stiff and while he was good in this film, that opinion didn’t change after watching Each Dawn I Die. Raft isn’t very expressive, so he comes off as wooden. But I did see a wide variety of emotions from Cagney, who plays it hard and then moments later breaks down crying. There is one scene after the visit with his mom, Ross is walking back to the twine factory; no words are spoken, but through his gait you see him transform himself from broken man to someone with determination.  It is when he gets back to the twine factory that Ross accepts Stacey’s offer.

The female lead, Jane Bryan had a very short screen career, lasting only from 1936 until 1940. She was being groomed at Warners as a leading lady and given prominent roles in films like Marked Woman (1937), Kid Galahad (1937), A Slight Case of Murder (1938) and Invisible Stripes (1939). But in 1940, Bryan married Justin Dart, the wealthy owner of Dart-Kraft, Inc., formerly Rexall Drugs, and retired from acting.


Actress Jane Bryan.

Her character is pivotal to the plot as she does most of the behind the scenes heavy lifting to convince Stacey to help Ross and the warden to give Ross a second chance. She is the strong female that binds all the men together in these kinds of films, similarly to how Ann Sheridan’s May Kennedy character was the link between Captain of the yard Jameson (Pat O’Brien) and her brother Red (Humphrey Bogart) in San Quentin (1937).

Unlike earlier Cagney films that we’ve reviewed on this blog, more care seems to have been taken with Each Dawn I Die. For one the shooting schedule lasted about two months, so you don’t have the sped up sense of Winner Take All and The Crowd Roars (1932), films that seemed to be literally cranked off an assembly line.

Like directors of some of the other films we’ve reviewed, William Keighley is not a name that appears on a list of great film directors, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t make some well known films. He directed a variety of genres and directed Cagney in several films, including G Men (1935), The Fighting 69th (1940), Torrid Zone (1940) and The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). Keighley also directed Bullets or Ballots (1936), Brother Rat (1938) and The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942). Keighley started to direct The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but was replaced by Michael Curtiz. Keighley would retire from films in 1953 and move to Paris with his second wife Genevieve Tobin.

While prison films are not for everyone, Each Dawn I Die is a pretty good one. I would say that it's definitely better than San Quentin. There seems to be more meat on the bone here. Not that either Red's or Ross' stories are typical of real prisoners, there are more layers in Each Dawn I Die than San Quentin. And given the status of each actor at Warner Bros. at the time of their respective prison films, you can see the difference between an A film (Cagney) and a B film (Bogart).

Anyone who is a fan of Cagney’s or Raft’s will no doubt enjoy this film as much as I did.

Interested in seeing the movie? It is available as part of a four feature two disc set at WBShop:

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stubs – San Quentin (1937)


San Quentin (1937) Starring: Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, Barton MacLane. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Screenplay by Peter Milne, Humphrey Cobb. Story by Robert Tasker, John Bright. Produced by Jack L. Warner (Exec. Producer) Hal B. Wallis (Exec. Producer) Run Time: 70 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Drama, Prison

After having successfully created the gangster film genre, Warner Bros. was starting to find itself under fire by the new production code of 1933 which was suddenly being enforced. A simple fix was to move gangster stars, like Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar 1930) and James Cagney (Public Enemy 1931) into law enforcement in 
Bullets or Ballots (1936) and G-Men (1935) respectively.

But Warners was never one to walk away from a news story that could be made into a movie. They had already made a film about prison-life, I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), and with the depression starting to come to a close, prisons were filled with the victims of the hard times who were being forced to share cell space with hardened career criminals. This, coupled with overcrowding and tales of prison guard brutality, was more fodder for the Warner Bros. By the end of the decade, Warner Bros. had released several prison films including: Alcatraz Island (1937), Blackwell's Island (1939), Each Dawn I Die (1939) and San Quentin (1937), which starred up and comers named Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart.

An example of guard brutality opens the film. The prisoners are in the yard when some of them are being called to the Captain’s porch, which is where re-assignments and punishments are handed out. Captain of the Yard Druggin (Barton MacLane) dishes out punishment to a deaf prisoner, upping his time in solitary by ten day increments, because the prisoner can’t hear him. Such treatment leads to unrest amongst the prisoners, who protest their treatment.

Captain of the Yard Druggin (Barton MacLane) likes to dish out punishment.

The warden calls Druggin into his office to tell him that a new Captain of the Yard will be arriving tomorrow. Druggin, as it turns out, was an interim fill-in who thought he might get the job. The warden informs him that he lacks people skills and that they’re bringing in someone who does, Army trainer Stephen Jameson (Pat O'Brien). Druggin, not surprisingly, does not take the news well.

For his last night on active duty, Jameson goes to the Lorenz Revue with a couple of his fellow officers. His friends are ribbing him about his assignment, but Jameson is more interested in the captivating singer May Kennedy (Ann Sheridan), who is singing under the stage name, Mae De Villers. There seems to be a rule that every Warner Bros. sound era film in the 1930’s has a nightclub scene with a featured song. In this case the song is “How Could You," music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

May Kennedy (Ann Sheridan) sings at the Lorenz Revue.

May’s kid brother, Joe "Red" Kennedy (Humphrey Bogart), a petty crook, shows up backstage. He asks May for some money, telling her he has a job offer in Seattle. But no sooner does she give him the money than the police arrive to arrest him for robbery. Shots are fired and Jameson, as well as other patrons, go backstage to see what’s the commotion. He sees Red being arrested, but Red doesn’t see him. Once the police take him away, Jameson moves forward to comfort May, but she’s up and the show must go on.

Red (Humphrey Bogart) shows up backstage and asks his sister for some money.

The next day is Jameson’s first day at San Quentin. Out in the yard, one of the prisoners, Dopey Rogers (Garry Owen), is shown reading from the Common Book of Prayers. While he is praying a couple of other prisoners give him a hot foot, much to the amusement of others in the yard.

The San Quentin prison yard as shown in the film.

When the Warden introduces Jameson, he tries to make a brief speech, but he is interrupted by a heckler. As punishment, Jameson makes him get up in front of the yard to sing. He’s shown later still singing though the yard is now empty.

Soon, Red shows up in a delivery of prisoners. With him is Sailor Boy Hansen (Joe Sawyer) who has been at San Quentin before. Red is unfamiliar with prison terms, like a weekend meaning ten years. Hansen takes him under his wing and show him the ropes. Red also meets Jameson for the first time.

Red arrives at San Quentin with Sailor Boy Hansen (Joe Sawyer).

Out in the yard, Red tells anyone who will listen that he’s got friends on the outside who will spring him. He talks so much that Sailor Boy plans a practical joke. Red hears his name and prisoner number called out. He’s told that he’s going to be sent back to San Francisco. But Red doesn’t think it’s so funny and in fact punches Hansen for his part in it. That punch lands Red in solitary for fighting.

Back at the Lorenz Revue, Jameson makes a point to bump into May. She invites him back to her apartment for some home cooking. There she opens up about her brother and the mistreatment he is no doubt receiving in prison.

Next, May goes to visit Red in prison, but gets caught passing money to him that Sailor Boy has told him is necessary for smokes and chocolate. Red get punished and May is called by Druggin to deal with Jameson, unaware that the two know each other. May is not happy to learn this is what Jameson does for a living, but he tries to explain to her that he thinks he can bring something better out of Red, who has lost all privileges for thirty days.

May visits Red in prison and gets in trouble for passing him money.

Twenty-nine days later, Jameson is conducting an inspection. Rogers is there. Jameson realizes that there is something mentally wrong with him and plans to talk to the board about moving him elsewhere. He also runs into Red again and offers that if he keeps straight and follows the rules, he’ll see time come off his sentence.

The next day, Red is working in one of the machine shops and is partnered with Sailor Boy. There are no hard feelings between them. They talk about escape out on the yard while playing dominoes. Rogers comes by proselytizing to the yard, but Sailor Boy and Red work together to knock him over, which again brings laughter to the yard at Roger’s expense.

Out on the yard, Sailor Boy and Red talk about escape.

When a guard accidentally drops his rifle into the yard, Rogers scoops it up. He shoots one of the guards and threatens everyone, prisoner and guard alike. Jameson shows up and manages to get the rifle away from Rogers, who is then taken to the hospital because he needs mental treatments. The prisoners, including Red, are impressed by Jameson’s bravery and decisiveness.

After getting no respect for so long, Dopey Rogers (Garry Owen)
snaps and takes revenge when a rifle falls into the yard.

Jameson’s approval drops when he starts changing the assignments, putting Red and others on the road gang, which displaces some who feel they’ve earned the privilege. Prisoner’s protest and strike rather than go to work. The yard nearly riots, but Jameson demands its clearance and sends everyone to their cells with no chow. Still it takes guards firing into the air to clear the yard. Still, the prisoners don’t go willingly, banging the pipes with their cups. Even turning off the lights on them doesn’t quiet them down.

Druggin, who has never gotten along with Jameson, uses the near riot to call a reporter friend of his at the Daily Chronicle. Soon headlines are everywhere about Jameson’s methods. The public outcry has Jameson brought before the prison board. There he explains what he’s trying to do and asks for a chance, which the board grants him.

After May visits Red, she asks to see Jameson, who is out in the yard. While Druggin watches on, May thanks Jameson for what he’s doing for her brother and apologizes for her earlier comments about prison guards.

While Duggin watches, May thanks Jameson for the treatment Red is receiving.

Meanwhile, Hansen plots a potential escape plan with his girl, Helen (Veda Ann Borg) when she comes to visit. He tells her that if he can get on the road crew then she could help him. Another prisoner, identified as Fink (Ernie Adams), overhears Hansen’s plans and goes to, what else, Fink to Druggin. His sign that he has something to say is to drop a piece of paper. While Druggin yells at him for littering, Fink tells him what he’s learned.

Sailor Boy hatches an escape plan with his girlfriend, Helen (Veda Ann Borg)

When Jameson gives Druggin the list of prisoners for the road gang, Druggin alters it to add Hansen to the detail.

While working together, Hansen tells Red about his plans, but Red, following advice he’s heard many times, tells him he just wants to keep straight and get out as soon as he can. But back in the bunk house for the road gang, which seems odd since they go back and forth to the prison, Red gets ribbed about his special treatment, which is credited to Red’s outside connections until one prisoner makes reference to May’s relationship with Jameson, hinting at, but not explicitly stating (this was made under the Production Code) Jameson is swapping sexual favors from May for treating Red with kid gloves.

Red doesn't take kindly to accusations about his sister.

Upset about the allegations, Red decides to teach Jameson a lesson and tells Sailor Boy he wants in on the escape attempt.

Later, back on the road gang, Helen’s car has a flat tire right in front of the crew. When the guards tell her to leave, she asks for help, suggesting that Sailor Boy and Red, who just happen to be nearby, could do the work.  The guard agrees, but hidden in a secret compartment under her tools are guns, which Hansen and Red use to aid their escape. Druggin, who knows Hansen’s plan, is taken hostage; he is later thrown from the moving car.

Druggin gets thrown from the moving car as Red and Sailor Boy make their escape.

Guards take chase and manage to blow a hole in the gas tank before crashing. The Sheriff takes over the chase. Running low on fuel, the boys carjack another car and send Helen on her own. The boys manage to get ahead of their pursuers by barely beating a train to a crossing, but their luck doesn’t hold out and before they can try that maneuver again, Red, who is driving, crashes the car. Sailor Boy is killed, but Red manages to get away, catching a ride on a passing train.

Sailor Boy gets killed in the crash, but Red survives.

The warden tells Jameson that the escape means his methods are through. But Jameson wonders how Hansen’s name got on the list and vows to find Red.

Meanwhile, Red is still out for revenge. When he hits the city, presumably San Francisco, he heads to a friend’s shop and demands a .38 and some slugs, as he puts it.

Jameson, with Red watching from the roof, goes to see May. Red comes into the apartment and shoots Jameson in the arm. Still, Jameson wants to help him and tries to convince him he’s been duped and to give himself up. When police arrive to check out the gun shots, Jameson hides his wound under a coat and hides Red as well. But after the police have left, Jameson and May find that Red has again escaped.

Still on the run, Red breaks into May's apartment when Jameson is visiting her.

But Red doesn’t get very far before one of the police watching May’s apartment shoots him as he goes over a wall. But Red is not easily stopped and makes it out of the city. He hitches a ride with a trucker, who notices something’s not right with him. Red insists he’s fine and is let off at the San Quentin turnoff. From there he hikes to the prison, but dies at the gate from his wound and the loss of blood. One of his last words to a guard is to “tell Jameson I came back.”

Shot between October 5 and November 10, 1936, the film had some retakes in January and March, 1937. One of the reasons for the retakes was that Jack Warner thought the ending was rather abrupt and wanted an additional scene added to the end in which "Capt. Stephen Jameson" is having breakfast with "May Kennedy" when he receives a phone call from the warden telling him that "Joe 'Red' Kennedy" has died. Director Michael Curtiz shot the additional scenes in January, 1937 but they were later reshot by Bacon in March after Pat O'Brien returned to the studio after a six-week vacation. A studio memo from Associate producer Sam Bischoff to Producer Hal B. Wallis complained that the sequence, as shot by Curtiz, was not a sufficiently serious ending to the tragic situation that had transpired. The final version of the film does not contain this additional scene.

Like so many Warner Bros. films from the 30’s and 40’s, it is sometimes the supporting actors who add that little extra something to the film. In this case, it’s Barton MacLane, who was a contract player at Warner Bros. in the 1930’s and 40’s. He began his career on the Broadway stage, making his debut at the age of 25 in The Trial of Mary Dugan in 1927. His first screen appearance is in an uncredited role in the Marx Brother’s Cocoanuts (1929). His first film credit was in His Woman (1931). But MacLane wasn’t through with Broadway. He wrote a play, Rendezvous, in which he played the part of Private Oakley. While the play only ran for 21 performances, it was enough to get him noticed and signed as a contract player to Warner Bros.

Regularly cast as a heavy or bad guy, MacLane sometimes played tough policemen, such as Detective Dundy opposite Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). He would also work with Bogart and director John Huston again in the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Other notable films MacLane appeared in include: Frisco Kid (1935) opposite James Cagney; Bullets or Ballots (1936) with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell and Bogart; High Sierra (1941) again with Bogart; All Through the Night (1941) with Bogart and Conrad Veidt; San Quentin (1946), not a remake and in which MacLane plays a convict; The Geisha Boy (1958), starring Jerry Lewis; Pocketful of Miracles (1961), directed by Frank Capra; The Rounders (1965) starring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda; and his last film, Buckskin (1968).

Barton MacLane played a lot of heavies in films.
When film work slowed, MacLane moved to TV, appearing in guest roles on shows as: Cheyenne; 77 Sunset Strip (1958); Perry Mason, four episodes from 1959-1964; Laramie (1960), four episodes in 1960, 1962 and 1963; The Munsters (1966); and Gunsmoke, two episodes in 1966 and 1967. He was one of the stars of the 1960 western series on NBC, appearing in 27 episodes; and appeared in 35 episodes of I Dream of Jeannie from 1965 to 1969.

When not acting, MacLane lived on a cattle ranch in Madera County, California, located in the Central Valley, and played several musical instruments, including the violin, piano and guitar. Born on Christmas Day, 1902, MacLane died on New Year’s Day 1969 from double pneumonia.

Joe Sawyer, who played Sailor Boy Hanson, was a Canadian-born actor who appeared in more than 200 films between 1930 and 1962, sometimes in uncredited roles. A stable at Warner Bros. in the 30’s, he appeared in such films as Jimmy the Gent (1934), Frisco Kid, The Petrified Forest (1936), Black Legion (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Sergeant York (1942), Gilda (1946), The Killing (1956) and How the West Was Won (1962). He also appeared on Broadway in the play Casey Jones (1938) and on TV in such shows as Maverick, Bat Masterson, Sugarfoot and Peter Gunn. His is one of those faces you see again and again in films.

Joe Sawyer with Humphrey Bogart in San Quentin (1937).

The film’s director, Lloyd Bacon, is not someone who gets mentioned when talking about the greats or, as the French would say, auteurs. Still, he did direct over 100 films between 1920 and 1955. Bacon started out as an actor, appearing in about 40 films including Charlie Chaplin’s shorts The Tramp (1915), The Champion (1915) and Easy Street (1917).

Bacon began directing comedy shorts and moved on to features at about the same time sound came into use. A workhorse director for Warner Bros., Bacon is not remembered for having many classic films to his credit, though his name and his films frequently show up on Trophy Unlocked. While he was the director on 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933), his work is overshadowed by the choreography of Busby Berkeley. Bacon would direct several films starring James Cagney: Picture Snatcher (1933), Here Comes the Navy (1934), Frisco Kid (1935), Boy Meets Girl (1938) and The Oklahoma Kid (1939), but he’s not known for the actor’s signature gangster roles.

Director Lloyd Bacon.

Bacon would also direct A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Indianapolis Speedway (1939), Brother Orchid (1940), Knute Rockne All American (1940), Action in the North Atlantic (1944) and The Fighting Sullivans (1944). His last film would be She Couldn’t Say No (1954), starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Bacon died in 1955.

There is an attempted earnestness about San Quentin. Deep down inside, the film wants to be the next I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but it falls very short. The ending, with a dying Red trying to do good for Jameson and May, is a Hollywood ending if there ever was one. Druggin may get his comeuppance, but he is never held responsible for the wrongs he’s done and there is no sign that things will really change. In fact, since Jameson’s plans failed, his reforms seem more likely to be discarded than adopted.

We are also never shown how harsh the treatment really is, the way Fugitive from a Chain Gang showed us with beatings and harsh conditions. Like the long shots of the actual San Quentin prison yard, we are kept away from seeing actual mistreatment or suffering by the prisoners at the hands of those in power like Druggin. We are told rather than shown and that waters down the message.

Perhaps it was Hollywood at the time, trying to work within the confines of the Production Code, or it was simply bad filmmaking, but what could have been a powerful story of prisoner abuse gets shorted by a somewhat hard to believe (not to mention really convenient) relationship between the Captain of the prison yard and the beautiful sister of one of his newest prisoners. These kinds of romantic connections are better suited for comedy than a prison picture.

If you’re like me and want to see everything you can starring, or almost starring, Humphrey Bogart, then you should definitely see San Quentin, if only to see how far he would come. And there are better prison films out there if you’re interested in that genre of films, such as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. San Quentin is not a bad film, just one that could have been better and could have meant more if it had been.

Interested in seeing this film? It is available at WBShop.com:

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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)


Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton, Andrea Risenborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. Screenplay by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo. Produced by Alejandro González Iñárritu, John Lesher, Arnon Milchan, James W. Skotchdopole. Run Time: 119 minutes. U.S. Color, Comedy

Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be a household name, or one that is easy to spell, but his latest film, Birdman, is one of the most interesting I’ve seen in quite a while. Without giving too much about the story away, as the film is still in theaters, the most interesting concept to come along is the film, for the most part, is shot to look like it is one continuous shot. The idea is not new, as Alfred Hitchcock tried the same feat with Rope (1948); there is, after all, nothing new under the sun. But while Hitchcock was limited on how long a take could be and was thus forced to use rather clunky transitions between takes, Iñárritu’s film does not suffer from such limitations.

The film though is much more than a one-trick pony, telling the story of a Hollywood film actor, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who twenty years previous had starred as Birdman, a fictional comic book superhero, in a trilogy of films. Now past his marquee prime, Riggan wants to reinvent himself as a Broadway playwright, director and actor, by adapting a Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". His best friend/lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), is producing and Riggan’s adult, estranged and straight-from-rehab daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), is working as his personal assistant throughout the ordeal.

Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is an actor whose career is
overshadowed by his role in a comic-book inspired movie trilogy.

In the cast of Thomson’s play are his girlfriend, Laura (Andrea Risenborough); a theater actress, Lesley (Naomi Watts), who has never appeared on Broadway; and as a last minute fill-in, Lesley’s boyfriend, a well-known and troublesome Broadway actor, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton). Add in Thomson’s ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) and Tabitha (Lindsay Duncan), a theater critic for the New York Times who does not like Hollywood actors trying to legitimize themselves by trodding the boards on the Great Way.

Naomi Watts plays Lesley, a theater actress looking forward to her big break on Broadway.

The story is told with a dark sense of humor which should be expected from a filmmaker best known for directing what has been called the Death Trilogy: Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). There is also a sense of magic with Riggan displaying capabilities that are presented as both real and imagined. You’re never sure if it’s in his head or not.

While the script was not written specifically to tell Keaton’s personal story, he would be the perfect choice for the role. Having played the Dark Knight in two films directed by Tim Burton: Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), Keaton brings a certain real world gravitas to the Thomson character that only a handful of other actors could bring and probably not do as well as Keaton does with the part. A failed stand-up turned comedic actor, Keaton has shown, when given the opportunity, that he is capable of being more than simply funny and is willing to do whatever the part requires. 

It also seems that Edward Norton was born to play Mike Shiner. Norton has a reputation for being hard to work with, which he shares with the Shiner character. Norton is not afraid to let it all hang out with his performance and maybe that’s why, despite his reputation, he continues to get work.

Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a hard to work with, but brilliant actor.

But of all the actors in the film, the biggest surprise, at least for me, was Zach Galifianakis, who plays a restrained, multi-dimensional character. His Jake does have some funny lines, but he’s not the comedic relief or the guy, in this film, that will do anything, no matter how base, for the laugh. While there have been hints of this in other roles, it was still nice to see some depth from the actor.

Zach Galifianakis gives a surprisingly restrained performance as Riggan's best friend/lawyer/producer.

The film is not without its problems. To begin with, there are few too many testicular references in the script for me, one would be too many, and they’re mostly used for shock value, which is lessened the more you hear it. Also, the story could be a little tighter and the Sylvia character, though Amy Ryan is good, isn’t really necessary. The climactic scene, and I won’t reveal what happens only that it’s a desperate action, seems a little unmotivated. And the film pulls away from the potential impact it could have had. The ending, while ambiguously upbeat, is still dissatisfying. And it’s not without clichés about the fragility of sexual orientation.

I liked Amy Ryan as Sylvia, Riggan's ex-wife. I just wasn't sure the character was needed.

Birdman has a certain independent film feel to it, literally drummed home by the soundtrack. While I can’t put my finger on a particular film, for some reason it reminded me of something John Cassavetes or some similar independent director might have utilized back in the day.

Still, I really liked the movie. A film that is essentially about going deep behind the scenes of not only a Broadway play, but also the actor/director/writer/producer’s psyche treats the fourth wall like it is more of a curtain than a solid structure to keep film and audience separated. This is not a technique that is right for all stories, but in a film in which time and space are free flowing concepts, it works. We’re never sure what reality we’re actually in and playing with the fourth wall is appropriate if not almost mandatory here.

The film started getting a buzz around festival time and was a big winner, though not the big winner, at the Venice Film Festival in September and no doubt the film, director, actors, cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, and soundtrack, Antonio Sánchez, will get more nominations in the coming awards season.

I would definitely recommend this film to anyone who is in the mood for something that is definitely offbeat. This is a well-made, well-acted, well-directed movie that will definitely have you talking about it after you’ve left the theater.

Stubs – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Starring: James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee Directed by Frank Capra. Produced by Frank Capra Screenplay by Sidney Buchman. Based on the unpublished story "The Gentleman from Montana" by Lewis R. Foster. Run Time: 129 minutes. U.S. Black and White, Drama, Political, Comedy.

Quick, name the most controversial film of 1939 at the time of its release? Now I’m sure we would all say Gone with the Wind, with its depiction of slavery and blacks in general. But not when it was released. The answer we were looking for is Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; but more on the controversy later.

The story the film was based on had been around before Columbia Pictures bought it. Both Paramount and MGM had submitted the story to the Hays Office of the Production Code Administration for approval in January 1938. Joseph Breen, the director of the PCA had warned Paramount upon their submission "we would urge most earnestly that you take serious counsel before embarking on the production of any motion picture based on this story. It looks to us like one that might well be loaded with dynamite, both for the motion picture industry, and for the country at large."

Rouben Mamoulian was supposedly interested in directing the film, but his involvement disappeared quickly as did Paramount’s and MGM’s. Perhaps they were put off by Breen’s reaction. Columbia Pictures became interested in the story as a vehicle for Ralph Bellamy, with Harold Wilson slated to produce. However, when Capra was brought on as director, the idea changed to a sequel of the very successful of Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), a screwball comedy directed by Capra and starring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur. The plan was to call it Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington, but Cooper wasn’t available, so Capra thought of James Stewart and Arthur. They had worked together the year before in Capra’s Academy Award Winning Best Picture, You Can’t Take It WithYou (1938). Stewart had to be borrowed for the film from MGM, his home studio at the time.

Like Paramount and MGM before it, Columbia submitted the story to the Hays Office. Once again, Breen warned Columbia that the picture needed to emphasize that "the Senate is made up of a group of fine, upstanding citizens, who labor long and tirelessly for the best interests of the nation," as opposed to `"Senator Joseph Paine" and his cohorts.

Breen’s opinion changed radically after reading Sidney Buchman’s script. He wrote a letter to Will H. Hays, the President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (forerunner to today’s MPAA) in which he stated: "It is a grand yarn that will do a great deal of good for all those who see it and, in my judgment, it is particularly fortunate that this kind of story is to be made at this time. Out of all Senator Jeff's difficulties there has been evolved the importance of a democracy and there is splendidly emphasized the rich and glorious heritage which is ours and which comes when you have a government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people.'”

But even though Breen’s opinion might have changed, not everyone wanted to be associated with the project. The Boy Scouts of America wanted no part of what they called “Mr. Capra's reform movement," and Capra therefore had to use the fictitious name of the Boy Rangers.

Shooting began in early April, 1939. Capra and his crew went to Washington, D.C. to film background material and to study the Senate Chamber, which was replicated, full scale, in precise detail on the Columbia lot. James D. Preston, a former superintendent of the Senate press gallery, acted as Capra's technical advisor for the Senate set and political protocol. A report at the time referred to the production utilizing the New York Street Set at the Warner Brothers lot near the end of their shooting schedule which wrapped on July 7th.

Political boss James Taylor (Edward Arnold) has big plans to perpetrate a scam against at Willett Creek by getting the federal government to build a dam there. But plans go awry when Senator Foley dies unexpectedly. There is no time for mourning as the spending bill, with the dam buried in it, is about to come up for a vote. Taylor needs the Governor to appoint someone who won’t ask too many questions.


"Nosey" (Charles Lane) calls his paper to report the death of Senator Foley.

Taylor has all the politicians in the state in his back pocket, including Governor Hubert Hopper (Guy Kibbee) and Senator Joesph Paine (Claude Rains). Hopper can’t make a move without Taylor’s approval. And while Taylor has a particular candidate, the public, represented by a citizen’s committee, wants someone else and Hopper bends to public will, which draws Taylor’s ire.

However, the governor’s sons have a different candidate in mind, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), the patriotic leader of the Boy Rangers and a hero who put out a forest fire by himself. Hopper sees Smith as a way out and appoints him to replace Foley. He convinces Taylor that the naïve Smith could be controlled.


Gov. Hopper (Guy Kibbee) introduces his choice to fill the vacancy, Jefferson Smith (James Stewart).

It is only after the fact that Paine realizes he knows Smith and was his father’s best friend. Jeff’s father ran a small paper that fought for the lost cause. Paine, who was a lawyer back then, would fight the good fight along with him. Then one day, the elder Smith was killed in the fight, shot in the back at his typewriter.

When they arrive in Washington, accompanied by Taylor’s stooge, Chick McGann (Eugene Pallette), they are met by some reporters, including “Nosey” (Charles Lane), who we had seen at the beginning of the film announcing Foley’s untimely passing. But despite the best laid plans to introduce Smith to the press, they can’t control him. As soon as Smith sees the Capitol building he is overwhelmed and walks away from the group and finds himself on a tour bus. Seeing the Lincoln Memorial and reading the President’s words that are chiseled into the walls strike Smith about the importance of his job.


Smith finds the Lincoln Memorial humbling.

Waiting for Smith to arrive at his office are Foley’s secretary, Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), and a cynical reporter, “Diz” Moore (Thomas Mitchell). Jefferson is five hours overdue when he finally comes through the door. Saunders almost chases him away before realizing he’s the new Senator.

Saunders (Jean Arthur) nearly chases Smith away from his office.

Saunders, as she’s called, and Diz both find Jefferson’s patriotic enthusiasm hokum. To fix his wagon, Saunders arranges for a press conference for Smith. He’s naïve, honest and forthcoming and is consequently made fun of in the papers, with photos and quotes taken out of context for maximum effect.


In a publicity still, Saunders, Smith and Diz (Thomas Mitchell) confer.

The next day, when Paine is to be sworn into office, one senator objects to his appointment, citing the newspaper stories as proof that Smith is not fit for office. But the President of the Senate (Harry Carey) won’t be party to the smear job and swears Smith into office. But Smith is outraged and hurt by his treatment in the press. He goes looking for the reporters who had made fun of him, slugging each one he finds. When he sees Nosey, he chases him into the National Press Club. There, Moore, Nosey and Sweeney Farrell (Jack Carson) tell him they think he is nothing more than an “honorary stooge” and is getting the treatment he thusly deserves.


In a publicity still, Sweeney Farrell (Jack Carson) helps hold back Smith from punching Nosey.

Hearing the truth hurts and Smith goes to see his mentor Senator Paine. There he makes the acquaintance of Paine’s daughter, Susan (Astrid Allwyn), whom he’d met briefly at the train station. She is pretty and sophisticated and makes Smith nervous when he’s around her. Paine convinces Smith that he should write a bill to establish the national Boy Rangers camp he’s been championing.

Excited, Smith goes back to his office to enlist Saunders’ help in writing it up. She tries to dissuade him with a lesson on how the Senate really works. Even if he can jump through all the hoops necessary to get his bill to the floor for a vote, the Senate will go into recess before the vote ever comes to pass. But Smith is enthralled by the challenge and Saunders resigns herself to help him. When Smith describes the 200 acres where he proposes to locate the camp grounds, Saunders recognizes it as the same place where Taylor plans to build his dam.

The next morning, Smith is excited about presenting his first bill for legislation. Saunders gives Moore a heads up about what will happen when Smith gets around to reading his bill to the floor. And no sooner does he utter the words Willett Creek, Chick jumps into action and calls Taylor.


Mr. Smith reads his proposed bill to start a Boy Rangers
camp to the Senate. Page Boy (Dickie James) proudly watches.

But despite Jeff’s nervousness, the other senators are receptive to his idea, with the exception of Paine, who is horrified. Not wanting to have Smith in the Senate the next day when the appropriation bill with the Willet Creek dam is discussed, Paine conspires to have his daughter Susan distract him for the day. Susan calls Saunders to help arrange the deception and Jeff is thrilled by Susan’s attention.

Saunders, however, is not happy with the way Jeff is being deceived and her role in that deception and gets drunk with Diz at dinner. She vows to quit her job and asks Diz to marry her. But when they go back to the office to get her things, Jeff is there, happy from his day with Susan. Saunders takes the opportunity to let Smith know what’s really going on before she leaves. Diz, realizing she’s too drunk to get married, takes her home.


At dinner with Diz, Saunders decides to quit her job and marry Diz. 

Smith, shocked by Saunders’ admission, goes to confront Paine, but Paine simply smooth-talks him. Alarmed, Taylor comes to Washington to twist Smith’s arm. Paine, who is also in the hotel room, doesn’t want any part of it and leaves out a side door. Taylor tries to tell Smith how things work. Taylor informs Smith that Paine works for him and offers a similar treatment for Smith if he plays it smart and doesn’t make waves.


Political boss James Taylor (Edward Arnold) comes to Washington to educate
Smith on how things really work. Taylor's stooge, Chick McMann (Eric Pallette), looks on.

But Smith doesn’t want to play ball and the next day, attempts to speak against the crooked bill. Not understanding the protocol, Smith yields the floor to Paine, who uses the opportunity to launch into an attack on Smith’s character, claiming Smith is using the boys camp for personal gain.

Smith's hero, Senator Paine (Claude Rains) leads the attack on him.

The allegations continue at a hearing before the Committee on Privileges and Elections. Hopper, Paine and others present phony evidence and lie about Jeff owning the land upon which he wants to build the camp. Jeff is so dumbfounded by Paine's lies that he cannot testify on his own behalf and decides to leave Washington.


Things get out of hand at Smith's hearing. He is dumbfounded by the lies told about him.

Bags packed, Jeff goes to the Lincoln Memorial, where Saunders finds him and convinces him not to give up and to attempt a filibuster to clear his name.


Saunders finds Smith, bags packed and ready to leave town at the Lincoln memorial.
She convinces him to stay and fight for his name and his cause.

H. V. Kaltenborn, a CBS radio correspondent in real life, is there the next morning to explain to us the rules of a filibuster, at least in 1939. As long as Smith remains talking on his feet and only yields for a question, he can hold the floor. (This is a really good device since I doubt very many people are up on U.S. Senate filibuster rules and they are important to the story.)


In a nice device, H.V. Kaltenborn, a real CBS radio correspondent,
is employed  to explain the rules of filibuster to the audience.

Before the Senate can vote to expel him, Smith gets recognized by the President of the Senate and launches into his filibuster, using the opportunity to reveal the truth about Taylor and Paine to the Senate, even as Paine continues trying to condemn him. The rest of the Senate doesn’t want to listen, but Jeff intends to talk until his news reaches his home state, and the people rise up against Taylor’s corrupt political machine.

But Taylor, who owns all the newspapers back home, organizes a massive campaign against Jeff. Many hours later, Saunders cheers up Jeff with a note telling him she loves him, and then calls his mother, telling her to enlist the Boy Rangers to spread the truth with their little four page paper. The boys publish and start to distribute their newspaper. There are protests on both sides, but Taylor’s men shut down the opposition, even going so far as harming some of the boys.

Taylor gets on the phones to lead the smear campaign against Smith back home.

Back at the Senate, Paine brings in 50,000 telegrams drummed up by Taylor, all of them urging Jeff to quit. Discouraged, Jeff resolves to keep fighting, but collapses from exhaustion after a nearly twenty-four hour filibuster. Paine breaks down, and after attempting suicide outside the senate chamber, confesses, saying that everything Jeff has said is true.

Everyone in the room cheers, Saunders jumps for joy and the film ends.


Smith is confronted by the 50,000 telegrams sent from his state urging him to quit.

Apparently, a slightly different ending was planned, one of which saw Smith and Saunders return to a hero’s welcome in his hometown and the implication that the two would wed and start a family. Perhaps clocking in at over two hours, Capra thought better of the anti-climatic ending and didn’t include it.


In an alternative ending, Smith returns home in triumph with Saunders.

The film had its premiere at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on October 17, 1939, sponsored by the National Press Club, an event to which 4,000 guests were invited, including 45 senators. Apparently some senators in attendance did not appreciate how their institution was portrayed and in his autobiography, Name Above the Title, Capra claims several walked out of the screening. (News reports of the day are unclear about this, or whether senators yelled back at the screen during the film, which has also been reported. But it makes a good story.)

Senate Majority Leader Alben W. Barkley, a Democrat from Kentucky who would serve as Truman’s Vice-President, is quoted as calling the film "silly and stupid," and that it "makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks." He also remarked that the film was “a grotesque distortion” of the Senate, “as grotesque as anything ever seen! Imagine the Vice President of the United States winking at a pretty girl in the gallery in order to encourage a filibuster!” Barkley thought the film “...showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!” Thou seems to protest too much.

The Senate is said to have gotten retaliation as only a legislative body can with the punitive Neely Anti-Block Booking Bill (which in the late 1940s led to the breakup of the studio-owned theater chains and led to the decline of the film industry.) Punishing your critics is another great Senate tradition, I guess.

But outrage wasn’t limited to elected officials. Capra also claims in his book that after the film's general release, he and Harry Cohn, the President and Production Director at Columbia Pictures, received a cablegram from Joseph P. Kennedy, then the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain. Kennedy claimed that the film would damage "America's prestige in Europe" and should therefore be withdrawn from European distribution.

Pete Harrison, a respected journalist and publisher of the motion picture trade journal, Harrison's Reports, suggested that the Senate pass a bill allowing theater owners to refuse to show films that “were not in the best interest of our country”.

Across the Atlantic, the film seemed to have the opposite effect. The film was banned in some countries, like Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain and Stalin's USSR, not places considered bastions of democracy. When a ban on American films was imposed in German occupied France in 1942, some theaters chose to show Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as the last movie before the ban went into effect. One theater owner in Paris reportedly screened the film nonstop for 30 days. So much for damaging American prestige, rather it showing it was the last act of rebellion against those who didn’t appreciate free speech.

Film critics didn’t go along with the condemnation. Frank S. Nugent, the film critic for the New York Times, wrote that Capra “is operating, of course, under the protection of that unwritten clause in the Bill of Rights entitling every voting citizen to at least one free swing at the Senate. Mr. Capra’s swing is from the floor and in the best of humor; if it fails to rock the august body to its heels — from laughter as much as from injured dignity — it won’t be his fault but the Senate’s, and we should really begin to worry about the upper house."

The film, made on a budget of $1.5 million, had a respectful boxoffice. While the numbers from back then are not considered as reliable as they are now, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is ranked as the 5th biggest film of 1939, behind the juggernaut of films, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and in line with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Jesse James.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would be nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (one each for Harry Carey and Claude Rains), Best Art Direction, Best Music, Best Editing and Best Sound, winning only one for Best Original Story. The film is also considered to be one of Capra’s best films.

The film represents a darker view of the human condition for Capra as a filmmaker. The crazy optimism of You Can’t Take It With You has been replaced by a more sinister view of the world. One in which people will lie, cheat and steal to get what they want; a world view that is unfortunately more realistic. This dark view can also be seen in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946); George Bailey does try to kill himself when he sees no way out from his predicament and feels that his life has been a waste up to the moment Clarence, the Angel, arrives on the scene. Suicide as a premise for a Christmas film is pretty dark you have to admit.

But, like It’s A Wonderful Life, Capra still has a sense that the individual can make a difference; that a lost cause can be won if the individual is persistent enough. Jefferson Smith goes on a filibuster that somehow changes Senator Paine’s attitude and he breaks down and confesses all on the verge of getting away with it. I wish I could share this sentiment. My opinion of politicians is that they skate as close to the edge of corruption and deceit as they can and will, even if their hand is caught in the cookie jar on video, deny the truth in order to stay in office. But to paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall, you try to make right in art what isn’t in real life.

James Stewart and Jean Arthur are reunited again, having been paired only the year before in You Can’t Take it With You. They seem to have good screen chemistry, but they would never be paired again on the big screen. While Stewart would go onto be the bigger star, Arthur was the more established actor at the time and received top-billing.


Despite their chemistry on screen, Stewart and Arthur never appeared again on screen.

Arthur had been in films since being discovered by Fox in the 1920s. She made her film debut in Cameo Kirby (1923), a film directed by John Ford. But she wasn’t at the time considered a good actress and was even replaced on The Temple of Venus (1923), a film that she was supposed to star in. But Arthur did not give up on acting.

She was signed by Action Pictures in 1924 and made over twenty westerns in two years there, making $25 a film. She also appeared in an uncredited part in Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925). She kept getting acting jobs in films, but she wasn’t happy with the direction her career was going. Her break came in Warming Up (1928), Famous Players-Lasky’s first sound film, starring Richard Dix. The film was heavily promoted and Arthur received praise and a three year contract with the studio, which would soon become Paramount.

She started to get positive reviews for her acting in films like Party Wire (1935), Public Hero No. 1 (1935) and If Only You Can Cook (1935), but her big break came when Capra cast her in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). Her roles in such films as You Can’t Take it With You made her so popular that she was one of the four finalists for the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

She would follow up Mr. Smith with performances in Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Talk of the Town (1942) and The More the Merrier (1943), the latter for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She would retire when her contract with Columbia expired in 1944, coming back to star in A Foreign Affair (1948) and Shane (1953). In Mr. Smith, she is vivacious and funny, charming the audience with her presence as she does Dix Moore and, more importantly, Jefferson Smith.

While Stewart and Arthur carry the movie, one of the joys of watching older films is to see the supporting cast and character actors and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has one of the better collections of such talent. Thomas Mitchell, who we wrote about in our review of Stagecoach (1939), is one of many who give superb performances in little roles. Mitchell seems to excel at playing drunks and heavy drinkers, something he would do to great effect as Uncle Billy in It’s A Wonderful Life.

Mitchell is one of several actors who would also appear in that classic film, besides Stewart. Beulah Bondi, who plays Ma Smith, would go onto to portray Ma Bailey. She would also play Stewart’s mother in two other films as well. H.B. Warner, the Senate Majority Leader, would play the drunken druggist Mr. Gower. And Charles Lane, who plays the reporter, Nosey, was Potter’s rent collector.

Claude Rains is one of my favorite supporting actors. While I’m very partial to his performance in Casablanca (1942), I also have enjoyed his work in such films as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Notorious (1946), The Unsuspected (1947) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He appeared in one British film, Build Thy House (1920), before emigrating to act on Broadway in 1920 at the age of 31.

In his next film, Rains was cast in the lead as The Invisible Man (1933), directed by James Whale, the director of Frankenstein. It was his distinctive voice that won him the part, since most of the film he is either wrapped in bandages or is invisible. The film, based on a novel by H.G. Welles, is a bit over the top with its special effects and frankly Rains’ laugh gets to be like fingernails on the chalkboard before the film is through.

Rains would find steady work in Hollywood, usually in a supporting role. He played the father, Adam Lemp, in the Four Daughters/Wives/Mothers series of films with the Lane Sisters. He portrayed Sir John Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941), as well as a string of films including Moontide (1942), Now, Voyager (1942), Casablanca. He would also appear in the Casablanca redux, Passage to Marseille (1944). But he wasn’t always cast to show off his talent, including what I thought was a dud, Phantom of the Opera (1943).

While the role of the President of the Senate is small, the actor, Harry Carey, had been one of cinema’s first superstars. He made his debut in D.W. Griffith’s Bill Sharkey’s Last Game (1909). He was one of the earliest Western film heroes, appearing as the character Cheyenne Harry in a series of films that ran from A Knight of the Range (1916) to Acres Wild (1936). He starred in John Ford’s first feature, Straight Shooting (1918). One of his last films was Red River (1948), in which he played Mr. Melville, who buys the cattle at the end of the drive. The film was released posthumously, as Carey had died in 1947 at the age of 69.

The film features some of the heavyweights of supporting actors: Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee and Eugene Pallette. All three are those faces you see in films from this era, but whose names you might not know.

Arnold, who plays James Taylor, had once been considered a leading man in Hollywood. Despite being labeled "box office poison" in 1938 by an exhibitor publication  along with the likes of Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn. Arnold never seemed to lack work, as he appeared in over 150 films usually in a supporting role. Politically active, Arnold lost a closely contested election for Los Angeles County Supervisor and said at the time that perhaps actors were not suited to run for political office.

Guy Kibbee was known for playing jovial and slightly daft characters in such earlier 30s  films as The Crowd Roars (1932); 42nd Street (1933); Footlight Parade (1933); and The Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). He would also appear in Captain Blood (1935); Our Town (1940); Girl Crazy (1943); Fort Apache (1948) and 3 Godfathers (1948).

Eugene Pallette began his career as a thin and athletic actor, appearing in such films as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), but success didn’t come until he gained weight. He appeared in Hal Roach films, including a few Laurel and Hardy films. His distinctive raspy voice served him well with the coming of sound and he appeared in supporting roles throughout the 30s and 40s, appearing in such films as My Man Godfrey (1936), Topper (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Young Tom Edison (1940), The Lady Eve (1941) and The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941).

In 1946, he sort of shot his career in the foot; when fearing the world was about to come to an end, he retreated to a fortress he had built on a mountain side in Oregon. Stocked with cattle, a canning plant and a lumber mill, Pallette was waiting for the atomic bomb to be dropped and waited two years before deciding it wasn’t going to happen. He returned to Hollywood, but never appeared in another film.

William Demarest, Uncle Charley to a generation of TV viewers, had a career that spanned back to silent films. Perhaps best known for being one of Preston Sturges’ stock company, appearing in some of that filmmaker's better known films: The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels (1942) and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). He also had a part in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Viva Las Vegas (1964). But Demarest is still perhaps best known for his role on My Three Sons (1965 – 1972).

Ruth Donnelly has a small, but familiar part in Mr. Smith. She plays Guy Kibbee’s wife, something she did before in Footlight Parade and again in Wonder Bar (1934). Originally a Broadway actress, Donnelly was discovered by George M. Cohan, who cast her in some of his productions. During her career she had several memorable roles: Mary Brian's domineering mother in Hard to Handle (1933); and Edward G. Robinson's wife in A Slight Case of Murder (1938). She would also appear in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and later The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) and The Snake Pit (1948).

One last name to mention, Dickie James, who played the page boy who helped Smith get settled when he first got to the Senate and latter displayed his Boy Ranger pin to show his support for Jeff’s filibuster. A successful child actor, James is perhaps best remembered as the voice of Pinocchio in that Walt Disney film from 1940, which proved to be that year’s biggest film.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a mix of romantic comedy and political drama, depicting corruption at the highest levels of the Legislature. Every politician in Smith’s home state seems to be in debt to James Taylor’s political machine. And that influence allows him to place a piece of legislation on a spending bill that the nation desperately needs passed for the other provisions included in it. This is a very dark view of the U.S. government for 1939, though the premise seems quite believable now and has no doubt happened many times in real life. Sadly, over my lifetime, I have watched as the government has gone from always being right to being doubted, mocked and stymied. If it worked half as well as what is depicted in this film, corrupt as it may be, then it would still be working much better than it does today.

The speed at which the political machine gets the smear campaign going seems a little fast. Even in this age of instant communication and flash mobs, it takes a little time to get banners printed and marches organized. The film would have us believe that these can be pulled together in a matter of hours. James Taylor’s power is portrayed like a dictator, keeping all news reports out of his state as if nameless state was an island which radio waves could not reach. I know this is done for effect and is no doubt sped up due to the twenty-four hour time frame of Smith’s filibuster, but I doubt such organization could be mobilized as quickly today, which makes me doubt it could be done so back when the film is set. The same is true for the publishing of the Boy Rangers paper, which is an attempt to get the real news out to the masses through a grassroots organization. This is a very well-funded organization to have the resources to print so many papers and distribute them, again, overnight without the benefit of the internet or FedEx. I only have to believe audiences of the day were more accepting of such anomalies.

That said, I must admit I really enjoyed so much of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington that I would heartily recommend it. Perhaps a bit long, the film maintains your interest throughout. The writing, acting and directing are all solid. Any other year, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may have won Best Picture. As it stands though, it is one of the better films in a year that saw so many great ones.