Saturday, November 26, 2016

Stubs - All My Sons

All My Sons (1948) Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Mady Christians, Louisa Horton, Howard Duff, Frank Conroy, Lloyd Gough, Arlene Franks, Henry Morgan. Directed by Irving Reis. Screenplay by Chester Erskine. Based on the play All My Sons by Arthur Miller as produced by Harold Clurman, Elia Kazan, Walter Fried and Herbert Harris. Produced by Chester Erskine.  Run Time: 94 min. USA Black and White. Film Noir, Drama

Arthur Miller is not a name that you would immediately connect with film noir. An award-winning playwright and future husband to Marilyn Monroe, Miller had been writing plays since 1936, but didn’t really have a major hit on Broadway until 1947, when his play All My Sons ran for 328 performances from January 29, 1947 until November 8. The play, which starred Ed Begley, Beth Miller, Arthur Kennedy and Karl Malden, would win the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, beating out a little play from Eugene O’Neil entitled “The Iceman Cometh.” The play would also win the Tony Award for Best Author for Miller and the Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play, for director Elia Kazan.

The original 1947 Broadway production starred  (l to r) Arthur Kennedy, Karl Malden,
Beth Miller, Ed Begley and Lois Wheeler.

So obviously, the play came to Hollywood with pretty high credentials. As with any film adaptations, changes were required, not only for the transition to a new media, but also to satisfy the Production Code that was very much entrenched in Hollywood by the end of the 1940s.

Chester Erskine, best known at the time as the writer, director and producer of The Egg and I (1947), wrote and produced the adaptation. The film began production in October 1947. While the film was to be shot on location in Santa Rosa, severe weather caused the studio, Universal, to rethink that idea. Instead, much of the outdoor scenery was shot on a production stage. The Western Stove Company in Culver City doubled as Keller’s factory. Some scenes were shot on the factory floor and real employees of Western Stove appear in the film.

The film opens in suburban America. Joe Keller (Edward G. Robinson) is raking the leaves when his son Chris (Burt Lancaster) comes out of the house on his way to pick up Ann Deever (Louisa Horton) at the train station. They talk about Chris’s mother, Kate (Mady Christians), who had another bad night worrying about Larry, who three years before went MIA off the coast of China. Kate still holds out hope that Larry is still alive. Joe is less hopeful than Kate about their son’s fate, but every week they find someone who has been MIA, why can’t one of them be Larry.

Chris though is ready to move on. He informs his father that he intends to ask Ann to marry him. But Joe insists he can’t do that as long as Larry might be alive, Ann after all is his fiancĂ©e. But Chris is adamant about it and is willing to give up everything he has at home to be with her. Joe reminds him that he’s the heir to his company and really wants him to stay. If he must marry Ann, Joe asks that he talk to his mother before he does. Satisfied, Chris leaves for the train station.

Chris (Burt Lancaster) brings Ann (Louisa Horton) back to her hometown.

When Chris drives Ann back to his house, they run into the neighbors, Jim (Lloyd Gough) and his wife Sue (Arlene Francis). Jim is the local doctor trying to carve out a little “me time” on a Sunday, while Sue is his supportive wife and resident gossip. When Joe sees Ann, he is thrilled to see her, treating her like she’s his own daughter. Kate, on the other hand, is cool bordering on cold. She doesn’t want Ann back, not because of her being a reminder of absent son Larry, she has left his bedroom as a shrine for that. Rather, she is worried about what her being back will mean to everything Joe has built up.

Jim (Lloud Gough) is a local doctor trying to enjoy a Sunday with his wife.

It’s clear that Ann’s arrival back in town carries with it more weight than a girl returning to her hometown. Her family has history here, dark history as it turns out. The truth is slowly drawn out over the first half of the movie. We learn that her father is in prison, but that’s about all. The whole town still talks about it, she’s told.

As in any small town at the time, the neighbors drop over at the drop of a hat, including Frank (Harry Morgan going through his Henry phase) and Lydia (Elisabeth Fraser). Frank has been busy working on a horoscope for Larry at Kate’s request. Frank tells anyone who will listen that Larry went missing on what was supposed to be a good day for him, so he’s probably still alive. His proclamation rattles everyone and he goes back home. Lydia hangs out a while longer before she, too, has to get back to attend to their two small children, four and two years old.

Their celebratory lobster dinner is about to be interrupted.

Joe has the idea that the four of them will go to dinner at the lake, something they used to do, to celebrate Ann’s homecoming. But when their dinner is served, a drunken former employee, Mrs. Hamilton (Helen Brown), approaches the table and accuses Joe of being a murderer. Joe tries to ignore her, but as her voice rises, so does his dander. He is about to strike her when the waiters intervene and throw Mrs. Hamilton out. Even though he wants to ignore the scene and get back to their lobster tail dinner, Kate and Ann wish to leave, so they do.

The drive back from the lake is much more subdued.

When they get back to the Keller home, Kate goes up to bed. Joe tells Chris to take Ann out to dinner at a roadhouse and the two drive off. But instead of eating out, they end up at a lover’s lane with a view of the town. There, Chris finally tells Ann how he feels about her and she reciprocates his feelings. The two leave engaged to be married.

While they’re gone, Ann’s brother, George, calls the house from Springfield, which is where their father is in prison. Ann speaks to him, but tells him explicably she doesn’t want to talk about what he wants to tell her over the phone, insisting they talk when she’s back in Chicago.

The next day, it’s back to work at the appliance factory, where the saying is “if you want to know, ask Joe.” He is very experienced and hands on, which the other employees seem to appreciate. Ann shows up early to drive the men home, but Joe insists on staying, though he lets Chris leave early, even though he had come in late.

On the floor of the factory, the saying is "If you want to know, ask Joe" (Edward G. Robinson).

Back at the house, Kate tells Ann that George has been calling from the station, demanding that she come and pick him up. But since Ann was out, Kate asked Jim to go to the station. Sue is over wondering if anyone has seen Jim. In passing, Sue tells Ann that everyone in town thinks Joe was guilty, but just outsmarted her father. Ann is confused, but Sue insists that’s the truth. She’s there, when Jim arrives with George (Howard Duff). A newly minted lawyer, George has been to see their father and now believes his story about the incident that put him in prison. Things start to come out a little more.

Kate (Mady Christians) melts George's (Howard Duff) cold exterior.

Apparently, their father, Herbert, had been sent to prison for shipping bad cylinders that led to 21 plane crashes, killing dozens of American soldiers. Joe had also been accused, but had convinced a jury that he was sick at home and knew Herbert had sent the parts knowing they wouldn’t hold up.

George orders his sister to pack her things and come back to Chicago with him that night. When Joe arrives, things get tense. But Kate intercedes. She manages to melt George’s cold exterior, after all, she helped raise him and Ann after their mother died. The other neighbor, Lydia, comes over and it is clear that she and George had been close before the war. But with George off fighting and Frank a year too old for the draft, she married him. You can see the sense of love and loss in George. He relents and stays for dinner, but during the conversation his mood changes. Joe is adamant that he’s never been sick a day in his life to the point that George puts two and two together. Kate tries to deflect George, but he now knows his father was telling him the truth. George gets up to leave and this time Ann is ready to go too, despite Chris’ protests.

The conversation at dinner gets tense as George's mood changes.

But George isn’t alone in doubting Joe; so does Chris and for the first time. Joe doesn’t feel he owes his son any explanation, but Chris thinks differently. He takes a few days off work. Joe thinks he’s travelling, but doesn’t know Chris has gone to see Herbert in prison. In a change from the original play, Herbert’s character is actually seen. Herbert is surprised to see Chris and tells him the story of the cylinders.

In a flashback, we see Joe and Herbert during the war. The plant has been militarized and is making airplane parts rather than home appliances; working practically 24/7 to meet the war effort. The floor manager, who is also the government inspector, has found problems with the latest batch of cylinders the plant has churned out, which the Army is expecting to ship the following Monday. Delaying the shipment would mean financial ruin for Keller and Deever, their company. Keller has too much sweat equity in the company to let it go under. He tells George that fiscally, they have to ship the cylinders, knowing they’ll malfunction. But when the day to ship comes, Joe is home “sick” and George doesn’t feel like he can authorize it. The next day, the Army is demanding the cylinders. George calls Joe, who is still at home. Joe, over the phone, tells George that he’ll take full responsibility for the shipment. But of course, he doesn’t. Joe manages to walk and Herbert ends up in jail. Chris isn’t quite sure he believes it, but on his way out, Herbert reminds Chris, “If you need to know, ask Joe.”

Meanwhile, Ann has returned from Chicago for Joe, since despite everything she still loves him. But Kate is still holding out hope that Larry is still alive; letting Joe and Ann marry would be to admit he’s dead. But Ann is convinced that Larry is dead and her proof is a letter Larry sent her on the eve of his last mission. Kate reads the letter and is devastated. She begs Ann not to show the letter to Joe and she agrees. Ann goes to a friend’s house to wait for George to return.

That night, Joe is at the plant playing his weekly card games with his workers and one of his biggest customers, McGraw (Herbert Haywood). Chris arrives as the game is breaking up. McGraw complains about the doors on some of the new models his stores received and Joe tells them to ship 
them back and he’ll repair them at no charge.

Chris finds Joe at the plant playing cards with one of his customers, McGraw (Herbert Haywood).

When they’re finally alone, Chris tells his father where he’s been and confronts him about wanting to know the truth about the shipment. Under some duress, Joe finally confirms that what Herbert said was all true. But he says he reiterates that he had no choice but to send the shipment or he would have lost the business. Chris doesn’t take learning the truth well. After striking his father, Chris leaves.

But Chris doesn’t go home. Later that night, Kate and Joe are sitting up waiting for his return. Kate pleads with Joe to finally admit what he’d done. But once again, Joe feels that his actions were justified to save the business and protect his family.

Ann thinks she knows where Chris is and drives up the lover’s lookout Chris had taken her to a few days before. Chris tells her that Joe was guilty as charged, but insists he doesn’t fully understand the impact of his actions. To help Chris understand, she gives him Larry’s letter she had earlier shown to Kate. After reading it, Chris goes back home to confront Joe with it.

Kate tries to stop him, but Chris reads the letter to his father. In it, Larry describes how he’s read the news about the faulty equipment shipment, the tragic deaths as a result and Herbert and Joe’s trial. Larry finds his father’s betrayal and his own shame unbearable. He writes that he doesn’t plan to return from his mission the next day.

Chris reads brother Larry's letter to their father.

Joe admits that his guilt always included losing Larry, but he now realizes that all the soldiers who died were all his sons. He retreats into his room and while Chris and Kate discuss next steps, Joe shoots himself. Chris tries to keep his mother from going in, but she insists that she’s taken care of him their whole life together and she’s not going to stop now.

A few days later, Joe and Ann prepare to leave town together; Kate encourages them to go live their life together.

Like the play it was based on, All My Sons, the film, received strong reviews and even won an award from the Writer’s Guild of America for Best Written American Drama for Chester Erskine, as well as the Robert Meltzer Award (Screenplay Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene) again for Erskine.

But his work is only one of the bright spots in the film.

Edward G. Robinson was one of the great actors to come out of the studio system. While he appeared in a handful of films dating back to Arms and the Woman (1916), he didn’t really become a star until 1931’s Little Caesar with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. While many of his better known roles were starring as gangsters, in films like Smart Money (1931), The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), Bullets or Ballots (1936), A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Larceny, Inc. (1942) and Key Largo (1948), he was a very versatile actor. He plays every part like it’s really him and his Joe Keller seems a very natural multi-dimensional character.

When Burt Lancaster came to Hollywood, he jumped into film noir right away with The Killers (1946). All My Sons would his fifth film and his star power jumps off the screen. Like Robinson, it’s hard, if not impossible, to think of a bad role Lancaster played in his long career. He gives Chris just enough naivety to make him believable.

The other actors are also good. Henry Morgan is usually a treat to see even if the role is as small as the comedic relief he plays here in All My Sons. Howard Duff has a difficult part with George Deever. On the one hand it has to be tough and unfeeling, on the other, he has to believably melt when Kate Keller puts on the charm. While the audience I saw the film with at the Film Noir Foundation screening at the Egyptian in Los Angeles laughed, the transition would have been difficult for any actor to pull off, you therefore have to give Duff credit for trying.

Sometimes in old movies, you discover actors or actresses that you’ve never seen before. In the case of All My Sons, this was my first time to see either of the lead actresses. Mady Christians, who played Joe’s wife, Kate, was an actress nearing the end of her career. A German immigrant, Christians had been in films in Europe, including being in the first German full sound film, It’s You I Have Loved (1929). All My Sons was one of her last films; she would appear in only one more, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948).

While Christians was at the end of her career, Louisa Horton, who played Ann, was appearing in her debut. After this, she would start acting on the new medium, television, and would continue to concentrate her acting there, making her last appearance in 1990.

All My Sons was Louisa Horton's film acting debut.

Both Christians and Horton are very good in their roles. Christians’ Kate is as stubborn as she is protective of her family. She has a hard time letting go of Larry, but her plight must have been common for mothers and fathers immediately after World War II. As long as she holds onto his memory, then he’s not really dead.

For a relative newcomer, Horton more than holds her own acting alongside the likes of Robinson, Lancaster and Christians. While Ann is no great beauty, her love for Chris comes from not just physical attraction, but also from a shared past and comfort with each other. The attraction seems more real this way.

While All My Sons comes from the theater, it doesn’t come across as a filmed play. A lot of the credit for that belongs to Chester Erskine who wrote the adaptation as well as produced the film and to director Irving Reis. A former director on Broadway, Erskine had been working in Hollywood since 1932, where he wrote, directed and produced movies, including writing, producing and directing, The Egg and I, a comedy with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray and Take One False Step 
(1949). He would also write and produce Witness to Murder (1954) with Barbara Stanwyck.

Chester Erskine surrounded by Horton, Robinson and Lancaster on the set of All My Sons.

Reis would get his start as a writer for radio, before starting at Paramount in 1938 as a scriptwriter. While there, he would study film direction. He would take that up full time, leaving Paramount in 1940 for next door RKO Pictures. He would direct George Sanders in a series of Falcon films: The Gay Falcon (1941), A Date with the Falcon (1942) and The Falcon Takes Over (1942), as well as such films as Hitler’s Children (1943), Crack-Up (1946) and The Bachelor and The Bobby-Soxer (1947).

Both men had shown they could work in a variety of genres and their collaboration on All My Sons helped rise it above the normal Film Noir fare.

While I went in without any expectations, I left very impressed with the story, the acting and the directing. All My Sons is not only a good film noir, but also a good movie and if you have a chance to see it, I would say take it.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

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