Films: Drama/Romance

by Dan Stumpf

   The highlight of my recent reading has been Way of the Lancer (Bobbs-Merrill, hardcover, 1932) by Richard Boleslavsky and Helen Woodward, an autobiographical novel of Boleslavsky’s experiences (and, I suspect, those of man others that he incorporated and told as his own) for — and against — Russia in the first World War.

   It’s an intriguing account, Boleslavsky was not a Russian but a Pole; his nation had been dominated by Russia since about 1750, and when the Great War got serious, Russia promised Freedom to Poland if her sons would fight for Russia. Austria promised roughly the same thing, so regiments of Poles fought for both sides, against enemies who were often their brothers.

   Boleslavsky describes an interesting vignette off weary, “victorious” Poles escorting even wearier defeated Austrians to POW camps and finding relatives in their midst, tiredly catching up on the news as they slog through the mud to no place in particular.

   Boleslavsky, incidentally, was a Polish soldier, but not a Lancer. He passed the war as a film-make, attached to the Lancers, doing semi-documentary propaganda films. After the War, he gravitated to Hollywood, where he directed some truly remarkable movies, like The Garden of Allah, with Dietrich and Boyer, and the cynical, moving 1936 version of Three Godfathers, and others.

   His Hollywood debut was Rasputin and the Empress (a portrait of the breakdown of Imperial Russia that must have seemed very real to him), the only film to star all three Barrymores. It’s an interesting show, but not a great one. John seems ticked off that he didn’t get to play Rasputin, and sulks through the whole movie with marked disinterest until the scene where he gets to kill Lionel, which is really quite memorable.

   Boleslavsky also directed one of the two Three Stooges movies you should make an effort to see: Fugitive Lovers (MGM, 1933), a dandy little thing about Robert Montgomery as an Escaped Con being pursued with cold precision by C. Henry Gordon, catching a bus with aspiring chorus girl Madge Evans, who is herself being pursued by dumb, possessive, aspiring gangster Nat Pendleton. Also onn board are Ted Healy and his stooges,whose time onscreen is mercifully brief.

   Boleslavsky fills the film with sudden cuts and jarring camera angles that seem avant-garde even today, and make Citizen Kane look antiquated before its time. And he maintains the pace and drama quite nicely throughout, right up to a howling blizzard that had my teeth chattering despite the fact that it was done entirely inside a studio. You should look for this one.

— Reprinted in shortened form from Shropshire Sleuth #71, May 1995.


BLACK LEGION. Warner Brothers, 1937. Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, Dick Foran, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Joe Sawyer and Henry Brandon. Screenplay by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, from a story by Robert Lord. Directed by Archie Mayo and Michael Curtiz.

   I hate it when a film like this becomes relevant again.

   In its day, Black Legion was merely topical, based on the true story of a splinter group spun off of the KKK. Topical yes, but sometimes News becomes History, and you know what they say about those who don’t remember the past—they fail History Exams.

   Humphrey Bogart was still an also-ran in 1937, with The Petrified Forest behind him, and Dead End coming up, but also plenty of things like Swing Your Lady and The Return of Dr X in his future. He seems to have realized early on that this was an important part and he gives it the most self-effacing performance of his career.

   When Bogie plays Frank Taylor, the gullible working stiff, there’s no glimmer of intelligence behind his eyes, no imagination beyond the American Dream of a nice house with a white picket fence and a wife and child waiting there. And when an émigré (Henry Brandon) gets the promotion Frank was expecting and the dream is snatched from him, his expression of hurt and bewilderment is more than convincing: It’s scary.

   Even more so when Taylor starts listening to radio commentators warning of the tide of foreigners flooding into our country, here to take our jobs and pollute our heritage. So when a co-worker (Joe Sawyer, masterfully cast here) tells him of a “group of guys” that aren’t going to stand for this anymore, we pretty much know where he’s headed—though I suspect few viewers will foresee the outcome.

   This is because the writers do a fine job of keeping the Black Legion at the edge of silliness, with their preposterously grim oath (Bogie nearly chokes on it.) passwords and fake piety. But when the silliness turns grim and deadly, the laughter dies quickly.

   It would be easy at this point to start drawing parallels. Damn night irresistible in fact. But I ain’t gonna do it. Nossir, not me. Over the years, Black Legion has drawn some criticism for not being explicit about the KKK and racism, but I find that lack of specificity brings us to universality.

   Thus Black Legion is about bigotry, xenophobia and mob mentality, but it’s also about the ignorance in which they grow and the venality that feeds on them. And to me the parallels are just too plain to point out.


I’LL BE SEEING YOU. Selznick/Unired Artists, 1944. Ginger Rogers, Joseph Cotten, Shirley Temple, Spring Byington and Tom Tully. Adapted by Marion Parsonnet from a radio play by Charles Martin. Directed by William Diertele and George Cukor.

   Among the oddest of Christmas films, I’ll Be Seeing You offers a deceptively simple tale and makes it resonate with surprising counter-rhythms and a touch of noir.

   The plot in brief: It’s the Holidays, and Ginger Rogers is visiting relatives in a small town, but after New Year’s Day she has to go back to Prison, where she’s serving a six-year stretch for Manslaughter.

   On the train, she meets Zach Morgan (Joseph Cotten) a soldier who impulsively decides to get off at her stop and get to know her. But after the Holidays, he too must return — to a VA hospital where he’s being treated for what we now call PTSD.

   The romance that follows is built like a fragile house of cards as we see them start to build trust in each other, confidence in themselves and tentative plans for a future that just ain’t gonna happen; he’s got to go back to the Hospital (she doesn’t know it) and she must return to Prison (he doesn’t know it) and even as love grows in the holiday climate, tension builds as we wonder what will happen when they find out….

   Director Diertele heightens the drama by stressing the small town atmosphere and the loving cohesion of Ginger’s family (Tom Tully, Spring Byington and Shirly Temple at that awkward adolescent age.) Her furlough has been hard fought-for, and the depth of feeling when she reunites with her family is.. well it’s one of those moments we watch Movies for. Joseph Cotten is welcomed by her family…

   ….And then it hit me: This is the reverse side of Shadow of a Doubt (Universal, 1944 – just a year earlier!). We have Joseph Cotten once again as a man with a secret coming to a small town and ingratiating himself with an All-American Family. Only this time, Ginger is the killer, and the flashback to her crime has a haunting Woolrichesque quality to it that matches anything in Shadow.

   As I watched both films I saw how Cotten incorporated elements of one character into the other and differentiated them at the same time. Both men are charming, but Zach ‘s charm is a clumsy, off-hand thing, while Uncle Charlie’s is a practiced act. Both men wear masks, but Cotten lets Uncle Charlie’s mask slip to chilling effect, while Zach’s mask crumbles heart-wrenchingly. Watching both films back to back I gained a new appreciation of Joseph Cotten’s talent, all too rarely used and too often wasted.

   But all this is a sidebar at best. I’ll Be Seeing You is a moving if modest triumph of off-beat movie-making. A film of genuine charm and feeling. And perfect for the Christmas Season.


LE CORBEAU (THE RAVEN). Continental Films, France, 1943. Pierre Fresnay, Ginette Leclerc, Micheline Francey, and Pierre Larquey. Written & directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot.

THE 13th LETTER. Fox, 1951. Linda Darnell, Charles Boyer, Michael Rennie, and Constance Smith. Screenplay adapted by Howard Koch. Directed by Otto Preminger.

   There’s always some interest in watching a foreign film and its American remake, and when the films in question are the work of two able cineastes like Clouzot and Preminger, the exercise is enjoyable as well.

   Clouzot made Le Corbeau under German occupation (he was later banned for two years from the French film industry for working with the Nazis) and it’s based on a true incident: a series of anonymous letters that tore apart a rural French village and led to riots and a suicide. The 13th Letter, on the other hand, is based on Le Corbeau .

   Thus Corbeau focuses broadly on the Community, while 13th concentrates on stars Michael Rennie and Linda Darnell. Preminger incorporates scenes from the earlier film, of course, but doesn’t slavishly copy them. He and Clouzot both give a few memorable moments to the bit players, allowing them to suggest some complexity, and both directors stand back and give Pierre Larquey/Charles Boyer lots of elbow room as a garrulous old doctor, with pleasing results.

   But perhaps the difference between the films is not so much focus as viewpoint. Preminger’s film is more subjective, urging us to identify with the romantic Hollywood leads, while Corbeau remains taciturn and objective, observing everything at a distance I find typical of Clouzot.

   The wonderful thing is that Preminger’s glossy superficial approach works as well as Clouzot’s hard-edged realism. Both films are easy to watch, and quite engrossing at times. I may have identified more easily with Michael Rennie and Linda Darnell because they spoke English, but both movies hooked me as only a strong story and a capable director can.


GRAHAM GREENE – The Third Man. Novella. Viking Press, US, hardcover, 1950. First published in the UK; included in The Third Man and The Fallen Idol (Heinemann 1950). Novelization of the screenplay.

THE THIRD MAN. British Lion Films, 1949. Joseph Cotten, Valli, Orson Welles, (Harry Lime), Trevor Howard, Bernard Lee. Director: Director: Carol Reed.

   Carol Reed’s film of THE THIRD MAN surfaced on my to-be-watched-again pile, so I decided to do a thorough job of it, and re-read Graham Greene’s novel (written at the same time as his screenplay) and Charles Drazin’s study of the film, IN SEARCH OF THE THIRD MAN (Limelight, 2000).

   Drazin’s book recounts the events in 1948-9 surrounding the making and marketing of THE THIRD MAN, and it reads like a novel, with director Carol Reed as the hero, writer Graham Greene as his weak-willed sidekick, producers David O. Selznick and Alexander Korda as comic relief, and Orson Welles as the villain of the piece.

   Reading this, one is surprised at how much of the film was simply a mater of convenience: Selznick, the prestigious producer of GONE WITH THE WIND, had money tied up in England that had to be spent there, so — with appropriate flourishes and ballyhoo — he formed a partnership with England’s Alexander Korda, a filmmaker of approximately equal splendour, who had money tied up in central Europe and needed a hit.

   Korda had known some success with Carol Reed and Graham Greene (FALLEN IDOL, 1948) and prevailed upon Reed to write a screenplay set in contemporary Vienna so he could spend his money there. For his part, Graham Greene had a story idea sitting around — something about a man probing the murder of a friend and getting some nasty surprises — and he saw a trip to Vienna as an excellent opportunity to cheat on his wife, so he was only too happy to accept the assignment.

   While Greene was in Vienna learning about sewers and Ferris wheels, Korda and Selznick spoke often and loudly to the press about their forthcoming masterpiece, hinting at a cast that might include Cary Grant as Harry Lime, Jimmy Stewart as his duped friend, and Ingrid Bergman as the woman they loved. Or Jennifer Jones. Or Ralph Richardson. What Selznick ended up putting out was two contract players he was paying anyway, Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli, while Korda financed the logistics by selling rights to release his old pictures in post-war Europe, found Orson Welles in need of money for OTHELLO, and signed him up — whereupon Welles proceeded to behave as obstreperously as possible (according to Drazin) showing up weeks late in Vienna, then refusing to act in the sewers, or much of anyplace else, really, requiring extensive use of a double on almost all the location shooting.

   So what you had here was a much-heralded mega-film made on hand-shakes, promises and pretense, and the wonder is that it turned out so damgood. Greene’s script is sharp, suspenseful and cleverly turned, the performances are real and moving — particularly Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee as a couple of weary MPs — and there’s a fascinating visual tension between Carol Reed’s carefully-composed images and the riotous look of a city that has been “bombed about a bit.”

   Characters go about dressed in elegant scraps of ill-fitting apparel, walking past palaces and rubble, and the dichotomy extends even to the memorable scene on the Ferris wheel, where Orson Welles speaks of death, taxes and heartburn while Joseph Cotten prepares himself to sell out or get sold.

   As for the book itself, it was planned by Korda and Selznick to be marketed in conjunction with the film for added publicity, and they thought that a rather neat trick in those early days before merchandising and product placement. And again, the wonder is that a book written as a matter of convenience should turn out so readable. Greene’s prose is crisp, witty, and not a bit rushed, and though the crux of the story is in no way original, he handles it well enough to make it seem fresh.

   I should note there’s an important difference between the ending of the book and the movie. Without giving it away, I may say Korda and Selznick thought the heroine’s action unrealistic for a woman who had been through what she had. They were wrong. As I read THE THIRD MAN I was impressed by the recurring theme of characters who have survived a war trying to put their lives back together, and Greene’s ending seemed to me a rather touching tribute to the resilience of the human spirit. And heart.


THIEF OF HEARTS. Paramount, 1984. Steven Bauer, Barbara Wiliams, John Getz, David Caruso, and George Wendt. Written & directed by Douglas Day Stewart.

   A lush romantic fantasy dressed up as a crime film in the bright-pastel Miami Vice mode. So well done that you don’t mistake it for an actual crime film, it’s highly enjoyable on its own terms. And while I will discuss the plot in some detail here, I have to say I’m revealing no more than the original release trailer did.

   Hunky Steven Bauer, he of the chiseled face and biceps, plays a cat burglar extraordinaire, grown rich from preying on the very wealthy. So rich that he can afford a mega-warehouse apartment in San Francisco, a boat at the marina, a fancy sports car…

   You get the idea. This character is to be taken no more seriously than Raffles, Arsene Lupin, The Lone Wolf, or any of those International Jewel thieves who were once played by real luminaries like John Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, or William Powell.

   Getting back to Bauer, though, he starts the film with a raid on an ultra-chic condo owned by John Getz and Barbara Williams, best-selling children’s book author and trendy interior designer, respectively. Writer-Director Stewart generates a certain amount of suspense here, and then…

   And then things take a turn for the Romantic. Amid the loot from the condo is a lock box containing Williams’ private journals, wherein she keeps her innermost thoughts and fantasies—for the millennials out there, that’s what folks used to do with their private thoughts and fantasies before there was Facebook.

   Anyway, Bauer reads the journals, becomes intrigued by the inner woman and sets out to seduce the outer one – a task made easier because he knows which buttons to push, and because her husband is a self-absorbed dullard. Even his publisher (a nice character part by George Wendt) says so.

   The seduction is carried out among the luxurious trappings one associates with old Ross Hunter films (All That Heaven Allows, Back Street, etc.) and if you can enjoy the long romantic scenes, the opulent music and gratuitous nudity (I could and did) time passes pleasantly till things come to a head.

   Getz (If you remember the actor as the nice red-neck bartender in Blood Simple you won’t recognize him here.) awakens to his wife’s new obsession, senses that Bauer is a phony, and sets out to investigate. At the same time, Bauer falls deep in love with Williams but finds himself emotionally crippled because he can’t open up to her. And for her part, Williams becomes increasingly put off by this man with something to hide who has invaded her life by way of her dreams.

   By now you may get the idea that this fantasy romance touches on some very real and complex emotions. It does, and it also works in some nice plot twists, as Bauer’s partner-in-crime (a very young, lean and repellant David Caruso) sees that it’s time to move on and wants to feather their retirement with one last big job: another raid on Getz and Williams’ condo.

   Which leads to a scene that actually got me a little misty, and I won’t spoil it for you. And to a full-blooded romantic conclusion I enjoyed and didn’t buy for a minute.

   Thief of Hearts is very much stuck in the 1980s, with the pounding music, artsy editing and garish décor – what Williams does by way of “decorating” Bauer’s apartment seems like a joke in the worst possible taste — but I found it easy to get around all that and love it for the Rom-Fantasy it is.

   And you might, too.


WORKING GIRLS. Paramount Pictures, 1931. Judith Wood, Dorothy Hall, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Paul Lukas, Stuart Erwin, Frances Dee. Director: Dorothy Arzner.

   A thoroughly enjoyable pre-Code comedy/drama, Working Girls may not have all that much to say to contemporary audiences, but has a lot to say about the time and place in which it was filmed. Directed by Dorothy Arzner, the first woman to direct a talkie, this Paramount Pictures release tells the story of two sisters from small-town Indiana as they try to balance work and love in New York City.

   June (Judith Wood) and Mae (Dorothy Hall) Sharpe arrive in Manhattan and take up residence at a woman’s boarding house. Within the first day or so, they are out and about looking for employment and for men to date. June ends up working for a Western Union telegraph office and dating a saxophone player (Stuart Erwin).

   Mae, on the other hand, finds work as a secretary for Dr. Joseph Von Schrader (Paul Lukas), who proceeds to fall in love with his much younger employee. Mae, naturally, doesn’t reciprocate the affection. Instead, she’s got her eyes on Boyd Wheeler (Charles “Buddy” Rogers), a Harvard graduate working in a Manhattan law firm who seems to really care for her.

   Or does he? It would seem that he’s got a fiancée from the wealthy suburbs who he plans to marry soon and that he is just using Mae for a good time.

   While I won’t tell you how the story turns out, I will let you know that Working Girls is simply a fun movie to watch. It’s loaded with sexual innuendo, has some great comedic moments, and benefits greatly from Judith Wood’s hard-boiled, cynical character who has a quick wit as well as stunning looks.

   For contemporary audiences who are all too familiar with romantic comedy tropes, it may not seem like there’s much new under the sun here, but bear in mind this was filmed in 1931. And if you watch it with that fact very much in mind, you’ll surely find a lot to appreciate in this lesser known pre-Code film.


NORTHWEST RANGERS. MGM, 1942. James Craig, William Lundigan, Patricia Dane, John Carradine, Jack Holt, Keenan Wynn and Grant Withers. Screenplay by Gordon Kahn and David Lang, story by Arthur Caesar. Directed by Joseph M. Newman (as Joe Newman.)

   MGM’s notorious Manhattan Melodrama, re-made with Mounties.

   Yeah, well, okay so it’s Mounties. I mean if that’s what the kids are doing these days…

   Actually, Northwest Rangers ain’t all that bad except in comparison. It has all the gloss MGM lavished even on its B-pictures, John Carradine and Grant Withers make a fine pair of villains with plenty of screen time, Jack Holt is tough as ever, and Keenan Wynn does well with rather less as comic relief.

   If you’re not familiar with the story, you’ll recognize it right off: two pals, orphaned as boys, are adopted by doughty old Mountie Sergeant Jack Holt. One (William Lundigan) grows up to be a doughty young Mountie, the other (James Craig) makes his way as a gambler and general rakehell, and with all of Canada to bounce around in, they just naturally come into conflict with each other when Craig wins the local gambling hall from John Carradine, and his girl falls for Lundigan. Small world, ain’t it?

   Director Joseph M. Newman had his moments, and he handles this predestined obscurity with more class than it really deserves. The problem here is with the leads.

   In the 1950s, James Craig matured into a pretty good actor in bad-guy parts. But in the 40s he was MGM’s back-up for Clark Gable — or maybe for Gable’s 1st-string back-up — and all he does here is grin and try to look roguish, an effort clearly beyond him at this stage.

   As for William Lundigan, well, he was always William Lundigan.

   With these two carrying the story – unlike William Powell and Clark Gable in Manhattan Melodrama — it’s hard to give a damn, and about the nicest thing you can say about Northwest Rangers is that it passes the time easily and nobody famous got shot leaving the theater.


LES MAUDITS. Ciné Sélection, France, 1947. Released in the US as The Damned (DisCina International ,1948). Marcel Dalio, Henri Vidal, Florence Marley, Fosco Giachetti, Jo Dest and Michel Auclair. Written by Victor Alexander and René Clément. Directed by René Clément.

   You probably don’t know about this film unless you caught it on TCM a year or so ago, and more’s the pity, because it’s what cineastes call A Real Grabber: a story of suspense and survival right up there with Wages of Fear.

   The Damned of the title are a group of high-ranking Nazis, well-connected sympathizers and their bed-warmers, slipping out of Germany via U-boat — ostensibly to carry on the fight from South America, but some have plans that have nothing to do with the Reich.

   When the General’s mistress is injured, Henri Vidal gets into the mix as a doctor kidnapped from a French port and carried off with the rest. Quickly realizing they plan to kill him, Vidal diagnoses a sore throat as a contagious illness to make himself less dispensable, and the result is a claustrophobic drama of manners as the Nazis and their sycophants quarrel and murder, and Vidal schemes to stay alive.

   Writer-Director René Clément paces the whole thing skillfully, alternating the cramped U-Boat conflicts with scenes above decks and on shore before it can get too confining. And he takes time to let his characters develop as he rings in plot devices like the fall of Berlin and the reactions to it. Like:

    “If the Fuhrer were really dead, they’d never let them announce it on the Radio.”

    “So he must be alive because they say he’s dead?”

   In fact, a great deal of the interest here comes from the collapse of Germany and the efforts of the Nazis to dodge falling rubble. In South America they find their bought-and-paid-for friends hard to locate and unwilling to help. When they find a German Tanker ship and refuel, word of the armistice causes a mass desertion. And yet – this is the gripping part — they react with the steely viciousness that got them where they are, leading to some unsettlingly visceral moments. And at the same time, Vidal’s captive Doctor Guilbert keeps plotting his own escape, giving the film a sense of progress and anchoring us to a character we can identify with.

   The result is a film of complexity and tension, with unexpected twists and depth of writing that keeps one watching. Early on I likened this to Wages of Fear for its suspense and sensitivity, and the comparison is apt. This is a classic to watch and remember.

HEADLINE SHOOTER. RKO Radio Pictures, 1933. William Gargan. Frances Dee, Ralph Bellamy, Jack LaRue, Gregory Ratoff, Wallace Ford, Robert Benchley, Betty Furness. Director: Otto Brower.

   William Gargan plays one of those old-fashioned newsreel cameramen whose lives consist 100 percent of their jobs and nothing but their jobs. A chance encounter with an equally scoop-conscious society writer (sob sister) played by Frances Dee (later Mrs. Joel McCrea) causes only sparks at first, but as it turns out, these are only partially nullified by the fact that Jane Mallory already has a fiancé back home in Mississippi. Take a look at the cast. You needn’t need me to tell you that Ralph Bellamy is the guy, and no, he’s not likely to keep Miss Mallory from slipping through his fingers.

   There are some comedy bits in this movie (such as Robert Benchley doing a short bit as the announcer of a beauty contest — over the radio), but what this short 60 minute film really is is nothing more (or less) than an entertaining romantic drama, set against a backdrop of newsreel footage of actual disasters: earthquakes, fires and floods. You might also guess, from seeing Jack Larue’s name in the credits, that there is a gangster subplot involved, one that tells Ralph Bellamy’s character more about his would-be wife’s true character than he wanted to know.

   I don’t think William Gargan had too many leading roles in the movies over the years, unless perhaps as a detective in charge of a murder mystery, and he seems out of place in this one. What Jane Mallory sees in Bill Allen is one those unexplained mysteries of life, I suppose. Otherwise this is a competently done melodrama that moves along quickly in very solid fashion.

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