Movie stars & directors


DANE CLARK CONFIDENTIAL, PART 1
by Curt Evans


BLACKOUT. Hammer Films, UK, 1954. Lippert Pictures, US, 1954. Originally released in the UK as Murder by Proxy. Dane Clark, Belinda Lee, Betty Ann Davies, Eleanor Summerfield, Andrew Osborn. Based on the novel Gold Coast Nocturne by Helen Nielsen. Director: Terence Fisher.

   Dane Clark (1912-1998) is one of those actors that you, if you are, as I am, in middle age, have almost assuredly seen on television earlier in your life, even if you don’t match the name with the face. I recall him playing an FBI agent in Season One of Angela Lansbury’s beloved mystery series, Murder She Wrote, the “Watson” in that episode to Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher. I don’t know why I remember this character, but I suppose I have to chalk it up to Clark’s acting skills, having seen some of his other genre film work of late. He’s good!

   Dane Clark was known in the 1940s as the “B-list John Garfield,” but I don’t believe this appellation does him justice. (It’s a bit like when the great Ida Lupino is dismissed as the “poor man’s Bette Davis.”) Dane Clark was his own man. Both John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkle in 1913) and Dane Clark (born Bernard Zanville in 1912) were Jews from New York City, but Clark came of much more comfortable circumstances than Garfield, graduating from Cornell and getting a law degree before ending up in acting (after stints in boxing, baseball, construction, sales and sculptor’s modeling — he had found lawyers weren’t doing too well in the Depression either).

   In 1941 Clark married the artist and sculptor Margot Yoder (a distant relative of my family) and the next year appeared in several films (uncredited): The Pride of the Yankees (“Fraternity Boy”); Wake Island (“Sparks”); and, most notably, Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key (“Henry Sloss”).

   By the end of World War II Clark was getting bigger roles, including that of the Bohemian artist in the Bette Davis identical twins melodrama A Stolen Life (1946); the escaped convict who has a desperate romance with Ida Lupino in Deep Valley (1947); and, in the Oscar-nominated film Moonrise (1948), the tormented Danny Hawkins, who is in love with gorgeous Gail Russell and has, most inconveniently, killed her fiancee (played, very briefly, by Lloyd Brides). Today Moonrise pops up on lists of greatest noir films though regrettably it’s not available on DVD (you can see on it Amazon instant video, however).

   If you look around, you should be able to find on DVD some of Clark’s work as a lead actor in late 1940s and 1950s crime films (when he really came into his own as an actor), including Without Honor (1949), Backfire (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950; screenplay by Eric Ambler), Gunman in the Streets (1950, with Simone Signoret), Never Trust a Gambler (1951), The Gambler and the Lady (1952), Blackout (1954; Murder by Proxy in UK), Paid to Kill (1954; Five Days in UK), Port of Hell (1954), The Toughest Man Alive (1955) and The Man Is Armed (1956).

   I’ve recently seen several of the above films, the first being, for the purpose of this review, Blackout.

   Blackout, as I have discussed on my own blog, is an English adaptation of Helen Nielsen’s Chicago-set hard-boiled crime novel, Gold Coast Nocturne (1951). Although transferring the setting from Chicago to London is slightly awkward, to be sure, overall I was really rather impressed with this film. It is quite faithful to the novel, even using some of the dialogue.

   As the beleaguered hero, Casey Morrow, an American out to solve a murder he wakes up to discover he’s suspected of having committed, Dane Clark is excellent, as are the two lead women, Belinda Lee (sexy blonde heiress Phyllis Brunner) and Eleanor Summerfield (wisecracking artist Maggie Doone). A couple crucial supporting performances could have been stronger, but overall I would quite recommend this film.

       TO BE CONTINUED


Editorial Comment:   This review first appeared in slightly different form on Curt’s own blog, The Passing Tramp.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


THE FORTY-NINERS

THE FORTY-NINERS. Allied Artists / formerly Monogram, 1954. “Wild Bill” Elliott, Virginia Grey, Harry Morgan, John Doucette, Lane Bradford. Written by Daniel B. Ullman. Directed by Thomas Carr.

   But first a word about Wild Bill Elliott, born Gordon Nance, who started out his career at Columbia under the name Gordon Elliott as an all-purpose and mostly uncredited supporting player until he landed the lead in the 1938 serial The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which led to a series of low-budget westerns at Columbia, billed as Wild Bill Elliott and sometimes playing Hickok in adventures that, as you might expect, had little to do with the actual James Butler Hickok.

   Many of these were a cut above average, and a few, directed by Joseph H. Lewis, even artistic at times, but in ’43 he left Columbia for Republic. There the budgets were bigger and the films generally more fun, but it was still a loss in prestige to go from the smallest of the Major studios to the biggest of the Minors, which was Republic’s place in Hollywood’s caste system.

THE FORTY-NINERS

   Republic even tried to lift Elliott out of the “B” ranks for a time, upping his budgets, offering more “adult” story lines and dropping the “Wild” from his billing, but eventually he returned to “B” status. His last film at Republic, The Showdown, was shot entirely on studio sets with back projection, reflecting Republic’s growing disinterest in the budget prairie film in general.

   At which point Elliott moved to Monogram, which was definitely a step down, but surprisingly his films here got even more interesting — not better made, but with distinctly off-beat characterizations and story lines.

Elliott himself, billed once again as “Wild Bill Elliott” smoked and drank, cussed now and then, and wasn’t above dealing out nastiness when called for. He even played an occasional outlaw, though reformed by film’s end, and in one movie he beats information out of a bad guy while holding him at gunpoint—hardly sporting, that, and unheard of in the better class of B westerns.

THE FORTY-NINERS

   In 1955 even Monogram tired of the low-budget western and moved Elliott into a series of detective stories, but Elliott had ended his sagebrush career with a flourish of sorts, as borne out in The Forty-Niners.

   This starts out with Dragnet-style voice-over narration, and when I say “Dragnet-style” I mean you can practically hear Jack Webb’s flat monotone in Wild Bill Elliott’s voice. Her gives dates and times, tosses in cop-comments like “It was a routine assignment” and even synopsises the outcomes in Court.

   The wonder is that writer Daniel Ullman (who made kind of a specialty out of detective/westerns) still wrought a perfectly fine western out of all this.

   Wild Bill plays a U.S. Marshall cold on the trail of the owlhoots who ambushed a fellow-lawman. His only lead is a gambler (played by Harry Morgan, who also featured in Elliott’s last Republic picture) who can lead him to the baddies as long as he doesn’t realize that’s what he’s doing. Morgan plays the kind of good/bad guy later personified by the likes of Arthur Kennedy, and he does it pretty well, grinning and joking as he cheats at cards and blackmails killers who are now comfortably ensconced as respectable citizens.

   His only weakness is a soft heart for the gal he left behind and an aversion to cold-blooded murder when that becomes necessary to eliminate Elliott, whom he’s come to respect and admire. It’s an interesting part in a movie that moves along at a brisk clip, with plenty of action and enough curves in the plot to keep you guessing, even as you realize the pre-ordained outcome dictated by the genre, and reflecting that as Wild Bill took his last ride into the sunset, he did it with a certain amount of style and the quiet dignity that becomes a western hero — even a cut-rate hero ending his days in the B-movies.

THE FORTY-NINERS

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


CALLING BULLDOG DRUMMOND. MGM, UK, 1951. Walter Pidgeon (Major Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond), Margaret Leighton, Robert Beatty, David Tomlinson, Peggy Evans, Charles Victor. Based on a story by Gerard Fairlie. Director: Victor Saville.

WALTER PIDGEON

   Back in the late 60s, when I decided I wanted to live a life of adventure, I was quite taken with a gaudy Universal James-Bond-Rip-Off called Deadlier Than the Male, with Richard Johnson as Bulldog Drummond and Nigel Greene as bis arch-foe Peterson. Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina were in it too, as scenery.

   I liked the gaudy color, kinky violence, and general comic-book look of the thing. Don’t try to catch it on television, though, because it was castrated for Network Release and to my knowledge has never been restored. (Yeah, like someone would take the time to put all the sex and violence back in to this.)

   Anyway, I tried the Drummond books and didn’t care much for the character in them at all, as he seemed something of a blow-hard bigot. Always liked the Drummond movies, though, including a B series from Paramount with John Howard, John Barrymore and lots of colorful baddies. And of course there was the great Colman film of ’29 which I viewed a wile back.

   So I was sort of looking forward to Calling B. D. and was disappointed. The plot features a gang of crooks who operate in Military Style, prompting Scotland Yard to call Colonel Drummond out of retirement because of his military experience.

WALTER PIDGEON

   I don’t know about you, but I have a little trouble swallowing the notion that England in the 50s suffered from a shortage of men with Military experience, and the Surprise Bad Guy is unfortunately portrayed by an actor who later became mildly famous, so his off-screen voice tips us off immediately.

   Add to this that Pidgeon seems to have taken his Dull Pills just prior to filming, and you have a very quiet movie indeed.

NICK CARTER, MASTER DETECTIVE. MGM, 1939. Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter), Rita Johnson, Henry Hull, Stanley Ridges, Doctor Frankton, Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Milburn Stone. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

PHANTOM RAIDERS. MGM, 1940. Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter), Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Joseph Schildkraut, Florence Rice, Nat Pendleton, John Carroll. Director: Jacques Tourneur.

WALTER PIDGEON

SKY MURDER. MGM, 1940. Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter), Donald Meek (Bartholomew), Kaaren Verne, Edward Ashley, Joyce Compton, Tom Conway. Director: George B. Seitz.

   Pidgeon came off much better in a series of “B’s” from MGM in the late ’30s centered around a character called Nick Carter, though for all the care they took to recreate the old Dime Novels, they might as well have called him The Saint or Bulldog Drumond or V.I. Warshawski. Nick Carter Master Detective, Phantom Raiders and Sky Murder are all quite fun and you should see them if you ever get a chance.

   With that sonorous voice of his, Pidgeon always sounded like Gregory Peck’s older brother, but these films play against his tendency to stodginess and come out very light and fluffy. The first two were stylishly directed by Jacques Tourneur, but the best thing in them is the Comedy Relief played by Donald Meek.

WALTER PIDGEON

   The comical sidekick was as much a fixture of the B-Mystery series as he was in the B western, but Meek and the writers here lift the concept to dizzying heights. His Bartholomew is not the standard dim-witted clod of most B-Mysteries: he’s a dangerous madman, given to melodramatic fantasies and theatrical outbursts of classic,dimensions.

   He looks like the kind of guy who might bite you on the leg for no good reason at all, and given the chance to play something besides a timid fuddy-duddy, Meek indulges himself with a flair for wild-eyed comedy I’d never suspected in him. He is that rarity, a Comic Relief you actually look forward to seeing, and be adds immeasurably to the films. Catch these if you can.

Editorial Comment:   Mike Grost has some interesting things to say about the two Nick Carter films directed by Jacques Tourneur. Check out his website here.

REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:


DEAD RECKONING. Columbia, 1947. Humphrey Bogart, Lizabeth Scott, Morris Carnovsky, Marvin Miller, Wallace Ford. Screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Steve Fisher, based on a story by Gerald Adams and Sidney Biddell, who also produced. Director: John Cromwell.

   Humphrey Bogart spent most of his career at Warner Brothers, where all his best films were produced. From The Petrified Forest to The African Queen, and all the way through The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, and countless others, when you think of a Bogart Movie, you are probably thinking of the Warners’ ambiance: the stock company of supporting players, cameramen, composers and all the other technicians, who contributed so much to the Bogart mystique.

DEAD RECKONING Humphrey Bogart

   For some reason, though, Warner’s decided in the late 40s to loan their top male star to Columbia, the smallest of the Major studios. It was run in those days by Harry Cohn, a man of epochal unpleasantness, whose massive funeral prompted the comment, “Give the people what they want and they’ll come out for it.”

   Under his reign, Columbia was Home to Frank Capra and the Three Stooges, with most of its product canted toward the latter end of the scale. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that when Cohn got hold of a good thing he milked it dry, and turned out not a few classics in the process.

   So when they got their hands on Humphrey Bogart for a single picture in 1946, Columbia beat their live horse for all it was worth, by hiring a corps of writers to steal all the best bits from Bogie’s biggest hits, and surrounding him with (mostly unknown) character actors, who somehow managed to look and act like a close approximation of the Warners Stock Company. The result was the Ultimate Bogart Picture.

DEAD RECKONING Humphrey Bogart

   Dead Reckoning is not particularly witty, not noticeably intelligent, and not at all original, yet it has a certain memorable quality all its own: It contains so many elements from so many (better) Bogart movies, that it somehow becomes the apotheosis of them all.

   The plot, as nearly as I can determine, involves the efforts of cynical, world-weary Rip Murdock (Bogie, of course) to clear the name of a dead army pal, a quest that takes him to one of those echt Film Noir cities populated by Dumb Cops, Cultured Gangsters, Sadistic Goons, Regular Joes, and a blonde, husky-voiced femme fatale played by Lizabeth Scott, a cross between Lauren Bacall and Eugene Pallette.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bL1X3s1R0cE

   All of the above, replete with beatings, gambling joints, frame-ups and shoot-outs, gets served up with more precision than originality, accompanied by a Chandleresque voice-over narration that strains its metaphors so hard you can hear their knuckles turning white. (Like that one.)

   Yet if you like Bogart Pictures, it’s hard not to enjoy Dead Reckoning, thanks mainly to John Cromwell, a director who deserves a digression all his own:

   Cromwell has even less of a reputation than Michael Curtiz, as Hollywood Directors go, and holds an even smaller claim to Personal Style, yet he directed films that somehow outshone the classics of better-known auteurs, perhaps because he never made a fetish of Originality.

DEAD RECKONING Humphrey Bogart

   Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Since You Went Away, Algiers, Made for Each Other, Son of Fury and The Enchanted Cottage all bear comparison with better-known films like Young Mr. Lincoln, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Casablanca, and his The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Caged are arguably the best Swashbuckler and Prison films Hollywood ever produced, even if they came too late in their cycles to be considered “Influential.”

   When Columbia turned to John Cromwell to make a film in the Classic Bogart Mold, they knew what they were doing. Cromwell approaches Dead Reckoning totally undaunted by the cliched script and predictable story line.

   He gives each tried-and-true scene the freshness that Hawks, Curtiz and John Houston brought to them a few movies back, and backs off at all the right moments to allow his star enough room for the well-known mannerisms, wise-cracks and reaction shots that Bogart buffs dote on.

   The result is a film that seems familiar the first time you see it, but none the less likable for that. I didn’t respect Dead Reckoning the morning after I saw it, but I suspect I’ll sleep with it again.

Ed Hulse on WHISPERING SMITH
and GEORGE O’BRIEN


== Following my recent review of the Alan Ladd version of Whispering Smith, the movie, which included some commentary about the real Whispering Smith and some of the earlier films the character was in, Ed Hulse left two long comments that I think deserve a wider audience:


   The 1916 Whispering Smith was shot in ten reels. According to which report one chooses to believe, it was originally intended to be either a serial or an extra-long feature film. In any event, it was released as two five-reel feature films, the first in June and the second in July.

   Although McGowan played the title role, his then-wife Helen Holmes got top billing in both Whispering Smith and Medicine Bend. She was a much bigger box-office draw, having attained fame as the eponymous star of the Hazards of Helen series (which is often mistaken for a cliffhanging chapter play, owing to the fact that Holmes also starred in episodic thrillers and at the time was second only to Pearl White in the serial-queen sweepstakes).

   McGowan’s involvement with the character didn’t stop with the two 1916 features, however. He also played Smith in Universal’s 1927 serial Whispering Smith Rides, but again lost top billing — this time to Wallace MacDonald, whose character was the story’s juvenile lead and carried most of the action.

   The piece on the Thrilling Detective website fails to mention that Rides was remade by Universal just three years later, again as a ten-chapter serial, this time titled The Lightning Express. Al Ferguson, usually cast as a heavy, played Smith; the role played by MacDonald in Rides was taken in Express by Lane Chandler.

   Although the George O’Brien Whispering Smith Speaks is ostensibly based on several Spearman yarns, it’s essentially an original story using nothing from the author’s works other than some locations and character names.

   An unbilled J. P. McGowan has a bit part as a rail-riding old-timer who shares his boxcar with fellow stowaway O’Brien (whose character’s real name is Gordon Harrington Jr.; he only uses Don Smith — not John, as the Thrilling Detective entry erroneously reports — as an alias). Since McGowan had been directing railroad films since 1912, I believe Whispering Smith Speaks producer Sol Lesser hired him as a second-unit director to handle the various train scenes.

   The O’Brien film is a particular favorite of mine because George and I were friends for a couple years leading up to his debilitating 1981 stroke, and for my money Speaks is the film that best captures his off-screen personality. But as a Spearman adaptation it isn’t worth a tinker’s damn.

== Then in Comment #5, # Barry Lane said:


Darcy O’Brien wrote a pair of novels, A Way Of Life Like Any Other and Marguerite In Hollywood, that with devastating honesty, and brilliant writing, illustrate the world of George and Marguerite. Ed, you must have known these people and your insights are welcome.

== Here’s Ed’s long reply:


   Well, I could go on forever about George O’Brien, but the short form is this: In 1979 I chaired Cinecon, an annual convention of vintage-film fans, collectors, and archivists. Since our guest stars were primarily actors from the silent and early-talkie years, I decided to invite my two top favorites of that era (that is, of those still alive and ambulatory at the time): George and Alice Faye.

   Alice had other plans but George — who had been invited to, but never before attended, similar events — accepted my invitation because coming to NYC for the convention would allow him to spend some time with his daughter Orin, a musician with the New York Philharmonic.

   Part of our tribute to George included a screening of Sunrise at the Museum of Modern Art, which earlier that year had won a special Academy Award for its film-preservation efforts. Since George was justifiably proud of that film, the opportunity of seeing it at the Museum held considerable appeal.

   When the film ended, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, and I encouraged him to take a bow. The still-fit 80-year-old bounded atop the auditorium stage and, waving and beaming, accepted a standing ovation that, I was told later, lasted nearly five minutes.

   As a long-time hobbyist who turned his passion into a career by writing professionally about movies and moviemakers, I’ve met dozens — hundreds, even — of film folk over the years. It doesn’t take long to realize that “picture people” are just as diverse as society at large. You have some nice people and you have some real pricks. Early on, one learns not to judge them by their screen personas.

   To my delight, however, George O’Brien turned out to be not only the perfect convention guest — making himself available to fans practically every hour of Cinecon’s three and a half days — but a wonderful, down-to-earth human being as well. I picked him up at New York’s La Guardia Airport, and by the time we had completed the 45-minute drive back to Manhattan, I already felt like we were old friends.

   That was George’s way. To this day I have never known a man who could make friends as easily as George O’Brien. And he didn’t put on airs, either: when I offered that first evening to take him to a high-class restaurant in midtown Manhattan, he replied: “Well, that’s very generous of you, Ed, but how about we just go to a comfy place where we have a good hamburger and get to know each other better?”

   Throughout the weekend I never had to look far for him: wherever a group of convention attendees had clustered, I knew he was in the middle, telling some of his many amazing stories. He jokingly referred to himself as “a man of few thousand words,” and he wasn’t kidding.

   After the convention, we stayed in touch via letters and phone calls. George still traveled frequently and often wrote me from an airplane while flying to Hawaii or the Philippines or some other Pacific destination. He invited me to visit him when and if I ever came to Los Angeles, but to my everlasting regret he was in Hawaii when I went to Tinseltown for a convention the following year.

   That same year (1980), based on the wonderful time he’d had at Cinecon, George finally accepted the invitation extended yearly by organizers of the Memphis Western Film Fair, another annual confab. Since I normally attended that show anyway, I looked forward to seeing George again, especially since one of his fellow guests was Cecilia Parker, his leading lady of several films and a close personal friend as well. But I deliberately decided not to tell him I’d be there.

   As the Memphis film festival — being oriented toward “B” Westerns and serials — catered to a somewhat different fan base than Cinecon, I realized that virtually all of the attendees would be meeting George for the first time. Upon arriving at the show, I could instantly tell where he was by looking for the biggest crowd huddled in a circle. But I didn’t want to interfere with these other fans and deliberately remained in the back of the room while he autographed photos and regaled the fans — most of them middle-aged men who gazed at their childhood hero with the worshipful stare of a ten-year-old — with stories of Hollywood’s halcyon days.

   At length the crowd thinned and we made eye contact. Then, as though he had last seen me a day earlier, he smiled and said: “Oh, hello, Ed.” After signing a few more stills and wrapping up a story, he told the surrounding fans, “Gents, please excuse me for a minute while I go say hello to an old friend…” — at which point he gestured to me, and all eyes swung in my direction. To this day, 31 years later, I still remember the pride I felt at being identified as one of George O’Brien’s old friends.

   Later that day, during a lull in the action, George said to me: “Oh, let me introduce you to Skippy.” I had not the slightest idea whom he meant; no such name appeared on the convention guest list. But it turned out to be Cecilia Parker.

   “Skippy,” he said, “I’d like you to meet a good friend of mine, Ed Hulse.” I stammered a bit as I shook her hand, and Parker instantly knew why I was temporarily tongue-tied. “He’s been calling me Skippy for close to 50 years,” she explained. “He gave me that nickname when we did our first picture together [1931's The Rainbow Trail].” At the time she was 17 and just out of convent school.

   I must be a man of few thousand words myself, because I realize I still haven’t answered the questions posed above.

   I met Darcy in 1991 at a 60th anniversary screening of Riders of the Purple Sage, the film that paired George and Marguerite and eventually led to their marriage.

   He told me he regretted that some people had assumed the George-like character in A Way of Life Like Any Other was identical to his dad in every particular. Like most novelists, he created characters who were composites. (Although I later learned, however, that his mother was closer to the Marguerite in Hollywood protagonist than George was to his Way of Life counterpart.)

   And in any case, George didn’t take offense. In fact, he mentioned the book in a couple different letters to me, in one case proudly reporting that it had just won some literary award.

   I’m not given to idolatry of my favorite movie stars; in fact, my experiences with some have made me quite cynical about the breed in general. But George O’Brien impressed me profoundly, and I still cherish the memory of our relatively brief but genuinely warm friendship.

   George even took something of a paternal interest in me, giving encouragement when I began my career as a professional writer and telling a mutual friend that he was concerned about my recent weight gain.

   I often cite Whispering Smith Speaks — which is really a romantic comedy, not a blood-and-thunder action piece — as the film whose protagonist best represents the real George O’Brien: warm, funny, gregarious, supremely self-assured without being arrogant.

   It’s well worth seeking out for that reason alone, although it’s never been commercially available on any home video format. You can only get it in bootleg VHS or DVD versions.

FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   On Sunday, September 12, at age 80, Claude Chabrol died. He was one of the most creative French film directors, and one of the most deeply committed to the crime-suspense genre, and the only one I ever met.

TEN DAYS WONDER

   It was in the summer of 1986, at an international festival on Italy’s Adriatic coast where he and I and countless others were guests. We were introduced by another mystery writer, the late Stuart Kaminsky, and over the next several days we were on some tours together — including one to the castle of Cagliostro — and had a number of conversations.

   I can’t claim to have seen all or even most of the dozens of films Chabrol directed in his career of more than half a century behind the cameras, not even all the crime-suspense-noir pictures with which his filmography is studded.

   But among those I knew well were 1969′s Que la bête meure (The Beast Must Die) and, from 1971, La décade prodigieuse (Ten Days’ Wonder), the former very freely based on a classic Nicholas Blake novel and the latter on a classic by Ellery Queen.

   His then most recent film, which was premiered at the festival, was Inspecteur Lavardin. After seeing Lavardin, and connecting what I took to be dots between it and the other two, I saw all three as sharing a common theme: the meaning of being a father.

Chabrol

   Remembering that Ten Days’ Wonder in both novel and film form climaxed with a death-of-God sequence, I ventured to suggest to him that all three films tell us: “There is no God the father, therefore we must be good fathers.” His reply: “Yes, yes, yes!”

   We talked about Cornell Woolrich, a few of whose stories he had adapted and directed for French TV, and after returning to the States I sent him, at his request, a few Woolrich tales that might be adapted into Chabrol features.

   Nothing came of this, but among the many films he made in the quarter century after our meeting was Merci pour le chocolat (2000), based on Charlotte Armstrong’s The Chocolate Cobweb, which is also centrally about fatherhood. Among the other world-class crime novelists whose work he translated to film are Stanley Ellin, Patricia Highsmith and Georges Simenon. Adieu, cher maître.

***

   In my student years I read just about every one of Frances and Richard Lockridge’s Mr. & Mrs. North mysteries, but I hadn’t revisited any of them in decades. Recently I reread The Norths Meet Murder (1940), first in the long-running series, and found it as charming and enjoyable as I had long ago.

NORTHS MEET MURDER

   It’s also a lovely piece of evidence in support of Anthony Boucher’s contention that one of the valuable functions of mysteries is that they show later generations what life was like “back then.”

   The Norths Meet Murder takes place in late October and early November 1939. On September 1 Hitler had launched World War II, and in New York there’s an organized boycott against buying “Nazi goods,” which impacts at least one of the murder suspects.

   The latest consumer novelty is the electric razor. Walking New York’s night streets, you see men working on the new subway line under floodlights. Those who read this novel back in 1940 probably took these verbal snapshots for granted, just as those of us who as kids watched the early TV private-eye series Man Against Crime took for granted the chases all over the New York landmarks of the early 1950s.

   Now in the 21st century they strike me as treasures, and perhaps help explain why, given the choice between a vintage whodunit or a new one, or an episode of a vintage TV series or a new one, I tend to go for the gold in the old.

***

   I recently attended a convention in suburban Baltimore but arrived before my hotel room was ready. Luckily there was a bookstore with comfortable chairs in the mall across the street, and I killed some time in the mystery section with “Arson Plus,” the first of Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, originally published in Black Mask for October 1, 1923 and recently reprinted in Otto Penzler’s mammoth Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories.

DASHIELL HAMMETT

   For decades this was one of the rarest of Hammett tales, revived only by Fred Dannay (in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, August 1951, and in the Queen-edited paperback collection Woman in the Dark, 1951).

   Today it’s in the Penzler anthology and a major hardcover Hammett collection (Crime Stories and Other Writings, Library of America 2001) and can also be downloaded from the Web in a few seconds.

   The other day I felt an urge to compare the e-text with the EQMM and Library of America versions, and made a discovery that startled but didn’t really surprise me. The Web version I downloaded is identical with Fred’s except for a few changes in punctuation and italicization, but both are quite different from the Library of America text, which uses the version originally published in Black Mask.

   Fred believed that every story ever written was too long and therefore tended to trim the tales he reprinted, even those by masters like Hammett. Some of the bits and pieces he cut were perhaps redundant, but he also axed part of the Continental Op’s explanation at the end of the story.

   Reprinting “Arson Plus” in 1951, he must have felt a need to update some of the price references to reflect post-World War II inflation. At the very beginning of the original version, the Op offers a cigar to the Sacramento County sheriff, who estimates that it cost “fifteen cents straight.” The Op corrects him, giving the price as two for a quarter. Fred raised these figures to “three for a buck” and ”two bits each” respectively.

DASHIELL HAMMETT

   He also added a cool ten thousand dollars to the purchase price of a house that in the 1923 version sold for $4,500. Where a Hammett character disposes of $4,000 in Liberty bonds (sold by the government to finance World War I), Fred has him sell $15,000 worth of common or garden variety bonds.

   Whenever Hammett refers to an automobile as a “machine,” Fred changes it to “car.” Where three men in a general store are “talking Hiram Johnson,” Fred has them merely “talking.” (Hiram Johnson, as we learn from a note in the Library of America volume, was governor of California between 1911 and 1917 and later served four terms as senator.)

   He also unaccountably changes the name of a major character from Handerson to Henderson. A quick check of Fred’s versions of a few other Continental Op stories with the original texts yielded similar results and a clear conclusion: to read Hammett’s tales as they were meant to be read, you have to read them in the Library of America collection. This doesn’t help, of course, with the eight Op stories not collected in that volume, but it’s a start.

   In every version of “Arson Plus” the plot is of course the same: a man insures his life for big bucks, assumes another identity, sets fire to the house he bought, and the woman named as beneficiary demands payment.

   Did these people really think any insurance company would be fooled for a minute when there were no human remains in the ashes of the destroyed house? Didn’t Hammett with his experience as a PI realize that this plot was ridiculous? Was Fred ever bothered by its silliness?

***

   My nonfiction collection Cornucopia of Crime, which I subtly plugged a few columns ago, is now officially available (Ramble House, 2010).

   So too is Night Forms (Perfect Crime Books), a collection of 28 of the short stories I’ve written over the last four decades including my earliest (“Open Letter to Survivors”), my latest (“The Skull of the Stuttering Gunfighter”), and a huge pile of tales that fall between that unmatched pair.

   I’ve completely forgotten where the picture of me on the back cover came from, but whoever took it deserves some kind of award for improving on reality more than any other photographer in history.

Two Books Reviewed by RICHARD MOORE:         


BRIAN ANTHONY & ANDY EDMONDS – Smile When the Raindrops Fall: The Story of Charley Chase. Scarecrow Press, 1998.

RICHARD LEWIS WARD – A History of the Hal Roach Studios. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

CHARLEY CHASE

   Together these two books give a nice portrait of one of the most interesting smaller studios during Hollywood’s Golden Period. The Charley Chase book covers the creative sides by telling the story of one of Hal Roach’s most talented stars and directors. The Ward book covers more of the business and practical aspects of the studio and includes a great deal of specific figures on the cost and earnings of individual films and series.

   I am a bit late to the party on Charley Chase, as other than his supporting role in Laurel & Hardy’s wonderful Sons of the Desert, I was not very familiar with his film work. I had seen a few of his shorts but those few were years ago. More recently, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) ran some of his silent short subjects as well as talkies and it piqued my interest. Chase was a very talented fellow, both as a performer and director.

   Born Charles Joseph Parrott in Baltimore in 1893, he spent his first 10 years in an ethnic neighborhood near the inner harbor. After his father died, the family moved in with his mother’s sister and Charley began running errands and anything he could to bring in money.

   A talented tap dancer with a pleasing voice, he began earning money on the streets as an entertainer. Soon he teamed up with two other boys and the trio gained bookings in vaudeville theaters. Eventually, he teamed up with another comic for a routine entitled “The Boys from Nutsville” that was very successful. Charley became tired of living out of a trunk and stayed in Los Angeles when a tour ended in 1911.

   He found employment with Lon Chaney’s stage troupe as a member of the chorus. There he met his wife, but soon Chaney abandoned his stage career to enter movies. Out of a job, Charley did the same, first with the Christie Studios and then with Mack Sennett.

CHARLEY CHASE

   With Sennett, Charley began doing bits and graduated to featured roles, and along the way, was given his first chance at directing. He also became friends with the star of the Sennett lot, Charlie Chaplin, and appeared in several of the Chaplin films circa 1914. After several years with Sennett, Charley freelanced as a director and performer at Paramount and other studios.

   His younger brother Jimmy Parrott went to work for the Hal Roach Studio in 1917 as a gag writer on Harold Lloyd comedies and eventually made his way in front of the camera. Jimmy was drafted into the Army and sent to Europe where he was wounded.

   After his return, Roach put him back before the cameras but soon James Parrott left acting to become one of Roach’s best directors.

   Meanwhile, his brother Charley joined Roach and because of his experience with some of the best producers, he was made supervisor of all productions. It was at Roach that Charley made his mark both in front and behind the camera.

   As a studio manager, Charley lured Stan Laurel into returning to the Roach Studio trom vaudeville. Charley had worked with Oliver Hardy in the Billy West comedies and in 1924, he added him to be Roach stable of actors. While others have credit for teaming L&H, Charley got them to the same studio.

   The star of the Roach Studio in the early days was Harold Lloyd. I attended a 100th birthday party for Hal Roach given by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Nearly completely deaf, Roach did answer questions posed. Asked who was his favorite comedian, Roach immediately answered “Harold Lloyd.” Why? “Because I made the most money with him.”

CHARLEY CHASE

   I need to dig up my notes from the Roach interview to be exact but when he was asked who he thought was the funniest comic, he quickly said “Charley Chase. But he was a terrible drunk.” Alas, in a hard-drinking era, Charley was notable for his love of brandy and eventually, it killed him in 1940.

   Rail thin, slicked-back hair and a small mustache was the picture of a young man on the go in his early movies and even as he grew older, he maintained a very likable film persona. It is ironic that he is best remembered for his role as the obnoxious fraternal order convention-goer who plagues Laurel and Hardy in Sons of the Desert.

   When Roach exited the short subject field (except for the “Our Gang” series), he used Chase in a couple of features and then fired him. Chase took a full page ad in Variety to thank Roach for a wonderful 17-year run. He moved over to Columbia where he had his own series, and he directed others including several of the best by the Three Stooges including Violent Is the Word for Curley.

   The biography is an odd collaboration as Andy Edmonds had done much of the research years before but had never finished the biography. One day Anthony knocked on his door and asked him “Why?”

   Together they finished the book: The close cooperation of Chase’s daughters and children add a human element often missing from biographies. The writers also visited the homes they lived in and that added a lot of physical detail.

CHARLEY CHASE

   Edmonds’ early interviews saved a lot of information that would have been lost with the death of Chase’s contemporaries. He even tracked down Joe Kavigan, the bartender at the theatrical oriented Masquers Club where Charley was an officer. Kavigan used to drive Chase home when he was in his cups. Chase would yell “Stop the car!! Get out!!” And outside, he said “Look at the sky! Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”

   Kavigan said his helping the patrons home could be misinterpreted. He often escorted an inebriated Spencer Tracy from the club to his home. One late evening, Mrs. Tracy came to the door to help her husband in and said sharply, “How come when he’s with you, he’s always drunk?” She probably had no idea he was the bartender.

   The Ward history of the Hal Roach studio is a much drier book but I found the level of detail fascinating. Discussed in detail are the relationships with Pathe as his distributor, fol1owed by the glory years with MGM and then finally with United Artists.

   I knew Roach had been in trouble in the early 1930s after the crash but was surprised to learn that the studio nearly went under in 1940. Although Roach produced the wonderful Of Mice and Men starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Burgess Meredith, the rave reviews did not translate into profitability due to mishandling by United Artists.

CHARLEY CHASE

   As documented in a wealth of detail, the studio was never in great financial shape. Hal Roach, Sr. eventually turned it over to his son and Hal Roach, Jr. made the lot one of the most active in the early days of television. Shows shot at Roach included My Little Margie, Blondie, Racket Squad, and The Stu Erwin Show.

   Independent producers rented the studio to make series including Amos and Andy, Life of Riley, Beulah, You Are There, and Waterfront. Yet, the studio couldn’t make money because of the debt it was carrying, including a hefty buy-out for Hal Roach Sr. Eventually, it went bankrupt.

   Interesting tidbits: “Our Gang” weekly salaries in 1937: Spanky $200, Alfalfa $175, DarIa $150, Buckwheat $80.

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