I was prompted to look for this film (I found it online) after a comment on my post about Benedetta. It was suggested to me that the idea of a ‘nunsploitation’ picture was closely related to the women’s prison film, a genre that began to develop particularly in the 1950s as the American film industry – and film audiences – began to change. Films about women in prison offered an emotional hotpot of female only communities placed under pressure. Such films can be traced back to the silent era, gradually developing in pre-code Hollywood but then being restricted to approved stories of rehabilitation during the studio period. In 1950 Warner Bros released Caged and United Artists released So Young, So Bad. These two studio releases signalled the start of a move towards harder narratives and the establishment of a more defined genre repertoire. Women’s Prison in 1955 was one of the first films to focus entirely on the prison community with all the criminal activity and judicial procedures prior to incarceration being omitted.
My choice of this title is simply because it is Ida Lupino’s last cinema release for a major studio in which she takes the lead role. She would continue acting in TV dramas and independent cinema releases until the late 1970s but at this point, still aged only 37, she remained able to command the screen and to ‘carry’ the film. Why was the only recognised female director in Hollywood at the time prepared to star in a ‘women in prison’ picture? The answer is simple economic necessity. The attempt to distribute the films produced by Filmakers, the company owned by Lupino and her second husband Collier Young, was proving unsuccessful and in January 1955 it moved to find another major distributor for future product. It was also in trouble with the Screen Actors Guild because it had sold a film (Never Fear, 1950) to television without paying residuals to the actors involved. Lupino needed to find extra income. Women in Prison was made by an independent, Bryan Foy Productions, but it was distributed by Columbia. There was a strong supporting cast with Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore, Audrey Totter and Phyllis Thaxter as the featured inmates and Lupino’s then husband Howard Duff playing opposite his wife as the potential good guy. Lupino herself was the manic and sadistic superintendent of the women’s half of a state prison in which the overall governor ran the men’s half. The two communities were physically separated but the possibility that an inmate could cross over to the ‘other side’ would become an aspect of the plot. The writers Jack DeWitt and Crane Wilbur were experienced in a range of genres as was director Lewis Seiler and DoP Lester White. Ida Lupino could at least be confident that these guys knew what they were doing.
Wikipedia has an interesting page on the ‘Women in Prison’ genre and unsurprisingly there is a scholarly interest in the genre from feminist film academics. Women’s Prison arguably brings together several familiar elements of the developing repertoire and establishes a new direction for the genre which takes off in the mid 1950s and then rapidly expands in the 1970s. Ida Lupino herself appeared in a TV movie in 1972, Women in Chains in which she is the lead, again as a tyrannical chief warden. Women in Prison opens in a classical manner with the arrival of two young women as new prisoners. Brenda Martin (Jan Sterling) has been inside before for passing fake cheques and she knows what to expect. Helene Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter) is a middle class woman convicted of manslaughter having caused the death of a child in a road accident. She is already traumatised and clearly unlikely to get through the brutal treatment in which, as a new inmate, she is to be kept in solitary for the first few days. Brenda will attempt to support Helene but we are quickly introduced to two other characters who will also be central to the narrative. Cleo Moore plays the voluptuous 1950s young woman found in many exploitation films of the period and Audrey Totter plays the wife of a convicted criminal who has refused to betray her husband and has been convicted of possession of a weapon. He is being held in the adjacent men’s prison and the plot involves his attempts to to get into the women’s prison and visit his wife. There are two other notable supporting players. Juanita Moore, one of the few African-American players to feature in a variety of roles in Hollywood in the studio period (i.e. not only as a music star or as a servant) is part of an all-black quartet in one of the cells. This segregation is not commented on. Moore would have her biggest role as the mother in Douglas Sirk’s hit melodrama Imitation of Life in 1959. Vivian Marshall plays a stripper who is able to perform impersonations of film stars and this will also provide a key plot device in the film.
The whole cast of inmates performs well as an ensemble which also includes the female warders, one of whom is played by Mae Clarke (who had a grapefruit pushed into her face by Jimmy Cagney in 1931’s Public Enemy). This leaves the central tussle between Lupino’s Amelia van Zandt as the superintendent and Howard Duff as the prison doctor who appears to be both general physician and psychologist. He will attempt to stop the harsh treatment of Helene but will be overruled by the superintendent. Lupino is genuinely terrifying as the sadistic van Zandt. She wears tight-fitting costumes complete with a studded leather belt to which are attached her master keys. By contrast all the female inmates are dressed in drab and poorly fitted uniforms. This would change in later examples of the genre with the opportunity to show prisoners in skimpy costumes and stages of undress being exploited as the production code was eased in the 1960s. Women’s Prison concentrates on the ensemble and the interweaving stories which build to an ultimate confrontation with van Zandt.
I found the film very entertaining and Variety‘s reviewer seemed to share my view. The January 20 1955 trade show screening report concludes that this film is a “good entry in the programmer market”. This raises the question of the ‘B’ picture designation. Ida Lupino has been tagged with the designation of a ‘B’ picture director and, in the 1950s, a ‘B’ picture actor. The film scholar Annette Kuhn published a book on Lupino’s directorial work in in film and TV which was given the title ‘Queen of the Bs’. I’ve not read the book but I suspect that the title has been applied by other commentators rather glibly. I think that Variety‘s comment here refers to the studios’ double bill practice in the early 1950s. Columbia distributed Women’s Prison as an 80 minute feature which could be paired with one of several other Columbia pictures, but it was also promoted in the trades alongside Columbia’s A releases. Variety shows the film being booked with films such as Fritz Lang’s Human Desire (1954) with Glenn Ford and The Violent Men (1955), a Western also with Glenn Ford. Masterson of Kansas (1954), also a Western, was another picture from the previous year which was paired with the prison film. Women in Prison was the lead on these double bills and was performing well in cinemas. Box office for the film was ‘good’ in New York, ‘sock’ in Philadelphia and ‘sturdy’ in Chicago. Cleo Moore was recognised as a draw when she made a personal appearance. Columbia also had a Korean War picture, Bamboo Prison (1955) which was in a double bill with Women’s Prison and the this did very well in Philadelphia. In New York the film did good business as part of a vaudeville programme. In several locations Women’s Prison lasted two or three weeks.
Generally the film is referred to as a melodrama in the trades and there is also a sense in which it is viewed as a ‘social problem’ melodrama. Although the closing sequence presents exciting action, the real thrust of the narrative is for the women to expose the incompetence and and dangerous behaviour of the superintendent towards the inmates. The promotional material for the film hints at more in terms of sensationalist exposure than is actually delivered. What we get is a well-made drama and a worthy entry in Lupino’s long list of credits.
I’d like to acknowledge the detailed blog post by ‘Monster Girl’ (Jo Gabriel) on Women’s Prison which is well worth a read and offers a woman’s perspective on the genre. Here’s an early scene from the film when the two new inmates meet Juanita Moore who explains that she’s called Polyclinic after the hospital she was born in!
It’s close to time for Sight and Sound‘s decennial list of international critics’ ‘best films’. I’m not very keen on these lists but they seem to amuse a lot of cinephiles. I’m intrigued as to what criteria the selected critics use for their personal choices (i.e. outside of the guidelines they are sent by the journal) and why they end up with mainly the same kinds of films from the same directors. I’ve seen the majority of the 250 films on the 2012 list and I’ve enjoyed many of them. Indeed, many of my favourite films are on the list. But what about those that aren’t? How come, for instance, that The Best Years of Our Lives is not on the list and, as far as I can see, no films by William Wyler, the German émigré director who arrived in the US in 1920, aged 18 and was active in Hollywood from 1925 to 1970. Second only to John Ford in Best Director wins at the Academy Awards, Wyler directed some of Hollywood’s ‘biggest’ pictures such as Ben Hur (1959) as well as Westerns, musicals and melodramas and films notable for the performances of stars such as Bette Davis and Audrey Hepburn.
The Best Years of Our Lives was a box office winner in 1946 in both the US and UK and was duly recognised with seven Academy Awards. Unlike many films rooted in a specific historical moment, the film still works just as effectively in 2022 as it did in 1946 and in the early 1970s when I first watched it. What makes it so special?
Three demobbed servicemen find themselves thrown together on a flight back to their home town, aboard a military aircraft in 1945. Lt. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was a navigator/bomb aimer. Sgt Al Stephenson (Fredric March) was with the US Army and Homer Parrish was a seaman below decks on a US carrier in the Pacific, but has spent time in a military hospital. They return to rather different family situations. Al returns to his family and his secure job in a bank. Fred visits his parents before trying to find his wife and Homer moves back in with his parents and wonders whether his marriage to the girl next door will eventually go ahead. The narrative follows the next several months as each of the men discover that ‘civvy street’ has changed since they’ve been away and the war is rapidly being forgotten as people try to focus on the future. The men might aim to go their separate ways but chance means that they soon meet again at the bar owned by Homer’s uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael). Before he sees his wife again, Fred meets Al’s daughter Peggy (Teresa Wright). This creates a slightly different structure in the sense that Fred has two relationships in the narrative. In broad terms, the narrative gives roughly equal space to all three stories, though perhaps Fred ‘s actions evoke more issues, partly because of his attraction to Peggy and therefore his role in Al’s story as well.
The origins of the film are in a novel, written in blank verse and titled Glory to Me, by MacKinlay Kantor in 1945. The independent producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights but then asked playwright Robert Sherwood to write a screenplay which extended MacKinlay’s narrative and changed it significantly (to MacKinlay’s dismay). MacKinlay had been a war correspondent in Europe and he used his own experiences as well as interviews with US servicemen to inform his story about three veterans who return to their Midwestern home town in 1945 and face problems in returning to civilian life, both as workers and family men. The titles of the novel and the film are ambiguous I think. Which were the ‘best years’ of these lives – the years spent away in the war or the years coming to terms with post-war life? Hollywood films are usually optimistic, so presumably it’s the latter. The novel’s title actually refers to a line in a popular gospel hymn by Charles H. Gabriel. The phrase is used repeatedly to refer to the moment of arriving in heaven to see the face of Jesus Christ which will be ‘glory to me’. The suggestion might be that reaching home in ‘Boone City’ should be like reaching heaven, but actually it means facing a series of difficult problems for each man.
I haven’t read the novel but from various reviews (e.g. on ‘Good Reads’) it seems clear to me that the film is much ‘softer’ in presenting the problems than the novel. Other changes might have been the result of the usual Hollywood politics involving actors and contracts. The most significant change is that Fred, who in the novel is a still a young man in his early 20s, is played by Dana Andrews (aged 37 when the film was released). The age difference is most pronounced when Fred is forced to consider returning to work as a ‘soda jerk’ in a drugstore after his three years away. It’s ludicrous that Andrews could have been a soda jerk at 33 but somehow the actor and Wyler as director manage to create a narrative in which we suspend disbelief. But actually the ages of actors and characters are out in several cases. Fredric March who plays the bank clerk Al, called up when he was 38, was in reality 49 when the film was released and Teresa Wright, playing his daughter Peggy, who we assume to have been an older teenager when he left for war, was 28. It’s worth pointing out that Hollywood has always been fairly relaxed about the real ages of stars in comparison with their characters. Even so, the disparities here do raise questions in a film about a specific time period of a few months in the second half of 1945.
The other significant change arguably improved the film’s impact. The novel’s Homer suffers a form of paralysis which affects his control of his arms, but for the film the non-professional actor Harold Russell, who had lost both his hands in an accidental explosion while training troops, was cast. Russell’s prosthetic ‘claws’ make a clear visual statement and his ‘natural’ performance enhances the representation of a wounded soldier – although in the film he is a seaman working below decks on a carrier. The top-billed star of the film is Myrna Loy who plays Al’s wife Millie. Loy had been in films since 1925 but had become a major star following the success of The Thin Man in 1934. Her relaxed relationship with her co-star William Powell and their well received comic scenes together would later help to ‘humanise’ the scenes between Al and Millie. Loy was also quite well-known for her wartime work in Hollywood for the Red Cross and the Naval Auxiliary canteen and this too added to her public reception in The Best Years of Our Lives. On the other hand, she had just turned 41 when the film came out, meaning her character would have had her daughter at age 13!
There are three other significant roles for women in the film. Virginia Mayo plays Marie, Fred’s wife, not too pleased to see him back and Gladys George is Fred’s stepmother Hortense. Cathy O’Donnell as Homer’s pre-war girlfriend Wilma was a new contract player for Sam Goldwyn and a few years later she would make a big impact in Nick Ray’s first feature They Live By Night (shot in 1947). Her Goldwyn contract was matched, at least in terms of working on Goldwyn’s independent productions, by several others in the film’s cast and crew. Although the film is clearly focused on the three men who return from war, I think it is the female roles that make the film stand out. That’s possibly because the film is a melodrama at heart. It is through their interactions with the four women that the men’s problems are brought to light. Without the women these men might really struggle to find their way after being institutionalised in the forces.
One of the interesting factors about the film’s reception is the way that aspects of the film ‘speak’ directly about the same concerns that underpin many of the films of the period later recognised as films noirs. For instance, Fred experiences the sense of humiliation and unfairness that might drive a traumatised veteran towards crime or violence. The novel that was the basis for the Humphrey Bogart film In a Lonely Place (1950), a celebrated film noir melodrama, has a central character who is a flyer experiencing a well-paid life in the USAF in the UK with good pay and status who finds it impossible to return to a mundane job without a high salary and status On the other hand, Al finds it difficult to to follow banking practice and wants to make loans to people whom he feels are deserving. Milly is the sensible and loving wife who understands her husband and keeps him on track. She has also passed on her values to her daughter. The film works best within the slightly heightened sensibility of the melodrama. A juxtaposition of scenes cuts between Fred’s father reading his son’s medal citations which Fred has left behind as he seeks to move on and Fred himself wandering through a graveyard of military aircraft, including the B17s in which Fred flew. The one scene that didn’t work well for me is when Al gifts his son the mementoes of his time in Japan. It’s a stiff performance by the young actor playing the son, but perhaps this is what Wyler wanted? Either way, the son doesn’t figure much in the remainder of the film – his sister is much more important.
Samuel Goldwyn may have been an independent but he hired quality personnel and facilities. The leading players in The Best Years of Our Lives all give solid performances and the creative team includes Gregg Toland as cinematographer. Toland became well-known established in Hollywood during the 1930s and in 1940-41 his work for John Ford and Orson Welles was widely discussed. He was known for his use of deep focus and innovative lighting. He had worked with Wyler on three previous films and although the photography of The Best Years of Our Lives was not overtly expressionist there were particular scenes which became classic study texts. One was the scene in Butch’s Bar when Al has been giving Fred a stern talking to about his ‘friendship’ with Peggy. Fred says he will phone Peggy and break off their relationship and as he leaves the bar he notices the phone booth by the door and goes in. (see the image above.) As he is dialling, Homer arrives and invites Al to listen to the new piano piece he and Butch have worked out. Butch sits at the piano with Homer and they play a duet. Al stands by the piano and admires Homer’s playing with his prosthetic hands. After a few moments he turns to look at the phone booth where Fred is speaking to Peggy (or at least we presume he is). Because of Toland’s camera set-up he can show this movement in deep focus from Homer in the foreground all the way back to Fred in the booth in the top left quadrant of the image. The other aspect of the shot is the low angle and effective lighting which feels natural rather than staged. It’s also impressive that Fred is framed in the window of the booth and not obscured by the position of a customer at the bar. This shot must have required very careful blocking and a long time to prepare for the shoot. Toland took his time. He was expensive but the results were impressive. The film topped the box office for 1946. While Toland’s work contributed to a realist aesthetic enabling the audience to put together aspects of the lives of the characters – the three men are linked visibly here – the music in the film composed by Hugo Friedhofer was a more conventional score for a melodrama, serving the narrative and reinforcing the emotional power of the film. The score won one of the seven Oscars awarded to the film.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen the film but it had lost none of it’s power when I watched it again. It tells a universal human story about separation from loved ones, about the trauma of war and the struggle to reconnect in a way that is engaging for a wide audience. It’s nearly 3 hours long but never drags. If you’ve never seen the film I urge you to give it a go. In the UK it is available to rent/buy on Amazon download. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray. Here’s the early scene when Al and Fred drop off Homer for his homecoming:
This strange film turned up on Talking Pictures TV a couple of days ago. It is ‘strange’ not because of its theme or genre categorisation, which are relatively familiar, but for its production details and aspects of representations of racism in a very specific context. The outline plot is straightforward. In India in 1944 a group of military bases are shared by British and American units. One night an American officer enters the sleeping quarters of other ranks and shoots a British NCO in cold blood, firing several times in front of witnesses. The murder is very damaging for US-British co-operation in the preparations for an offensive against the Japanese. The US general in charge summons an officer to defend the shooter in a court martial which everyone agrees will end with the convicted man being hung. Even so, a proper defence case must be made so that both the British and Americans are satisfied (nobody mentions what the Indians might think). This is essentially a courtroom drama with the sub-text that it is the American military institution which is under scrutiny, even when there is a war to be won.
The production was an American package made by three independent production companies for Twentieth Century Fox – a CinemaScope film in black and white made at the Associated British studios at Elstree. The leading cast members and the producers were American but the crew and other cast members were British (Trevor Howard is listed as a ‘guest star’). There was some second-unit work in India but primarily this is a British production as part of Hollywood’s move to overseas shoots in the this period. Perhaps the most significant credit was that for the writers. The film is adapted from a novel by Howard Fast, the American author perhaps best-known for his novel Spartacus (1951), adapted as a film in 1960. Fast was extremely productive of novels and short stories. He was a prominent communist party supporter until the occupation of Hungary in 1956 and had worked for the US Office of War Information during the Second World War. I find it odd that the adaptation of Fast’s novel The Winston Affair (1959) was commissioned from the British writing partnership of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. Both Willis and Hall had experienced military service in the post-war period and Willis had written The Long and the Short and the Tall as a play which was then adapted as a film in 1961 (about British troops in Malaya in 1942). Alongside this, Hall and Waterhouse had a very productive partnership but their main genre was comedy and neither had much experience of the American military as far as I can discern.
The film narrative works reasonably well as a courtroom drama. The central figure of the defence counsel is played by Robert Mitchum as Lt-Colonel Barney Adams who has experience of Army regulations and had acted before as counsel in a court martial. He arrives straight from military hospital, walking with a stick. His Silver Star and Purple Heart give him extra authority. Bizarrely, the Mitchum character is supposed to be the son of a West Point alumni of the local commander General Kempton (Barry Sullivan). Sullivan was just five years older than Mitchum. Mitchum is the film’s star and he plays to his star image but in a relatively restrained manner. The only really false note in the narrative structure is the relationship Adams has with a nurse played by the French-Chinese actor France Nuyen who was second-billed on the film posters. The nurse does have a functional role in providing a crucial document and in challenging Adams over his conduct of the case but the ‘romance’ is mostly irrelevant. However, Nuyen’s mixed race heritage is an indicator of a major issue in the film – racial difference and how it is handled in the American and British military administrations in India.
As far as I am aware, US military regulations in 1944 still maintained segregated roles and living/social arrangements for black personnel.There have been a number of novels and films that deal with incidents in which black GIs are discriminated against by white officers and men during their time in the UK during the Second World War, for example in the film Yanks (1979) and in the Nevil Shute novel The Chequer Board (1947). In both narratives, the locals tend to support the black GIs (something corroborated by various newspaper reports from the period). The American authorities did not send black servicemen to all overseas postings, but they were sent to the Asian theatre as well as to the UK. I have only very limited knowledge of the American presence in India in 1944, but India was still a British colonial territory and forms of a ‘colour bar’ did operate in India, especially in social clubs. My feeling about the film is that although the second unit footage offers a realist presentation, mainly in long shot, of various Indian townscapes etc., the internal scenes do not feel in any way authentic. Rather they seem typical of many Hollywood films. In Man in the Middle, we are presented with an American officers’ club which some British officers attend. There appear to be Indian servants but I don’t remember any African-Americans. However, when Adams arrives at the base he is assigned a black driver (played by Trinidadian actor Errol John). When he visits his client, Lt. Winston (Keenan Wynn) in prison, the guards are mostly black. I wondered if this was meant to be realist or perhaps instead was meant to ‘speak’ to the Civil Rights supporters in the US in 1964?
When Adams manages to get some responses from Winston in terms of why he shot S/Sgt Quinn that night, the main issue appears to be Winston’s racist views. Quinn was white but appeared to Winston to be friendly towards ‘the blacks up country’. It’s difficult for audiences now, I think, to understand whether Winston’s racism is an issue as such since Adams’ only possible strategy is to present Winston as clinically insane. Does the US Army care either way as long as he is found guilty and can be sentenced? I won’t spoil any more of the plot.
Guy Hamilton directed the film as his tenth feature (he made Godlfinger in the same year and would go onto direct four Bond films). It was photographed by Wilkie Cooper, already a distinguished veteran of British cinema productions with music by John Barry. It’s perhaps not surprising that Trevor Howard steals the film when he roars into a scene towards the end of the film. He was very much ‘at home’ on the set and had worked with director Hamilton many times before. In this film he plays a Medical Officer, Major Kensington, posted ‘up country’ who just happens to have been a psychiatrist before the war. Interestingly, Adams, a career soldier, seems to get on with Kensington whereas he loathes having to deal with the two lawyers assigned as his assistants because they are enlisted men.
There is a long history in post-war British cinema of UK-US productions, either Hollywood studios coming to the UK to make films or British companies importing American stars (usually second division players but still stars to a UK audience). Sometimes such films work very well but there is often something which just seems ‘off’ in terms of British culture, especially if the films are made with an American audience in mind. The line that got me in the whole film was when Major Kensington visits the US Officer’s Club bar and Adams asks him what he is doing in an American bar. He replies that the beer is never cold enough in an English bar. I think Waterhouse and Hall must have felt they needed to include this line, which became a cliché as proclaimed by every American GI who went into a British pub in a wartime film. Perhaps it was a sly joke? The irony is that one of the most famous forms of bottled beer in England is IPA, a beer developed specifically in the 18th century for export to India with extra alcohol and hop content to ensure it remained palatable in the heat. ‘IPA’ is now also a popular ‘craft beer’ in the US.
In its review (June 1964) Monthly Film Bulletin makes the observation that the film struggles to present American officers after they were satirised so expertly by Kubrick in Dr Strangelove (UK 1964), which was released in the UK a few months earlier. Watching the courtroom scenes, they did remind me of Kubrick’s earlier Paths of Glory (US 1957) in which a French military leadership attempts to convict a soldier at a court martial during the First World War, but selects the wrong counsel for defence.
This is a strange film. It has flaws, especially in the script, and never seems quite sure what kind of film it is. Nonetheless it entertains and pleases audiences, mainly I think because of the performances of its four leading players. Top of the bill is Ida Lupino and she holds it all together with Richard Widmark at his most manic and Cornel Wilde and Celeste Holm in more conventional roles. William Donati, Lupino’s biographer, tells us that the project was taken to 20th Century Fox by Lupino’s new agent Charles K. Feldman who had bought the rights to the story ‘Dark Love’ for her. He successfully sold the project to Fox with a significant fee for Lupino as the lead.
This was a crucial period in 30 year-old Ida Lupino’s career. She’d left Warner Bros. in 1947 after a seven year contract during which time she’d often been suspended and loaned out to other studios, but had appeared in leading roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Errol Flynn. Now she was a freelance trying to arrange her own work. She was also about to re-marry and Donati notes that both she and Collier Young, her new love, had thought that ‘Dark Love’ was the right story. I haven’t managed to find the original ‘Dark Love’ story. I’ve read elsewhere that it was a short story rather than a novel and it isn’t mentioned in IMDb’s credit list. Instead there are six writers listed with Edward Chodorov as producer and solo writer of the actual screenplay. So, I guess he’s responsible. The film was directed by Jean Negulesco, another refugee from Warners who had worked with Lupino on Deep Valley, her last Warners picture in 1947. Donati suggests that Lupino had asked for Richard Widmark who had been a sensation, nominated for an Oscar, in his first screen role as ‘Tommy Udo’ in Kiss of Death (1947). Widmark was under contract at Fox and the other two leads were the studio’s choices.
As the title implies, Road House features an out of town venue comprising a bar lounge and a ten-pin bowling alley owned by ‘Jefty’, Jefferson T. Robbins (Richard Widmark). The setting is somewhere in the North of the US, close to the Canadian border. The film opens with an almost documentary sequence of the venue’s operations behind the credits and then cuts to the manager, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) opening the door to find a strange woman in his office. She’s playing solitaire and smoking with one stockinged leg draped over the edge of Pete’s desk. This is Lily (Ida Lupino) – a seemingly sharp ‘broad’ who isn’t very impressed with Pete. He eventually discovers that Jefty found her in Chicago and offered her a six week stint singing in the bar. It’s a great opening and despite a strange and not very attractive hairstyle, Lupino commands the picture from the start. She’s the star and her performance proclaims the fact. All the other three leads in Road House are older than Lupino but she exudes maturity and presence in her performance and Widmark and Holm were relative newcomers to film work (both were experienced stage actors). Cornel Wilde was more experienced after several years as a lead player, playing opposite Ida Lupino in Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942) and opposite other female stars such as Ginger Rogers, Maureen O’Hara, Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell. But in this opening sequence he seems slightly awed by Lupino.
The innovation in this film is that Ida sings. She’s a jazzy, bluesy singer with a low gravelly voice. She’s called ‘no voice’ both by the characters in the film and commentators on the film but somehow she ‘performs’ the songs in a darkened room with her cigarette smouldering on the piano (and burning it!). (See the clip below.) The piano playing could be dubbed (but I know Ida composed music, presumably she could play the piano). However, it’s quite believable that the audience in the bar is mesmerised. Two songs were released as singles I think – ‘One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)’ by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and ‘Again’, specially written by Lionel Newman for the film. Lupino sings four in all. Lily is a hit with the punters and with both Jefty and Pete. In her earlier Warners film The Man I Love (1946), Ida was dubbed as a nightclub singer, so her singing here is a clear benefit of being a freelance – though I guess it might have had to be negotiated.
The film has three main sections. I’m not keen on the idea that Hollywood narratives always have three ‘acts’ – usually they have more in my readings. But in this film once Lily is established she becomes a softer character and it seems clear that we are heading into a classic triangular mating ritual in which both men will eventually want to marry her. Celeste Holm’s Susie, the cashier at Jefty’s, is the character squeezed out by Lily’s arrival. Lily seems to change quite dramatically once she has established herself. I believe in Lupino’s performance but I found the change abrupt. Much worse though is the plotting of the events which lead to the film’s climax, which don’t make too much sense, although I suppose they work on a kind of symbolic level. Perhaps if the film’s generic identities were a bit clearer it would be easier to understand.
Road House is often discussed as a film noir. Ida Lupino is also often described as a star of film noir, as well as the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953). 1948 is certainly ‘peak noir’ in terms of the numbers of films with noir lighting and mise en scène and doomed characters trying to deal with the immediate post-war world. However, I’m not sure that Ida was ever a femme fatale as such in her studio pictures. Road House was photographed by Joseph LaShelle who had worked at Paramount on two classic Otto Preminger pictures, Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), both of which have noirish elements. ‘Jefty’s’ operates mainly at night and the latter part of the film is shot on what appears to be an extensive studio set of a forest at night. The film is certainly plausible as a noir in terms of lighting. The main problem for me is that the story assumes Jefty and Pete have been friends for a long time. Jefty comes from a wealthy family and has the capital whereas Pete lives above the bar. There is no attempt to invoke the war so the typical film noir scenario of men returning from war with problems doesn’t enter into the discussion. On the other hand, Lily is an ‘independent woman’ who could be in a film noir narrative. I think this is really a romance melodrama that eventually morphs into an action drama. Rather than the usual ‘significant objects’ of a film noir mise en scène, the predominant images of the final section are concerned with an over-determined masculinity as Jefty and and Pete battle over Lily. This is introduced in the early scenes of the film when Lily notes the stags heads in the bar and the office of Jefty’s. She even stays at the only hotel in town, which is called ‘The Antlers’.
Whatever genre categorisation is appropriate, Road House proved to be a popular film (Monthly Film Bulletin called it ‘slick entertainment’) with over $2.3 million in distributor rentals for 20th Century-Fox, the second most successful studio of the year in the US. 74 years later the film still has its fans and for many of them this is a film noir classic. It’s also a film in which Ida Lupino revels in being at the centre of the story. It does make you wonder what would have happened if Warner Bros. had put her in a similar film back in 1942. Here’s that first scene at the piano:
In 1942 Ida Lupino was an established star at Warner Bros. She had top billing in the 1941 film that made Humphrey Bogart an A list star at Warners – High Sierra. This followed her performance in They Drive By Night (1940) which had wowed the critics. She had lead roles opposite Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf (1941) and John Garfield in Out of the Fog in the same year. Everything was going well but still Warner Bros. didn’t really know what to do with her. She was loaned out as the lead in two films for Twentieth-Century Fox and one for Columbia before she got another Warners role – and this only because Bette Davis turned it down. She was top-billed in The Hard Way and this turned out to be one of the few films for which she received the recognition for her performance that she always deserved. On the film’s release a year later it won the New York’s Critics’ Circle award for Best Actress.
As in many of Lupino’s films, her role in The Hard Way is not the heroic role but instead the one that drives the melodrama narrative. Lupino plays Helen Churnen, a woman in her mid-twenties who has married an older man, a worker in an industrial town. Her mother had died and Helen thought marriage would save her from poverty during the depression. Now she feels trapped. She intends to prevent her younger sister Katie (Joan Leslie), who lives with her, from suffering the same fate. Joan Leslie had been a child performer and after several uncredited roles in films in the 1930s was finally getting adult roles. In 1942 she was still just 17 tears old. The narrative of The Hard Way sees Katie leaving high school and hoping to become a stage performer. Helen determines to be her ‘stage mother’, abandoning her marriage to accompany Katie and trying to make sure she becomes successful. Katie meets a pair of vaudeville performers, traditional ‘song and dance men’ played by Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan. Carson’s character, Albert Runkel, falls for Katie in a big way and it is through him that she gains an entry into show business. But it is Helen who makes sure that Katie exploits her talent, sometimes by ‘any means necessary’. Kunkel’s performer partner Paul Collins sees Helen’s involvement as poisonous and what might have been a showbiz ‘rags to riches’ story becomes a dark melodrama with tragic outcomes.
The original idea behind the film was based on a story by Irwin Shaw about the relationship between Ginger Rogers and her mother Lela. Ginger joined a vaudeville show as a dancer when only 14 and married at 17 in 1928. She eventually got second lead roles in film musicals in 1930. The screenplay for The Hard Way by Daniel Fuchs and Peter Viertel was intended as a vehicle for Bette Davis, but was also offered to Ginger Rogers herself according to some sources. Both turned down the role. Ida Lupino was sometimes seen as Warners’ back-up for Davis but she was ten years younger than Davis (and seven years younger than Rogers). When she made The Hard Way she was just 24, but played the role much older so that the relationship with Leslie’s character sometimes feels like the classic mother-daughter relationship of the 1940s ‘woman’s picture’. In 1942, just a few months into the American involvement in the Second World War, some directors as well as male stars were beginning to become unavailable after signing up for service. Warners clearly saw The Hard Way as a major production but the director job went to the relatively low-profile contract director Vincent Sherman. Sherman had worked on a range of projects, including films with John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart, but not yet with major female stars. After The Hard Way he would direct Lupino and Davis in two films each and later two more with Joan Crawford, so Warners must have been satisfied with what he achieved. Two other significant names on The Hard Way were James Wong Howe as cinematographer and Don Siegel in his familiar role as ‘montage editor’ before his directorial career took off a few years later. Wong Howe didn’t enjoy working on the film because he thought Sherman was too inexperienced. This seems an odd remark (quoted in Alain Silver’s book James Wong Howe, The Camera Eye, Pendragon 2010) and it may simply be that the celebrated cinematographer thought the film wasn’t going to be an interesting story in visual terms. But that too is not really the case.
When the film was completed, Jack Warner felt it was too downbeat and he asked for the addition of an opening scene with a more glamorous Lupino who would then introduce the story as one long flashback (in a manner not dissimilar to the start of a film noir). This sequence required a set similar to those used by Wong Howe for parts of Out of the Fog, his first film shooting with Lupino. The town of Greenhill, where the story proper begins, is presented using a sequence which is said to have been taken from a Pare Lorentz documentary made during the Great Depression. Later in the story there are several opportunities taken to use the montage skills of Don Siegel for the familiar swirl of theatre handbills, performances, newspaper headlines etc. against a musical medley and a voiceover narration. It’s possible that Lupino spent some time with Siegel (who was also a Warner Bros. contractee). Later he directed the last of the films produced by Lupino’s company The Filmakers, Private Hell 36 (1954). There are certainly expressionist images both in the montages (a screen of clockfaces representing the pressure on Katie as her career develops quickly), in some of the many backstage scenes and in the opening sequence. The art director on the film was Max Parker, seemingly another Warner contractee who would work with Lupino again on her last Warners picture, Deep Valley in 1947. The Hard Way uses many music tracks, both diegetic and non-diegetic, and they are all listed on the film’s Wikipedia page.
The Hard Way was a success at the box office. Variety in January 1944 reported rentals (i.e a net return to the studio production division) of $1.5 million, placing the film as twelfth among the 14 Warners films that returned for than $1 million to the studio in 1943. Lupino also appeared alongside the other leading Warners players in the third-placed title in Warners’ list, Thank Your Lucky Stars – a compendium film of sketches and musical performances, one of several such films made during wartime. This had rentals of $2.8 million. In the same report, Ida Lupino is reported as fourth on the box office list for Warner Bros. after Bogart, Davis and Errol Flynn. Given this high spot in the Warner Bros. roster it’s perhaps surprising that Lupino didn’t get better parts over the next couple of years.
But what did Ida’s loyal fans and more general audiences make of her role and her performance? Too often, even with top billing and her usual strong performance, Lupino’s character was out of the limelight – quite literally in this case. In The Hard Way it could be argued that Helen is the villain, capable of stepping on anyone who stands in the way of Katie’s success. But Helen is doing this for her sister and she only knows how to do it the hard way. Vincent Sherman understood the story and he strove to make the town of Greenhill as grimy and smoky as he could – somewhere that a bright young woman would want to escape from. A wartime audience in 1943, especially one with a majority of women, many in work for the first time, may well have understood the story too, including the bonds between the sisters. Helen is promoting the idea that a woman’s career is important. As some modern reviewers note, the mores of the time meant that no man could cope with the idea that his wife might become the main breadwinner and this becomes the pivotal realisation in the narrative. The film pleased Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in the UK (November 1942) who praised all the performances and saw Vincent Sherman’s direction “leaving nothing to be desired” for a film that “achieves a most unusual sincerity”. According to Lupino’s biographer William Donati, the star at first didn’t take to Sherman and thought she didn’t understand the film. She was quite ill during the shoot but most of all she was devastated by the death of her father, the great stage performer Stanley Lupino, from cancer at the young age of 48. But Ida was a trouper and she completed the film. After the positive reviews she felt better and formed a strong friendship with Vincent Sherman who would then direct two further Warners films with Lupino as lead.
The Hard Way is not easy to find in the UK, but it is available in the US and it’s an essential film in Ida Lupino’s filmography.
This is a shortish (77 minutes) suspense thriller made for RKO by The Filmakers, the independent production company founded by Ida Lupino and Collier Young. The film was shot in just 18 days in July/August 1951 but delayed by RKO for a year. This followed a pattern given the eccentric behaviour of Howard Hughes as the owner of RKO. On Dangerous Ground, which like this film starred Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, had similarly been delayed. One suggestion is that Hughes as part of his enthusiastic support for the communist witch hunt of the HUAC years was reluctant to release a film with Ryan whom he saw as a leftist. Lupino, a staunch Democrat managed to avoid trouble but she was friends with many of those hounded as communists. At this point she had directed four films for The Filmakers but she argued for Harry Horner to take the directorial role. Horner was a Czech émigré who had arrived in the US in the mid 1930s with Max Rheinhardt and eventually entered Hollywood as a set designer, winning two Oscars. He’d worked for Lupino as Production Designer on Outrage (1950). Beware, My Lovely was actually his first feature but because of the delayed release, his second feature came out first. It appears that Lupino did actually direct a couple of scenes when Horner’s wife was in hospital.
Beware, My Lovely is an adaptation, by the original writer Mel Dinelli, of his Broadway play ‘The Man’ (1950). The play had begun as a radio drama in 1945 and it saw further radio and stage productions, a short story version in 1949 and later TV drama adaptations. Dinelli was no stranger to suspense thrillers or what would later be termed films noirs. He had worked as a writer on The Spiral Staircase (1946) with Robert Siodmak, The Reckless Moment (1949) with Max Ophüls and House by the River (1950) with Fritz Lang. All three directors were associated with the German film industry of the early 1930s) and all three films are concerned with a house as the location for suspense. All are also associated with film noir. Inevitably perhaps, Beware, My Lovely has been seen as a noir, probably because of the Lupino-Ryan casting, but there are other ways to think about it in genre terms. The film was made mainly on the RKO lot and although the RKO designer Albert D’Agostino is credited, Horner probably had a lot to do with the set and its presentation. It uses part of the house set built for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The presentation is also influenced by cinematographer George Diskant who had worked on On Dangerous Ground. (He would also go on to shoot The Bigamist (1953) for Ida Lupino).
The plot of the film is very straightforward. We first meet Howard (Robert Ryan) working as a handyman and clearing up after a job when he discovers the body of a woman – the householder? – stuffed into a closet. Alarmed, he flees the house and skips out of town on a freight train. We realise that the year is 1918 and it is approaching Christmastime in an anonymous town in the South-West. Helen (Ida Lupino), a young war widow, is preparing for the holidays. Her lodger is away for a few days but the house is busy with a group of local children and Helen’s rather snooty teenage niece, Ruth (Barbara Whiting). When the house quietens down, Helen welcomes her new handyman who will start some cleaning tasks. This is Howard arriving for his first day working in the house. There is clearly a nervous tension between the two and we are immediately concerned that Howard is some form of threat to Helen. That’s it really. The interior of the house becomes the sole location and the tension gradually mounts. The film depends on the performances of Ryan and Lupino and how they are presented in the complicated interior space of the house. The combination of the work of Horner, Diskant and the score by Leith Stevens (another of The Filmakers regulars) delivers a powerful narrative. Collier Young who produced the film despite being involved in a divorce from Lupino after only a brief marriage, felt that the film could not use the ending of the original play. He may also have been aware that Hughes probably wouldn’t have accepted it. Lupino’s original choices for a title were ‘At the End of the Day’ and as a second choice ‘The Terror’ but ‘Beware, My Lovely’ was imposed by Hughes with RKO handling all promotion of the film. The ending has been seen as a weakness by some critics but I think the film works well as it is. The action is confined to around ten hours or so with the two leads alone in the house.
I’ve suggested that the relevant genre is not film noir, although there is expressionist camerawork in the house. The narrative is associated with the ‘woman in peril’ or the ‘home invasion’ scenario. But I think that despite the setting thirty years or so earlier, the film is linked to the contemporary social issue dramas of the other films by The Filmakers and especially those directed by Lupino. The Robert Ryan character is clearly mentally ill, perhaps with a form of paranoid schizophrenia. In a way this is linked to his rejection for military service and his sense of a slight to his masculinity. When Ruth makes a brief appearance during the day she mocks him for doing housework like cleaning – not a job for a ‘real man’. Helen is the good-hearted woman sensitive enough to want to help but also terrified. I think we could see this portrayal of mental illness as conveying a plea for understanding matching those concerned with rape, abortion, disability and so on in Lupino’s other films.
The film had a mixed reception but seemingly with more positive than negative responses – although Monthly Film Bulletin in the UK (July 1953) thought it ‘boring and ‘silly’. I couldn’t disagree more, but then I could always watch Lupino and Ryan together. Unfortunately RKO failed to get behind the film properly, tempting Collier Young and Ida Lupino to release The Bigamist themselves – and suffering from a lack of distribution muscle. Beware, My Lovely has been shown in the US on Turner Classic Movies and in the UK on the BBC and, more recently, on Talking Pictures TV. I think it is well worthwhile trying to catch if it comes around.