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Friday, June 25, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #19: The Rains Came, 1939

"Who is the pale copper Apollo?"
(Myrna Loy, meet Tyrone Power).

The Rains Came, 1939

Director: Clarence Brown
Writer: Phillip Dunne and Julien Josephson, from the novel by Louis Bromfield
Cinematographer: Arthur C. Miller
Produced by: Darryl F. Zanuck and Harry Joe Brown for 20th Century Fox Studios
Starring: Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power, George Brent, Brenda Joyce, Nigel Bruce, Maria Ouspenskaya, Joseph Schildkraut

Why I chose it
My Twitter polls have been slowly adding votes with every new poll, and this had a total of 15. This film won appxoimately 2:1 over the next two runners-up (Midnight and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes). As I had no other criteria to choose this time, I was pleased to follow the wishes of my voters and watch this star-studded disaster/melodrama.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
In a fictional small town in India called Ranchipur, a motley group of natives and foreigners, the latter being mostly English and Americans, get caught in a series of natural disasters that devastate the town: an earthquake followed by a tsunami and then a breakout of the plague. The main characters are Tom Ransome (George Brent), a cynical womanizer who is pursued by Fern (Brenda Joyce), the ingenue daughter of the local American missionaries; we learn Ransome has history with newly arrived Lady Edwina Esketh (Myrna Loy). Lady Esketh, for her part, married for money (we think?) to a much older Lord (Nigel Bruce) and continues her man-eating ways by pursuing the stoic, dedicated local 'high caste' doctor, Major Rama Safti (Tyrone Power). When she joins up to help the Major as a hospital volunteer working with the sick and dying plague patients, she's faced with a difficult decision when the Major can be appointed Maharaja only if he gives her up.

Production Background 
This film was Fox head Darryl Zanuck's moment in the sun. He bought the rights to the Louis Bromfield novel and went about putting his dream team together in 1939 style. He borrowed Myrna Loy and director Brown from MGM, and Brent from Warner Bros. Apparently no one was to his liking for the ingenue role, Fern, so he recruited a college student, Brenda Joyce (who went on to have a successful, if not exceptional, career in front of the camera). The fantastic scenes of torrential rains and flooding dominated the picture and the set. Credit special effects man Fred Sersen, who with his department won the first-ever special effects Oscar for his work. Apparently Brown loved his time at Fox, stating that the departments worked well together, unlike at MGM where feuds and one-upmanship were the norm. Upon release the film garnered lukewarm reviews, but it did well at the box office; however, the expenses were only recouped years later on re-release. 

Some other notable film-related events in 1939 (from

  • Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman made her American film debut (and English-speaking debut) as piano teacher/concert pianist Anita Hoffman in Intermezzo: A Love Story
  • The California Child Actor's Bill, better known as the Coogan Law, was enacted. The child labor reform act took place after 24-year-old Jackie Coogan, who had starred in The Kid (1921) opposite Charlie Chaplin, sued his parents (mother and stepfather) in 1938 for mismanaging and exploiting his career and spending his acquired fortune as a young star. 
  • The future rival to film -- television -- was formally introduced at the New York World's Fair in Queens. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) unveiled a display of its first TV sets for sale to the American public.
  • British actor Basil Rathbone, as Sherlock Holmes - with an Inverness cape and curved-stem pipe, was accompanied by dull-witted, pipe-smoking Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, in their first appearance together as the crime-fighting duo, in 20th Century Fox's The Hound of the Baskervilles

My Random Observations

  • I must have reached the level of film fan who can instinctively associate stars and directors with particular studios; it's for that reason that the mixing of Brent, Loy, and Power had me doing double-takes at the screen watching this film. Sort of a patchwork quilt of a production!
  • While I absolutely adore black and white films, I feel this one may have been more impactful on viewers if in color, especially during the year that produced The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind at competing studios. (Yes, I know other great pictures that year, like Stagecoach and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, were filmed in B&W).
  • At times I felt that Alfred Newman's score was overbearing and distracted from the dialogue or action. I loved the Indian music interludes, but the European orchestral part of the score could have been dialed back (as I write this, I recognize a parallel between the use of music in this film and the Western influence in Indian culture especially during the colonial era).
  • I have a totally new appreciation for George Brent. Before, whenever he showed up in a movie, I would wince or sigh in resignation. I realize that is largely my prejudice. But here, he astonished me. His character may have been the best written, with the roguish and generous elements in his personality dueling at times, and Brent knew exactly how to play it. His performance was, in my opinion, the best of the entire cast. Even with Tyrone Power at his peak of handsomeness, I couldn't take my eyes off of him.
  • I was having a sense of deja vu and realized it was because of the similar themes and plot points of The Painted Veil, the Somerset Maugham novel that was filmed in 1934 and 2006. In that novel, a young wife, who is superficial and selfish, follows her physician husband to Hong Kong, takes up with a handsome colonial official, but ultimately finds purpose and true love by working alongside her husband to curb a deadly outbreak of cholera in China.

The opening titles appear to wash away, one after another.

Ransome (George Brent) is content to sling pebbles at monkeys
outside his patio.

Elegant Tyrone Power dons brownface and a turban here
as Major Rama Safti.

Jane Darwell and Henry Travers run the American
Missionary School, and allow Ransome a respite from the
pretentious Mission owners next door.

Ransome not sure which part of his nature should win
when it comes to young Fern (Brenda Joyce).

H. B. Warner and Maria Ouspenskaya as Ranchipur's
Maharaja and Maharani.

Not a glimpse of a happy marriage (Loy and Bruce).

Ransome has his eye on the clouds as he takes a moment
to reflect on his past with Lady Esketh.

An unexpected romance begins to take root.

Lord Esketh's diary of his wife's dalliances.

During the floods, Fern comes to rescue Ransome and prepares
for a rest afterward.

Tom Ransome clings to the top of the statue of Queen 
Victoria, now mostly immersed in the rushing tsunami.
Symbolism, anyone?

Major Safti attends to the dying Maharajah.

Lady Esketh ponders her next move--in cards and in life.

Lady Esketh, masked against the plague, tends to a critically 
ill patient.

Major Safti's heart is pierced by the newly selfless Edwina.

Tom confronts Safti on his career choices.

Safti dressed for success, admired by the Maharani.

Where to Watch: I found a somewhat inferior print on YouTube here, and would instead recommend checking the DVD ("Studio Classics" line) out of your local library.

Further Reading
A major source for me was Mark Vieira's book Majestic Hollywood, The Greatest Films of 1939 (2013).
I also recommend Jeremy Arnold's article for TCM on the film with many juicy production tidbits, including Myrna Loy's relationships with others on the set and the tricks used by cinematographer Miller.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #18: Angels with Dirty Faces 1938

"Whaddya hear? Whaddya say?"

Angels with Dirty Faces 1938

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: John Wexley & Warren Duff, from a story by Rowland Brown
Cinematographer: Sol Polito
Produced by: Samuel Bischoff, Hal Wallis, and Jack Warner, for Warner Bros.
Starring: James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, 'The Dead End Kids'

Why I chose it
I was hesitant at first to put this one on my shortlist, because I had just watched a Warner Bros. film (Draegerman Courage from 1937), but went ahead anyway because Cagney has been sorely absent from this series, and from this blog, except for his cameo in my post 'Six Decades of Film Jameses'. Both this one and Pygmalion, with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, made it to the final Twitter poll, and Angels with Dirty Faces garnered the most votes. So here we are.

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
Rocky Sullivan and Jerry Connolly are two rambunctious friends in the Lower East Side in NYC in the early 1920s. Rocky gets caught at a petty crime, is shuttled off to reform school, and continues his criminal exploits into adulthood. Meanwhile, Jerry becomes the neighborhood parish priest. When grown Rocky (James Cagney) gets out of jail in the late 1930s, he renews his friendship with Jerry (Pat O'Brien), but still pursues criminal activities, this time with a gangster outfit headed by Frazier (Humphrey Bogart) and Keefer (George Bancroft). A new generation of neighborhood 'toughs' begin to hang out with Rocky, idolize him, and even help him escape capture, which greatly concerns Father Jerry, who is working hard to keep them from going bad. Rocky is torn between his friendship with Jerry and his life of crime, as he is increasingly at odds with both the law and the mob. (The ending of this film has its most commented-upon scene, but in keeping with no spoilers, I won't discuss it here).

Production Background 
In 1938, Cagney was an established film gangster while Bogart had only been a minor villain for Warner Bros. In fact, the gangster drama had been out of fashion for the years since the enforcement of the Production Code had cracked down on the "glamorization" of criminals. But in Angels with Dirty Faces, Warners resurrected their best-loved gangster, paired him with his frequent screen partner, O'Brien, who served as the white knight to Cagney's tough guy. They also threw all their best contractors at the production, including director Curtiz, composer Max Steiner, and the 'Dead End Kids'. These kids were six young NYC actors who hit the big time as stars of the Broadway show 'Dead End.' Hollywood saw a good thing and imported the group for a series of films, mostly at Warners, during the 1930s. (The 'Kids' continued their run of stardom in the 1940s and beyond as the 'East Side Kids' and 'Bowery Boys').  The 'Kids' apparently were as rumbunctious on set as their characters; original tough guy Cagney, with his street cred, subdued them after getting physical with Leo Gorcey when the latter pulled one too many ad-libs during filming. 

As for Cagney, he famously fought with Warner Bros. around this time about his gangster typecasting and other things, but was drawn to Rocky as a more well-rounded character. According to his autobiography, Cagney drew inspiration for his character from a drug-addicted pimp he knew as a kid, who stood on a street corner all day hitching his trousers, twitching his neck, and repeating: "Whadda ya hear! Whadda ya say!" Cagney won his first Oscar nomination for the role.

Some other notable film-related events in 1938 (from

  • The first appearance of an early prototype of Bugs Bunny, possibly the greatest cartoon character of all time, was as Porky Pig's antagonist in Warners' Porky's Hare Hunt (1938). He would appear fully developed and in his first starring role in Tex Avery's Oscar-nominated A Wild Hare (1940).
  • Roy Rogers made his starring film debut in the Republic Studios' B-western Under Western Stars (1938), after which he became popularly known as the "King of the Cowboys".
  • MGM loaned actor Clark Gable to David O. Selznick for his production of Gone With the Wind (1939) for his most famous role as Rhett Butler, in exchange for the film's distribution rights and one-half of the profits (further reduced by Loew's Inc.'s 15% interest and a requirement to pay Gable's $4,500 per week salary and one-third of Gable's $50,000 loan-out bonus).
  • African-American leaders publically called on the Hays Office to make roles other than doormen, maids, and porters available to blacks.

My Random Observations

  • If I were making movie taglines, this one would get 'The Public Enemy Goes to Boys Town." (Boys Town was a highly successful picture with Spencer Tracy playing the real-life priest who reforms young hoodlums, made at MGM also in 1938). There were scenes focused on both Jerry and Rocky working with the kids to get them out of trouble, and ones bordering on religious intensity. On the opposite side were shoot-outs and suspenseful scenes straight out of Warner's The Public Enemy, which apparently served as a source of some shots in this. Despite the moralizing and sentimentality, I loved how we could both root for Rocky and against him, hoping that the angels with the dirty faces wouldn't end up like him.
  • Speaking of faces, this film had 'em! Can you beat the quartet of Cagney, Bogart, O'Brien, and Bancroft for downright fascinating male visages? Matching them were the Dead End Kids, who all were interesting to look at. And what fun these kids must have had in their young lives doing these movie roles! (Despite that, most of them ended their careers in relative obscurity, and did not live much past their 50s).

    The 'Dead End Kids' publicity image.
  • I loved Cagney before, but now I downright adore him. He richly deserved his Oscar nomination for the range of emotions he covered here. But above all I was impressed with his physicality, how he used his body, leaning in and out, pivoting quickly on his heels, to add to his character's charisma. 
  • Sadly, Ann Sheridan's character Laury was underwritten and underused in the film. Laury was a tough young woman who seems to exist only to be the audience surrogate as another falling under Rocky's spell; she does nothing to move the story along. According to historian Dana Polan, who provided commentary on the DVD, Sheridan's role was bigger in the original script, with a stronger love story, but was cut down in the interest of economy.
  • The film gets my vote for one of the most evocative and provocative film titles of all time.

The original 'angels with dirty faces,' a young Jerry (William Tracy)
and Rocky (Frankie Burke) watch girls from their tenement perch.

Rocky has the bad fortune to get caught by police after his
and Jerry's latest escapade.

Rocky has outsized influence in the city.

Bogart and Cagney on together for the first time - yowza!

Jerry (Pat O'Brien), now ordained, directs a boychoir
in his parish church.

Rocky and Laury (Ann Sheridan) spar as Rocky 
wants to rent a room in Laury's boarding house.

The 'Dead End Kids'

Rocky descending the stairs into the Kids hideout, 
faking a heater.

Rocky and the kids are all friends now, eating lunch in his place.

Laury and Jerry look on as Rocky tames the kids in a 
friendly game of basketball.

Rocky and his 'concerned' face as he prepares to evade gunmen.

Rocky has to put one of the kids in his place ("Bim", Leo Gorcey).

Jerry finds the kids in a local gambling joint and tries to 
convince them that playing basketball would be a better activity.

With a tiger image behind them, Keefer and Frazier's
relationship with Rocky turns rocky.

Police prepare to take Rocky down.

Rocky looking unusually unkempt as Jerry rescues him from
a room filled with tear gas.

Jerry attempts to lead the kids up and into the light.

Where to Watch
The film is on DVD from Warner Home Video, but I also found it online at (with Portuguese subtitles) here.

Further Reading
A fellow CMBA blogger 'Down These Mean Streets" does justice to the film in this essay (spoiler alert).
TCM captures Cagney quotes about this film in an article here.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Fifty Years of Film in 50 Weeks, #17: Draegerman Courage 1937

This week I drill down (pun intended!) into the realm of the 'B' picture. While exploring Draegerman Courage, I had the opportunity to learn more about the role of B pictures in Hollywood and the mid-century film-going experience.

Draegerman Courage 1937

Director: Louis King
Writer: Anthony Coldeway
Cinematographer:  Gilbert Warrenton
Produced by: Bryan Foy for Warner Bros.
Starring: Jean Muir, Barton MacLane, Henry O'Neill

Why I chose it
Ever since I learned of this movie's existence, I've wanted to see it - and really only because I once worked for the company Draeger. The term 'draegerman' was, and still is, used in the U.S. and Canada for mine rescue workers who typically used safety equipment made by the company.  

'No-spoiler' plot overview 
In Nova Scotia, 'Draegerman' Andrew "Beau" Beaupre (Barton MacLane) warns the foreman in the "New Moon" Gold Mine that proper safety precautions are not being followed. He's brushed off, and predictably, a fatal accident occurs in the mine. Meanwhile, Dr. Thomas Haslett (Henry O'Neill) attends to the victims, while managing a home life with frisky tween Suzie (Priscilla Lyon) and adult daughter Ellen (Jean Muir), who is dating Beau. Dr. Haslett dreams of a better hospital and looks to sell his ownership share in the ominously named defunct 'Graveyard Mine' to fund it. A freak non-mine-related accident injures Suzie, whose expensive operation prompts the Doctor to sell low to New Moon owner Martin Crane (Robert Barrat). He, Crane, and foreman Mac (Addison Richards) make their way to the 'Graveyard' mine, just to be trapped at the lowest level by an ill-timed cave-in. Beau is pressed into duty to rescue them.

Production Background and the Warner Bros. 'B' Unit
In Hollywood, "B" movies were those designed and produced at lower budgets to be sold as a 'second feature' on a double bill in smaller-market cinemas whose patrons demanded more value for their money, especially during the Depression. B movies got their own production units at the major studios, whereas the smaller studios produced only B movies. Typically running no longer than an hour, these productions employed lesser-known actors or starred actors who only filled supporting roles in A pictures, and scripts, sets, etc. were usually mediocre. Yet many of these films are memorable today for a variety of reasons. The beloved series like Torchy Blane, Charlie Chan, or the 'singing cowboy' Westerns, were popular with the public. Today's film aficionados cite the creativity that emerged when talented directors were constrained, in low-budget noir gems like Detour, or The Narrow Margin.

At Warner Bros., the 'B Unit' produced approximately half of all the studio's movies during this era. Set up in 1935 and run by Bryan Foy, late of the "Seven Little Foys" of Vaudeville, the unit produced ~30 films per year at $50,000-$125,000 per film.* Foy had considerable autonomy as major studio bosses Hal Wallis and Jack Warner were busy with the A pictures. But like the studio A pictures, Foy's Unit often focused on gritty, 'ripped from the headlines', or social issue dramas. Draegerman Courage definitely fit that mold.

Bryan Foy (

While not stated anywhere in the film credits, the movie was based on a Nova Scotia mine accident (Moose River) just the year before that captivated all Canada because of three-minute CBC radio broadcasts from the site every half hour. Like the movie, a doctor and two other men were trapped for 11 days, and one perished before he could be rescued. (Go here for a detailed description of what actually happened at the Goose River Mine). The film's writers chose to play up the struggle between workers ekeing out a living while greedy owners cut corners in safety measures, eventually having to pay for those sins. For the film's hero, actor Barton MacLane was chosen, who never played the lead in any A picture, but was often in support in films like The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra. Second-lead actress Jean Muir, who later was blacklisted for her alleged Communist-supporting activities, filled the role of the love interest.

The film garnered at least a couple of good reviews at the time. In Variety: "Warners has turned out a vivid and often thrilling melodrama of underground disaster....The film can boast of a well-managed plot,  top-notch dialog, and a story that lifts to its climax with smoothness and dispatch."

Some other notable film-related events in 1937 (from

  • Luise Rainer won the second of her back-to-back Best Actress Oscars for her performance as the strong and silent O-Lan, a self-sacrificing Chinese peasant farm wife in The Good Earth (1937). Her first win was for her performance in The Great Ziegfeld (1936). 
  • Chester Gould's comic strip police detective character Dick Tracy made his first appearance in film in Dick Tracy (1937), a Republic Pictures movie serial starring Ralph Byrd.
  • Six of the original members of "The Dead End Kids" (young New York actors) reprised their 1935-1937 Broadway stage roles in the Hollywood film version, UA's crime drama Dead End (1937) opposite Humphrey Bogart. It was their first film appearance, and they went on to make more films, including Warners' popular Angels With Dirty Faces (1938). 
  • In a poll taken by newspaper entertainment columnist and radio star Ed Sullivan (later a legendary TV variety show host) in 53 newspapers in 1937, 20 million fans voted Clark Gable and Myrna Loy as the "King and Queen of Hollywood."

My Random Observations

  • B pictures required economy in storytelling, and man, this one had it. I was struck by all the goings-on that occurred within the hour: three terrible accidents, two deaths, two daring rescues, a bar fight, a romance on-the-rocks, a family melodrama, a baby's birth and baptism, a cute dog doing tricks. I'm sure I missed some things. 
  • Building on that, I was impressed by the seamless integration of all these elements in the movie. I caught myself wondering at times if the movie was supposed to be a family drama or a disaster movie, but I went along for the ride. While the characters themselves were mostly two-dimensional, the actors brought enough skill to their performances to make us understand and empathize with most of them. 
  • Actor Henry O'Neill (Dr. Tom Haslett), was perhaps the most nuanced of the group. And he was immediately identifiable to me. I had to look him up, but he was in over 150 films in the 30s and 40s, including Johnny Eager, Jezebel and at least a dozen others that I've seen. He brought an air of sternness but kind vulnerability that worked well for him here.
  • What was Ellen Haslett's role in society, exactly? She seemed to be a young adult still living at home. She wasn't needed to care for elderly parents or even her younger sister, since her mother ran the house. She seemed to exist only to make coffee to bring to the mine rescue workers, or wait around until Beau popped the question. She had no dreams or character arc, and did not take any actions to move the plot along. (Obviously, the answer here is she really only existed to provide the requisite love interest). I wonder if audiences in the 1930s asked this question or to what extent this lifestyle was common for young women then.
  • I was somewhat disappointed in only about three passing references to 'Draegermen', despite the term being in the film's title. I thought the film might feature a bit of explanation of what kind of safety equipment Draeger made, at the very least, for mine rescue workers, or a brief history of Draegermen. No luck there. 

Miners at the 'New Moon' rush to escape the falling timbers
as the mine interior structure crumbles around them.

Draegerman 'Beau' (Barton MacLane, left) fills in Dr.
Thomas Haslett (Henry O'Neill) about the possible conditions of miners
escaping the cave-in.

A sweet domestic scene with young Suzy (Priscilla Lyon), her
little dog, and her dad, Dr. Tom.

Beau needs a drink after a rough day at the mine.

Sweethearts Beau and Ellen (Jean Muir) have a moment.

Martin Crane (Robert Barrat, left) is a bit skeptical when Dr. Haslett
extols the virtues of the 'Graveyard' mine.

Descending into the 'Graveyard'

Villagers rush to the Graveyard site as the rescue operation
gets underway.

A live radio broadcast of the rescue (Sam Hayes) is no doubt riveting
for listeners.

Dr. Haslett speaks on a phone dropped through a tube 
from rescuers above ground.

Beau walks on a steep ledge in his attempt to rescue the men
trapped in the 'Graveyard'.

Where to Watch: Currently streaming on WatchTCM for a limited time, and Direct TV. It's also available on DVD from Warner Archive on a double bill with Road Gang.
Check out the trailer here:

Further Reading
*Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System, Metropolitan Books, 1988.
To learn about Draeger's mine safety equipment and the history of the 'draegerman', go here.