An under-rated actress, if ever there was one…at least in my opinion. But maybe not an under-rated movie. It’s Dorothy Provine in American International’s 1958 The Bonnie Parker Story.
An under-rated actress, if ever there was one…at least in my opinion. But maybe not an under-rated movie. It’s Dorothy Provine in American International’s 1958 The Bonnie Parker Story.
Clara Lou Sheridan (1915 – 1967) came to Hollywood from Denton, Texas when she was 19, playing mostly bit parts and B-movie roles for Paramount throughout the 1930’s till she switched to Warner Brothers and the roles improved, including Angels With Dirty Faces, They Made Me A Criminal, Kings Row, They Drive By Night and The Man Who Came To Dinner, starring alongside Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn and John Garfield. Along the way, she’d changed her name to Ann Sheridan, and Warner Brothers claimed that men voted her the actress with the most “Oomph”…and so marketed her as “The Oomph Girl”, a tag she loathed.
Sheridan took a break from movies during WWII to do three grueling years on the road in USO tours, during which time she became one of the most popular service men’s pinups. She went right back to work after the war, but quickly grew frustrated with many of the roles she was offered. Just as noir goddess Ida Lupino began working behind the camera as a director, Sheridan wanted to produce, and she did just that starting in 1949, including the cult classic low-budget 1950 film noir Woman On The Run.
In the late 1950’s and in the 1960’s, Sheridan worked mostly for television, and mostly in westerns, her final project the CBS comedy-western Pistols & Petticoats. It was during the 1966-67 season that she was diagnosed with both cancer and liver disease, passing away at only 51, an episode of her TV series airing that same night. Ann Sheridan’s not the first name that pops up when you think of the film noir and crime melodrama greats, but when an actress has gone toe-to-toe with George Raft, Bogart, Garfield and Cagney, and produced one of the classic period’s cult classics, I’d say her ‘noir cred’ is intact.
Not sure if I’ll be home in time for TCM’s 11:00 PM CST Noir Alley with host, noir maestro Eddie Muller. Tonight it’s Vincent Sherman’s 1947 Warner Brothers film Nora Prentiss, shot by James Howe Wong with a Franz Waxman score, starring one of Hollywood’s hardest working actresses, Ann Sheridan. I’ve never seen the film and would like to, particularly with Muller’s always insightful opening and closing remarks.
You like your film noirs with syndicate bosses, mobsters, dirty cops and gun fights? Who doesn’t? But there’s an equally essential subset of classic film noir and crime melodrama focused on smaller stories that are equally dark and fatalistic, Nora Prentiss among them, considered by some as one of the best “women’s noir”.
Kent Smith plays Dr. Richard Talbot, bored with his humdrum life and marriage, who begins an affair with seductive nightclub singer Nora Prentiss, played by Ann Sheridan. He fakes his own death in order to run away with her, relocating from the west coast to New York, where she goes back to work in the clubs. But it can’t go well, and Dr. Talbot grows increasingly paranoid once he leans that his faked death is now a murder investigation. Soon he’s bitter, jealous, combative and drinking too much, finally crashing his car. Disfigured from the accident, unable to identify himself, he’s actually accused of his own murder.
Though the film sounds like it’s Talbot’s story more than Ann Sheridan’s, it’s really not, at least based on what I’ve read. And Ann Sheridan rarely disappoints, especially when she gets a meaty role where she can play street smart with an undercurrent of vulnerability (though I suspect her husband-stealing songbird might not be particularly vulnerable). Well, in or out, that’s what DVR’s are for. I’m catching this movie one way or another.
A post or two back I referred to Renee Rosen’s novels as ‘guilty pleasures’, though was quick to point out that her books are far from fluff. Rather, for me, at least, they’ve been pleasant diversions from a steady diet of gangsters, gumshoes and gun molls.
For a real guilty pleasure – that is, a book you devour but feel legitimately guilty about — Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 Valley Of The Dolls is like a mid-sixties Fifty Shades Of Grey…similarly notorious, and notoriously popular in its time. Sprawling (to the point of rambling), sexy, melodramatic yet often awkwardly written, the book’s a compelling page-turner nonetheless. A legitimate publishing phenomena, Valley Of The Dolls was the biggest selling book in publishing history at the time of the author’s death in 1974 and has gone on to sell over 31 million copies to date. For any contemporary writer tracking single digit weekly orders for their Amazon Kindle and Create Space books, or praying that their small press’ 5,000 unit trade paperback press run will sell out someday, 31 million books is almost too much to grasp.
Segueing from Renee Rosen’s 2019 Park Avenue Summer to Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls was a natural, and I did just that. In Rosen’s novel, an Ohio ingenue and aspiring commercial photographer arrives in mid-sixties New York and promptly becomes iconic editor Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary right at the moment the magazine is about to be relaunched as the controversial girl-power monthly it quickly became. The novel’s heroine gets that plum gig via a referral from a family friend who’s an editor at the Dolls’ real-life publisher, Bernard Geis Associates.
Valley Of The Dolls the 1967 20thCentury Fox film starring Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward and Barbara Parkins frequently pops up on both broadcast and cable TV channels, but if you’ve only seen the movie and never read the book, I encourage you to give the novel a try. The movie’s pure mid-sixties kitsch, but understandably had to sidestep or soften the novel’s more tawdry and saucy content. In fact, it’s said that original screenwriter Harlan Ellison insisted his name be removed from the credits due to the less downbeat ‘Hollywood’ ending reshot at the studio insistence.
Even if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, it’s enough of a pop culture touchstone that most people have some vague idea of what it’s about. Three New York friends in the entertainment business experience various highs and lows in their careers and love lives, succumbing to ‘Dolls’ (barbituates, and specifically, Seconals) along the way…enough to institutionalize one for addiction (Patty Duke in the movie) and be the weapon of choice for another’s suicide (Sharon Tate in the movie). But the novel’s very different from the film, most notably in its more sprawling 20 year time span from 1945 to 1965. (The film seems to be set almost entirely in the 1960’s.) There are more complex backstories, complications and relationship woes, it being a rambling sort of soap opera. And the sex is notably more explicit. Keep in mind that in 1966, sleaze publishers like Midwood and others were still pumping out ‘sexy’ paperback originals to be sold exclusively ‘under the counter’ at most stores. Frank dialog about menstruation, abortion or contraception was pretty rare. Explicit sex scenes (well, relatively so) in a mainstream novel? Even more scandalous, and here the sex includes vanilla sex, gay sex, lesbian sex, oral sex and more, and in frequent doses. And most importantly, it’s the women, not the men, talking about it, wanting it, trying to avoid it or merrily engaging in it.
Nearly half the book is set in the 1940’s, and the titular ‘dolls’ don’t even appear till well over a third of the way through. The novel’s male characters are mostly philanderers, lushes, failures or con men, and even the seemingly ‘good’ men go bad to some degree by the end. The three main women are complex, but far from angels, and none find release or redemption in their careers, their romances or anywhere except in the embrace of their lovely little dolls. Do not look for a happy ending when you finish the last page.
I read Jacqueline Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls last week in a handsome 50thAnniversary trade paperback edition, complete with some introductory front matter and an essay from the author herself. A tireless self-promoter, book publishing urban legends claim that Susann would get up in the wee hours to primp, fill her car with coffee and cartons of donuts in order to show up at local rack jobbers and distributors’ loading docks before the truck drivers departed, encouraging all to keep her book face-out and in-stock at each stop on their routes. If true, this was before the days of consolidated book distribution (still continuing as we speak, with Baker & Taylor leaving the trade book business altogether and Ingram just about the only game in town).
Well, I never managed to wade through Fifty Shades Of Grey, even after a couple tries that couldn’t get past fifty pages of grey. But I’m really glad I read Valley Of The Dolls. Call it kitsch, call it trash…call it what you like, but it was a cultural milestone in its time and still a fun read even today.
Shame on me, but this is thirteen days overdue.
A heartfelt (belated) congratulations to J. Kingston Pierce on the thirteenth anniversary of The Rap Sheet Blog at therapsheet.blogspot.com (link below). The blog began on May 22nd, Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday, appropriately enough, and since has showcased over 7,500 posts with over 6.3 million page views.
The Rap Sheet and CrimeReads are my primary mystery/crime fiction genre and noir culture resources, providing timely news and acting as vital jumping off points to learn more about so many different writers, books, films, artists and much more. For that, a great big thank you to The Rap Sheet!
So, I checked to see what a thirteenth anniversary is. You know, paper for the first, silver for the 25th, gold for the 50th and so on. There are some pretty weird ones, and several online wedding anniversary gift charts left a few years blank altogether. But all showed lace for a thirteenth anniversary. Now I’m at work at the moment with no lace handy, and I’m not about to go desk to desk to see who could help. Surely someone’s lacy somewhere today, but it won’t be appearing here. So we’ll have to make do with some vintage Alan Geoffrey Yates – AKA Carter Brown – and three editions of The Black Lace Hangover (which is, after all, a pretty cool title).
Pulp poetry. Hmmm…
Sometimes, they creep out of nowhere and catch you unawares, even though you really shouldn’t be surprised. You’re enjoying a classic film noir or crime caper flick when suddenly (incredibly, for what was then considered comic relief) a grotesque bit of racial/ethnic stereotyping intrudes. It was just a few weeks ago that I watched Raoul Walsh’s 1941 High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino on TCM’s Saturday Night Noir Alley feature, having forgotten all about the scenes with Willie Best playing ‘Algernon’, the mountain resort’s resident ‘step-n-fetchit’ style porter/handyman. The bits are hardly unique, but still made me squirm and were almost enough to ruin the viewing experience. I still adore the film. I mean: Bogart and Lupino, come on.
Whether it’s a vintage movie, novel, comic, pulp story or even some 1950’s/60’s television shows, repellant racial/ethnic stereotypes rear up out of nowhere. Often, they’re not even intended to be demeaning, and that casual indifference almost makes them worse. At the same time, the prevailing dismissiveness about virtually all female characters in most 20th century mystery/crime fiction and film is so overwhelming that we can almost fail to recognize it. It just…is. Women (sometimes, even if billed as the lead) are relegated to secondary characters at best, mere eye candy, damsels in distress or potential victims, more commonly. Gay/lesbian characters? Well, barely acknowledged in retro film or TV, of course, and deployed mostly in vintage sleaze novels for titillation, popping up in vintage crime fiction as caricatures or presumed villains.
Different times, different culture. It was what it was.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in mid-20thcentury pulp fiction – specifically, the 1930’s through 1950’s mystery/crime pulp fiction magazines. Inevitably, a crime/pulp/noir fan has to wonder: How can I possibly enjoy these films, novels, magazines and comics when so many are riddled with disappointing ethnic/racial/gender dismissiveness, or worse, utterly offensive stereotypes? If I’m enjoying these works, even in part, isn’t that some kind of implicit endorsement?
W.M. Akers questions this in his terrific piece from the 5.10.19 Crime Reads (crimereads.com, link below), Hardboiled Noir, Pulp Favorites, And Problematic Art, subtitled: “Reckoning With Hateful Attitudes In Classic Crime Fiction”. Akers’ own first novel, the historical-fantasy Westside just released in May 2019, deals with amateur sleuth Gilda Carr in a re-imagined 1920’s New York City, and he explains how he turned to vintage pulps to capture the feel of the era, “the same way I used old newspapers and pre-code movies and Joseph Mitchell essays and any other scraps from the period that I could find as a portal to a city that, if it ever really existed, doesn’t anymore”. He points specifically to a Theodore Tinsley (creator of the groundbreaking 1930’s era Carrie Cashin female detective character) story from a 1934 Black Mask pulp magazine issue, “Smoke”, featuring the sleuthing NYC columnist Jerry Tracy. The tale, one of 25 Jerry Tracy stories the prolific Tinsley wrote, is tainted by casual racism and sprinkled with overtly offensive stereotypes. So Akers asks, “In a moment when lovers of problematic art are asked to be more critical of their taste than ever before, it is worth asking what it takes to enjoy sloppy pulp fiction in 2019 – and why it’s worth the effort.”
Akers realizes that each film viewer or story reader will need to arrive at their own conclusions and react accordingly, whether by foregoing the material entirely, merely ignoring the objectionable content, or finding some way to process it. He still finds much to inspire him in these 60 – 90 year old pieces. I get that, because I do, too. I won’t ignore their intrinsic flaws, which aren’t limited to ethnic/racial/gender issues, but also include outlandish plots, padded word counts, copycat characters and more.
But the language always lures me in. Give me any old mystery/crime fiction pulp reprint or omnibus collection and I guarantee that the period slang and vintage word-smithing will hook me, from their nearly comical descriptions of hard-to-choreograph action scenes, to snappy banter and dialog sprinkled with authentic vintage street talk, to frequent but cautiously handled love scenes and female character depictions, which can border on the surreal or just plain pervy and fetishistic. I’m hooked, I’m an addict, I admit it.
Pulp poetry? In a way, I guess that’s what it is. At least for me. So then call me a pulp poetry sucker if you insist, and I won’t argue, despite all the objectionable content that may be surrounding it.
Some months ago I speculated about nagging issues of complicity, sparked in part by a Megan Abbott essay about the then recent release of Raymond Chandler’s The Annotated Big Sleep (link below). The issues here are much the same. And as someone currently working with writing projects in a mid-twentieth century setting, it’s more than a matter of reacting to random squirm-worthy content in my recreational reading or film viewing, but becomes a challenge to achieve some sense of period authenticity without reinforcing outmoded attitudes or reviving offensive content in my own writing. I’m certain that I’m not alone in this.
Well, one thing I definitely took away from W.M. Akers’ Crime Reads essay: I need to get his novel Westside, because it sounds pretty cool! I’ll be checking the indie bookstore on my route home after work today, and if unavailable, will be online for a moment or two this evening to order it. I definitely want to read about Gilda Carr in Aker’s reimagining of 1920’s New York.
Virginia Christine from 1947’s The Invisible Wall, a noir-ish crime film by Eugene Ford (with an early appearance by a young Jeff Chandler) about a gambler back in civvies after WWII who returns to work for his syndicate, but manages to lose $20,000 of the boss’ dough…and to kill a mug in the process. I haven’t seen it, but it must be good. After all, just check out the double-bill promo art below: “Booze-Blondes-Bullets, The Direct Trail To Skid Row”. All that a 1940’s crime film needed, right?
Virginia Christine (1920 – 1996) may be better known to retro TV fans as ‘Mrs. Olson’ from over 100 Folger’s Coffee commercials. But Christine was a respected actress who appeared in The Killers (she tested for the lead but lost out to Ava Gardner), High Noon, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Judgement At Nuremberg. Not a bad resume. Hey, she even did a turn in one of Universal’s horror films, 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse sporting a brunette Bettie Page do, no less.
‘Mrs. Olson’ clearly can wield an automatic as deftly as she can a percolator. Love that photo above, a cropped version first seen via Seattle Mystery Books’ new blog (seattlemystery.newtumbl.com), originally from Mudwerks’ Tumblr, till I spotted the full framed image at Pulp International (pulp international.com).
The 1934 Ford V-8 was shot up pretty bad on that rural road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, about 150 rounds from pistols, shotguns and automatic rifles. The man behind the wheel took 17 shots, the woman beside him was hit 26 times, both with several head wounds. It probably was every bit as gruesome as the slow-mo climax of Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde, which did so much to revive interest in the Depression era crooks, romanticizing the duo into legendary status far beyond anything their real life short-lived crime spree deserved. By most accounts, Clyde Barrow died instantly from the first volley, Bonnie Parker lasting only a moment more as the fusillade continued.
You can picture the real Bonnie Parker, Faye Dunaway or Holliday Grainger, as you wish. Fashion magazine art directors want to do something with gangsters or gun molls? They do a Bonnie & Clyde pictorial. There’s been no shortage of non-fiction books, novels, feature films, TV/cable and direct-to-DVD films about Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, from Dorothy Provine in The Bonnie Parker Story in 1958 to this year’s The Highwaymen, each taking its own license. Lets guess that Bonnie And Clyde Vs. Dracula may not have been the most historically accurate of the bunch.
But it was eighty five years ago today on May 23rd, 1934 that the real duo met their end in a roadside ambush led by Texas lawman Frank Hamer and various Texas and Louisiana state and local police.
Good or bad, the legend lives on.
Pretty sure I don’t have all the makings for a real Ramos Gin Fizz, the drink of choice ‘round Gulf City circa 1947, where director John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning is mostly set. That’s what’s on TCM’s Noir Alley Saturday night (May 25th), hosted by God-Of-All-Things-Noir, Eddie Muller. As luck would have it, I’ll be out of town over the Memorial Day weekend and far from civilized things like cable TV, a satellite dish, Wi-Fi or even all three main broadcast networks.
But it’s not as if the Dead Reckoning DVD isn’t right on my shelf, though I’d really like to hear Muller’s remarks on this flick. Though I try to steer clear of claims about this film or that book or some show being ‘the best’, I do have my own favorites, and Dead Reckoning happens to be among them. It’s not the most famous of the classic noir period’s films, nor was it a particular success, critically or financially. But for me it just works. Hard for it not to, with Humphrey Bogart, who has to keep up with what may be the Queen of Film Noir, Lizabeth Scott.
Dead Reckoning was scripted by Steve Fisher and Oliver Garrett, based on a story by Gerald Drayson Adams and Sidney Biddell. Bogart turns in what some consider a ‘generic Bogart’ performance, that is, a bit of Spade and a bit of Marlowe stirred in with a bit of Casablanca’s Rick Blaine (as complex a mix as a Ramos Gin Fizz…recipe below). But for me, even a ‘generic Bogart’ performance is better than many other actors’ artsy-smartsy best. And Lizabeth Scott? This film’s pretty early in her relatively short Hollywood career, and even she felt it permanently typecast her as a blonde torch singer and femme fatale. No surprise then that Scott appeared in lead roles in more films noir than any other actress (as a blonde torch singer four times, in fact), though by all accounts she’d have preferred more comedies.
There are some nifty twists and turns in Dead Reckoning’s plot, so I won’t tell too much or spoil anything. The setup’s a pretty cool framing device, opening on a stateside Army Chaplain hearing Bogart’s Captain Warren ‘Rip’ Murdock tell his story in flashback. WWII behind them, Rip and best pal Johnny Drake are en route to a Medal of Honor ceremony when Johnny vanishes. Rip makes for Johnny’s hometown of ‘Gulf City’ (New Orleans?) where he learns his best pal enlisted under a fake name to hide out from the law, having been framed for murder. Bogart looks up Johnny’s old girlfriend, nightclub chanteuse Coral ‘Dusty’ Chandler’, who’s now involved with Gulf City’s gambling kingpin. The bad guys don’t like Bogart sniffing around, much less sniffing around ‘Dusty’, so they try to frame him with a murder rap, work him over and eventually attempt to just make him go away…permanently. To say more would give things away, so I won’t. Except to say that ‘Rip’ and ‘Dusty’ just about melt the silver screen, and all guilty parties get their just desserts, whether with phosphorous grenades or a car crash.
It’s no surprise that Lizabeth Scott found herself typecast after this film. Sultry looks, seductive poses, eyes that can say more than a page of dialog, and that distinctive, deep and smoky voice. She doesn’t just smolder here. She burns.
Scott was born Emma Matzo in 1922 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and moved to New York City as a teenager where she worked as both a model and actor, on Broadway and in several grueling national touring shows. She was often relegated to understudy roles, and it was during this time that she adopted the stage name of Lizabeth Scott (originally including the ‘E’) while appearing in Maxwell Anderson’s Mary Of Scotland about Mary, Queen Of Scots and Queen Elizabeth The First. She didn’t really get ‘discovered’ till she was 22, appeared in her first film in 1945, hit it big in 1946 alongside Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, and came back from a post-WWII goodwill tour of Britain the next year for Dead Reckoning. She and Bogart became close friends during the production, and reportedly he continued to call her Dusty (or sometimes ‘Scotty’ or even ‘Mike’) throughout his remaining ten years.
By the mid-fifties, Scott grew increasingly disenchanted with her femme fatale roles, only showed modest interest in the burgeoning television industry, and had begun to fade from the scene. Complicating things was a high-profile scandal that erupted when sleaze reporter Howard Rushmore did an expose on her for Confidential magazine. First, a ‘little black book’ confiscated in a Hollywood vice raid purportedly showed Scott listed among the clientele of L.A. call girls. Confidential oozed innuendo about Scott’s friendship with Paris’ colorful Frederique ‘Frede’ Baule, a then-notorious lesbian cabaret proprietor. Rushmore finally arranged a lunch date with Scott and out-of-work actress Veronica Quillan, who wore a hidden microphone and was assigned to lure Scott into making a pass. The reporter and magazine both assumed that Scott, like most actors, would agree to a buy-back, basically paying blackmail money to keep the story buried (something we’ve all heard about recently, huh?). She declined, they went ahead and published.
But to their surprise, ‘Dusty’ sued.
The trial was protracted and ultimately ended without a settlement. Some in Hollywood cheered her on, others just took the story as-is. And of course, from a 2019 perspective, Scott as a Hollywood Violet is merely chic if not incidental. Whatever, a hearty three cheers to her for standing up to a sleaze-rag.
Lizabeth Scott (she did eventually make the stage name legal) passed away quietly just a few years ago, at age 92 in 2015. And as for a Ramos Gin Fizz, which is Coral ‘Dusty’ Chandler’s drink of choice in Dead Reckoning? It’s gin, lemon juice, egg white, sugar, cream, orange flower water and soda water, thoroughly shaken, poured through ice and served in large non-tapered 12 or 14 ounce Tom Collins’ glassware.
My own array of mixers seems to be missing orange flower water just now.