A Dangerous Dame’s Debut

Carol Ohmart

I believe no less an authority on such things than the Film Noir Foundation’s quarterly magazine Noir City consider The Scarlet Hour from 1956 the end of the classic cycle of films noir. I’ll leave that up to film scholars.

The Scarlet Hour Lobby Card

Directed by none other than the great Michael Curtiz, the film was supposed to launch the career of Carol Ohmart (1927 – 2002), a Seattle/Spokane beauty pageant contestant who’d been modeling for famed comics illustrator Milton Caniff as “Copper Calhoun” in his Steve Canyon strip, and who the studio was already promoting as a “female Brando” and the next Marilyn Monroe. But every blonde starlet was probably billed as the next Monroe then. Apparently playing a manipulative, alcoholic schemer didn’t endear Ohmart with movie goers, since she was dropped by Paramount shortly after, and her career never really took off quite as planned. Many know her best as Vincent Price’s nasty wife in The House On Haunted Hill. But I say she made one hell of a great femme fatale in her film debut, even if some highbrow critics claim that The Scarlet Hour was a lackluster finale to film noir’s original classic era.

The Scarlett Hour B&W

Nora Prentiss

Nora Prentiss - Hnd Colored

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”.

Nora Prentiss - MontageKent 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.

Nora Prentiss still

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.

Nora Prentiss poster

Tu Bei’s Noir Series

Tu Bei 1

Tu Bei is a US concept artist and illustrator, with an array of gorgeous and diverse work to be viewed at Art Of Tu — artoftu.com. Here are just a few examples, above a character design concept, and below, three pieces from Tu Bei’s “Noir Series”.

Tu Bei 3Tu Bei 2Tu Bei 4

 

Thirteen Days Overdue (And It’s Lace)

Rap Sheet LogoShame 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).

https://therapsheet.blogspot.com

Problematic Pulp Poetry? 

Black Mask - May

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.

But…

Detective-Story-April-9-1932

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.

Saucy Movie Tales - June

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?

hardboiled noir - problematic art

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.”

True Jan 1939

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.

Westside

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.

https://crimereads.com/hardboiled-noir-pulp-favorites-and-problematic-art/

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/01/03/the-annotated-big-sleep-and-uneasy-feelings-of-complicity/

Mrs. Olson’s Got Herself A Gun

Virginia Christine

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 Invisible Wall Poster - Double Bill

How About A Ramos Gin Fizz To Go With That?

TCM Screen Cap

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 1

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.

Dead Reckoning 2

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.

Lizabeth Scott 1

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.

Lizabeth Scott 2

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.

Lizabeth Scott 3

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