Claudia, The Club Chanteuse.

chanel piano copy

I’m reminded of Maritta Wolff’s Petey Braun, the brassy nightclub singer from her 1942 novel Night Shift played by Ida Lupino in the 1947 Raoul Walsh film version The Man I Love. Come to think of it, let’s not forget Ida Lupino’s smoky voiced Lily Stevens doing “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” with her cigarette smoldering away above the piano’s keyboard in a northwoodsy Road House from the 1948 film of the same name.

But no, it’s Claudia Schiffer, looking a bit wistful but still mighty sultry in this 1990’s Chanel print ad.

Night Shift On Film: The Man I Love (1947)

THE MAN I LOVE, Ida Lupino, 1947

Maritta Wolff was still pretty young when she sold her second novel Night Shift to Hollywood, that deal done right after selling her first novel, Whistle Stop, which was made into the 1946 film of the same name (that book written while she was still in college).

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Night Shift was necessarily retooled for Raoul Walsh’s 1947 The Man I Love, the book including some edgy content that could never make it to the screen back then, and also being mighty long (my copy being a 550-page trade pb). The film’s title is taken from the George and Ira Gershwin tune sung by Ida Lupino’s nightclub torch singer character, and that would be Petey Brown (Braun in the novel), who returns to Los Angeles from New York (instead of a small unnamed midwestern city in the book) to visit her sisters played by familiar noir actresses Andrea King and Martha Vickers. With style and sass (make that brass), Lupino promptly lands a nightclub singing gig, then falls in with a self-styled ladies’ man and small-time hood (Robert Alda being particularly sleazy here), but more to the point, falls in love with the club’s down-n-out pianist.

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Whether distilling or altogether discarding much of the novel’s soap-opera subplots and meticulously described minutiae of mid-twentieth century small town life, and instead, narrowing its focus on Ida Lupino’s character (though sisters King and Vickers get their licks in), The Man I Love is a much tauter tale than Wolff’s novel. Credit goes to crack screenwriters W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar) and Catherine Turney (one of Warner Brothers’ first female contract writers) for the expert slicing-n-dicing.

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But then, film can convey backstory, mood and so much more in mere glimpses, while a writer may need entire pages to relay the same info. This is familiar turf for Warner Brothers: Gritty urban life with its bland rooming house apartments, grim waitress jobs and oafish Lotharios, all juxtaposed with less-than-legit nightclub Romeo’s and tough-talking songbirds in glittery gowns (with a few tunes to sweeten things up). The Man I Love looks, sounds and feels like a classic 1940’s Warner Brothers film – not exactly a noir, not really a romance, and definitely not a mystery, but consistently entertaining throughout. If you’re not up for Maritta Wolff’s 550-page novel, then dig up the movie adaptation. I mean, seriously: Ida Lupino as a tough-talking nightclub torch singer…what else could you possibly want?

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Maritta Wolff’s Night Shift

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A month or so ago I commented on Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films production that was part soap opera and part crime melodrama with a mismatched George Raft and very young Ava Gardner. Rife with steamy small-town adultery and intrigue, the film included just enough criminal mischief and shadowy scenes to qualify for the Movies! network’s Thursday and Sunday night film noir showcases (which, based on many of the flicks chosen, doesn’t take too much qualifying). But it wasn’t the movie that caught my attention as much as the source material: Maritta Wolff’s 1942 novel by the same name, her debut, and written while she was still in college, no less. That was enough to put me on the hunt, and though I’ll have to get my copy of Whistle Stop used and online (the local bookstore unable to deliver with the promised copy I ordered), I did get a new copy of her second novel Night Shift for a quick curbside pickup, and what an intriguing read it was.

During the early days of WWII in a small and unnamed midwestern city, Sally and her fellow boarding house neighbors are barely getting by on low paying waitress and war plant jobs. Christmas being right around the corner lends little cheer to their day to day routines of endless bus commutes, household chores, grisly factory accidents and handsy bosses. Suddenly the dreariness is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Petey Braun, Sally’s sassy, stylish sister unseen for years, back from crisscrossing the country with ribald tales to tell and a purse full of dough just in time for the holidays. Petey promptly finagles a singing job at the local edge-of-town nightclub where gambling and women are on the menu in addition to the steaks and cocktails.

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Night Shift could be a handy desk reference for any writer looking to add authenticity to period settings, Wolff’s writing is spot-on for dialog and descriptions, particularly of the humdrum and uneventful minutiae of daily life. It’s a very different kind of writing from what readers may be accustomed to in contemporary fiction, particularly genre fiction, which tends to be ruthlessly purged of nonessentials by agents and editors eager to get to the action. The novel’s nearly 550 pages long, (though I still plowed through it in two evenings) and a hundred pages or more go by before smart-mouthed Petey whisks into town in a swirl of stylish frocks with a savvy nose for a buck, a man and a plush place to park herself for a while.

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A crime novel? Well, not exactly, and certainly not a mystery. Oh, there’s some action, a genuinely evil bad guy, some neither-completely-good nor completely-bad troubled souls, and even a nasty killing near the end, with most of the book taking place in settings and scenes right out of a postwar noir film. Maritta Wolff had a way with the underbelly of mid-twentieth century small town life. Though Night Shift is populated by no shortage of men – siblings, spouses, coworkers, lovers and would-be-Romeo’s alike – it’s a woman’s novel all the way through. Just because there are no big heists, car chases, shootouts or murders, as such, this is still a genuine noir, and in many ways more legitimately so for disregarding some of the genre’s clichés and obligatory plot tropes.

An upcoming post will take a look at how this novel was trimmed down for a pretty nifty Warner Brothers noir-melodrama-romance by Raoul Walsh and crew, with none other than Ida Lupino as brassy Petey Braun.

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The Girl He Goes For: Whistle Stop (1946)

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It’s been months, but I’m still grumbling about losing Turner Classic Movies and its Noir Alley feature. Oh, I manage to get by (sort of) with Movies! Sunday Night Noir, which offers a mix of genuine classics alongside lesser known and oddball crime melodramas. But I get the feeling that the network’s definition of “Noir” demands no more than coming from the 1940’s/50’s and being in black & white.

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Not everyone’s a fan of George Raft (1901 – 1980), many considering him too wooden a performer who was understandably eclipsed by Humphrey Bogart and others as one of the studios’ main tough guys. But I do like him, though I’d be the first to concede that in Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films/United Artists release, Raft was woefully miscast as Ava Gardner’s former lover, being more than twenty years older (and that’s if you believe Raft’s ‘official’ 1901 birth date, which many contend was actually 1895).

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As for Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990), she’d been toiling away in walk-ons, bit parts and uncredited roles since arriving in Hollywood in 1941. But 1946 would be her year, starting with Whistle Stop and ending with the much more memorable The Killers alongside Burt Lancaster. For me, Gardner’s like Ida Lupino or Lizabeth Scott: I’d buy a ticket and happily watch them read the dictionary, file their nails or do absolutely nothing at all for an hour and half. Gardner acquits herself well in this, her first starring role, playing Mary, a girl with a reputation returning to her small ‘whistle stop’ hometown far outside Detroit after a two year absence. Mary’s not just returning for a family visit, but yearns to rekindle a steamy affair with Kenny Veech (George Raft), and when that doesn’t quite work out, she takes up with a shady nightclub owner. There’s already some bad blood between Raft and the sleazy gambler, and soon enough someone will have to die.

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Screenwriter Philip Yordan claimed he was faithful to the source material…what little of it he could actually use, that is, since it was much too sexually explicit for 1946 audiences.  That would be Maritta Wolff’s 1941 first novel by the same name. Wolff (1918 – 2002) actually wrote the seamy tale of small-town violence, vulgarity and sex as a book-length assignment for her senior year composition class at the University Of Michigan. It went on to be published in multiple hardcover and paperback editions, earn rave reviews and lead to a successful writing career. Maritta Wolff’s second novel, Night Shift, was also made into a film, The Man I Love (1947) starring Ida Lupino. Intensely private, Wolff refused to do publicity for her books, and her final manuscript was discovered hidden in her refrigerator after her death (Sudden Rain posthumously published to great success).

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Whistle Stop’s okay, though mostly because we get to watch Ava Gardner assume the mantle of a lead actress, alternately seductive, manipulative and vulnerable from scene to scene. The film was interesting enough to prompt me to look for Maritta Wolff’s novels so I could find out more about this adventurous college kid cranking out a provocative hit novel in college. Whistle Stop and Night Shift are en route right now.

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