The Kind They Talk About.

Probation 2

They’re “the kind they talk about” according to Warner Brothers’ advance promotional pieces for Girls On Probation, a 1938 crime melodrama directed by William C. McGann, scripted by Crane Wilbur, and featuring an early feature part for a young Susan Hayward and pre-president, pre-governor, pre-Bedtime For Bonzo Ronald Reagan.

Girls On Probation stars Jane Bryan (1918 – 2009) who’d been groomed by the studio to become a leading lady and already had some important parts alongside Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G Robinson. Little did the studio bigwigs know that she’d soon wed a wealthy drug store magnate and happily leave Hollywood behind (hubby and wife among the key players in convincing Ronald Reagan to run for President in 1980). Bryan co-stars with Sheila Bromley (1911 – 2003), a Hollywood workhorse who’d appeared in over 70 films (mostly westerns) as well as numerous 1950’s – 60’s TV shows.

Probation 1

The girls they talk about: Good girls, fats girls and mean girls…‘Good Girl’ Jane Bryan gets mixed up with ‘Fast Girl’ Sheila Bromley, resulting in a trumped up larceny charge over an expensive dress taken from a dry cleaner, the accusation made by ‘Mean Girl’ Susan Hayward. Bryan’s friendship with Bromley gets even more dangerous when they get involved with some bank robbers, though prosecutor Ronald Regan, who is in love with Bryan, saves the day. Probation, no prison.

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I’ve only seen some grainy snips of this film online, and don’t see it anywhere on disk or as a full download, but would really like to view the whole thing intact. Silly vintage Hollywood stuff? Sure, it might be. But some of these long-forgotten big city crime melodramas can surprise you and turn out to be real gems.

Probation 6

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

The Glamorous Dead

The Glamorous Dead

Suzanne Gates’ The Glamorous Dead could easily have been done as a lighthearted retro-romp of a vintage-Hollywood mystery, and would’ve been perfectly entertaining and surely sold well enough. But Gates crafted a much more serious, mature and darker novel, even if it is brimming with celebrities, classic movie references and retro Tinsel Town glamour.

Set in 1940 and narrated by Penny Harp, the book deals with the murder of an extra from Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy The Lady Eve, with the cops pretty sure Penny herself is the murderer, leaving her on her own to prove her innocence. But the investigation soon involves leading lady Barbara Stanwyck in the amateur sleuthing, particularly once suspicion might fall on her husband Robert Taylor, who may or may not have been carrying on with the murder victim.

Don’t picture two unlikely gal-pals chumming around and stumbling over clues. Both women have their secrets and their own good reasons to keep them that way, and the entire affair is cloaked in a dark, moody and noir-ish tone. If Gates has another retro Hollywood mystery novel in her, she can count me in. I’ve got my share of mid-twentieth century mystery/crime fiction books ahead of me in the to-be-read heap, and Suzanne Gates’ 2017 The Glamorous Dead made for a nice kick-off to a Spring/Summer 1930’s-50’s sojourn, which I confess, is mostly where I like to be. Well, when reading, that is.

No, Not That Falcon…

Maltese Falcon 1931 2

Only a ‘Tumblr Refugee’ these days, I still keep tabs on several Tumblrs to see what I’ve missed. Gentleman Loser – Gentleman Junkie posted a lobby card from 1931’s The Maltese Falcon, which got me thinking about the one time I’d seen this oldie. Film Noir? Not quite. But it’s a rousing piece of retro crime melodrama nonetheless.

Maltese Falcon 1931 3

It was either during college or right after that I saw The Maltese Falcon the one and only time. No, not the the classic John Huston Humphrey Bogart-Mary Astor ‘proto-noir’ film, but a 1931 pre-code version of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, which had been published just a year earlier. Here, Latin-lover matinee idol Ricardo Cortez (real name: Jacob Krantz) plays Hammett’s iconic private eye Sam Spade as more of a well-groomed philanderer than the tough, hard-boiled P.I. Bogart made all his own ten years later. Bebe Daniels plays Ruth Wonderly, the Mary Astor Ruth Wonderly/Brigid O’Shaughnessy role. Take away Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond and Elisha Cook Jr., and obviously everything’s going to be quite different from The Maltese Falcon we know and love. But then, we do get Dwight Frye, Dracula’s Renfield, as small-framed but big-talking Wilmer Cook.

Maltese Falcon 1931 1

Like the 1941 version, this 1931 film follows Hammett’s novel pretty closely, but with random alterations for typical book-to-film condensation, screenwriter conceit and some who-knows-why modifications/additions. Huston-Bogart fans will be unpreprared for the convenenient Asian merchant who tips off Spade about partner Miles Archer’s murder, or the private eye’s new career revealed at the film’s end.

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Some folks get all revved up about pre-code cinema, looking for lurid decadence and peekaboo thrills. There are websites, books and journal articles aplenty brimming with naughty film stills to support that expectation. Myself, I’ve learned not to expect too much. Along with the stage bound blocking, overacting and general ‘creakiness’ of some of the films, there’s rarely quite as much naughtiness as promised. It may be that pre-code cinema wasn’t really all that provocative, but merely seems so when compared to the subsequent two decades of over-sanitized Hollywood filmmaking.

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Here, for instance, the opening shots include a nifty bit of leering business with a woman adjusting her stockings. Sam Spade’s illicit affair with partner Miles Archer’s wife/widow, played by Thelma Todd, is more plainly evident. The fortune hunters’ homosexuality relied on vague, teasing references in the 1941 version, but gets more acknowledgment in this earlier film, in keeping with the novel. (I was surprised to learn that “gunsel” was actually retro code for an older fellow’s younger gay boy-toy. And here I thought I knew my vintage slang!) Bebe Daniels’ Ruth Wonderly spends the night in Spade’s bed (alone), is strip searched (sort-of), takes a bubbly bath, and she does lounge about in a negligee. But that’s about it for pre-code sizzle. Nonetheless, when the studio tried to re-release the film just a few years later, the Hays Office rejected it for ‘lewd content’.

The Maltese Falcon was shot under the early working title of A Woman Of The World. When the film finally was re-released for television in the mid-sixties, it was retitled Dangerous Female, so as not to be confused with the (by-then) 1941 classic. In between, the studio remade the movie in an even lighter-toned version starring Bette Davis and called Satan Met A Lady, with names changed and the iconic black bird now a jewel-filled horn.

Maltese Falcon 1931 Lobby Cards

In this 1931 version, a denouement includes Sam Spade visiting Ruth Wonderly in jail, where we learn he’s now the Chief Investigator for the San Francisco D.A.’s office. On his way out, he prompts a prison matron to look after Wonderly and at his expense. I’ll take Huston’s glorious closing shots with the powerful Warner Brother’s studio orchestra pumping out composer Adolph Deutsch’s score, a resigned Brigid O’Shaughnessy descending in a gated elevator, off to her fate in prison, the electric chair…or hell. Now that’s what dreams are made of.

Death On The Cheap

Death On The Cheap - Cover Scan to Use

Death On The Cheap – The Lost B Movies of Film Noir: There’s a quote from Robert Mitchum, surely one of the postwar era film noir icons, that appears in this book’s introduction, and understandably makes it into most online reviews I’ve seen. Mitchum told the author, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts”.

Fans of the genre tend to forget that while a handful of classics were big budget A films, most of what we now lump together as ‘Film Noir” weren’t scripted by James Cain or William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks, William Wyler or Fritz Lang, and didn’t star Lauren Bacall, Dana Andrews, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart or Gene Tierney. For every Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Blue Dahlia or Laura, there were a dozen B-movie mysteries and crime melodramas with miniscule budgets, tight shooting schedules and second tier casts comprised of stars who no longer shined so bright and newcomers still learning their craft. Often as not, the dark, gritty locations and sets were service corridors behind the studio sound stages, while left-over interior sets were hastily redressed and left in shadow partly to look ominous, partly to hide the fact that they were so sparsely propped.

Arthur Lyons (1946-2008) was the author of over 20 books, including the L.A. private eye Jacob Asch series, as well as a co-founder of the Palm Springs Festival Of Film Noir, a former Palm Springs city councilman, and considered a film noir expert…in particular, those low-budget and B-movies made between 1939 and 1959. This 250+ page book takes a closer look at some films you’d be familiar with, but also many you never heard of and might have a hard time locating, even now when darn near everything seems to be available on DVD/Blue Ray, cable, YouTube or streaming somewhere. Lyons may be an ardent fan, but he wasn’t looking at these films through rose colored glasses, and is quick to point out that some are real stinkers. But some definitely are not, and their no-name casts, first-take-is-the-only-take filming, murky nighttime back lot exteriors, questionable scripts rewritten on the fly while the cameras rolled all somehow came together serendipitously to create real works of noir art. (Then again, some didn’t.)

The book includes a detailed filmography with titles, alternate titles (and there are many), credits, plot summaries and commentary. Nearly 20 years old, Lyons’ Death On The Cheap is still available new, though I’ve seen really inexpensive copies available online. If you’ve already read everything you care to read about The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Reckoning and Out Of The Past, maybe it’s time to brush up on some lesser-known and altogether forgotten films. But good luck tracking a few of them down if you want to watch them for yourself.

Beverly Garland: Much More Than A B-Girl In B-Movies

Beverly Garland in It Conquered The World

Following up on the preceding post about the groundbreaking 1950’s TV series Decoy, starring Beverly Garland:

Not Of This Earth 1

A trouper playing mostly tough women in small film roles as well as a reliably hard-working television actor, Beverly Garland (born Beverly Fessenden 1926 – 2008) may have been an unlikely choice to play New York City Police Officer Casey Jones in the groundbreaking 1957-1958 series Decoy, which was not only the first show to feature a police woman as the series lead, but actually the first full-season dramatic series with a female lead…period.

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Few know of Garland’s work in what was really a revolutionary, though now largely forgotten, series. Most know Beverly Garland either for her parts in several campy low-budget science fiction films like The Alligator People and Not of This Earth, up against some of 1950’s sci-fi’s most ridiculous monsters, or stranger still, as one of television’s most familiar suburban mom’s. Garland played Fred MacMurray’s wife in over 70 episodes of My Three Sons between 1969 – 1972, then the mother in several episodes of Remington Steele, mother to former Charlie’s Angels star Kate Jackson in 88 episodes of The Scarecrow And Mrs. King from 1983 – 1987, then mother to Terri Hatcher’s Lois Lane in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in 1995 – 1997, and a mother on 9 episodes of 7th Heaven. That’s a lot of mom’s for someone who started out playing boozy broads and B-girls, and nabbed her first film role (under the name Beverly Campbell) in the noir-classic D.O.A.

In a way, Beverly Garland’s memory lives on not only in her film and television work, but also in the property she and long-time husband Fillmore Crank developed, The Beverly Garland Hotel, still in operation as “The Garland”, a popular luxury boutique hotel in North Hollywood, and frequently used as a film-friendly location site.

The Garland

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