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Friday, October 26, 2007




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Dark Journey is a Spy vs. Spy romance of World War One coming on the eve of the Second World War. It was produced by Alexander Korda in 1937. US exhibitors resisted British features because of perceived troubles over accents. Many complained their audiences couldn’t understand what was being said. United Artists released Dark Journey, but domestic rentals stalled at $76,000. Somehow Raymond Rohauer ended up with the negative, and it’s available out of England on Region 2. Even if they stood still and read phone books, it would be enough having Conrad Veidt and Vivien Leigh teamed, though you wish they’d done so under Alfred Hitchcock’s direction rather than workmanlike Victor Saville. Still, these are enjoyable intrigues as played out amidst glistening nightclub sets, U-boats, and secret decoding rooms. British filmmakers, including Hitchcock, relied upon models and miniatures for many of their exteriors. Must have been the uncertain weather over there. It’s fun spotting toy trains chugging along just ahead of cutaways to club car interiors. State secrets and battle plans are here sewn into the latest fashions sold in Vivien Leigh’s chic dress shop, and translated by way of draping them over lamp shades decorated with coded maps. Operatives are designated as X-4, D-12, whatever --- seldom have numerals been so exotically utilized. It took me the whole of ninety minutes to figure out which side who was on. Vivien Leigh appears loyal to the Kaiser, then at halfway point reveals her double-agentry, much in the way seeming Hollywood traitors would emerge true blue in espionage thrillers like Across The Pacific, Northern Pursuit, and even out west in Springfield Rifle. Spy business in Dark Journey is conducted in tuxedoes and evening gowns on moonlit balconies. There’s nothing by way of political discourse. People are for or against France and Germany for reasons they keep to themselves. Without a real war going on in the background, thrillers like Dark Journey could focus purely on the romance of espionage, never the ideologies behind it. With Veidt and Leigh to look at and listen to, we’d not be concerned with the latter in any case. How could anyone watching Leigh in 1938 imagine she’d not be spirited off to America straightaway? Both Allied and German spies play scrupulously fair in Dark Journey, as this is a gentleman's war they’re fighting. Surely playdates down the UK circuit saw uncomfortable reaction to ultra-civilized Conrad Veidt as newly aggressive Germany pressed further upon England’s shores. Veidt has no peer among offbeat and vaguely sinister leading men. The shadings he brought these parts made all his thirties output watchable, though some of that would be lost with conventional Nazi villain work he had to settle for upon taking up Hollywood residence.


















James Cagney’s inclination to protest in the face of vehicle monotony makes sense when you examine his early Warner output laid down in a row. He led with a punch for men and slaps (or worse) for women. Jimmy The Gent was late in this game and Cagney revolted by shaving his head Prussian-style and decorating the exposed scalp with bottle scars, going all out hoodlum as if to parody roles being forced upon him per Warners’ contract. How could his popularity sustain repetition like this? So many stars got wrung out in five years or less. WB was especially callous at bleeding dry, then discarding, talent wearisome upon an excess of curtain calls. Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis went that way. Dick Powell sung himself hoarse. Cagney fought back and was careerwise the better for it. By Jimmy The Gent, he’d worked so many onscreen cons as to be confused with musketeers of the streets he portrayed. Most income from Cagney was got from urban venues. He spoke their language as surely as "B" cowboys represented southeast and western sensibilities. Low volume settings will best serve those venturing to Jimmy The Gent. Everyone bellows, windows get smashed, and doors are all but slammed off hinges. It’s a pace pre-code fans are used to, but the uniniated might wonder what depression dwellers were putting in their drinks. Everybody’s on the make. Cynical double-dealing is business as usual among characters impliedly just this side of the law, with starvation, not prosperity, right around the corner. Unforgiving depression settings make their behavior understandable, if not admirable. Jimmy The Gent had a negative cost of just $151,000 and ended with profits of $99,000. The next Cagney, He Was Her Man, would be his first to lose money ($12,000), though redirection into service pictures would bring greater profits than ever for the star. I realize Cagney knocked ‘em dead at the Strand (WB’s NYC flagship), but how did rurals take him? Contrasts between Jimmy The Gent and a typical Will Rogers vehicle suggest product continents apart in origin and attitude. Could tastes for one extend to pleasure in seeing the other? Never before or since did movies traffic in such moral and philosophical opposites. Those who would brand thirties’ output formulaic just haven’t seen enough of it.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just look at that set design in that photo of Cagney, wouldn't you just give anything to have the chair that Cagney's coat has been casually thrown over.

Who is that tall fellow by the way? He reminds me of Edward Everett Horton.

7:00 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's Arthur Hohl. I checked him at imdb and he has a long list of appearances, many of them uncredited. He's a familiar face in several of the Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

8:23 AM  
Blogger East Side said...

I love those early Cagney movies. Those who know him just from "Public Enemy" don't know the half of him. Neither he nor Bogart have peers in Hollywood today.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, Conrad Veidt, how few American audiences knew him until his role as Major Strasser in CASABLANCA. Many of his roles were in silents and talkies abroad and his star didn't really shine until his portrayal of that menacing Nazi officer Bogart eventually shot. Too bad Veidt really did die soon after CASABLANCA was released.

And Cagney--his pre-1938 pictures always are a treat--especially the urban comedy/drama/melodramas--we all wish we could have that kind of reckless, in your face personality!

EC, Toledo

7:57 PM  
Blogger Oscar Grillo said...

In the UK we see often on TV "The Spy in Black" and "Contraband" by Michael Powell with Veidt and Valerie Hobson, and they are two films to kill for. Emeric Pressburger's script for "Contraband" ("Blackout" in the US) could have filled Hitchcock with envy and jeaulousie.

2:10 AM  
Anonymous ERIK said...

re: "US exhibitors resisted British features because of perceived troubles over accents."

That's interesting considering there was so many British actors in Hollywood!

There was a TCM "mini_bio" of Veidt recently; apparently he willed his estate to the British government.

4:07 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Erik --- Didn't know that about Veidt's estate. Those British accents did gnaw at exhibitors, particularly in the small towns. Trade mgazines often carried comments deriding impenetrable dialogue.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Inigo Jones said...

Speaking of impenetrable dialogue, my mother barely understands anything that Harrison Ford says in his movies. 'It's all 'mumble, mumble, mumble' with him,' she moans....

4:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just got a chance to see "The Spy In Black" Agree it is a great film! Veidt has a bit more humanity than usual in it....of course the fact it is a Powell/Pressburger picture doesn't hurt....

1:39 PM  

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