Classic movie site with rare images (no web grabs!), original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Pick Up The Pieces, Folks ...

Ever see a young person come out of an old film astonished for having seen something that was actually good? For many, it’s akin to root canal hurting less than expected. Film students on assignment subsist on a diet of lowered expectation. They figure such classes are an easy grade, but they’re far from ready to embrace black-and-white movies. Such a hardened group (eighty strong) came reluctantly to watch White Heat when I ran it for a University class. Only a week before, they’d scoffed at Northwest Passage (imagine silence broken by a lone nineteen-year-old female voice --- This sucks!). White Heat was something else entirely, for here was violence and pace in keeping with shows they’d pay to watch in theatres yet. Given a commission to list classics for which general viewers need give no ground, I wonder how many we could honestly come up with. Probably a lot less than we’d like to think. I’d submit White Heat for high placement on said short list. For a picture nearing sixty, it’s more energized still than any crime thriller I could name from the forties. While film noir lingered upon wet sidewalks, White Heat raced over them. James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett indulges not a moment's brooding. Among noir’s conflicted criminals and hangdog gumshoes, he’s an engine firing through 114 minutes that go by like half that. White Heat bypasses even the look of noir, as if dwelling on shadows might slacken tempo (and frankly, it would). Some mistakenly call White Heat a "B" only because it delivers like one, and that’s rare for postwar studio star vehicles. The negative cost was $1.3 million, less than what Warners spent on most 1949 product and coming at a time when belt-tightening was evident in much of what was being released by them. Cagney was paid $250,000. That alone necessitated economy in other areas. He’d complain about Warners putting everybody in it they could get for six bits. Bitterness came of a promise (broken) to use Cagney pal Frank McHugh as a prison sidekick for Cody, casting we know now might have choked White Heat in its cradle. JC figured Frank for comic bits like ones that hobbled shows going back to precode, but tired shtick McHugh traded in was the last thing White Heat needed. In fact, he’d been the weakest link in The Roaring Twenties ten years before, a point at which such kibitzers should gracefully have gone to pasture now that Cagney’s gangsters were getting more depth and longer running time to display it. The cheapjack job he called White Heat embarrassed Cagney in hindsight. He never liked looking at this show and didn’t relish talking about it either. The actor’s perhaps too healthy respect for critics may have brought him into Bosley Crowther’s camp, for The New York Times under Crowther's byline reported grim and horrendous approval of White Heat's ultra-violence among Strand Theatre youngsters chanting Bee-you-tee-ful whenever Cody unloaded on stoolies and rats. Crowther was sufficiently despairing of weak minds corrupted by such displays as to recant positive points of his initial review and followed up with stern admonishment to Warners for having released such a firago (a cruelly vicious film … its impact upon the emotions of the unstable or impressionable is incalculable).

The Strand mob was Cagney’s most loyal. New Yawkers loved the hometown boy who’d made good. They probably kicked in much of the $2.1 million in domestic rentals White Heat collected (for an eventual profit of $1.3 million). Neighborhood houses added a co-feature for immediate subsequent runs (ad shown), as audiences by 1949 expected more bang for their admission than a mere single feature, thus even premiering Strand was obliged to sweeten the pot with Xavier Cugat on stage. This was early September. Here’s the newly refurbished Strand as of that opening week, along with the massive lobby a 2,750 capacity audience first saw upon entering. Ads were specially customized by WB’s art department for these bows, as the Strand was flagship to many if not most Warner/Broadway openings. White Heat marked the return of the action Cagney long missed. Nearly three years had passed since he’d clenched fists in 13 Rue Madeleine. Warners sensed fan starvation for Cagney brio like old times. They garlanded White Heat ads with JC hit parade titles going all the way back to The Doorway To Hell, a picture then out of circulation for nearly two decades. The Cagney Roles Contest was WB’s assurance that White Heat would play in accordance with happy times patrons remembered when Cagney was still making their kind of entertainment. Jimmy’s In Action Again as ad centerpiece dug at gentle Johnny Come Lately and cerebral The Time Of Your Life (produced independently), the latter managing only $1.1 million in domestic rentals the previous year. Their first glimpse of Cagney in White Heat might have taken viewers aback, for suddenly he looked much older and heavier than when tumbling on judo mats in 1945’s Blood On The Sun. Lost momentum for having left Warners in 1942 cost Cagney. But for White Heat, he’d not get back the old verve of that unbroken chain of success WB’s campaign referenced.

Thanks to Warner’s shimmering DVD, I’m finally able to read the Sun-Val Drive-In’s marquee for that night Cody, Ma, and Verna pulled in to watch what’s later identified as Task Force. Close inspection reveals the Sun-Val’s actual program to have been South Of St. Louis and Siren Of Atlantis. The Drive-In was located in Burbank and first opened in 1938. It would be California’s second outdoor theatre, closing by the mid-seventies when such venues nationwide took a nosedive. White Heat is a virtual tour of LA and surrounding environs. Street names are bandied about as cops triangulate around Cody’s mob. Big sedans look like lumbering dinosaurs even when giving chase. Did movie auto pursuits ever truly convey speed prior to 1968 and Bullitt? The ever problematic Drinking Out Of Empty Coffee Cups Syndrome creeps into White Heat as well; both John Archer and Edmund O’Brien tip theirs just enough to let us know there’s not a drop in them (normal, well-adjusted people don’t notice these things --- I do). Cody stays a step ahead of the FBI all the way to the end. No wonder those unstable and impressionable youngsters at the Strand rooted for him. Incredible that the PCA granted a Seal to White Heat even as they continued an embargo against The Public Enemy being reissued (and asceded only after it was substantially cut in 1954). Cagney is shockingly uninhibited in White Heat. Extras are said to have been alarmed by his/Cody’s dining hall outburst when word comes of Ma’s death. Everyone from JC to Raoul Walsh down to the guard at the gate seems to have taken credit for the mother fixation twist that distinguished White Heat, especially the moment when Cody sits in Ma’s lap. Being shot fairly close in, there’s less emphasis on where his character’s positioned. I wonder if there weren’t alternate takes from further back that were later discarded in favor of the angle provided us. Would audiences have laughed had they clearly seen robust Cagney sitting on frail Margaret Wycherly’s lap? Raoul Walsh was in the midst of an incredible run as White Heat climaxed twenty (plus) good to outstanding pictures from the director since 1939. This man was surely, along with Michael Curtiz, the most accomplished wheel in Warner’s machinery. Unlike Curtiz, he lived long enough to regale young pups at university screenings with embroidered tales of how he (often single-handed) made great actioners like White Heat. Often in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hat, Walsh ranked among most colorful of old Hollywood raconteurs, and appearances with his films helped elevate their critical status during nascent film study days of the seventies. Indeed, negative owner (at the time) United Artists was able to boost 16mm rental rates for White Heat up to $125 per day by 1975, bringing it in line with most-in-demand oldies Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. For collectors, White Heat made unexpected landfall in 1976 when a group of 16mm negatives out of UA became available for surreptitious printing. These were "originals" with quality the equal of anything TV or rental used. My custom White Heat, brand new out of the lab, seemed a bargain at $275 (wonder who's watching it now ...), especially as dupes of shows this good might cost nearly as much.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

The very first time I was able to watch WHITE HEAT was around 20 years ago. The version was dubbed and was computer colored. However, I was extremely surprised on how great it was, despite the alterations.

The use of color and the dubbing made it look, thanks Raoul Walsh direction, quite a contemporary film. The thing that was jarring in color were the cars and Max Steiner's score that made go find film to its original black and white presentation.

When I was finally able to see the film in black and white and in English, it immediately became an unforgettable show. First, I had to endure an edited version on TV (not for censorship but for its running time) and finally, in VHS, the entire film. However, I was able to recognize that the movie shown in that theater was TASK FORCE from the very beginning.

Raoul Walsh has always been one of my favorite filmakers and I have always loved his films for Warners; compared to similar kind of fare filmed nowadays, his movies made the current movies feel as idiotic and stupid as they are.

MANPOWER, for instance, never issued on video, is nothing more than a routine programmer. But it has guts and excitement that you don't see in films anymore.

This is probably true of the entire work of Raoul Walsh. The other studio in which he spend most of his activity was the old Fox Film Corporation; but almost all of those films remain in absolute obscurity and they could be some sort of revelation.

A few weeks ago, I was able to get a 1927 film called THE MONKEY TALKS he made for Fox. While no masterpiece (and in an ugly version) the story of a man who pretends to be a monkey in a theater in order to succeed in the stage does not sound like a good movie. But thanks to Walsh, the film does work and it has the same guts and excitement that you could expect not from WHITE HEAT, but at least MANPOWER.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

The ending where Jarrett gets his in still spectacular fashion must've been the only real selling point for the censors - like Romans of old, the depravity and power of the defeated enemy was used to make the victors look good, even if they had to spell it out a little more than they preferred. This one had a crackerjack supporting cast, regardless of Cagney's opinion - you're absolutely right, McHugh would've ruined this one, no matter what Cagney wanted - Steve Cochran being especially good. The crazy scene of slipping and sliding through the prison food trays was brilliant, and unequaled - Cagney was always a crazy-legged dancer. Walsh's use of the varied levels of piping at the fuel depot was impressive, like a death hunt in a futuristic forest that isn't much changed today - it's not out of place in a new computer game. It has aged well because Walsh directed it in a very modern fashion, not because of the cars, props, and actors, who have all become period pieces. Even Cagney's acting, tho great, was nothing new for him - if he didn't like the the production in process, at least he never mailed in a performance. Like many Cagney films, this one was a regular on the local TV as a kid, and it was always watchable even then, even a generation or two after it hit the screen - Bosley Crowther's influence must've been ephemeral at best.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Hi, John -- There were TWO Cagneys from Warners in '49 -- the reissue of G-MEN, with a new David Brian prologue. I suspect G-MEN came out first, since WHITE HEAT wasn't released until the fall of '49. Do you happen to have the numbers on the G-MEN reissue compared to the WHITE HEAT numbers?

Best wishes -- Scott

9:35 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Scott --- Regret to say I don't have the "G-Men" reissue numbers. Wish I did, as I suspect it did exceptionally well.

Radiotelefonia --- I'm a fan of "Manpower" and all those Warner pics Walsh made. If only they'd do a massive set for him like the one Fox did for John Ford in 2007.

Very insightful comments on "White Heat", Vanwall, and I like that crackerjack supporting cast myself!

9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you wrote at the beginning reminded me of a screening of "Citizen Kane" at U/Mass Boston back in 1978.The students sat through most of it, yes, but walked out just as soon as they saw "Rosebud" in the furnace.And then a kid who missed the end asked me what Rosebud turned out to be!

6:40 PM  
Blogger Erik said...

I avoided WHITE HEAT for a long time because I suspected it could not live up to its reputation. Caught it unexpectedly on TCM years ago and it really is a completely satisfying film (to me). This Greenbriar article pokes some holes in it, I guess, but I don't have enough sensitivity to go down that deeply into the cast to find problems. Much enjoy Mayo and Edmond O'Brien.

I think the plot gets rehashed (for laughs) a bit in one of the NAKED GUN movies.

9:03 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016