Mexico Be Scary in 1953
A curtain of dread hangs over 40’s/50’s films set in Mexico. Crossing that border always proves to be a mistake. To vacation there like Barbara Stanwyck and family in 1953’s Jeopardy is sheer lunacy, with audiences by then well conditioned to expect the worst when characters venture south. It was one thing to lam for Mexico like Robert Mitchum on oft-occasions. Others gold-hunted there at considerable risk (Bogart in Treasure Of The Sierra Madre most prominent). Horrific fates awaited those reckless enough to cross into seeming Hell. My never having been there is no coincidence. For repeated and traumatizing exposure to Sierra Madre, Border Incident, Jeopardy, and Blowing Wild (among lots of others), it’s likely I never will. There were complaints by Mexican officials of defamations to their country. Almost anything set below the Rio Grande amounted to that. Mexico was where noir was darkest and all bets were off. Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil was final pay-off for a decade where every border sign should read: Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here. By no more than chance, I’ve looked at a brace of Mexico-set features and come away wondering if that country got a raw deal in movies. I’d not venture a yay or nay for said lack of personal experience, but impressions formed early and reaffirmed often die hard, and facts of the matter are, I wouldn’t follow even Jane Greer into such foreboding territory.
Blowing Wild played our TV stations often between school and supper. "Gringo Giant" Gary Cooper wildcats for oil, hauls nitro, and fights banditos. All of this is patently derivative of better films John Huston, Howard Hawks, and even King Vidor directed. There’s no period remove to assure us that conditions are improved in modern Mexico. This is modern Mexico, and our own nineteenth-century West was never wilder. Cooper brings in wells and bandits repeatedly level them. Pal Ward Bond begs from fellow Americans as did Fred C. Dobbs, and everyone they encounter deals off the bottom. To travel Mexican roads is to be assured of bandit intrusions. Law enforcement seems so overrun as to have given up. I kept wondering why Cooper didn’t pull the hell out for someplace safer, for this seems too dicey a venue even for him. Mexico is where soldiers of fortune head after every other option plays out. That was always the case in movies and would remain so. Cooper moseyed down again within the year for Garden Of Evil, and then Vera Cruz, Mexico’s undoubted idea of a bad will ambassador tarring that nation’s image in theatres worldwide. His reason for so many trips was actually a prosaic one of tax avoidance, as Cooper saved considerable income by working outside the US during 1953-54. He was an aging star beyond the streak of prestige parts he'd enjoyed in the forties, despite an Academy Award for High Noon. Everyone knew Coop could act, but most were happiest watching him pump rifles and crack heads. Outside of westerns, Mexico was the last setting where he could believably do these things. Blowing Wild doubtless played havoc with tourism down there, but this was 1953 and many films of similar disposition had gone before it, Jeopardy by mere months. That was contempo-set as well, with roads treacherous as ones Cooper drove nitro over. Bandits are absent, but convict killer Ralph Meeker finds comfortable refuge on Mexican byways with few impediments along those desolate avenues of escape. A woman alone, in this case Barbara Stanwyck, will certainly be abducted, thanks to local police immobilized by endless miles of desert bleakness. Blowing Wild and Jeopardy take place in Mexico because we’d never believe such things could happen within our own borders.
Jeopardy is less known than another thriller directed by on-the-ways-up John Sturges. Bad Day At Black Rock was later by a year and in color. It’s higher regarded thanks to Spencer Tracy and exceptional character support, but even at similarly brief run times (Black Rock is 81 minutes, Jeopardy 69), the earlier one plays tauter. Jeopardy is a small gem that served no purpose other than to support bigger pictures and play nearly always on dual bills. I’d hesitate calling it a B, despite relegation to program status these mostly occupied. Jeopardy was produced mainly to absorb overhead run up hourly by a large company struggling against shifting tides of a sometimes hostile marketplace. The ad shown here was for Chicago’s first-run. Jeopardy played with Confidentially Connie, another MGM release sans color, loosed to theatres increasingly in demand of multi-hues for combatting television’s rise. Both were remarkably low-budget. Jeopardy had a negative cost of $589,000 and Confidentially Connie finished for only $501,000. These were cut-rate figures for 1953 product from a major studio. A close look at United Artists Theatre policy shows why they had to be made for a price. Adult admission to 1 PM was just forty-six cents (exclusive of state tax) and kids got in for a quarter throughout the day. Lean times required more show for the money, thus neighboring Roosevelt Theatre offered a Universal combo of comparable modesty, Desert Legion and Ma and Pa Kettle On Vacation, and at the same prices. It was tough and getting more so to earn profits on such humble fare. Had Jeopardy cost a few nickels higher, it would surely have gone into loss columns as co-feature Confidentially Connie ultimately did. As it was, there was $1.2 million in domestic rentals and $438,000 foreign, for an eventual profit of $285,000.
Vehicles like Jeopardy and Blowing Wild were the purest distillations of what their stars did well. One’s tempted to dismiss Cooper and Stanwyck as playing such formula in their sleep, but for me, it’s pictures like these (she’s in both) that go to the very essence of talents fully matured and aware of iconic status they’d achieved. Cooper and Stanwyck long since understood those aspects of their personas that suited best a paying public. Let younger stars open new ground and assume risks thereby. These two were welcome for delivering, again and again, variations so slight upon previous roles as to be almost indistinguishable. Stanwyck in Blowing Wild is near-identical to the Stanwyck of The Violent Men, which came within a following year. Both fed off momentum established ten years before with Double Indemnity. Stanwyck was an actress of a certain age whose playbook allowed but for slight variants … it seemed she was always either victim or murderess. BS was just too bigger than life and freighted with audience expectation (for melodrama heatedly played) to pass inspection as a mere leading lady. Joan Crawford tended to shuttle as well between opposing sides of the law. Both actresses were preferred either pointing guns or struggling to get beyond range of them. Bette Davis might have had an easier time of the fifties had she followed closer their lead. Jeopardy’s Chicago ad snipes A Woman In … over the film’s title to assure patrons as to content and Stanwyck’s time-honored role in it. The thing that’s remarkable is how fresh and dynamic she always was on such frequently trod ground, and often in pictures not so good as Jeopardy.