Favorites List --- Ruthless
Netflix streaming looks to be putting us by way of libraries no one's entered for years, not least of them Eagle-Lion's branch, from which I lately borrowed Ruthless, director Edgar Ulmer's Citizen Kane-ish flashbacking over lives of robber baron Zachary Scott and unfortunates in his orbit. Ruthless used to play television, granted not often (at least where I was), but enough to make an impression and set me upon quest of 16mm permanence, that had with difficulty but never to complete satisfaction due to spotty or banged-up prints. UCLA would preserve the 1948 release, but theirs isn't what Netflix streamed to me. Allowance must be made for orphans like Ruthless. It's another of those where you wonder if owners are even aware they own it. Who'll come to this one's rescue on DVD? --- especially now with sun setting on disc formats. Eagle-Lion fathered Ruthless and died shortly after, being another well-intentioned David bent on conquering studio Goliaths. History labels Edgar Ulmer among Kings of B's, but Ruthless belongs not in that category. Eagle-Lion insisted this was no cheapie like product out of cocoon from which they'd emerged, to-wit, Producer's Releasing Corporation, aka PRC and shorthand for cheapest refuse Hollywood had temerity to offer. Railroad magnate Robert Young (not him) had bought PRC for a personal toy train and set upon conducting it to parity with big-cheese majors he wanted to hack down to size. That, of course, had been tried by wallets and egos bigger even than Young's, and would be again, to ultimate loss of all such moneyed upstarts.
You can read of Eagle-Lion's brief life in Tino Balio's excellent United Artists history, where he tells of E-L's climb toward "A" status despite an industry establishment greasing poles. No one outside long entrenched oligopolists had much chance breaking in, for Leo, Warners, Fox, RKO, and Paramount held exhibition reins and weren't letting go (gov't anti-trust action eventually pried them loose, but not in time to benefit E-L). For those couple of seasons it lasted, Eagle-Lion did remarkable things with little money and fewer names. They cleared paths with film noir others would follow, what with based on Feds blotter T-Men and Trapped, plus nerve-tingling He Walked By Night and Raw Deal. Good as these were, it was all uphill getting dates into first-run theatres where percentage money was, as each booking for E-L came tooth and claw. Top stories, large budgets, and meaningful star casts came for granted out of big studios ... for an Eagle-Lion, these were beyond reach and splurge upon one or more could break their bank.
Ruthless came closest to shooting works for the company. They'd pay first for the source novel, Prelude To Night, by Dayton Stoddart, not a best seller, but indication E-L was striving beyond yarns written for two-to-three week shoots. Former agent Arthur C. Lyons would supervise for Producing Artists Corporation, an independent linked with Eagle-Lion for what Variety reported was a pair of two-million dollar projects, of which Prelude To Night was planned first. Forty-six sets would be built, according to Lyons, with an "all-star cast" including (as of August 1947) Zachary Scott, Diana Lynn, and Sydney Greenstreet. These were names, not top-of-bill ones, but capable and got for rates Producing Artists and Eagle-Lion could manage. Signing Edgar Ulmer was a masterstroke for his ability to wring absolute most out of budgets given. Short of prior hyperbole was Prelude To Night 's actual cost at $1.4 million --- according to E-L's sales division, $2.2 million would be required to break even. Getting that wouldn't be easy, what with ongoing resistance from first-run venues (New York palaces had shut out a number of Eagle-Lions). Coming to (hopeful) rescue would be J. Arthur Rank, British producer and exhibition kingpin, who'd also partnered with Eagle-Lion to get his pics released in the US and supply berths for retitled-to Ruthless across the pond ( ... a heavy play in England now seems assured, said Variety).
Prospects for Ruthless looked good. Eagle-Lion had managed a world premiere date at Chicago's State-Lake Theatre for April 16, 1948, backed by what The Motion Picture Herald called the largest opening newspaper advertising and radio campaign ever given any Eagle-Lion picture. A lot was getting spent before anything came back, but there was confidence in Ruthless. The house toppers (at State-Lake) are expecting the film ... to do the job, said Billboard, reviewing vaudeville in support of Ruthless in its opening engagement, which included so-called Cruising Crooner Jack Owens, local radio fave Fran Allison as her broadcast alter-ego, Aunt Fanny, a typical gossipy old rustic, said the trade, plus, and oddly for a house seating 2649, a marionette act (The Martin Brothers ... would do well to build a bigger puppet next time they add a routine, for their current dolls cannot be seen past the middle of the second balcony). All this to bolster what proved a slow week, according to Variety. Ruthless sustained a pan as well from the latter's reviewer ... picture is a victim of clichéd and outmoded direction and of weary dialogue to which no actor could do justice ... this would be no help for merchandise needing all the boost it could get.
First Runs Limping came report from Los Angeles when Ruthless landed in five venues there for early July. Double-billing with Shed No Tears saw modest returns and eleven days' screening before replacement by another from Eagle-Lion, Canon City. Eventual loss for Ruthless and recriminations from same would follow. Actor Louis Hayward sued Producing Artists in 1951 for salary unpaid, his original deal having called for a flat $100,000. Bank Of America in 1950 repossessed Ruthless along with twenty-nine other independent features for which they'd loaned production funds, but BOA wasn't in the picture business and knew not how to recover loss sustained on these. Choices were few and simple --- reissue the lot to theatres or sell to television. Favorite Films Corporation arranged with BOA to put Ruthless back on large screens in 1953 with a new title, Ruthless Men, but that wouldn't recover coin needed to restore account ink to black. 1954 television syndication among Bank Of America's now-32 title package would be final stop for Ruthless. They'd tried for a network deal, but none could be generated, trouble being too few of these titles were outstanding ones. Still, it was the strongest clutch of Hollywood movies offered to free-vee so far (this several years away from big studio syndication dumps), and included Body and Soul (the only title in the group that is believed to have shown a profit theatrically, said Billboard), Arch Of Triumph, Force Of Evil, A Double Life, Orson Welles' Macbeth, and others. General Teleradio handled distribution, paying Bank Of America $1.35 million to lease the package for four years. Ruthless would become one of the most familiar movies playing mid-50's televised days and night, as Los Angeles' KHJ, among others, first-ran it five primetime nights in a row, with repeats in abundance to follow.
You couldn't sensibly call Ruthless a B picture, though many have, and continue doing so. It was run as such at a Filmex B Movie Marathon in 1983, plus elsewhere, and the label remains affixed partly due to Edgar Ulmer's career association with lowest of low-budget ventures. Ruthless was by far his richest meal, one he viewed in hindsight as having been compromised by an interfering producer, common refrain among directors wanting to explain away flawed work. After the first release, they cut it, said Ulmer to interviewing Peter Bogdanovich in 1970 (I've found no evidence of this --- Ruthless opened at 104 minutes and that seems to have been running time since). Ulmer called his film a very bad indictment against 100 percent Americanism --- as Upton Sinclair saw it, this undoubted music to cultists' ears, though critics in 1948 don't seem to have caught his drift. What impresses about Ruthless is Ulmer's reach beyond resources given, always a hallmark with his films, but never pursued so ambitiously as here, with the director hauling his own Citizen Kane out of Eagle-Lion's basement. Something else maybe not noticed then is young Bob Anderson, playing Zachary Scott's character as a boy, saving another flashback character from drowning, just as this actor had done in the role of adolescent George Bailey in two-years' before It's A Wonderful Life, although outcomes in Ruthless are considerably different. Whatever it misses, and critics unimpressed then with Ulmer were right that it misses plenty, Ruthless makes up with what he pulls from an ensemble cast, each given roles with thicker meat on bones than customary, and period mood (the pic spans decades) that no name director could have nailed with greater precision than Ulmer. It's a show well worth seeking out.