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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Warner Finds A Star, Then Loses Him


Van Johnson Stands Out in Murder In The Big House (1942)

Certainly a title they'd notice coming in, even if it placed second on most bills --- second, that is, until support player Van Johnson hit very big and inspired Warners to reissue and re-title this as Born To Trouble, with all new credits billing Johnson first and above selfsame title. There must have been foreheads slapped over how they let him get away, though honestly, WB had not the resource and certainly not the patience to bring Van along as MGM would. Look at how they bungled Craig Stevens, George Reeves, DeWolf (William) Hopper --- this was not a proper lab for male ingĂ©nues. Van was congenial enough, but needed further training, which he'd get via TLC from Culver City. Murder/Born is a B, directed brisk by B. Reeves Eason, "Breezy" a nickname his work lived up to. The set-up's a puzzler. A gangster set to fry is instead struck by lightning through his prison bars --- or was he? Van suspects foul play, and there's the mystery. Lucky for Warners that VJ becomes focal point after a tepid first reel w/o him; crowds lured by changed billing would call foul had his part been so minor as initial scenes suggest. There's newshound backdrop, thus much irreverence about guys getting the chair, burnt to a crisp, etc. Were scribes in life really so insensitive? A lot of fun for the 59 minutes it lasts, and TCM's print carries Born For Trouble moniker. I wonder if it even exists anymore as Murder In The Big House.

5 Comments:

Blogger rnigma said...

By DeWolf Hopper, did you mean William Hopper (full name William DeWolf Hopper, Jr.)? I think he used the DeWolf name in "The Old Maid."

I probably mentioned this in an earlier post... it seems to be a habit in Hollywood, reissuing a film with a then-unknown who hit it big, changing the title and giving the now-star top billing (even if he/she occupied less than five minutes of screen time). For instance:
"Midnght" (Bogart) - "Call it Murder"
"The Duke is Tops" (Lena Horne) - "Bronze Venus"
It continues in the video/DVD era: when Jesse Eisenberg hit big in "The Social Network," an indie he made years earlier called "Camp Hope" was dusted off and reissued as "Camp Hell," with Jesse top-billed (though his appearance was quite brief).

1:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Added William to the text --- had noticed him as DeWolf in some Warner B's prior to this, though by 1941, I guess he was being billed as William. Somewhere I read, or someone told me, that he operated a car lot during and after the Perry Mason run. Don't know if there's any truth to it. Can anyone confirm?

1:56 PM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

Well, I read in a Perry Mason blog that he was in the car business after the war (WWII) for about seven or eight years and left it behind in 1953 to go back into show business. He apparently wasn't much of a salesman. No word whether he returned to it after Mason, but it doesn't seem likely.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Bill O said...

Orson Welles claimed he spotted Johnson in the Pal Joey chorus, and arranged for his WB screen test.

7:17 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Migma zooms in on one of my favorite topics: re-titled and re-issued B's after a supporting actor becomes a major star. WHEN STRANGERS MARRY becomes BETRAYED 'starring' Robert Mitchum, PAPER BULLETS re-emerges as GANGS, INC. 'starring' Alan Ladd, OLD LOUISIANA returns as LOUISIANA GAL 'starring' Rita Hayworth. And he's right on about those dollar store DVDs that dig up the earliest appearances of, well, just about everyone!

1:50 PM  

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