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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Cheaper The Better, Say Some


Baddest Men In The Whole D--n Town

A public's first glimpse of James Cagney in White Heat must have been a startler, as he looks like a deranged Buddha in a passenger seat en route to robbing a train, replete with cold sore on his lip and whatever star looks he had forever passed. The caveman had gone sedentary, and weight gain was result. Cagney could and would trim down where necessitated by dance segments or a part he respected. He didn't respect White Heat beyond a usual committed performance. Why give up good eating to play another bad man? Cagney saw potency in the yarn and knew it would revitalize a stalled career (he'd been in only two since 1945, and one, The Time Of Your Life, flopped dismally), but he'd shun White Heat in hindsight as "cheapjack" and a poor example to youthful watchers. For all of that however, White Heat is first choice of Cagneys you'd show a general audience, it being a most modern and crackling of his vehicles, far and away the one that represents him best in crime mode.

White Heat
seems too an audition, as in … might Steve Cochran be our next Cagney? He was spotlighted in The Damned Don’t Cry a following year, star in fact with Highway 301, also a 1950 release. Latter is a low-budget pearl, done astonishingly for $530K, so even if it clocked but $759K in domestic rentals, plus $845K foreign, the wretched thing still takes profit. Let no one kid you, B’s were alive and well after the war, especially at Warners. Highway 301 was produced by Bryan Foy. What he knew about saving money was mystery still to Scotsmen, though easy to overlook is how well many of his B’s turned out (Foy could also be trusted with something important, like House of Wax). What I savor about Highway 301 is its taking place along an eastern seaboard like real-life robberies said to have inspired the yarn. “Tri-State” gang as menace was exclusive focus here, no stalwarts in opposition (even White Heat had John Archer for reassurance, with Edmond O’Brien gone undercover). Highway 301 just has Steve Cochran plus low lives in support, them and molls picked off one by one by this worst of heavies as each disappoint Steve for one reason or other.

Remember when Metro took licks for making trashy bad apple flix like Rogue Cop? But people want them, they cried, we can’t just do Jane Powell musicals. Highway 301 was a little like that, though I doubt Warners went abashed for placing its shield upon 301 or for that matter, tawdrier ones (Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye … banned in Ohio!). In fact, they were proud enough to Strand-book Highway 301 solo, the Gotham site as much landing strip for gangsters as the Rialto up streets for horror. Insecticide here was enough vaudeville to float the audience in/out on wings of song and comedy, lest Highway 301 nauseate them unduly. In fact, it was the Strand bunch that had cheered White Heat most lustily, Cagney being there one matinee and hiding his face for shame. Interesting how Jim could play his Cody so brutal, then distance himself coyly for natural reaction the perf evoked (kids liked him shooting up the joint). To Highway’s vaude help came headliner Dave Apollon with his mandolin (“remarkably nimble fingering,” said Variety), some singers, a juggler, dancing “with a lifelike female dummy.” One of Apollon’s boys crooned “Mona Lisa,” a hit of the day. Emcee Florian ZaBach made with violin arrangements, him recognized as the fastest fiddler “in history.” I cite these for proof that a Highway 301 was seldom driven alone, vaudeville as here, or at least a second feature (more likely, Highway 301 as tail-end). Modest to extreme where alone, this a reason why loaded bills were needed to make one like this seem a money’s worth.

Chunks of Highway 301 were shot in Winston-Salem, practically home ground for me. Tri-staters rob tellers there, then scoot to hideouts that are Warner backlot located. You almost want a picture like this to be miserly … that way no one’s close-supervising, or caring much. Highway 301 is cruel and grubby as penned, then directed, by Andrew L. Stone. Was he paid by the body count? Steve steps off an elevator to shoot a woman fleeing down stairs from him, an act cold/cruel to make even his “Big Ed” from White Heat seem a square dealer. Appears to me that Cochran’s “George Legenza” was really Ed branching off from Cody Jarrett’s gang to organize his own, a doomed enterprise even if George was sane where Cody was not, him still lacking organizational skills Jarrett had, plus being just too mean to live. By the bye, I hear the term “chop suey” so frequent on screens as to wonder, what actually is it? Are there “chop suey joints” anymore? Seems criminals always ate in them, before or after bank jobs or looting a train. Here then is definition: “A Chinese-type dish of meat stewed and fried with bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, and onions, and served with rice.” Sounds good, but what happens if I walk into a Chinese restaurant and ask for chop suey today? Would it be considered a derisive term? Can’t prepare it myself, so one day maybe I’ll take a chance and try ordering chop suey out. The waiter might at least have seen Highway 301 and serve me accordingly.

Three state governors sat for on-camera intro to Highway 301. Had they got glimpse at what they were endorsing? One was North Carolina’s W. Kerr Scott, who I recognize because our 60’s-built dam and reservoir was named after him. And talk about a down home accent! Scott makes me sound like Noel Coward by comparison. NC theatres made great hay of Scott appearing, let alone Highway 301 taking place at least part-time here. That happened so seldom, you see. I actually watch Highway 301 often (courtesy Warner Archive) and am here to say it is swell by any measure, being boldly shot on barest sets as if daring us to object. You watch this and wonder if other Warner B’s from the period are as good. Alas, most are not. Crime topic was what they did best, as WB couldn’t help getting the genre right. There would be Crime Wave a few seasons later, then The System, both good. Then came Folsom Prison expose, a Communist for the FBI, each cheap as the last, but making up with raw energy. If weaving a Cagney or Bogart from Steve Cochran or David Brian or Frank Lovejoy seemed beyond them, well … blame the times, and incapacity to spend as the firm might have a decade sooner. Pictures like Highway 301 show how a Golden Era was fast eroding, but where mayhem was focus, Warners had few peers, and for these at least, cheapness is an enhancement. Is it safe to say production values are a deterrent to repeat-watching a Highway 301, or ones like it? Stripped-down sometimes makes for a best sit-down, a strongest case B’s make, and primary reason they wear so well.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

"Chop suey joint" must be the most spoken phrase in the history of b-movies. I'm often tempted to use it myself, but nobody would get the reference.

A 2018 movie, "Dragged Across Concrete", was said to be a tribute to these kinds of movies, but Mel Gibson's participation made me skip it.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I have always enjoyed riding down Highway 301 with Mr. Cochran.

And the last time I viewed WHITE HEAT (about two months back), I kept mental notes of how Cody's cold sore on his lip comes and goes throughout the picture. Pretty much a record of filming continuity.

And I love KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE. Sorry the citizens of Ohio couldn't see it in their movie houses.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Ken said...

When Steve Cochran was on fire (which he frequently was) he burned up the screen. I'm thinking of "The Chase", "Storm Warning" and "Tomorrow is Another Day". Somehow the film "Highway 301" had gotten by me. Don't remember ever hearing about it till now. So thanks for the tip. I'll make it my business to check it out.

2:54 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

In "Flower Drum Song", chop suey is referred to as an American dish -- and leads into a cheery song:

3:21 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

The appropriate budget depends upon the nature of each project. Cheaper can be better, but it can ruin a movie too.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

I was responsible for the TCM debut 11 years ago of I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI. It netted Bryan Foy his only Oscar nomination. He lost the Academy Award for Documentary Feature to Olle Nordemar, the only other nominee for KON-TIKI.

10:47 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer offers some fascinating background on the Tri-State Gang:

A wanted poster for the ring leaders of the Tri-State Gang shows Walter Legenza, the role played by Steve Cochran in “Highway 301,” as gaunt, balding, and hard-faced, with the eyes of a man who would have no more compunction slaughtering a fellow human being than stepping on a cockroach or shoving a door open. Hollywood conventions aside, psychosis and sex appeal rarely coincide. When “The Untouchables” TV series did their take on the Tri-State Gang, William Bendix was cast as Legenza, allowing him to reprise his mean guy persona of the forties after years of playing loveable Chester J. Riley in “The Life of Riley.” Surprisingly, the film is fairly accurate in depicting details from the gang’s crime sprees. The armored car robbery had a denouement even more absurd, when the haul proved to be, not bags of shredded currency, but canceled checks. The guard was shot down as shown, apparently for no better reason than that he was there and so was Legenza. Gang girl Lenore Fontaine--the Gaby Andre part--was later shot to keep her quiet but survived to give the evidence that convicted Legenza and Robert Mais, the character played by Wally Cassell. Legenza and Mais were installed in the Richmond City Jail to await their date with Mr. Sparky and duly escaped, taking advantage of the outside food service provided to condemned prisoners. The FBI tracked them down, following one of the gang “molls” to their hiding place. On January 24, 1935, they were arraigned before the same judge who had sentenced them to death in the first place and, justice moving a lot more swiftly in those days, their execution date was set again for February 2. Mais availed himself of the solace provided by the chaplain and went to his death repentant and filled with hope. According to reports, Legenza had nothing to say to nobody.

Many years later, Sheldon Richardson, who chronicled the Tri-State Gang in a book, found Walter Legenza's grave by a house on Route 522 in Louisa County, Virginia. "You know, this is a really bad man you got buried in your front yard," he said to the man who owned the house. "Well, s**t, he was here when I got here," replied the man.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"A public's first glimpse of James Cagney in this must have been a startler, as he looks like a deranged Buddha in a passenger seat en route to robbing a train, replete with cold sore on his lip and whatever star looks he had forever passed. The caveman had gone sedentary, and weight gain was result."

Cagney's weight in this film was never a consideration or a distraction for me and, from the looks of it, the audience of the day. More to the point it adds to the characterization. Have to take a look at HIGHWAY 301. Happy New Year. May you be around at least as long as I am.

9:03 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky can recommend White Heat but he cannot recommend chop suey.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

My viewing of Highway 301 has left me in an unresolved state of suspense as to the fate of that elevator jockey; nevertheless, the film is flawless in its way, being direct and to the point, and throughout its length keeping the viewer eager to see what happens next.

11:47 AM  

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