I’ve been honored by Aurora over at Once Upon a Screento do a guest post on not only one of the most provocative films of the silent era, but one of my most beloved classic horror films The Man Who Laughs (1928) starring Conrad Veidt. Without any further ado, please visit the classiest place in town for all your classic film and television essentials!
— Your EverLovin’ Joey sayin’ I promise I’ll be back at The Last Drive In soon. I’m still shopping for a helmet for my head!
Directed by Raoul Walsh and written by John Huston. Stars Ida Lupino as Marie and Humphrey Bogart as Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle. Co-stars Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie, Henry Hull, Alan Curtis, Henry Travers and Jerome Cowan
After being released from prison, notorious thief Roy Earle is hired by his old boss to help a group of inexperienced criminals plan and carry out the robbery of a California resort.
Roy Earle: (Humphrey Bogart)I wouldn’t give you two cents for a dame without a temper.
Marie Garson: (Ida Lupino) Yeah, I get it, ‘ya always sorta hope ‘ya can get out, it keeps ‘ya going.
Directed by John Huston screenplay by Richard Brooks & John Huston. Stars Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, Thomas Gomez, Harry Lewis and Marc Lawrence.
Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits his war buddy’s family hotel run by Lionel Barrymore and his daughter Lauren Bacall and finds a gangster (Edward G. Robinson) running things. As a hurricane approaches, the two end up confronting each other. Claire Trevor turns in a brilliant performance as washed up torch singer Gaye Dawn.
Frank McCloud: (Humphrey Bogart) You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it.
Gaye Dawn: (Claire Trevor) No, Mr. Temple, it wasn’t you. It wasn’t the law or anybody. It was only Johnny Rocco. Nobody in the whole world is safe as long as he’s alive.
A cynical American expatriate gets involved in smuggling and gun-running for the rebels during the 1925 Syrian insurgency against French occupation. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt. Stars Humphrey Bogart, Lee J. Cobb, Everett Sloane and Märta Torén
Two escaped killers take hostages and hide in a Nevada mining ghost town knowing that an atom bomb is scheduled to be tested there the next morning. Directed by Dick Powell. Stars Stephen McNally, Alexis Smith Keith Andes and Jan Sterling.
Sam Hurley: (Stephen McNally) You ever been locked up?
Ex-con trucker tries to expose his boss’ rackets. Directed by Cy Endfield. Stars Stanley Baker as Tom Yately, Herbert Lom, Peggy Cummins, Patrick McGoohan as ‘Red’ William Hartnell, Alfie Bass, Jill Ireland, Sidney James, Wilfrid Lawson, David McCallum and Sean Connery.
Men are simpler than you imagine my sweet child. But what goes on in the twisted, tortuous minds of women would baffle anyone.–Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
First off, while I cover a good deal of the film, I take it only as far as I can before giving anything away about the great Rebecca. My focus is on the mystery surrounding the first mistress of Manderley’s devoted servant Mrs. Danvers. So I will not be referencing any departures from du Maurier’s novel, nor Rebecca herself or Olivier and Fontaine’s marital outcome. I believe there are still fans of Hitchcock who have not seen the picture, and I want to leave them something to enjoy!
One of the most enduring classic thrillers, psychological thriller, suspenseful and intriguing in the realm of romantic Gothic mysteries. Considered a ‘woman’s picture.’ Brooding atmosphere, perfect pacing, acting composition from the score to the set design to the cinematography. Manderley is a ‘castle of the mind.’ It is too shadowy too remote too unreal because it IS in the mind. It exists now only in the heroine’s mind. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”As these words are visualized on the screen, we don’t see a real Manderley, but a Manderley of the mind, a nightmare, a ghost. So imperceptible and subtle, Manderley is one of the vital characters of the story. Joan Fontaine plays the timid woman in peril archetype. Olivier is moody and brooding. All actors are overshadowed by Anderson’s on fire performance.
As scholar Mary Ann Doane points out that Rebecca is “initiating the ‘paranoia’ strand of the woman’s picture, a sub-genre in which gullible women discover that the men they married possess strange and sinister intents. The cycle continued through the 1940s-Suspicion (1941) Gaslight (George Cukor 1944) and Secret Beyond the Door… (Fritz Lang, 1948).”
Rebecca was adapted from author Daphne du Maurier and brought to the Gothic paroxysm on screen not only by master Alfred Hitchcock but by the exquisitely low burning maniacal machinations of Dame Judith Anderson (Lady Scarface 1941, All Through the Night 1942, Kings Row 1942, Laura 1944, And Then There Were None 1945, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946, The Red House 1947, The Furies 1950, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958, Inn of the Damned 1975) as Miss Danvers — the epitome of the word villainess.
Mrs. Danvers– That austere cold stare, the measured calculating rhythm of each syllable spoken like serpent toothed silk cutting like finely sharpened knives to cut the jugular — a harridan — no, a harpy — no, a carefully slithering serpent of a woman in the vein of Angela Lansbury’s sinister housekeeper Nancy who helped the poor bedevil Ingrid Bergman feel gaslighted in Gaslight 1944 or the menacing Gale Sandaagard as Mrs. Hammond that same year in The Letter (1940), but Anderson has the benefit of du Maurier’s dialogue and Hitchcock’s direction at her command.
Interesting enough, in reading the tensions that had developed over the autonomy in making du Maurier’s story on screen between two head strong film makers, I imagined what the film might have been like in the hands of Val Lewton. Here is an excerpt from Leonard Leff’s book- “For Selznick who read a synopsis of the manuscript in late spring 1938, the story of the novel’s awkward and shy heroine seemed ideal. Selznick most impressive discoveries tended to be young women, including Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh, and Joan Fontaine; furthermore, had had long been associated with the industry’s premier “women’s director” George Cukor. In certain respects a “woman’s producer,” attuned to the sensibilities and psychology of the American female (at least as purveyed by the era’s mass-circulation magazines), Selznick agreed with story editor Val Lewton that the second Mrs. de Winter “probably exemplifies the feeling that most young women have about themselves.”
From Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick-by Leonard J. Leff- Among the hundred of manuscripts, galley proofs, ad publish novels that poured into the East Coast offices of Selznick International every month, Kay Brown read only a few that she could enthusiastically recommend. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca became one of them. Rebecca is “the most fascinating story I have read in ages,” Born wired Hollywood, a certain best-seller. In the novel, a plain and innocent young women (the first-person narrator, whose name du Maurier never reveals) serves as paid companion to a crass American dowager visiting the Riviera. Gossip has it that the aristocratic Maxim de Winter has fled England to Monte Carlo in order to elude painful memories of his recently deceased, much-beloved wife, the fabulously beautiful Rebecca; yet almost inexplicably he proposes marriage to the unglamourous paid companion. Following a honeymoon in Venice, the newlyweds return to Manderley, de Winter’s mansion. Here, the young bride confronts not only the memory of Rebecca-which seems to permeate the estate and to preoccupy and torment its owner-but also her morose husband and the forbidding Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper.”
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock with a screenplay by Robert Sherwood and Joan Harrison (who produced Alfred Hitchcock’s anthology suspense crime television show.) Adapted by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan from the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier. Music composed by Franz Waxman (Suspicion 1941, Sunset Boulevard 1950, A Place in the Sun 1951.) whose score at times sounds like a classic B horror film by RKO with its eerie organ tremolos.
Cinematography by George Barnes. (That Uncertain Feeling 1941, Ladies in Retirement 1941, Jane Eyre 1943, Spellbound 1945, Mourning Becomes Electra 1947, Force of Evil 1948, The File on Thelma Jordon 1950, War of the Worlds 1953). Art Department/Interior Design -Howard Bristol, Joseph B. Platt and Eric Stacey. Art director Lyle Wheeler. Film editor James Newcom. Supervising film editor Hal C. Kern. Interiors designed by Joseph B Platt. Fashions by Irene.
The lighting for Rebecca creates a forbidden sense of place. The shadows distinguish where the secrets lurk, with the Gothic architecture and repressed desire.
“She” is in the innocence of white and Mrs. Danvers is always advancing in black…
Rebecca (1940) is auteur Hitchcock’s Gothic style thriller that often delves into the realm of classical horror, ‘old dark house’ or haunting ghost story triggered by the remnants of a beautiful dead woman’s hold on an ancestral manor house and the new marriage brought home to thrive in it’s shadow. As scholar Tania Modleski writes Rebecca is a ‘presence’ which is never actually present. The character of Rebecca is symbolic of a subversive female desire, and Maxim de Winter who represents the patriarchal rule who is terrorized and bound by her presence though she cannot be seen, her power remains intact within the walls of Manderley.
There was tension and discord between director Hitchcock who wanted control over the project and producer David O. Selznick. Though Hitchcock is one of the directors who manages to shake off any solid labels on his work, Rebecca is considered his first film noir. It was Hitchcock’s first American/Hollywood film, although it exudes that distinctly British style from his earlier mysteries. The melancholy tone of Robert E. Sherwood and Hitchcock regular Joan Harrison’s screenplay captures Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 disquieting Gothic novel perfectly.
Behind the scenes of Rebecca 1940 Alfred Hitchcock and Judith Anderson photo by Fred Parrish
Rebeccastars Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as Mrs. de Winter, George Sanders as Jack Favell, Judith Anderson as the sinister chatelaine Mrs. Danvers Nigel Bruce as Major Giles Lacy, C. Aubrey Smith as Colonel Julyan Reginald Deny as Frank Crawley, Gladys Cooper as Beatrice Lacy, Philip Winter as Robert, Edward Fielding as Frith, Florence Bates (The Moon and Sixpence 1942, Whistle Stop 1946, Portrait of Jennie 1948, A Letter to Three Wives 1949, Les Miserables 1952) as Mrs Van Hopper, Leo G. Carroll as Dr. Baker
The master Hitchcock and cinematographer George Barnes know how to create a moody, atmospheric landscape of suspense. In Rebecca, Joan Fontaine is given the role of an innocent and painfully shy young heroine who remains nameless throughout the film, as she is in du Maurier’s novel. I read that there were early drafts of the original script where the heroine’s name was Daphne as in the writer, but obviously the decision to keep her without a given name. She meets the brooding aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter played almost too effortlessly by Laurence Olivier who is the master of Manderley. They marry and Maxim brings his new bride back to his ancestral home. At first she is clumsy and awkward trying to find her way around as mistress of the house. The second Mrs. de Winter is bewildered and haunted by the unseen presence of the first Mrs. de Winter, the uncanny and beautiful Rebecca, who has died in a boating accident a year before. Mrs. de Winter is psychically tortured by the sinister Mrs. Danvers who was Rebecca’s faithful and adoring servant played by the always imposing Judith Anderson, who bombards Joan Fontaine with memories and tactile possessions of the dead woman, whom we never see. She is truly a phantom that haunts the film, the narrative and our heroine.
Considered for the leading role in Rebeccawas Loretta Young, Margaret Sullivan, Anne Baxter and Vivien Leigh who was restricted by her role in Gone With the Wind 1939. Director Alfred Hitchcock won the Oscar for Best Picture his first and only Best Picture Oscar. George Barnes also won the Academy Award for his Cinematography. Judith Anderson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress as the menacing Mrs. Danvers, the only time in her career she was ever nominated.
Let’s not forget the other outstanding performance by Judith Anderson, that as Ann Treadwell in director Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece Laura (1944) a ruthless woman who recognizes her weakness is wanting to possess through her wealth, the younger womanizer Shelby Carpenter played by urbane Vincent Price. Anderson turns out a poignant performance of a woman you love to hate yet she makes you understand the dynamic behind her loneliness.
British Science Fiction/Thriller from writer/director Ken Hughes(Wicked as they Come 1956, The Trials of Oscar Wilde 1960, Cromwell 1970). From a story by Charles Eric Maine.
Stars actor/director Gene Nelson as Mike Delaney, Faith Domergue as Jill Rabowski, Peter Arne as Dr. Stephen Rayner/Jarvis, Joseph Tomelty as Detective Inspector Cleary, Donald Gray as Robert Maitland, Vic Perry as Emmanuel Vasquo, Paul Hardtmuth as Dr. Bressler, Martin Wyldek as Dr. Preston. The film is known as Timeslip in England, a mild British thriller using American stars to boost interest in the film, and was cut by almost seventeen minutes for it’s U.S. release!
A man (Peter Arne ) is fished out of the Thames, shot in the back, the x-rays show that he is radioactive and projects a glowing aura around his body. The man dies on the table and is clinically dead for over 7 seconds, when they perform surgery to remove the bullet. American reporter Mike Delaney (Gene Nelson) decides to interview the man who he bares a striking resemblance to Dr. Stephen Rayner is very cryptic about what happened to him. Dr. Rayner whose face is all bandaged up is however in his laboratory working on an artificial chemical element of atomic number 74, the hard steel-gray metal with a very high melting point. Delaney and photographer girlfriend Jill Rabowski (the intoxicatingley dark eyed Faith Domergue) are curious about what is going on and begin to investigate. While the strange man in the hospital continues to act mysterious Delaney’s investigation lead him to Emmanuel Vasquo (Vic Perry) who heads an organization in South America that produces Tungsten steel.
Delaney and Jilly learn that the man they found in the Thames is in fact the real Dr. Rayner, and since he was clinically dead for 7 1/2 seconds and is radioactive somehow he has fallen into a time shift where he is living that small percentage ahead of time. The reason his answers to questions are so quizzical is because he is responding 7 1/2 seconds before they are asked. Delaney with the help of the real Dr. Rayner try to stop the imposter in the lab who is a double hired by Vasquo to impersonate the scientist so they can blow up the lab and prevent any competition by Dr. Rayner to produce artificial steel and pose real competition from the South American suppliers.
Prepare for a close encounter of the terrifying kind! An unspeakable horror… Destroying… Terrifying!
After his debut with Monster From the Ocean Floor in 1954, The Beast with 1.000.000 Eyes was a great foray into the new market of teenage drive in movie goes that Roger Corman’sproduction team tapped into. First through the company called American Releasing Corp. which eventually became American International Pictures a year later.
James Nicholson, who was the maestro of promotion, changed the name of the film from The Unseen to The Beast with a Million Eyes, because it just had better shock value for selling more tickets. Nicholson was famous for coming up with the title first, telling the marketing department to design an eye popping nifty poster and then actually working a script around that vision. Though there was already a working script Nicholson had a poster made up with beast with a million… well about 7 eyes tormenting a scantily clad beauty.
Directed by David Kramarsky and Corman with a script by Tom Filer. This cult B classic stars Paul Birch as Allan Kelley, Lorna Thayer as Carol Kelley, Dona Cole as Sandra Kelley, Dick Sargent as Deputy Larry Brewster, Leonard Tarver as Him/Carl, Chester Conklin the silent film comedian plays Ben and Bruce Whitmore is The metaphorically million eyed Beast. The million eyes refers to all the animals in ‘nature’ that would run amok and destroy mankind!
The beastly slave of the alien is a hand puppet created by the cheesy greatness that was Paul Blaisdell. (link to my tribute The Tacky Magnetism of Paul Blaisdell)
Interesting side note: Corman needed someone to design the alien who originally was supposed to be an invisible force marauding through the galaxy hitching rides on various life forms and taking over their consciousness, like the animals in this film. In Bill Warren’s informative book Keep Watching the Skies, Corman contacted friend collector/historian Forrest Ackerman suggesting stop animation genius Ray Harryhausen (who obviously was way out of Corman’s league and price range) Warren-“Corman recoiled in economic in shock.” Then Forrest recommended Jacques Fresco a futuristic eco-conscious architect and designer who had created the space station and rockets for Project Moon Base (1953)
But Fresco wanted too much money for his work, so Ackerman came up with another idea. There was an illustrator who drew covers and did illustrations for his magazines, named Paul Blaisdell. It wasn’t like Blaisdell had the experience building movie models but the young guy did build model kits (the Aurora kind I used to spend the days gluing and painting) and did some sculpting. Blaisdell said he would try it for $200 for the job and another $200 for materials. Still more than Corman wanted to invest, it seemed the last resort if he wanted a creature in his film. Corman sent the poster to Blaisdell as a composite and informed him that it didn’t have to do much more than show itself on screen for a few moments, then collapse. Blaisdell could then make it on a small scale, using only the upper torso since the rest would be hidden by the ship’s hatch. And so he made a hand puppet which was a dragon like creature with wings he molded from clay and placed a simple latex mold over it. Paul’s wife Jackie modeled it’s hands. The Blaisdells nicknamed him “Little Hercules”
Blaisdell made him a leather jacket, a custom made eight-starred medallion and a toy gun, and finally added manacles and chains to its arms to point out his slave-status. According to Randy Palmer’s book, Paul Blaisdell: Monster Maker he was happy with his work, and so were the crew.
Corman and American Releasing Corp must have been satisfied enough with Blaisdell’s skill and his price, he went on to become the go to monster-maker for the studio during the 1950s. Including The busty She-Creature (1956), the cucumber alien in It Conquered the World (1956), The fanged umbrella bat in Not of This Earth (1957), The alcoholic google eyed brain invaders in Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), my personal favorite Tobanga the walking tree spirit in From Hell it Came 1957 and the alien stow away in It! The Terror from Beyond Space 1957 which inspired Ridley Scott’s Alien in (1979).
He also acted inside the suits he designed, created special effects and did his own dangerous stunts in Corman’s movies. However, the 60s were not kind to Blaisdell and he decided to retire. He did co-publish a monster movie magazine with fellow collector and friend Bob Burns, but walked away from the industry entirely. Blaisdell passed away in 1983 suffering from stomach cancer at the age of 55.
Roger Corman has a singular touch all his own and it’s not just that he can create cult classics with a shoe string budget. Though filmed on the cheap, his work and so many of American International Pictures releases will always be beloved because they possess a dynamism that is pure muddled non-logical magic. Beast with a Million Eyes is no exception. It takes place in the Southwestern desert where Allan Kelley (Paul Birch), his wife Carol (Lorna Thayer) and their daughter Sandy (Dona Cole) live on a dude ranch struggling to keep the weary family together. Carol feels isolated from the world and takes out her disastistaction with her marriage on her teenage daughter Sandy and resents the presence of the mute farmhand ‘Him’ who lives in a shack reading porn magazines and stalking Sandy quietly as she takes her daily dips in the lake. Trying to live a normal wholesome life on a desolate farm isn’t easy for Carol, as she burns Sandy’s birthday cake and is unnerved by the jet flying overhead that has shattered her good china. Life in the desert certainly isn’t the good life in suburbia.
They believe it is a plane that flies over head but it turns out to be an alien ship landed in the hot sun seared desert landscape. First Sandy’s dog Duke discovers the blinking lights of the spaceship, and when he returns home, he becomes violent and attacks Carol so viciously she must shoot the poor animal.
Then black birds attack Allan, a docile old milking cow tramples their neighbor Ben (Chester Conklin) then wanders onto Allan’s ranch and must be shot before it stomps Allan to death. And yes even chickens become menacing when they assail Carol in fury of clucking madness! Some force is causing the animals to go berserk… Later birds fly into the electrical box and cut off the ranch’s source of power.
Oddly enough what ever is effecting God’s simple creatures has also taken control of Allan’s mute handyman Carl (Leonard Tarver) who was Allan’s commanding officer during WWII, wounded during the war because of a mistake he made, Allan feels responsible for what Carl/Him losing a portion of his brain. Him is what his nasty wife calls the poor mute. Carl is lured by what ever has piloted the spaceship, most likely because he is most impressionable due to his brain injury . Dick Sargent(yes! the second Darrin Stephens) who plays Sandy’s boyfriend is attacked by Carl who then lumbers off into the desert.
Larry-“That Loony of yours has gone mad!”
Later Carl kidnaps Sandy and delivers her to the craft in an effort to put her under it’s psychic control. Allan and Carol follow them to the ship and Allan tries to persuade him to let Carol go. Allan discovers that the evil alien is frightened by love, it is the creature’s weakness. The million eyed alien imparts to us earthlings in voice-over that it has no material form but inhabits the minds of other living creatures, feeding off of them and controlling them. “Hate and malice are the keys to power in my world.” When the family confronts the intruder in its spaceship for a brief moment it materializes and then dies, the spaceship takes off leaving the bodiless creature behind in the form of a rat. The cycle of normal life resumes as an eagle (the representation of American strength and democracy) swoops down and carries the rat off with it. Allan philosophizes in his lugubrious manner “Why do men have souls? If I could answer that I’d be more than human.”
Carol Kelley: out there… all that wasteland and mountains. We might as well be on another planet. Oh, Alan without Sandy I don’t know what would happen to me. It’d be just you and me and… Him
[she sees Him looking at them]
Carol Kelley: . Always watching. Why doesn’t he ever go away on his day off? Always watching us. Heaven knows thinking what thoughts.
Allan Kelley: We’ve been over this before. You must know by now, he’s harmless.
According to American International Pictures head Samuel Z. Arkoff, Roger Corman‘s contract called for four films at a budget of $100,000 each. By the time it came to “The Beast with a Million Eyes,” the fourth film in the series, there was only $29,000 to $30,000 left, so Arkoff signed off on shooting the picture non-union in Palm Springs.
Producer Roger Corman was unsatisfied with the way the film was progressing and took over from director David Kramarsky, without credit.
When Samuel Z. Arkoff of ARC received The Beast with a Million Eyes he was unhappy that it did not even feature “the beast” that was implicit in the title. Paul Blaisdell, responsible for the film’s special effects, was hired to create a three-foot-tall spaceship (with “beast” alien) for a meager $200. Notably, the Art Director was Albert S. Ruddy, who would later win two “Best Picture” Academy Awards for The Godfather (1972) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).
The tiny budget meant music, credited to “John Bickford”, is actually a collection of public-domain record library cues by classical composers Richard Wagner, Dimitri Shostakovich, Giuseppe Verdi, Sergei Prokofiev, and others, used to defray the cost of an original score or copyrighted cues.
Untroubled good looks, faraway poise & self-control, with a sartyrial smile and brushed-aside sophistication – that’s Bradford Dillman
Bradford Dillman is one of those ubiquitous & versatile actors who you find popping up just about everywhere, and whenever I either see him in the credits or think about some of his performances, I am immediately happified by his presence in my mind and on screen. It’s this familiarity that signposts for me whatever upcoming diversion I’m in store for, will be something memorable indeed.
He’s been cast as a saint, a psychopath, elite ivy league intellectuals with an edge, unconventional scientists, military figures, droll and prickly individualists, clueless bureaucrats, or drunken malcontents and he’s got a sort of cool that is wholly appealing.
Bradford Dillman was omni-present starting out on the stage, and major motion pictures at the end of the 50s and by the 1960s he began his foray into popular episodic television series and appeared in a slew of unique made for television movies throughout the 1970s and 80s, with the addition of major motion picture releases through to the 90s. His work, intersecting many different genres from melodramas,historical dramas, thrillers, science fiction and horror.
There are a few actors of the 1960s & 70s decades that cause that same sense of blissed out flutters in my heart — that is of course if you’re as nostalgic about those days of classic cinema and television as I am. I get that feeling when I see actors like Stuart Whitman, Dean Stockwell, Roy Thinnes, Scott Marlow, Warren Oates, James Coburn, Lee Grant David Janssen, Michael Parks, Barbara Parkins, Joanna Pettet ,Joan Hackett , Sheree North, Diana Sands, Piper Laurie, Susan Oliver and Diane Baker. I have a fanciful worship for the actors who were busy working in those decades, who weren’t Hollywood starlets or male heart throbs yet they possessed a realness, likability, a certain individual knack and raw sex-appeal.
Bradford Dillman was born in San Francisco in 1930 to a prominent local family. During the war he was sent to The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut. At Hotchkiss, senior year he played Hamlet. At Yale he studied English Literature and performed in amateur theatrical productions and worked at the Playhouse in Connecticut. Dillman served in the US Marines in Korea (1951-1953) and made a pact that he’d give himself five years to succeed as an actor before he called it quits. Lucky for us, he didn’t wind up in finance the way he father wanted him to.
Dillman enrolled and studied at the Actors Studio, he spent several seasons apprenticing with the Sharon Connecticut Playhouse before making his professional acting debut in an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarecrow” in 1953 with fellow Studio students Eli Wallach and James Dean. Dillman referred to Dean as ‘a wacky kid’ but ‘very gifted’.
He only appeared in two shows in October 1962 of The Fun Couple in 1957 with Dyan Cannon and Jane Fonda before the play closed in New York only after two days.
We lost Bradford Dillman last year in January 2018. I was so saddened to hear the news. And I missed the chance to tribute his work then, but now that his birthday is here, I feel like celebrating his life rather than mourning his death, so it’s just as well.
Bradford Dillman wrote an autobiography called Are You Anybody? An Actor’s Life, published in 1997 with a (foreword by Suzy Parker) in which he downplays the prolific contribution he made to film and television and acting in general. Though Dillman didn’t always hold a high opinion of some of the work he was involved in, appearing in such a vast assortment of projects, he always came across as upbeat and invested in the role.
“Bradford Dillman sounded like a distinguished, phony, theatrical name, so I kept it.”
[about his career] “I’m not bitter, though. I’ve had a wonderful life. I married the most beautiful woman in the world. Together we raised six children, each remarkable in his or her own way and every one a responsible citizen. I was fortunate to work in a profession where I looked forward to going to work every day. I was rewarded with modest success. The work sent me to places all over the world I’d never been able to afford visiting otherwise. I keep busy and I’m happy. And there are a few good films out there that I might be remembered for.”
Jerry Mathers is an American Icon whose presence undoubtedly continues to contribute to our collective consciousness. Born on June 2, 1948 in Sioux City, Iowa, he started as a child model from the age of two, and that led to his television and show business career in live television in the early 1950s. Jerry first worked on the popular Spike Jones live show. Jones was an American musician and bandleader Spike Jones and his City Slickers whose signature concept The Musical Depreciation Revue was satirical arrangements of popular songs, loud and not-quite-jazz-music of the 50s featuring musical riffs punctuated with unconventional noises like gunshots, whistles, and outrageous farcical vocals. His drummer would use trash can lids as cymbals and the trumpet players would use toilet plungers as mutes. The slapstick gimmick was certain whimsical instrumentals would cue Spike to drop his pants revealing his very loud boxer shorts.
When Jerry Mathers was about 3 years old he would walk out on stage with a big sign and start pulling on Spike’s coat tails. The sign read ‘commercial’ to let him know that he had to take a break. Spike would chide him and shoo him away and then eventually go to the commercial. Working on the Spike Jones Show brought Jerry more work, because people saw that he could go out on stage with the irascible Jones and not get rattled.
Jerry’s Mathers’ first foray into television was his debut in 1950 for a Pet Milk commercial with Ed Wynn on the Colgate Comedy Hour. The set up: A huge bar room scene with cowboys fighting one and other and actor Ed Wynn tending bar. Jerry comes in through the swinging doors — amidst all the stuntmen brawling and breaking bottles over each other’s heads — in diapers, a ten gallon hat, six guns, and his big cowboy boots. One of the cowboys picks little Jerry up and sets him down on the bar where he pounds his little fist and utters his very first lines, “I’m the toughest hombre in these parts and you better have my brand” as Ed Wynn puts a can of Pet Condensed Milk on the bar! ( I wish there was an existing copy of this commercial )
Jerry as David Myer in This is My Love (1954) starring Linda Darnell
Jerry Mathers began to get cast in many early 1950s television programs, variety hours and early live dramatic shows. And in 1954, he made his film debut in This is My Love starring Linda Darnell and Dan Duryea.
Soon after appearing in a major motion picture his impish, precocious ways caught the eye of master director/storyteller Alfred Hitchcock who cast Jerry as Arnie Rogers for his mystery/comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955) starring John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine in her first role, and some of the best character actors– Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock and Edmund Gwenn. Next up at age 5 Jerry appeared with Bob Hope in two major motion pictures as Bryan Lincoln Foy, the black licorice lovin’ little rascal in The Seven Little Foys (1955) co-starring James Cagney and George Tobias. And he played the wonderful Norman Taylor in That Certain Feeling (1956) co-starring Eva Marie Saint, George Sanders and Pearl Bailey.
The Trouble with Harry official trailer:
Bob Hope was wonderful with Jerry Mathers in the hilarious scene with the cute little guy eating his black licorice both actors’ body comedy was spot on — Hope choreographed the scene brilliantly with Jerry. It was pure genius. Jerry’s tugging at Bob’s coat, kicking and screaming the whole way.
Bob Hope actually played a part in saving Jerry Mather’s life on the set of the vaudevillian biopic The Seven Little Foys. Back then they used candles to light the stage. Jerry was sitting up in the catwalk and the stuntman was supposed to put gasoline on the curtain so it would ignite and all the extras were supposed to panic and run out of the theater, with the stuntman dressed as Bob Hope climbing up and saving little Bryan Foy (Jerry Mathers) from the flames. Well, Jerry was sitting up on the catwalk when they accidentally put too much gasoline on the curtains, that caught fire. The extras who were supposed to be fleeing the theater saw all these flames and actually did panic, and the stuntman dressed as Bob Hope got pushed out the door and no one realized that Jerry was still up on the catwalk but Bob Hope.
Bob courageously threw a blanket over himself and ran through the flames, grabbed a ladder, and got Jerry out safely. In another interview Jerry said that he remembers the flames but it was also dripping like raining fire fragments because the cloth as it burned was dropping off. It must have been terrifying! So thanks to Bob Hope for saving Jerry’s life. They couldn’t even use the footage from the first fire. They had to re-shoot the entire scene all over again, because there was too much smoke and flames and they couldn’t see Bob Hope climb up and rescue Jerry so the very next day they had to do it all over again with A LOT less gasoline on the curtains. They didn’t even use a stuntman, they shot it with Bob Hope who went up and got Jerry but the scene was a lot more toned down.
I found a small clip from the film which includes the re-shot recreation of the fire at the Iroquois Theater — with a little less gasoline this time!– and Bob Hope climbing the ladder and not a stunt man as planned. Hope is not only a comic genius, but courageous!
Jerry talks about Bob Hope –
“He was really a fun person to work with. I did That Certain Feeling with him too and actually I did The Seven Little Foys first and I had a very small part in that and he liked me so much that in the next one in his next movie I had a very very big part and it was with Norman Panama and Melvin Frank who were some great writers if you go back and look at some of the things they’ve done and they both directed, I think they were writer/producers but because there were two directors we would do some scenes twenty and thirty times and the one would come over and say you do it this way and then they’d come back and say okay now do it this way and you just kept doing it so as a child it was I imagine now as an adult actor I would even think its tedious. It’s a great movie. And he always made it fun. You know we’d sit there and do this same scene and he just made it so much fun as I say most people know him by seeing him on stage and he was just fun loving and just a great person to work with.
…Bob Hope was always seen as this very lovable person but George Sanders in a lot of his movies played, not villains but he had kind of an edge to him so when I first met him it was actually kind of scary and the other person.”
Among the other cast members he was very taken with Pearl Bailey who sung to him in the film, he liked her very much and thought the world of her.
“She made the movie so much fun and her and Bob Hope used to clown around it was just so much fun to watch.”
Jerry Mathers in That Certain Feeling (1956)
Jerry Mathers in The Seven Little Foys (1955)
Other major motion pictures of the 1950s Jerry Mathers appeared in:
Men of the Fighting Lady (1954) and director Nicolas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) starring James Mason and Barbara Rush. The gritty and obscure film noir The Shadow on the Window (1957)starring Philip Carey, Betty Garrett and John Drew Barrymore. And The Deep Six (1958) starring Alan Ladd.
“Our generation is the first to have grown up with TV. I’m one of the first kids that they watched grow up on television.” –Jerry Mathers
It was the advent of television. TV was something new, and it was all live studio work. Jerry Mathers explains that while there were child stars in motion pictures, there weren’t really any television child actors, so they thought they could pool from child models who were used to being out on stage and could follow direction.
Heinz 57 was sponsoring and premiering a lot of television variety shows and pilots and after a year or more of languishing it was actually General Douglas MacArthur who was on the board of Remington-Rand (Typewriters) who decided to option the series. The pilot for the show was initially called It’s a Small World.
There was a cattle call for the pilot show where over 5000 young boys of varying ages turned up to audition for the part of both brothers and their friends. His mom wasn’t sure she wanted Jerry to do a series. After many weeks of showing up for the grueling audition schedule, Jerry started to get a bit tired of the process of sticking around, saying his lines, and being told to come back the next day as they weeded out the potential actors for the series. It came down to the last 10 kids and the day he was supposed to show up at the casting call, he had his first cub scout meeting, so he didn’t want to go. Writers Joe Connolly and Bob Mosher both had big families and were used to the machinations of children. They noticed that Jerry was acting pretty fidgety on the rehearsal stage. He agreed to go to the audition only after his mother fixed it so they could go to the audition and his cub scout meeting right afterwards, Jerry even wore his cub scout uniform to the audition.
It seemed like it took forever watching each kid to go in and run their lines. Finally he was called in. Young Jerry went inside, said his lines and came right out in a short period of time. His mom asked why he was done so quickly, he told her that they asked him if he wanted to be there and he said “no,” he’d rather go to his cub scout meeting. That night they called and said he’d gotten the job! They’d rather have a boy that wanted to go to a cub scout meeting rather than be an actor. The producers chose him because they wanted a boy who possessed the genuine spirit of a real little boy.
And of course Connolly and Mosher just loved young Jerry every time he showed up for each exhaustive part of the audition process. Jerry Mathers is the consummate professional. He began his career at age 2, he took direction well, learned his lines perfectly, and gained immeasurable experience in the early infancy of television with variety shows and dramatic live performances. He is such an extraordinary actor and a natural talent that he makes you believe he wasn’t following direction at all, and somehow he had manifested Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver as a very real character — a universally lovable little guy. And after listening to interviews and talking to the actor himself, he makes it clear that there was a little bit of himself in Beaver, and a bit of Beaver in Jerry Mathers. The skill involved makes you think that what you’re seeing is real, and that is an art. A lot goes into the process of creating, not only a believable and beloved iconic character, but a television series that will go on to last decade after decade. And as you will learn from my conversation with Jerry Mathers, that lovable little boy was very serious and focused on the craft of acting all while having the time of his life!
“You know, working isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. I wonder why older people do it so much?” —Beaver Cleaver
On Friday October 4th 1956, months after the pilot aired, Leave it to Beaver debuted on CBS and began a legacy of the magic and innocence of childhood. The iconic television sitcom Leave it to Beaver is about an inquisitive and often unsuspicious little lad whose misadventures within the world of his suburban middle-class life symbolized the idealization of the American family during post WWII.
The first sublimely marvelous episode ‘Beaver Gets Spelled’ introduces Beaver and Wally navigating the tricky mechanism of kid vs school and authority. It includes a scene where they feign taking their baths by running the tub, dampening towels and throwing in some turtle dirt so it leaves a ring. The next episode ‘Captain Jack’ which made television history by featuring the first toilet shown on TV. Beaver and Wally send away for a pet alligator from the back of a comic book. In the 1960s, I ordered all sorts of things as a kid, including a giant rubber fly, sea monkeys, and x-ray glasses! It’s a quirky entertaining episode with wonderful moments — for instance when Ward accuses Minerva the cleaning woman of getting drunk on the job when she says there’s an alligator in the basement sink. In 1997 ‘Captain Jack’ was ranked number 42 in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.
In 1957, radio, film and television writers/producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher conceptualized a television show that would feature the family life of an average suburban couple and their young children. Connelly and Mosher met in New York City while working on the radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, which they continued to be involved with after it moved to television in 1950. What set the show apart from other family sitcoms and domestic comedies of that time period like Ozzie & Harriet or Father Knows Best is that their show would be conveyed through the eyes of the children and not their parents, which introduced a new direction for a mainstream family genre, a series being told from the kid’s point of view. Leave It to Beaver is a thoughtfully lyrical insight of middle-class American boyhood.
Both Connolly and Mosher had kids of their own and actually got their inspiration for the characters, plot lines and dialogue from their own personal lives and conversations from their children. Most or all 234 episodes, 39 per year for 6 years, were taken from real life situations.
Joe Connolly collected stories in a notebook over the years with anecdotes based on things that really happened to family and friends, embellishing a bit along the way. “If we hire a writer we tell him not to make up situations, but to look into his own background. It’s not a ‘situation’ comedy where you have to create a situation for a particular effect. Our emphasis is on a natural story line.” -Joe Connolly
“The Haircut” episode, for example, is based on something that happened with Bob Mosher’s son who had to wear a stocking cap in a school play because he gave himself a terrible hair cut like the one Beaver gave himself with the help of brother Wally of course!
Even the name Beaver was inspired by a merchant marine friend of Joe Connolly’s during WWII. Both Connolly and Mosher became executive producers on the show having initially written all the earlier episodes. Later on they began accepting scripts from other writers.
The series cinematographers were Mack Stengler, who shot 122 episodes between 1958 and 1962, and William A. Sickner who worked on 37 episodes between 1957 and 1959, and later included Fred Mandl, and Ray Rennahan. The cinematographers often keenly lensed the series using angles that emphasized the world from Beaver, Wally and their mischievous friends’ perspective.
Director Norman Tokar, who had experience working with children, directed most of the episodes for the first three years and developed the characters of Eddie Haskell and Larry Mondello. Other directors involved in the series include Earl Bellamy, David Butler (who had worked with Shirley Temple), Bretaigne Windust, Gene Reynolds, and also Hugh Beaumont directed various episodes. Norman Abbott directed most of the episodes during the run of the last three years.
Leave it to Beaver is so memorable for us because it’s an allegorical journey of innocence and the magical world of childhood. Beaver is the ‘innocent’ while Wally is the ‘transitional’ character. Wally tries to explain to his brother what the world is really like, because he’s been out in the world longer. Beaver often looks to Wally for guidance as he tries to navigates the awkward and often perplexing situations he gets himself into.
Beaver grew up on the television screen, and we watched his trajectory of his adventures and life lessons through his perspective. The show shared the valuable and straightforward morals he learns about life, love, and friendship. And amidst all the shenanigans and mischief, Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver is a very loyal, caring and kind little fella. Leave it to Beaver has touched fans’ lives immeasurably at the core of our collective hearts.
Not only is Leave it to Beaver known as the first television show to reveal a toilet on air but quite a few scenes occurred in the boys bathroom. There’s even an episode where Beaver allows a bum to come in and take a bath getting all sudsed up in Ward and June’s bathroom. Then he takes one of Wards best suits! It’s a crazy bit of trivia but tubs and toilets were what the censors took notice of!
Jerry has mentioned in other interviews as well as in our conversation that the environment on the set was geared toward everyone involved feeling like a family, and making sure that the crew’s families felt welcomed and included. Writers Joe Connolly & Bob Mosher visualized the series with a very conscious aim at representing the idealization of the American family and the American Dream of the 1950s but somehow they managed to narrate finely drawn messages within the framework of the story lines. They even contributed to The Munsters which was a way to invert the average All-American ideal using an unconventional family of monsters to introduce not so subtly, the idea of ‘difference.’
Leave It to Beaver was filmed at Republic Studios in Studio City, Los Angeles during its earliest run of Season 1 and 2. Then the production moved to Universal Studios for the last four seasons of the show. All the exteriors, including the façades of the two Cleaver houses, were filmed on the both studio’s back lots.
One of the intros for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was done on the set of the Cleaver home. The studio went around looking for places and they decided on the Cleaver living room. If you know the design of the house, and all the furniture – notice the foyer and as Jerry Mathers says- “It’s probably a murder mystery – but they actually filmed on their set (Leaver it to Beaver) one day…”
One of the significant elements of the series was the musical theme song at the opening of Leave it to Beaver and it’s incidental music throughout. Each episode was accompanied by whimsical, evocative and poignant melodies that help elevate the story lines in moments that invoked either the adventurous spirit, the curious imagination, or tap into the bonds of affection and kindness. The opening spirited theme song “The Toy Parade” was written by David Kahn, Melvyn Leonard and Mort Greene. For the rest of the wall to wall incidental music CBS utilized stock music from their Television Orchestra library, suggestive of shows from that decade and early 1960s. There are expressive melodies used in Leave it to Beaver that can be heard in the studio’s other shows, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The final season showcased one of my favorite composers Pete Rugolo who scored many television series of the 1960s.
Essentially the typical set up for each episode of Leave it to Beaver places Beaver or Wally or both boys in situations where they get into some sort of mishap or predicament. First they try to noodle their way out of it somehow by covering up or avoiding the issue, eventually coming before his wise but not infallible mother and father June and Ward for his/their admonishment. Often June and Ward would discuss their own shortsightedness in handling the boys, ultimately admitting that they have a lot to learn as parents. This is part of what makes the show so earnest and endearing. And the affectionate and often humorous chemistry Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont share comes across as real as can be.
Frequently Ward tries to impart some kernel of wisdom referring to classical myths and literary characters as models for teaching the boys moral lessons about making good choices, and solving problems. Ward often idealizes his own childhood, forgetting the various ways boys can get in trouble. He gives the boys Tom Sawyer to read, forgetting that the book is full of Tom’s bad habits and delinquency. Applying the logic to their own lives, for example when Beaver fights with Larry, and Ward tells him the story of Damon and Pythias, and the boys make a friendship pact that at first backfires on Beaver when Larry takes advantage expecting him to ‘die even’ for him by giving him his math homework. Ultimately, Wards story gets through to Larry, and the boys learn a valuable lesson about integrity, loyalty and friendship.
One of the tenets of the show is emphasis on cleanliness and the importance of good grooming habits, manners, your appearance and caring for your personal belongings. Like not throwing your grubby socks under the bed or in contrast to June’s wishes that the boys take a bath, the two run the tub, dampen towels, and then throw some of Beaver’s turtle dirt in to create a ring.
While girls were still ‘creepy’, It’s a mischievous ruse that would eventually be left behind as Wally grew up and pampered and preened himself once he started to notice girls. Beaver’s awakening came a bit later, though he did have sweet crushes on Miss Canfield (Diane Brewster) and Miss Landers (Sue Randall), he wasn’t above coming up with great verbal scourges like telling Violet Rutherford “You do too drink gutter water” after she gives him a black eye and calling Linda Denison ‘a smelly old ape’ when the other kids accuse him of being her boyfriend.
And Leave it to Beaver dealt with issues that were pretty enlightened for it’s era. There was an episode that dealt sensitively with alcoholism as Beaver becomes aware of the issue within a very tender friendship with the house painter. There is a story line where one of June’s college friend’s son Dudley comes to spend time with the Cleavers. Wally is asked to befriend him and introduce him to his friends. Dudley is gentile and cultured, playing piano, and wearing an overcoat and fedora. He carries a briefcase to school which serves as fodder for Eddie Haskell to ridicule the young man for being an oddball. Dudley was an outsider, the idea of his difference was blaring and the show handled it to subtle perfection. It was a very interesting character as he represented a very ‘different’ sort of teenage boy.
There was also the episode that showed a Latino immigrant family whose little boy Chuey communicates with ease, without Beaver speaking Spanish embracing their new found friendship without prejudice, until Eddie Haskell injects his cruel joke laced with racism when Beaver asks Eddie to teach him a Spanish phrase to surprise Chuey with, Beaver innocently tells Chuey he has ‘a face like a pig’. Even the episode with Lillian Bronson as the local ‘witch’ who was really just an older woman living by herself in a spooky run down house was a lesson in not judging people by their appearance.
Then there was the episode that dealt with classism involving the Junkman’s kids. While June worries a bit that the boys will be playing in a dirty environment surrounded by garbage and rats and boys who might be rough around the edges — boys from the other side of town– she learns that there is understanding and alternate wisdom to be shared from unexpected places and it teaches her not to judge people by their station in life, as they share endearing observations about June and Ward that impress not only Beaver and Wally who have a new perspective on their parents seeing them “through the eyes of the Junkman’s kids.”
Leave it to Beaver in it’s own innocuous way even Introduced esoteric themes of the supernatural in a humorous fashion with the episode Voodoo Magic where Beaver believes he’s inflicted a curse on Eddie Haskell by sticking pins and nails in his Raggedy Andy doll. It’s one of my favorites of the series. Ward in his calm and sagely manner even teaches Beaver than you can beat a bully like Lumpy Rutherford by not becoming like him. But Ward learns his own lesson when he realizes that he sabotages Beaver’s self-confidence when he is disappointed that he’s only playing a yellow canary in the school revue and not a bald eagle. His underlying dismay at his son representation of masculinity by playing a whimpy bird sends Beaver into a panic on the night of the show.
And Beaver catches the capitalist fever in Water, Anyone? when the water main is shut off, and he gets inside information from the water department guys digging up the road. Beaver proceeds to try and sell his jugs of water from his wagon to the neighborhood, inciting one of the local housewives to call Ward up and invoke the word ‘communism’ in her rant. It’s another of my favorites. And there’s more than one episode that shows Beaver’s sensitivity and caring for all creatures great and small.
After hearing Miss Landers recite a poem about trees, he is so moved that he goes to rescue the tree given to him on his birthday a few years back, that is still rooted at his old house. Beaver digs it up with the help of Larry Mondello and sneaks it back to replant it at his new house. What might seem like simple childhood exploits, there is always a small shining gem of wisdom within the narrative.
Some people may assess the show as syrupy or fluffy but the show is way more nuanced about unconditional love, acceptance, tolerance, difference and embracing the vast untapped qualities revealed by a child’s flourishing imagination.
“Give the shrimp a paddle!”
Therefore the show shouldn’t be constrained by 1950s standard. Uncle Billy and Aunt Martha who is an elitist, were single adults with no experience raising children, Billy is painted as sort of the ‘black sheep’ on Ward’s side of the family, a braggart and exaggerator who travels and doesn’t have a stable lifestyle and June’s Aunt Martha doesn’t seem to be in touch with how to raise boys in a contemporary manner, dressing Beaver in short pants that lead to him getting into a brawl at school. Even Mrs. Mondello has to raise the problematic Larry as her husband is always out of town and rarely taking charge at home, leaving her to scramble for advice, often looking to Ward to help straighten out Larry when he gets into mischief.
Of course Eddie Haskell is an archetypal anti social troublemaker who is the counterbalance to Wally’s clean cut, always follow the rules kind of idealized All-American boy.
The series offers us drunks, bums, effete males, bullies, fat shaming, and the emotional subject of divorce. A friend of Beaver’s from camp Konig spends the weekend. He is bought off by gifts and cash to keep him placated while he’s left alone amidst a hostile divorce, where the parents remarry every other year. This episode features another fine child actor, Barry Gordon who was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Nick in A Thousand Clowns on Broadway revising the role in the film in 1965.
Jerry Mathers is both fortunate and burdened — he will be forever associated with an eternal boy in the mind of the collective American audience. He will be typecast forever in our imaginations as a part of the cultural iconography of nostalgia for believed better by gone days.
Beaver is an ‘every kid’ and each episode is filmed almost like a fable. There is a sweet alchemy that creates a world that feels comfortable and comforting amidst an early suburban enchantment that is gratifying. Beyond the nostalgia there is an incredibly nuanced sentiment within the series and the performances — clever morality plays which are veiled in the everyday adventures that wind up mattering a whole lot.
There’s just wonderful ‘time period’ aspects to the show that are steeped in nostalgia. And you’ll hear expressions like ‘creepy”rat’ ‘gosh’ ‘grubby’ ‘wise-guy’ and ‘A hunk of milk’ or a hunk of anything really. The worries were whether you washed your feet, not throwing your dirty socks under the bed, not losing your library book and not playing hooky from school!
Or you could be like Beaver, climbing into a giant steamy cup of billboard soup, ditching dancing class, spitting off a bridge, building a club house, camping out in the yard during a torrential downpour, selling perfume that smells like an old catchers mitt, getting a black eye from a girl, and sneaking an alligator into the house…
I’ll just mention a few predicaments Beaver gets himself into, especially with the help of his best friend Larry. Beaver lets Larry talk him into drilling a few holes in the garage wall, and after Ward tells him if he doesn’t pay attention to the rules, they’re going to have nothing but trouble between them. So Beaver tells him he’s running away so Ward never has to be troubled with him hanging around there — no more. Of course he gets as far as Larry Mondello’s dinner table with three desserts while June is frantic and Ward won’t bend… at first!
The boys are so late to school for the third time in one week when a truck crushes their lunch boxes that they play hooky and wind up on a television commercial at the local grocery store. One day the boys smoke from the Austrian Meerschaum pipe Mr. Rutherford sends the family – first they try just some coffee grinds then used cigarette butts Larry collects from last nights’ company–they both get sick, and Wally is the one who gets blamed for smoking. Beaver believes Larry who tells him that Mrs. Rayburn has a spanking machine in her office closet then gets himself locked inside the school that night and needs the fire department to get him out — making himself a ‘most conspicuous’ character. Then the very next day he gets his head stuck in the iron fence in the park, making himself yet again that’s right — ‘conspicuous’. I got my own head stuck in the wrought iron railing in our house when I was about his age. Let me assure you… It’s not fun!
“I refuse to be stereotyped. Look at me. Never mind my color. Please look at me!”
WHY ISN’T THERE A BIOPIC OF DIANA SANDS’ LIFE?
I can’t help being drawn to Diana Sands’ startling equilibrium, her fire. Her complex and multi-layered performances. I see her as a Black Woman. I see her as a woman. I see her as ubiquitous. Diana Sands refused to be typecast in roles that were confining and dishonest. I can imagine that she forged an inroad that would later influence incredible dramatic Black actresses like Alfre Woodard or Angela Bassett, women who exude that similar fire and vibrancy from the depths of their souls.
I think of Diana Sands and I think of an inner strength that burns it’s way to the surface until it’s so bright you feel it pierce your skin. There is an essence of a powerfully self-possessed woman who broke ground with her captivating performances in the early 1960s to the mid 1970s. I don’t like the phrase “color blind” it evokes an irresponsibility not to see inequality. But that is not what Diana Sands is saying in her quote. That’s not what she is asking of us.
So I am using her own words but want to be clear about how I feel in this post honoring one of the great actresses of all time during Black History Month. We need to recognize each other. It’s essential not to try and erase any aspect of who we are and we need to be conscious of those differences in a positive way, while we embrace what we all have in common and can relate to universally.
Diana Sands had to fend off the offensive scrutiny, the “mysogynoir‘ of being referred to by some 70s critics -one whose name I refuse to even give a moment’s attention here except to pluck out two terms from the ignorant context of his entire, misguided and disrespectful review. Who referred to her role as “cute” in terms of her being a Black woman trying to find herself and “afrocentric” in her performance as Beneatha Younger (A Raisin in the Sun). What she was, was a dynamic, courageous woman who aspired to become a doctor. That isn’t cute. That is the story of real passion and possibility and a god-given right.
Diana Sands as Beneatha Younger, seen here with Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier and Ivan Dixon.
As a white woman writing this post I want to just say one more thing. We need to see our own privilege and not be afraid to acknowledge that racism exists. I hope I am a good ally and when I pay tribute to a person of color, that I remain mindful to honor them fully and respectfully. I do see Diana Sands color. I see it as a strength and a dignity in all her pioneering roles. I see her emerge from a sea of white faces. She will not be marginalized, stereotyped and shut out of the conversation.
I began to follow Diana Sands’ career years ago, compelled by her dramatic, electrifying presence in film and in television. Growing up in New York, I wish my theatre mother would have taken me to see her on stage. She is remembered for her striking performance as Beneatha Younger in Lorraine Hansberry‘s play A Raisin in the Sun about the struggles of a poor black family from the side south of Chicago who have to decide about the direction their lives will take- “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”
What happens to a dream deferred? by Langston Hughes
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The title A Raisin in the Sun was inspired by Langston Hughes’ powerful poem. The inspirational masterpiece that is A Raisin in the Sun is made all the more remarkable by the performances of the ensemble cast and standing out for me, though Poitier always grabs me by the guts and strums my heart strings, is his progressive sister Beneatha brought to life by Diana Sands with instinctual contemplation that was her acting style.
She was marvelous as sassy Fanny Johnson, married to a Black activist Copee (Louis Gossett Jr.) in Hal Ashby’s (Harold and Maude 1971, The Last Detail 1973, Being There 1979) The Landlord 1970. The story of Elgar Enders a young wealthy white New Yorker (Beau Bridges) who buys a tenement building in a low-income neighborhood afflicted by white-flight and going through gentrification. Elgar Intends to evict the black residents so he can turn it into a luxury apartment building and live there all by himself. The cast is rich with superb performances by Pearl Baily, Mel Stewart, Lee Grant, Louis Gossett Jr, and Marki Bey as Lanie. In Ashby’s thought provoking method, it’s an interesting meditation on race during the close of the 1960s.
Diana appeared in innovative television dramas, such as the innovative socially conscious series East Side/West Side 1963-1964 that dealt realistically with social problems. The gritty series starred Cicely Tyson, George C. Scott, and Elizabeth Wilson as social workers in 1960s New York City. Sands appeared on several episodes of the 1960s series The Doctors and the Nurses which I am desperately waiting for it to somehow be released on disc. The groundbreaking series surrounded the lives of nurses who in their daily lives confront socially relevant issues. Diana Sands even graced one of my favorite television series The Outer Limits in 1964 as Dr. Julie Harrison in the episode “The Mice”. She also played Dr. Marylou Neeley who went head to head with Chad Everett (who always wore clogs and his scrubs 2 sized too small, but who would mind!) in Medical Center’s episode “The Nowhere Child”. She appeared as Nurse Helen Straughn having an affair with Richard Crenna in George Schaefer’s pulpy Doctors’ Wives 1971, and as Cora in Willie Dynamite 1974 the title played by Roscoe Orman, a nasty piece of work who has a license plate that says Willie on the front and Dynamite on the back! As Cora, Diana Sands played a prostitute turned social worker who helps other prostitutes get out of jail and find a better life, while also trying to battle the badass pimp Willie who is smacking women around.
I am trying to track down a copy of An Affair of the Skin 1963 co-starring Viveca Lindfors and Lee Grant, LOVE them both, and Georgia, Georgia 1972 written by Maya Angelou. If anyone has a lead on where I can purchase either film please drop me a note here at The Last Drive In.
Diana Sands Broke Barriers In Theater and On The Big Screen
“If youre familiar with Sands work at all, its probably owing to her memorable portrayal of Beneatha, the Younger familys willful, progressive aspiring doctor, in the 1961 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. But by then, she had already established herself as a living walking testament to the power of risk-taking. Sands grew up in the Bronx with working class parents, her father a carpenter, her mother hatmaker. After high school graduation, she toured with a carnival before returning to New York and joining Greenwich Mews, a multicultural theatre repertory. She worked night jobs to survive, before scoring her first theatre roles (one of the earliest was the stage production of A Raisin in the Sun). By 1964, her star was rapidly rising. She won an Obie for the play, Living Premise, and a Tony nomination for her role in James Baldwins Blues for Mr. Charlie.
This was also the year that Sands became a pioneer in colorblind casting as one of the first ever actresses to earn a role intended for a white actress, without any line rewriting to explain or accommodate her race. She played opposite Alan Alda as his love interest as a would-be actress to his would-be writer. When the film was adapted for screen, Barbra Streisand was cast in her role, but by that time, shed already garnered a great deal of positive press and audience notice. Television came a-courtin and she eventually earned two Emmy nominations. Sands acted through the sixties in various theatre and TV roles. In 1970, she scored her first costarring film role in Hal Ashbys The Landlord. But the early 70s would mark the end of a steady and promising rise toward superstardom.”
Diana Sands was born in New York City, the Bronx to be exact, on August 22, 1934. She was a student at the New York City High School for the Performing Arts and a member of the Actor’s Studio. Nominated twice for a Tony Award and twice for an Emmy. She took risks and challenged racial barriers taking on roles that traditionally would have been performed by white actresses. She also fought against a system that marginalized black actors and their roles, becoming a driving force that saw an integration of the cast members.
In 1953 Diana made her debut in the off-Broadway play “An Evening with Will Shakespeare” She went on to appear in George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara” in 1954, also performing in the theatrical production of “The World of Sholem Aleichem.”
Her striking work is notable as she is the first Black actress to be cast in a major Broadway play. Cast in “Land Beyond the River” in 1957 and then appearing in “The Egg and I” in 1958.
It was in 1959 that Diana Sands made her memorable debut as the astonishingly nuanced Beneatha Younger in Raisin in the Sun, in which she won the Outer Circle Critics’ Award, eventually manifesting that magnetic performance in director Daniel Petrie’s (Resurrection 1980) film adaptation co-starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Ivan Dixon.
And I want to give a shout out to the incredible contribution by fine actress Claudia McNeil(Bernice Sadie Brown in Member of the Wedding 1958for The Dupont Show of the Month, Mrs. Quincy in The Last Angry man 1959, Mrs. Hill in television series The Doctors and The Nurses 1963, Madam in There Was a Crooked Man 1970, Odessa Carter in Incident in San Francisco 1971 tv movie, Granny Marshall in Tv’s Mod Squad 1972, Sara in Moon of the Wolf 1972 tv movie, Mu’ Dear in Black Girl 1972, To Be Young, Gifted and Black 1972 tv movie, Ethel Hanson in Cry Panic 1974 tv movie, Big Ma in Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry 1978, Sister Will Ada Barnett in Roots: The Next Generation 1979) as the matriarch, Lena Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. An extraordinary actress herself who deserves the spotlight too. Partly what worked for Hansberry’s story is the chemistry and confluence of the entire cast.
Diana Sands returned to the stage in 1962 appearing in “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright.”
In 1964 she took on two outstanding roles onstage as Juanita in James Baldwin’s “Blues for Mr. Charlie” she was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a play. She co-starred with Alan Alda as Doris W. in the The Owl and the Pussycat, originally offered to Kim Stanley another actress I find mesmerizing to watch, when Stanley was unavailable, with the script intentionally not re-written for a Black woman went to Diana Sands and once again she nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
In 1968, she was back on stage at the Vivien Beaumont Theater as the first Black woman to play Saint Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s play “St. Joan.”
In the beginning of the 1970s Diana Sands among other notable Black actors such as Ossie Davis and Brock Peters, who wanted to feature more positive roles for African-Americans in films, and so they founded Third World Cinema. One of their first productions was the film Georgia, Georgia written by Maya Angelou. Diana Sands plays Georgia Martin a Black woman artist struggling to find herself.
From a New York Times article printed in Feb 1971, A.H. Weiler writes that Third World Cinema Corporation founder and President actor/director Ossie Davis planned on filming The Billie Holiday Story which would have starred Diana Sands. How incredible would that have been.
In hopes of creating an independent film corporation, Sands and her colleagues hoped to ensure that there would be better opportunities for positive portrayals of African-American and People of Color, that would ensure films that presented Black actors with outstanding roles that were versatile and representational rather than stereotypes and limiting. “A group of black and Puerto Rican actors, writers and directors, backed by union leaders and public officials, have joined to form the minority‐controlled Third World Cinema Corporation, an independent company that plans to produce feature films and train minority group members in the film and television fields.”
Above image from the movie, Georgia, Georgia 1972.
In 1974 Diana Sands was ready to take on the role of Claudine, tragically suffering at this point with pancreatic cancer she was too ill by this time, and the part went to friend Diahann Carroll.
As Beaneatha Younger in 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, as Adelaide Smith in Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright 1962 (Theatre World Award), The Living Premise 1963 (Obie Award Distinguished Performance), Doris W. The Owl and the Pussycat 1964, Juanita in Blues for Mr. Charlie 1964, The Premise 1965, as Ruth in We Bombed in New Haven 1968, as Cassandra in Tiger at the Gates 1968, as Joan in Saint Joan 1968, The Gingham Dog 1969.
As Dr. Julie Harrison in The Outer Limits “The Mice” 1964, in East Side/West Side 1963-1964 as Jane Foster “It’s War, Man and Ruth Goodwin in “Who Do You Kill?” As Sara Harris in Breaking Point 1964. As nurse Ollie Sutton three episodes of The Doctors and The Nurses 1962-1964 and Andrea Jagger in the episode “Night Shift”. In four episodes as Irene Rush along side James Earl Jones (whose wife she played in East Side/West Side episode Who Do You Kill?) In Dr. Kildare 1964, as Dr. Rachel Albert in I Spy 1966 “Turkish Delight”, as Davala Unawa in The Fugitive 1967 “Dossier on a Diplomat” as as Mrs. May Bishop in Bracken’s World 1970 “Will Freddie’s Real Father Please Stand Up” as Cousin Sara in 5 episodes of Julia 1970-1971, as Dr. Marylou Neeley in Medical Center 1971 “The Nowhere Child.”
As Nurse Ollie Sutton from the episode “Imperfect Prodigy” – The Doctors and The Nurses 1964 television series
As Ruth Goodwin in the episode “Who Do You Kill?” from the television series East Side/West Side 1963
As Davala Unawa in The Fugitive 1967 “Dossier on a Diplomat
As Dr. Julie Harrison in The Outer Limits episode “The Mice” 1964
As Irene Rush in Dr. Kildare “The Hand that Heals” 1966
As Dr. Marylou Neeley in Medical Center 1971 “The Nowhere Child.”
As Fanny in Hal Ashby’s The Landlord 1970
As Helen in Doctors’ Wives 1971
As Cora Williams in Willie Dynamite 1974
Appearing in two extraordinary films, Diana Sands still stood out…
Uncredited as a homeless woman in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd 1957, uncredited as a club hostess in Odds Against Tomorrow 1959, as Beneatha Younger in A Raisin in the Sun 1961, as Janice in An Affair of the Skin 1963, as Mila in Ensign Pulver 1964, as Fanny in The Landlord 1970, Helen Straughn in Doctors’ Wives 1971, as Georgia Martin in Georgia, Georgia1972, as Nancy Newman in The Living End (tv movie) 1972, as Cora Williams who co-stars with Thalmus Rasulala (Dr. Gordon Thomas in Blacula 1972) in Willie Dynamite 1974 and as Laura Lewis in Honeybaby, Honeybaby 1974.
Thank you Diana Sands… You touch me with your powerful presence and I am deeply saddened that you left us at age 39, so young, too soon, and I wonder what might have been.
Dr. T.S. Clitterhouse-“The greatest crime of all!”‘Rocks’ Valentine-“What’s that?”Dr. T.S.Clitterhouse–“Why, Homicide naturally.”
Directed by Anatole Litvak (The Sisters 1938, Confessions of a Nazi Spy 1939, Out of the Fog 1941, Blues in the Night 1941, Snake Pit 1948, Sorry, Wrong Number 1948, The Night of the Generals 1967) With a screenplay co-written by John Huston and John Huxley. Based on the play by Barré Lyndon – Music by Max Steiner who lends a dark and dramatic flourish to the sinister & mordant essence of the narrative.
Cinematography by Tony Gaudio (The Mask of Fu Manchu 1932, Lady Killer 1933, The Man With Two Faces 1934, Bordertown 1935, The Story of Louis Pasteur 1936, The Life of Emile Zola 1937, The Sisters 1938, Brother Orchid 1940, The Letter 1940, High Sierra 1941, The Man Who Came to Dinner 1942, Larceny, Inc. 1942, Experiment Perilous 1944, Love From a Stranger 1947)
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse converges into several genres–black comedy with deadly dark overtones, crime drama, the gangster movie, suspense & psychological noir with classical horror elements evidenced by the duality of the schizophrenic hero.
Though absurd it’s an enjoyable Litvak’s direction, Huston’s screenplay and Gaudio’s arousing photography make it an enjoyable film to watch.
While watching Litvak’s film again, it suddenly hit me (smack between my green eyes) there is one significant trope that stood out so obvious, so clearly to me. Strange that I hadn’t realized it during my first viewing.
Dr. Clitterhouse is an archetypal Jekyll & Hyde figure, using his immersion into criminal activity rather than a smoky elixir to drink down his uneasy gullet, that would normally transform his outer appearance into a fiend, Clitterhouse still becomes transfigured as a criminal and a murderer by and because of his endeavors.
The story raises the question of the duality inherent in the protagonist J.T. Clitterhouse, where it is possible to tap into the dark side, the doctor diverges into a classical medical/science horror with personality traits being tainted by the evil/immoral tendencies that people are capable of. When exploring immoral activities that can ‘change a man’s personality’ there is always a fatalistic inevitability. The disambiguation of the situation-there are no horror props, no mysterious mad scientifically developed drug inducement– it is the single act, desire and curiosity of a scientist seeking answers concerning the criminal mind that literally subsumes the nature of the personality examining the questions. i.e. Dr. Clitterhouse becomes not a monster, but a criminal and ultimately a murderer.
Clitterhouse is seduced by the excitement he experiences, and embraces the darker side of himself without the use of a scientific ‘horror’ concoction. While presented as a gangster film, its conceptualization of medical/science experimentation on vicious human nature, aberrations in psychology and the criminal mind elucidates the clear philosophical themes of classical medical-science horror.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) written by Barré Lyndon stars Edward G. Robinson as a phony mentalist haunted by greed and a sense of impending doom. Co-stars Gail Russell and John Lund.
Film genres’ lines were often blurred in the 1930s & 1940s, in particular a few of Edward G. Robsinson and Humphrey Bogart’s films which intersected with crime, noir and horror narratives. In particular director Delmer Daves frightening The Red House (1947) and director Julien Duvivier’s Flesh and Fantasy (1943) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes 1948 starring Edward G. Robinson.
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy 1950, My Name is Julia Ross 1945 , So Dark the Night 1946) Screenplay by Philip Jordan, Director of photography John Alton who’s haunting chiaroscuro and noir figures in silhouette fill out the landscape of entrapment, corruption and decadence.
From Film Noir: Reflections in a Dark Mirror by Bruce Crowthers
In The Big Combo (1955)“Alton’s dazzling black and white photography starkly counterpoints the film’s perverse sexuality which constantly strains against the limitations of the Hollywood code. Whether exploring the sado-masochistic violence of the hoodlums, two of whom, Fante and Mingo are clearly homosexual or the psycho-sexual domination wielded by gang boss, Brown over the young woman from the right side of the tracks, the scripts and the director’s needs are continually and effectively fulfilled by Alton’s camera.”
Stars Cornel Wildeas Leonard Diamond, Jean Wallace(Jigsaw 1949, The Man on the Eiffel Tower 1950, Storm Fear 1955) as Susan Lowell, Brian Donlevy (The Glass Key 1942, Impact 1949, The Quatermass Xperiment 1955, A Cry in the Night 1956) as McClure, Richard Conte (The Blue Gardenia 1943, Cry of the City 1948, Thieves’ Highway 1949, Whirlpool 1949, Oceans 11 (1960), Tony Rome 1967, Lady in Cement 1968) as Mr. Brown, Lee Van Cleef as Fante and Earl Holliman as Mingo, Robert Middleton as Peterson, Helen Walker as Alicia, Jay Adleras Sam Hill, John Hoytas Dreyer, Ted De Corsia as Bettini, Helene Stanton as Rita
Joseph H. Lewis from Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia by Wheeler Winston Dixon-
Lewis abandoned westerns and began a “frenzied round of freelancing that took him from Poverty Row to the majors, with such films as the disquieting horror Universal film The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942) and the astonishing Secrets of a Coed aka The Silent Witness 1942 for PRC.”
The Big Combo is considered a ‘syndicate’ film noir, where a mob organization is running the urban landscape, in which the organization is ‘all’ but with a difference. According to writer/historian Wheeler Winston Dixon, director Lewis was an “eccentric and he depicts a universe that is as out of kilter as his often imbalanced camera set-ups; the camera sweeps in on the protagonists in their most intimate moments, frames them as silhouettes in wide shots that effectively use fog and a few shadows to disguise the fact that seem to entrap his characters in even tighter compositions.”
At the police station, booked on a phony charge just to harass Brown. Joe McClure-“Mr. Brown is a very reasonable man. You don’t know him.” Leonard Diamond “Oh, is he? Well I’m not. I intend to make life very difficult for you Mr. Brown.”
Joe McClure-“You shouldn’t talk like that, Lieutenant. You’re overstepping your authority.” Mr. Brown-“Joe, the man has reason to hate me. His salary is $96.50 a week. The busboys in my hotel make better money than that. Don’t you see, Joe? He’s a righteous man.”
From FILM NOIR: THE DARK SIDE OF THE SCREEN BY FOSTER HIRSCH
“One of the eroding factors in the fifties thrillers surfaced in such films as the Big Combo and The Phenix City Story where crime no longer springs from the aberrant individual but is instead a corporate enterprise, run like a business. (Or like Murder Inc.) This view of crime is widespread, almost communal undertaking, counters the traditional noir interest in the isolated criminal whose actions are controlled not by an impersonal conglomerate but by a complex interweaving of character and fate.” Hirsch also points out that it represents another level of decadence.
From The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller-“This gray area between old-school hoodlum and the new “organization man” was fertile turf for noir fables…)… in The Big Combo the gangster picture is distilled into a sexual battle between the saturnine, sensual Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) and dogged but frustrated flatfoot Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) Both men covet the appetizing Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace), whom Diamond has been stalking for months as part of his investigation of Brown’s illegal Combination.”
I have read that chiaroscuro is director Lewis’ domain and that he also liked to use icy blondes the way Alfred Hitchcock did. In Gun Crazy (1950) Lewis had Peggy Cummins, and in The Big Combo it is Jean Wallace, yet Lewis’ women are more overtly ‘sex-kittenish than high class blonde.- From Film Noir: An Encyclopedia Reference to the American Style by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward
Cornel Wilde does a blunt job playing a righteous cop, Leonard Diamond who will do anything to take down Mr. Brown who represents everything he detests in the world.
“I know his name. The name of a man who will pick up a phone and call Chicago and New Orleans and say “Hey Bill, Joe is coming down for the weekend. Advance him fifty thousand,” and he hangs up the phone and the money’s advanced, protection money. A new all night bar opens, with gambling outside city limits. A bunch of high school kids come in for a good time. They get loaded, they get irresponsible, they lose their shirts. Then they get a gun, cause they’re worried, they want to make up their losses. And a filling station attendant is dead with a bullet in his liver. I have to see four kids on trial for first degree murder. Look at it. First degree murder, because a certain Mr. Brown picked up a phone.”
Robert Middleton who happens to be one of my favorite underrated character actors plays Diamond’s boss, Police Lt.Peterson, who’s trying to convince Diamond not to pursue Brown through his girlfriend Susan Lowell and realizes that after tailing her for months, Diamond might have developed feelings for her. “You’re a cop, Leonard. There’s 17,000 laws on the books to be enforced. You haven’t got time to reform wayward girls. She’s been with Brown three and a half years. That’s a lot of days… and nights.”
Richard Conte is particularly more brutal as Mr. Brown than in some of his other portrayals of the embodiment of the crime aesthetic, possessing the essential flair of the well heeled mobster. The Big Combois one of the most bleak and perverse of all the mid 1950s film noirs. The pace of the film leaves us hanging in a world of perpetual threat and vexation.
Richard Conte infuses the role of Mr. Brown with an unusual intensity even for the enduring tough-guy Conte as he plays a ruthless mob boss who practically holding a society girl Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) hostage by their odd attraction for each other. Susan has left a budding career as a pianist to be a trophy in Brown’s collections, seduced by his control, and the money he lavishes on her, yet ambivalent about her self-loathing and her attraction to his perverse power over her body and their sexual relationship. In a potent scene he takes Susan in a secret room in her apartment filled with a hidden stash of money and ammunition. Brown to Susan- “This is my bank… we don’t take checks, we deal strictly in cash. There isn’t anybody I’d trust with so much temptation–except myself. Or maybe you.”
Mr. Brown- “Where’d you get that outfit?”Susan Lowell “What’s wrong with it?”Mr. Brown-“I like you better in white. You’ve got a dozen white dresses. Why don’t you wear them? “ Susan Lowell-“White doesn’t please me anymore.” Mr. Brown –“A woman dresses for a man. You dress for me. Go put on something white!”
Brown employs his two exploitable goons Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) to stay close to Susan and watch her every move, acting as unwanted bodyguards.
Brown’s far-flung organization is under attack by the overzealous hard-boiled detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) who is determined to bring Brown to justice. All of Mr. Brown’s associates are figures marginalized by society in some way, all defined by their ‘difference.’ Brown gets his kicks pointing out what everyone else around him lacks while he pats himself on the back like a sadistic narcissist.
The film opens with Susan fleeing a boxing match, pursued by Mr. Brown’s two hired muscle heads, through dark alleys until she is finally caught by Brown, which only symbolizes his sexual dominance over her.
“It was for her I began to work my way up. All I had was guts. I traded them for money and influence. I get respect from everybody but her…”- Mr. Brown
Brown is so fixated on displays of dominance and strength that he fires his boxer after he loses his bout. First he uses the opportunity to belittle his deputy McClure (Brian Donlevy) in front of the young boxer then he smacks Benny across his swollen bloody face waiting for his retaliation, but when it’s obvious the boy won’t hit him back, he cuts him loose.
Brown talking to Benny after the bout- “So you lost. Next time you’ll win. I’ll show you how. Take a look at Joe McClure here. He used to be my boss, now I’m his. What’s the difference between me and him? We breathe the same air, sleep in the same hotel. He used to own it!”
[yelling into McClure’s sound magnifier that is in his ear]
“We eat the same steak, drink the same bourbon. Look–same manicure, cuff-links. But we don’t get the same girls. Why? Because women know the difference. They got instinct. First is first and second is nobody… Now, Benny, who runs the world? Do you have any idea?” Bennie Smith “Not me, Mr. Brown.” Mr. Brown “That’s right, not you, but a funny thing, they’re not so much different from you, but they’ve got something. They’ve got it, and they use it. I’ve got it;[pointing to McClure] he hasn’t. What is it, Benny? What makes the difference…? Hate! Hate is the word, Benny! Hate the man that tries to beat you. Kill ’em, Benny! Kill ’em! Hate him till you see red, and you’ll come out winning the big money, and the girls will come tumblin’ after. You’ll have to shut off the phone and lock the door to get a night’s rest.”
Brown lectures Benny- “You should have hit me back. You haven’t got the hate. Tear up Benny’s contract. He’s no good to me anymore.”
Brown cuts his fighter-Benny loose, telling him he just doesn’t have the killer instinct he needs. Brown is a narcissistic bully whose smooth philosophical meanderings taunt the people who work for him, women and even the cop who is right on his heels.
Brown’s two brawny side-kicks Fante and Mingo are obviously homosexual lovers, who thrive on violence as an enhancement to their sexual arousal like foreplay. Brown’s former boss, the weakened and inadequate McClure must rely on a clunky portable radio sized hearing aid in order to keep up with the gang’s activities.
Lt. Diamond goes after the psychotic megalomaniac Mr. Brown trying to shut down his crime organization. There is conflict already within the organization as Brown is demeaning to McClure and verbally bates him constantly with put downs, to try and get a rise out of him. McClure wants to get rid of Brown all together and take over as head of the mob once again, but in the end he is too impotent, to smack down Brown’s power.
Brown has a prized possession —his beautiful blonde girlfriend Susan who is watched over every minute of the day by his two thugs Fante and Mingo. When Susan finally has a breakdown and overdoses on sleeping pills as a way out, she finally asks Diamond for help.
First Diamond wants to expose Brown’s criminal organization and secondly it would give him great satisfaction to take Susan away from Brown, as he also has developed feelings for her.
When Diamond harasses Brown by arresting him on false charges just to bring him into the station –he goes on a mission to persecute Brown, who retaliates as his credo is “First is first and second is nobody” Brown puts a contract out on Diamond, who is then kidnapped by his two vicious flunky’s Fante and Mingo who are in a surreptitious relationship, with each other Mingo showing his sexual attraction and love for Fante in a rather covert yet palpable way. Though toward the end, while they’re hiding out, he does make mention that he’s sick of Salami. A thought, make of it what you will!
In a shocking scene Fante and Mingo torture Diamond, it is particularly brutal and vicious as they use McClure’s hearing aid turned up to full volume amplifying sound to the point it could blow his ear drums out. The pain on Diamond’s face is tangible. Then they begin pouring alcohol down his throat poisoning him, leaving him to appear as if he’s been off on a bender, thank god his boss Peterson (Robert Middleton) is there to help Diamond recover.
Mr. Brown-“I think Mr. Diamond needs a drink. Got any liquor?” Fante-” How about some paint thinner?” Mr. Brown-“No, that’ll kill him. Anything else?” Fante- “Hair tonic, 40% alcohol.” Mr.Brown-“Fine.”
Once he recovers from his torture, Diamond is even more determined to bring Brown down. Diamond starts to put the pieces together and find clues that point to Brown’s involvement in the murder of a racket boss who disappeared a while ago, and whose place he took over in the organization. He discovers some of Brown’s old associates, Dreyer (John Hoyt) an Austrian who runs an antique and import business and Bettini (Ted De Corsia)a nice Italian man who owned a pizza parlor in the city and is now hiding out, fearing for his life.
Fante and Mingo go to Diamond’s hotel room intending to kill him, and wind up murdering his sometime lover night club singer Rita who went there to surprise him with a date, but becomes an unfortunate casualty being at the right place at the wrong time she is caught in the fray. Even Rita had laid things out for Diamond about the reasons why Susan would stay with a creep like Brown- “Women don’t care how a man makes his living, only how he makes love.”
After Diamond finds Rita’s body gunned down in his apartment- “She came to see me in her best shoes!” I treated her like a pair of gloves. I was cold… I called her up.”
Brown tries to school Diamond in the ways of the world, “You’d like to be me… You’d like to have my organization, my influence, my fix. You think it’s the money. It’s not–it’s personality. You haven’t got it. You’re a cop. Slow. Steady. Intelligent. With a bad temper and a gun under your arm. With a big yen for a girl you can’t have. First is first and second is nobody.
Brown- “You’re a little man with a soft job and good pay. Stop thinking about what might have been and who knows–you may live to die in bed.”
Brown starts to get paranoid and panicky, getting rid of McClure who is a weak link in the mob, and then his two henchmen who know too much about his double dealings and can be linked to McClure’s murder. Adding to Brown’s worries, his ex-wife Alicia (Helen Walker) comes back into the picture after hiding out in a sanitarium aiding Diamond in Brown’s capture. Ultimately leading to a showdown at an airplane hangar where Diamond corners Brown. Alicia “I’d rather be insane and alive, than sane… and dead.”
When McClure tries to double-cross Brown by using his own thugs against him, Fante and Mingo pretend to go along and wind up turning their machine guns on him instead, while Brown sardonically watches grinning like the sadist he is. With a flair of evil embellishment Brown walks over to McClure who has two machine guns trained on him, and takes out his hearing aid. Brown-“I‘m gonna give you a break. I’m gonna fix it, so you don’t hear the bullets.” It is a stunning scene we are watching from McClure’s perspective the flashing lights and smokey tendrils from the gun fire happen at us, but it is all done in eerie quiet and darkness. We are experiencing the frightening moment when he is shot to death. We become McClure at that moment.
Later Brown wants to dispose of his two thugs so there is no evidence of murder, he hands them a package while they are hiding out in an old building in the basement that used to be a speakeasy, They think the package is filled with food, guns and their share of the money they heisted from the bank, but it’s filled with dynamite. As the two men are blown up, leaving Mingo alive for a brief moment just enough to give a death bed confession to exact revenge for his lover’s death and point the finger at Brown.
Richard Conte is icily ruthless as the film’s antagonist, Mr. Brown who is not known by any other name, signifying an enigmatic symbolism for abject violence and immorality. As Dickos states “his imaginative brutality, Lewis bridges violence to the audience’s darker, vicarious desire to see pain inflicted on the screen”
There is a sense of noir fatalism and an underlying current of deviant and provocative sexual appetite within The Big Combo. Much of the violence is influence by a strong element of sadism. The relationship between Susan and Brown is structured by fatalism, as she is sullen and submissive to his neurotic controlling fixation, while she wants to escape she shows no strength or determination other than to give in to it. Brown is obsessed with Susan as an object, preoccupied with her body. This is illustrated in one scene where he devours her with studied kisses, he worships her ,objectifies her with salacious flattery in a way that perversely brings her to ecstasy. It might be this odd sexual attraction to Brown that keeps her passive to his controlling behavior toward her.
From Film Noir Encyclopedia: Edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward “The Homosexuality of Mingo and Fante is smothered in an atmosphere of murder and sadistic torture , as they refine the conventions of violence into a sexual ritual. Joseph H. Lewis’s direction strongly points to a crude sexual bias throughout the film. Even Diamond appears to be sexually frustrated and compensating for impotence. Much in the same way as Lewis’s classic Gun Crazy, there is an affinity between sex and violence.; and the exploration of futility presents an ambience strangely reminiscent of an earlier period of noir films, such as Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window. These attitude combine with John Alton’s photography to create a wholly defined film noir, as striking contrasts between the black and white photography and Lewis’s sexual overtones isolate The Big Combo’s characters in a dark, insular universe of unspoken repression and graphic violence.” -Carl Macek
From Street With No Name by Andrew Dickos
“The Homoerotic violence in the Mingo-Fante relationship, unencumbered by misguided sociological sentiments, is still stereotyped psycho-sexuality —offensive enough on another score—but it is raw and consistent with the noir world. The privilege of noir cinema, as distinguished from other genres, lies in the latitude these films were permitted in exploring sexual power and its ambiguity, and the reason is apparent; as the cautionary cinema of the great negation of a “healthy’ puritanical American vision, the film noir almost mandates a depiction, however perverse, of those repressed impulses reigning hand-in hand with the anarchy that drives its protagonists to violence and paranoia. Unrepressed sexuality alongside these characteristics is far too messy to contain, so it must be vanquished. When it is particularly threatening, one may be sure that there is a woman involved.”
Lewis’s The Big Combo- “where it becomes almost pornographic to see Susan Lowell hopelessly submit to what is surely suggested to be an act of oral sex performed by her crime-lord boyfriend, Mr. Brown. But Lewis is no pornographer, he is a sensualist in the most serious way. No other works in American film until the 1960s broached the acknowledgment of these carnal hungers as a life-enhancing dimension of dangerous living—indeed, in living a short, intense life unto quick death.”
Both Lewis’ film noir masterpieces Gun Crazy and The Big Combo are sexually defined by the discursive violence of the external world—so much a corollary for the violence of passion that Lewis and screenwriter Philip Jordan can barely mask the story of The Big Combo as merely another sensational example of the extend to which organized crime corrupted postwar American Life.
Your EverLovin’ Joey saying there’s an underlying current of shadows and light here at The Last Drive In, but no worries, you got what it takes to stick around -no need to turn up the volume for you to hear how much I appreciate you all!
Your EverLovin’ Joey saying The Last Drive In is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge!