Turner Classic Movies ran a mini-marathon of some of the films directed by B-movie icon Phil Karlson, a woefully neglected director who specialized in gritty film noir pieces like Kansas City Confidential (1952) and 99 River Street (1953) as well as budget oaters like They Rode West (1954) and Gunman’s Walk (1958). I managed to make time for all four entries showcased last night, with the exception of The Brothers Rico (1957) which I recorded to watch later. As always, there are some spoilers dropped hither and yon, so be forewarned.
Scandal Sheet (1952) – Broderick Crawford is Harry Brock, a man…um, sorry about that—it’s just that in every movie Crawford made after Born Yesterday (1950) he seemed to channel the irascible junkyard tycoon who is outwitted by “dumb blonde” Judy Holliday, regardless of what the character’s name was. All seriousness aside, he’s newspaper editor Mark Chapman in this one—a ruthless martinet who’s responsible for transforming a once respectable New York paper into a tawdry tabloid (any resemblance to a certain media mogul with an Australian accent is purely coincidental) that panders to the ever-present lowest common denominator of the population…and sells more newspapers in the bargain. He’s admired by a slightly unscrupulous reporter named Steve McCleary (John Derek, who played Crawford’s son in All the King’s Men ) and despised by McCleary’s girlfriend, Julie Allison (Donna Reed), who also works at the paper as a columnist. The paper’s latest wallow into exploiting human misery concerns a “lonely hearts dance” sponsored by the publication; Chapman is hoping to get couples together in holy matrimony and make the most of their couplings. But at this dance, he’s recognized by a woman (Rosemary DeCamp) named Charlotte Grant—who knows a dirty little secret about Chapman: his real identity is George Grant, and as his abandoned wife she should know. She threatens to publicly expose Chapman, and in the midst of a lovers’ “tiff” he throws her up against a water pipe…causing her to hit her head and…well, let’s just say Rosie won’t be answering any more phones for Dr. Christian anytime soon.
McCreary is quick to follow up on the story and finds a clue on the deceased woman’s dress that he conceals from the gendarmes: the remnants of a name tag the “lonely hearts” contestants wore at the dance that night. Chapman’s no fool; he knows the story will sell papers but at the same time he fears being revealed as the killer. He even goes so far as to fix a drunken, washed-up reporter named Charlie Barnes (Henry O’Neill) so he won’t be answering any phones either when he learns that Barnes has found a photograph identifying the dead woman’s husband (him). As McCreary and Julie continue to track down leads, Chapman begins to sweat like Edmond O’Brien on a good day—and the suspense builds to a palpable climax as the noose tightens around Chapman’s neck.
Sheet was adapted by scribes Ted Sherdeman, Eugene Ling and James Poe into a screenplay based on a novel entitled The Dark Page…which was written by future director-producer-screenwriter Sam Fuller. (This is the book that the Private Zab character, based on Fuller himself, boasts about writing in The Big Red One .) It’s got Fuller’s stamp all over it, even though the film also shares similarities with The Big Clock (1948; powerful publisher Charles Laughton kills his mistress and sets up ace reporter Ray Milland to take the rap) and Deadline – U.S.A. (1952; Humphrey Bogart is the editor of a revered newspaper forced to go commercial). Crawford is appropriately blustery here (I like Brod, but he could be awfully one-note at times), and Derek and Reed make a cute couple but the best performances come from DeCamp, O’Neill (his confrontation with Crawford’s character just before he gets croaked is particularly touching) and Harry (Henry in this one) Morgan as Derek’s cigar-chomping photographer sidekick. Others in the stand-out cast include James Millican, Griff Barnett, Jonathan “Mr. Dithers” Hale and Kathryn Card. TCM is going to run this little sleeper again on Monday at 4:45pm EST (it’s Donna Reed’s birthday) so if you missed it, write yourself a note.
The Phenix City Story (1955) – I’ve been championing this neglected noir for quite a few years now—it may very well be my favorite of Karlson’s oeuvre—and it was great to see it premiere on TCM last night…and in a letterboxed version, the way the Movie Gods intended (my VHS copy came from a long-ago showing on Encore Mystery). Based on the true-life events that took place in an Alabama town once dubbed “Sin City, USA” it stars TDOY fave John McIntire as Albert Patterson, a laid-back attorney who refuses to get involved with a “good government” committee created to smash the corrupt political machine that knowingly gives its stamp of approval to the profitable gambling, prostitution, and drug operations run by the town’s criminal element—headed up by an appropriately unctuous Edward Andrews as “Rhett Tanner”. But Albert changes his mind when his son John (Richard Kiley) is attacked by Tanner’s gang of goons (which include John Larch as a peckerwood named Clem Wilson—my God, is Larch dead-on in his portrayal) while running an errand for his wife (Lenka Peterson)…and then when the child of a friend (James Edwards) is murdered by Larch and tossed out on his front lawn. Patterson campaigns across the state in the race for Alabama’s Attorney General—and after having won the nomination, is murdered in cold blood by Tanner and Company. Will John pick up his father’s mantle and spur the community on to demand the arrests that need to be made…even if it means placing Phenix City under martial law?
Because Story is preceded by a thirteen-minute “newscast” prologue (in which several individuals involved in the case are interviewed by Clete Roberts, the veteran newsman who was featured in the classic M*A*S*H episodes “The Interview” and “Our Finest Hour”) that pretty much brings you up to date on the status of these trials, the answer to the question is a resounding “yes”—but though the prologue may seem a bit unnecessary the studio had to include it to pacify the censors (and even after that, the film was banned from being shown in several places in the South). The film is one of the best examples of docu-noir (an offshoot that was popular in the late 40s with films like The House on 92nd Street  and Call Northside 777 ) that I know of and is unflinchingly realistic at times; a minor character in the film mentions that a man worked over by Tanner’s thugs has been “carried over to the hospital”—and you don’t get much more Southern than that. (A couple of the characters in this film are played by the actual individuals themselves.) McIntire gives a first-rate performance, as do Kiley, Andrews, and Edwards…and the future Mrs. Der Bingle, Kathryn Grant-Crosby, who plays a young girl working at Andrews’ “Poppy Club,” acting as McIntire’s eyes and ears as to what Andrews and the boys are up to. A top-notch film in all departments (with a screenplay by Crane Wilbur and Daniel “Out of the Past” Mainwaring)…and one that would already be available on DVD in a saner world.
Ladies of the Chorus (1949) – In addition to his noir and western assignments, director Karlson had any number of offbeat entries on his resume—everything from Charlie Chan films (The Shanghai Cobra , Dark Alibi ) to Bowery Boys vehicles (Live Wires , Bowery Bombshell ). But this Columbia musical—starring Marilyn Monroe on the cusp of her career—is a real curio; it runs little more than an hour and features Norma Jean as a chorus gal bumped up into the top spot when the show’s temperamental star quits. MM falls in love with a society dude (Rand Brooks) and wants to marry him…despite her mother’s (Adele Jergens) reservations that heartbreak is sure to follow (mama Adele experienced a similar situation when she tied the knot with Monroe’s father, becoming ostracized once his family learned she was a burlesque queen).
Chorus has the nutritional equivalence of a Dolly Madison Zinger, but I must reluctantly admit I was sort of fascinated by the film, particularly its offbeat touches like having Jergens play Marilyn’s mother (Adele was 31 at the time) and allowing the wacky Bobby True Trio to perform at an engagement party. Eddie Garr plays “Uncle Billy,” a burlesque comic who’s been carrying a torch for Jergens; you may not have heard of him but you certainly have a passing familiarity with his daughter Teri. There is also a bizarre sequence in which Dave Barry (not the famous columnist) plays a decorator named “Ripples”; Barry had a vocal talent that allowed him to speak as if he were underwater (sort of a gargling-and-talking effect) which he put to good use on radio shows like The Jimmy Durante Show (the kid who plays his son in Chorus goes uncredited, but I’ve heard him on a Durante broadcast, too). (Barry was also a first-rate impressionist—and in fact imitates Gabriel Heatter, Arthur Godfrey, Walter Winchell and Winston Churchill on a November 9, 1952 Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy broadcast that features as its guest star…Marilyn Monroe! How’s that for synchronicity!) Marilyn sings two numbers, Adele one (dubbed by Virginia Rees)—and the two of them duet on the title tune…but I actually enjoyed more the number performed near the ending by Nana Bryant, who plays Brooks’ mother (and who tells her bluenose friends that she was once in burlesque in order to protect her future daughter-in-law). The cast also features Steven Geray, Gladys Blake, Myron Healey, Almira Sessions, and Frank J. Scannell.