Joe Riley (Glenn Ford) is getting ready to ride his thumb to Arizona. He’s resided in the Big Apple for six years and toiled as a department store clerk (working in the bargain basement) during that time, scrimping and saving to purchase twenty acres of land ironically titled “Shady Acres.” (Joe must not be familiar with both Arizona and the concept of “dry heat”—but he’ll learn before the movie calls it a wrap.) On his way out West, he meets up with fellow drifter Tony Casselli (Richard Conte)—who gives him a bit of traveling advice: going by rail (hopping a freight) is not only more efficient…it’s easier on the feet.
Joe and Tony will soon be joined by two other companions: the first is Anita Santos (Jean Rogers), a refugee from Spain who entered the U.S. under questionable circumstances (like Melania Trump, Anita is going to need to latch onto a husband before she’s sent packing). The other is Townsend Thaver (Raymond Walburn)—a.k.a. “The Professor”—an old friend of Tony’s and seasoned hobo who becomes a father figure to the three younger members of the quartet. The team has the misfortune of traveling while there’s a Depression going on…and during their odyssey there’s both heartbreak and a (somewhat) optimistic ending.
Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939) is an enjoyable little programmer that’s been on my radar for some time (it gets a nice mention in John Cocchi’s wonderful book on B-movies, Second Feature) and because the DISH gods have seen fit to compensate my loss of The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ with a free month of FXM (formerly the Fox Movie Channel), I DVR’d it the other morning. It might go overlooked among the many films of its era were it not for the fact that Heaven serves as the movie debut of both Glenn Ford and Richard Conte (billed here under his real first name, Nicholas).
The odd thing about Heaven is that while Ford had the longest-lasting movie career of the five actors given top billing in the opening credits, he’s really not all that impressive in this film; he’s okay, but his role could have been undertaken by any young hopeful at 20th Century-Fox at that time. Co-star Conte has the better showcase (sadly, his character exits midway through Heaven due to a mishap involving a farmer), and had I watched Heaven on its initial release I probably would have banked on Conte becoming the bigger star. (Not that Dick didn’t do all right for himself…and to be honest, I have to admit a small bias in that I’ve always been a big fan of the man who made his mark in such classic films noir as Call Northside 777, Thieves’ Highway, and The Big Combo.)
The saving grace for Ford in Heaven is that his leading lady is woefully miscast. Best known as “Dale Arden” in the serials Flash Gordon (1936) and Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938), Jean Rogers just can’t convince the viewer that she hails from Spain (she’s far too American) despite a game try of not using contractions when she speaks (a la Kim Darby in True Grit). So it’s not surprising that the best performances in this movie originate from the character veterans; Raymond Walburn has a bit of an advantage since the garrulous Professor is a part he could have played in his sleep—but he does a splendid job (I love the moment where he has to confess to Conte he pawned his prized pocket watch in order to pay for Dick’s medical care), as does Marjorie Rambeau (very likable) as Mamie, The Professor’s old flame. Heaven is liberally sprinkled with other character favorites: Eddie Collins, Ward Bond (as a threatening hobo named “Hunk”), Irving Bacon, Kay Linaker, Edward Gargan, and Fred Kelsey…to name a few.
Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence was co-scripted by the legendary Dalton Trumbo (who contributed the original story), which explains the film’s proletarian leanings, and the man sitting in the director’s chair is none other than Ricardo Cortez—former silent and sound cinema matinee idol (Torrent, The Maltese Falcon). Fox Cinema Archives released this one to MOD DVD in March of 2013…so if you’re currently wandering around in a classic movie desert like myself yet aren’t fortunate enough to access FXM Retro, you can find Heaven for either purchase or rental (it’s available at ClassicFlix, he said with a gratuitous plug).