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HOORAY FOR B MOVIES

I’ve always found a certain charm in vintage Hollywood B movies, and apparently I’m not alone. The Museum of Modern Art recently screened a selection of Republic Pictures titles endorsed by Martin Scorsese. Warner Archive has just released three 1940s titles on DVD I’d never seen before: Murder in the Big House (1942), Danger Signal (1945), and Hotel Berlin (1945). The term “B movie” in the 1930s and 40s referred to a film with an abbreviated running time, intended to fill the lower-half of a double feature. The major studios also used these “programmers” as a proving ground for up-and-coming talent on both sides of the camera.

Murder in the Big House is a prototypical Warners B, directed by B. Reeves “Breezy” Eason, who specialized in shooting second-unit action scenes (like the title sequence in The Charge of the Light Brigade) when he wasn’t occupied directing short-subjects and second-string features. Murder moves like a bat out of hell and tells its crime/whodunit story in a mere 59 minutes! Faye Emerson, climbing the ladder of success at Warner Bros., got top billing when the movie opened…but after her leading man became an “overnight” sensation at MGM, WB reissued it under the title Born for Trouble in 1945 and put Van Johnson in the Number One position on its posters and newspaper ads.

Screenwriter Raymond L. Schrock had been around since the silent days and continued to work into the television era. The title credits say “based on an idea by Jerry Chodorov” but I doubt the successful playwright (My Sister Eileen) would have had the nerve to steal so many ideas directly from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page—right down to the famous final line. Emerson appears to have studied Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (an official Front Page remake) before tackling the role of a snappy, can-do female reporter. Much of the sardonic dialogue among the reporters covering a prison execution is reminiscent of that play as well. Desperate for a leading man, Warners hired the uncharismatic George Meeker to play an alcoholic news hound named Scoop Conner. (Yes, it’s that kind of movie: the newspaper editor is Pop, and the reporters are inevitably referred to as “boys.”)

But the movie has undeniable energy, using wipes and other opticals to propel it along, and Van Johnson holds his own as a newspaperman who tries to solve the central whodunit: how was a prisoner awaiting the electric chair get murdered in his cell? This is certainly the best of the newly-released Warner Archive trio and very easy to watch.

Faye Emerson worked hard, and capably, at Warners during the 1940s but only achieved real stardom in the early days of live television, when she became a popular hostess and game-show panelist. But she’s good in Danger Signal, which is populated entirely by Warner contract players: Zachary Scott, Bruce Bennett, John Ridgely, Rosemary DeCamp, and Richard Erdman. Scott plays a ruthless killer who sweet-talks his way into renting a room from Emerson and her mother, posing as a returning war veteran. No one leaves their comfort zone for this adequate but uninspired B, despite the input of director Robert Florey, cinematographer James Wong Howe, and the source novel by Phyllis Bottome, who wrote The Mortal Storm.

This is no Mortal Storm, as everything is fairly routine and predictable, right down to the familiar sets of Warner Bros.’ Backlot. Florey made a strong impression with The Beast with Five Fingers one year later, and Howe was obviously killing time between A assignments.

Florey also directed Hotel Berlin, based on a novel by Grand Hotel’s Vicki Baum, but once again the literary source belies the mediocrity of the screen adaptation. Hotel Berlin isn’t strictly speaking a B movie (William K. Everson used to call this kind of picture a “shaky A”) as it got major bookings, but it’s grade-B in every other sense of the term. Set in the waning days of World War II, with the Germans facing their imminent loss, it has little else to offer than its topicality. Helmut Dantine, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Alan Hale, George Coulouris, and—yes—Faye Emerson can’t do much with this sorry script.

Kino Lorber has released a different kind of B, made a decade later, called Highway Dragnet (1954). Just four years earlier, Richard Conte was starring in high-profile Fox movies like Thieves’ Highway and Whirlpool. Joan Bennett was a mature but still-attractive leading lady who’d played opposite Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend. Wanda Hendrix had been on a star track at Paramount. Now, changing times and tides saw them headlining a cheap crime drama with a story credited to young Roger Corman. Director Nathan Juran had been the Oscar-winning art director of How Green Was my Valley, but wanted to direct his own films. That led to a string of low-budget Westerns, crime thrillers, and such memorable titles as Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, Hellcats of the Navy and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

Shot mostly on outdoor locations in the Southwest, Highway Dragnet is an efficient formula film. It’s fun to watch because it features familiar faces in supporting roles: Reed Hadley as a highway patrolman, Iris Adrian as a wisecracking waitress, Mary Beth Hughes as a sexy bar patron, Frank Jenks as a Marine, Murray Alper as a truck driver, etc. This was an Allied Artists release, which was supposed to hide its true identity as a Monogram Picture.

Paramount Pictures has owned the Republic Pictures for some time but now, under the supervision of Andrea Kalas, the company is restoring hundreds of vintage titles from the ultimate B movie factory. If you’d like to see a selection of clips and learn more about the studio and its product, the Museum of Modern Art has posted an entertaining and informative 12-minute video called “How to See B Movies,” hosted by curator and film scholar Dave Kehr. It’s well worth watching.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t plug the reissue of Don Miller’s indispensable book “B” Movies: An Informal Survey of the American Low-Budget Film 1933-45. I served as midwife for this book in the early 1970s but its content is all Don’s…and he had a photographic memory of every movie he ever saw! It’s available as an ebook or a publish-on-demand paperback from amazon.com. The book lacks an index, but the e-book edition enables you to word-search, a great asset for a fact-filled volume such as this.

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