Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Whistle Stop (1946): Ava's Back in Town

 According to some sources, producer Mark Hellinger spotted a possible actress for his next feature in the independently produced, low budget noir, Whistle Stop (1946). That next Hellinger feature, an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's story, The Killers (1946), would go on to make MGM contract player Ava Gardner a big star, albeit away from her home studio.

After seeing Whistle Stop recently, this early Gardner movie made me wonder if Hellinger might have simply felt sorry for the youthful beauty trapped in this movie. Ava plays a small town gal who inexplicably chooses to return to Podunkville in the mid-west after lighting out for the big city. We are never told exactly why she's returned to Molly Veech's (Florence Bates) boarding house, where Flo lives with her train watchman husband and "kids", including 51 year old George Raft, (who looks older than the half century mark).
Bates, (who was only 7 years older than her cinematic 'son'), seems to delude herself a lot in this movie. Ma Veech seems to think that her Kenny (Raft) will eventually stop being a layabout without a job who laps up booze every night & plays cards once he "finds himself" and discovers his well-hidden worth. Mom suppresses any nagging doubts about her sonny's character by repeatedly pointing out that times are tough and her baby is scratching out a living as best he can in this burg they call home. Hmm, perhaps this storyline would have seemed more credible if the film had been set in the Depression as had been the steamy novel by Maritta Wolff.

Bates' character also clings to the notion that Mary (Ava), her star boarder, is a "nice girl" whose expensive wardrobe and no visible means of support are signs of frugality. It doesn't seem to strike anyone in the Veech household as odd that Ava lounges around the house in a satin dressing gown, though George Raft doesn't seem to mind. This is especially so during the scene on the porch when Raft cadges a smoke from Ava. The puzzled and intrigued look on his face as he watches her extract a Chesterfield from some secret pocket inside her form fitting housecoat is one of George Raft's more expressive moments. Soon Ava, who had once been Raft's sweetie, is going upwardly mobile by focusing on nightclub owner Tom Conway. He does look more attractive in contrast to the morose Raft and his best buddy, Gitlo, played by veteran scene-stealer Victor McLaglen, a resentful man with a dark past. Currently a combination bartender-dogsbody for the condescending Conway, Gitlo imbibes his boss's liquor and nurses a grudge against the world.

Jorja Curtright*, (seen above with Raft and Gardner) appears as a character named Fran, who is the most comely girl in town--until Ava's character returns to her hometown. Curtright has the thankless task of playing a cocktail waitress who's sweet on Raft. When she's seriously injured she has a would-be big moment in the hospital. Sparked by Raft's desultory efforts to express concern for her, Fran curses Raft's dumbstruck character for failing to love her back. This may be the clumsiest scene in the whole movie, though this confession of yearning and simmering resentments is one of the more coherent moments in the film.

It's not that the movie is bad, exactly. Just quite illogical, but who watches film noirs for the plots? Instead, the low budget movie conveys the randomness of fate, the existentialist air of ennui that permeates every gesture and the relative stoicism of characters on the right and wrong side of the law. Why does anyone do anything in this movie? I still don't know entirely, though I suspect that living a life that was constantly based on the past or a hoped-for but increasingly unlikely future finally prompts characters to take the self-destructive path as a gesture against their never-ending tense stasis. Raft and McLaglen get involved in a robbery attempt, a murder, and a betrayal, though neither of them really seems to have the energy or much belief in the possibility of their actions changing their enervated lives for the better. On the contrary, they seem to be looking for a way to accelerate the petty pace of their existence toward oblivion via pursuit of sheer stupidity.
The formidable Florence Bates in a role that might have normally gone to Jane Darwell.
The only ones who seem to make an impression as flesh and blood characters are the reliably vivid Bates, (though I suspect that her subversive presence is deliberate, since the strangeness of seeing her in a maternal role mouthing platitudes is possibly intended to be a bit unsettling), and McLaglen, who is fun as an instigator, albeit a very dumb one. If you ever see this movie, watch for the deftly stolen scene when the larcenous McLaglen visits Raft for a "friendly" game of cards at the train station. Raft is silent for almost the entire scene, while McLaglen babbles on and on. It made me wish that ol' Victor had lived long enough to do Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

Victor McLaglen, Tom Conway and Charles Drake are among the raffish characters in Whistle Stop (1946).
One over-riding reason to watch this flick: 23-year-old Ava Gardner, who is not encased in the MGM treatment here with flattering hair, makeup, camera angles or the constant coaching that helped to make her a big deal later in the decade. Here, she's just a naturally beautiful kid with little or no acting technique. She's strangely gawky one minute, and the next quite poised, calculating and simply a knockout. Her presence in the tawdry world of Whistle Stop leaves the natural denizens of this place awestruck, lustful and painfully aware of their marginal, ragged lives.

Russell Metty the usually fine cinematographer, had cheap sets, non-existent production design and little apparent guidance from director Léonide Moguy, who had some trouble establishing any kind of consistent mood in this often awkwardly staged film. Maybe I'm missing the movie's tawdry charm, though I hope that others will please point out what I'm missing.
Ava Gardner in the mid-1940s. You had a good eye, Mr. Hellinger.
You can see the movie Whistle Stop (1946) here at the Internet Archive.

*Joria Curtright would eventually end her acting career, choosing a much better career as the wife of writer-producer Sidney Sheldon and the mother of his only child. Their marriage would last 34 years, ending with the death of the former actress in 1985

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