Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Last Stop at Jefty's Place in Road House (1949)

When I tried to order Road House (1948), I was first sent a dvd of the Patrick Swayze epic from the '80s, and then, when returning it, found that this dvd was sold out, so finding this movie being broadcast recently on cable was a triumph. I've seen this movie several times, thanks to my keen enjoyment of this period of Ida Lupino's work, but someday I'll track this one down for my own. Set in a rural upper Midwest road house/bowling alley, we meet the three principals: Richard Widmark, a new star playing a character called Jefty who regularly trolls the nightclubs of Chicago for girls he can hire as talent for his semi-respectable backwoods joint and as a diversion for his libido. Widmark is a rich boy who grew up working with Cornel Wilde as fellow pin boy in his father's place. Wilde, who is allegedly a champion bowler and now Jefty's general manager, is a bit complacent, even a little smug and superior about his position as the friend of the biggest fish in this small pond--even though it chafes at times.

Enter Ida Lupino, as a chanteuse we first see with her shoes off and legs up on Wilde's desk. Eyeing her legs and misinterpreting Ida's insouciant manner, Cornel Wilde almost immediately tries to pick her up. Even though she has the look of someone who's a bit of a "rode hard, put up wet" tough gal, she immediately makes it clear that she is not someone to be tampered with by this North Woods Romeo, but is a professional of another kind. Ida has charmed Jefty (Widmark) enough for him to hire her, though she has her doubts about the arrangement from her first arrival at the rustically appointed road house, complete with several rubes in plaid shirts, stuttering minions, and--thank God, a well stocked bar with a bartender who knows when to shut up. Jefty's interest is further piqued when he realizes that Ida is anything but easy, making her more challenging and intriguing to him.

That cable experience reminded me all over again why it was such dark fun. There's a double dose of Ida's fed-up, peevish air, which only seems to soften when she plays the piano and croaks a song with more expressive feeling than music in her voice. I wonder if Lupino; who was instrumental in the development of this picture right after she left Warners, might have seen her character as a raffishly funny lady looking for a port in the storm. In any case, it's soon apparent that she's none too comfortable to find herself being measured by Widmark for a place among the trophies on his wall, much less finding him in her room on a Sunday morning uninvited.

Her frank cynicism and dissatisfaction with life are compelling, though her character is quite a handful. She had, as they used to say, "a lotta crust." Physically, the first thing I noticed about her was her dreadful hair-do, which may have been deliberate, to indicate a woman who had her hair done on the cheap, (and paid for it). When she's introduced to heart o' gold local gal and the complacent Wilde's girlfriend, played by Celeste Holm, she immediately comments that they both have very similar 'dos, including those too short bangs. Then there are her clothes...even after Lily (Ida) says "I know how to dress, ya kill me" to Jefty (Richard Widmark) she shows up in some bowling togs that might make Betty Page blush.

Btw, I thought that the potential rivalry between Holm and Lupino was inexplicably soft-pedaled, losing quite a bit of its potential bite in the latter half of the movie. I didn't think that Holm's acceptance of the relationship between Wilde and Ida was entirely credible, given the small town girl's earlier resentment of Lupino's character.

Unfortunately once Ida falls for the fine looking but rather empty "nice guy" character played by Cornel Wilde, the plot meanders around, punctuated with Widmark's maniacal laughter and some preposterous climactic scenes.I suspect that Widmark, whose sudden success in movies came with Kiss of Death shortly before this film, was probably compelled to play such a mercurial character in this movie in order to solidfy his position at the studio. The lack of his character's development makes the shift toward Jefty's actions to the center stage of the story after Wilde and Lupino become a couple seem rather odd. His dominance of the last third of the movie seems tacked on, and dramatically a bit illogical. Ida's character loses her edge as well.

I suspect that Fox under Zanuck saw this as a formulaic movie meant to bolster the rising star of Richard Widmark as the nut job America loved to hate. According to the talented director Jean Negulesco's discreet memoir, "Things I Did and Things I Think I Did"Darryl Zanuck, whom he described as a likable "swollen egotist with a smooth sneer" tossed the script his way on his first day at 20th Century Fox. Negulesco (at left) had just left Warner Brothers following some harsh treatment over the director's last film Johnny Belinda (1948).

Production head Jack Warner had always been dismissive of directors who tried to achieve some artistry in their films, especially if a carefully planned scene took more time to photograph. Johnny Belinda is filled with some poetically composed shots of the Cape Breton coastline and interiors reminiscent of the black and white vision in Rockwell Kent paintings, thanks in part to the artist in Jean Negulesco* and his cinematographer, Ted McCord.

The film also features a series of beautiful ensemble performances from the talented cast, which took time, and caused Warner to treat Negulesco with contempt, asking "who would want to see a talking picture about a deaf mute?" Of course, once Johnny Belinda was a critical and popular success, (and one that stretched the bounds of the Production Code since it also dealt with previously taboo topics of handicaps, rape, and illegitimacy), all was forgiven, but the director had, by that time, had enough and left the studio for 20th Century Fox.

20th Century Fox head Zanuck reportedly said to the director during that first meeting, that "We made this kind of picture at Warners for years--James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Pat O'Brien. Focus on the girl's tits, and if somebody drops a hat, start a fight. When you finish reading it, we will talk." As Negulesco edged toward the door, the mogul commented, "I admire your talent." Unfortunately, once Negulesco became a house director at 20th Century Fox throughout the '50s, that too would be whittled away, especially after the studio's heavy investment in color and CinemaScope overwhelmed the black and white moviemaking that the director had done so well. Ah, yes, hooray for Hollywood.

  • Actually, Negulesco was a fine artist before he was a director. You can see some samples of his work here. A native of Romania, he eventually landed in France during the height of cubism and surrealism, and incorporated some features of both schools into his own unique work, in between working as a gigolo in the south of France. He became involved in the movie business during the Depression, when he was able to design scenes with storyboards, working with cinematographers and art directors to create fresh points of view on screen. One of his first successes was storyboarding the rape scene in the notorious but hard to find pre-code, The Story of Temple Drake (1933), based on William Faulkner's Sanctuary. He continued to pursue art as well as becoming a good director in black and white with a beautiful eye and a way with actors, in such films as The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), Three Strangers (1946), Humoresque (1946) and Deep Valley (1947). One of the pleasures of reading his autobiography, mentioned above, were the plethora of drawings by him that illustrated the memoir. He's also good company, self-deprecating and honest, up to a point. I just wish he could have avoided color movies.
  • If anyone would like to hear a clip of Ida Lupino singing in Road House, you can catch her below:

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