Tag Archives: Philip Dunne

‘Johnny Apollo’: ‘Now, Let’s Forget All about Legal Ethics’

Poster from original release.

Poster from second release.

You won’t find “Johnny Apollo” (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940) on any list of the Fifty Best Crime Dramas of All Time, and who can wonder? It’s the sort of assembly line studio programmer to which “best” can hardly be applied with any seriousness — though it must surely have been the best picture to open on March 15, 1940 in Ossining, New York. (The tie-in was that exterior shooting was done at Sing Sing.) It is immensely engaging, lively, preposterous and a lot more fun than most of the pictures you’ll find at the top of the Fifty Best Crime Dramas list.

The Smash Up

Tyrone Power plays Robert “Bob” Cain, Jr, a college athlete whose life is turned upside down when his father, a Wall Street tycoon (Edward Arnold), is sent to prison for embezzlement. With his father in jail, Bob must find a job to support himself. But when his father’s old friends and colleagues turn their backs on him, he changes his name and turns to crime; as Johnny Apollo, racketeer, he plans to earn enough money to spring the old man.

Much of the action takes place in night clubs, betting parlors, dingy offices, stairwells — anyplace where the windows look out on blinking lights. Looming over everything are the courthouse and the big house. The situations are steamed up; the coincidences are many; the patter is snappy and far above average for this kind of picture (the screenplay is by Philip Dunne); good is rewarded; evil is punished and amor vincit omnia.

Tyrone Power as Johnny Apollo, nee Bob Cain

Tyrone Power as Johnny Apollo, nee Bob Cain, Jr.

With a few exceptions, it’s extremely well acted. Tyrone Power isn’t up to much, but he’s better than usual. The role suits him well, and he was relieved to be doing, at long last, a picture in modern clothes. Lloyd Nolan overplays Mickey Dwyer, a mob boss who becomes Johnny Apollo’s father figure while the old man is up the river making boilers. He lays on da Bronx accent a few inches too thick; he’s unconvincing as a brutal kingpin — he’s a whippet making like an attack dog.

The rest of the cast is terrific. Edward Arnold’s performance is the best I’ve ever seen him give. He was an old hand at playing loudmouth robber barons, but this role has more depth and complexity than most of his other parts: from the first frame, he’s a villain whose greed and dishonesty have destroyed his son’s bright future. By the end of the picture, he’s an heroic figure — his rehabilitation and enlightenment are gradual; it’s a signal pleasure to watch Arnold’s masterful handling of Robert Cain’s transformation; he plays each individual scene beautifully; taken together, the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. He deserved an Academy Award nomination for this one.

I’d also have nominated Charley Grapewin (best known as Uncle Henry in “The Wizard of Oz”), who gives a fine, old-style ham performance as “Judge” Emmett T. Brennan: a notoriously unprincipled shyster and world class soak. The part is a compendium of sentimental clichés, both about the practice of law and alcoholism, but Grapewin makes all of it seem vital, fresh and interesting.

Best of all, however, is Dorothy Lamour (on loan from Paramount), who plays singer/actress/gun-moll Lucky DuBarry, girlfriend of Mickey Dwyer. Once she claps eyes on Johnny Apollo, she finds it hard to look at anyone else. Her performance deserves special attention, which will make this essay far too long. You can find my appreciation of Lamour’s performance by clicking here.

The Dust Up

After the scandal hits the afternoon newspapers, Robert Cain waits anxiously for Bob to come home from the campus. Like everybody else, Bob learnt about his old man’s indictment in the papers. Arnold plays the man’s apprehension beautifully. On his way to Bob’s room, he seems grave but in command. Outside Bob’s door, he hesitates. Suddenly he looks worn out, older, grimmer. His current troubles are entirely of his own making, but he’s a pitiable figure. This overfed, corrupt plutocrat is vulnerable. Both by training and temperament, Arnold was a roaring, old-style baloney-bender who went in for big effects. But as you will see, he could play complicated emotional scenes with great finesse and fine detail.

“The prison term doesn’t mean anything to me: I could do that standing on my head!” I can’t think of a single thing that Edward Arnold could do standing on his head; I seriously doubt he could stand on his head. His parting shot is typical of his hothead blowhard personality: “And now that we’ve found out how we feel about each other, I’ll know that I’ll never have to give you another thought as long as I live!” Oh, guess again, Tubby.

Tyrone Power never learnt the trick of sounding spontaneous, but he’s better than usual in this one. He never imitates life accurately enough to make you forget that he’s acting. He works the lines too hard, overthinks everything, and stresses too many words. For instance, the line, “I guess I should just sit in class and be Exhibit A, instead of that skeleton they have hanging on the wall — all my friends being extra nice to me just to show how broadminded they are.” Power stresses eight words on a line that makes better sense when only one word — “skeleton” — is given a little additional emphasis. The best actors let the words do the acting for them, whenever possible. The most common error young actors make is to try to act out every word. Experience usually corrects this. Power, alas, went the opposite direction. When he’s listening instead of speaking, he’s a very good actor. The portrait behind him is his mother. The resemblance is remarkable.

Frank Capra on Edward Arnold

By the time this picture was made, Edward Arnold had all but cornered the crooked tycoon market. He’s easy to dislike: abrasive, quick-tempered, peremptory and captious; his girth suggests gluttony; zeal for strong drink burns in the beacon of his nose; his glittering eyes peer out hard and shrewd beneath the perpetual frown of cold command. His deep baritone voice is beautifully resonant, but his accent — a peculiar combination of the Lower East Side (where he was born and raised) and New England (listen to the way he pronounces “heart”) — is harsh, staccato and often unpleasant. Frank Capra, who admired Arnold’s skill almost as much as he disliked his personality, couldn’t bear the sound of his joyless, insincere laughter. In his autobiography, “The Name above the Title,” Capra provides this brisk overview:

He could be unctuous as a funeral director or cold and ruthless as a Cosa Nostra chief . . . . [H]e had a laugh as unique and as phony as a three-dollar bill. It would wind up in pitch like the flywheel starter of a fighter plane, then explode in choked-up pops like its motor . . . Edward Arnold was anathema to directors. In take after take he would blow his lines and shrug it off with that phony laugh. Other actors could wring his neck. They would have to give their all in take after take, just in case Arnold didn’t blow his lines. The result: Arnold got all the attention. Distraught directors would okay any take that he finished, regardless of how the other tired-out actors fared. But if you could put up with that — and I gladly did — Arnold was a powerhouse on the screen. His performance as the jungle king of Wall Street, who walked away from his throne for the love of his son was the philosophical clout an otherwise farcical comedy needed to make “You Can’t Take It with You” the acclaimed Best Picture of the year.

Yes, he’s right about that: Edward Arnold was a powerhouse. Capra could have been describing his performance in “Johnny Apollo.” Arnold was easily the best thing about “You Can’t Take It with You” (the stage play is infinitely superior to the saccharine screen version), but he was never at his best when Capra directed him.

Sent Up

Here’s the scene in which the Honorable Mr Justice Penrose pronounces sentence on Cain. I find Charles Trowbridge’s performance as the peevish judge hugely entertaining. It’s a very specific style of ham that he serves up, a dish that went off the menu decades ago. Because he doesn’t raise his voice or flail his arms about or pull coarse faces, and because the two speeches he delivers are humorless, terse and implacably stern, you may think Trowbridge is not a ham. But he is. Have a look:

His delivery is a classic example of High Dudgeon on a High Horse Ham: his diction is elaborate, artificial, theatrical and eccentric; every slightest inflection, intonation and cæsura has been carefully chosen and rehearsed. And he pulls the oldest ham trick in the book: he whips off his spectacles as a visual exclamation mark. Nobody in real life ever does that, unless they learnt it from watching baloney-benders like Judge Penrose. Charles Silas Richard Trowbridge was born to American parents in Vera Cruz, Mexico, but grew up in Napa and Hawaii. His accent is unlike any I’ve ever heard; I assume it’s entirely his own invention, but wherever it came from, it’s as impressive as it is weird. He made a career of playing censorious authoritarians; I’ve seen him give nearly identical performances in at least two dozen pictures, but I’m always glad to see him — particularly when a tongue-lashing is on the bill. Whenever Charles Silas Richard Trowbridge makes with the obloquy, I begin to chuckle. His turn in “Johnny Apollo” is especially delightful: the old ham pulls those cheaters off his nose not once, but twice in the same short scene. Now, that’s what I call guts.

Stood Up, Dressed Down, Cast Out, Honked Off

From a staircase at Grand Central Terminal, Bob watches a squad of prison guards herd a group of prisonbound convicts, including his father, onto the train for Ossining. He sees his father bid farewell to his attorney (Lionel Atwill). Bob intercepts Atwill as he leaves. “Did my father mention me?” “No,” Atwill replies absently, then murmurs a few sympathetic words, assures Bob there’s nothing more he can do for the old man. Justice must take its course; Robert Cain must serve his time. He wishes Bob good luck and departs. Bob must find a job. Here is what happens. The storytelling in this sequence is remarkably efficient.

George Irving plays Mr Ives, the drunkard’s son, who chastises Bob then fires him. I love the way Irving speaks the line, “My father diiiied in jail, an habitual drunkard!” (Both he and Trowbridge put just enough emphatic nasality on “an habitual” that I smirk every time I hear them say it.) It’s a pretty rum go that this Mr Ives fellow begins by accusing Bob of moral cowardice, then proceeds to crow about being the proud son of a drunken jailbird, and then summarily fires the young man without allowing him to say a word in his defense. Oh yes, young Mr Cain is a competent, diligent fellow with a first class education and an earnest desire to get ahead in the world — but the rascal has not enough family feeling in him to be a-counting Mr Ives’ beans. So Mr Ives rebukes and fires him — and then promises to write him a recommendation! The drunkard’s son will not permit the scoundrel to work for him, but he’ll recommend him to others. Get a load of Mr Probity!

I cannot quite get myself to believe that Power succeeds in making his Grand Remonstrance sound extempore, but I sure want to believe he does. I like his energy and heat, even if his delivery does make me see the words and punctuation marks as they must have appeared in his prompt script. I like the subversive argument he makes; I like how he exposes Atwill’s temporizing as false and illogical; I like the efficiency with which he rattles the attorney’s murmuring complacency and then says, “Now, let’s forget all about legal ethics.” Checkmate, you dirty son of a bitch!

More about “Johnny Apollo” here.

‘The Rains Came’ (and the Old Order Went)

Original Poster.

Original Poster. Yet another example of the terrible artwork on 20th Century-Fox posters.

“The Rains Came” was Twentieth Century Fox’s biggest picture from Hollywood’s most celebrated year, 1939. It’s a remarkably effective entertainment, considering the number of things wrong with it. Tyrone Power won Harvard Lampoon’s first Worst Actor of the Year award for his performance. As the beturbaned Indian physician, Major Rama Safti, he’s better than usual — and certainly better than Richard Burton was in the unspeakable 1955 remake, “The Rains of Ranchipur.” In the second half of the picture, he’s quite good indeed — not remotely Indian, of course, but believable as a man in love.

The main trouble with “The Rains Came” is not the acting (which, with a few notable exceptions, is really quite good), but its genial racism. Certainly, every effort is made to be respectful toward the native population of the Subcontinent, but the earnest respectfulness is paradoxically (and unsurprisingly) the problem. It’s a case of the enlightened West’s gazing with bemused tolerance on these little brown heathens and their curious, benighted ways.

The Raj was still very much in effect in 1939; England was newly at war with Germany, and Hollywood studios were anxious to give favorable publicity to the British Empire. For the most part, the British are shown in a favorable light — the odious Lord Esketh (Nigel Bruce) is an anomaly, and he gets what’s coming to him good and hard — and every good Indian knows that Ranchipur would be lost without the balm of British intervention in their affairs. The screenplay, by Philip Dunne (who, during the Blacklist Era, co-founded the Committee for the First Amendment with John Huston and William Wyler) is loaded with uplifting little tributes to Western Civ. Take this exchange between Tyrone Power and George Brent (as Tom Ransome, a dipso British ex-pat artist), from the very first scene:

Power: I didn’t know that you had faith in anything, Tom.

Brent: Oh, well, that’s where you’re wrong. I’ve got faith in a lot of things. For instance, uh . . .

Power: For instance . . . ?

Brent: Well, for instance, Queen Victoria. [He points to an iron statue of the Queen standing out in the lawn.]

Power: That old statue?

Brent: To you, she’s only a statue. But to me, she’s an old friend. A living reminder of the fine and brave days before the world went to seed . . . When London Bridge did its falling down to a dance step, not to the threat of tomorrow’s bombs. When every American was a millionaire or about to be one. When people sang in Vienna. There she stands in her cast iron petticoats, unconcerned about wars, dictators and appeasement . . . as serene as ever. God bless her.

Brent: Ode to an Iron Petticoat.

Brent: Ode to an Iron Petticoat.

This adoration of Queen Victoria as a demi-goddess and, more especially, the veneration of her figure cast in iron, strikes me as highly ironic in a story that is so deeply concerned with conflicts between Western rationalist traditions and Oriental mysticism. The first time I heard the speech, I was reminded at once of a moment in “Jane Eyre” when the very Christian Mr Brocklehurst condemns the heroine, who in his opinion is, “worse than many a little heathen who says its prayers to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut.” Queen Victoria is in for a rusty time of it before the waters subside, but her head never goes under for a moment.

(A quick word about George Brent: Until recently, I’ve always misjudged him as being a stolid, dull actor. I owe him an apology. He played a lot of stolid, dull characters, but he was nearly always better than the parts he played. Having looked at a lot of his work lately, I see now that he was a fine, imaginative actor, and that he handled difficult, sometimes impossible material, such as the speech quoted above, with great finesse and ease. I’ve come to have great admiration for his skill. When he was cast in an interesting role, such as the bounder Buck Cantrell in “Jezebel,” he usually stole most of the scenes he was in — but never from his leading ladies.)

Though the fictitious state of Ranchipur (located in the northwest corner of India, next door to modern Pakistan) is actually under British rule, the ancient Maharajah (H.B. Warner) and his wizened Maharani (Maria Ouspenskaya) are allowed “To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks” without interference from their English puppet masters, so long as they keep the millions of ragged natives under control. Throughout the picture, we’re reminded that these two despots are, by dint of their Western leanings, more enlightened than the savages under their rule, and that they mean to drag their country out of the murky foolery of Eastern mysticism and into the blaze of Western thought and jurisprudence. Throughout the picture, little pinpricks of racism keep piercing the fabric of the story; each one of them is certainly regrettable, but they also hand me many a shame-faced chuckle. For instance, there is the case of Mr Bannerjee (Joseph Schildkraut) a Subcontinental (by way of Vienna) social climber and bon viveur, whom we first meet at a lavish party at the Maharajah’s palace, where he’s the very image of a Weimar dandy, with Macassar-slicked hair, monocle, mascara, moustaches (carefully waxed), white tie, tails and champagne dish — everything but the monkey (the de rigueur pet of the Weimar boulevardier). Mr Bannerjee says, with a curt little bow, “We flatter ourselves to be jolly well abr-r-r-reast of the times.”

Nigel Bruce, Joseph Schildkraut, H.B. Warner, Maria Ouspenskaya

Nigel Bruce, Joseph Schildkraut, H.B. Warner, Maria Ouspenskaya: ‘We flatter ourselves to be jolly well abreast of the times.’

When The Rains Come, Mr Schildkraut-Bannerjee turns native in einem Augenblick, as it were, and then there he is, sitting in lotus position on a verandah, naked except for his capacious diaper, and troubling the Hindoo pantheon with his bootless cries, and jabbering and chattering in an ecstasy of superstitious terror . . . It’s the most overtly racist moment in the picture, especially since it’s hard to accept it as anything but a cruel sight gag.

Even without the pro-British angle, condescension would be unavoidable because at its heart, the story concerns the love affair between Lady Edwina Esketh, a white American socialite (Myrna Loy), and an Indian doctor; the Production Code did not allow romance to exist across color barriers. As it was, the story of an adulteress pushed the Breen Office to the limits of its narrow-mindedness, and was permitted because at no point do we ever see the lovers kiss.

So what is there to like about this picture? As I mentioned, most of the acting is quite good. It’s nice to see Myrna Loy play against type (at Metro, she was invariably cast as “the perfect wife”) and it’s fun to see Nigel Bruce play a hateful son of a bitch. I don’t know if I’ve ever liked Myrna Loy more than I like her in this one, and I like Myrna Loy in just about everything, including “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which is a picture I whole-heartedly detest. “The Rains Came” is also full of beautiful cinematography. Here’s a scene that features the first onset of rain (the real rains come about twenty minutes later in the picture, and go on for a long, long time). “The Rains Came” won the first Academy Award for Special Effects (Fred Sersen and Edmund H. Hansen), which are spectacular. But I prefer the simple effects in this scene, particularly the imaginative use of light and shadow on the curtain. The director of photography was three-time Oscar winner, Arthur C. Miller. (He was nominated for this one, but lost to Gregg Toland for “Wuthering Heights.”)

The clip below is a splice of Nigel Bruce’s last two scenes. He plays Lord Esketh, the cuckolded husband of Lady Edwina; his inability to digest the curries of India have left him bedridden while his straying wife is out trying to seduce the noble surgeon played by Tyrone Power. In his hand is his tabulation of his wife’s various lovers. Esketh’s long-suffering valet, Bates, is played by veteran character actor, Herbert Evans. In the second part of the clip, which takes place when The Rains Come, you will see how Bates gets a brief moment of triumph over his hateful master before both lose their lives in the flood.

Plague follows in the wake of the earthquakes and floods. Lady Edwina goes to work in the hospital, where her devotion, selflessness and Western stoicism win the heart of “the light copper Apollo” (as Lady Edwina calls Dr Safti). But the lady is an adulteress, and no amount of heroism can mitigate the Production Code’s stringent calculation of the Wages of Sin. Consequently, I feel I am not betraying a secret to mention that Lady E. needs must contract the plague, and the lady must die of it. The news does, however, come as a shock to the good doctor, who suffers an emotional collapse when he realizes that his best efforts are not sufficient to sponge the writing from her tombstone. For reasons I don’t understand, Power plays this emotional scene without benefit of turban — he rarely looked more dashing. Once again, George Brent is on hand to remind him of his duty to Our Side against the Powers of Oriental Darkness.

Brent: Rama, this won’t do: you’ve got to get a hold of yourself.

Power: It’s no use. I can’t. We’re different. Deep down, where it matters. I’m an Indian! I can’t be calm and unemotional. I wanna tear my clothes and wail like a. . . like Bannerjee!

Brent: You’re not Bannerjee: you’re a man! You’re a doctor!

Power: I’ve failed. I can’t save her.

Brent: Rama. Rama! Rama! Listen to me. If you lose your way now, you’ll never find it again. Think of the Maharani and your duty, the Maharajah and all he planned for you. Think of the people who worship and respect you. For them you’re a symbol, something clean and courageous that’s been born in the darkness and filth that was India. You are India! The New India! Don’t betray all of us who have faith in you.

Power: [A short pause during which he runs his fingers through his silken black tresses.] I’m sorry, Tom. I’m all right now. It won’t happen again [pronounced to rhyme with a-main]. Thank you.

So well-meaning, so eloquent, so wrong! The stew of White Man’s Burden-style racism and patriotism is irresistible.

The tiny, chain-smoking Madame Maria Ospenskaya gives the most interesting performance in the picture. She was born in Tula, Russia, and was a member of Stanislavsky’s famous Moscow Art Theatre. As the Maharani, she had ample opportunity to be soft and sentimental, but she resolutely refused to take that bait. She’s wily as hell, and occasionally coy, but there’s real danger in her performance: she is decidedly not a sweet old darling. In a late scene, the Maharani is considering what to do about Lady Edwina, who has made herself invaluable to Ranchipur during the outbreak of the plague, but who is likely to undo the Maharani’s careful plans for Dr Safti: “I want to do the right thing. I’d trample her without mercy. But then, of course, I was brought up in the hills, where charity is a sign of weakness.” Few actresses could speak these lines with the simplicity and lack of irony of Maria Ouspenskaya. She made her Hollywood debut in William Wyler’s 1936 “Dodsworth,” in which she appeared as the Baroness Von Obersdorf — she was onscreen for a little less than six minutes, but was nominated for that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar (she lost to Gale Sondergaard in “Anthony Adverse” — also a debut performance). If Mme Ouspenskaya is known at all today, it is for her memorably silly turn as the old gypsy woman, Maleva, in two Wolf Man pictures (“The Wolf Man” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”). In the late thirties and early forties, however, she appeared in several prestige pictures, including “Love Affair,” “Waterloo Bridge” and “Kings Row,” and was also a highly respected acting teacher. Respected, yes; liked, no. Mme Ouspenskaya was a White Russian through and through: she was an unapologetic autocrat and a passionate believer in the occult, a combination that proved maddening to her colleagues. By no means could she be persuaded to perform when her stars were less than favorable. She had almost daily consultations with Carroll Richter, the astrologer for the Los Angeles Times. For most of her career, she was intensely hated by nearly everyone she worked with. But there’s no escaping how effective her performances are. In 1949, she fell asleep while smoking in bed and was badly burnt. She died of a stroke three days later. She was seventy-three years old.