(After skipping May, we’re back with my series on classic black-and-white movies. The Set-Up is a gloomy, muscular boxing tale from 1949 that focuses on “Stoker” Thompson and his ill-fated fight against “Tiger” Nelson.)
By Glen Sparks
The boxing world takes a tough punch to the face in the 1949 movie The Set-Up.
Directed by Robert Wise, The Set-Up tells the story of a veteran fighter, Bill “Stoker” Thompson (played by Robert Ryan), still looking for that one big payday. He doesn’t know, though, that the fix is in on this steamy Wednesday night at the Paradise City Athletic Club.
Thompson, 20 years into a mediocre career, insists that this may be the night. He is, he says, just one punch away from financial security.
His wife, Julie (Audrey Trotter), looks at him with alarm as he gets ready to leave their musty hotel room—the Hotel Cozy–and walk across the street to the Club. She has seen him take countless punches, watched him collapse onto the canvass of numerous boxing rings, and wonders if this fight might be his last.
“You’ll always be one punch away,” she says. … “How many more beatings do you have to take?”
Stoker, though, dismisses any thought of backing out and forfeiting this bout. His thought is simple: “If you’re a fighter, you gotta fight.” So, he heads to the club. Julie, though, stays behind.
Just about everyone smokes, and everyone sweats a gallon in this picture. Paradise City looks every bit like a stale, hot, crowded arena stuck in a has-been town. Boxing fans, though, gladly buck up to cheer on the fights.
Stoker goes up against the much younger “Tiger” Nelson. Stoker’s manager has cut a deal with a well-known local mobster to throw the fight. But, why tell Stoker, he figures. He’s going to lose anyway.
But, is he? Maybe Stoker can take this guy. Maybe Tiger isn’t so tough, after all. But, then what happens when gangsters, betting big money on the other guy to win, insist they’ve been double-crossed?
The Set-Up, based on a narrative poem written in 1928 by John Moncure March, plays out in real time. The movie begins at 9:05 p.m., as indicted by a clock in the Paradise City town square. An alarm clock wakes up Stoker at 9:11, Stoker leaves for the arena at 9:17 and so on. Three years later, the classic western High Noon famously used this device. The Set-Up ends on the Paradise City streets at 10:16.
Over the 71 minutes, we see fight-frenzied fans shout for more action. A female fan screams “Kill him!” One man shadow boxes and is so nerve-racked he can barely light his wife’s cigarette. A blind man, listening to a punch-by-punch account, screams for Tiger to “go for (Stoker’s) eye!” Meanwhile, the mobster, Little Boy (Alan Baxter), waits for the fix to set in.
Stoker’s manager (George Tobias, more famous as hen-pecked husband Abner Kravitz on Bewitched) and trainer Red (Percy Helton) finally let Stoker in on the plan at the start of the fourth and final round. But, will Stoker go along?
Wise (most famous for directing Sound of Music) does a great job with this muscular movie. He brings the viewer into the ring and onto the streets of Paradise City as Julie waits for the evening to end and walks the seedy streets. Ryan gives a sympathetic performance as Stoker and handles his ring work like a pro. Which he nearly was. The actor (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch) held the heavyweight title all four of his years at Dartmouth College.
Critics liked The Set-Up. “This RKO production … is a sizzling melodrama,” a New York Times critic wrote after the film’s release. “The sweaty, stale-smoke atmosphere of an ill-ventilated smalltime arena and the ringside types who work themselves into a savage frenzy have been put on the screen in harsh, realistic terms.”
(This is the fourth in my monthly series on classic black-and-white movies. It Happens Every Spring is a laidback comedy about a mysterious pitcher who finds a way to turn major leaguers into frustrated Little Leaguers.)
By Glen Sparks
Before there was Sidd Finch, there was King Kelly.
You may recall Finch, the great Sports Illustrated April Fools’ Day joke of 1985. He was the subject of an article “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” written by the late, great George Plimpton. Finch, according to Plimpton, is a mysterious pitcher, hunkered down in the Himalayas, who can hurl a baseball 168 miles per hour, or about 65 mph faster than any MLB pitcher has ever thrown.
A scout for the New York Mets discovered Finch, who must choose between a career in baseball or in music. The Phenom, Plimpton writes, also is a master on the French horn. Sidd Finch is the picture of contrived eccentricity. He, according to Plimpton, only pitches if he also is wearing just one shoe, a hiking boot at that.
He grew up in an English orphanage. The archeologist who adopted him later died in a plane crash somewhere near Katmandu. Finch attended Harvard, as a scholar, not an Ivy League baseball player. Eventually, he left for Tibet to study yoga.
King Kelly could not claim a life story quite so rich or exotic. In real life—or, in “reel” life—he was simply Vernon K. Simpson, college professor. Ray Milland stars as Kelly/Simpson in the entertaining 1949 baseball comedy It Happens Every Spring.
While working on a great experiment, Simpson accidentally discovers a compound that repels all forms of wood, especially, as it turns out, baseball bats. Well, what’s a devoted baseball fan to do? Quit teaching in this case. Try out for a local baseball team. Simpson heads to St. Louis.
Not surprisingly, the ballclub laughs off this middle-age rookie. Until he tosses a few warm-up pitches. King Kelly (a nifty alias, one that harkens to Mike “King” Kelly, a Hall of Famer player from the late 1800s) puts enough movement on a pitch to make Warren Spahn envious. Baseballs whip around the bats of major-league hitters. The opposition doesn’t stand a chance against the funkiest curveball of all-time.
St. Louis keeps winning and winning. This mysterious pitcher (No one had ever heard of him.) refuses interviews and keeps generating headlines. His compound—dubbed methylethyproplbutyl—baffles batter after batter.
King Kelly pitches his team to the World Series. Does his club win? Does Kelly put together a Hall of Fame career, one greater than Cy Young or Walter Johnson? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie.
Valentine Davies, whose credits included Miracle on 34th Street (1934 version), The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Glenn Miller Story, wrote the screenplay for It Happens Every Spring. Lloyd Bacon directed the picture, for 20th Century Fox. Bacon also skippered productions of 42nd Street, Knute Rockne, All-American, The Fighting Sullivans and many other movies.
Welsh-born Milland takes a rare comedic turn in It Happens Every Spring. More famous as a leading man in movies such as Reap the Wild Wind and Ministry of Fear, and as an alcoholic writer in The Lost Weekend, Milland demonstrates a light, humorous touch in It Happens. The movie co-stars Jean Peters (Pick-up on South Street, the second wife of billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes) as Milland’s girlfriend, Deborah Greenleaf, and Paul Douglas (Angels in the Outfield, 1951 version, another baseball comedy) as sympathetic catcher Monk Lanigan. (Look for Alan Hale Jr., the future Skipper of Gilligan’s Island, in a small role near the movie’s beginning.)
It Happens Every Spring did not create the sensation that Sidd Finch did. The New York Times liked Douglas but called the movie “monotonous.” Famed critic Leonard Maltin, though, gave the picture 3 ½ stars and said it was “enjoyable” and “unpretentious.” And, that it is.
Many readers, meanwhile, truly believed in “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch.” And, they weren’t too happy when Sports Illustrated admitted soon after that the story was a big fake. The magazine printed one letter that read something to the effect: “Ha ha. Very funny. Cancel my subscription.”
Of course, the article did appear on April 1. And, the subhead went like this: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga—and his future in baseball.”
The first letters of these words spell out “Happy April Fools Day – a(h) fib.”
By Glen Sparks
The stuff that dreams are made of is the statuette of a bejeweled bird.
Those that covet the prize will lie, steal and even kill to get it. The figurine, they insist, is worth a fortune.
Author and one-time Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett told the story of The Maltese Falcon in 1929. Hollywood put the novel to screen in 1931 and in 1936, the second time as a comedy titled Satan Met a Lady. Writer-director John Huston created the definitive adaption of the Sam Spade thriller in 1941.
Starring Humphrey Bogart as San Francisco detective Spade, The Maltese Falcon weaves through a tale of deception, double-crossing, strange characters and gunshots in the night, all in the name of a mysterious sculpture, gifted hundreds of years ago by the Knights of Malta to the King of Spain.
Mary Astor plays the femme fatale in this Warner Bros. production. She introduces herself as “Miss Wonderly”, later switches to “Miss LeBlanc” and finally settles on “Brigid O’Shaughnessy.” By any name, she hires Spade and sets the movie mayhem in motion, first with the murder of Spade’s partner, Miles Archer.
Cops knock on Spade’s apartment door soon enough. The effete Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) arrives a few scenes later, followed by Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) and, finally, Casper Gutman (British stage actor Sydney Greenstreet in his movie debut).
Wisely, Huston didn’t mess too much with Hammett’s tale. He wrote the script and plugged much of the great dialogue from the book into the movie.
Gutman: I do like a man who tells you right out he’s lookin’ out for himself.
Spade: Don’t we all?
Gutman: I don’t trust a man who says he’s not.
Huston also used sharp camera angles and shot many scenes low to the ground, making the obese Gutman look even larger and more menacing.
Bogart plays Spade with a terrific sense of private eye cool. The role turned the New York actor into a Hollywood superstar. Before The Maltese Falcon, Bogart usually played gangster parts and supporting roles. The Maltese Falcon made him the iconic Bogey. Casablanca, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep followed.
Huston, directing his first movie, shot The Maltese Falcon in 34 days, according to a biography of the filmmaker, John Huston: Courage and Art, by Jeffrey Meyer. The film cost $327,000 to make, just under budget. Huston later made such great movies as Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, both with Bogart. He played a memorably slimy supporting role in Roman Polanski’s noir classic Chinatown.
Characters in The Maltese Falcon grow colder as the movie draws closer to a conclusion and after the falcon is finally delivered to Spade’s office by a bullet-riddled Capt. Jacoby (played by Walter Huston, John’s actor dad).
Gutman, for instance, gives up Wlmer (“We need a fall guy,” Spade explains.), one of his partners in crime, even after he concedes, “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son.”
Oh, well. He famously shrugs. “If you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese falcon.”
Spade also must turn in Brigid O’Shaughnessy to the police (played by Ward Bond and Barton MacLane). She killed Archer, after all. (Spade: “When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something.”)
Maybe, Spade says, she’ll be out of Tehachapi (a women’s prison in California) in 20 years or so. “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck.”
Spade looks for justice despite any personal feelings he may carry for his client. The detectives escort her to jail. Elevator bars close in front of her. The bird, by the way, was a fake.
Bond picks up the replica. What is it, he asks. Bogart relates his memorable closing line that the bird is the stuff of dreams. That line is not in the book. Bogart ad-libbed it, according to the Meyer.
Artists at Warner Bros. made the bird for $114. The figure sold at auction in 2010 for nearly $400,000.
(This is the second in my monthly series on classic black-and-white movies. Island in the Sky stars John Wayne as Capt. Dooley, a man determined to bring his crew back home after crash landing in unchartered Canadian wilderness. William Wellman, a decorated aviator, did the directing.)
By Glen Sparks
William Wellman earned the nickname “Wild Bill.”
The future Hollywood movie director enlisted in World War I as an ambulance driver. He later joined the French Foreign Legion as a fighter pilot.
Wellman recorded three official “kills” while flying his Nieuport aircraft and probably shot down at least five other German planes. The French awarded him the Croix de guerre (Cross of War) with two palms for his bravery in battle.
Anti-aircraft fire sent Wellman falling from the sky on March 21, 1918. Stateside, he taught combat tactics to U.S. pilots at Rockwell Field in San Diego. Wellman also befriended the actor Douglas Fairbanks. On weekends, Wellman liked to fly up to Los Angeles and land his plane on Fairbanks’ polo field in Bel Air. Fairbanks got Wellman his first job in Hollywood, as an actor.
Wellman liked the picture business. He just didn’t like acting. He thought it effete. Soon enough, he quit acting, took a job as a messenger boy and worked his way up to director. That was more like it. As director, he could be in charge.
Wellman lacks the star-power name recognition of yesteryear directors John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks. The Massachusetts native did, however, put together, quite a resume. He directed, among other movies, Public Enemy (1931), A Star Is Born (1937), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and The Story of G.I. Joe (1949).
Not surprisingly, the works of Ernest Gann interested Wellman. Gann, an aviator, wrote several popular books about flying, mostly notably Fate Is the Hunter, published in 1961. He wrote Island in the Sky in 1944. Wellman decided to make a movie for Warner Bros. out of this crash-and-rescue tale.
Based on a true story, Island in the Sky follows the crew of a Douglas C-47 Skytrain that makes an emergency winter landing in uncharted wilderness on the Quebec-Labrador border. Wellman’s film cuts between the crew and its attempt to survive in minus-70 degree cold, and the rescue aircraft that must spot a C-47 (the military version of a DC-3) while flying long hours in the ice and fog.
The mission seems nearly impossible. But, the calls goes out: “Dooley’s down.”
Capt. Dooley is the pilot of the downed plane. He must lead the rest of the men as they try to find food and shelter. Wellman cast John Wayne as Dooley. The Duke, coming off the forgettable Trouble along the Way with Donna Reed, gives a great performance in this one.
Other big names in this black-and-white production include Walter Able, Lloyd Nolan, Harry Carey Jr., and James Arness. Carl Switzer of Little Rascals fame (He played Alfalfa) has a decent-sized role; Fess Parker and Mike Conners (billed as “Touch” Conners) got bit parts.
Filming on Island in the Sky began in December, 1952, at snow-packed Donner Lake in Truckee, Calif., a.k.a. the High Sierra. Veteran actor James Lydon, who played Murray, one on the crew members, said it was the most difficult location shooting that he ever did, according to Scott Eyman’s excellent biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend. Piles of snow surrounded the location, 14 feet in spots. The hotel was five miles away; a Snowcat transported cast and crew back and forth.
Wellman, Lydon noted, “was no cinch to work for.” He had a reputation for being a taskmaster. Fortunately, he added, “Duke was a love, as usual.” Wayne everyone in good spirits, Lydon said.
Shooting wrapped up Feb. 25, nine days ahead of schedule, according to Eyman. (Wellman, accustomed to mild southern California temperatures, probably disliked the cold as much as anyone.)
Warner Bros. President Jack Warner loved Island in the Sky. The movie, made for less than $1 million, was a big hit. It opened in Hollywood on Sept. 3, 1953, and earned $2.75 million.
Island is about courage and bravery, shown by both the stranded crew and the team of pilots. Wellman and Wayne do voiceover narration in a movie that is both big and personal at the same time.
The Duke teamed up with Wellman a few years later to make another aviation picture based on a Gann story, The High and the Mighty (Wayne plays Capt. Dan Roman in this one. He is the pilot of a DC-4 full of passengers on a Honolulu-to-San Francisco flight. He must land the severely damaged aircraft before it falls into the ocean.) That one is more famous than Island in the Sky, but maybe not deservedly so.
Both movies were unseen for decades due to a Hollywood contract rights squabble. Even today, High and the Mighty gets more attention than Island in the Sky. That might in part Mighty is a Technicolor production.
In Eyman’s view, Island in the Sky is clearly the stronger picture. He rates it as one of the Duke’s top 15 movies. He calls it one of Wellman’s best movies, much better than The High and the Mighty. Watch both and make your own decision.
This is the first in my new monthly series on classic black-and-white movies. The Thing (from Another World) takes place near the North Pole and features future Gunsmoke star James Arness as a large, homely alien.
By Glen Sparks
The newly formed U.S. Air Force opened Project Sign in January 1948. The mission? Research a rash of UFO sightings by supposed eyewitnesses from across the country.
Air Force officials closed the project one year later. Investigators found not one alien and not one flying saucer. Howard Hawks (Red River, Bringing Up Baby, The Big Sleep) and Christian Nyby made The Thing (from Another World) in 1951, anyway.
Based on the 1938 John W. Campbell Jr. novella, Who Goes There?, the movie version was produced by Hawks’ production company, Winchester Pictures Corp., and released by RKO Pictures. It was a big hit. Bosley Crowther, a critic for The New York Times, wrote that “Mr. Hawks has developed a movie that is generous with thrills and chills.”
In this classic sci-fi thriller, a spaceship hurtles to Earth and crashes into a bed of ice near the North Pole. A team of service men, scientists and even a newsman go to investigate. Unfortunately, they blast the ship to bits by mistake.
“The greatest discovery in history (goes) up in flames,” says wise-cracking reporter “Scotty” (played by Douglas Spencer).
The team does manage to haul one freeze-dried survivor back to the base. Is he (it?) friend or foe? Hint: Remember, this is ‘50s black & white sci-fi. Space aliens and humans do not play well together.
Trouble begins as soon as the Thing’s icy tomb melts, and it gets moving again. The lumbering brute (a young, nearly unrecognizable James Arness) grunts and growls; it muscles man and sled dog aside. To make matters even worse, the Thing brushes off 45-caliber bullets.
Oh, and the Thing really isn’t a type of animal. Internally, it resembles a plant, the scientists conclude after studying tissue samples taken from the creature’s hacked-off hand. The Thing quickly regenerates dead tissue, similar to a garden vegetable.
“It sounds like you’re trying to describe some sort of super carrot,” Scotty suggests.
Yes, that’s exactly right, replies Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). The Thing shows no pleasure and is devoid of emotion. Killing a human being is simply something that it must do to survive. (The Thing lives off blood.)
Our heroes need a plan. Do they destroy the Thing? How? The generals (who sit behind desks located far from the base and don’t comprehend the danger) issue orders to keep the creature safe. Dr. Carrington agrees that this is the smart plan. Capt. Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), a pilot and leader of the military team, sees no way out of this predicament except to kill the dangerous guest.
Science gets shoved aside in The Thing (in a few cases, quite literally). Men in leather jackets and military insignia do the heavy lifting in this film.
Dr. Carrington at one point insists that the world must learn about this great alien discovery. Hendry isn’t buying it, even as the Air Force orders the crew not to harm “your prisoner.”
Carrington: “You can’t ignore orders.”
Hendry: “Testify to that at my court-martial.”
Following several failed attempts, the service men figure out a way to bring the movie to a shocking finale.
Scotty concludes by finally getting his news report out to the world, via radio. “Watch the skies everywhere,” he pleads in conclusion. “Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
The Thing moves along at a brisk pace and offers plenty of suspense and action, like a typical Hawks picture. It includes lots of snappy dialogue, like a typical Hawks picture. This has led to a big debate: Who really directed The Thing?
That depends on the source. Nyby is listed as director in the credits, while Hawks is listed as producer. Tobey insisted in Hostile Aliens, Hollywood and Today’s News by Melvin Matthews that Hawks directed the movie. “Hawks directed it, all except one scene,” he said. Cornthwaite disagreed. “Chris always deferred to Hawks, as well he should,” the actor said in an LA Times article. “Maybe because he did defer to him, people misinterpreted it. … When people ask me, I say, ‘Chris was the director, Hawks was the producer.’”
Nyby had edited several movies for Hawks, including Red River. The Thing was his first directorial effort. By most accounts, Hawks was on the set every day. (Part of the movie was filmed at Glacier National Park in Montana; much of it was filmed inside a large ice-storage plant in Los Angeles.) Nyby, who went on to direct several more movies and TV shows (The Twilight Zone, Kojak, The Rockford Files, etc.), insists he was in charge.
“Did Hawks direct it?” Nyby said in Cinefantastique magazine. “That’s one of the most inane and ridiculous questions I’ve ever heard, and people keep asking.”
Yes, Nyby said, he did make the movie in Hawks’ style. “This is a man I studied and wanted to be like,” he said. “You would certainly emulate and copy the master you’re sitting under, which I did.”