Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Warner Bros. remakes; the rise of Bogart, the fall of Raft

I've blogged before about my interest in viewing Humphrey Bogart's filmography; as I delved through those films, it soon gave way to a general interest in the output of the Warner Bros - especially their 1930s pictures. At one early point in the Bogart-athon, I viewed Kid Galahad (1937) by director Michael Curtiz.

In this film, a boxing promoter (Edward G. Robinson) takes a novice fighter (Wayne Morris) under his wing, but gradually turns against his protegee after finding out he's in love with his younger sister (Bette Davis). After suffering a change of heart, the promoter is killed by a gangster (Humphrey Bogart) while shielding his fighter.

Many weeks later, I began watching Bogart in the Wagons Roll at Night (1941), directed by Ray Enright and found it... strangely familiar!

In this picture, a circus owner (Humphrey Bogart) takes a novice lion tamer (Eddie Albert) under his wing, but gradually turns against his protegee after finding out he's in love with his younger sister (Joan Leslie). After suffering a change of heart, the circus owner is killed by a lion (played by itself) while shielding the lion tamer.

Why, here I'd come across two films featuring Bogart and identical plots! As I learned more about Warner Bros., I discovered they were notorious for recycling their scripts (it seems especially from the late 30s to early 40s). This latter film proved to be the end of Bogart's career doldrums (as most of his career at Warner had been up until then), falling right between two of his star-making features: High Sierra and the Maltese Falcon.

This is not the only time Bogart had been plugged to fill a role in a Warner Bros. remake - many of his pictures were hand-me-downs, such as King of the Underworld (1939) where he took over the part played by Paul Muni (then Warner's top male star) in Dr. Socrates (1935). This case is unusual, however, in that Bogart went from the tertiary part of the gangster in Kid Galahad to the primary role of the circus owner in the Wagons Roll at Night. And yet, everything about the Wagons Roll at Night points to it being an inferior picture, as so many of the remakes were. Ray Enright had been a steady hand at Warner, but he wasn't exactly Michael Curtiz! Joan Leslie & Eddie Albert were just beginning their acting careers - hardly veteran stars such as Robinson & Davis in the earlier picture. If Bogart had been given Robinson's part in Kid Galahad, it would have been a huge career-booster - but taking the lead role in the remake kept him at the b-movie level.

These films aren't the ones I truly want to talk about, however. A few weeks ago, I watched Howard Hawks' Warner Bros. picture Tiger Shark (1932).

A Portuguese fisherman (Edward G. Robinson) is nearly killed by sharks while saving his best friend (Richard Arlen). After another fisherman dies, Robinson tends to the man's daughter (Zita Johann), eventually convincing her to marry him for protection even though she admits she doesn't love him. The real trouble begins when Robinson's wife falls for Robinson's friend, precipitating a tragic finale.

This past week, I tuned into Raoul Walsh's Warner picture Manpower (1941).

A power line operator (Edward G. Robinson) is nearly electrocuted while saving his best friend (George Raft). After another operator dies, Robinson tends to the man's daughter (Marlene Dietrich), eventually convincing her to marry him for protection even though she admits she doesn't love him. The real trouble begins when Robinson's wife falls for Robinson's friend, precipitating a tragic finale.

Once again we have identical plots and a shared actor (Robinson). However, Robinson plays the same role in both pictures, changing only his character's ethnicity and occupation. Both films are also gifted with top Warner directors (Hawks & Walsh). The latter film also has an improved supporting cast, with George Raft (a top Warner star), Marlene Dietrich (something of a has-been by 1941, but always popular) and great Warner stock players such as Alan Hale and Frank McHugh.

Where Manpower fascinates me is the casting of its third-billed player: George Raft. This picture came out during a series of poorly-judged career decisions Raft made; essentially, Walsh's They Drive by Night (1940) served as Raft's last truly fine picture for Warner Bros. Up until this time, Raft was considered a bigger star than Bogart, but Manpower seemed to be his fall from grace - and not only because he'd been given third-billing.

There are well-circulated anecdotes relating how Raft passed up High Sierra to Bogart because Bogart tricked him into thinking it was just another gangster picture. The two stars are also entangled in the mess surrounding Manpower and the Maltese Falcon. Bogart was cast in Manpower while Raft was sought for the Maltese Falcon, yet - in possibly his single greatest blunder - Raft refused to appear in the Maltese Falcon because John Huston was a first-time director (whereas Walsh was a veteran Raft had worked with before - albeit, Walsh found him an extremely difficult actor). At the same time, Raft demanded Bogart be flung out of Manpower; the Warners complied and cast Edward G. Robinson instead - an actor who commanded a higher billing than either Bogart or Raft. Therefore, Bogart had been made free to appear in the Maltese Falcon and Raft gave up top-billing in what proved to be one of the finest, most influential and best-remembered pictures of the 1940s so he could take third-billing in a quickly-forgotten remake.

And yet, the Maltese Falcon itself was another remake, the Warners having produced it in 1931 & 1936 (the latter instance as Satan Met a Lady). The difference Huston brought to this third attempt was to seek closer fidelity with the source material, rather than tricking audiences into thinking they were seeing new material (as was the case with Manpower). On the face of it, Raft had chosen between two remakes with no reason to suspect either one would be talked about 70+ years later.

I can only imagine why Raft made such a stink about Manpower; he didn't work well with Walsh, he openly fought with (and disparaged) Robinson... perhaps he really wanted to work with Dietrich? Or perhaps having missed out on Walsh's High Sierra and seen how it benefited Bogart's career he didn't want to risk passing up Walsh's next picture?

The Warners' top five male stars were said to be Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, George Raft & Humphrey Bogart. Bogart is considered one of the most legendary actors to ever live; Cagney is a Hollywood legend as well; Robinson is still remembered; Muni and Raft have been consigned to the dustbins of history, recollected only by aficionados (such as I).

Suppose Raft had taken the part of Sam Spade in the Maltese Falcon - would it have enlivened his career? Or would his performance have tarnished the picture? One can certainly understand why the Warners would have wanted him to be their star - he'd already appeared in another adaptation of author Dashiell Hammett's work in the Glass Key (1935) for Paramount. If Raft had starred in another Hammett adaptation perhaps we'd have Dashiell Hammett/George Raft themed DVD box sets on Amazon today.

Ultimately, how did I find Manpower? Eh. Tiger Shark proved to be the more interesting picture, albeit not as interesting as the poster I inserted above makes it seem. Manpower has an extremely oddly-cast Dietrich behaving as an average Warner supporting lady (the type of character Ann Sheridan usually played), which is kind of fascinating on its own. And Robinson? Heck, he's always good. Pity about Raft...

Friday, February 7, 2014

Buck Rogers: human traffic cone

Buck: "They said I was the new air traffic controller, yet I don't see our ships anywhere..."

Twiki: "Biddy-biddy-biddy; take your glamour photos later, Buck."

Wilma: "Who knew there was so much black ice on the runway? Can't you help me push?"