The Lost Squadron (1932) and The Murder Man (1935)
THE LOST SQUADRON (1932)
I watched The Lost Squadron about a year or so ago when I was reading Richard Koszarski’s excellent book on the period of time when Erich von Stroheim directed films. The book The Man You Loved to Hate basically covers von Stroheim’s silent films and owning most them, I viewed each one after I finished reading that particular section. I also took the interest further and watched some of the films I had that he was hired to act in, which included tonight’s first film. And although I liked the story in general, von Stroheim in specific is what makes the film stand out.
The role he played was specifically written with him in mind by the film’s playwright Wallace Smith, a character that he truly had made his audience believe he was in real life; a detail-oriented, dictatorial, nasty, jealous director who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted on film. One specific obsession which von Stroheim liked to use to great effect in the films he was directing was a theme that included emergency services, specifically fire trucks and ambulances. If possible, he would also try and have them included in films he was only hired to act in, such as tonight’s.
The film is interesting for a couple of other reasons. First, that it shows the ignoring of war veterans by their country once conflict comes to an end. The second interesting aspect is two of the men’s love interest who’s name in the film is The Pest. Does she give mixed messages or are we seeing the recipient of her charms misconstruing her intentions?
As for the rest of the cast, it’s a good and diverse one. Richard Dix plays the leading character and one of the three ex-fighter WWI pilots. Dix was a pretty big silent-era star and though he became less of a draw with sound, he acted in film until 1947, just two years shy of his death in 1949 at the rather young age of 56. You will notice in the notes I post that he married his first wife, Winifred Coe, just prior to the making of this film. Although that marriage only lasted just over a year, his second marriage lasted until his death. His dying was likely exacerbated by the fact that he was a heavy drinker. What else is new with regard to film stars?
The anti-heroine is played by Mary Astor who started in films when she was just 15. She also has my favourite birth name of any movie star—Lucile Langhanke.
Robert Armstrong, who plays the mustachioed second ex-pilot, started out in silent film and is most famous for playing the director in the original version of King Kong. Coincidentally, Dorothy Jordan, who plays his sister, in 1933 married famous film producer Merion C. Cooper who was one of the two directors of the famous ape’s movie. Incestuous filmdom, I call it.
Handsome Joel McCrea plays the third ex-pilot which is nice on the eyes. Author of tonight’s story, Dick Grace, who was also an aviator and served in both world wars, played one of the fliers. He looks like this:
What is rather unusual casting is having Hugh Herbert play the mechanic, Fritz. He’s the fourth war friend of the group of fliers, and he plays the role straight. If you know the actor, he usually plays a souse and it’s usually done for comic relief, pretty much in every film of his I’ve ever seen. He has a trademark laugh, “Hoo-hoo”, and if I remember correctly, we do hear it once, but only once, in this film.
So please enjoy!
Saturday, December 16, 2017
Production Company: RKO. Directed by George Archainbaud. Produced by David O Selznick and Louis Sarecky. Based on the story by Dick Grace. Screeplay by Wallace Smith, Additional Dialogue by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Robert Presnell Sr., Humphrey Person. Cinematography by Edward Cronjager and Leo Tover. Film Editing by William Hamilton. Art Direction by Max Rée. Costume Design by by Max Rée. Music by Max Steiner. Released: March 12, 1932. 79 minutes.
Richard Dix……………………………………………………………. Gibson
Mary Astor…………………………………………………………….. Follette
Robert Armstrong…………………………………………………….. Woody
Dorothy Jordan…………………………………………………….. The Pest
Joel McCrea………………………………………………………………. Red
Erich von Stroheim……………………………………………….. Von Furst
Hugh Herbert…………………………………………………………….. Fritz
Ralph Ince………………………………………………………………. Jettick
Marjorie Peterson……………………………………………… Stenographer
Ralph Lewis………………………………………………………………… Joe
William B. Davidson…………………………………………………. Lelewer
Frank Clarke……………………………………………………………… Flier
Thomas A. Curran…………………………………………. Night Watchman
Edgar Dearing…………………………………. Policeman Wanting Report
Art Goebel…………………………………………………………………. Flier
Dick Grace………………………………………………………………… Flier
Unlike its predecessors, “The Lost Squadron,” a picture which came to the Mayfair last night, is a story about aviators which can boast of a rich vein of originality and clever dialogue. It is an excellent melodrama, ably directed, with a background familiar to producers—for it is chiefly concerned with stunt flying before the cameras in Hollywood and a film director is the evil genius. It races along so effectively that it seems short, whereas it is really a production of the average length.
The narrative is based on one written by Dick Grace, himself a daredevil flyer, who guides one of the machines in the film. As for George Archainbaud, the director, he excels by long odds here anything he has contributed to the screen.
Erich von Stroheim, who years ago was billed by Carl Laemmle as “The Man You Love to Hate,” impersonates Von Furst, a picture director who delights in realism and is always followed by a group of “Yes Men.” Mr. Von Stroheim once again reveals himself to be a vigorous and compelling actor. He begets attention every instant he is on the screen and toward the close he does two remarkable falls down a flight of stairs. As a director Mr. Von Stroheim has always been noted for his desire for realism, and a death glimpse here is as real as anything he has himself guided in a picture. Even in James Cruze’s picture, “The Great Gabbo,” Mr. Von Stroheim did nothing better than he does here.
Von Furst bellows at his assistants and the players and an airplane smash-up is to him only something that will make a thrilling scene for his film. He tosses his overcoat and gloves at his underlings and one of them follows him with a hunting seat, ready for the moment the great film man may wish to rest.
Here there are three pilots—Captain Gibson, played by the redoubtable Richard Dix; Red, played by Joel McCrea, and Woody, acted by Robert Armstrong. With them is a mechanic named Fritz. All are disappointed on returning home from the war. Gibby, as Gibson is familiarly known, discovers that his sweetheart has married another man. Woody learns that his business partner has run off with available funds, and Red resents the job they give him in his old office.
It is not long before Gibby, Red and Fritz decide to rough it in a baggage car bound for Los Angeles, to which place Woody has preceded them. Unshorn and ragged, they are watching first-nighters going to see a film in Hollywood, and to their great glee they behold the valiant Woody, dressed in evening clothes and a silk hat. He gives the cold shoulder to two platinum blondes he is escorting and goes off with his old flying pals. He tells them of the wonderful work he is doing—rose dives, tail spins and loops—for $50 a flight. He says that it’s a great break, for he does these stunts without being shot at.
Von Furst, an independent producer, is making a flying picture and he welcomes the other members of the squadron. By that time Gibby has learned that his former sweetheart is the great director’s wife, which leads to the plot. For Von Furst soon is eager to get Gibby out of the way and, before a flight for the film, the director surreptitiously puts acid on the control wires of the machine.
It happens, however, that Woody elects to fly the machine and he plunges to his death. Red discovers acid in the pocket of the director’s overcoat and he realizes that Von Furst wanted to bring about the death of his rival, Gibby. There ensue some highly dramatic sequences and the ending of the film is finely wrought, without the usual sickening catering to the box office.
It is a picture endowed with suspense and humor. Wallace Smith is responsible for the adaptation and Herman Mankiewicz and Robert Presnell are credited with added dialogue.
The scenes of flying are expertly photographed, particularly the smash-ups and exploding fuel tanks. There are also some adriotly conceived dissolves, all of which add to the success of this sterling production.
Mr. Dix gives a forceful performance and he is competently supported by Messrs. McCrea, Armstrong and Hugh Herbert, Dorothy Jordan and Mary Astor do good work in their respective rôles.
The New York Times by Mordaunt Hall, March 11, 1932
In the early 30’s, RKO had Richard Dix and Columbia had Jack Holt—so these stalwarts could always be depended upon for a couple of good old-time air pictures each year. But in the wake of Hell’s Angels, The Dawn Patrol and others, there were signs that the public was becoming a little bored with the cycle, no matter how expertly the films were made. (And they were expertly turned out; take a look at Wellman’s recent Lafayette Escadrille, compare it with a Dix programmer like Ace of Aces, and note the difference!) In order to stress that it wasn’t like all the others, The Lost Squadron advertised itself as “NOT an Air Film…NOT a War Film”! Actually it was both of these to a degree, although the war footage is limited to one of those gallant, gentlemanly aerial duels, in the opening sequence of the picture. It’s a depression era movie and shows it—but most of all it’s a wonderfully enjoyable piece of hoke about Hollywood, Stroheim, in a not too exaggerated caricature of himself, gives a wonderful performance—though one can’t really imagine the real Stroheim shooting a whole aerial battle from the ground. Detail may be wholly unconvincing—but the overall picture is far more convincing than in most movies about Hollywood.
The aerial stunts and crashes of course are all highlights, and are the work of Dick Grace. For all his unquestioned skill and daring, Grace, in his book Squadron of Death, gives the impression of being both an egotist and a blowhard Certainly one can’t take him too seriously when he describes, in great detail, ow he staged the crash into the sea in this picture—when said crash turns out to be a particularly neat piece of technical trickery!!
The cast is full of reliable old friends from the 20’s and 30’s—and if the dialogue gets a shade too sentimental once in a while (every third line seems to refer to somebody or other, usually Dix, being “a swell guy!”)…well, that was very much a part of the 30’s too. Director George Archainbaud was a curious fellow, who’d made some extremely interesting silent for Selznick and Chadwick back in the 20’s, and wound up making particularly slick and vigorous westerns in the 40’s. He always seemed worthy of better things—yet, even on the program level, never turned out a really fine film. This is certainly one of his better efforts, though it has some weak spots. The film bogs down badly in its closing reels—the whole section of the police interrogation is far too slowly paced and badly acted—and certainly some of the blame for this must be shouldered by Archainbaud. However, it picks up again for the finale, a mixture of melodrama and good old-fashioned sentiment, plus a sticky end for Von Stroheim that isn’t too far removed from his demise in Foolish Wives.
The print is brand new, in excellent condition, and complete. (For some reason, most 1932 sources list the film as only 72 minutes—but it runs more than a reel in excess of that). However, this—and all other prints of the film that I’ve seen—have one ery strange defect. On every single change of camera set-up—sometimes two or three in a minute—you’ll notice a slight pop on the sound track—not enough to be annoying, but enough so that one is aware of it. It would seem that when the original negative was spliced together, someone clean forgot to bloop out all the splices! Presumably when it was discovered, the culprit must have been run out of Hollywood on a rail—it’s an incredible thing to have happen to any film, but more incredible still is that nobody seems to have noticed it until it was too late!
The Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society by William K. Everson, November 22, 1960
…A viewing of the film destroyed certain pre-conceived notions and affirmed others. The actual sequences of the shooting of the “film within the film” were conventional in presentation, though the stunt flying itself was extremely exciting. Von Stroheim’s image as “the man you love to hate” was fully explored in a rather hammy performance–his hysterical screaming of: “Keep the cameras rolling! We might catch a nice crack-up,” as a plane plummeted earthwards, when the stunt pilot temporarily lost control; backed by a very mannered, deliberate set of movements like his military gestures raising and lowering his cane in excitement as if he was presenting arms. Others worked, such as the scene in which he berates a group of extras playing soldiers for lacking the correct military posture–an “in” joke as he had been known to drill his extras the previous decade when he was directing a military picture–and the casual arrogance of the sweeping movement with which he flung aside a microphone when he had finished speaking. The presentation of a Hollywood premiere at which the four fliers are re-united, with the flashing sky-writing, the milling crowds, the eager radio interviewer talking to a vapid starlet, who prattles the conventional inanities into his mike; this catches the right atmosphere….
…The direction is uneven throughout, establishing a mood but then allowing it to lag through over-statement or slow development; with the exception of an outstanding sequence in the last reels, shot in an extremely low key, with all sound bar a whining wind cut out. The drama being played out against the setting is extremely tense, establishing a perfect contrast. The performances are competent, with Dix and Astor making the lease impression and Dorothy Jordan the most.
Films and Filming by Kingsley Canham, September 1969
George Archainbaud, adoptive son of actor-director Emile Chautard, was born in Paris May 7, 1890. He started his professional career as actor in his native city until 1915 when he emigrated to the U.S. as assistant director to Chautard at the Fort Lee Studio, N.J. His first film as director was The Iron Ring (1917); his last was The Last of the Pony Riders (1953). Some familiar titles in his filmography: Men of Chance (1932), Thirteen Women (1932), Penguin Pool Murder (1932), Murder on the Blackboard (1932), After Midnight (1933), Her Jungle Love (1938), Thanks for the Memory (1938), The Kansan (1943), The Woman of the Town (1943). He died of a heart attack February 20, 1959 in Beverly Hills. During the last years of his life he had devoted himself entirely to television, his last series being “Lassie”.
Toronto Film Society by Peter Poles, January 3, 1977
But before much work could be accomplished on the Walking Down Broadway film, von Stroheim was offered the part of “De Forest” (later changed to “Von Furst”) in Paul Sloane’s The Lost Squadron at RKO. The role was an obvious self-caricature. Von Stroheim would play an arrogant and explosive film director whose mania for realism leads him to murderous excess. But he was eager for the chance to play it, and on October 7, 1931, his Fox contract was suspended to allow him six weeks on the RKO picture starting October 15. Then the illness of Paul Sloane caused a delay in The Lost Squadron, and on November 25 Fox granted up to six additional weeks’ leave. George Archainbaud replaced Sloane, completed the film quickly, and on December 31 von Stroheim was back on salary at the Fox studio.
The Man You Loved To Hate: Erich von Stroheim and Hollywood by Richard Koszarski (1983)
It was during this time [while making Friends and Lovers (1931)] that Stroheim met Wallace Smith, the co-author of the screenplay and the dialogue writer. A former newspaperman, Sith had written The Delightful Rogue, a 1929 film that reviewers and the public thought awful but which was suffused with wit and cynical wisdom; it also had a very sophisticated, intricate script that concerned itself with the conventions and mechanics of melodrama. Some of Stroheim’s dialogue in Friends and Lovers, such as his discussion of the captain’s writing style and his use of the word “blackguard,” recalled that of The Delightful Rogue. This type of witty observation was quite close to Stroheim’s own sensibility as well, and some later films in which Stroheim had a free hand would reveal a similar tone. That Smith and Stroheim were simpatico can be seen in the fact that the two soon worked together. In fact, Stroheim had so impressed Smith that when the writer made a scenario out of a Dick Grace aviation story, he conceived the role of a mad movie director for Stroheim.
The resulting film, The Lost Squadron, deals with three disillusioned Frist World War aviators who, after the war, end up working as stunt pilots in Hollywood. Starring Richard Dix, Robert Armstrong, and Joel McCrea, The Lost Squadron (released in March 1932) was directed by George Archainbaud for RKO. The film began production in the middle of October, originally under director Paul Sloane, but when he went on an alcoholic binge, it was postponed a few weeks. Archainbaud then took over direction, and by late December the film was completed.
The Lost Squadron begins on November 11, 1918, when the American aviators reluctantly have their last dogfight a few minutes before the cessation of hostilities. The excitement, fun, and camaraderie they have experienced during the war soon end. On their return to America, one has lost all his money, the other his job, and the third his girlfriend, who has proved “weak” and “ambitious.” The ensuing years are not kind to these brave young men. Finally, two of the aviators become hobos and hitch a ride on a freight train to Hollywood, where they encounter their stunt-flying pal at the grand opening of Artur von Furst’s new aviation film. Later, their friend explains that von Furst (Stroheim) is “a terrible fathead. No on-the-level producer would give him a job.” Von Furst has married the career-oriented former girlfriend of the third flier. “They say he beats the behoosus out of her and I wouldn’t put it past him.”
Von Furst is cruel, dictatorial, selfish, and insanely jealous. He tells his camera crew, “Listen you—be sure and keep them [the airplanes] in the cameras. We might catch a nice crackup.” One of von Furst’s scenes includes a detail no doubt contributed by Stroheim: a line of six megaphones of increasing size. At another point, the director, exasperated at another foul-up, furiously hands his cane to one of his aides, who already holds an armful of them.
Von Furst barks out orders, during a rehearsal of a First World War battle scene full of soldiers, damaged houses, and swooping airplanes. He screams commandingly, “Those men supposed to be wounded—act like wounded! And those supposed to be dead—act like dead! And don’t mooove!” It is a simply marvelous moment: absurdly funny, yet probably not far from Stroheim’s own directorial methods. The character tells one actor, “Remember, you’re being shot—not serenaded! For once in your life try and give me a little expression. Don’t stand here like a stuffed cow.” He then explains that the pilot is “going to swoop his plane to you as close as possible. I hope he doesn’t knock your head off. If he does, there’s one consolation: you’ll never miss it!”
At times, The Lost Squadron is extremely amusing. In the midst of a complicated war scene, everyone seems to be scrambling around and von Furst again falls into a rage. Removing his natty overcoat in a tantrum, he screams out, “Fools, idiots, nitwits! Attention!” He glares around him. “I am speaking now. I don’t want to hear another sound.” At this point, a machine gun goes off, making him even more angry. “This is a war picture—not a musical comedy,” he yells. “Haven’t you any brains? This is supposed to be WAR, DEATH, HELL, DESTRUCTION—not a Sunday school picnic! I am making this picture for the theater, not the ashcan!” And now von Furst says what Stroheim himself must have said thousands of times during his career: “now we’re going to retake it and we’re going to retake it until you do what I tell you!” After this tirade, he indignantly puts his coat back on and buttons it up. A moment later, he again loses his temper, and once more the coat comes off.
Von Furst becomes extremely jealous when he sees his wife (Mary Astor) talking to one of the aviators (Richard Dix, the former boyfriend). A few moments later, he twists her wrist and leads her into the next setup, saying sarcastically, “This is a scene of love and Miss Marsh has been rehearsing to get into the proper mood, of course.”
Von Furst tells the cameraman, “If he crashes, keep on grinding.” When he is told, “There’s no crash in the script,” the director replies, “Of course not. Just in case, you never can tell.” In fact, he has a pretty good idea that something will happen, because he has spread acid on the wires that control the plane in order to kill the boyfriend.
At the end of the film, after the plane crashes and the pilot is killed, the other pilots capture von Furst (who yells “Hilfe! Hilfe!” meaning “help” in German). Trying to escape, he runs to a stairway, but they shoot him and he falls. Stroheim later claimed to have broken some ribs falling down those stairs. Although he perhaps performs the rather gentle first portion of the action, the second shot of the long fall down the stairway is done by a stuntman who is scrupulous enough not to show his face. When the police come, the men prop up the dead von Furst in a chair and pretend to talk to him. Later one flier sacrifices himself by taking the body up in an airplane and purposely crashing it.
In his role as the fictional director, Stroheim is simply delightful, but when the plot requires him to be a villain, he once again becomes simply the “man you love to hate.” Certainly, he is the controlling presence in the film. After his character dies, so does the film; it just lumbers along until the end. Stroheim’s contributions can be felt in his dialogue and in the brilliant attention to details. He ensured that the war scenes appeared authentic and were replete with gritty details, and he even managed to get an ambulance in the film. Little touches, such as the megaphones and the business with the overcoat, the canes, and the fancy sword he flourishes, give flavor to an otherwise stock villain part. These additions indicate once again that Stroheim had a splendid, if sardonic, sense of humor. Offscreen, however, Stroheim’s sense of humor became sorely tested as his professional life continued to founder.
However, the was some hope. In 1931, Stroheim had begun negotiations to direct a film for Fox called Walking Down Broadway. He worked on a script, and when production was about to begin, the film had to be put on hold so that Stroheim could appear in The Lost Squadron After he again became available, studio politics caused the project to be canceled.
Stroheim by Arthur Lennig (2000)
THE MURDER MAN (1935)
I saw The Murder Man the first time I attended Cinevent in Columbus, Ohio in May 2014. It was the opening film on the second day, so I was there with my caffeinated Diet Lime Coke in hand for the 9:00 a.m. screening. What made it somewhat exciting was that it was Jimmy Stewart’s debut film role—and which I need to fit in somewhere had a starting salary of $550 a week—as well as what sounded like a film rarity, not being released on DVD by Warners until several months later in early 2015.
But besides this fact, there was also an interesting sounding story along with a topnotch cast leading with Spencer Tracy and including Virginia Bruce, Lucien Littlefield and Lionel Atwill. The two villains were played by Theodore von Eltz and Harvey Stephens. Von Eltz plays the suave Spencer Halford who is the more talented cad when it comes to seducing women, while Stephens plays the larger role of Henry Mander, the bigger risk taker when it comes to making monetary deals. Their names might not be known, but you still would have seen them in lots of films, with both continuing on into television in the 50s and 60s. Same goes for Lucien Littlefield. A character actor who played just under 300 roles between 1914 and 1961, he’s the fellow who owns the shooting gallery.
This was Tracy’s first film for MGM after leaving Fox. Although he was a “good boy” while making this picture, there were traces of his true nature in the character which was co-written by the director Tim Whelan. One particular characteristic was someone who ends up disappearing for a stretch of time and returning after a good alcoholic binge.
Virginia Bruce really doesn’t have much of a role here and the hairdo she was given wasn’t particularly flattering. Still, I like her towards the end of the film, where her soft manner seems to play well against Tracy. Her hair also looks better in profile! Her only reason for her being in this film was because, in my opinion, the studio believed the public needed some sort of a romance to lure them in to attending.
But did this film even need that? Not at all. It’s a story with a deeper moral value than the fluffier films that were made and it stands the test of time in that what happens in the film every generation can relate to up until today. The bit of soul-searching by our main character, Steve Gray, helps flesh him out and is needed even more because of the Production Code. As you will probably agree when you have seen the film, we are pretty sure the ending would have been different had it been released just one year earlier, just prior to the end of the pre-Code era. Still, the last line gives us hope that the future of the hero is not so bleak as the censor board would want us to believe.
So please enjoy this second film.
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Directed by Tim Whelan. Produced by Harry Rapf. Based on the story by Tim Whelan and Guy Bolton, Screeplay by Tim Whelan, John C. Higgins and Herman J. Mankiewicz. Cinematography by Lester White. Film Editing by James E. Newcom. Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons. Music by William Axt. Released: July 12, 1935. 69 minutes.
Spencer Tracy…………………………………………………. Steve Gray
Virginia Bruce……………………………………………… Mary Shannon
Lionel Atwill………………………………………………….. Captain Cole
Harvey Stephens………………………………………….. Henry Mander
Robert Barrat……………………………………………………….. Robins
James Stewart……………………………………………………… ‘Shorty’
William Collier Sr……………………………………………….. ‘Pop’ Grey
Bobby Watson……………………………………………….. Carey Booth
William Demarest………………………………………….. ‘Red’ Maguire
John Sheehan…………………………………………………… Sweeney
Lucien Littlefield…………………………………………… Peter Rafferty
George Chandler………………………………………… Sol Hertzberger
Fuzzy Knight……………………………………………… ‘Buck’ Hawkins
Louise Henry……………………………………………….. Lillian Hopper
Robert Warwick…………………………………………………….. Colville
Joe Irving……………………………………………………………….. Tony
Francis X. Bushman Jr…………………………………………. Pendleton
Theodore von Eltz………………………………. James Spencer Halford
The delayed buck, used in conjunction with the hidden ball play, frequently is an excellent manoeuvre on the football field; unhappily, it is not so effective when employed in a motion picture. It is one of the major defects of The Murder Man, the new mystery melodrama at the Capitol, that it holds its punch too long. A sudden accentuation of dramatic interest toward the end of the film cannot atone for the dragginess and generally static quality of the earlier three-fourths.
Here again—and for the third time in a month—we have a story woven about the newspaper business. It begins to appear that Hollywood is determined to split up the Fourth Estate into several subdivisions, each containing a rococo bungalow representing the movie-makers’ conception of a typical star reporter. Their facades will be of granite, their interiors plastered and their garrets quite empty.
Spencer Tracy is in type as Steve Grey, the murder story expert of The Star. A kind of right-hand man to the managing editor and a chap whose word to “hold the edition” is enough to stop every press in the building. Mr. Grey sets the town and his competing reporters by the ears with his masterly coverage of the J. Spencer Halford murder.
Mr. Halford, an investment broker of the deepest dye, is suddenly taken off at a target gallery. Mr. Grey consents to conduct Captain Cole on a tour of investigation, which soon convinces the good captain—and later a jury—that Halford’s killer was his partner, Henry Mander. Having accomplished this gratifying bit of newspaper work, our Mr. Grey reverses his field—we seem to be thinking in football terms, for some strange reason—and exposes the real murderer.
While the conclusion is reasonably surprising, it cannot compensate for the aforementioned slowness of the picture. Mr. Tracy, always an interesting player, has been seen to better advantage, and so little is required of the other performers that their work does not merit comment. List Murder Man as just fair-to-middling.
The Capitol’s stage show presents Lou Holtz, Belle Baker, Block and Sully and Moore and Revel.
The New York Times by F.S.N., July 27, 1935
Tracy’s first three films for MGM are not particularly memorable. Murder Man was shot very quickly in three weeks, before work began on Riff Raff in which he again appeared with Jean Harlow. The film received only mediocre reviews although, as usual, kind words were found for Tracy. The Hollywood Spectator reported that Spencer Tracy is a bumptious, conceited ass throughout, giving a really splendid delineation of the character handed him.’
Spencer Tracy by Alison King (1992)
Time Review: …The Murder Man is consequently only a little better than the average pop-gun and city-room mystery play, distinguished mainly by the agreeable acting of its two seasoned principals, Spencer Tracy and Virginia Bruce.
The Complete Films of Spencer Tracy by Donald Deschner (1968)
Within days after his arrival (at MGM), Jimmy was put to work—not on a film, but as male wallpaper opposite the numberless starlets who had managed to get past the obligatory casting couch and onto the next stage of their hoped-for careers, the screen test. So as not to be distracted by anything but the faces and figures of the young and pretty dreamers as they searched for the next Garbo, Dietrich, or Harlow, the producers used the neutral Stewart opposite the young women they tested.
The very much hands-on, paternalistic Louis B. Mayer—a common joke in Hollywood at the time was that actors would rather come down with T.B. than have to work for L.B.—had scored a major coup, having “stolen” Spencer Tracy from Fox. Tracey’s contract had loopholed during tat studio’s merger/takeover by Zanuck. Zanuck didn’t care, believing Tracy had neither the looks nor the talent to fit into the studio’s new focus. Mayer snapped up Tracy and immediately cast him in Tim Whelan’s sixty-nine-minute B job, The Murder Man (1935). Other than marking the actor’s debut at MGM, it is an ordinary and forgettable murder melodrama in which the actor plays Steve Grey, a reporter who kills one of the two men he believes responsible for driving his wife (Virginia Bruce) to suicide after a bad business deal, then frames the other for the murder. [This role was played by Louise Henry; Virginia Bruce played a stenographer at the newspaper. – Caren] In the Code-enforced climax of the film, grey confesses to both the murder and frame-up.
When Bill Grady heard about the production, he immediately pushed for Stewart to be given the small role of Shorty, one of Tracy’s fellow newspapermen, a fourteen-line bit of no consequence. Grady also had his eye on a role for Jimmy in the upcoming sequel to the surprisingly successful movie The Thin Man. The William Powell and Myrna Loy vehicle, in which they played the alcohol-loving, high-living, sexed-up husband-and-wife team who happen to solve murders between martinis, had proven an enormous hit. At the height of the Depression, W.S. Van Dyke II’s The Thin Man provided perfect pop escapism, and Mayer wanted to crank out as many versions of it as he could.
The start of production on Van Dyke’s After the Thin Man was till months away, but Grady knew that if he didn’t get Stewart into something before then, he had little chance of landing him a decent role in one of the studio’s hottest properties. Grady, aware that Murder Man’s producer, Harry Rapf, was having trouble casting his film, buttonholed him outside the commissary and recommended Stewart for the part, even though he already knew Rapf had envisioned Shorty the size of a jockey.
Rapf told Grady to get lost. The two argued loudly until Grady finally left in disgust. He wasted no time in getting hold of Tim Whelan, an old friend, scheduled to direct Murder Man, and called in a favor. Whelan, who hadn’t yet cast the role, agreed to use Jimmy, sight unseen. When Rapf saw the dailies, he blew a gasket and went directly to Mayer, insisting that both Grady and Stewart be fired. Mayer summoned Grady to his office, chewed him out, and threatened to hand him his walking papers, until Grady reminded the studio head that he had just signed a new five-year contract, and that according to its provisions, should he be fired, he would still have to be paid. Mayer then decided to wait until the movie was finished and see how it did before taking any further action.
Jimmy, who had no idea of the behind-the-scenes battle that had taken place over his being cast in The Murder Nam focused all his attention on Tracy during the filming, following the actor around lie a star-struck kid, As the production continued, Jimmy began to learn how making a film worked—the long process of waiting around, the time often spent kibitzing with the other bit actors while the stars retreated to their dressing rooms until someone called “Places” and a few seconds of footage was shot. One time during a particularly long break, Tracy turned to Jimmy, who happened to be standing nearby, and said, wistfully, “Gosh, I never get to go anyplace. I sit around all day and do nothing but wait.” Jimmy, astonished that the star had actually shared such a private thought with him and unaware that Tracy was the kind of drinker who ever remembered anything he said, particularly on-set and especially to another actor, remarked, without thinking, “That’s ridiculous, Mr. Tracy. When tis picture’s through, let’s you and me fly around the world.” To his amazement, Tracy seemed to go for the idea enthusiastically. “So we got maps,” Jimmy later recalled, “started planning the trip and everything was soon arranged. A few days later I asked him what luggage he was going to take on the trip. ‘What luggage? What trip?’ and [he] walked away from me.”
Once The Murder Man opened, in July 1935, and proved a hit, all the off-screen skirmish over using Jimmy was quickly forgotten, and he was no w being cast in one film after another, watched over carefully by Grady, who was waiting patiently for production to begin on After the Thin Man.
Jimmy Stewart: A Biography by Marc Eliot (2006)
Moving to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was like a shot of adrenaline for Spencer Tracy. The care with which he was handled and managed was light-years from the ineptitude he had known at Fox. “Spencer Tracy, looking like a million dollars, is reporting at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios every day,” Louella Parsons reported in mid-May. “If Irving Thalberg has his way, Spencer’s name will be electric-lighted throughout the world within the next year.” When Thalberg’s picture got delayed, Tracy was offered to other producers on the log, specifically Lawrence Weingarten, who had an original story of high finance for him called “Plunder”, and Harry Rapf, who was developing a script from writer-director Tim Whelan titled The Murder Man.
A newspaper story, The Murder Man had been written on spec by Whelan and his collaborator, the British playwright and librettist Guy Bolton. A studio reader, who covered the material just days before Tracy’s arrival at M-G-M, thought it a “first-rate yarn, well written, cleverly constructed, full of suspense. Dialogue good and not so snappy as to get under the feet of the swift action.” There was one great flaw: the hero of the piece, a well-known reporter who covers murder investigations for a metropolitan daily, turns out to be the perpetrator of one of the murders he has written about so presciently. “If he could be made to kill the man who stole his wife instead of merely the one who stole his money, we could get away with it”
Rapf himself was prone to sentiment and soft edges—Min and Bill, The Champ, The Sin of Madelon Claudet—so he was somewhat out of his element with a hardboiled crime melodrama. For the rewrite, he paired Whelan with a junior writer named John C. Higgins, who was working on the studio’s Crime Does Not Pay series of short subjects. With Higgins contributing dialogue, the two men gave the title character a stronger motivation. Tormented by his wife’s suicide and the reason for it, the character was recast in the image of the actor they now knew would be playing the part—a binge-drinking insomniac with a reputation for disappearing for days at a time. Tracy seemed to relish the part as a form of public confessional, a cleansing that signaled an end to his turbulent days at Fox.
He began the picture on May 28 with Virginia Bruce, a pale blonde who had been one of the original Goldwyn girls, as his leading lady. The film was, like The Show-Off, a quickie by Metro standards, and production zipped along at a brisk pace. Shooting in Culver City was a different experience from working at Fox Hills, where the atmosphere was decidedly ore administrative than creative. Sheehan’s shimmering Movietone complex was like a gigantic amusement park, expansive and contiguous. Metro, by comparison, was scattered over six separate lots, cramped and shedded and separated from one another by public thoroughfares. Exteriors at many studios were marred by airplanes and wind noise and the chirping of birds, but at M-G-M there were also Pacific Electric train whistles to contend with and the rounds of traffic just steps away.
Stages, dressing rooms, and administrative offices were concentrated on Lot 1, where the colonnade along Washington Boulevard was originally designed as frontage for the Triangle Film Corporation, so named because it was conceived as a gathering of three major producers: Thomas Ince, D.W. Griffith, and Mack Sennett. When that fragile alliance failed in 1919, the plant passed to Goldwyn, which based its production activities there until its acquisition by Marcus Loew’s Metro Pictures Corporation in 1924. Louis B. Mayer, whose own company was located on the rounds of Colonel William Selig’s former studio and zoo I East Los Angeles, came aboard to manage the newly formed company, bringing Irving Thalberg and the dour Harry Rapf with him.
Whelan had been a gag writer for Harold Lloyd, and he kept the action smart and sassy. He held Tracy’s first appearance until the second reel, but, unlike at Fox, where Tracy frequently appeared out of nowhere, his character dominated the early action as reporters for the Star fanned out over the city in search of Steve Gray, the paper’s famed “murder man,” missing after one of his legendary benders. In Whelan’s fanciful scenario, Gray is found aboard an all-night merry-go-round, snoozing soundly, a long string of tickets draped carelessly around his neck. As with The Show-Off, Tracy was on his best behavior, his lines down, his scenes frequently in the can with a single take. Thrown from a horse one Sunday while riding with cameraman Les White, he worked the next day as usual, nursing a back injury and a sprained arm. When a bit player failed to show for a brief exchange in a phone booth at the climax of the picture, Tracy mussed his hair dn played the part himself.
It was when The Murder Man wrapped after seventeen days of filming that Tracy got a real sense of why M-G-M pictures were a cut above all the others. Where Fox would likely have shipped the film or settled at best for a few trims, Rapf ordered retakes, a new scene, and, ultimately, a completely new finish. When the picture was finally put before a preview audience on the night of July 5, 1935, it unfolded with such impact that the crowd was visibly saddened when Gray was revealed as the guilty party in the picture’s closing moments.
Tracy, said the man from Daily Variety, played the role with “quiet, compelling conviction.” A week later, The Murder Man was released nationally, finding its way to Loew’s Capitol for the week of July 26. Bolstered by a $10,000 stage show starring Lou Holtz and Belle Baker, it drew $54,000 for the week, excellent despite the common judgment that the picture itself was too modest for a deluxe house. Print critics such as Abel Green objected to Tracy’s character as “the criminal reporter type of make-believe city-roomer who dictates his stories into an Ediphone, gets pickled in the time-honored Jesse Lynch Williams tradition, and talks to and insults his managing editor in a manner no star legman ever dreamed of doing without getting the blue slip pronto.”
“Despite all this,” wrote Leo Mishkin in the Telegraph, “The Murder Man manages to be a fairly exciting piece of work. This is chiefly due, I suspect, to the acting of Brother Tracy, a man with a keen sense of values and an excellent fund of conviction. As a matter of fact, it is not too much to say that Brother Tracy is one of the finest play actors in Hollywood, and if somebody would only give him a decent story, he would emerge as a star of the first magnitude. He is real, he is convincing, and he seems to know who it’s all about. That he makes The Murder Man a plausible and believable motion picture is a mighty tribute to his prowess.”
Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis (2011)
Bill Grady suggested to producer Harry Rapf that he cast Jim in The Murder Man—as a reporter called Shorty! ‘I think it was the very bizarre notion that I play a character called Shorty that persuaded the producer it was just bizarre enough to work,” said Jim. Filmed in 1934, The Murder Man starred Spencer Tracy as a wisecracking newspaperman known for his scoops on major homicide cases who becomes embroiled in a personal situation when his father goes broke after being conned by two men. When one of the con men is found murdered, Tracy investigates, with the result that the surviving con man is arrested for fraud and murder.
When released in 1935, The Murder Man didn’t make much of an impact, and Jim’s supporting role was barely noticed. ‘That was the way they worked you,’ he said. ‘You could do small parts in films, and if the films were no good, it didn’t matter because you weren’t he star. So you carry on working until they decide you either have what it takes, or you don’t.’
* * *
‘I was used to playing to alive audience. But all I had here [After the Thin Man] was a camera, and I didn’t know what to do for it. I was still learning and getting all the good advice I could. I was just so awkward…all hands and feet. I never knew what to do with them. Whenever I did a film [The Murder Man] with Spencer Tracy, I asked his advice. He said, “you’ve acted on the stage, haven’t you?” I said I had and he said, “Just forget the camera is there. You’re too aware of it. You’re feeling threatened by it. Don’t be. Let your hands and feet do what they do in life, not on the stage. If the camera likes you, it will like whatever you do.”
‘So I took his advice. Much later he said to me, “That advice I gave you. What I didn’t tell you was, if the camera doesn’t like you, you’re finished. But I didn’t think that would help your confidence. Lucky for you, the camera likes you, so it was good advice.” And it was.
Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn (2006/2013)
“A”-grade murder mystery which plays scrupulously fair to its viewers. In fact, I would say it’s too fair, as a keen-eyes and acute-eared audience will have no trouble spotting the killer straight away. Nonetheless, it’s directed with pace and enacted by a fine a cast as M-G-M ever assembled. Tracy in his first outing for the Lion provides a typically driving performance in a characterisation which seems remarkably close to the knuckle. Miss Bruce makes a charming and sympathetic “love” interest. Although his role can be counted as small, “Shorty” Stewart will not disappoint his fans as his gawky mannerisms and drawling delivery are already fully fledged. We also enjoyed Lionel Atwill’s ingratiating police captain. Aided by a first-class script, Atwill (in a rare totally-on-the-side-of-the-angels part) builds an uncommonly rounded portrait of a dedicated detective.
As for the support players, just look at the cast! I’d love to go through the list and congratulate all, one by one, but let’s just say that Lucien Littlefield, as the patently law-abiding shooting gallery-man, and Charles Trowbridge, an immaculate District Attorney, are especially fortunate both in the size and scope of their roles and the vital way in which their scenes are directed by tenacious Tim Whelan.
As well as its powerful direction and cup-runneth-over assembly of Hollywood’s brightest players, The Murder Man also boasts a friendly budget with top-of-the-drawer production values plus atmospherically A-1 behind-the-camera credits.
Great Cinema Detectives: Best Movies of Mystery, Suspense & Film Noir by John Howard Reid (2006)
Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
And-Scene by Sarah, August 8, 2011
Cinema Sentries by Luigi Bastardo, February 22, 2015
Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings by Laura, February 22, 2015
Immortal Ephemera by Cliff Aliperti, March 28, 2015
The Hollywood Revue by Angela, August 26, 2015
Just a Cineast by Ted S., December 9, 2017
Joining me for the evening were Andrea, Betsy, Charles, Chris, Jillian, Lee, Liz, Rolf and Ronda.