Gordon Douglas | The Falcon in Hollywood | Dick Tracy vs. Cueball | San Quentin | I Was a Communist for the FBI | Them! | Sincerely Yours

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Gordon Douglas

Gordon Douglas was a Hollywood film director.

Some common characteristics found in more than one of his films include:

Characters:

Society: Imagery: Story Structure: Information: Architecture and Design: Geometry: Color: Costumes:

The Falcon in Hollywood

Genre

The Falcon in Hollywood (1944) is a fun entry in the whodunit series.

While mainly this film falls into the whodunit genre, it has some unusual features. The extensive location shooting is unusual, and anticipates the semi-documentary crime films to come. The film takes place at a fictional film studio, Sunset Pictures Inc., and is shot on location at the real-life RKO Studios (the producer of the Falcon series). This inside look at a movie studio is one of the main appeals of the film. Later, there is a scene shot a the LA Coliseum, a giant sports arena. The huge scale of the arena, and its open space, anticipates the drainage canals shown in Them!.

Character Types

The British producer is one of a series of English intellectuals who run through Gordon Douglas' work. Like the others, he is wonderfully articulate and intellectual, and full of erudite monologue: here quotations from Shakespeare. Unlike other such characters in Gordon Douglas, he is not an ally of the hero, being a suspect in the mystery instead.

The two policemen start out by trying to coerce the Falcon. They do not get very far with this tactic. Later government officials in other Douglas films will be far more successful at coercing hapless good guys.

Underground

Gordon Douglas once again goes underground. There is a basement prop room, reached by steps from outdoors. This is where the body is discovered.

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball

Character Types - in common with Them!

Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946) shows approaches in common with Gordon Douglas' later classic, Them! (1954). Both films are adventure stories, whose heroes are a whole group of good guys. Some of the good guys are members of an official group (the police or military); others are gifted amateurs who work with them. Both groups fight against a spreading menace that erupts on many fronts: here it is a diverse group of crooks engaged in diamond smuggling.

In both films there is a middle aged man who helps the good guys. He is a fabulously articulate intellectual with a colorful background and rich personality. Both characters are played by gifted, veteran character actors; here it is Cecil B. De Mille veteran Ian Keith, playing Dick Tracy's friend Vitamin Flintheart. Both men are British, kind hearted and friendly. Both are clearly admired by the director, and are there to show the joy of intelligence and intellectuality. This is Vitamin Flintheart's first appearance in the Dick Tracy movies; later films in the series will bring him back.

Both films have a wide diversity of characters, including people of all ages and social classes. One suspects that old Hollywood wanted people in films with whom all age groups in the audience could identify. Esther Howard, the expert comedienne who was a veteran of most of Preston Sturges' films, does a great job here as saloon keeper Filthy Flora. She is richly tacky as the proprietor of this dive. She is always sympathetic. One suspects that most women could identify with her struggles to survive in a harsh world.

Both films also have woman characters who are taken seriously as part of the good guys team. There is a consistent women's lib point of view here. The women are professionally qualified people who do good work on their jobs. In Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, we have the four policewomen who Tracy interviews. (The film also has a sympathetic non-professional woman, heroine Tess Truehart, who undertakes an undercover role, like the similar amateur heroine of San Quentin to come.)

Both films deal with sinister underground passages, here the secret room under Flora's office. This aspect will be much more developed in Them!. There is also the basement at the lapidary's house.

What Genre is This? Maybe it's a Whodunit Without Mystery

This film does not fit directly into either main classification of 1940's crime films, the whodunit and film noir. It is not a whodunit: there is no mystery to be solved, and the audience is kept fully informed of all plot events without any mystification. And it is not a film noir: there are no signs of the alienation and obsession that Alain Silver has identified as earmarks of the genre. Rather, the film is delightfully comic in tone. It has an upbeat quality, and a sense of joie de vivre.

The film is closer in tone to whodunits. Although there is no mystery, it has such whodunit features as:

All of this makes it like a "whodunit without mystery": a film which is otherwise like a typical Hollywood whodunit, but which lacks a mystery to be solved.

Costumes

Dick Tracy's clothes are visually heightened and exaggerated, perhaps to recall those in the comic strip. He wears some of the loudest pin stripe suits in the history of Hollywood. He looks great in them. Still, most Hollywood leading men would have been given a subtler, less vivid chalk stripe in their suits. They give the hero a vivid, hero of a fantasy type appearance.

Tracy also wears a spectacular, full length overcoat. It is light colored; although one cannot tell in this black and white film, one suspects the coat is the same yellow as Tracy's famous overcoat in the comic strip.

Tracy's assistant Pat Patton is in the trenchcoat that was so popular for film noir heroes.

Villain Cueball is in the leather jacket, that is the other main outfit for Gordon Douglas men in this era. He takes on a number of working class roles: at one point he impersonates a cab driver. He also pretends to be a member of a ship's crew, a group of rough, tough, but wholesome working class men.

The crew are directed by ship's officers, in very dressy uniforms. The ship becomes another of Douglas' militarized worlds.


San Quentin

San Quentin (1946) is a melodrama, centering on prison reform at the famous federal prison. Unlike many prison movies, much of this one takes place outside the prison. Much of it is a gangster thriller.

There is some interesting stock footage of San Quentin, especially near the start. But this footage never contains the film's actors.

Like the settlement house to come in Mr. Soft Touch, the Prisoner Welfare League in San Quentin is an institution designed to improve the lives of the working class and poor. Later, in I Was a Communist for the FBI, the Communist Party is a crooked, dark parody of such institutions: one that is pretending to help working people, but which is merely exploiting them instead.

Sociology

Like other of Gordon Douglas' works, San Quentin takes place in a militarized world. The hero (ultra-tough guy Lawrence Tierney) is just back from World War II in the Army, and wears his Sergeant's uniform in much of the early film. The prison scenes are full of uniformed guards. The later parts of the film outside of the prison are full of police characters. All of the this contributes to a world in which the men are in military or quasi-militarized institutions.

The collaboration between the minister, priest and rabbi to aid the convicts is notable. It conveys a powerful sense of mutual respect.

San Quentin has a working class feel. The factory and quarry in the prison are manual labor. The hero wants to run a gas station, and his friend works in a garage. The drug store features a hard working clerk.

The refreshments served at the party make a commentary on the milieu: an approach found elsewhere in Douglas. In the San Quentin party, there is no booze. The good guy reformed convicts are drinking coffee instead: a sign of their reformed, sober life styles. The cake (it looks like chocolate) is a working class treat: an expression of joy, but not of luxury.

The young convict is abandoned by the hoods he's idolized during the breakout. Betrayal by leaders is a Gordon Douglas theme: the Communists will betray their followers in I Was a Communist for the FBI. (The naive young hood is played by Robert Clarke, a prolific actor who would star in Beyond the Time Barrier (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1960).)

Crime Elements

We briefly see a police communication room.

The hero gets tailed at night by another car. This is one of several scenes of tailing in Douglas.

The paper with the address for the bad guy falls out of the hero's pocket, and is picked up by the cop. This anticipates the letter the hero drops in I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Men and Woman Friends

The hero has strong relationships with both men and women. And both the male and female friends want ties to the other group: The hero's Army veteran buddy (Lee Bonnell), will help the hero. At one point, the handsome friend will urge the hero the sleep in his bed. This is a bit of imagery with homoerotic undertones. The buddy is a 100% good guy, whose actions genuinely help the hero.

Circles

San Quentin contains some circular forms:

Changes of Scale

The huge piece of cake cut by Broadway is perhaps related to the changes of scale found in Gordon Douglas.

Costumes

The costumes continue Douglas' enthusiasm for an almost exaggerated version of 1940's macho. When Tierney finally gets out of uniform and starts wearing civilian clothes, he is in one of the loudest pin stripe suits in the history of the movies. It is dark, with heavily accented lines. It looks terrific, but it is very underlined and emphatic. He also wears his hat too, and is a natty dresser in double breasted suits throughout the film. His police detective nemesis is also well dressed in suits.

Tierney's Army veteran friend (Lee Bonnell) wears a leather bomber jacket, one of several mid-1940's movie characters to wear leather jackets, a new fashion trend of post World War II America. The friend's jacket is perhaps linked to his garage job. Please see the article on Leather Jackets in Film.

The driver of the warden's car during the attack is a prison guard. He is wearing an unusually spiffy uniform. He has his cap carefully set on a jaunty tilt. The hero Tierney also wears his hat at a stylish angle in this scene. Drivers of cars run through Gordon Douglas films.

The heroine wears a jeweled butterfly pin, when she goes undercover. This bit of winged insect imagery anticipates the ant queen in Them!.


I Was a Communist for the FBI

Far Right Wing Politics, Anti-Communism, Defense Committees

I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) is about the most far right wing film made in post-1929 Hollywood. It depicts much of the racial tension and labor unrest in America as being directly Communist inspired. It also glorifies the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). These are not attitudes expressed briefly in passing; instead, the film offers very detailed commentary on all of these subjects. It is odd to see this film being distributed by Warner Brothers, which just a few years before, had made equally extreme Communist propaganda movies like Mission to Moscow and Watch on the Rhine. The film is unusual for its detailed commentary on domestic American politics. Most Hollywood films about Communism in America are spy thrillers, with little to say about politics: for example, Robert Stevenson's I Married a Communist (1950), Leo McCarey's My Son John (1952) and Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1954). By contrast, at least half the screen time of I Was a Communist for the FBI is devoted to a detailed exposition of its filmmakers' political beliefs.

The film is particularly negative about "defense committees", which raised funds for minority group members accused of crimes. The film repeatedly suggests that these are nothing but fund raisers for Communism. It explicitly mentions the one for the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930's. By contrast, The Underworld Story (1950), made by the soon to be blacklisted Communist director Cy Endfield, had glorified such defense committees. I am not a professional historian, and am unable to comment about the accuracy of depictions in such films. In real life, Orson Welles and boxer Joe Louis had appeared at such a fund raiser in 1946.

The film does mention that the national CIO is trying to get rid of the local Communists who've infiltrated the labor union. So the film does not claim that the labor union movement as a whole is Communist.

Oddly enough, leading man Frank Lovejoy had just appeared in Cy Endfield's Try and Get Me! (1950). The two films are among the few leading roles for character actor Lovejoy, who had a radio background. What Lovejoy is doing working first for a Communist, then an anti-Communist, is anybody's guess.

Strong Working Women

The film shows some of Gordon Douglas' personal traditions. Active, capable women are a constant feature of Douglas' films:

Semi-documentary film noir: Undercover FBI agents

Several aspects of the film are in the semi-documentary tradition: All of these are features of the semi-documentary tradition.

The film is another look at undercover FBI agents. Here, the agent has spent nine years in his undercover role. This is a new dimension to the depiction of undercover activity. Most of the semi-documentary films had depicted undercover assignments as being brief in duration. The film recalls Anthony Mann's T-Men (1947), in that it shows the undercover hero as living inside his role, being cut off from his loved ones, and paying a huge personal price. These aspects of the film are really depressing. The film's tone is grim, and it has little entertainment value.

Ancestors to the TV Series Wiseguy

Like William Keighley's The Street With No Name (1948), this film is directly ancestral to the 1980's TV show Wiseguy.

Both I Was a Communist for the FBI and Wiseguy deal with FBI agents in long term undercover roles, who experience great stress. Both come from highly traditional ethnic families, who live in old fashioned houses. In both, the hero experiences anguish because he cannot tell his aged mother that he is an honest man. In both, the only person outside of the FBI that knows his true honest nature is a priest who is his confidant.

Costumes

The men here continue to wear the extremely flamboyant double breasted suits favored by Gordon Douglas. These too are part of noir tradition.

Agents Coerced by Superiors

The FBI agents who are the hero's superiors seem to be much younger than he is. Unlike many films, in which the FBI agents tend to be played by tough types, here the FBI agents are played almost by juveniles. They are very handsome and polished looking. These men are always dressed to the teeth. They have authoritative suits and big offices. They are always sending the hero out on miserable assignments, always with a straight face and for the good of the country. There is no camaraderie between these superiors and the hero. One hardly gets the feeling that these are all FBI agents working for a common cause. Instead, the hero seems to be regarded as being on an inferior plane by these men, someone they are there to order around, arm twist and coerce. They seem to have absolute confidence that they are on a higher level than the hero.

The agents treat the hero more as if he were really the criminal he is pretending to be. They seem certain that they are the source of correct procedure for undercover assignments.

Douglas does something similar in Them!, where the agents cause the pilot to remain in his role at the asylum, against his will. The young government agent absolutely coerces the Texas pilot, forcing him into a role. Once again, it is for national security. In Them! the enforcement is made doubly secure by being unbeknownst to the pilot, who is lied to.

In both films, the man in the enforced role seems of lower class origin. This contrasts with the polished upper middle class image of the FBI agents. He is definitely below them in social status. It gives their treatment of him as a subordinate an extra forcefulness. In I Was a Communist for the FBI, there are signs that this status differential is artificially created by the FBI. They have created the hero's undercover role. They made sure it was purely working class, and restricted to his job at a factory and life in a working class neighborhood and school system. They also made sure that the hero is entirely alone in his role, without any support. By contrast, they always meet with the hero as a group.

One can compare these films to 1950's detective novels by Harold Q. Masur. In Masur's You Can't Live Forever (1951) and Tall, Dark and Deadly (1956), his lawyer hero turns into a suspect and gets interrogated by unsmiling government and police officials, who always seem to include some of the hero's friends.


Them!

Semi-documentary - but science fiction, not a crime thriller

Them! (1954) deals with a militarized America. Virtually everybody is part of some government institution, whether police, military or scientific.

In this it has a certain affinity to the semi-documentary film noir. This is a science fiction film, not a crime thriller, however, and the sinister "gang" the good guys are going after consists not of human crooks, but of giant ants. Still, the emphasis on men in uniform recalls the semi-docs; so does all the high technology used by the good guys. So do the huge personal sacrifices ultimately extracted from the heroes of the film. As in the semi-docs, the principal emotional relationships of some of the heroes, notably James Whitmore's cop, seems to be mainly with his partner.

The finale of Them! takes place in the storm drains under Los Angeles. These had previously been seen in Anthony Mann's He Walked By Night (1948). There is even a repeat of the same statistic used in the earlier film, that there are 700 miles of such drains under the city. The way Them! has a finale in an industrial area underscores its relationship to semi-documentary film noir.

Gordon Douglas films like to go to unusual locations near Los Angeles. The whodunit The Falcon in Hollywood (1944) goes backstage at a movie studio (actually RKO Studios), and gives a guided tour of the place.

The swinging ceiling lights, in the country store, are a film noir image. They especially appear in films by Anthony Mann.

Links to Shadow on the Wall

The opening scenes in Them! with the little girl recall a crime film: Patrick Jackson's Shadow on the Wall (1950), based on the novel Death in the Doll's House (1943) by Hannah Lees and Lawrence Bachmann. Both films: This is another link between Them! and film noir.

Mystery Structure

The opening half hour treats the events in the desert as a mystery. More and more clues build up: the footprint, love of sugar, indifference to money, the tearing outwards of walls, the formic acid.

One suspects that most viewers of Them! already know the solution to this mystery, before watching the film. And that this was true of the original theatrical audience, as well as subsequent television viewers. However, this mystery structure allows for clear, logically organized story telling. It thus has a benefit, even if the audience already knows the mystery's solution.

Science and Society

Them! pays enormous attention and respect to science and scientists. It is part of a rationalist era in American life, in which there was a broad social consensus that science was accurate and relevant.

Them! shows its scientists warning the world that events are putting the planet in terrible danger. Both individuals and government heed this warning and act on it.

The attitudes shown in Them! have a great lesson for us today, in facing the very real crisis of Global Warming.

Changes of scale

In Them!, ants grow to giant size, and ant architecture, such as ant holes, tunnels and anthills, also grows enormously.

Such "changes of scale" also show up in other Douglas films. In The Falcon in Hollywood, part of the backstage tour of the studio shows us the workshop where miniatures are made, for special effects. There is a neat shot of a man who puts an airplane under his arm - it's a miniature model.

Underground

Even before the scenes in ant tunnels and the storm sewers, we see an underground chamber at the country store. It is accessed through a trap door.

Circles

Them! contains some circular forms. These include the entrances to the ant holes.

Some of the technology used by humans to fight back is circular:


Sincerely Yours

Sincerely Yours (1955) is a mixture of melodrama and concert film, starring Liberace.

Liberace: Crossover Music

In the 1940's Liberace was a crossover figure, starting out in classical music, but adapting its techniques to pop. He is a real life antecedent of the crossover musician protagonists in Edgar G. Ulmer's classics Detour (1945) and Carnegie Hall (1947), two of the finest films of the later 1940's. During this era, the idea of fusing classical music and pop or jazz was widely discussed. Sincerely Yours shows Liberace performing both classical music and pop standards. Both are treated with respect and enthusiasm.

Sincerely Yours also shows Liberace promoting and performing folk music. The alliance of classical music and folk songs goes very deep, and has a history of hundreds of years. Classical composers like Beethoven arranged folk songs. Others like Dvorak and Vaughan Williams included folk songs in their work. Major figures in classical music like Bartok served as folk song collectors.

Sincerely Yours shows Liberace promoting an interest in classical music among children. He takes their requests, and encourages their interest.

I am disturbed by the tendency to treat Sincerely Yours as Camp. One can legitimately agree or disagree with its idea that it is good to fuse classical music with pop and folk songs, or to use showmanship to encourage mass audiences or children to attend classical recitals. But it seems like a poor idea just to snicker at the film, and dismiss its ideas out of hand. Its enthusiasm for bringing music to the mass public might have lessons for us all. And maybe we should view Liberace in it with respect.

More on Liberace

Like the hero of Detour, many classical musicians faced great financial hardship. Liberace was one of the many musicians who survived the Depression by being employed by the WPA, the US Government work program. Government support for the arts made a big difference: something we should remember today, when radical right-wing libertarians seem bent on destroying both government and the arts.

The Offer (1983) is an episode of the TV series Hotel. Liberace plays himself, and helps an elderly couple celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary (Margaret O'Brien, Donald O'Connor). The Offer was a favorite of my parents, who felt it portrayed everything that was wonderful about Liberace. My parents, Midwesterners from working class families, loved Liberace, and visited the Liberace museum in Las Vegas. The Offer shows Liberace being warmly responsive to his audience, taking requests and playing their favorites. Similar scenes are throughout Sincerely Yours.

Links to Mr. Soft Touch

Sincerely Yours (1955) has links in subject matter to Douglas' Mr. Soft Touch (1949). Both:

Links to crime films

Sincerely Yours is utterly non-crime: it has no crime or suspense elements. But is does have links to techniques used by characters in Douglas crime films: Sincerely Yours also has documentary-like features: The scenes of Liberace playing the piano, are straightforward renditions of a Liberace concert. Some Gordon Douglas crime films fall into the semi-documentary tradition.

Changes of scale

The kid gives the hero a music box in the shape of a tiny piano. The piano seems like a transformed version of the normal size pianos throughout the film.

Costumes

The shiny black tuxedo Liberace wears at the benefit actually looks good. Some of the flamboyant clothes Liberace was famous for in his stage and TV acts look outre and silly today. By contrast, this tuxedo, while very flashy, is actually flattering and well-designed. Most men would look good in it. The costumes for Sincerely Yours are by Howard Shoup, who specialized in giving flair to men's clothes.

The tuxedo is consistent with the heightened, flashy clothes often worn by men in Gordon Douglas films.