Mervyn LeRoy | Subjects
| Visual Style
Films: Three on a Match
| Heat Lightning | Happiness Ahead
| The King and the Chorus Girl | Johnny Eager
| Quo Vadis
| Strange Lady in Town | Toward the Unknown
| The FBI Story | The Devil at 4 O'Clock
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Mervyn LeRoy is a Hollywood film director.
Mervyn LeRoy: Subjects
Subjects in Mervyn LeRoy films:
Minorities and the Oppressed:
- Upper crust characters who run away to live with ordinary people
(anti-heroine: Three on a Match, composer: Gold Diggers of 1933,
heiress: Happiness Ahead, King: The King and the Chorus Girl,
heroine: Johnny Eager, Roman commander goes to fire victims, Christians: Quo Vadis,
woman doctor: Strange Lady in Town, doctor: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
related (heroine: Heat Lightning)
- Alcoholics (anti-heroine: Three on a Match, hero: Hi, Nellie!,
King: The King and the Chorus Girl,
friend (Van Heflin): Johnny Eager,
heart patient told to avoid alcohol: Strange Lady in Town,
neighbor woman: The Bad Seed,
recovering alcoholic pilot: Toward the Unknown,
alcoholic friend Hamilton: Home Before Dark,
priest hero: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Bad boy vs nice guy romantic duels (Three on a Match, Heat Lightning,
Johnny Eager, Million Dollar Mermaid)
- Difficulties of motherhood (bad child, losing child: The Bad Seed, husband in danger, son in war: The FBI Story)
- Female-run homes with noble but absent fathers on government duty (Little Women, The Bad Seed, The FBI Story)
- Non-violence vs evil use of force (Dorothy vs witch: The Wizard of Oz,
Christian love vs Roman militarism: Quo Vadis)
- Priests (Anthony Adverse, Paul, Peter: Quo Vadis, Strange Lady in Town, The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
Ministers (father: Little Women)
- Small business owners glorified (desert service station: Heat Lightning, Happiness Ahead)
related (hero becomes "industrial prince of England": Random Harvest)
- Responsibilities of the press (Hi, Nellie!, They Won't Forget)
- Elaborate hoaxes (woman pretends to sail to Europe: Three on a Match, man as "female" columnist: Hi, Nellie!,
romance: The King and the Chorus Girl, Wizard: The Wizard of Oz,
heroine's plot: Random Harvest, killing: Johnny Eager,
husband says doctor ordered him not to sleep with wife: Home Before Dark)
related (hollow coin used by spies: The FBI Story)
- Famous real-lfe people portrayed briefly in historical films (ballerina Pavlova: Million Dollar Mermaid,
Billy the Kid, Lew Wallace and Ben Hur: Strange Lady in Town)
- Pioneering women scientists or technicians (auto mechanic: Heat Lightning,
physicist: Madame Curie, woman doctor: Strange Lady in Town)
- Strong woman heroines aided by other women (Blondell aided by Bette Davis: Three on a Match,
Dorothy aided by Glinda: The Wizard of Oz,
sisters, mother, aunt: Little Women,
swimmer encouraged by Pavlova: Million Dollar Mermaid,
woman doctor aided by nursing nun, Spurs: Strange Lady in Town)
- Business schools for women (Three on a Match, They Won't Forget)
related (daughter goes to nursing school: The FBI Story)
- Sinister crones (Ma Magdalena: Little Caesar, Wicked Witch of the West: The Wizard of Oz)
- Respect for minorities (Jews at school, Asian pianist, dignified black chauffeur: Three on a Match,
Mexicans: Heat Lightning, Chinese: Happiness Ahead,
evils of slave trade: Anthony Adverse,
plea for religious brotherhood: The House I Live In,
Christians scapegoated in Ancient Rome: Quo Vadis,
Native Americans, Hispanics: Strange Lady in Town,
Jews: Home Before Dark,
Native Americans vs Ku Klux Klan: The FBI Story,
Hansen's disease vs discrimination: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Gay characters (Rico: Little Caesar, Bette Davis: Three on a Match, jokes in bar: Hi, Nellie!,
heroine: Heat Lightning,
Cowardly Lion: The Wizard of Oz, friend (Van Heflin): Johnny Eager,
Jo: Little Women,
Marguerite: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Sympathetic convicts in chains (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
related (girl's reform school: Three on a Match, hero chained at gladiator arena: Quo Vadis)
- Probation officers or officials (Johnny Eager, The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
related (doctor releases mental patients: Home Before Dark)
- Mentally ill people try to recover and gain social acceptance
(shell-shocked officer with amnesia: Random Harvest,
woman mental patient helped: Strange Lady in Town,
Korean POW: Toward the Unknown, released mental patient: Home Before Dark)
- Civic parades (Southern town: They Won't Forget, Munchkins: The Wizard of Oz,
soldiers enter Rome: Quo Vadis) related (grade school graduation: Three on a Match)
- New Year's Eve (Little Caesar, Happiness Ahead, Home Before Dark)
- Government main offices with flags and men in dress uniforms (air base general: Toward the Unknown,
French Governor: The Devil at 4 O'Clock) related (father is Air Force colonel sent to Pentagon: The Bad Seed)
- Sky figures (billboard with couple at end: Little Caesar,
Dick Powell singing: Happiness Ahead,
Glinda: The Wizard of Oz, first view of Laurie in upstairs window: Little Women, giant figurine: Strange Lady in Town)
- Jumps or falls from high place (anti-heroine jumps: Three on a Match, divers: Million Dollar Mermaid,
hero parachutes at end: Toward the Unknown,
Mario falls from high cliff: The FBI Story, heroes parachute to rescue kids: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- People who arrive by air, to tour strange lands (The Wizard of Oz,
officials fly in to tour air base: Toward the Unknown, hero flies to South America: The FBI Story,
island: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Dangerous flying (air race in primitive planes: Million Dollar Mermaid,
test pilots: Toward the Unknown, flying by volcano: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Natural disasters (tornado: The Wizard of Oz, volcano: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
related (Rome burns: Quo Vadis)
- Jets of flame (Wizard's palace: The Wizard of Oz, ballet: Million Dollar Mermaid, volcano: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
related (lightning: Heat Lightning, Rome burns: Quo Vadis, lightning at end: The Bad Seed)
- Smoke (witch: The Wizard of Oz, ballet: Million Dollar Mermaid, plane trails: Toward the Unknown,
volcano: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Happy rides in vehicles (desert travelers: Heat Lightning, The King and the Chorus Girl,
carriage in Emerald City: The Wizard of Oz, chariots: Quo Vadis, buggies and chase: Strange Lady in Town,
taxi cab trailed by FBI baby blue "florist's truck": The FBI Story)
- Dogs (Toto: The Wizard of Oz, dog races: Johnny Eager, hero trains Rin Tin Tin: Million Dollar Mermaid)
- Coins (women dressed in coins: Gold Diggers of 1933,
fee for first case: Strange Lady in Town,
hollow coin used by spies: The FBI Story)
- Technological or scientific locales (service bay under cars: Heat Lightning,
behind the curtain: The Wizard of Oz,
laboratory: Madame Curie,
experimental air base: Toward the Unknown,
FBI crime lab: The FBI Story,
earthquakes, volcanos, medical workers, planes: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Medical clinics in remote areas (Strange Lady in Town, The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
related (asylum: Home Before Dark)
- Innovative technology (stethoscope, Lister's antisepsis: Strange Lady in Town,
improved treatment of Hansen's disease: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Communication (radio from plane broadcast by sound truck: Toward the Unknown,
red phone on hero's desk: The FBI Story,
radio-tower collapses: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Semi-documentary aspects (experimental air base: Toward the Unknown,
crime film: The FBI Story,
police, pilots: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Training (FBI cadets learn to shoot: The FBI Story, how to parachute: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Relations between serious music and popular art
(hero rejects classical music to write popular songs: Gold Diggers of 1933,
Nero thinks himself great composer: Quo Vadis,
ballerina Pavlova praises water dances of heroine: Million Dollar Mermaid)
- Classical music pieces (Weber's Invitation to the Dance at party: Little Women,
Ave Maria and church choir: Strange Lady in Town)
Mervyn LeRoy: Visual Style
- Roads or paths the characters walk on (Yellow Brick Road: The Wizard of Oz, island path: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Secret rooms (Ma Magdalena's hideout: Little Caesar, behind the curtain: The Wizard of Oz,
hero's suite: Johnny Eager)
- Underground areas (service bay under cars: Heat Lightning,
sewers people flee to during fire: Quo Vadis, caves: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Staircases (Little Caesar, reform school: Three on a Match,
The King and the Chorus Girl, final shooting: Johnny Eager,
palace steps, fountain with steps: Quo Vadis,
stairs up to flight tower: Toward the Unknown,
steps outside asylum, dock, stairs at home: Home Before Dark,
ramp at stadium: The FBI Story)
- Art Deco settings (Rico's apartment: Little Caesar, Emerald City: The Wizard of Oz)
- Round settings (revolving Merry-Go-Round bar: Hi, Nellie!,
revolving house in tornado, spiral start of Yellow Brick Road: The Wizard of Oz,
round room at Nero's palace: Quo Vadis,
Busby Berkeley round designs: Million Dollar Mermaid)
related (small aircraft with Holden: Toward the Unknown,
turnstile in fence: Little Women,
curved road in Central Park, circular windows at Broadway cafe: The FBI Story)
Costumes and Color:
- Orange and red color schemes (heroine's home with orange furniture, red curtains, red dress, pink gown: Strange Lady in Town,
test flight with orange-and-white checkerboard flags, orange-and-white parachute, plane, red shirt: Toward the Unknown)
- Red, yellow and blue color schemes (Lloyd Nolan's office: Toward the Unknown)
- Purple clothes for women (heroine's pale violent dress: Strange Lady in Town,
purple wrapper of town lady: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Red hats (conical hat of Margaret O'Brien in play: Little Women,
pilot's cap: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
- Blue uniforms (Union officers: Little Women, Cavalry officer: Strange Lady in Town,
Air Force pilots: Toward the Unknown)
- Festive men in white tie and tails (Fairbanks: Little Caesar,
Warren William: Three on a Match,
night club: Gold Diggers of 1933, King: The King and the Chorus Girl,
dance: Little Women,
Albert: Million Dollar Mermaid, Dana Andrews: Strange Lady in Town)
- Tuxedos (bad guys: Three on a Match, Robert Sterling: Johnny Eager,
husband: Home Before Dark)
- Metal clothes, dealt with by technology
("Pettin' in the Park" and can opener, women dressed in coins: Gold Diggers of 1933,
Tin Man and oil can: The Wizard of Oz,
tiara of stars in play: Little Women,
Roman armor, Poppea's gold dress: Quo Vadis,
gold metallic swimsuits: Million Dollar Mermaid,
hero's silver belt: Strange Lady in Town,
silver-like flight jackets: Toward the Unknown,
dress: Home Before Dark) related (shiny propellor beanie with music: The FBI Story)
- Groups in elaborate, related costumes (Munchkins: The Wizard of Oz,
Christmas clowns: Million Dollar Mermaid)
- Group costumes for subordinates (white coveralls for air crew: Toward the Unknown,
FBI cadet uniforms: The FBI Story)
- People being groomed (Blondell in beauty shop: Three on a Match,
barber shop: The Wizard of Oz, Nero gets toes painted: Quo Vadis,
getting Spurs in dress: Strange Lady in Town,
beauty shop: Home Before Dark, barber shop: The Devil at 4 O'Clock)
Three on a Match
Three on a Match (1932) is melodrama about three young women and their lives.
Three on a Match is an absorbing but remarkably unpleasant movie.
Basically, it is a story about how a woman's sex addiction to a handsome but worthless boyfriend
causes her to ruin the lives of everyone around her. Nothing matters, as long as she gets sexual fulfillment.
Things go from bad to worse to really, really bad.
Three on a Match anticipates Johnny Eager, another unpleasant film in which a respectable woman gets
involved with a bad boy she finds sexually appealing, and then is led to total disaster.
Both films take LeRoy's often comic subject of "wealthy person runs away to live among ordinary people",
and give it a tragic twist. All the anti-heroine of Three on a Match gets when she runs away from home
to live with her boyfriend, is trouble.
In some ways, the anti-heroine's ruthlessness anticipates The Women, in which a man's desire for a no-good girlfriend
causes similar home-wrecking. However, The Women has a political dimension about men having more power than women,
which is lacking in Three on a Match.
Warren William plays the "good guy" rival to the bad boy. He is unable to trigger any sort
of feelings at all in the heroine. He is rich, kind, well-dressed, and clearly likes sex
(William often played rich, roue sophisticates in pre-code films).
None of this matters to the anti-heroine at all. She wants her handsome boyfriend.
Bette Davis plays a nice governess, but one who seemingly takes no interest in men.
She does seem fond of her friend (Joan Blondell), and one wonders if this governess is a lesbian.
The woman's reform school also includes a woman who swears off men,
as the source of all trouble.
LeRoy is an anti-racist, pro-Civil Rights director. The public school in Three on a Match
has sympathetic (if a bit broadly played) Jewish characters. And there is a briefly seen
Asian student playing the piano in the school orchestra.
The briefly seen black chauffeur is dignified and non-stereotyped. He makes a notable contrast to all
the stereotyped black characters in 1930's Hollywood films.
Heat Lightning (1934) is a drama set in the American Southwest.
Like Mervyn LeRoy's Strange Lady in Town, the film has a vivid US desert setting.
Both films show a respect for their Hispanic characters.
Mervyn LeRoy made films about medical clinics in remote areas: Strange Lady in Town,
The Devil at 4 O'Clock. The gas station/cafe/motel in Heat Lightning resembles
them, in that it is a compound in a distant, isolated locale. However, it does not offer medical care.
Providing car repair might be something of an equivalent, however.
The heroine is like a proletarian version of Mervyn LeRoy's woman scientists to come.
Madame Curie is a physicist and the heroine of Strange Lady in Town is a doctor.
The heroine of Heat Lightning runs a garage and specializes in auto repair.
She is explicitly doing what society believes is "man's work", doing it very well, and deliberately
smashing sexist stereotypes, and showing the world that a woman can do anything.
While she is not a full-fledged scientist, she is a technician with huge skills.
Also, she is explicitly helping people, like the idealistic characters in Strange Lady in Town,
The Devil at 4 O'Clock. She fixes cars better than they were before, and the mere
existence of the service station is a huge help to distressed desert motorists, as the dialogue
Mervyn LeRoy's films are full of well-to-do people who have run away from home,
and founded new lives. Once again, the heroine of Heat Lightning was never well-to-do.
But she has indeed run away from her old frivolous life in Tulsa, and created
a new profession and existence for herself in the desert.
The heroine is linked to imagery that suggests she might be lesbian.
She wears exceptionally mannish work clothes, and makes speeches denouncing
heterosexual relationships as leading to disaster. She does have a straight side, in her
past and in later sections of the film, however. The heroine is highly sympathetic,
and the film seems to respect her alternative approach to gender and sexuality.
Leading man Preston Foster plays another of Mervyn LeRoy's Bad Boys: sexy men
who are evil and up to no good. Foster's bank robber ruins the lives of
everyone he encounters. Like Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager, Foster
is duded up to the max in dressy clothes. Both men are definitely
city slicker types.
Some Mervyn LeRoy films square off a Bad Boy against a Good Guy rival.
In Heat Lightning, such a Nice Guy is the heroine's gentle local friend
Everett (Willard Robinson). He is dressed in clothes that recall State Troopers or forest rangers:
what might be called "country macho".
Mervyn LeRoy's Bad Boys hurt men who are under their thumb, too. Robert Taylor
victimizes best friend Van Heflin in Johnny Eager. In Heat Lightning,
Foster keeps getting his much more decent fellow crook Lyle Talbot in worse and worse trouble.
The service bay under the cars is one of Le Roy's underground areas.
It perhaps relates to the secret rooms that run through
LeRoy - although it is not secret. Like the area behind the curtain in
The Wizard of Oz, it is a technological center.
Happiness Ahead (1934) is a little musical comedy. Its
first half hour is much better than the rest of the film: it is
a typically uneven Mervyn LeRoy movie.
Links to Gold Diggers of 1933
Many of the themes recall Gold Diggers of 1933:
- Both films involve a character from the upper
crust who is trying to break out of their mold, and join the more
meaningful world of ordinary people. Here it is heiress Josephine
Richardson; in the earlier film it was composer Dick Powell.
- In both films, the characters conceal their backgrounds.
- Both films also unfortunately target classical music. Both films
regard classics as the stuffy, dull music of upper class stiffs.
Both regard it as inferior to the lively pop music played by ordinary
folks. I do not agree with this point of view at all. However,
something at least makes me glad that LeRoy has an opinion that
he is not afraid to share. So many films seem to be calculated
to appeal to people. Here is a director instead who fearlessly
conveys his own ideas. (Later, in Million Dollar Mermaid,
classical ballerina Pavlova will go out of her way to encourage the pop artist heroine.)
- Both films caricature the rich as hopelessly effete and dull. Such caricatures
are raised to new heights in Happiness Ahead.
However, Happiness Ahead is actually very sympathetic to its upper class businessman.
Unlike Sergei Eisenstein, who loathed
wealthy businessmen and made them the center of his satire, Mervyn
LeRoy reserves his scorn for rich people who are idle, do not work,
and who spend their time in Society. Unlike Eisenstein, LeRoy's
philosophy here is not Communism, it is the plain old Capitalist
Work Ethic. LeRoy also glorifies the Dick Powell character,
a working class guy who is trying to start a business of his own.
He is not too proud to work along side his men, but he wants to
be their boss and business owner as well.
Superimposition - and Sky Figures
Happiness Ahead opens with a striking shot of Dick Powell
singing, superimposed against a sky. The effect is if he were
a supernatural being, offering advice from a higher and better
world. His song is a prediction of Happiness Ahead for
the audience, so it is a futuristic forecast, as well.
Superimpositions and dissolves were at their height in this era:
see Sternberg's extraordinary dissolves in
Shanghai Express (1932), for instance. Allan Dwan
had superimposed shots of the Three Musketeers
over clouds at the end of The Iron Mask (1929),
to convey that they were immortals. Here Mervyn LeRoy does something
similar right from the start. The people on the silver screen
have always looked larger than life anyway. LeRoy's startling
effect underscores this in spades.
Later in the Mervyn LeRoy produced The Wizard of Oz (1939), Glinda
will appear superimposed in the sky above Dorothy, working her
magic protective spells. Glinda is an actual fantastic being
with magical powers, something that was only suggested in the
earlier film. In both cases, the sky being is benevolent. In both,
it is trying to help and watch over someone, Dorothy in Oz,
the audience in Happiness Ahead. One also recalls the giant
figurine which is set afire as part of the fiesta in Strange
Lady in Town. It too is designed to help people magically
with their troubles.
New Year's Eve
After this, the film moves fairly rapidly to its great set piece,
the New Year's Eve celebration in the Chinese restaurant. LeRoy
loved New Year's Eve scenes. This is a bigger, fancier and longer
version of the one in Little Caesar (1930), which was already
pretty elaborate and impressive. While at the restaurant, Dick
Powell sings the film's other best song, "Pop Goes Your Heart".
The sympathetically presented, non-caricatured Chinese characters
are a symbol of the film's democratic leanings.
The King and the Chorus Girl
The King and the Chorus Girl (1937) is a very sweet romantic
The character types in this movie recall previous Mervyn LeRoy films.
Little Caesar (1930) set up an opposition between the strong,
tough Rico, and his weak willed friend, played by Douglas Fairbanks,
Jr. This young man wanted to dance, not to take part in crime,
and the film virtually condemns him as a wimp. However, he is
a figure of glamour and romance as well. The King in the later
film seems like an extension of the Fairbanks character, adapted
to the needs of comedy:
The King in this film is treated as a likable if easily satirized
figure. This is a much more sympathetic treatment than was meted
out to the Fairbanks character. I like this treatment much better.
What are its underlying causes? Partly, this is a comedy, and
comedies are always more sympathetic to human failings. But also,
this film is not trying to glorify gangsters. I have felt a great
deal of reservations about Little Caesar: Fairbanks' reluctance
to get involved with crime seemed reasonable to me, but it is
virtually condemned as cowardice in that film. In real life, a
desire to have fun and to dance is a much more desirable quality
than Little Caesar makes it appear. This latter film recognizes it.
- Both men are dressed the same, in either
double-breasted suits, or in evening clothes. Their white tie
and tails are remarkably similar in both movies, even including
a watch chain dangling from their pocket.
- Fairbanks was often shown against nightclub settings;
the best scene of the film shows
him wandering through a nightclub New Year's Eve celebration,
complete with streamers, a visually splendid scene that contrasts
with the visual barrenness of much of the rest of the film. Similarly,
the King is often shown against festive, ritzy settings,
either night clubs or his own palatial apartment.
- Both men are easily manipulated by their women, to whom they are devoted.
- Both are pleasure loving, and self-indulgent; neither is cruel or mean.
They often look for the line of least resistance in their affairs.
Both Mervyn LeRoy films show a fondness for staircases. These are apartment
staircases, and twisted around in spirals. Little Caesar also
has a fire escape.
There are no baroque staircase angles, of the
type we associate with film noir. Instead, the staircases are
shown from the front, in a straight-on angle shot. They are shown
as a whole. LeRoy's camera steadily watches a person climb their
entire length. These staircases tend to be shot slightly from
below, from a ground floor level. This emphasizes the height of
These scenes have plenty of drama. They are related
more to the spectacular sets of the silent and early sound era,
than they are to the enclosed spaces and dramatic angles of film noir.
Many Mervyn LeRoy films of the 1930's alternate between interiors and
automotive scenes. These show people riding in cars, and being
picked up and dropped off on the sidewalk. The automotive scenes
are so common as to almost be a trademark. These scenes are usually
upbeat: people usually seem happy, even festive, when they are
out driving to some party or event.
Johnny Eager (1942) is a sort-of gangster movie. Its characters are
less tough than those of the gangsters of the 1930 era. Instead, the film is
notable for the number of juveniles among its main players: Robert Taylor, Van Heflin,
Barry Nelson, Robert Sterling.
The heroine is another of Mervyn LeRoy's upper crust characters, who want to get a
new life among ordinary people. However, in Johnny Eager this develops
a tragic twist. The heroine winds up among gangsters, not ordinary honest people.
And her life turns to tragedy, rather than the fun in LeRoy's more comic films.
Johnny Eager has a hidden suite of lavish rooms. LeRoy's earlier gangster film,
Little Caesar, eventually hid its hero in a tiny secret room at Ma Magdalena's.
There is also the space "behind the curtain" in The Wizard of Oz.
Van Heflin's friend is another of the gay characters who run through Mervyn LeRoy's films.
He is also an alcoholic, like the hero of The Devil at 4 O'Clock. I have never
been a fan of Van Heflin. This is his famous, Oscar winning performance. It is
impressive, but not really enjoyable.
Robert Sterling's big offer to Robert Taylor late in the film, also has gay subtexts.
It has masochistic sexual undertones. It also shows an admirable aggression. A
Bad Boy vs Nice Guy romantic duel will return in Million Dollar Mermaid.
The opening has Robert Taylor working his charm on a uniformed policeman. This shows Taylor's
appeal is to men, as well as to women.
The murder scheme is really sick. It had been anticipated by a prose short story,
"The Assistant Murderer" (1926) by Dashiell Hammett,
in Hammett's collection Nightmare Town.
Robert Kalloch creates more of his spectacular double-breasted suits for men.
His clothes for Cary Grant in His Girl Friday are the archetypal dapper
dressy 1940's suits. In Johnny Eager, Barry Nelson's suit and Robert Sterling's
double-breasted tuxedo are remarkably glamorous.
Quo Vadis (1951) is an epic about the persecution of Christians
under Emperor Nero in Ancient Rome.
Quo Vadis has major anti-war themes, showing how Roman militarism and conquest
should be replaced by Christian love and non-violence. These scenes show that people
have to change their thinking, and that this is not going to be easy.
The hero, for example, is a glib spokesman for traditional Roman values,
which he accepts unquestioningly.
Such later Roman films as Demetrius and the Gladiators (Delmer Daves, 1954)
and The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann, 1964)
will also express non-violent or pacifist themes.
Minorities and Scapegoating
Quo Vadis goes into detail showing the process of how
minorities are scapegoated, to deflect criticism away from people in power.
Here, the government tells lies about the Christian minority,
blaming them for the burning of Rome. The film clearly wants the
audience to learn a general lesson, about how such scapegoating
is a common way minorities are blamed in the modern world.
This is related to LeRoy's lessons of tolerance in The House I Live In,
and the consistent concern for minorities that run through his films.
The film emphasizes that St. Paul is a Jew. This is an important reminder.
The opening and other scenes show the hero glamorously driving his chariot.
This is an example of happy rides in vehicles in LeRoy. He will soon
enter the great, and exotic, city of Ancient Rome, the way the heroes
entered the Emerald City of Oz. One of LeRoy's huge civic parades
The hero and others are in a series of spectacular metal breast-plates,
in the Roman style. They are examples of LeRoy's interest in
metal clothes. At various times, the hero is in silver, gold,
and in a fascinating coppery color armor. Late in the film, wicked
Empress Poppea is in a gold dress.
The Burning of Rome
The Burning of Rome is one of the film's major set pieces. It anticipates the
erupting volcano in The Devil at 4 O'Clock. In both films, the hero has
to lead children and other locals to safety, through a terrifying fiery
The sequence involve huge bursts of flame, a Mervyn LeRoy image. The hero eventually
gets the good idea to go down into the sewers that lie underneath the street.
The sewers perhaps reflect the hidden room imagery in LeRoy. They are
underneath the street, the way the service bay is underneath the cars
in Heat Lightning.
The hero defies many commands, to go aid the ordinary people of Rome.
And for much of the rest of the film, he will live among Christians.
He is another of LeRoy's upper class characters who run away and live
with ordinary people.
Meanwhile, decadent Nero is composing a song, to celebrate his burning of Rome.
Nero has elements of an "intellectual musician". It is a very negative
portrait of "art music", consistent with the skepticism LeRoy showed
towards modern day classical music in Gold Diggers of 1933.
The throne room in Nero's palace is a huge circular chamber.
Its roundness is emphasized by circular markings on the floor.
The room is often shot from overhead angles, that bring out the circular
shape of the chamber.
Outside, the square platform for pagan worship is surrounded by
circular designs on the ground. It too is often shot from above.
Nero's palace has steps outside. In between sets of steps, the fountain
also has water moving down over a staircase-like series of steps.
Strange Lady in Town
Woman Scientists - and Fleeing to a New Life
Strange Lady in Town (1955) is one of Mervyn LeRoy's best dramas.
It deals with a woman doctor (Greer Garson), who winds up in Santa
Fe, New Mexico in the 19th Century West. The film has a good script,
and is vividly acted by a bunch of talented performers. It depicts
in a forthrightly feminist way with the issue of women trying
to break into professions controlled by men. Greer Garson had
previously starred in Mervyn LeRoy's Madame Curie, another feminist
film about a woman scientist. So this is a natural progression
for their characters.
Like the King and the heiress in other LeRoy films, here Garson
is an upper crust Bostonian who has run away from her home, to
start a new life among ordinary people. But Garson is not a spoiled
rich woman; instead, she is fleeing discrimination against her
as a woman doctor. She is hoping to make a fresh start in Santa
Fe. She charms everybody, including a troop of cowboys and most
of the locals.
Spurs: A Tomboy and Feminist
Spurs is a young woman rancher who befriends the doctor. Spurs wears a man's shirt and trousers, and has never worn a dress.
As a sympathetic woman in mannish clothes, she recalls the heroine of Heat Lightning.
The heroine of Heat Lightning is competent at "men's work", and Spurs is good at riding and perhaps other ranch work, although this is not shown much.
As a dynamic young woman who is trying to grow up, and who is male-oriented in her role, she recalls Jo in Little Women.
However, unlike those characters Spurs does not seem to be a lesbian. Spurs has a hopeless crush
on a male Cavalry officer, marking her as straight. And her male clothes and activity seem to be influenced
by her rough-and-ready frontier Western environment, rather than being a purely personal choice.
Still, Spurs is far away from traditional feminine ideals, and represents non-standard gender possibilities for women.
Spurs disapproves of her brother's male chauvinist view of wives, as women who look after their husbands.
Spurs ridicules this. This recalls a bit Jo's skepticism about marriage in Spurs Little Women.
Spurs offers support for the woman doctor. She explicitly explains this support to her brother,
by pointing out that both the doctor and she, Spurs, are both women. This has feminist dimensions.
Spurs also resembles the heroine of Calamity Jane (David Butler, 1953). Both are exuberant Western women
in male clothes, who have crushes on handsome Cavalry officers. Both eventually get into a dress.
The sympathetic treatment of the Native American characters is also typical of
Mervyn LeRoy's regard for minorities.
There is less violence here than in many 1950's Westerns. Its
female protagonist also makes this atypical of Western films.
There is a bubbling sense of happiness running through many of
The time period is too early for automobiles, but the film is
full of people riding buggies and horses. These are full of LeRoy's usual joy at such activities.
There is a big chase in a buggy.
There is also one of the dance sequences that run through Mervyn LeRoy's films.
These tend to involve public dancing by groups of people.
They are always happy social events.
Dana Andrews and Civilization
Dana Andrews is an unusually refined leading man for a Western.
He specialized in playing successful urban types, such as the
news executive he depicted in Fritz Lang's
While the City Sleeps (1956), and the psychologist in Jacques Tourneur's
Night of the Demon (1956). Here he is equally civilized,
being both a ranch owner and a doctor. He conveys a sense of advancing
civilization in the West, something LeRoy regards as an entirely
good thing. So does Garson's doctor.
Andrews is also as well dressed as the typical LeRoy hero, being in a series of sharp suits,
and culminating in white tie and tails, like many other LeRoy males.
When we first see Andrews, he is wearing a silver belt.
This is an example of LeRoy's interest in metal clothes.
It also suggests the expert silver workers of the US Southwest: the film takes place in Santa Fe.
Metaphors of Directing
The priest conducts the church choir.
Mervyn LeRoy has a running interest in coins.
The heroine demands payment for her first job, and gets a ten-dollar coin.
This is then used in a bit of business, reflecting the skill of Hollywood story tellers using objects.
The heroine walks from her home to the church. The camera accompanies her with a later track.
The pleasant shot shows Old Santa Fe buildings, and is accompanied by sounds of the church choir
singing "Ave Maria".
Early one, we see the inside of the heroine's house. It is brilliantly colored.
There are orange furniture, red curtains, and we see a red dress and a pink gown.
The heroine wears a striking pale violent gown, in a later scene.
Toward the Unknown
Toward the Unknown (1956) is a drama about test pilots.
Toward the Unknown occasionally mentions, that its experimental air vehicles
and techniques might be used for space exploration. This aspect is played up in
the film's poster. Toward the Unknown is thus an early look at real-life space exploration.
It does not look at the future: it examines real activities of the present day.
Toward the Unknown is one of my favorite titles. We should all be trying to
explore the unknown, and discover new things.
Toward the Unknown has semi-documentary features.
It was shot on location at Edwards Air Force Base in California,
the real-life center of advanced aircraft testing. It gives an in-depth look
at government test pilot and experimental aircraft programs.
Many early semi-documentary films looked at military programs, especially
those centering on aviators. These include The Flying Fleet
(George W. Hill, 1929) and Frank Capra films
about high tech military vehicles: Submarine (1928), Flight (1929)
and Dirigible (1931).
Then these air subjects for semi-documentary films largely became replaced by police forces
and crime fighting units, peaking in the later 1940's and early 1950's.
Toward the Unknown brings us full circle, back to aviators again.
Key features of the semi-documentary subgenere are present in Toward the Unknown:
Important Visitors from the government fly in, and get a guided inspection tour
of the base. This reflects the LeRoy subject of "outsiders who arrive by air in a strange land,
and get a tour of its marvels". This subject is appears in The Wizard of Oz and
The Devil at 4 O'Clock.
- It has uniformed government workers, here pilots.
- Science and technology are prominent.
- Location shooting is extensive.
Mervyn LeRoy made many films extolling racial minorities, integration and racial equality.
But the real-life test pilot program was strictly reserved for straight white males.
So was the soon-to-be-launched astronaut program. Toward the Unknown reflects this reality.
It is thus an odd subject for a Mervyn LeRoy film.
While LeRoy made films about a woman scientist in Madame Curie,
and a woman doctor in Strange Lady in Town, there are no equivalents in Toward the Unknown.
In the world of Toward the Unknown, women are either wives or secretaries.
In real life, actor James Garner is partly of Native American descent. This is not brought out
in the film, however. Garner aside, Toward the Unknown is about as racially and sexually
segregated a world as one could imagine.
Toward the Unknown does take a look at one important social minority: the mentally ill.
The hero was tortured by the North Koreans, and had a mental breakdown.
He is now recovered and trying to rebuild his life and career. Mervyn LeRoy will soon look at
a civilian woman trying to rejoin the world after being institutionalized for mental illness, in
Home Before Dark.
Sympathetic, realistic looks at mental illness have always been few and far between in
films. The Korean War and POWs being tortured opened up a window for the discussion of such topics.
They allow the linking of mental illness to a Manly Man like pilot hero William Holden.
The outdoor staircases to the flight tower make a memorable scene.
They are painted in two bright colors, making them more conspicuous.
Lloyd Nolan's office is brightly colored.
Some bright red and blue are prominent, with the US flag and the blue Air Force flag,
as well as furniture and wood that looks reddish. The men are in blue Air Force uniforms.
There are also yellow charts.
The test flight scene at the end has orange-and-white checkerboard flags,
and Holden's parachute in the same colors. The plane has many bright orange sections.
A man wears a red shirt.
In addition to its eye-catching brilliant color, Nolan's office is the seat of
"government authority, with flags and officials in sharp dress uniforms".
This display of symbolic authority also makes for eye-catching viewing.
It anticipates the Governor's office in The Devil at 4 O'Clock,
which is organized along similar principles.
General Nolan's aide, a young Lieutenant (L.Q. Jones), has comically exaggerated ideas of discipline.
He is presented as that old Hollywood convention, a figure of comedy relief.
However, one suspects the film secretly likes him and his saluting and standing at attention.
He allows the film to indulge in all sorts of traditional discipline activities, but treat them with a comic touch.
Toward the Unknown is ambiguously posed, between the military (everyone is involved with the Air Force)
and activities that might ultimately lead to non-military goals (prototype space flight).
Thus it allows features of "militarism", such as fancy uniforms, saluting, and high ranking officers,
to be combined with what might well be pacifist goals, such as getting to outer space.
Toward the Unknown thus gives the filmmakers a chance to combine glamorous "militaristic" atmosphere,
like fancy uniforms, with non-military activities.
The aviators wear spectacular gray-to-silver flight jackets, and matching pants.
These are examples of the metallic clothes in LeRoy films.
The flight crew on the ground are in very clean looking white jumpsuits.
The FBI Story
A Late Semi-Documentary
The FBI Story (1959) tells the story of the FBI, through the life of a "typical" agent (James Stewart).
The film recalls the semi-documentaries of the 1940's:
However, The FBI Story differs greatly from a 1940's semi-doc:
- It has lots of documentary-like material mixed in with the fiction.
- It centers on an elite government crime fighting institution (the FBI).
- It shows men being trained by that institution.
- It features government labs and scientific detection.
- The FBI Story is much lower key in tone than a tradition semi-doc.
- There is a great deal more about the hero's family life, and less about his work, than in a 1940's film.
- The hero episodically works on a series of cases, rather than one big one.
- It lacks the finale at a technological area, common in 1940's semi-docs.
- The film is in color.
Metaphors of Directing
Some scenes in The FBI Story can be viewed as metaphors for making a movie:
- The hero "directs" the family photo he takes.
- The daughter tries to give a class speech, and forgets her lines.
She runs off crying, and the hero has to comfort her: just the way a director would comfort an actress
who messed up a movie scene.
- The paint samples at the FBI perhaps suggest an Art Department of a Hollywood studio.
- The FBI cadet on the shooting range is "directed" by an instructor, on how to behave.
- The Easter egg hunt is perhaps "directed" by the mother, who sets it up.
- Having a suspect's car trailed by another, disguised FBI vehicle, might be a metaphor
for filming one car on a city street, shot by a camera in a second vehicle.
Architecture and Circles
The anti-Communist spy episode towards the end, finds the heroes tracking cars on curving roads
in New York City's Central Park. This is perhaps a mild example of the circular architecture
in LeRoy's films.
Soon, everyone converges on a Broadway bar, where the windows are conspicuously circular.
The FBI Story occasionally shows bright color:
- The paint samples used by the FBI to identify a car.
- The party cake.
- The important phone in the hero's office, marked out by blazing red (the signal of a government "hot line" in 1959).
- The bright taxi cab, followed by the even brighter baby blue "florist's truck" (actually an FBI vehicle disguised).
Sky Imagery: The South America Sequence
LeRoy's films often show sky imagery. This imagery is present in the South American sequence of The FBI Story.
It begins with the hero flying by air to a strange land: we get spectacular footage of the hero's plane
flying through the mountains around Rio. This footage might well be stock footage. Still, it
conveys the favorite LeRoy concept, that the country to which the hero is traveling is full of marvels.
SPOILER. The South American sequence ends with a man plunging off a very high cliff.
Such falls from heights are also part of LeRoy's world.
The Devil at 4 O'Clock
The Devil at 4 O'Clock (1961) is an early example of the Hollywood "disaster movie".
Here, a South Seas island is threatened by a volcano.
The Devil at 4 O'Clock also deals memorably, in attacking discrimination against a minority group.
Several of the characters are people who've abandoned previous lives, to work on the island.
One of these might have been rich in the outside world (the doctor). This is a familiar Mervyn LeRoy subject.
There are also poor characters who have run away to the island, such as Marguerite - this is less typical.
Links to The Wizard of Oz
The Devil at 4 O'Clock resembles The Wizard of Oz:
- In both, a likable, "normal" outsider arrives by air to a strange land, and makes a journey through its marvels
to its interior. While there is nothing supernatural about the island in The Devil at 4 O'Clock,
it is almost as full of strange things as Oz.
- Both locales are full of danger.
- In both, the heroes walk along an elaborate path (the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz).
- A violent natural disaster is in both films: a tornado in The Wizard of Oz, the volcano in
The Devil at 4 O'Clock.
- Jets of flame and billowing smoke appear in both works (and other LeRoy films as well).
A Scientific Film
The Devil at 4 O'Clock is a film deeply oriented towards science:
LeRoy had previously made a major film about scientists, Madame Curie.
- It looks at earthquakes and volcanoes from a scientific point of view.
- Many of the characters are medical workers, and it has an in-depth look at tropical disease.
- Pilots and planes are prominent.
The film also recalls Strange Lady in Town. Both have doctors setting up clinics
in remote areas, in need of medical attention. Both deal sympathetically with persecuted
minorities. The two films share a common idealistic, liberal point of view.
A Late Semi-Documentary
The Devil at 4 O'Clock recalls a bit the semi-documentary films made a decade
earlier in Hollywood:
However, unlike the typical semi-docs, the government workers are not the film's heroes. And
The Devil at 4 O'Clock is not really a crime film, although it has both convicts
and government officials as characters.
- Like them, it has uniformed government workers, here pilots and police.
- Also like the semi-docs, science and technology are prominent.
- Technical training is shown: how to parachute.
- Location shooting is extensive.
A Gay Character?
Marguerite (the Matron at the clinic) can sure seem like a Lesbian. A big, tough looking woman with interesting tastes
in reading material (girlie magazines), Marguerite is not actually labeled "gay". She is a 100% sympathetic character.
Marguerite heaps scorn on men in general as cowards, when the male convicts are scared of a patient.
She ridicules men with their muscles - but no bravery.
The volcanic eruption disaster is full of collapsing phallic symbols: a canon, a pointed steeple, a telephone pole.
Finally the island's chief high technology device and tallest object collapses: the radio-phone tower.
These collapses seem to affect the men: both priests, the island's military Governor, who witnesses the tower collapse.
The Devil at 4 O'Clock occasionally shows isolated objects with bright color:
Much of the film is in more neutral colors.
- The red cap one of the pilot's wears.
- The purple wrapper of one of the town ladies.
- The barbershop pole.
- The yellow flower lost on the trip down the mountain.