Terry Morse | Smashing the Money Ring
| Tear Gas Squad
Classic Film and Television Home Page (with many articles on directors)
Terry Morse had a long career in Hollywood as a film editor, from
the 1920's to the 1960's. Periodically, he would break out and
start a short-lived career as a director. He directed around fifteen
films all told. None is well known today.
Some common subjects in the films of Terry Morse:
- Characters who change uniforms and group identity (Smashing the Money Ring, Tear Gas Squad)
- Dressy police uniforms (Smashing the Money Ring, Tear Gas Squad)
- Crimes involving currency (Smashing the Money Ring, Dangerous Money)
- Tear gas used by police in raids (Tear Gas Squad, A Fugitive from Justice)
- Shipboard scenes in crime films (The Adventures of Jane Arden, Smashing the Money Ring, Dangerous Money)
- Characters who don't attempt to defend themselves in court (On Trial, Smashing the Money Ring)
- Semi-documentary looks at institutions (prison: Smashing the Money Ring, police academy: Tear Gas Squad)
- Undercover detectives (The Adventures of Jane Arden, Smashing the Money Ring, Dangerous Money)
- Musical numbers and crime films ("My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean": Smashing the Money Ring, Tear Gas Squad)
- Camera movement
Smashing the Money Ring
Smashing the Money Ring (1939) is the third of four Brass Bancroft B-movies,
starring Ronald Reagan as a Secret Service agent. It is the only one directed by Morse.
The heroes attack counterfeiters, one of the main jobs of the real life US Secret Service.
The way Steve Parker refuses to defend himself against the slugging charge in court,
recalls the premise of Morse's previous On Trial.
An Early Kind of Semi-Documentary
Smashing the Money Ring is far from resembling the post-war semi-documentary
crime films, in any systematic way. Yet it does give us an inside look at a prison.
This look is detailed, and includes many facets of prison life.
The hero's undercover role also anticipates later semi-documentary crime films.
See my Chart showing the History of the Semi-Documentary Detective Film.
Anticipating The Shawshank Redemption
The prison anticipates the modern film The Shawshank Redemption (1994):
The prison guard uniforms in both films are similar. Both have:
- Both have prison libraries, run by an older man.
- Both have spiffily uniformed squads of prison guards.
- The guard captain is one of the film's characters.
It is possible that the similarity of the uniforms reflects real-life paradigms,
about what dressy police uniforms should look like.
- Police-like badges and insignia.
- Jackets with four patch pockets, a standard feature on the most dressy real-life uniforms of all types.
- Sam Browne belts, with a harness over the guard's chest and two-pronged belt buckle at the waist.
- Peaked caps with shiny black visors.
There are comic book tales with similar uniforms. See:
The Shawshank Redemption is in color, not black-and-white like Smashing the Money Ring.
So it is able to do things with color, like gold badges, buttons and belt buckles.
Also, the Captain has a black uniform with gold badges,
while many of his men have blue ones with silver badges.
- The sympathetic prison guard in
"Stone Age Menace" (Flash Comics #86, August-September 1947) (page 9),
a Flash tale.
- The police on the cover of Crime Must Pay the Penalty #24 (February 1952).
In the black-and-white Smashing the Money Ring the uniforms have a dark-but-not-black look.
This suggests they are navy blue, a very common color in real life for police uniforms.
I suspect most audience members are guessing that the uniforms are navy blue.
For what it's worth, I don't know the ACTUAL color of the uniforms, as they appeared on the movie set.
For all I know, they might have been dark green or purple or something,
to give the right dark-but-not-black look when photographed. The important thing is that
the uniforms, when seen on screen in the black-and-white film,
suggest to the audience that they are navy blue.
Morse likes to employ camera movement in Smashing the Money Ring. It is
especially common in opening shots of scenes. These show characters maneuvering
their way through crowds of people, as the camera follows them. Some of the
movements have back-and-forth qualities, as the characters move first in one
direction, then another.
Uniforms and Group Appearance
Smashing the Money Ring is full of spectacular men's clothes,
by costume designer Milo Anderson:
SPOILERS. Smashing the Money Ring is fluid in depicting identity and uniforms.
Many of the characters change their clothing and their apparent identities.
Good guys go undercover as convicts. Guard uniforms are put on and off.
Men move back and forth between tuxedos and suits. Such fluidity will
return in Morse's Tear Gas Squad.
- The prison guard uniforms are unusually spiffy and dressy.
- Hero Ronald Reagan looks great in the tee shirt
he wears, while undercover as a convict.
- Donald Douglas sports a stylish tuxedo.
Tear Gas Squad
Tear Gas Squad (1940) is the utterly misleading title of
a little film about the police. The film opens and closes with
gangland action, but mainly this is a musical comedy about aspiring
policeman Dennis Morgan. The songs in this film are worked into
the plot "realistically": they all consist of Morgan's
character singing to his friends, professionally, or as part of
a police choir. Nobody just bursts into song in the full film
An Early Kind of Semi-Documentary
I tend to think of semi-documentary pictures as starting with
Henry Hathaway's The House on 92nd
Street (1945). But there was an earlier tradition of semi-docs,
many of which were made a Warner Brothers in the late 1930's and
early 1940's These were not basically crime thrillers, like the
later works. Instead, they tended to concentrate on the training
of young recruits. Wings of the Navy (1939) depicts aspiring
Naval aviators learning their craft at Pensacola in Florida; it
is intermixed with much real life footage of airplanes, training
flights, and aerial sequences. The whole film is like a documentary
about Pensacola, but starring fictional characters. There are
no crime elements in this film at all, but it is a genuine "semi-documentary".
The later, film noir semi-docs, will also often feature elaborate
scenes of recruits being trained and inducted into government
institutions, although these are usually crime-fighting units
like the FBI or the Secret Service.
Tear Gas Squad is more or less in this Warner Brothers
tradition. Much of the film is about the training and initial
work of new police recruit Morgan. The training scenes are quite
elaborate, and give a complete picture of the training of New
York City policemen. They have less location footage than Wings
of the Navy or The House on 92nd Street, however. The
tone is largely comic, as well, unlike the usually grim semi-docs.
Related films showing heroes getting trained:
All three of the films Tear Gas Squad, Code Two,
Top Gun make a huge deal out of the heroes' uniforms.
Milo Anderson was the costume designer in Tear Gas Squad.
He specialized in making Warner Brothers' male stars look classy.
He did most of Errol Flynn's costume dramas, for example. He also
worked with Dennis Morgan. He was responsible for Morgan's posh
white tie and tails outfit in Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943),
for instance. Here he has gone absolutely to town on the police
uniforms worn by Dennis Morgan and John Payne.
- The whole film reminds one of Code Two (1953), the LAPD
training film directed by Fred Wilcox.
- For that matter, there are scenes that anticipate
Top Gun (1986), especially at the end when the hero reconciles
with his rival after saving his life. The two men have similar
personalities in both films: the hero is a smart aleck who has
trouble obeying orders, while the rival is a stickler for procedure.
Director Terry Morse had a long career as a film editor.
Tear Gas Squad shows a fairly conventional editing style.
A long shot master set-up will establish a scene, showing all the
participants and their spatial relationships. Then Morse will cut into a series
of medium-to-close shots of the characters. These close-ups will
forcefully convey the emotions of the people involved, as well
as their physical appearance. Morse will alternate among the characters.
He might show character A, then B then C, then back to B, then
A, then C again, and so on. A typical scene might cut five or
six times to each character. There is much rapid alternation among
the shots; this cross cutting is Morse's main way of adding movement
to a scene. There is a propulsive or dynamic quality to these
many alternations among the characters. Once Morse has settled
on a camera set-up for a character, he sticks to it throughout
a scene. For example, all the shots of A above will be from precisely
the same point of view and angle. Similarly, all of B's will be
from another, fixed angle. Morse will often include two or more
people in one of these medium shot series. For example, a series
of shots might always show characters D and E.
Morse does not
use this editing effect to convey conflict among his characters.
Unlike many directors, he does not typically show fighting among
everybody. Instead, the idea is to convey that each character
is in a private world. One character might be full of romantic
bliss, another of apprehension, another of skepticism. Each character's
emotional state will be the subject of a series of close-ups of
Morse occasionally uses camera movement as well:
- One sequence
starts up with a close up of a police badge, then tracks out to
show all the characters and their environment. This is a common
approach in Hollywood.
- More interesting are his sweeps down the
line of recruits in the training scenes. One saw such tracks down
military formations in Sternberg's The
Last Command (1928), for instance, and a somewhat similar track is in
Raoul Walsh's The Thief of Bagdad (1924).
Morse is less dynamic and sweeping than Sternberg, but he has a related idea.