As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
The Lindbergh Baby Case enthralled not just the world's journalists; in the funny pages, Dick Tracy was soon on the case, in a fiction-reality crossover soon brought to a halt by the tragic discovery of the murdered tot's remains. But movies continued to exploit the theme of baby-napping, and for some reason George Marshall, a useful Fox journeyman, was most associated with this particular sub-sub-sub-genre.
Marshall had worked with Laurel & Hardy (Towed in a Hole, an excellent short and one of the duo's few to exploit the comedic value of camera angles) and is best known today for Destry Rides Again. Despite these strong comic associations, he directed plenty of dramas, particularly westerns, during his fifty-three year career. We'll encounter him again, I hope.
Introducing Destry Rides Again at Bologna, Ehsan Khoshbakht got a good laugh with the line, "Marshall isn't usually listed among the great directors... because he isn't one." True enough. But he was more than a hack or traffic cop: he had a great gift for farce, and he trained Marlene Dietrich to avoid her Sternberg-mandated approach of striking poses, opening up a whole new lease of life for her.
Show Them No Mercy! (1935) is an early Twentieth Century Fox release, though the end title indicates that it was produced by the pre-merger Twentieth Century Productions. It's an odd concoction, in which a bland all-American couple (Edward Norris and Rochell Hudson) with baby and dog (both much more characterful than the leads) fall into the hands of kidnappers holed up in a shack. Though directly inspired by the more recent Weyerhaeuser kidnap case, it seems to me the more famous Lindbergh tragedy is the one that established the box office value of babysnatching.
The standard way of doing this would be to contrast the perfidy of the hardboiled crims with the innocence of their captives, but by overplaying the Brand-and-Janet simplicity of its protags, the movie defies us to empathize. Instead, the movie is carried by the leader of the gang, played by Cesar Romero, in an impressively straight-ahead, ruthless manner. You can finally see why his nickname was "Butch."
Mind you, his whole gang is impressive: Bruce Cabot, fresh from battling King Kong and not a scratch on him, is the real baddie, while Edward Brophy, a props man given his break as comic foil by Buster Keaton, and Warren Hymer, a familiar dumb hoodlum type, allow Marshall to keep the tone weirdly flippant, even as a baby fights for life.
Rochelle Hudson was a frequent star of 20th Century Fox releases, most of them now lost to time, irradiating her contemporaries with perky wholesomeness. I don't know what the point of Norris was: his origins and purpose are still a total mystery. As they shelter from a rainstorm (broke-down jalopy) in the kidnap shack, they are delighted to find supplies and recent newspapers in the boarded-up residence. Nothing seems to strike them as odd, and when the bad guys burst in with revolvers, they greet them with friendly smiles. They're the type of American comedian Stewart Lee once accused of being capable of spending a year locked up with a tea-cosy without the elementary curiosity to try in on as a hat. Indeed, they spend days locked up before discovering a hole in the floor leading to a possible escape.
The inadequacy of the "stars" makes it easier to appreciate Romero's snappy gang leader, Cabot's vicious drunk, and Hymer and Brophy's clowning (the last-named in particular amuses as he's driven to distraction by a woodpecker, which he various refers to as "duck," "buzzard" and "eagle").
Best of all is the ending. Here it is. Spoiler alert: it's the ending.
Rochelle Hudson does look damn fine with a gat in her hands, something I never thought I'd say. The anachronistic "squib" effects appear to be added to the image via animation, an early use of the kind of "blood enhancement" now common with CGI.
Two years after this outing, Marshall riffed on Lindbergh again in Nancy Steels is Missing! (1937), again with a news headline main title and exclamation point, again with a snatched infant. This began its life as an Otto Preminger project, and the Austrian auteur actually shot a few days on it before getting canned by Zanuck, who took a long time to warm to the bullet-headed martinet. Preminger's footage was scrapped and Marshall took over the task of conveying a convoluted yarn in which Victor McLaglen hands over to a friend a millionaire's baby he's run off with as some kind of cockamamie peace protest, passing it off as his own kid.
The mug's gallery this time is even better than Show Them No Mercy!'s. To McLaglen's snarling tough is added hangdog Walter Connolly, sinister twinkler Peter Lorre and lugubrious beanpole John Carradine. Jane Darwell, specialist in characters called "Ma," normally grafter into a rocking chair, starred in lots of neglected Fox B-pictures as well as supporting big stuff like The Grapes of Wrath. Nancy herself grows up to be scandal-magnet June Lang.
It becomes increasingly clear that Fox were not just exploiting a tabloid craze, but cashing in on the public's desire to see the tragedy come out more happily. Both films spare the youngster, and the first offers the cathartic spectacle of violent revenge upon the abductors. The second takes the weirder route of making the lone kidnapper a pacifist, taking a twisted revenge on a millionaire he views as a war profiteer. McLaglen is an odd kind of peacenik, as you could guess from one look at the great brute: his crime is motivated by political animus over profit.
But he's arrested for another crime, and the flick becomes a prison movie, one of several narrative switchbacks. You can hear the name "Zanuck" yelled out in the big house roll call: apparently Darryl could take a joke (there's a great outtake from Mamoulian's The Mark of Zorro where a cast member stares at the letter Z carved into a stagecoach's upholstery and gasps in terror, "Zanuck!")
The good news for us (not so great for McLaglen) is that his cellmate is Peter Lorre, who hasn't yet had his tombstone teeth fixed or lost weight (by taking speed), so he's very much the guy we know and love from M. But with Mr. Moto's granny glasses. "We are all here by mistake, any man in the building will tell you that," he purrs, lighting up a cigarette and the scene.
Just then, World War I is declared (oh yeah, it's also a period picture): cue Dutch tilts of prisoners yammering exultantly from their cages, frenzied with bellicose patriotism. It's as if Lorre has smuggled in a dose of German expressionism. (Carradine is a neighbor, it's The Big House of Horror.) It turns into a remarkable sequence as the cons launch into a rousing rendition of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," while McLaglen bellows "Wait till the rats and machine guns get ya! Suckers! Suckers!" And you know, of course, that McLaglen is the kind of customer of whom you need never ask, "Would you like to go large?" Fade out as he cackles insanely.
He really gives pacifism a bad name, this guy.
Lorre, meanwhile, is a murderer (oh good). Unrepentant (even better). "All that bothers me is a certain carelessness I showed. I went to his funeral. It wasn't sentiment, you understand, it was curiosity. I was curious to see what they could do about that hole in his head."
Fate, or the contrivances of a desperate scenario department, keep lending a hand in this one, so that the coincidences pile up like corpses in a Peckinpah. McLaglen, too hot-tempered to do his time, misses WWI and prohibition, getting out of stir on the very day the guy he left in charge of little Nancy expires. Attempting to slip a belated ransom note to her father, he gets hired as gardener instead. So now Nancy is growing up in the sight of her real father, with the man who snatched her masquerading as pops. It's unnatural. Meanwhile, Big Vic's former cellmate Lorre is skulking around as only he can, with his eye on the ransom too, because you see, Vic talked in his sleep...
It gets stranger. McLaglen, at some unspecified point in the narrative, decides to make a clean breast of it, but Lorre, having stolen Vic's evidence of the kidnapping, produces a fake Nancy to claim the reward. Now McLaglen has new pseudo-paternal feelings pulling him in multiple directions at once. And the fake Nancy is awful. You can see her "father" wishing she'd stayed kidnapped.
"Oh, it's better than a movie," says Real Nancy. "Yeah. Much better," says Vic.
In the film's last ten minutes, McLaglen gets to go on a one-armed punching spree, recalling both his daughter-defending violence in Allan Dwan's While Paris Sleeps, one of the best pre-Code Fox potboilers, and the more recent lethal fatherliness of Liam Neeson. A whole action movie compressed into half a reel.
Does it all work out in the end? Well, I've seen it, and I'm still not sure. It's either the most upbeat tragic ending or the most downbeat happy one. Hollywood films traditionally know what buttons they're pushing, so it's at least a little refreshing to find one that slams all of them at once, like a chimpanzee in an automat.
We'll be hearing from Mr. Marshall again, and I don't mean a postcard.