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.
I really love old movies, and in tough times escaping into the past can be awfully attractive. Even the uglier side of studio product, for instance the racial caricaturing (think of Fred Toones, a.k.a. "Snowflake," or the even more unfortunate Willie Fung) can seem like the necessary abrasive element in an otherwise smoothly pleasurable experience.
I suppose everyone has their own tipping point, though, when the uncomfortable or disturbing elements overwhelm the entertainment. I can laugh at (not with) the jaw-dropping "Goin' To Heaven on a Mule" number in Warner Bros' Wonder Bar (1934), with its blackface afterlife and spot gags about Yiddish and gay stereotypes (this cartoon version is another matter), or at a blacked-up Eddie Cantor singing "Keep Young and Beautiful" to naked Goldwyn girls in Roman Scandals before he gets locked in a steam cabinet and shrunk down to dwarf-size. Massive amounts of offense piled sky-high gets me giggling and groaning at once. This stuff is terrible, but seems, rightly or wrongly, unthreatening, though I guess if I were watching with a crowd who dug it unironically I would be terrified. It's only funny to me as an example of failed comedy so wrong it achieves a kind of bathos.
But once in a while it ain't no joke. Twentieth Century Fox made two real horror shows, Human Cargo (1936) and Slave Ship (1937). Both are conceived as straight thrillers with some kind of social commentary thrown in, but both fail spectacularly for bad-faith reasons, I think, and wind up in a wasteland of acute discomfort and just make me angry. Both involve lots of talented people and filmmakers I like.
The prolific and long-lived Allan Dwan helmed Human Cargo, an archetypal fast-talking reporter melo that just happens to deal with people-smuggling, and in particular a wrinkle on the scheme where the smugglers shake down their past customers by threatening to expose them to the authorities. What we have here is a failure of the genre to contain or connect to the ostensible subject: newspaper stories were traditionally comic in tone, with the characters callous and flip about the stories they covered, and this is attempted here by the undistinguished screenwriters. It works when there's real satirical intent (The Front Page or Five Star Final) or when the serious stuff isn't too serious. But pretending to be interested in social issues while churning out bland quippery isn't going to work. As comedian Richard Herring put it, when you walk into an area carrying a joke, you have to know why you're there.
The dueling journos are Brian Donlevy and Claire Trevor, and she seems to have all the good lines. Is it just because she can say them better? There's also a gruff editor (Alan Dinehart), a tough district attorney (the Wizard of Oz's brother), and a duff German sea captain (Herman Bing).
Lots of watchable flicks got made from these generic elements, with less inspiration and less charm, but the tone is wretchedly off. It's called "Human Cargo" but are we meant to think of the "aliens" as actually human? The only one we get to know is a young Rita Hayworth, billed as Rita Cansino, who becomes a pawn in the game played by the leads. Donlevy abducts her from a crime scene and attempts to extract her story in order to nail her boss; Trevor double-crosses him and hands Hayworth over to the cops, who have previously failed to protect witnesses: Hayworth is duly bumped off. (This would never have happened a few years later when she was a big star at Columbia and no longer playing Mexicans.)
I'm used to the fact that movies, and stories generally, tend to feature essential and inessential characters. Whether you call them cannon fodder, redshirts, or corpses-in-waiting, the trope of the cop three days from retirement or the soldier who shows a picture of his sweetheart is well-worn and accepted. It's just strangely hurtful to see a character thus classified on the basis of race (as in: the black guy dies first) and to see a sympathetic character used as a bargaining chip and then snuffed due to their machinations. Claire Trevor is convincingly sad for about eight seconds and then it's back to quipping.
Most of the "aliens" portrayed are European, not Mexican, which implies they're fugitives from Nazism, but this is never stated, presumably because the studios didn't want to lose the German market.
But my god, Slave Ship is so much worse. It certainly delivers on the promise of its title, though: Warner Baxter commands a ship delivering slaves to America. He's the hero. He's brought his new bride along (Elizabeth Allen, a Brit starlet whose career never caught fire) and his shame about the whole venture is mainly for her sake, one feels. His first mate, Wallace Beery, is the real heavy. Mickey Rooney plays a peppy cabin boy.
None of the characters encompassed by the title is actually given dialogue or individuality or screen time except as cargo. So that, at the climax, when Beery starts dumping them overboard, all chained together in a hideous screaming line, it plays as spectacle rather than tragedy. Nobody weeps for the building in The Towering Inferno. This is grotesque exploitation of historical tragedy. Baxter is fighting to save them, but if they were any other kind of victim, he would succeed quickly, with at most a few fatalities. Garnett cuts frenziedly as dozens upon dozens of anguished black bodies plunge into the waters.
If you want to hold anyone to account (and it may be too late), William Faulkner came up with the story and three Hollywood hacks (including the prolific Lamar Trotti) scripted it. The celebrated Nunnally Johnson was the producer in charge.
In his autobiography (a rollicking good read), Garnett doesn't recall the shoot fondly but has nothing to say about the race element. Instead, he bemoans the fact that studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck was unable to obtain Clark Gable and foist Baxter upon him. It was him or Michael Whalen. "You're giving me a choice between leprosy and Oriental syphilis," he protested, and didn't get many job offers from the gap-toothed mogul thereafter. "I'm not down-grading Zanuck as a creative powerhouse," he wrote, "but magnanimity and a sense of the ridiculous were not among his outstanding characteristics when I knew him."
To a modern eye, Zanuck's sins appear different and far more grave. His brilliant qualities are impossible to dismiss, however, as we'll continue to see...