Friday, September 20, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel: Monogram and French New Wave

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

This Column is Dedicated to Monogram Pictures

Detective Kitty O'Day (Monogram, 1944) – Director: William Beaudine. Writers: Tim Ryan and Victor Hammond (s/p), Victor Hammond (original story). Cast: Jean Parker, Peter Cookson, Tim Ryan, Veda Ann Borg, Edward Gargan, Douglas Fowley, Edward Earle, & Herbert Heyes. B&W, 61 minutes.

I’m going to take a page out of Jean-Luc Godard’s book when he dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures and forever made a Godard fan of me. TCM, on one of those rare occasions, is bringing this B movie to the small screen (at 10:45 am EST Saturday), possible for the first time. It’s not that TCM doesn’t show Monogram films; after all, they recently ran the entire Bowery Boys series. But these are few and far between, and frankly, for the film buff, Monogram deserves better.

By the way, in case any of you miss the screening of this film, relax. The sequel, The Adventures of Kitty O’Day (They made a sequel?), will be screened on August 28, at 10:45 am EST.

Now I’m sure, Dear Readers, that you are thinking as to why your columnist is dedicating an entire piece to one single, forgotten B movie. Is it an undiscovered gem from the ‘40s? Is there a compelling reason we should see this? Is there a hitherto unknown and unappreciated breakout performance? To answer your questions: No, no, and, uh . . . no.

Detective Kitty O’Day is but another bottom-of-the-bill product ground out by Monogram during the ‘40s. Parker, its star, was a young hopeful signed by MGM in 1932 after winning a national poster contest. Taken with her spectacular looks, the studio decided to see if she could be a star. But it was not to be, for despite those looks, Parker lacked the necessary chops at the time to carry a film, even in a strong supporting role. She would gain that talent with time, but by then it was too late and she drifted from studio to studio, garnering the occasional leading lady role, depending on the film’s budget. Most of her films after MGM released her were made for Pine-Thomas Productions and released through Paramount to supply that necessary B product. By 1944, she was at Monogram on a multi-picture deal.

Most film buffs labor under the apprehension that to star at Monogram means the actor has hit bottom and is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Not true: Hollywood has always run on the precept that you are as good as your last film, and if you weren’t wowing the crowd, as noted on those intrusive audience response cards, you were no longer of use because you couldn’t guarantee a profit. Studios such as Monogram could perform a vital service by giving an actor a respite and a chance for later studio redemption, if not as a star, then as a working cast member, the pay for which could oft times exceed the starring salary at Monogram.

Parker was not – and I repeat, not – a bad actress. She just wasn’t Carole Lombard. When not in Hollywood she starred on Broadway in several hit shows, including Burlesque with Bert Lahr, and garnered great notices after filling in for Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday when Holliday took time off to film Bells Are Ringing. And for those who really must know, working at Monogram was a step up for Parker at the time, as she just finished two films for Poverty Row competitor PRC, which next to Sam Katzman’s Victory Productions, was the bottom of the barrel.

The film itself revolves around the theft of securities. O’Day is the secretary to broker Oliver Wentworth (Earle) and her boyfriend, Johnny Jones (Cookson) is an accountant who delivers the securities to Wentworth. Before heading home, Wentworth informs Kitty that he’s going to Boston on business and asks her to pick up his train tickets and meet him at home to help make some last minute arrangements. When Kitty arrives, the butler lets her in, telling her there’s something wrong with the power. Not too long after that Wentworth is found dead and the securities are missing. To run Wentworth’s errand, Kitty had to break her date with Johnny, who becomes irate and offhandedly says he’d like to kill Wentworth. So guess who the main suspect is for Wentworth’s murder? The rest of the film finds our heroine trying to clear poor Johnny of the charges and running into some pretty suspicious characters along the way, including Mrs. Wentworth (Borg), her lover, Harry Downs (Fowley), Wentworth’s attorney, Jeffers (Heyes). After several red herrings, false leads, and a lot of stage business, Kitty finally discovers who the real murderer is, and it’s not Johnny.

So what is it about Detective Kitty O’Day that intrigues me so? Well, if you must pry (“We must, we must”), I’m a big fan not only of B movies as a whole, but also of Poverty Row studios, the underside of Hollywood. That they existed at all after the mid-30s is a source of wonderment to me. We tend to think of them as cut-rate enterprises, the cinematic version of Job Lot or the cut-rate clothiers that sell irregulars. Mention the word “Monogram” to any average well-versed film fan and what will come immediately to mind at the Bowery Boys series, the East Side Kids, and the ultra-cheapie horror flicks Bela Lugosi made for Sam Katzman.

But Poverty Row outfits such as Monogram and PRC served a more important purpose, one that wouldn’t be made evident until years in the future. They were the inspiration for the French New Wave. That Godard dedicated his first film, Breathless, to Monogram is no accident, nor was it a joke. What Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Melville, and others saw in the studio was the economy of time; how entertaining films could be made with only the bare essentials, which was exactly what they had at the time. They had to raise their own money, much like Monogram; there was no Bank of America at the ready to advance production funds on a moment’s notice. To give an idea of what Poverty Row Studios were up against, consider that while the majors had access to almost unlimited funds, PRC relied on Household Finance Corp for its necessary funds.

Also, in those days immediately following the war, Monogram features were very popular at French cinemas. The French film industry was not yet back on its feet and Hollywood A listings were too expensive at the box office, so the thrifty (and poor) filmgoer took in the B product which was seemingly featured at almost every theater in those days. Reading Truffaut’s film reviews, one is astounded at first to note just how much Poverty Row material he took in. But that’s what was around at the time.

When one tunes in a Monogram production, the first thing to catch the eye is usually the darkness, which was by no means intentional, but forced on the studio by economic necessity, i.e., electric bills and the cost of the expensive light bulbs necessary to properly illuminate a scene. Film stock also was at a premium. It’s easy to laugh today at director William Beaudine’s nickname of “One Shot.” The Medveds certainly had fun with it in their book The Golden Turkey Awards. But the reason behind it was that film stock was at a premium, and if a director could get it all in only one take, so much the better for the budget. Monogram’s sets were anything but lavish, consisting of dingy walls and sparse well-used furniture. For instance, in Detective Kitty O’Day, the heroine and her boyfriend tail the victim’s wife and her lover to a “ritzy” apartment house. But when we get a gander of the place, what we see is in reality a dive; not a place where a rich woman would hang her mink stole. Even chase scenes are economical, keeping the movie within a few economically decorated sets while padding the length of the feature.

None of this escaped the French filmmakers, who took the economy to heart. Where they surpassed Monogram was in the quality of scripts – though, like Monogram these were often revised on set and lines fed to the actors right before and during filming.  In Detective Kitty O’Day, screenwriter Ryan did double-duty as one of the investigating policemen. In addition to saving money on another actor, Ryan could also be put to use revising lines and scenes as the film progressed.

The French directors also got around the problem of dingy, worn sets by filming on location. Sunlight costs nothing, and night scenes could be naturally lit by the neon and lighting of the building where they were filming. The wonderful chiaroscuro effects in their movies can be easily explained by the fact that they shot with whatever light was available.

And as necessity (and not Frank Zappa) is the mother of invention, the French made do with whatever was handy. For instance, Godard couldn’t afford a dolly, so he pushed cinematographer Raoul Coutard around in a wheelchair, just as Jean-Pierre Melville did with Henri Decae during the filming of Le silence de la mer, and later, Bob le Flambeur. No, Monogram wouldn’t have done this – it was a different time and different paradigm.

Contrary to the grandiose myths that tend to take the place of facts in film history, it’s the smallest things that meant the most, or not only the road not taken, but also the road not even considered. From this comes the inspiration that leads to masterpieces. Monogram Studios was one such inspiration.

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