Lady Cab Driver

Janet Shaw (the waitress from SHADOW OF A DOUBT) in HOUSE OF HORRORS, a better-than-expected Rondo Hatton monsterpiece viewed as part of my ongoing pursuit of those movies with illos in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies. The lovely Janet, who appears but briefly, and whose beauty is commented upon approvingly by both the hero and heroine, seems like the kind of meaningless bit part included in studio movies so that executives, directors or stars (Errol Flynn, I’m looking at you) could nail some grateful tail. Shaw’s career arc, which took her from Beatrice, Nebraska, to Hollywood, California, and back to Beatrice, Nebraska, is suggestive of at least mild disillusion…

Also featured is Sweet Sue herself, Joan Shawlee, in an outfit which could only have gotten past the censors if they’d completely forgotten what a woman’s body looks like naked (hint: it looks exactly like Joan Shawlee in her outfit in this film). These are the normal characters, also including a manly commercial artist, his wise-cracking art critic girlfriend, and a smart-talking detective… all reasonably well written but yawn

What matters is the devilish double act of Rondo and Martin Kosleck, the demented and poverty-stricken sculptor who rescues Rondo’s Creeper from the drink and soon has him posing for a modern art masterpiece (Rondo’s skull reinvents cubism), as well as lumbering forth on nocturnal missions to snap the spines of Kosleck’s critics (a good double feature with THEATRE OF BLOOD is suggested– everybody loves to see critics murdered).

What a teaming this is! Apart from the pleasing physical contrast (Kosleck, the Gollum-like shrimp, Hatton, who looks like he’s wearing American football padding and helmet under his skin), there’s a contrast in acting styles which is never less than bracing. Kosleck seizes his moment, in one of his larger roles, and worries it to shreds, monologuing at the cat and evoking a keen audience sympathy which rapidly gets twisted into awe at his wickedness. By contrast to this total commitment approach, Hatton is minimalist, paradoxical in such a big guy. His sullen, low-affect delivery is somehow completely riveting, and effectively suggests the Creeper’s psychopathic personality.

Of course, Rondo doesn’t need to act to be interesting, and it’s questionable whether anyone expected him to pull out any stops whatsoever. But he works.

(His performance does make me wonder if he really wanted to be in movies at all. Most reviews of his career are pretty critical of Universal for exploiting the poor man’s deformity in horror movies, but what makes the sleaziness worse is the suspicion that Hatton may not have had any enthusiasm for the work, and perhaps only acted to survive, resenting the exposure of his increasing deformity and disability.)

Rondo Hatton as The Whistler!

Contrasting the crazy avant-garde artist with the manly commercial painter of Gil Elvgren type girlie art, the movie has a very conservative outlook, with the experimental seen as both foreign and sinister… but it’s in the world of Kosleck’s impoverished dreaming, ripe for corruption as soon as he’s achieved power via his hulking housemate, that the film lives, breathes and wriggles.

33 Responses to “Lady Cab Driver”

  1. Rondo makes a brief appearance toward the end of THE MOON AND SIXPENCE, evoking sympathy as a leper on a South Sea island (another film about an artist, perhaps George Sanders’ first great role of his career). Kosleck seems to have sprung from the same gene pool as Franchot Tone in PHANTOM LADY and Dick Miller’s Walter Paisley in BUCKET OF BLOOD. I seem to recall seeing cutie Janet Shaw somewhere else, she may have even played a cabbie more than once, she looks very familiar with that hat on.

  2. Shaw during the run of her career as an actress played waitresses and switchboard operators more than a few times, but is probably best remembered as the forlorn waitress who admires Teresa Wright’s ring in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

  3. Yes, somehow I missed that when I looked at her career! A little piece of immortality — she’s superb in that scene.

    Those three mad sculptors ought to get together, share a studio and cut down their overheads.

  4. acbleach Says:

    “sullen, low-affect delivery is somehow completely riveting, and effectively suggests the Creeper’s psychopathic personality.”

    “the suspicion that Hatton may not have had any enthusiasm for the work, and perhaps only acted to survive”

    Replace “the Creeper” and “Hatton” with “Janet Shaw” and you’ve nailed her unforgettable unforgivingly dead-eyed performance in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

  5. Great gams on Joan!

  6. Indeed! And her bust is like a couple of liberty bells.

    Shaw had a gift for throwing away lines, she utters her few bits here with fantastic understatement, and a convincingly working-class manner. Had she come to Hollywood as a young woman in the 70s, they might have had more work for her.

  7. IMDB has a series of exchanges re. Shaw’s role in SHADOW OF A DOUBT found at the bottom of the film’s web page. On the message board under the topic “Waitress in the Bar”, at least a couple people thought her small part poorly played and laughable, but the majority of commenters praised the role and the message it conveyed. One comment stated that she was likely picked from a pool of local talent to be in this film, but her career as an actress began well before her role in this film, Janet was in a LOT of films before her career came to an end.

  8. As Cagney said in Footlight Parade, “Pretty girls are a dime a dozen”. I couldn’t drive a street in the nicer parts of L.A., and none of Hollywood without seeing a very pretty woman (or man for that matter). Janet was just another in the mob that made it for a short while. I call ’em “The BJ for bit part mob”. They had a minimal amount of talent (or drive), but had just enough to get their pans on celluloid. I doubt too many of them are sentimental about being in Hollywood.

  9. But Janet had a surly quality that stands out in both her roles I’ve seen so far. Like she got disillusioned early on — or else she’s actually a great actress. I think she’s startlingly good in Shadow, suddenly making Teresa Wright’s lovely family seem like a dream, and Uncle Charlie’s view of the world seem all too credible. I guess people think she was found locally precisely because she seems so natural, and because the little girl in the film was from the town they shot in.

  10. jason hyde Says:

    I’ve always liked Janet Shaw, even if she just pops up and dies early in most of the films I’ve seen her in. She’s attractively spunky in Night Monster and the Charlie Chan entry Shanghai Cobra but gone from both far too soon. I remember reading somewhere that Hitchcock pre-screened Night Monster because he was interested in her for Shadow of a Doubt, so that would explain how he came to cast her. She is really good in it, particularly in her scene with Leif Erickson. For the record, Hitch reportedly quite enjoyed Night Monster.

    Just saw Martin Kosleck in the Inner Sanctum film Frozen Ghost, which has no ghosts frozen or thawed. He struck me as basically the Udo Keir of the Forties.

  11. I guess we’ll never know if Janet’s surly side is good acting or from RL. I remember her in a couple of things mentioned here. I don’t remember her having much range. There were worse actresses who got in films, I grant you that. Lots worse.

  12. I’d say she’s good: that time working for Hitch must have been the most exciting day for her: but she hides it damn well!

  13. Kosleck = Kier absolutely! But it’s “Kier” not “Keir” as he’s not Scottish, alas.

    I clearly have to see Night Monster now, although Ford Beebe was not the most, shall we say, expressive of directors.

  14. Christopher Says:

    Stop screamin’..
    Ah those lady cab drivers of the war years..Wonder what they REALLY looked like?

  15. jason hyde Says:

    For some reason, I always type ‘Keir’ when referring to Udo. Probably has something to with the quite Scottish Andrew Keir.

    Beebe doesn’t bring much to Night Monster, but fortunately there’s enough in the absolutely bonkers plot and terrific cast to make up for pretty uninspired direction. Any film with Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Nils Asther, Ralph Morgan, Janet Shaw, and Leif Erickson is bound to be at least interesting, no matter who’s behind the camera. I just wish it could have been Roy William Neill instead of Ford Beebe.

  16. Ah those lady cab drivers of the war years..Wonder what they REALLY looked like?

    Men cab drivers. I doubt a one of ’em looked like the cabbie that picked up Bogart in The Big Sleep.

  17. Maybe I should be a little more descriptive in my view of a WWII lady cabbie:

    Louis Wolheim in a dress. With the same voice.

  18. I don’t see why that would have to be the case. Except maybe that it probably pays to look tough if you’re driving a cab.

    OK, I’m sold on Night Monster. With Frank Morgan’s considerably less blustery brother.

  19. I’m sorry David, but I sometimes make jokes so deadpan that people think I actually believe what I put down. I have no clue what they looked like except they didn’t look like anything Hollywood portrayed. Just your average Jane (as they would say then) is my real view. I hardly think they’d get all dolled up to drive a hack.

    Louis Wolheim in a dress is my comic view of it.

    I hate it when my jokes fall dead like a mallard during duck season.

  20. Wow, that looks better than my video copy.

    Sorry I didn’t respond better, Mark! Next time!

    And now I must sleep, for in the morning I’m off to the press show of —

  21. No, my fault. Sometimes I don’t signal joke very well, although I thought ‘Louis Wolheim in a dress’ was outrageous enough to give a clue I wasn’t being serious.

  22. The Chomet looks charming, and it’s great to have a tribute like this — but his rhythms are quite different from Tati’s. This has to do with the essential difference between animation and live actors in real spaces.

  23. David E.,
    You’re right in it being different. The magician walks in a bit of a lurch instead of having that Tati hesitation and bounce. That motorcycle gag is a classic Tatiesque joke and I’d go to a theater just for those moments even if it’s not animated quite like he would act it.

    It takes a lot to get me into a theater these days.

  24. Christopher Says:

    Quentin Tarantino had a lady cab driver in Pulp Fiction too

  25. The motorcycle gag appears in Keaton and Lloy’s work — except they staged it in a single shot, as Tati would have.

    I think anybody adapting Tati’s script is going to create something a long way from what JT himself would have done. Animation is perfect because it gives an alibi for that. Anyhow, we’ll see. Obviously I’m psyched about the fact that it’s set in Scotland and Edinburgh (although this is a departure from Tati’s script)… the idea of even an animated Tati here is exciting.

    I liked the rear projection in QT’s Pulp Fiction taxi scene. Wish he’d used it throughout.

  26. It’s curious that you end the post on the word ‘wriggle’ and converse on the girlie aspects of the movie. As a kid, my mom said that she and the other girls in the secretarial pool went to see this film after work (on its original release) and thought it was the scariest film they’d ever seen. I often wondered what aspects would be upsetting to mid-century American femininity in this film. I think you’ve led me in the direction of some more investigation. Thanks.

  27. The setup, not the payoff, is what made me believe the gag was Tatiesque.

  28. There’s a lot that’s authentically Tati-like in the film, which I shall be reviewing shortly over at the Daily Notebook.

  29. Thanks. I will be interested to see if it’s worth the effort to haul myself to the theater.

  30. Thanks for putting up that clip, David! I’ve been eagerly awaiting The Illusionist since I first heard of it; animated Tati is an irresistable lure. Eventually the film will wend it’s way out to me.

    I can’t help but wonder what a mash-up of Esmeralda Villalobos picking up Rondo Hatton would have been like…if nothing else he would have been slightly more animated than Bruce Willis.

  31. Well, Bruce had a lot on his mind, what with the brain tumour. Oh wait, that was Rondo.

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