Blind Tuesday: Guide-dog Friday

MGM racism: waiting to see which one will make a remark about watermelons first.

I’ve only managed to see one of Fred Zinnemann’s short subjects made at MGM, which is frustrating: surely his CRIME DOES NOT PAY episodes will reveal something of the noir skills displayed later in ACT OF VIOLENCE. The short I did see is THE OLD SOUTH, a very peculiar piece of work indeed. Seemingly made to pave the way for GONE WITH THE WIND, educating audiences who might not know their history, it’s highly unusual for a Hollywood product of the day, since it’s rather hard to get a sense from it of what we’re supposed to think and how we’re supposed to feel. This is because the movie is terribly afraid of offending anybody, although it seems far more afraid of offending southerners than, say, black people.

Zinnemann, who I guess was only doing his job, eventually atoned by making the splendid MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, but first there was his B-movie phase. KID GLOVE KILLER is a forensic procedural that plays like a kind of 1940s CSI. Of course, it’s warmer, with a sweetly banal boss-assistant relationship between Van Heflin and Marsha Hunt. Zinnemann was pretty pleased with the results, considering, and returned to the procedural format with DAY OF THE JACKAL and, sort of, THE NUN’S STORY.

He was much less happy with EYES IN THE NIGHT, but looking at it now, it’s a very enjoyable picture. Edward Arnold plays Duncan McLean, blind detective, who,  aided by his intrepid German shepherd, Friday, and by Allen Jenkins and Mantan Moreland, investigates a spy ring storyline that somehow carries elements of MILDRED PIERCE and THE RECKLESS MOMENT. The taboo of filial ingratitude is softened by making the offending offspring a stepdaughter (Donna Reed!) and a happy ending is of course provided.

Zinnemann complains in his autobio that his blind man couldn’t remember his lines and blew take after take, while his dog was good for one take and would afterwards get nervous and hide (he faced a similar performance discrepancy with Sinatra and Clift in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, which weirdly also features a character named Friday). In spite of this, the team were successful enough to appear in one more picture, THE HIDDEN EYE, directed by Richard Whorf.

The blind detective was created by Baynard Kendrick, and unless I’m misremembering, his other senses were so acute, he could read ordinary writing by running his fingertips over the print. The movie version isn’t so superpowered, but he’s a master of judo (somewhat unconvincing, when he’s played by the portly E.A.) as well as smart and quick-witted. So’s the script — it throws in a quote from Milton, a gaggle of plot twists, family melodrama, and lots of good business for the dog. The other sidekicks are somewhat underused.

O loss of sight, of thee I most complain! Blind among enemies, O worse than chains, dungeon or beggary, or decrepit age!

“Where are you?”

“In the dark. In the dark, Hanson — in MY kingdom!”

Guns blaze in the dark! ANd when I try to get a good frame of the muzzle flare, I find this surreal image — the gun arm thrust through some canvas screen, NOT part of the movie scene, presumably an attempt to get complete blackout for the effect.

Despite what Zinnemann saw as its corniness, the movie did well enough to land him an A picture, THE SEVENTH CROSS, about which much more later. Yet that triumph was followed by two unsuitable kiddie comedies, MY BROTHER TALKS TO HORSES and the other one, starring six-year-old “Butch” Jenkins — “a perfectly, normal, charming little boy, who had no talent, could not remember his lines and hated being in movies, but was made to carry on by his mother, whom he feared and adored.” Maybe this negative experience partly explains why Zinnemann became such an expert director of children. But that’s also down to his experience in documentary with Flaherty, working with non-actors but trying to capture authentic behaviour.

Zinnemann’s book is very good, though he tends to ruin his funny stories with exclamation marks and the like. By his own admission, he wasn’t the most lighthearted of filmmakers. But I like his anecdote about what happened at MGM after he started turning down scripts —

“There was a long, long corridor in the executive building — known as the ‘Iron Lung’. Entering it at one end I would see the tiny figures of associate producers in the distance, coming toward me, spotting me, turning around and disappearing into offices, stairways or toilets. […]

“A third script arrived. It was lousy. When I turned it down, Eddie Mannix, the General Manager, sent for me.

“He did not look amiable. ‘What’s all this?’ he asked. ‘You have no right to turn down assignments.’ I said it was a bad script and I didn’t know what to do with it. Mannix looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘You know damn well that MGM never makes a bad picture.’ Pause. ‘We preview it; if there’s something wrong with it we fix it.’ To this day, I don’t know if he was serious, but I doubt it. Then he said, ‘You could do very well in this company, you could be a good man for us, but you’ve got to learn to do what the boss tells you.’ He mentioned the two least good directors on the lot and said, ‘Look at them, they are the two best men I’ve got; they never give us any trouble.’ I could only shake my head.”

Zinnemann was suspended, which meant his pay stopped and he couldn’t work anywhere else and the time spent on suspension would be added to the end of his contract. Suspension would last until the picture he had turned down was ready for release.

“Three weeks later Mannix called me again. He seemed embarrassed. ‘I’ve been looking for an excuse to put you back on the payroll,’ he said, ‘but I can’t find one, so I’m putting you back anyway. After all, Fleming and Brown turn down scripts too.”

Not all stories about Mannix, the ruthless studio fixer, are so heartwarming… But this is a classic Zinnemann story: it comes on like entertainment, it turns out to be full of perfidy and injustice, and ultimately it’s about human decency and dignity.

Ann Harding (left) and Donna Reed, who is the other connection to FROM HERE TO ETERNITY.

14 Responses to “Blind Tuesday: Guide-dog Friday”

  1. Eddie Mannix. I thought that name seemed familiar. I’ve had my nose in Eddie Server’s Ava Gardner bio off and on the past few days, and he gets a brief mention early on. Described thusly: “There was Eddie Mannix, the [MGM] studio’s bulldoglike general manager and longtime [LB] Mayer confidant who had beaten his mistress so violently that she required multiple abdominal surgeries”.
    I enjoyed Kid Glove Killer, Heflin was an interesting actor even in his early years. I have Eyes In The Night, but haven’t yet mustered up the enthusiasm to watch it. I think your entry above has given me reason enough to give it a glimpse. Interesting to read that Edward Arnold had a hard time remembering his lines. Wonder if he displayed the same difficulty when playing Daniel Webster for Dieterle?

  2. Jenny Eardley Says:

    I came across Eddie Mannix recently too, some people think he was involved in the death of George Reeves, as he was having an affair with George’s girlfriend/fiancee.

  3. Eddie Mannix was major studio muscle at MGM. Goerge Reeves was having an affair with Mannix’s ex-wife at the time of his death, leading the conspiracy-minded to imagine Mannix had him done in. There is of course zero evidence that he did, but you know conspiracies. To paraphrase the immortal Alfonso Bendoya “Evidence? We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence!”

    Been seeing a lot of Marsha Hunt lately. It was her birthday yesterday. She’s younger than springtime, I’m happy to say. Had a nice chat with her a few weeks back about Aldous Huxley who as I trust y’all know wrote the screenplay for the delightful MGM Pride and Prejudice in which Marsha appeared with Greer garson, Laurence Olivier and the great Mary Boland (who quite frankly walks away with it.)

    Watched From Here To Eternity again last night. Of course you won’t be getting to that for awhile but it remains a startling reminder of why Zinneman was a good director — and Monty Clift a God.

    Once last thing: I trust you’ll be discussing ho Zinneman got shit-canned from Man’s Fate with the entire production shutting down moments before he was to say “roll ’em!” Easily one of the most disgraceful episodes in Hollywood history.

  4. Hilary Barta Says:

    Eyes in the Night…was fun, but MGM Bs always seem like over-budgeted bullies that beat up the standard, cheaper Bs from other studios.

  5. Hilary: yes, MGM didn’t really have the right B-movie spirit. I like Kid Glove Killer too, it’s suitably modest, but rather conservative.

    David E: The Man’s Fate fiasco is an amazing bit of chicanery, and Zinnemann was the last person they should have treated like that. I do need to quote his book about that, I got some good dope from Mike Hodges about that period too.
    Watched From Here to Eternity properly for the first time — it’s all good stuff (apart from the compromises enforced by the military), and Clift is divoon, but The Search is even better.
    Glad Marsha Hunt’s still going strong, I LOVE her!

    Jenny: Eddie Mannix I think was also involved in the cover-up around the woman who was raped at an MGM exhbitors’ convention. A first-grade bastard, and it’s easy to believe him capable of murder: even if he didn’t snuff Reeves, he may well have offed his first wife.

    Guy: I presume Edward Arnold’s memory trouble (drink?) was the reason for his decline to B-flicks. He certainly managed some monster speeches as Daniel Webster.

  6. There was a British made documentary about the girl who was raped at the exhibitor’s convention. It was quite good, but I can’t recall the title exactly. Something like “Girl 6” I think.

  7. Girl 6 is a Spike Lee joint, isn’t it? But you’re right, I recall it being something very similar…

    Girl 27, that’s it. Must try to track down a copy, it’s the nastiest Old Hollywood story I ever heard, and as such exerts a chilling fascination.

  8. Would like to hear the account of why Zinneman’s adaptation collapsed. Andre Malraux’s novel has been infamously cursed, Eisenstein planned to work with the author for an adaptation in the 30s but the party wasn’t attracted to it.

    Bernardo Bertolucci got closer, he proposed the Chinese government two projects, one a biopic on Pu Yi, the last emperor of the Manchu dynasty and the other an adaptation of La Condition humaine which after all has a main character based on the prime minister Zhou Enlai.

    Then, Michael Cimino has been planning an adaptation for years now.

  9. I can’t see anybody trusting Cimino with it, but miracles do happen.

    The Zinnemann story is a doozy…

  10. So’s the Cimino story. He’s reportedly into drag these days.

  11. […] The Seventh Cross, on the smaller, cheaper, more urgent works Zinneman cut his teeth on, including Eye in the Night and Act of […]

  12. The funny thing about Eyes in the Night is that whenever Zinnemann talked about it in interviews and complained about Edward Arnold always forgetting his lines, he would never, ever mention Arnold’s name. Which is weird, since they also worked together on Kid Glove Killer. Either Zinnemann honestly forgot Arnold’s name or he was getting back at him for forgetting his lines all the time. I wonder which.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve seen EITN, but I always remembered the “in my kingdom scene!” scene. Otherwise, I recall it being a studio entertainment pic in every sense of the phrase.

    I did see one of Zinnemann’s Crime Does Not Pay episodes on TCM last year. It was Forbidden Passage, the one about immigrants who try to escape to America (I think?) only to be robbed and thrown overboard to drown, or stuffed into barrels, something like that. I guess it was well-directed, but I thought the message was nationalistic and condescending. The US Department probably made that video because they were afraid the overflow of Holocaust refugees from Europe would lead to too much illegal immigration in America. Trouble is, had they known any better, they would ditched videos like those in favor of saving as many refugees from Europe as they could have… including Zinnemann’s own parents, for that matter.

  13. Forgot to mention: the melons in that Old South screencap remind me of The Day of the Jackal. Ha.

  14. I think Zinnemann was pursuing an odd kind of gentlemanliness in not naming the actor who was unprofessional. He also doesn’t name the child star of his two family comedies, even though a modicum of research would provide both identities.

    MGM was the most conservative studio, politically if not aesthetically (maybe aesthetically too) so it doesn’t surprise me their immigration film is sinister. Their civil war film failed to condemn slavery, after all!

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