On the second Sunday of the month we usually go to the excellent Filmhouse movie quiz, but we’d exhausted ourselves and our funds seeing STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS and so skipped it, staying home and running a double feature of Mitchell Leisens. Incorrectly believing I’d been recommended THIRTEEN HOURS BY AIR, I popped that in the Panasonic, we watched it, but I quickly realized the film I’d been supposed to see was FOUR HOURS TO KILL! so we ran that afterwards. The movies are only 80 mins and 70 mins respectively, so it was a snappy double bill, amounting to seventeen hours of something or other in just two and a half hours of viewing time.
The 1936 aviation drama 13 HRS posits Fred MacMurray as a pilot flirting with passenger Joan Bennett (still blonde) and dealing with a hostage crisis. It’s a nice glimpse of early air travel, with a few good supporting players like Ruth Donnelly, Zasu Pitts, Alan Baxter and Quatermass McGinty himself, Brian Donlevy (pre-moustache). It’s fairly corny, and the model plane shots, which are not the best, make it seem cornier. But it’s shorter than AIRPORT.
Not really, since the characters aren’t coded gay, but the covert cigarette-lighting moment seems like a heavy wink in the direction of certain audience members all the same.
Baxter slugs a berserk Fred Keating, twice. “The second one was unnecessary,” advises MacMurray. “What did you want me to do, kiss him?” snaps Palmer.
Leisen was a keen aviator himself, and maybe the film is too authentic in a sense — the multiple lay-overs needed to fly across the continent make narrative progress episodic and tend to diffuse the tension. At that time, the trip actually took fifteen hours, but Leisen knew they’d manage to shave off some time eventually, so he preempted this to guard against the movie dating. It dated anyway, but is still diverting.
But 4 HRS! is a minor masterpiece — Norman Krasna adapts his own play, about backstage drama in a theatre showing one of those incomprehensible musical reviews that seem to fill every venue in thirties movies. We never see the stage (but glimpse Leisen as the conductor), focussing on audience and staff, their lives, loves and hates. Ray Milland, a major Leisen collaborator in the coming years, plays a love rat, Roscoe Karns plays a comedy relief expectant father, his arc diverting neatly into emotional trauma and meltdown, there are some bland lovebirds, but the show is stolen by minor character guy Charles C. Wilson as a cop escorting a prisoner, and Richard Barthelmess as the prisoner. Outside of HEROES FOR SALE and ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, I’ve never seen Barthelmess play tough — he excels at vulnerability, and like a number of ’30s male leads (Douglass Montgomery, Phillips Holmes, David Manners), seems more usually to embody weakness than strength. But he can turn on the cold-eyed murderer look like nobody’s business, and with an approximate stab at an Irish-American intonation, he transfixes.
That baby face! Like Harry Langdon with a gun — terrifying! And by lowering his voice in timbre and volume, he turns his rather fluting vocal into an instrument of menace. But terribly sympathetic too. Having missed the train, arresting officer Wilson has taken Barthelmess, to the theatre to kill time, but the escaping murderer has a more literal meaning to the film’s title in mind. He wants to kill just once more, so he can die happy. The stool pigeon who set him up must be lured to the lobby and into the path of a couple of bullets. Astonishingly, though not pre-code, the movie is on his side. Now, I don’t morally agree with murder, for whatever personal reason, but I’m always impressed when a filmmaker takes a bold stance like this. We know Barthelmess has to die for his crimes, and he knows it too.
Barthelmess and the little-known Charles C. Wilson.
David Chierichetti’s Leisen overview, Hollywood Director, is one of the best books any filmmaker ever had written about him. It’s probably better than Ciment’s Kubrick, to give you an idea. Here’s Leisen interviewed on 4HRS ~
“Richard Barthelmess was extremely shy and wouldn’t shoot the big confession scene except at night, after everybody had gone home except a skeleton crew. I took him to dinner, got a few drinks into him and worked with him a long while until he was ready. We did one take and he was absolutely sensational, and completely exhausted from it. I told them to print it, and the sound man said, “We didn’t get it.” I could have killed him. There was no point trying to get it again that night, so we all went home and I repeated the whole process with Richard the next night. No matter how much we worked, he could not get back to the level of emotion he’d had the night before. We finally got a take that was very good, but it was just not as brilliant as he’d been the night before.”
Decades later, Leisen is still mad and sad about that missed chance. Perhaps he’d have been cheered to know that his second-best take was still blowing our minds further decades on after his death.
Thanks to La Faustin for recommending this one.