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.