Cinevent Notes: SLIGHTLY SCARLET (1956)

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Richard M Roberts
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Cinevent Notes: SLIGHTLY SCARLET (1956)

Postby Richard M Roberts » Sun Apr 24, 2016 6:00 am

LOVE’S LOVELY COUNTERFEIT was never one of James M. Cain’s more popular novels, start with a tongue-tripping title and bad timing in it’s publication in 1942, making its depiction of corrupt politics in a major US city something wartime America didn’t really want to consider, no matter how true. The critics also seemed to think it a lesser work in comparison to Cain’s previous books like THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE and MILDRED PIERCE, which, along with Cain’s next published novel, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, would cement his immortality cinema-wise in the mid-forties as big-hit movies came out yearly. Despite all the studios chomping for Cain novels, no one bit on COUNTERFEIT, and no film of it would surface until fourteen years after its publication.

This is indeed somewhat odd, as it seemed a film noir natural, with an anti-hero lead that would fit casting of any of the crime drama’s favorite sons (heck, CBS radio’s SUSPENSE program aired TWO different adaptations of the book in the forties, one starring Humphrey Bogart and one starring Jimmy Cagney!). Perhaps the main plot was a little too close to Dashiell Hammett’s THE GLASS KEY, already made into two film versions by Paramount, and the secondary plot-thread involving the protagonists involvement with a gorgeous female political insider and her equally gorgeous but criminally psychotic sister, was perhaps a bit too rocky to maneuver through production code-wise.

So fast-forward to fourteen years later, with the whole late-labelled “Film Noir” cycle nearing its end, John Garfield already dead, Bogie heading for the boneyard and Jimmy Cagney a bit too old for it, but enough teeth removed from the Breen Office to have a little more fun with COUNTERFEIT’s mangy mix of love, lust, potential lesbian incest and political chicanery, we have not only the first noir film version of Cain’s more obscure hard-boiled tome, but also that rarity of rarities----------a Technicolor noir as well!

Really, can there be such a thing as three-strip black? Wasn’t film noir, even for a made-up-after-the-fact pretentious French critic term (remember, no one in Hollywood making these films at the time ever called then noir, they were crime dramas) the land of monochrome, blacks and whites full of shadow, smoke, and very few shades of grey? Well, what the hell, why not. Especially when you’re making a noir featuring two hot sisters with heads aflame and bodies to match, heads the color of blood……….

The film’s re-title then begins to make sense, SLIGHTLY SCARLET sells it, it rolls over the tongue with more rough familiarity than Cain’s original, and suddenly that sexy secondary plot seems to be pushing itself forefront, easy to do when the two sexy sisters are played by Rhonda Fleming (good) and Arlene Dahl (bad), two babes Technicolor seems to have been invented for.

SLIGHTLY SCARLET was the brainchild of curious independent producer Benedict Bogeaus, who came to the business in the early 1940’s, after a career in real estate, radio manufacturing, and zipper making. Bogeaus managed to acquire the busy General Service Studio in Hollywood from ERPI, its previous owners, in 1942, outbidding soon to be competing independent producer Edward Small for the facilities. Suddenly owning a movie studio, Bogeaus began bankrolling his own productions starting with a reasonably successful version of THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY (1944). A distribution deal with United Artists led to the release of several interesting pictures; the atmospheric DARK WATERS (1944) with Merle Oberon, a wonderfully acted CAPTAIN KIDD (1945) with Charles Laughton and Randolph Scott, THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID starring Paulette Goddard and directed by Jean Renoir, CHRISTMAS EVE (1947) with George Raft and Randolph Scott, and the multiple-episodic and starred ON OUR MERRY WAY (1948) that featured the first teaming of old friends Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, all quality films produced and released as A pictures that squeezed every penny out of mid-line budgets to look classier, filled with good actors making up for less than extravagant budgets. These were not cheap films, but economical ones that looked way more expensive than they were. Bogeaus made good money on all of them.

A new distribution and production partnership with the failing RKO in 1953 seemed advantageous to Bogeaus, he was to supply the in-need-of-product-thanks-to-owner Howard-Hughes’-eccentric-bungling studio with several good-budgeted Technicolor romantic action pictures a year. Bogeaus hired a capable and reliable Director to make these films, Allan Dwan was then on his fifth decade in the business, and how does one summarize a director with a fifty year career and over 400 films to his credit in only five paragraphs or so?

Well, here goes: Allan Dewan came to Hollywood in 1911 to take over as the American Film Manufacturing Company’s Supervisor and Director (his adventures of which in so doing were later told to Peter Bogdanovich who made them the basis for his 1976 film NICKELODEON), and for the next two years put a goodly dent in that 400-plus films number, making a slew of westerns, comedies, dramas, et cetera, et cetera, as well as losing an “E” from his name. Moving to Universal in 1913, Dwan megaphoned for a number of Laemmle brands: Bison, Victor, Gold Seal, and others, still cranking out short films and making a reputation for reliability, quality, and speed. His first features were for Famous Players-Lasky in 1914, and that moved him to D. W. Griffith’s Fine Arts-Triangle Studios in 1915, where he would direct Douglas Fairbanks Sr. for the first time in THE HABIT OF HAPPINESS in 1916 and cement a life-long friendship with the star.

Triangle’s steady collapse and Fine Art’s closure sent Dwan first back to Universal, but Fairbanks beckoned Dwan to join him at Artcraft-Paramount in 1917 to continue directing his light comedies. Dwan’s own reputation as a Director was rising and he began making “Allan Dwan Productions” for the independent Mayflower Photoplay Company for release through Paramount subsidiary Realart, then through First National. Mayflower then became Allan Dwan Productions in a short-lived reorganization with the equally short-lived Associated Exhibitors, and this collapse ended up financially wiping out Dwan.

Douglas Fairbanks came to the rescue again, rehiring the cash-poor Director to helm his expensive version of ROBIN HOOD in 1922, after that, Dwan became one of Paramount’s top contract directors, and a favorite of superstar Gloria Swanson, who let the director remove the actress from the clothes-horsing and reminded audiences what a fine light comedienne she had been in well-tooled comedies like MANHANDLED (1924) and STAGE STRUCK (1925). Dwan’s Paramount contract expired in 1927, so he freelanced the rest of the Silent Era, making films for Fox, First National, and M-G-M. Fairbanks asked him to help say good bye to the silent swashbuckler with THE IRON MASK (1929), and Swanson had him make her first talkie comedy, WHAT A WIDOW! (1930). As the thirties progressed, Dwan signed on with Fox and stuck around for Twentieth Century-Fox, cranking out quality programmers like BLACK SHEEP (1935) with Edmund Lowe and Clare Trevor, two star vehicles for Fox’s hottest property Shirley Temple, HEIDI (1937) and REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (1938), even a couple of Ritz Brother pictures, THE THREE MUSKETEERS and THE GORILLA in 1939.

The 1940’s found Dwan first at RKO, making Edgar Bergen and Kay Kyser comedies, then working for Producer Edward Small capably remaking anew versions of venerable stage farces like UP IN MABEL’S ROOM (1944), BREWSTERS MILLIONS (1945), and GETTING GERTIES GARTER (1946) all starring Dennis O’Keefe. Herbert J. Yates signed Dwan on at Republic Pictures in 1947 to handle his studio’s growing attempts at hitting the A market. Dwan’s versatility allowed him to make Jane Frazee musicals like CALENDAR GIRL (1947), several genre pictures starring Yates’ better-half if not a better actress Vera Hruba Ralston, and he even got to put John Wayne closer to the Japanese than he ever got in wartime in the Oscar-nominated SANDS OF IWO JIMA (1949).

As Republic’s fortunes began to fade in the early 50’s, Dwan joined forces with Benedict Bogeaus at RKO, making one terrific western, SILVER LODE (1954) with John Payne, CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA (1954) with Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan, and PEARL OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC (1955) with Virginia Mayo and Dennis Morgan. No raving classics in the bunch, but solidly-made, interesting entertainments with good casts and a Director who by this time could probably make them in his sleep. Yet even as Allan Dwan was quickly approaching his four-hundredth film, all of his versatility was about to be challenged as he was given his first-ever crime drama/film noir to direct, and it was a crime drama that would end up looking more like a Douglas Sirk movie than an Anthony Mann.

As said before, these Bogeaus/Dwan productions were solid entertainments, and Bogeaus spent decent if not spectacular money on them, but the casts were always good, the producer took great advantage of the 50’s collapse of the studio system, cutting deals with reliable stars recently cut loose from long-term studio contracts. This enabled Bogeaus to fill his films with people like Glenn Ford, Robert Ryan, Barbara Stanwyck, Ronald Reagan, Virginia Mayo et all. John Payne was on his Bogeaus film number three, following SILVER LODE (1954) and TENNESEE’S PARTNER (1955). Though never a King in the charisma department, if any other actor could claim to have taken the Dick Powell route in career management, it was Payne, who started in films in the 1930’s after being spotted by Samuel Goldwyn while understudying Reginald Gardner in the Broadway Musical AT HOME ABROAD in 1935. His first film was a small role in Goldwyn’s DODSWORTH (1936), and afterwards, Payne began freelancing in minor musical comedies at various studios, playing support in films like Paramount’s COLLEGE SWING (1938) and Warner’s GARDEN OF THE MOON (1938).

Payne’s film career really took off when he signed with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1940, where he co-starred with Alice Faye in the likes of TIN PAN ALLEY (1940) and WEEKEND IN HAVANA (1941), Sonja Henie in SUN VALLEY SERENADE (1941) Betty Grable in SPRINGTIME IN THE ROCKIES (1942) and Faye again in Busby Berkeley’s downright bizarre THE GANG’S ALL HERE (1943) . While becoming a musical star, Fox also bolstered Payne’s dramatic creds by pairing him with Claudette Colbert in the 1941 tearjerker REMEMBER THE DAY.

A two-year stint in the Army didn’t seem to affect Payne’s post-war film career adversely, Fox immediately re-teamed him with Betty Grable in THE DOLLY SISTERS (1945), but Payne began moving away from music by appearing in dramatic roles in SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY (1946) with Maureen O’Hara, THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1946) with Gene Tierney, and what became the favorite of his films and an endearing Holiday Favorite, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), while also doing an early nod in the noir direction, LARCENY (1948) with Joan Caufield. Payne left Fox in the late 40’s, but continued to reinvent himself as Dick Powell did, appearing in a number of westerns or crime dramas playing more hard-boiled characters, his most memorable films from this period were PASSAGE WEST (1951), KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952) and 99 RIVER STREET (1953). By the time he made SLIGHTLY SCARLET, he was more known for playing tough-guys than warbling a melody. As Ben Grace, caught in an ever-deepening hole of political and criminal double-dealing while also double-dealing with the two hot sisters, Payne gives a rather good performance that makes him both tough and shrewd, yet frequently bewildered at his own predicament.

After SLIGHTLY SCARLET, Payne would collaborate with Allan Dwan again in Allied Artists forgotten but excellent Korean War Drama, HOLD BACK THE NIGHT (1956), then play another political criminal who nearly takes over a whole state in THE BOSS (1956), but his film career was winding down. He moved to television, starring in the western series THE RESTLESS GUN from 1957-59, while still making the occasional movie. Payne was hit by a car while walking in New York City in 1961, and it took him two years to recover from the injuries. He made a comeback on Broadway in 1964, co-starring with Lisa Kirk in the musical HERE’S LOVE, and made a few more TV appearances in to the mid-70’s on shows like GUNSMOKE, CADES COUNTY, and COLUMBO. One of his last acting gigs was reuniting with Alice Faye on Broadway in a revival of GOOD NEWS in 1974. A sound businessman and financially secure, Payne retired from show business in 1975, spending a peaceful retirement in his Malibu home until he died of heart failure on December 6, 1989 at the age of 77.

Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl were two deliciously devastating dolls of the 1950’s that, despite their gorgeous photogenicity possibly didn’t have the careers they should have had, both coming into their prime around the time the movies were leaving its own. Fleming (born 1923, Los Angeles, California) and Dahl (born 1925, Minneapolis, Minnesota) both came to the movies in the late 40’s from modeling (Dahl was actually Rheingold’s Beer Girl of 1946). Fleming probably had the better film career of the two, starting with good supporting roles in Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945), Jacques Tourneur’s OUT OF THE PAST (1947), and Robert Siodmak’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1946). Rhonda soon won a Paramount contract and became an in-demand leading lady for both Bob Hope in THE GREAT LOVER and Bing Crosby in A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHURS COURT in 1949, but most of the roles Paramount gave her were in potboilers like THE REDHEAD AND THE COWBOY (1951) and TROPIC ZONE (1953) that showed off more of her beauty than her acting skills.

Arlene Dahl had a contract at M-G-M that was also generally unrewarding, light comedies like THE BRIDE GOES WILD (1948) with Van Johnson and June Allyson or WATCH THE BIRDIE (1950) where she and Ann Miller had to fight over------Red Skelton? Again, Arlene was used mostly for eye-candy over her acting skills, one interesting exception being a loan-out to Eagle-Lion for the 1949 REIGN OF TERROR, a strange noirish take on the French Revolution in which Dahl proved herself quite good in a dramatic role, but back at M-G-M it was more support in things like THREE LITTLE WORDS (1950) where she didn’t even get to dance with Fred Astaire. So by the time of SLIGHTLY SCARLET, Arlene was ready to sink her teeth into flaky sisterhood, at least having a good time playing dangerous eye-candy for once.

Both actresses careers faded as the sixties began, but neither slowed down in pursuing other interests. Both have married six times, Dahl to actors Lex barker and Fernando Lamas in the 50’s Fleming to producer Hall Bartlett in the late 60’s, then movie theater magnate Ted Mann from the late 70’s to his death in 2001. Both ladies have been active and successful businesswomen and philanthropists in their post-Hollywood careers and of this writing, are still with us.

Not only are the leads good, but the supporting casts, as they are in most of the Bogeaus films, are top notch: Kent Taylor, Ted de Corsia, Buddy Baer, Ellen Corby, and George E. Stone. The film also benefits greatly and visually from another Benedict Bogeaus regular, cinematographer John Alton, Oscar-winner for co-shooting AN AMERICAN IN PARIS with Alfred Gilks, all-around dynamite lenser in any genre, but a specialist one called when making a film noir (he filmed T-MEN (1947), BURY ME DEAD (1947), RAW DEAL (1948), THE AMAZING MR. X (1948), HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948), REIGN OF TERROR (1949), MYSTERY STREET (1950), and I, THE JURY(1953) ). Alton once said in an interview, “It’s not what you light---it’s what you DON’T light.”, and of late he had been making Bogeaus’ Technicolor RKO’s look better than they had any right to, expanding his own experience with the three-strip palette (AMERICAN IN PARIS had been his first color film), mixing his wonderful use of light, shadow, and contrast with an interesting eye for hue, now he was getting his first (and sadly last) opportunity to make a color noir.

Born in Sopron, in the now extinct Austro-Hungarian Empire on October 5, 1901, Alton had started out at M-G-M in the 1920’s as a lab technician and became a cameraman at Paramount in 1927. In the early 1930’s he moved to South America where he found work in the film industry there, not only photographing, but writing and directing as well. He returned to Hollywood in 1937 and became a full-time cinematographer, working first at Republic, where he added atmosphere to films like THE LADY AND THE MONSTER (1944) and STORM OVER LISBON (1944) , both featuring Erich Von Stroheim. Alton continued working Poverty Row through the forties, but the work he did on a number of those Eagle-Lion-Anthony Mann thrillers brought him to the attention of M-G-M, who hired him in 1950 where he filmed everything from FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950) with Spencer Tracy to BATTLE CIRCUS (1953) with Humphrey Bogart.

Alton was freelancing after 1954, but starting that year with SILVER LODE, he had been Benedict Bogeaus regular cinematographer, and he took advantage in developing his Technicolor technique. Though SLIGHTLY SCARLET would be his last film for Bogeaus, it is a cinematic tour de force, keeping the noir tone oppressive and tense, but also having a great time lighting lavish sets one could stage dance numbers on (both the sister’s home and the beach house are huge monstrosities of 50's architecture)with a variety of color and black, also knowing he had two fabulous redheads to exploit and exploit it both he and Dwan do.

SLIGHTLY SCARLET wasn’t just John Alton’s last picture for Bogeaus, it was also Bogeaus’ last picture for RKO, who was really on the ropes for the last count thanks to Mr. Hughes. Though there were three more pictures on the Producer’s contract to deliver to the studio, all three, THE RIVER’S EDGE (1957), ENCHANTED ISLAND (1958) and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958) ended up being distributed by other studios, and their lackluster returns crippled Bogeaus’ future as a Producer. He made only two more films, the somewhat wacky airplane disaster film JET ACROSS THE ATLANTIC (1959) and THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE (1960), an odd little horror film starring Ron Randell. Bogeaus sold General Service Studios, retired, and passed away in 1968.

THE MOST DANGEROUS MAN ALIVE was also Allan Dwan’s swansong, as he entered his sixth decade as a Director, he figured it was time to pack it in and go-----at least from the movie business, Dwan didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere else. His was indeed a long and happy retirement, another twenty years to go as he lived long enough to be interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich and other historians about his long career, and to be recognized and revered as a movie pioneer. He passed away at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills December 28, 1981 at the age of 96.

John Alton continued to freelance, even returning to M-G-M to shoot TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956), TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON (1956, and DESIGNING WOMAN (1957), but he seemed to find himself out of the studio system by 1959, his only work for nearly two years was the low-budget science-fictioner 12 TO THE MOON (1960), directed by film historian and occasional bad-film director David Bradley. In 1960, Alton was hired by Burt Lancaster for ELMER GANTRY, which went well, but Alton was then replaced by Burnett Guffey two weeks into shooting BIRD MAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962). Apart from the TV pilot for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE in 1966, John Alton never worked in Hollywood again, and his name was generally forgotten until the film noir craze of the 80’s and 90’s began to make historians notice his name on a number of rediscovered films, and suddenly his departure from the Industry became a “disappearance”, a mystery perhaps noirish in itself gossiped about among the fans.

Alton reappeared in the early 1990’s after the Documentary VISIONS OF LIGHT showcased some of his work among other great cinematographers; he made some public appearances, including one at the 1994 Cinecon. Asked about his retirement from Hollywood, Alton replied, “I stopped because I wanted to live. That was no life, to work at the studio, get up at six every morning, and fight the producers. I had enough, I looked at my bank book and said ’thats it’.” Alton and his wife had spent the next thirty years travelling and living abroad in France, Germany and Argentina, apparently perfectly happily. Alton was then able to spend his final years receiving his due for some of the incredible images he had created; he died in 1996 at the age of 95.

Some film noir “experts” argue as to whether SLIGHTLY SCARLET is truly “noir” (hmmmmm, experts of a genre that really didn’t exist in Hollywood to begin with passing judgment on whether or not a film can or can’t be considered a part of same non-existent genre? And they make fun of trekkies who speak Klingon), ah well, most of them are into it just so they can wear the hats anyway. Whatever the heck it is, SLIGHTLY SCARLET is a solid, strange, wild and wacky movie shot in a crackpot canvas of solid colors and chiaroscuro, which will look even more eye-popping in the original IB Technicolor print Cinevent is going to show you. Though no expert will ever call it a screamin’ bonafide classic, maybe it is indeed unclassifiable because it is truly one-of-a-kind.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

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