Welcome. Before the show begins, please visit our concession stand and grab an ice-cold Coca-Cola.
It’s August; it’s hot. As I mop the sweat off my brow, I want nothing more than a sparsely populated movie theater, my own black velvet fortress impervious to the blinding sunlight. A tall cup of highly carbonated soda jam-packed with crushed ice is at my reach. The light of the projector and the sound emanating from the speakers become the entirety of my world. The air conditioning hums along, only perceptible during the lulls of the film’s soundtrack.
On the screen, a double bill unspools. Movies from another era with voices of long-dead actors performing in long-dead styles. It’s a séance in clear monaural sound.
On the floor, the sticky residue of a spilled drink.
I can’t even fantasize without the humid discomfort of reality seeping in.
Who did the booking for this strange theater? The pair of features on the bill are in stark opposition to one another, like they are made for two different species. Yet they are stuck together like my shoe on the unmopped floor.
Tonight (or is it daytime? who knows in this pit) I am being shown two films released the same year by the same studio. Yin and yang, darkness and light, coiled up urban angst and cowboys with cocky smiles.
The films are Jealousy and Don’t Fence Me In, both from Republic Pictures’ 1945 lineup. A Roy Rogers Western and a crime melodrama from Gustav Machatý.
Feature #1: Jealousy
The film opens with a canted angle of the Hollywood Boulevard Street sign followed by an even more severely angled shot of a Hollywood cab company. Enter: Janet Urban, punching in for her shift. I mentioned urban angst in reference to this film—nothing is haphazard in this Gordian knot of a script. Janet is the embodiment of urban modernity, working a thankless job to support an out-of-work husband. She is deeply unhappy. One day she picks up a handsome doctor, they enter into a lively debate about Brahms, and a love affair is born.
If a female taxi driver well-versed in Brahms sounds like an unusual character for a B-picture, that’s because it is. Think of this oddity as the result of an experiment: introduce one European artiste to one low overhead/high profit Hollywood studio and see what happens. That sums up the collision of Czech director Gustav Machatý and Republic Pictures. The former most famous for the Czech films Erotikon and the provocative Hedy Lamarr-starring Ecstasy and the latter most famous for its family-friendly serials and Westerns. Jealousy was made over a decade after Machatý had made his mark in Czechoslovakia and about eight years into his largely unsuccessful move to Hollywood. Somehow, he managed to direct this one picture for Republic. With this bit of background information, a melancholy, classical music devoted cabbie suddenly makes a bit more sense—
While Janet and the doctor’s affair blossoms, Janet’s husband—a Euro intellectual with a perpetually furrowed brow—descends into a suicidal, alcoholic malaise. As if this wasn’t a complex enough entanglement, the doctor’s assistant is equally enraged by this budding romance. Scenarists take note: why stop at a love triangle when you can go all out with a love quadrangle.
There is, of course, a murder and the film does go through some of the motions of a whodunit. This is a film to watch for its style though. Machatý directs with a clear intention to create something startlingly different. The music by German composer Hanns Eisler feels more heightened, it covers a wide range from shrieking violins to creepily low cello notes. Janet and her husband’s fights are bracingly brutal—he threatens to murder her as they are decorating their Christmas tree. Most notably, the murder scene is partially photographed as a handheld POV shot. It’s a cliché now largely due to slasher films (and the 1960s Euro thrillers that inspired them), but in a studio era picture like this, it evokes the avant garde. Surely, Machatý was keeping current with the likes of Maya Deren.
Then there’s this alarming scene which I’ll leave for adventurous moviegoers to discover:
All this from a little B-movie starring Jane Randolph, best known for her roles in Cat People and Curse of the Cat People.Supporting sweet Jane (I’m biased, she’s a native Ohioan) is an international conglomeration: the Danish Nils Asther, the English John Loder, the Czech actor/director Hugo Haas, and Sweden is represented by a small role from Mauritz Hugo. Karen Morley also deserves recognition—she sneakily steals the show.
Feature #2: Don’t Fence Me In
As easygoing as an evening breeze (or the murmur of the cotton trees, for that matter), Don’t Fence Me In seems to have a single-minded purpose: amuse the audience. Roy Rogers delivers the boyish charm, Dale Evans is a little sexier than her reputation would suggest, and Gabby Hayes provides…Gabby Hayes. This is one of those Westerns that takes place in modern times, so there are cars and city types with pinstriped suits and slicked hair.
The story revolves around the legend of gun slinger Wildcat Kelly, who is supposedly dead and buried. It turns out that Kelly (Hayes) found the Lord, faked his death, and has since lived an honest life on a ranch. Dale is a tabloid reporter with a penchant for spicy undercover stories—we first see her through a keyhole in stockings singing atop a table to a bunch of liquored up politicians! She gets a new assignment: head out West to investigate the rumor that Wildcat Kelly is alive.
But enough synopsizing. The script by siblings Dorrell and Stuart McGowan is good enough to move things along between songs. The musical numbers are the highlight: Dale singing “A Kiss Goodnight,” The Sons of the Pioneers doing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and, of course, Roy, Dale, and The Sons performing the title Cole Porter tune.
The movie is simply charming. A Western for people that don’t like Westerns, a musical for people that only like Westerns. If you like both Westerns and Musicals, well, I reckon you’ll like this.
The program ends and my glasses immediately steam up as I am thrust back to reality. It was all a mirage. They say that one of the signs of mild heat stroke is envisioning polarized double bills. One minute there’s murder in the shadows, the next a friendly cowboy comes leaping from the screen.
Don’t forget to dispose of your trash on the way out...