The Film Bench--Charles Bickford in Thou Shalt Not Kill (1939)

Here’s the latest in a series of examinations of 16mm films from my cluttered shelves.

Charles Bickford looks like a dockworker, copper miner, exterminator, or wheat harvester—all jobs he held prior to landing in Southern California in the fledgling days of sound film. In fact, if a story would be at home in a men’s magazine, or my preferred term “armpit slick,” Bickford could probably don a grease-stained t-shirt and lead the picture. On and off-screen he was brusque and hardworking, the antithesis of the dandified Hollywood type. In an interview just prior to his death in 1967—at a point when the dogged actor owned three businesses while starring in TV western The Virginian—he laid out his ethos: “I got an impression early in life I was born into a jungle and the way to survive is fight.” This hardscrabble attitude was written on Bickford’s weathered face, scraggly hair, and imposing figure. While Western and Action pictures were his bread and butter, several canny producers exploited this look in a different way: Charles Bickford also makes for a convincing man of God. Here is a rundown of his religious roles, from the phony to the pious:

  • The Sea Bat (1930) In one of his first screen roles, Bickford is a wanted murderer disguised with a cleric collar in the West Indies. Deep sea diving suits, underwater footage of sponge harvesting, a gigantic killer manta ray, and an even-deadlier Raquel Torres are the sweltering trappings of this exotic melodrama.

  • Mutiny in the Big House (1939) A genuinely good Monogram drama where Bickford plays a prison chaplain fully committed to redemption. The film is loosely based on the Canon City prison riot of 1929 and Father Patrick O’Neill’s life-risking effort to bring the melee to an end.

  • The Song of Bernadette (1943) Bickford was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of Abbé Dominique Peyramale, the staunch defender of the visionary Bernadette of Lourdes.

  • The Babe Ruth Story (1948) Bickford plays Brother Matthias, the real-life mentor of young George Herman Ruth (played by William Bendix) in reform school. Although the movie is notoriously corny—it frequently crops up on lists of the all-time worst movies—it is endearing if approached from the right angle.

  • Guilty of Treason (1950) This intense Eagle-Lion film with stark cinematography by John L. Russell deserves a restoration. It’s the story of Hungarian Cardinal’s József Mindszenty’s conspiracy against the Communist regime’s brutal occupation.

As of the November 1939 trade papers, Thou Shalt Not Kill was known as “The Narrow Path.” For reasons unknown, Republic Pictures replaced this superior title with the more sermonizing one mere weeks prior to the film’s release. The film takes place in a small town where adrift young man Allen Stevens (Owen Davis Jr.) is torn between two women, the saintly Mary Olsen (the other, lesser known Doris Day) and the barmaid at the local watering hole The Gangplank, Julie Mancini (Sheila Bromley). When Julie turns up murdered, Allen is the prime suspect. Only Reverend Chris Saunders (Bickford) knows the truth, but here’s the attention-grabber: In a delirium, a Catholic confessed the murder to Saunders, a Protestant priest. Must he abide by the Catholic seal of confession he was mistakenly entrusted?

It’s a routine programmer through-and-through, its plot not dissimilar from RKO’s Full Confession from the same year, however the well-crafted direction and earnest uplifting tone make it a soothing picture. John H. Auer directs and, besides one explosive action sequence in the third act which looks like Republic’s serial unit may have intervened, does a good job modulating the rhythm. The studio-bound facsimile of small-town America, preceding Frank Borzage’s similar late-career Republic effort Moonrise by almost a decade, creates a pleasing otherworldly effect. Budapest-born Auer’s feature film debut The Crime of Doctor Crespi is a Poverty Row gem, particularly a stunning funeral sequence told in first-person point of view. Since seeing that film, I have been curious if Auer’s other work contains comparable flashes of virtuosity. There is one small moment in Thou Shalt Not Kill that went above and beyond. Allen Stevens and Mary Olsen are both heading into the library in search of the same book. As they reach the shelf, they bump heads, and the book drops to the floor. Allen places a coin on Mary’s forehead to soothe the pain. On paper it may not sound like much, but the sequence is deftly edited with a mixed variety of close-ups and medium shots. The coin bit is one of those bizarre acts that only could only be done by a character in a movie. It’s beautifully intimate.

Bickford is convincing in the role, but when is he not? Doris Day, Sheila Bromley, and Paul Guilfoyle round out the cast nicely. Charles Middleton lends his scary presence as the Olsen patriarch and does a typically fine job.

It’s the little-known Owen Davis Jr. who makes the biggest impression as the soft-spoken, misunderstood youth. At 32, he is too old for the role, and maybe that’s the reason this was his penultimate film. He was no longer a young man. He was the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning Owen Davis, who wrote the plays The Nervous Wreck, Lazybones, and Jezebel, all made into popular films. Davis Sr. also penned two Will Rogers movies, They Had to See Paris (where Davis Jr. was cast as Rogers’ son) and So This Is London. Despite his mother’s objection, the younger Davis was stage struck at an early age. After one year of academic studying at Yale, he transferred to George Pierce Baker’s newly established theatre program and never looked back. A month after graduating he got his first break, playing alongside two famous fathers, Richard Bennett and Walter Huston in The Barker at New York’s Biltmore Theatre. His second foray into pictures after the Rogers film was one of the sensations of 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front. Not to be outdone, the senior Davis scored an even bigger hit in 1930 with the year’s top-grossing film Whoopee! (the second of three film adaptations of The Nervous Wreck). Other than starring roles in RKO’s Bunker Bean and Monogram’s Bret Harte adaptation Luck of Roaring Camp, Owen Davis Jr. mostly played supporting roles throughout the rest of the decade. His last film was 1940’s Knute Rockne All American. By 1949, like many other theatre people, he had secured a position in the burgeoning field of television as the Director of Program Preparation and Procurement for NBC-TV. He was out sailing on the Long Island Sound with his co-worker, Herbert V. Anderson, in the Spring of that year when their sloop grounded off Hart Island (a grim place if ever there was one, being a location of at varying times POW camps, quarantine stations, boys’ workhouses, and, to this day, a public cemetery). According to Anderson, he went below to sleep until the tide dislodged them while Davis stayed above to smoke his pipe. The police were notified of the grounded boat. They boarded the boat and awoke Anderson, but by that time Davis was nowhere to be found. Two fishermen later found his body, a life preserver floating nearby. The New York Daily News noted, “The drowning report, however, only intensified the mystery of Davis’ death, since friends said that he was an unusually strong swimmer.”

Owen Davis Jr. and girlfriend Anne Shirley in 1936.

The story is strange and unsatisfying but knowing it makes Thou Shalt Not Kill that much more affecting. It’s not a movie likely to be revived soon, so I hold this extremely sharp and strongly contrasted print dear. (It’s so clear an image that little mistakes in the lighting are noticeable—an actor taking a step off their blocking casts a shadow, the overhead studio lights reflecting in the glasses of the lawyer in the courtroom scene.) The neat and tidy ending is what I like most. Fully exonerated, Owen Davis Jr. sits in the congregation. The camera dollies in as he confidently winks at Charles Bickford on the pulpit. Doris Day is by his side. Even Charles Middleton doesn’t hate him that much.


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