Caftan Woman

Caftan Woman

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

CMBA Fall blogathon - Planes, Trains and Automobiles: Sleepers West (1941)


The Classic Movie Blog Association is proud to present Planes, Trains and Automobiles, running from October 19th to the 24th. Please turn to this site for the blogs and dates listed to travel around the world through classic film!


All aboard!

Sol Wurtzel was the executive in charge of the 20th Century Fox B unit in the 1930s and 1940s.  Beginning with the company as an assistant to William Fox, Wurtzel relocated from New York to Hollywood in 1917.  He is credited with "discovering" John Ford, who gave the eulogy at Wurtzel's 1958 funeral.  20th Century Fox's pictures during this era included starring vehicles for Shirley Temple and Will Rogers, lavish musicals like Alexander's Ragtime Band, historical epics like In Old Chicago and respected dramas like Young Mr. Lincoln.  All of these were supported by the finest B unit in Hollywood under Sol Wurtzel's supervision.



Seems like old times.
Lloyd Nolan, Lynn Bari

Efficiently produced and entertaining series with established characters such as Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto and Michael Shane were profitable for the studio and provided a testing ground for young acting contractees, directors, writers and cinematographers.  The low budget fare can boast the same attention to quality of production values as their higher budgeted siblings.  To this day the films from this B unit retain their individuality and power to entertain.




Uncooperative witness.
Lloyd Nolan, Mary Beth Hughes

Earl Derr Bigger's Charlie Chan and J.P. Marquend's Mr. Moto did the heavy serial lifting in the 30s with Brett Halliday's (real name Davis Dresser) private eye Michael Shayne coming aboard in 1940.  Popular player Lloyd Nolan first brought Shayne to life on screen.  Born in San Francisco, Nolan cut his acting teeth at the Pasadena Playhouse and in 1929 made his Broadway debut in the ensemble of a revue called Cape Cod Follies.  It closed in less than a month.  That early start would be repeated a few times before he made a success as Biff Grimes in James Hagan's One Sunday Afternoon.  In 1954 he would return to Broadway as Lt. Commander Queeg in Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.  In 1955 he would win a Primetime Emmy Award for his performance of that role on Ford Star Jubilee.



How do they expect the train to get in on time with all these delays!
Ralph Dunn, Oscar O'Shea

1935's G-Men was Lloyd Nolan's first film, but his professionalism and ease in front of the camera made him a natural.  Lloyd Nolan is fondly remembered for performances in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Bataan, The Street With No Name and hundreds of television roles including his Emmy nominated role of Dr. Chegley in the television milestone Julia.  In 1940 he signed on for Michael Shayne: Private Detective, one of 10 pictures Lloyd Nolan released in that year.  He made the wise-cracking, lives-by-his-own-code PI a most appealing character combining toughness, street smarts and humour.



Trains are great places for snoops - I mean, investigative reporters.
Lynn Bari

Sol Wurtzel produced a 1934 film based on Frederick Nebel's successful novel Sleeper's East starring Preston Foster, Wynne Gibson and Mona Barrie.  Nebel, along with Dashiell Hammett, was the king of the hard-boiled crowd that graced the pulpy pages of Black Mask.  Sleepers East was published in 1933 and was very well received.  It is not a straight-forward mystery, but a Grand Hotel-esque tale of disparate characters thrown together on a train including a mobster's lawyer, a private eye, the railroad dick, a reluctant witness, and a runaway husband.  The second of seven Michael Shayne movies released in this series is a 1941 reworking of Sleepers East entitled Sleepers West.  Eugene Ford, director of half a dozen Chan pictures, plus the Jeeves series and three of the Shayne entries handled that chore for Sleepers West.



Trains are great incubators for rumours.
Sam McDaniel, Charles R. Moore, Fred Toones, Jesse Graves, Edward Brophy

The No. 10 aka The Comanche is loading passengers at the Denver train station for its trip to San Francisco.  Mike Shayne, private detective, appears to be traveling alone, but is secretly escorting a surprise witness to an important trial.  An ex-con is being railroaded by a crime boss with political connections and ambitions.  Mary Beth Hughes (The Great Flamarion) is the little lady who can bust the case wide open.  Also on the trip is Lynn Bari (Orchestra Wives) as Kay Bentley, a reporter based in Denver.  She and Mike go way back, each having left the other at the altar more than once.  They share the comfortable and sarcastic bantering so common in films of the era.  The affectionate insults are handled with a surety that is a joy to see and hear.  Kay is accompanied by her fiance Tom Linscott played by Donald Douglas (Murder, My Sweet).  He is a lawyer employed by that ambitious San Francisco politician mentioned earlier.  Things could get complicated.



Secrets can be hidden or exposed during a train wreck.
Lynn Bari, Lloyd Nolan

Once the train gets underway, we are joined by late arrivals and emergency pick-ups.  The railroad detective played by Edward Brophy (Dumbo) has been called in to work at the last minute.  He has no idea what his assignment entails, but imagines it must be something big.  A shady PI played by Don Costello (Another Thin Man) is on the job for that ambitious San Francisco politician who keeps popping up.  Complication upon complication.  Louis Jean Heydt (The Great McGinty) is a straight arrow looking for adventure.  Brother, you have come to the right place!

Department of missed opportunities:  The No. 10 is graced with a number of porters, among them is top-billed Ben Carter and uncredited Mantan Moreland.  If vaudevillians Carter and Moreland performed their incomplete sentence routine for Sleepers West, it was left on the cutting room floor.  If they weren't even provided the opportunity then it was a rare false step by the Wurtzel unit.

These passengers with their secrets and agendas, collide and confuse each other with threats and tricks.  With a man's life at stake in a San Francisco courtroom and relationships in the balance Sleepers West is one wild and memorable movie train ride.

BONUS TRACK:  ("Track."  Get it?  Ha!)

Ben Carter and Mantan Moreland do their incomplete sentence act in two of the Chan pictures from Monogram, 1945s The Scarlet Clue and 1946s Dark Alibi, assisted by sly Sidney Toler and befuddled Benson Fong.



The Classic Movie Blog Association e-book Planes, Trains and Automobiles is available for free on Smashwords or $ .99 on Amazon with proceeds going to film preservation.








28 comments:

  1. I need to see this movie! Thanks for the great information about Wurtzel and the B-unit!

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    1. It's a winner I'm sure you'll enjoy. When I mentioned this title as the subject of the blogathon it got smile and thumbs up from the family.

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  2. Great review. I've never seen this movie, but it looks great. I've always enjoyed Lloyd Nolan's performances.I particularly remember him in Lady in the Lake, and as a guest star on a lot of classic TV shows.

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    1. Lloyd Nolan is one of those guys who brings a lot of personality with his talent so that we always remember him and look forward to our next meeting. If you like your 40s tough guys smart and sweet, Mike Shayne is your man.

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  3. The name Lloyd Nolan (no relation, I take it) didn't register until you mentioned A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. He was quite good in that one. Still, ten movies in one year - that sort of thing's unheard of these days. Hope he got paid well for it.

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    1. Sadly, no relation. From all I've read he seems like a swell fellow.

      I hope the recompense matched his talent. The awards committees didn't seem to notice he was around until 1950s television. What's a guy gotta do?

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  4. I'm glad to see you sharing the Lloyd Nolan love. I think he deserves more recognition than he receives these days.

    Another person who deserves more recognition is Sol Wurtzel. Thanks for including the info about his hard work with 20th Century Fox (B).

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    1. The fine work on and off screen in the B pictures always impresses me. Despite the limitations of time and money, folks brought their A game.

      Wouldn't it be grand to see Lloyd Nolan get the star of the month treatment or at least a Summer Under the Stars day.

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  5. Leave it to CW to spotlight yet another film I have never seen. I swear, I am going to start keeping a book of CW recommendations! Excellent and entertaining (as always) post - great addition to the blogathon.

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    1. Gosh, you make me blush. I think these dandy detective stories are something you would genuinely enjoy.

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  6. CW, you do such a fab job of selecting lesser-known, interesting films. I haven't read any of the Michael Shayne novels, but I always enjoyed Lloyd Nolan's performance in these fast-paced mysteries. This was my second fave of his seven Shayne pics.

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    1. Your second fave Shayne? Is your first "Blue, White and Perfect"? I haven't ranked them, but would definitely put that near the top.

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  7. I agree with Rick29! You always manage to come up with a rare interesting film. Like just about everyone else, I have not seen this film. I have always ha mixed feeling on Lloyd Nolan, both good and bad.

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    1. Well, you must have had a cold or a fight with somebody when you had those bad feelings about Lloyd Nolan, so I'll forgive you. I always find it interesting, especially over large filmographies, how a sometimes favourite performer can, under the right/wrong circumstances, really grate in some roles. Why some things work and some don't is part of the fun of the movie game.

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  8. Unless I saw it on b&w TV back in the day when the Michael Shayne mysteries aired often, this film is new to me. I'm one who liked Lloyd Nolan and I associated him with the Shayne character for years. Really enjoyed all the back story you included, too.

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    1. I imagine you'll get that deja vu feeling when you watch "Sleepers West". Why don't we ever run into guys like Shayne when we take train trips - or do you?

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  9. I love a train movie. Especially a mystery train movie. This sounds good, Pat. I probably saw it once upon a time since I used to watch all the Michael Shayne movies once upon a time - remember channel 9 and channel 11? They used to have all these sorts of movies. Oh, maybe you didn't grow up in Manhattan. :)

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    1. I'm not a Manhattan gal, but in Toronto we had our movie channels plus, through cable, the Buffalo stations. Movies, movies, movies. There was always a movie to watch. Nowadays those awkward hours are filled with infomercials. How do they expect the kids to learn about the good things in life like mystery train movies and Mike Shayne?

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  10. I love this entry in the Shayne series ( Red, White and Perfect being my favorite ). This was a great review and I like how thorough you were with the background info. Lloyd Nolan was such a happy little leprechaun, you couldn't help but root for him no matter how much aggravation he caused to the other characters.

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    1. We certainly think alike when it comes to the Shayne series, and Lloyd Nolan. He knew how to get under other character's skin, but that's how he got the job done. And always with a glint in his eye.

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  11. "Track." Get it? YES! HA!! :) SLEEPER'S WEST sounds like it's right up my alley! I love your character descriptions of the band of passengers on the The Comanche are an interesting lot. Yet again I start my travels through this event with notepad in hand to add to watch list. Terrific read as always, Paddy.

    Aurora

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    1. Thanks a lot, Aurora. So glad my corny pun received some appreciation. There are not enough hours in the day for all of our watch lists.

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  12. I saw this one not too long ago and loved it. And I always love Lloyd Nolan in any role. Thanks for the background on the B productions. I agree, they missed the boat (or train, as it were), when they left out Carter and Moreland's great routine. Great post, as usual.

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    1. Thanks large, Mac.

      Looks like the 40s slag has caught up with me.

      It took lowly Monogram to save the routine for posterity. YouTube posters are a crazy lot, but ya' gotta love 'em.

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  13. I love your captions:) I've been binge re-reading Chandler lately, so this sounds perfect for me! Thank you for introducing me to it.

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    1. Thanks. A very entertaining series that should be a perfect fit for your current mood.

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  14. I have to echo Marsha's comment that you always seem to pick movies I've never seen! That's probably a good thing, as that's how to find out about great unknown movies. Thank you for your great write up of this one Caftan Woman.

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    1. Looks like I'm getting a rep to live up to. Thanks for the kind words.

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