Monday, March 30, 2015

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for April on TCM

All the resources of the great Warner Brothers studio came together to give us a ripping good melodrama in 1940s They Drive by Night. Jerry Wald (The Roaring Twenties) and Richard Macaulay (Born to Kill) based their script on a novel by A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Thieves' Highway) with a dash from the screenplay for the 1935 Warner's feature Bordertown thrown in for good measure.

This look at the movie will discuss a possible spoiler in the well-known, star making turn for a new Warners leading lady.

Director Raoul Walsh was an incredibly busy and prolific filmmaker, particular in this period of his career. His energetic style meshed perfectly with the studio for which he provided much of their classic product, including The Roaring Twenties, High Sierra, The Strawberry Blonde, They Died With Their Boots On, Gentleman Jim, Objective, Burma!, etc. The moody cinematography on the picture is by 3-time Oscar nominee Arthur Edelson, a frequent Walsh collaborator (The Thief of Bagdad, The Big Trail, The Cock-Eyed World).

They Drive by Night was the last great role for George Raft. The former dancer splashed into the ranks of a "name" with the role of the gangster Rinaldo in 1932s Scarface which led to a brace of similar tough characters. Raft's best work can be seen in Each Dawn I Die, Souls at Sea and They Drive by Night.

Humphrey Bogart, George Raft

Raft plays Joe Fabrini, an ambitious wildcat trucker. Along with his brother Paul played by Humphrey Bogart, they eke out a precarious existence. Paul is beholden to his brother, but longs for a more quiet and stable life with his wife Pearl played by Gale Page. Bad luck seems to dog the Fabrini Brothers. Crooked financiers and bosses are as much in the way of their success as bad weather, faulty equipment and sleep deprivation. John Litel, Frank Faylen and Eddie Acuff are among the actors portraying fellow truckers on the same road that seems to lead nowhere.

George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart

Romance enters Joe's life in the form of Ann Sheridan as waitress Cassie Hartley. The hard-boiled quips comes fast and easy from this gal, but she has a heart of pure gold and soon that heart belongs to Joe Fabrini. When it looks like things are finally going their way, an accident results in the loss of Paul's right arm. The loyal Joe gets a job working for a large trucking concern run by old friend Ed Carlsen played by Alan Hale so he can help with Paul's recovery. Carlsen's company is a good fit for Joe. Ed and old friends like Irish McGurn played by Roscoe Karns respect Joe's ability and he is given the responsibility of traffic manager, contributing to the prosperity of the company.

Ida Lupino

Only one thing could mar Joe's position at Carlsen's, and that one thing is a woman. Ed's wife Lana is played by Ida Lupino in her first picture at Warner Brothers. At 22-years-old (!!) and acting since her teen years in England, Lupino was adept and versatile beyond her years and, therefore, hard for Hollywood to pigeonhole. She could be glamorous or dowdy, comic or dramatic, and had just had a star making performance in William Wellman's The Light That Failed.

Lana was a frustrated and dangerous woman. Married to the older, boisterous Ed for eight years, she had pushed him to make something of himself so she could live a life of wealth. She constantly belittles Ed and his drinking, which he obliviously sees as her humour. Well, perhaps Ed wasn't quite so oblivious to Lana's contempt; perhaps that was why he drank. Lana spends money to excess and looks for romance outside of her marriage. Her fabulous wardrobe tells us so much about her character courtesy of costumer Milo Anderson (Young Man with a Horn, Gentleman Jim).  Lana had set her sights on Joe prior to his coming to work for Ed, but Joe spurned her advances because of his friendship to Ed and because he sensed something was not quite right about the woman. Joe's instincts were firing on all cylinders.

Once we leave the road, our story turns to the section cobbled from Bordertown and our spoiler section. The obsessive Lana, fed up with Ed and thwarted by Joe, kills her husband by trapping him behind electrically controlled garage doors in a still running automobile. Joe stays on as a partner to continue running the company not realizing that Lana has more in mind for their relationship. When Joe announces his engagement to Cassie, Lana goes to the District Attorney to confess the murder, but claiming she committed the crime at Joe's behest.

In a classic courtroom scene, guilt overwhelms Lana who has a complete mental breakdown screaming about the doors making her kill Ed. It must be seen. I think she leaves Bette Davis (Bordertown) in the dust. Warner Brothers was not yet done with Bordertown. Check out TVs Cheyenne, Season 1, Episode 8, The Storm Riders for another version of the dissatisfied wife with an agenda.

One star, Raft, reaches his peak. Another, Lupino, stakes her claim. Bogart's next picture would be High Sierra and he would be cemented as one of Hollywood's great leading men. Here they are together at the crossroads in They Drive by Night where audiences can enjoy the best of the studio system in a hugely entertaining film.

TCM is screening They Drive by Night on Monday, April 20th at 10:00 pm., part of an evening they are calling "Hitching a Ride".


  1. A great choice, and don't this say all: "Lupino was adept and versatile beyond her years and, therefore, hard for Hollywood to pigeonhole. "

  2. I've been looking for an excuse to do a piece on Lupino for quite awhile. Think I'll watch this.

    1. It's a dandy!

      I was relaxing in a coffee bar when an older fellow with a newspaper read that Ida Lupino had passed away. Four of us - strangers - sat with our cups and talked about our favourite Ida Lupino movies and scenes. The impression she made in "They Drive by Night" really stayed with people. I hope she knew how well thought of she was by movie fans.

  3. You are so right--Walsh was at his peak when he made this film. It's got his signature style stamped all over it. Honestly, I don't know why Walsh isn't taken more seriously as an auteur like many of his contemporaries. I think Ida Lupino's later directing stints may recall Walsh's influence.

    1. To watch Walsh is to admire him. I imagine to work with him, if you were as creative a person as was Ida, must have been inspiring.

  4. THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT has been a recent new movie to love, Paddy! It's one of the films I first liked when I watched with good gal Ann Sheridan! I must also admit Ida Lupino steals the show, especially when she gets on the witness stand! Great choice, my friend! :-D

    1. I don't think I gave Ann enough credit for her role here. She is, as always, a breath of fresh air. The type of gal you'd like to pal around with. Glad to hear the movie is a favourite of yours. Somehow, I thought it would be!



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