Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting The Sixth Annual Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon which runs on November 15 - 17. Please enjoy the tributes which may be accessed HERE.
The Secret of Convict Lake is an ensemble western released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1951. Based on a short story by science fiction writers Anna Hunger and Jack Pollenfex, the screenplay is attributed to Oscar Saul (Woman in Hiding) with uncredited contributions from Ben Hecht (The Front Page).
Director Michael Gordon (Another Part of the Forest, An Act of Murder) would find this assignment his last in Hollywood until Pillow Talk in 1959. He became another victim of McCarthyism in the paranoid America of the 1950s.
Every community needs its moral centre or compass. The isolated community of Lake Monte Diablo finds its centre in "Granny." The small settlement relies on their elder played by Ethel Barrymore, especially this winter when the men have gone in search of a silver strike to support their families.
Coping with the harsh conditions in their valley is Gene Tierney as Marcia, engaged to Rudy Schaefer played by Harry Carter, and Ann Dvorak as Rachael, Rudy's spinster sister. Ruth Donnelly plays Mary Fancher, and Helen Westcott plays Susan Haggarty. Jeanette Nolan and Barbara Bates play Harriet and Barbara Purcell, mother and daughter.
The lonely settlement is invaded by five men; five convicts that remain from a mass breakout. Some were recaptured, some fell victim to a blizzard while crossing the mountains that took them to Lake Monte Diablo. The village was the destination of Jim Canfield played by Glenn Ford. He was sentenced for a murder and robbery by the lies of Rudy Schaefer.
The village was the destination of Johnny Greer played by Zachary Scott because he wants the forty thousand dollars he believes Canfield has hidden in the valley. Fate drew the lots of the three remaining men, the brutal Matt played by Jack Lambert, pragmatic Limey played by Cyril Cusack, and a psychotic rapist Clyde played by Richard Hylton.
The women are not without resources and wits, but it is a perilous and unexpected situation in which they find themselves. By instinct, they turn to Granny who is a shrewd judge of character and, despite being mostly bedridden, a woman of action.
The relationships among this unlikely group of hunted men and hostages vacillate between wariness and curiosity. Canfield's focus on the absent Rudy Schaefer distresses Marcia. Their emotions are complicated by a strong attraction for each other. Johnny takes advantage of Rachael's longing for romance and adventure in the outside world. Naive Barbara precipitates a violent incident involving young Clyde. In the end, all rely on the wisdom and fortitude of "Granny."
The tangled tale is an engrossing western with well-formed characters for its brief runtime of 83 minutes. Location shooting in Colorado and California is combined effortlessly with studio bound scenes by the black and white cinematography of two time Oscar nominee Leo Tover (The Heiress, Hold Back the Dawn).
Legendary stage star Ethel Barrymore made her last Broadway appearance in Embezzled Heaven in 1944. From that time, she worked in Hollywood films beginning with the Oscar-winning role of Ma Mott in None But the Lonely Heart. Of the 21 movies that would follow, Miss Barrymore would garner three more Oscar nominations for The Spiral Staircase, 1947, The Paradine Case, 1948, and Pinky, 1950.
Ethel Barrymore's Hollywood tenure was relatively brief considering her long and historic career, but she left us the benefit of her talents in dramas, thrillers, films-noir, comedies, musicals, and, probably a surprise to her, the fascinating western, The Secret of Convict Lake.