Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: BLONDIE JOHNSON (1933)

As one of Warner Bros.' top gold diggers, Joan Blondell was already a gangster of love. It was a natural leap for screenwriter Earl Baldwin and director Ray Enright to make her a plain and simple gangster, a distaff counterpart to Cagney, Robinson et al. Inevitably, however, Virginia "Blondie" Johnson remains a more sympathetic figure than the studio's male gangsters. She is explained, as they are not, by a grudge against society, introduced begging for an immediate relief payment after her family is evicted from their latest home. Her mom's dying of pneumonia in the back room of a pharmacy offered to the Johnsons as shelter, but the fact that they have a roof over their heads makes them better off than many families in the eyes of the relief agency, and in any event they can't pay out on the spot. Blondie returns home to find Mom dead. She rejects the consolation of faith, realizing now that there are two ways to get ahead: the hard way and the easy way.

For Blondie the easy way is to turn grifter -- and you thought she meant something else! She runs a con with a taxi driver, standing at street corners crying that she won't get to work on time and will lose her job, hoping that some mark will spring for cab fare when her partner (Sterling Holloway) drives past. This works for a while, but Blondie learns that you can't con a con when one of her marks reveals himself as Danny Jones (Chester Morris), the right-hand man of Max Wagner. Max and Danny are in the "insurance" business; they insure shopkeepers against getting their property wrecked and so forth, if you get my drift. Danny gets his money back, but he admires Blondie's spunk. She helps his buddy Louie (Allen Jenkins) beat a murder rap by playing his pregnant lover before a gullible, soft-hearted jury, and runs a number of cons on the side with the help of her fellow molls. She also detects a lack of ambition in Danny and goads him to challenge Max for dominance. When that gets Danny run over and hospitalized, Louie takes out Max. He may seem simple, being Allen Jenkins and all, but he lives like a serial villain. His apartment is furnished with a fireplace that turns into a bar at the flip of a switch -- and the space behind the wall makes an excellent machine-gun nest. Louis invites Max and his loyalists over for a parlay, steps out for a moment, and in the next moment Max & Co. are dead.

Danny takes over and starts living large, devoting much of his time to another woman as Blondie grows jealous and ambitious in her own right. She thinks Danny's spending too much of the gang's money on the other woman and convinces Louis and the rest of their cronies to back her in a bloodless coup. Now it's her name on the door of their impressive front office while Danny loses his money and his new girl. When Louie suddenly gets arrested for Max's murder and gossip indicates that the D.A. has a witness against him, everyone assumes it's the disgruntled Danny. This is the supreme moment for Blondie; as the gang leader she knows what she has to do though it makes her sick at heart. "What are you waiting for?" she tells her men, condemning Danny to death. But bare minutes later her spy in the D.A.'s office tells her that the witness is the janitor of Louie's apartment building, whom we saw chatting with Louie moments before Max's death. Now she has to rush to the rescue -- hailing a cab with her old partner in crime driving -- to save Danny from a fate he doesn't deserve....


Joan Blondell may not wield a machine gun or beat anyone up, but it's fun to watch her ruthless rise to power. Blondie really belongs to another Warners rogues gallery, this one consisting of dangerously empowered women, the more troubling counterparts to Blondell's more typical gold-digger, of whom Barbara Stanwyck's Baby Face, who sleeps her way up the corporate ladder,  is the most notorious example. Pre-Code buffs may be reminded of Stanwyck's bedroom Nietzscheanism by Blondie's rise to the top of her profession, but gangland seems more meritocratic, and Blondie's success in it more truly earned, than the corporate world of Baby Face. If anything, Blondie's rapid rise begs the question: why is she so seemingly helpless and woebegone in the first part of the picture? Anger energizes her, it seems, as it does the Stanwyck character. That motivating anger separates these two pictures from the gold-digger comedies, and from the male gangster films. Blondie Johnson has little in the way of social consciousness, but it's more obviously a story of rebellion than other Warner films. At the same time, and perhaps for chivalrous reasons, Blondie doesn't pay the same price the male gangsters pay. She never actually kills anyone -- though you wonder why, when she gets the real dope from her spy, she doesn't have the janitor killed -- and the film is marred by going soft at the end. Blondie's goons end up only wounding Danny, and after he recovers everyone comes clean and everyone goes to jail. Blondie gets six years, but it's a happy ending because she and Danny will reunite after they finish their respective terms. I assume Louie gets the chair but they never say it for certain. Whatever the filmmakers intended, this finish turns the film into a comedy after all.

*   *   *

Blondie Johnson gets extra Pre-Code points for a singular piece of casting. One of the guys in the gang has a moll named Lulu. She's played by Toshia Mori, who made movie history earlier in 1933 by becoming the first non-Caucasian named as a "WAMPAS Baby Star" by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers. For a decade by then the annual annointing of Baby Stars was a big publicity event that got the actresses' pictures in newspapers across the country. Mori's class included such imminent luminaries as Ginger Rogers and Gloria Stuart. Mori was under contract to Columbia and was nominated by the studio as a Baby Star -- a star of tomorrow, that is -- after their initial choice quit on them. For Columbia it was a good way to promote their current release The Bitter Tea of General Yen, in which Mori had a prominent supporting role. Needless to say, Mori was stuck in stock Asian roles and was out of the movie business by 1937. Only Warner Bros., for one picture, accepted the premise that Mori was actually the peer of her sister Babies. In Blondie Johnson a white actor and a Japanese-American actress play lovers -- this would be taboo under Code Enforcement -- and Lulu's obvious Asian ethnicity passes completely without comment by anyone in the picture. The only hint of ethnic subservience is Lulu's portrayal of a maid in one of Blondie's cons. It's very likely that Lulu's part, admittedly relatively small, was written without ethnicity in mind, and that the Warner casting director, seeing the publicity pictures of Mori with the other Baby Stars, simply said "Why not?" For that alone you'd have to admire Blondie Johnson -- but there's plenty to like besides that.

Meanwhile, the original trailer plays on Blondell's gold-digger image while billing Blondie as "The Commander of Men." As usual, it's from TCM.com

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 15, 1939

Arthur Leo Zagat's "Seven Out of Time" wraps up this week while Norbert Davis's mystery "Sand in the Snow" plods along. As if you couldn't guess, Zagat's time-lost heroes manage to save the Earth, albeit with a little help from one of their doctil oppressors. Turns out that he'd succeeded in his mission to learn the meaning of love, and out of love for the lady in the group he sacrifices himself so she can return to her own time. The rest of his kind are annihilated by hostile life forms, but they had it coming. In the Davis that woman Jim Daniels's wife was fighting last week turns out to be an aviatrix who'd flown Euro-gigolo Dak Hassan into the resort community where the story plays out. The flier is chasing Hassan while he chases Mrs. Daniels, which certainly complicates the character comedy but does little for the murder plot.

The new serial gets this week's cover, and if George Rozen's art doesn't exactly make Bennett Foster's "Rider of the Rifle Rock" look action-packed, at least it's accurate. I'd say it looks like a Ranch Romances cover, but Ranch Romances usually at least has someone, and often the woman, carrying a gun. Actually, though, it's a fairly well-written set up of a redemption story for an injured cowboy who lost his girl to a rival during his recuperation. No one wants to hire him because he may be a permanent cripple, and he doesn't help matters by going on a bender to drown his frustrations. Finally a rancher gives him a chance, but as a homesteader so that the rancher can retain his right to the land against the encroachment of the dreaded "nesters" -- farmers to the rest of us. Foster's more impressive writing at novel length, albeit in serial form, than he was in "Two Tall Men" from two weeks ago, and with a slow burn to a range war starting this should get more interesting as it goes along. I think anyone who likes westerns would like this one.

Our name-above-the-title authors this week are Donald Barr Chidsey and Phillip Ketchum. Chidsey was prolific, versatile, and entertaining. He could do exotic adventure, period pieces, and urban crime, with "All Good Embezzlers" a sample of the latter. It's a stand-alone story (no series characters) in which a con man who rents out a recently shuttered bank for a grift eventually crosses paths with a teller who'd been framed for the embezzlement that led to the bank's failure, but escapes in order to clear his name. It's all pretty improbable but Chidsey has the pulp knack for keeping things moving, though I did wonder why this ran in Argosy rather than its companion mag, Detective Fiction Weekly. Phillip Ketchum may be known as a western specialist, but "A Sword for Leif the Lucky" is obviously something else. Pulp authors could sometimes put over a thematic series of stories without relying on a continuing character; H. Bedford-Jones specialized in this sort of gimmick. Ketchum's series focuses on a continuing weapon. This is the third in a series he started earlier in the year about the "magic axe" Bretwalda, which conveys great power on its wielders but also promises both great joy and great sorrow. In this one the latest wielder aids Leif Ericson in thwarting a plot to kill the king of Norway, not realizing until late in the story that his father had been killed by Leif's father, Eric the Red. If Robert E. Howard defines pulp action for you, Ketchum's Bretwalda stories should satisfy. They're not quite so grim but they deliver the blood and thunder quite nicely.

The best of this week's short stories is Maurice Beam's "The Wind Won't Tell," a nice piece of unreliable narrating about a gold theft and subsequent murders in the modern west. Creighton Peet's "Just a Dreamer" is a comical fantastic about a man who has prophetic dreams and ends up getting exploited by the media. The twist ending is that he makes up a fake prophecy about a terrorist attack on himself in order to get people to leave him alone, but returns to the prophecy business after running out of money only to have the fake prophecy come true. Robert E. Pinkerton's "A Pretty Country" is like something for the slicks. A demoralized pioneer wife nearly drives her husband from her after a tough winter of hard luck until she discovers the beauties of the great outdoors in springtime. Richard Sale, usually a cover-featured writer when he has a novelette or serial going, contributes "Down At Sea -- No Position," a print-the-legend tale of a wealthy and vainglorious celebrity flier and his working-class co-pilot, who have to survive on a raft and reach an island after crashing at sea. The playboy cracks but ends up dying a hero as the co-pilot's eventual rescuers assume he was trying to get help for his friend when his raft sank, while the co-pilot, laid up with a broken leg, suspects that the so-called hero had really left him to die -- but he can't really know for sure.

Next week brings a new fantastic serial, a comedy this time, as well as a story by one of my favorite pulp writers, Robert Carse, and the return of Arden X. Pangborn's Wong Sun. And the cover has a dude fighting a dragon. That, at least, is an improvement.

TO BE CONTINUED

Monday, April 14, 2014

On the Big Screen: REAR WINDOW (1954)

 
The old tricks still work. Sixty years after its original release, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is playing this week at my town's repertory house, the Madison Theater. I've seen it many times on TV but wanted to see that amazing multi-story set on a big screen at long last. You might assume that everyone's seen this picture by now, but there are fresh gasps and shouts as Raymond Burr lumbers back to his apartment door while Grace Kelly rifles through his bedroom for evidence of murder, her warning system across the yard having failed as Jimmy Stewart and Thelma Ritter were distracted by the imminent suicide attempt of "Miss Lonelyhearts" a floor below. Hitchcock's ability to manipulate an audience is undiminished by time, it seems. But while Rear Window works as a pop thriller it's also an art film in many ways and an astute commentary on spectatorship, if not on voyeurism as many say.

Adapting a story by noir author Cornell Woolrich, Hitchcock casts Stewart as a news photographer laid up with a broken leg. Casts! Broken Leg! Get it?  Sorry, couldn't help myself there. Anyway, despite plenty of TLC from an insurance-company nurse (Ritter) and his high-society girlfriend (Kelly), our hero's going stir-crazy and that's hurting his romance. He obsesses over the activities in the building across the courtyard, from the miseries of "Miss Lonelyhearts" to the daily dance practice of "Miss Torso." Somewhere in between live a salesman (Burr) and his invalid wife, who disappears one morning after a rainy night spent by her husband taking repeated trips outside with his sample case. Stewart deduces murder and wins an initially skeptical Kelly to his theory. He has a harder time convincing his old war buddy, now a police detective (Wendell Corey) that something is rotten across the way. A now gung-ho Kelly invades Burr's space as described, and while she escapes the big man's wrath the salesman now knows he's being watched, and by whom.

Until that moment Lars Thorwald has been an abstraction, as much a construct of Stewart's bloody imagination as a real man and, indeed, a real murderer. Raymond Burr certainly would have gone down in history as one of cinema's greatest villain specialists had he not been lured to TV heroics soon after this picture. Here, however, Burr gives probably his most naturalist performance. Audiences were already familiar enough with Burr to identify him as a menace, and Hitchcock adds a level of strangeness by dyeing the actor's hair gray and putting glasses on him. Otherwise, denied audible dialogue until the final act, Thorwald is more object than character. Hitchcock has it both ways with, filming Burr's movements through the apartment and on the street (as seen only through an alley in an Ozu-like bit of framing) in documentary style with the actor doing nothing like conventional emoting, but also reducing him at times to no more than a red dot -- the light of his cigarette -- in the black rectangle of his unlit room framed by his window. When Burr finally makes eye contact with Stewart, who watches the scene with Kelly and the police through a telephoto lens, and with the audience, it's like a fourth wall breaking, or the abyss looking back at you. It's almost like Sadako coming out of the TV set in Ring when Burr crosses the yard to confront Stewart at the climax, the observed turning on the observer in a way that shouldn't be. Yet Burr really shines as he conveys that Thorwald is as much confused and even scared himself -- Stewart had earlier sent him a message hinting at blackmail to come -- as he is the aggressor in the scene. There's an almost rightfulness if not righteousness to his indignation at Stewart's violation of his privacy and presumed exploitation of his weaknesses.

The identification of Rear Window with voyeurism is only indirectly valid.  While Stewart is probably turned on by the daily sight of Miss Torso and salaciously amused by a young couple initiating their new home, the really erotic element of the story is the way Stewart and Kelly strengthen their bond by jointly constructing a story of spouse murder that just happens to be true. While Grace Kelly is an arousing sight normally, her own arousal is channeled into daredevil detective exploits like her invasion of Burr's locked apartment by climbing in through his second-floor window. She's acting less as an extension of Stewart than to reconnect with him -- make what you will of Ritter's nearly-equal enthusiasm for solving the mystery. Kelly's hostility toward Corey's professional skepticism is also on some level the girlfriend's jealousy of her boyfriend's buddies. Strangely, the film ends by suggesting that victory for Kelly means Stewart becoming more crippled -- he breaks the other leg when Burr dumps him out the window. I suppose you have to read something into how violent and damaging the hero's belated departure from his cocoon is, but I hadn't really thought about that aspect of the picture before I started writing this review. Speculate away if you haven't already.

Is it weird if I think that the Rear Window set looks like a Norman Rockwell cover come to life? Well, it does -- check out his Saturday Evening Post work from the period and slightly before to get what I mean and how the set design and Robert Burks's cinematography reflect it. Yet at the same time it's an abstract grid that carries out its illusion of reality by denying the audience details it usually gets from movies. Stewart can see Burr in his apartment only when Thowald passes by open windows, and from his distance he can't hear normal spoken dialogue. Stewart is surrounded by music from the other apartments but the Thorwald apartment is a silent movie. Likewise, when Kelly and Ritter go on their errands in the courtyard and street, they can only communicate with Stewart by pantomime. I think of all this as spectatorship rather than voyeurism because there's no sense of omniscience except what Stewart fills in with his imagination. The audience, of course, is doing the same thing. Most of them won't think much about the deeper issues raised by the film, but Rear Window's special virtue is its ability to satisfy viewers on several different intellectual or psychological levels -- like floors of an apartment building, maybe. Psycho probably remains Hitchcock's most beloved film, and Vertigo has recently been crowned the greatest film of all time, at least for the next ten years, but Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock, and in my opinion his best.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: HE WAS HER MAN (1934)

In 1938 James Cagney returned to Warner Bros. after a two-year exile and made Angels With Dirty Faces. That film has one of cinema's most famously ambiguous endings. Cagney's con is going to the chair and is determined to put a brave face on. Pat O'Brien as his old pal the priest urges him to put on a different act: no matter how he really feels, he should pretend to die a coward so the Dead End Kids won't make a role model of him. Cagney refuses -- but in the actual death chamber he does exactly what O'Brien wanted. The question remains: did he have a change of mind or heart, or did he actually crack at the sight of the chair. However you interpret it, what seems beyond dispute is that playing the coward is the right thing for a gangster to do under the circumstances. Angels is a product of the Code Enforcement era; we need to go back to Pre-Code to understand better the significance of Cagney's performance.

Lloyd Bacon's He Was Her Man is one of Cagney's most obscure films. It shouldn't really be obscure given that it's a Warner Bros. gangster film teaming Cagney with frequent co-star and arguable female counterpart Joan Blondell. But it doesn't seem to be discussed much compared to the other Cagney films of the period. Is it so much worse? Having seen it finally, I don't think so, but it is different in mood from Cagney's contemporary pictures, in some ways looking ahead to noir and in some ways looking back to the melodrama of renunciation. Yet at the time of its release in June 1934 some critics saw this picture as one of the straws that broke the camel's back. For such a low-key movie as it actually is, the reaction seems excessive.

In one of the rare appearances of Cagney's moustache, the star plays Flicker Hayes, an ex-con safecracker who takes up his old profession only to set up his partners, who had set him up years before. Having done that, Flicker has to lay low to avoid mob vengeance. He makes his way to San Francisco and from there to a small California fishing village. On the way he picks up Rose Lawrence (Joan Blondell) after first mistaking her for a finger woman in his Frisco hotel room. Turns out she was the previous occupant and had returned to retrieve a wedding dress she'd secreted between matresses. Rose is a fallen woman who has a future in the fishing village, where a simple "Portugee" fisherman (Victor Jory) loves her. She's falling hard for Flicker, however, while an innocent-seeming tourist fisher (Frank Craven) is actually keeping an eye on Flicker after making him in Frisco until the gunmen can reach town. Flicker feels bad about betraying the friendly Portugee and worse about possibly embroiling Rose in his life of perpetual danger. The inevitable arrives, and the most Flicker can do is figure out a way to spare Rose from sharing his fate.

There's something noirish to the doom hanging over Flicker and the impossibility of escaping it, and in the overall subdued, rueful mood of the movie, not to mention the extensive location work anticipating the more naturalistic noirs. The mood extends to Blondell, who gives as morose a performance as I've ever seen from her. By comparison, as Flicker Cagney strives to keep up a cool front, and what keeps him a hero at the end is his renunciation of Rose to save her life and his ability to maintain his cool in the face of death. The gangsters are about to take Flicker for a ride when Jory's family and others of the wedding party arrive. Jory's mother is horrified because they all forgot the ice cream for the reception, but Cagney and his just-arrived "business partners" agree to pick some up for them. At the end of the ride and the start of a last walk into the wilderness, Flicker reminds his nemeses to pick up that ice cream. They'll have to do it, he tells them, because he's going in the other direction.

In many ways, then, He Was Her Man (an earlier title was Without Honor) hardly feels like a Pre-Code movie, and yet critics of the crisis year 1934 treated it like Exhibit A proving the need of Code Enforcement. For syndicated columnist Dan Thomas, the implicit fornication of Flicker and Rose, while she was betrothed to another man, no less, was but the latest reprise of a theme "that has aroused critics to a feeling that continual recurrence of unmarried love on the screen cannot fail to have a relaxing effect on the morals of the young men and women, giving them a warped view of life and the way it is lived today."

Meanwhile, Cagney's cool in the face of doom infuriated Pittsburgh Press columnist Kaspar Monahan, who saw in it a "glorification of evil." Movie historians are familiar with the critique of Pre-Code crime films for their "glorification" of criminals, however incredible that critique seems when movie gangsters so often end up dead or defeated. Monahan clarifies things a little; for him, "glorification" isn't a matter of rewarding crime but an attitude that romanticizes it and makes it appealing despite defeat in the end. "We witness it in James Cagney's 'He Was Her Man,'" he writes, "for at the end, although the gangster he is playing is put on the spot, he is depicted as going to his death jauntily and steel-nerved. Bunk again -- gangster rats facing certain death squeal, bawl and grovel."

While we might wonder about Monahan's firsthand evidence for his claim, it's clear that he represented a viewpoint that had an obvious influence in years to come. While we shouldn't overestimate institutional memory in the pre-video era, Angels With Dirty Faces now looks a little like a correction of or apology for He Was Her Man on the part of Warner Bros. Whether or not you believe that criminals are essentially "rats," are cowards without their guns, etc., you can't help but feel as if a party line, and not just the Production Code, was being enforced by 1938. That's why some of us regret Code Enforcement even if its sophisticated sublimation had artistic benefits of its own. It's especially regrettable if it meant damning an admirably modest picture like He Was Her Man as propaganda for evil. That makes you wonder whose values were most messed up in 1934.

Here's the original trailer from TCM.com

Thursday, April 10, 2014

MONEY MONEY MONEY (L'aventure c'est l'aventure, 1972)

Claude Lelouch's L'aventure c'est l'aventure is France's answer to Otto Preminger's Skidoo: a heavyhanded comedy about oldschool gangsters adjusting to a radically new world. In less obscure terms, Lelouch's film is a send-up of radical chic. A bunch of dimwitted crooks -- Lino Ventura, playing an art forger, is the most high-functioning of them while singer-songwriter Jacques Brel is the other big name in the cast -- emerge from prison to learn that bank robbery, art forgery and other old standbys aren't where the action is anymore. The real action is political; all the old stuff is finished. Even the prostitutes are planning a general strike. Lino's son tells him that even cars are finished. Finding the lad's Molotov cocktail in his car, Lino accepts the premise and blows it up.



Lino's gang takes a crash course in radical politics, hearing talks from such extremes as uniformed Maoists to Salvation Army officers. The thing to do, they learn, is kidnap people in the name of some revolution or other. They start by pulling pop star (and eventually a movie tough-guy in his own right) Johnny Hallyday off the stage at one of his concerts after he sings the title song; Hallyday proves a most cooperative hostage. The gang then gets involved in an archetypal Latin American revolution, turning on revolutionary commandante Ernesto (Juan-Luis Bunuel, the director's son and a director in his own right) when he doesn't pay promptly. They kidnap a diplomat and impulsively play Russian Roulette with him while waiting for the ransom. They stage a successful hijacking, complicated only by their inept reading of an English ransom note. Finally they're living the high life until they're lured into a trap -- the bait's a boatload of topless girls -- set by the vengeful Ernesto, who wants his money back from them.



Eventually we return to the framing device of the gang's trial in Paris, but it's only a brief pause before the big finish as the boys make their break and flee to Africa, where they're feted as radical heroes. Each man takes a turn making nonsensical speeches as the masses cheer indiscriminately, living up to one character's early announcement that they were Groucho Marxists -- Skidoo covered this base by casting Groucho himself as a mob leader. Finally, there's no rest for revolutionaries, and our heroes are last seen sedan chair-napping the Pope, carrying their captive through the jungle and on to further adventures.


There are some funny ideas here and some decent moments of visual humor -- Ventura's facial expressions are priceless as he listens painfully to his cohort's labored rehearsals of his English for the ransom note -- but I suspect that a lot of L'aventure's humor is lost in translation. The whole point is the culture clash of gangsters and political radicals so the way the different sets of characters talk has to be a big part of the comedy that the DVD's subtitles don't really convey. The main point of the crooks' stupidity is made effectively enough with their compulsive gambling -- they take bets on which of them will crack as Ernesto tortures them one at a time -- and their idiotic attempt to seduce girls on the beach with their silly macho walks. But the comedy is silly rather than satiric and the film is fun but forgettable -- David Thomson didn't even list it on Lelouch's filmography for The Biographical Dictionary of Film. L'Aventure doesn't really deserve that sort of neglect, but it isn't exactly a vital document of its time, either. The impulse to satirize radicalism sometimes results in instant camp; if that intrigues you, this film will, too.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, April 8, 1939

Reading a general-interest pulp magazine is often like watching TV. Series characters seem to predominate, so that with any given issue, especially of a weekly like Argosy you'd see several familiar faces. Authors strove to establish popular characters, hoping that they'd mean guaranteed sales. Some characters had whole magazines built around them; those were the "hero pulps" like Doc Savage and The Shadow. But series characters were prevalent everywhere, and this week's Argosy has three recurring characters along with Dr. Kildare wrapping up his second serial. Karl W. Detzer's Michael Costello may have been designed as a fireman counterpart to Kildare. This week's cover story, "Costello Learns to Take It," is Detzer's fourth story about the rookie firefighter. The title is self-explanatory. Costello sees his first major action, and his first corpse.

The smell -- the awful smell -- again caught Michael by the throat, pressed like iron fingers. The beam of the flashlight wavered briefly, steadied, wavered again. But Michael saw. He knew without seeing. 

There wasn't much left of the bed. Only a black mass of sodden ashes, wet down by the hand-pump and the spray from the engine-stream, a piece of wet blanked, and there in the center....

In short, Costello cracks under the early pressure, is reassigned to a quieter neighborhood, gets into trouble out of frustration, but redeems himself predictably enough with conspicuous heroism just as it looks like he's hit bottom. Like many pulp stories it's a rite-of-passage/test-of-courage scenario addressing the unspoken anxieties of young adult readers, and Detzer, who specialized in fire stories, has enough skill to keep it freshly readable.

One of my favorite series characters since I discovered the pulps two years ago is Frank Richardson Pierce's No-Shirt McGee. Introduced in 1937, McGee is a "sourdough," an old timer from Klondike days, still tough but more often a wise counselor to younger characters, and also the hero of tales from his own past. No-Shirt was popular enough to get a cover in 1938, and Pierce kept him going well into the 1940s, taking him to Short Stories after Argosy went slick. McGee is a first-person narrator who tells rather than writes his tales. That means that Pierce writes in a vernacular style with loose grammar. If you've read Robert E. Howard's boxing stories about Sailor Steve Costigan, No-Shirt McGee is written in a similar style, -- down to the present-tense narration -- while the character is a good deal smarter than Costigan. "The Bells of St. Mary's" is a dramatic tale of No-Shirt's youth, when he nearly freezes to death racing a claim jumper back to Portage Pass to help his injured partner. The title refers to the sound you allegedly hear as you're freezing, though No-Shirt has to decide whether he's actually hearing a real bell signaling his salvation. Here's a sample of Pierce's style:

Well, I'm on my feet again. I don't remember gettin' there, but I'm there and the bell is ringin'. It's off to the left now. It's makin' a sucker out of me. First it rings to the right, then to the left and I use up a lot of strength zig-zaggin' back and forth.

The wind is like something alive -- slapping at me and pushing -- but it is like knives, too -- a hundred buzz-saw blades cut through my clothes, slicing to the very bones. And it carries the sound of that bell in it so strong that the ringing seems to be a part of it. And I keep falling down and getting to my feet to stagger on again, walking to the endless pealing of that persistent bell.

The No-Shirt series is consistently entertaining and Pierce's style definitely elevates them. You can read some of these in the trove of Argosy issues scanned onto Unz.org. Here's one from earlier in 1939, for starters.

Another familiar series character in this issue takes Argosy in an even more comic direction. Dale Clark's J. Edwin Bell is a bottom-feeding Hollywood agent; the standard epithet for him is "the flesh peddler." Bell is constantly trying to jump on board a gravy train, whether by ripping off naive newcomers, studio executives or, preferably, both. In "The Liar and the Mouse" he learns from "Hardboiled Hannah," a never-was actress turned party-girl spy that a top studio special-effects man is taking credit for the work of an underpaid underling. Hannah's idea is to blackmail the studio man into giving the underling a big contract from which she and Bell then take a big cut. Bell's idea is to cut Hannah out of the equation by making his deal with the studio man, getting his percentage from the big guy by intimidating the meek underling into accepting his old contract. The Bell stories are when Argosy most reads like a sitcom, with the conniving Bell usually losing and often ending up on the run. The stories are amusing in their own right, and they're made more fun now by often-obsolete cultural references, e.g. "Hardboiled Hannah didn't know it yet but that signed agreement wasn't worth anything more than a Republican vote in the state of Texas!" It was a different world back then.

On the serial front, Max Brand's "Calling Dr. Kildare" closes with that gunshot victim cleared of a murder charge and his sister, a good bad girl, selflessly renouncing Jimmy Kildare's love at the urging of Dr. Gillespie, the dying man convincing Rosalie that he needs the young doctor more than she does. Soap opera stuff from a king of the westerns, complete with the pathos of renunciation, but movie audiences would eat it up when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released the movie version at the end of the month. Dr. Kildare would return for two more serials in the next two years. In chapter two of Norbert Davis's "Sand in the Snow" Jim Daniels must begin to solve a murder at the estate where he and his wife are vacationing while keeping his hapless new friend, on the run from another dubious murder conviction, from being framed for it, and keeping the suspicious gigolo Dak Hassan, who sees Daniels as a fellow practitioner, from making moves on his wife. This is the sort of mystery story where there's a surplus of eccentric if not suspicious personalities, including the literal comedy relief of a husband-wife team of alcoholic Hollywood gag writers. To clarify:

A joke is something you say -- a gag is something you do. Gags are lots funnier. Like when you sock a guy in the mug with a pie, or hit him with a baseball bat, or give him a cigar that explodes. Those are gags.

And so's the close of this chapter, when Jim's surprised to find his wife getting into a catfight with a complete stranger in a public street. I'm not a big mystery fan, but Davis's story is diverting enough to keep me turning the pages.


In the penultimate chapter of Arthur Leo Zagat's "Seven Out of Time," our team of time-lost humans captures one of the future-earth doctils and whips up a plan to destroy the doctils' colony on a distant planet in order to thwart their plan to take over Earth 1939, sacrificing themselves if necessary. The twofold plan involves destroying a barrier protecting the doctils from the planet's hostile indigenous life and killing the doctils' matra, the last true female preserved for breeding purposes.

She was far greater in size than any woman we had seen, but she was formed like the women we knew, and not like the grotesque beings who guarded her. Her skin was white as the fabric on which she was stretched, and lustrous. Great-bosomed she was, and huge-limbed, and tremendously wide of hip. Her eyes were closed in a deep slumber that somehow I knew was something other than sleep. The contours of her face had an almost unearthly beauty, yet she wore, like a mask, an expression of bovine placidity, of mindless calm, that made her somewhat less than human.

Why didn't they put that on the cover?


Rounding out this week are two stand-alone stories. Nat Shachner, who specialized in sci-fi for the pulps and historical sketches for The American Mercury, contributes "Test for a Tatar," which comes as close as anything in Argosy to the blood and thunder people associate with real pulp fiction. It's a gruesome tale of the rise of Temujin the Mongol to power and his taking of the name Genghis Khan. It's told from the viewpoint of Subotai, the Khan's loyal vassal, who sees his lord manipulated and set up for assassination by Targoutai the Taidjut, though who the real manipulator is proves open to question. A seemingly drunken Temujin tests the loyalty of his own tribesmen by ordering them to kill their favorite horses, and then their favorite wives. Luckily, Subotai is a bachelor, and the other men have wives to spare. Targoutai finally goads Temujin into killing his own father, but Subotai thwarts the Taidjut's plan to slay Temujin at his moment of triumph. Argosy is no kiddie pulp and its stories can take an amoral turn, but there really seems to be no point here other than mayhem -- but I suppose there was an audience for that, too. Finally, the editor predicts that A. M. Burrage's "Out to Rest" is "certain to become one of the most memorable short stories of the year." It's really a trifle, and I can't imagine its premise was much less familiar then than it is now. A soldier (or is it a former soldier) can't tell whether he's dreaming in wartime of his death in bed two decades later or dreaming in the present of his dead comrades from the war. Can you guess which it is?

*   *   *

There was at least one kind of story rarely or never seen in Argosy. As letter writer Mrs. Clay Clark of Camden ME writes in this week's Argonotes column: "ARGOSY has always printed a different type of story for each and every issue, a miracle, yet there is one type I cannot recall ever seeing ... the Negro stories." By which she means comical stories about those funny colored people who talk in Amos 'n Andy dialect. The editor answers: "We don't know why people don't write Negro stories for ARGOSY, but we are rather relieved, because unless a Negro-dialect yarn is very, very good, it is apt to be simply terrible."

I've found a few racist stories in Argosy, and a few -- fewer, sadly -- that actually count as anti-racist. I hope to share some of the latter with you sometime, but as for all my American readers, the April 15 deadline looms -- and I have more reading to do.

TO BE CONTINUED