Road House (1948)

This week, the MovieMorlocks.com bloggers will be writing about their favorite recently discovered movies.  So it is my honor and privilege to begin the event by sharing my thoughts about screenwriter-producer Edward Chodorov’s Road House (1948) – starring Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm and Richard Widmark (in his third film) – which was directed by Jean Negulesco.  I actually had a hard time deciding whether to write about this one or another recently released Twentieth Century-Fox DVD (and Lupino) gem that I also just watched for the first time this month titled Moontide (1942).  But given the fact that the former’s title was unfortunately reused for a Patrick Swayze –vehicle some 40 years later, I thought reviewing this most worthy classic might help those who’ve only seen the 1989 movie to forget.

 

 

Although it features a now clichéd storyline – two friends from different backgrounds, one wealthy and another from a poorer family, that grew up from childhood through surviving a war together, end up clashing over the same woman as adults – Road House (1948) is film noir drama that will hold one’s interest and is worth a look because of its stars’ performances.  The story, written by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul, was photographed by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who’d won his Academy Award four years earlier for filming Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) which, like this one, had a small but memorable cast (only Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, and Judith Anderson were credited).  While there are a few other supporting players – such as an Arthur O’Connell lookalike (O.Z. Whitehead) playing a character that’s aptly named Art, an uncredited Jack Lee as the dependable bartender Sam, and Ray Teal as (you guessed it) a policeman – the screen-time is dominated by the four principals.

The film is set in the fictional small town of Elton (west of Chicago and not too far south of the Canadian border), population 14,270.  The locale where most of the plot takes place is Jefty’s Road House, an establishment outside of the one hotel town that features a restaurant, a bar, a bowling alley, and a décor that includes antlers (which is also the name of the hotel) and other hunter paraphernalia of its owner, Jefferson T. ‘Jefty’ Robbins (Widmark).  It’s managed by athletically-built Pete Morgan (Wilde), a former state bowling champion, who used to be a pin boy with his rich friend Jefty (at his father’s alley).  Enter Lily Stevens (Lupino), the latest in a long line of ‘talent’ that Jefty met during a drunken weekend in the Windy City; apparently, he woos the ladies by promising them a gig in his ‘nightclub’.  But when Jefty tires of them, it’s Pete’s job to “send them back where they came from”.  However, Lily doesn’t fit the mold for two reasons – Jefty has yet to successfully overwhelm her with his charms AND she actually has talent or, as cashier Susie Smith (Holm) remarks, “she does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard”.  Holm, in only her fourth film, plays a role that would become somewhat stereotypical for her – a part that Joan Blondell made famous – a sassy gal whose love is taken for granted by the movie’s hunk (Wilde) and is therefore destined to fade into the background when the femme fatale (Lupino) arrives on the scene.  True to form, she’s got a “heart of gold” such that she becomes the new couple’s ally when needed.

Upset that Jefty has promised to pay Lily an inordinate amount ($250 per week for 6 weeks) which cuts into his profits (hence pay), Pete tries to force her to leave town before she’s even sung her first torch song.  But she’s a tough streetwise road weary gal that’s tired of drifting and ready to stay in one place for a while, hence her acceptance of Jefty’s offer without the usual (sexual) reciprocals.  Sure that his normal attributes will eventually win her over though, Jefty confidently puts Lily in the company of the muscle-bound Pete, whom he has to practically threaten to get to teach her to bowl.  Naturally, Lily is quickly attracted to Jefty’s more physically attractive friend, but her attempts to get Pete to play house with her are resisted until two things happen:  Jefty leaves town for a week of moose hunting at his cabin in the wilderness AND a burly drunk named Dutch – who decides that the sexy singer is for him, during one of her more seductive songs – starts a bar brawl that causes Pete to ‘fight for’ and rescue Lily.  After that, Pete succumbs and the two begin to make plans for a life together.

However, when Jefty returns, he’s made up his mind to marry Lily; he’s even gone so far as to obtain a marriage license which he shows to Pete.  But after Pete tells Jefty that he and Lily are in love and that they’re planning to get married, Jefty becomes very angry.  When Pete and Lily decide to leave town to elope, Jefty has them picked up by the police at the railroad station.  Pete has been framed for robbery by Jefty; he is arrested, jailed and later convicted for the bogus charge, and sentenced to 2-10 years for the crime.  But Jefty had convinced the judge to allow Pete to serve probation, under his care so that he could control his friend’s relationship with Lily.  Shortly after this, ‘we’ are treated to the cruel laugh that helped Widmark earn an Oscar nomination in his film debut as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947).  But the additional illogical and contrived events that follow lessen rather than enhance what remains in this melodrama – instinctively most moviegoers will know that someone is going to die (and who) – though the aforementioned characters’ traits are reinforced and refined:  Lupino’s is tough, Holm’s is helpful, Widmark’s is psychotic etc..

Last thought:  per my current schedule, I haven’t been watching a lot of classic movies lately, and I was struck (once again) by how much cigarettes – and the smoking of them – are part of the action in these films.  Incongruently, this activity is (and has always been) associated with sex, at least cinematically.  Director Negulesco, who earned his only recognition from the Academy for Johnny Belinda (1948) – which (ironically) was released by Warner Bros. one week earlier – uses the association symbolically.  At the beginning of the film, Pete is seemingly repulsed by Lily’s chain smoking or at least he’s upset with her habit of placing lit cigarettes on the edge of tables (or the piano) because it chars the surface as it burns.  Once seduced, he shares one with her while they recline on a boat under a full moon at the lake.

6 Responses Road House (1948)
Posted By Roger Hanover : September 28, 2008 11:46 pm

I used to love Frank Sinatra’s version of “One For My Baby” but now I prefer Ida Lupino’s rendition. It’s a shame she wasn’t allowed to sing in more films. She has her own distinctive style; it’s like she’s baring her soul when she sings but she’s not belting, she’s almost whispering. This movie is great fun. I liked it even more the second time. I wish there was a Jefty’s Road House I could drive to right now and have a beer while looking at the moose heads on the wall and listening to Ida on the piano.

Posted By Roger Hanover : September 28, 2008 11:46 pm

I used to love Frank Sinatra’s version of “One For My Baby” but now I prefer Ida Lupino’s rendition. It’s a shame she wasn’t allowed to sing in more films. She has her own distinctive style; it’s like she’s baring her soul when she sings but she’s not belting, she’s almost whispering. This movie is great fun. I liked it even more the second time. I wish there was a Jefty’s Road House I could drive to right now and have a beer while looking at the moose heads on the wall and listening to Ida on the piano.

Posted By moirafinnie : September 29, 2008 4:58 pm

When I tried to order Road House (1948), I was first sent a dvd of the Patrick Swayze epic from the ’80s, and then, when returning it, found that this dvd was sold out, so your delightful review really got my attention, HighHurdler. I’ve seen this movie several times, thanks to my keen enjoyment of this period of Ida Lupino‘s work, but someday I’ll track this one down for my own.

Recently, I caught it on cable, which reminded me all over again why it was such dark fun. There’s a double dose of Ida‘s fed-up, peevish air, which only seems to soften when she plays the piano and croaks a song with more expressive feeling than music in her voice. I wonder if Lupino; who was instrumental in the development of this picture right after she left Warners, might have seen her character as a raffishly funny lady looking for a port in the storm. In any case, it’s soon apparent that she’s none too comfortable to find herself being measured by Widmark for a place among the trophies on his wall, much less finding him in her room on a Sunday morning uninvited.

Her frank cynicism and dissatisfaction with life are compelling, though her character is quite a handful. She had, as they used to say, “a lotta crust.” Physically, the first thing I noticed about her was her dreadful hair-do, which may have been deliberate, to indicate a woman who had her hair done on the cheap, (and paid for it). When she’s introduced to heart o’ gold gal Celeste Holm, she immediately comments that they both have very similar ‘dos, including those too short bangs. Then there are her clothes…even after Lily (Ida) says “I know how to dress, ya kill me” to Jefty (Richard Widmark) she shows up in some items that might make Betty Page blush.

Unfortunately, as you pointed out, once Ida falls for the fine looking but rather empty “nice guy” character played by Cornel Wilde, the plot meanders around, punctuated with Widmark‘s maniacal laughter and some preposterous climactic scenes. Ida’s character loses her edge as well.

I suspect that Fox under Zanuck saw this as a formulaic movie meant to bolster the rising star of Richard Widmark as the nut job America loved to hate. According to the talented director Jean Negulesco‘s discreet memoir, “Things I Did and Things I Think I Did”, Darryl Zanuck, whom he described as a likable “swollen egotist with a smooth sneer” tossed the script his way on his first day at 20th Century Fox, after leaving WB following Negulesco‘s treatment over Johnny Belinda, (among other issues). Zanuck reportedly said, “We made this kind of picture at Warners for years–James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Pat O’Brien. Focus on the girl’s tits, and if somebody drops a hat, start a fight. When you finish reading it, we will talk.” As Negulesco edged toward the door, the mogul commented, “I admire your talent.” Unfortunately, once Negulesco became a house director at 20th Century Fox throughout the ’50s, that too would be whittled away, especially after the studio’s heavy investment in color and cinemascope overwhelmed the black and white moviemaking that the director had done so well. Ah, yes, hooray for Hollywood. Thanks again for writing in detail about this one, HH.

If anyone would like to hear a clip of Ida Lupino singing in Road House, you can catch her here.

Posted By moirafinnie : September 29, 2008 4:58 pm

When I tried to order Road House (1948), I was first sent a dvd of the Patrick Swayze epic from the ’80s, and then, when returning it, found that this dvd was sold out, so your delightful review really got my attention, HighHurdler. I’ve seen this movie several times, thanks to my keen enjoyment of this period of Ida Lupino‘s work, but someday I’ll track this one down for my own.

Recently, I caught it on cable, which reminded me all over again why it was such dark fun. There’s a double dose of Ida‘s fed-up, peevish air, which only seems to soften when she plays the piano and croaks a song with more expressive feeling than music in her voice. I wonder if Lupino; who was instrumental in the development of this picture right after she left Warners, might have seen her character as a raffishly funny lady looking for a port in the storm. In any case, it’s soon apparent that she’s none too comfortable to find herself being measured by Widmark for a place among the trophies on his wall, much less finding him in her room on a Sunday morning uninvited.

Her frank cynicism and dissatisfaction with life are compelling, though her character is quite a handful. She had, as they used to say, “a lotta crust.” Physically, the first thing I noticed about her was her dreadful hair-do, which may have been deliberate, to indicate a woman who had her hair done on the cheap, (and paid for it). When she’s introduced to heart o’ gold gal Celeste Holm, she immediately comments that they both have very similar ‘dos, including those too short bangs. Then there are her clothes…even after Lily (Ida) says “I know how to dress, ya kill me” to Jefty (Richard Widmark) she shows up in some items that might make Betty Page blush.

Unfortunately, as you pointed out, once Ida falls for the fine looking but rather empty “nice guy” character played by Cornel Wilde, the plot meanders around, punctuated with Widmark‘s maniacal laughter and some preposterous climactic scenes. Ida’s character loses her edge as well.

I suspect that Fox under Zanuck saw this as a formulaic movie meant to bolster the rising star of Richard Widmark as the nut job America loved to hate. According to the talented director Jean Negulesco‘s discreet memoir, “Things I Did and Things I Think I Did”, Darryl Zanuck, whom he described as a likable “swollen egotist with a smooth sneer” tossed the script his way on his first day at 20th Century Fox, after leaving WB following Negulesco‘s treatment over Johnny Belinda, (among other issues). Zanuck reportedly said, “We made this kind of picture at Warners for years–James Cagney, Ann Sheridan, and Pat O’Brien. Focus on the girl’s tits, and if somebody drops a hat, start a fight. When you finish reading it, we will talk.” As Negulesco edged toward the door, the mogul commented, “I admire your talent.” Unfortunately, once Negulesco became a house director at 20th Century Fox throughout the ’50s, that too would be whittled away, especially after the studio’s heavy investment in color and cinemascope overwhelmed the black and white moviemaking that the director had done so well. Ah, yes, hooray for Hollywood. Thanks again for writing in detail about this one, HH.

If anyone would like to hear a clip of Ida Lupino singing in Road House, you can catch her here.

Posted By gordon : December 23, 2008 6:51 pm

yes your right, nobody sings ‘again’ like ida. saw the film when first released in the uk.whats that 60 years ago. it has remained a favourite. it was on TV in the 90′s and i put a copy on video. unfortunately i didn’t remove the recording tab and someone copied over it. when i discovered this i tried to buy a copy somewhere. but it seemed it was only available in the american format. although i have enquired i cannot buy a dvd anywhere. anyone got any ideas. e-mail me on getrawets@hotmail.com. gordon

Posted By gordon : December 23, 2008 6:51 pm

yes your right, nobody sings ‘again’ like ida. saw the film when first released in the uk.whats that 60 years ago. it has remained a favourite. it was on TV in the 90′s and i put a copy on video. unfortunately i didn’t remove the recording tab and someone copied over it. when i discovered this i tried to buy a copy somewhere. but it seemed it was only available in the american format. although i have enquired i cannot buy a dvd anywhere. anyone got any ideas. e-mail me on getrawets@hotmail.com. gordon

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