Thursday, October 8, 2015

PRE-CODE PARADE: Two By Ralph Ince

Ralph Ince was the younger brother of legendary pioneer film director Thomas H. Ince. Ralph started directing in 1912 after establishing himself as an actor. By the Thirties he was directing what might be described as B+ or A- pictures for RKO: short features packed with action. On the evidence of two films shown on TCM last month Ince was very good at action. Men of America (1932) crosses the western and gangster genres, pitting Chicago-style hoods against old-time cowboys and a young veteran of the World War (Bill "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd) who has to overcome the town's distrust of strangers and new ideas before he can lead the counterattack against crime. For most of the picture his main antagonist is the town patriarch, Smokey Joe Miller (Chic Sale), who we see in a prologue (with Sale out of his typical old-man makeup) taming the Wild West. He resents Jim Parker's potential status as the new hero of the town, and he really resents the attraction his daughter feels for Jim. When crimes start breaking out in town Joe's quick to suspect Jim of everything up to murder. The real culprits are a gang of bank robbers who've holed up in an abandoned, nearly inaccessible cabin waiting for the heat to die down and for their boss to figure out a way to turn their large-denomination bills into usable money without attracting suspicion. Ince cast himself as the leader, Cicero -- named for the Chicago suburb known as Al Capone's headquarters -- and gives a badass performance as a thug with cultural pretensions. When the gang surfs the radio dial and picks up a jazz station Cicero orders them to find some "real" classical music. Ince hardly comes across as an ethnic stereotype, but his film still bends over backwards to avoid any appearance of stigmatizing Italians. Smokey Joe's town is a limited cross-section of America that at least tries to be diverse. There are several ethnic types, including a friendly Italian who gets to tell the gangster's they're disgracing his people, and an old Indian pal of Joe's who boasts that "Indians can fly, too," one of his younger relations being a mail pilot. A lot of these characters die, most of them in a tautly shot siege of the gang hideout pitting sharpshooters against tommy guns. With more resources than a mere B picture would have, Ince covers the action from multiple angles with admirable, laconic clarity.

Three months later, Ince and Boyd teamed up again in Lucky Devils (1933). At first it looks like they've picked up where they left off, opening with a violent bank robbery. Something seems off, however; one of the bank's janitors is wearing blackface and proves to be that insufferable stutterer Roscoe Ates. The gun battle is a movie being filmed within the movie, featuring the band of stuntmen whose drinking club gives the show its title. Boyd and William Gargan are the alphas of the group, with Bruce Cabot and Creighton Chaney among the youngsters. The Lucky Devils roster is written in chalk on a speakeasy blackboard; every so often a line's drawn through one of the names. Another youngster, a newlywed, gets crossed out when he botches a car stunt, distracted by his wife's appearance on the set. Marriage is bad news for stuntmen, we're told, yet after this disaster Skipper Clark (Boyd) marries Fran Whitley (Dorothy Wilson). History threatens to repeat itself when Fran can't resist watching as Skipper has to shoot a risky stunt. He must swing across a street to rescue Bob Hughes (Gargan) from a burning building. In the film's most impressive set piece, Skipper freezes at the sight of Fran and swings too late. In an impressive-in-principle effect we see the roof collapse under Gargan and see him plunge into the flames below. Ince is at his best in the immediate aftermath, letting Boyd (or, ironically, his stuntman) dangle back and forth helplessly as the crew rushes to Gargan's aid before others laboriously haul him in. Even if Boyd is doubled, there's a veracity to the spectacle, as well as emotion without emoting as Boyd's predicament illustrates his guilty anxiety over his friend's fate. Bob Hughes proves a lucky devil after all, but a guilt-stricken Skipper quits the business, only to find job-hunting at the trough of the Depression just as demoralizing. He finally takes work as a menial member of a film crew, stuck on location while Fran faces a dangerous labor. In perfect melodramatic fashion, an opportunity for redemption arises that will also earn Skipper they money necessary to get proper hospital care for Fran. His dangerous trip over some rapids is overshadowed by a frantic race back home from the set, much of it in a stolen police motorcycle, the leads to a genuinely funny anticlimax. Again Ince proves adept at brisk storytelling. At 70 minutes Lucky Devils is epic in length compared to the 58-minute Men of America, but by modern standards its brief without seeming abrupt, a lean and mean storytelling machine. Alas, once I read more about Ince I found retroactive foreshadowing in Lucky Devils, since he, like one of his fictional stuntmen, died in a car wreck, aged only 50 and only four years after making this picture. He'd moved to Britain -- Lucky Devils was his last American film -- and seemingly had plenty of movies left in him. In fact, there's plenty of movies left to see out of Ince's 137 directing credits, and I'll be interested to see how many measure up to the two I've seen.

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