Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The William Castle Blogathon: The Chance of a Lifetime (1943)

The following essay is one of two Thrilling Days of Yesteryear contributions to The William Castle Blogathon, currently underway from July 29-August 2 and sponsored by The Last Drive-In and Goregirl’s Dungeon.  For a full list of the participants and the films under discussion, click here.

With the release of Meet Boston Blackie in 1941, Columbia Pictures embarked on one of its most profitable film franchises—one that would see an additional thirteen B-features follow in its wake until the studio called it a wrap in 1949.  Many motion picture studios (Paramount, RKO, 20th Century-Fox, etc.) had their own “series” of B-films (so named because they were produced economically and designed for the bottom half of double features); even the “Tiffany’s” of the business, MGM, got into the act with series like Andy Hardy and Dr. Kildare (though with MGM’s production values, a B-film was almost like an A-minus film).  Columbia, a studio that started out on Poverty Row (mockingly referred to as “Columbia, the germ of the ocean”) until the prestigious features directed by Frank Capra made them a player with the big boys, seemed to thrive on them: Blondie, The Whistler, Crime Doctor, The Lone Wolf, etc.

Meet Boston Blackie may have been a mere programmer but it had better-than-usual production values than your run-of-the-mill B, and was directed by the respected Robert Florey.  It did well at the box office, and so the studio decided to turn Jack Boyle’s literary creation into a moneymaking franchise.  (The character was actually no stranger to the silver screen; a number of films had been released during the silent era beginning in 1918 and played by actors at various studios.)  Boyle’s character—originally a safecracker in his short stories—reformed a bit for motion pictures: as played by Chester Morris, Horatio “Boston Blackie” Black had turned to the straight-and-narrow and used his talents for niceness instead of evil.  His nemesis on the police force, Inspector Farraday (Richard Lane), was always certain in every Boston Blackie vehicle that B.B. was up to no good…even if he did have a grudging respect for the guy.  Also present in every Blackie film was the hero’s sidekick—humorously referred to as “The Runt”; he was played in every entry by George E. Stone with the exception of the first film (when he was essayed by Charles Wagenheim) and the last, Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture (1949)—when Sid Tomack filled in for Stone.

The Boston Blackie film series was very democratic in its casting; it provided work for both veteran character greats and Columbia contractees…and it’s not uncommon to see a lot of up-and-comers turn up in these films like Dorothy Malone, Nina Foch and Lloyd Bridges.  The studio used the movies as a training ground for directors: Edward Dmytryk helmed Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941), Michael Gordon’s name is on Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood (1942), and Oscar “Budd” Boetticher held the reins on One Mysterious Night (1944).  The Chance of a Lifetime (1943) would serve as the feature film directorial debut for the man whose name is emblazoned on this blogathon: William Castle.

Castle claimed in later years that his first feature film was a hopeless project and that he simply re-arranged the reels in the editing room to make Chance of a Lifetime “work.”  I’m convinced this was just an anecdote to make what was admittedly a routine assignment sound interesting; the director did do some solid direction on later series entries like The Whistler (1944) and Mark of the Whistler (1944) but Lifetime, while not a terrible film, is a textbook example of punching a time clock and putting in the necessary hours.  Because the movie was made during World War II, it cashes in on the war effort by featuring as its plot the manpower shortage and how it affects production in the defense plants.  After the opening credits, we find Blackie trying to convince Governor Rutledge (Pierre Watkin) to parole a dozen convicts into his custody so that they might provide suitable labor in the tool factory owned by his friend Arthur Manleder (Lloyd Corrigan).  Manleder was a recurring presence in the Blackie series; a wealthy millionaire constantly amused by Blackie’s antics—he was featured in eight films and played by Corrigan in six; Harrison Greene is Manleder in One Mysterious Night and Harry Hayden has the role in Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous (1945).

Inspector Farraday is vehemently opposed to the idea of letting the cons run loose in the factory, and although Rutledge gives his stamp of approval, it turns out Farraday’s instincts are on the money.  A con named Dooley Watson (Erik Rolf) is given permission to visit his wife Mary (Jeanne Bates) and son Johnny (Larry Joe Olsen) before reporting for work the next morning…but Dooley has other plans.  He’s recovered a stash of $60,000 from the robbery that put him in the sneezer in the first place, and tries to convince Mary that they should get out of Dodge before the men who assisted him on the job show up for their cut.  Mary persuades Dooley to return the money…and that’s when “Red” Taggart (John Harmon) and “Nails” Blanton (Douglas Fowley) enter the picture.  Messrs. Taggart and Blanton are the individuals who graciously acted as accomplices in the heist, and are now requesting payment for their services.  There is a scuffle between Dooley and his partners, with Red ending up with a serious case of gunshot.  Blackie arrives at the apartment shortly after, but he’s a little too late to help Taggart.

The focus of Lifetime then shifts to Blackie’s efforts to exonerate Dooley, seeing as how the con popped a cap into Taggart in self-defense.  The key to proving this is to search for Nails, who fled the scene when his pal started to make his way to the floor—Nails can provide the testimony that Dooley killed Red in self-defense…and he will, too or it’s Katie-bar-the-door.  Blackie takes the rap for Red’s murder in order that his social experiment with the convicts won’t be jeopardized, and after several amusing sequences in which a frustrated Farraday finds himself continually outwitted by Blackie, Nails is rounded up and delivered to the authorities.

Chester Morris was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in 1929’s Alibi, and early in his career had high-profile turns in films like The Big House (1930) and The Divorcee (1930).  But most movie fans know him for his extensive B-picture work, and the Boston Blackie series was the culmination of that portion of his career.  I’m not trying to do the actor a disservice, though—Morris rose to the occasion in the films; he was first-rate at maintaining the series’ balance of comedy and crime drama, and got to demonstrate his love for prestidigitation in several of the entries (Morris was an amateur magician).  Most of the movies required him and sidekick Stone to don disguises and dialects…

To get into Nails' apartment, Blackie and Runt pose as carpet installers.  The cop accosting Blackie is character great Ray Teal, last seen here on the blog in Don Winslow of the Navy (1942).

Later in the film, Blackie must recover the 60 large he gave to Farraday to lure Nails out of hiding.  Blackie impersonates an Irish cop, and The Runt the world's oldest messenger boy...the two of them get a pair of charwomen plastered...

...and then impersonate the charwomen in order to get access to the safe where the money has been stashed.
Chance of a Lifetime only features credits for a few of the performers in the opening titles—so part of the fun in watching the film is seeing familiar character performers.  I’ve mentioned Ray Teal in the above screen cap, but the film also showcases in bit parts Dick Alexander, Trevor Bardette, Heinie Conklin, Minta Durfee, Cy Kendall (as Jumbo Madigan, another Blackie crony that turns up in the films—Cy plays him in three entries with Joe Crehan in the final two), Forbes Murray and John Tyrell.  Here’s a couple of familiar faces:

Practically unrecognizable without his beard (but his voice is unmistakable), Arthur Hunnicutt was the go-to guy for grizzled codgers when Gabby Hayes was unavailable.

No mistaking this guy, however; it's Sid Melton, a.k.a. Charley Halper from Make Room for Daddy and Alf Monroe on Green Acres.

And above is another recognizable actor from our recent Serial Saturdays presentation of Don Winslow of the Navy (1942): Walter Sande, who played Detective Sergeant Matthews in five of the Blackie films—Lifetime being his swan song.  Lyle Latell took over in One Mysterious Night, and then Frank Sully made the role his in four Blackies after that.  Matthews, who wasn’t the sharpest knife in the rack to begin with, actually got stupider with each new actor’s interpretation of the role.

The Chance of a Lifetime was a solid entry in the Boston Blackie franchise, and though it tanked at the box office (reviewers were not kind to the movie) Columbia thought William Castle had promise, and he soon moved onto other assignments: notable the B-picture classic When Strangers Marry (1944—a.k.a. Betrayed) and entries in Columbia’s Whistler and Crime Doctor series.  He earned a reputation as a director who was adept at making films fast and under budget…and reportedly was one of the few people that Columbia studio head Harry “White Fang” Cohn liked.  Lifetime is a long way from the stylistics that the director would later unleash in films like House on Haunted Hill (1958) and The Tingler (1959)…but it does allow a promising filmmaker the opportunity to perfect his craft.


hobbyfan said...

I will remind that Sid Melton was also Ichabod "Icky" Mudd on Capt. Midnight. Quite the talent, y'know?

Are the Boston Blackie movies all on DVD? Methinks I may need to add to the collection.....

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

hobbyfan jogged my memory:

I will remind that Sid Melton was also Ichabod "Icky" Mudd on Capt. Midnight.

Mea maxima culpa for forgetting. ("Mudd with two 'd's'...")

Are the Boston Blackie movies all on DVD?

Three entries in the series are available on MOD from Sony: One Mysterious Night, A Close Call for Boston Blackie, and Boston Blackie's Chinese Venture. I obtained a set of all the films from a mom-and-pop guy many years back, and occasionally grab one off of TCM,

DorianTB said...

Ivan, I'm a big BOSTON BLACKIE fan (even though I wish they had more trustworthy dames :-)), so I'm especially pleased that you wrote about the BOSTON BLACKIE film CHANCE OF A LIFETIME! It's fun to see William Castle in his directorial debut! Swell post for the Blogathon, my friend!

Scott said...

MST3K fans will of course recall both Sid Melton (from his [ostensibly] comic turns in Lost Continent and Radar Secret Service) and Chester Morris (from his legitimately -- even lavishly -- creepy performance as Dr. Carlo Lombardi in The She-Creature.

Morris always struck me as a character actor who was unexpectedly vaulted into the limelight, perhaps via the same process which allowed Ruby Keeler's character to snag the lead role in 42nd Street. With his plug ugly looks -- the frying pan-flat face, the turned down, amphibian mouth -- he seemed tailor made to play prison inmates, or prison guards. I assume he lucked into headlining status in the late 20s on the strength of his voice and extensive Broadway credits; but then, Richard Barthelmess was still considered a heartthrob back then, and he was no oil paintin' neither.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Dor commented:

Ivan, I'm a big BOSTON BLACKIE fan (even though I wish they had more trustworthy dames

I like to think that if the Blackie films have taught me anything outside of the fact that The Runt is always convincing as a kid in disguise...it's that skirts are not to be trusted. :-)

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Scott also stoked the old memory banks:

Chester Morris (from his legitimately -- even lavishly -- creepy performance as Dr. Carlo Lombardi in The She-Creature.

I genuflect in the presence of the man who sweeps the floors at World O'Crap, because he will forget more about MST3K than I'll ever learn. Strange as it may seem, I have seen their version of The She-Creature - some geek friends and I were watching it and I kept guffawing all through the thing whenever I saw Morris ("Look! It's Boston Blackie, gone to seed!").

ClassicBecky said...

I never realized that Castle had anything to do with the Boston Blackie series. I must not have been paying attention to credits, because I really like those movies. Castle kills me -- "rearranged the reels" -- good one!