February 7, 2010

Edward G. Robinson and BLACK TUESDAY (1954)



(Note: this is a two-part essay. If you'd just like to read about the film, scroll down to the lobby cards.)

When I first discovered Edward G. Robinson he wasn’t chewing the butt of a cigar in a crime picture. He was employing his other screen persona in a light comedy called Mr. Winkle Goes to War. The delightful little film (to my youthful sensibilities) finds Robinson drafted into the army; and to the astonishment of everyone, especially his terror of a wife, he returns from the war a hero. The actor became an immediate favorite, and my opinion of him only grew when I discovered his more fearsome side. Robinson made Mr. Winkle in 1944, between his two most famous noir pictures: Double Indemnity and The Woman in the Window. Since then I’ve managed to see all but the rarest of his films and become quite conversant in the details of his life. My most recent Robinson film was the very difficult-to-find Black Tuesday, made exactly ten years after Mr. Winkle Goes to War. What a difference a decade can make. Robinson’s life when he appeared in Black Tuesday would have been unrecognizable to the high-flying star of the thirties and early forties. Yet throughout his troubles Robinson remained an admirable man as well as a great professional actor. Black Tuesday is a low budget thing, yet Robinson cared enough about his craft (or needed catharsis so badly) that he was able to channel all the bitterness and pain from his private life into his work — resulting in a terrifying new take on the very same screen archetype he practically invented. His work in Black Tuesday is so good, so focused, and so angry it practically hurts to watch.


Robinson was born Emmanuel Goldenberg (hence the “G”) in 1893 in the Romanian capital of Bucharest. He immigrated to New York City with his family at age ten. He became fascinated with acting as a youth, eventually landing on Broadway after paying his dues on the road and in stock. Following a successful theatrical career he signed on for his first significant screen role, as Enrico Bandello in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar. The success of the film cemented Robinson’s future in Hollywood, and over the next fifteen years he enjoyed as much of the American Dream as any man could ask for, with a parade of hit movies and a salary to match.


In contrast to Robinson’s tough-as-nails screen image, the man himself couldn’t have been more different. He was sensitive, educated, and enjoyed the lofty pursuits of the cultural elite: music, theater, literature, and most importantly: art. He and wife Gladys began purchasing paintings during the Depression, and twenty years later their collection was legendary — renowned not only for its numbers but for its good taste. Robinson himself described it as the single greatest collection of Impressionist canvases in America. He was as astute and respected as any art enthusiast in the world — able to start trends and influence market prices by merely contemplating the purchase of a particular work. In today’s market his collection would bring more than a billion dollars.


Robinson was also known for his generosity, if not for his caution — and like the fictional character Mr. Winkle he was a war hero. He donated time, talent, and truckloads of money to the war effort. He was the first Hollywood actor to perform for the troops in France following the Normandy landings, and he lauded the American way of life on the radio. The US and British governments were quick to employ his famous name and astonishing gift for languages (he spoke as many as eight) for a series of propaganda messages disseminated in central Europe. Eddie was also quick to help a friend — just ask Dalton Trumbo. When Trumbo was indicted as one of the Hollywood Ten, he wrote to Robinson asking for financial help for his wife and children. Robinson kept them afloat with a loan of $2,500. His soft spot for those in need coupled with a lack of scrutiny regarding his charitable giving was enough to land him in the infamous Red Channels tract of June 1950, linked to a dozen alleged Communist fronts. He had already spoken before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, and would appear three more times, usually by his own request, following the publication of Red Channels. He was finally cleared in 1952 when he famously said, “Either snap my neck or set me free. If you snap my neck, I will still say ‘I believe in America.’” HUAC considered the screen star a schmuck — committee chair John Stevens Wood of Georgia chastised him as “…a very choice sucker. I think you are number one on the sucker list in this country.” Robinson left Washington as damaged goods. His ordeal with the government was finally over, but Hollywood was reluctant to welcome him back.


Robinson would do very little acting in the early fifties — his life was in shambles. Although he narrowly avoided the Blacklist he was still tainted by it — the job offers dried up, and he entered what he himself called his B-Picture, or “has-been” period. His longtime marriage to manic-depressive Gladys was forever on the rocks — she was prone to bouts of severe despair and was often institutionalized. Gladys was so unstable that she sued Eddie for divorce almost every time she was hospitalized, but would inevitably back off when released. They would eventually formally break when he realized he just couldn’t stand the trauma any longer.

His son was a constant source of anxiety. Edward G. “Manny” Robinson Jr. always seemed to be in trouble. Unable to sustain either a caring relationship with his famous father or endure outside his shadow, teenage Manny began to drink and was a full-fledged alcoholic by the time of his twentieth birthday. He eloped south of the border and was quickly divorced in the midst of an abortion scandal. He wrote bad checks and got probation. He spent weekends in the drunk-tank. He couldn’t hold down a job. In the summer of 1954, around the time his father was filming Black Tuesday, Manny was arrested on suspicion of armed robbery — two cabbies claimed he cold-cocked them with a flashlight and made off with their fares. He was tried in Los Angeles in October of ’54 on armed robbery charges but dodged prison when the jury couldn’t agree. The district attorney eventually decided to let it drop.


With Gladys gone Eddie was so lonely he often stayed with friends rather than sleep alone in a big, deserted mansion. Following the collapse of the marriage and unable to come to amicable terms regarding the art collection, Robinson was forced to sell it off to pay for the divorce settlement. Shortly thereafter Manny was took a DUI rap and did a two-month stretch at the honor farm. Edward G. Robinson had reached rock bottom. 


But he didn’t stay there. He found his way back to the screen, though modestly, in low-budget crime pictures such as Nightmare and A Bullet for Joey. Cecil B. Demille of all people — the conservative patriarch of Hollywood, acting against studio advice, would restore Robinson to studio credibility by casting him in the role of Dathan in his sweeping religious epic The Ten Commandments. From that moment until the end of his life Robinson worked steadily in Hollywood, and even managed to buy back a few of his beloved paintings. He died in 1973, just after finishing the manuscript for his autobiography All My Yesterdays, and completing work on another Charlton Heston project, Soylent Green. Gladys had died the previous year, and sadly, Manny’s day were likewise numbered — he would be found dead at the age of forty, gone less than a year after his father.


Though Robinson is one of the most memorable and recognizable actors in film history he was never nominated for an Academy Award. Considering he could have been honored for many of his films — just pick one, Oscar really blew it in 1944. Even with many of the brightest male leads in the industry away fighting the war, it was a great year for the movies. Going My Way, Gaslight, Laura, Wilson, Lifeboat, Since You Went Away, and Double Indemnity. In Billy Wilder’s landmark crime film Robinson delivers one of the most indelible supporting performances in motion picture history, yet he wasn’t even nominated — a stinging injustice considering Barry Fitzgerald, the winner for Going My Way, was nominated for his role in both the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. The Academy finally decided to recognize Robinson with a lifetime achievement award, which delighted the aging star, but he died shortly before the ceremony.  The statuette that had eluded him in life was accepted by his second wife Jane. And though she remarked that Robinson had been thrilled with the award, it was in this writer and fan’s opinion, far too little recognition, offered far too late.




Directed by Hugo Fregonese, written by The Big Heat scribe Sidney Boehm, and photographed by A-Lister Stanley Cortez, Black Tuesday positively crackles. No pun intended. It’s a mean movie — cynical, cold-blooded, and hardboiled as hell. The title refers to the day when death row inmates are fated for their turn in the electric chair. In this particular case it’s a twin bill: the newspaper headlines reading, “Racket King and Bank Bandit Must Die!” The opening scene begins with a long, sweeping camera shot that closes in on the cellblock, then pans slowly from one cage to the next. Edward G. Robinson’s first impression is visceral; swathed in shadow, ‘Racket King’ Vincent Canelli paces from side to side behind the bars of his cell. He moves like a predatory animal, ready to lash out at anyone unfortunate enough to wander too close to the bars. One cell over Peter Graves does best impersonation, but the great man’s screen presence simply cannot be matched. In the background, Selwyn, a black inmate played by former professional wrestler Don Blackman, pounds a wooden stool and belts out the title song in the style of a woeful spiritual from a hundred years before.


Graves costars as ‘Bank Bandit’ Pete Manning, a cop killer who managed to stash his $200,000 haul before being caught, convicted, and sentenced to die. The money is the McGuffin in Black Tuesday — not just the money, but Manning’s abject refusal to divulge its whereabouts to anyone, even his fellow convicts. An early moment finds the warden offering Pete a ten-day reprieve in exchange for the cash. Manning says no dice: “Tell the governor it’s not the bank’s money, it’s mine. I earned it — the hard way.” Pete will give up the loot, but only in exchange for a commutation of his death sentence. But the governor won’t play ball: Manning must keep his appointment with the chair. One of the best things about this film is that it never compromises its dog-eat-dog worldview.


As the level of activity in the prison reaches a fever-pitch, Black Tuesday takes on a documentary tone — denizens on both sides of the law scramble through eleventh-hour preparations for the looming event. Canelli remains the center of attention. He antagonizes everyone from his cell — the guards, the warden, his fellow inmates, even the priest. It becomes clear that he has something planned, and eventually the audience is let in: Vince intends to bust out, and his crew has set an elaborate scheme in motion. The circumstances of the breakout are outrageous and implausible, but who cares? By this point you can’t wait to see what happens when Vince finally gets loose of his cell. Canelli plans to spring himself and Manning, fool the kid into giving up the loot, kill him, and then head for South America with his woman Hatti (Jean Parker) and the money. The thing comes off more or less as planned, though Manning takes a slug in the shoulder during the getaway, and Canelli finds himself babysitting a gaggle of hostages, including the priest, the death chamber M.D., a cub reporter, and the daughter of a prison guard.


The lone detail overlooked by Vincent was where Pete cleverly hid the $200,000 — in a safe deposit box at the First National Bank. A signature is required for access, so the wounded and all-too-recognizable bank robber is the only one who can get it. Canelli, along with the rest of his gang and the hostages hole up in a warehouse while Manning and Hatti attempt to retrieve the cash. They leave the bank with the money in a satchel, but the cops get wise and tail them to the warehouse after a light-headed Pete leaves a bloody fingerprint on the signature card. Black Tuesday quickly shifts gears from the prison break into a standoff set piece between the gangster and the cops.


The final twenty minutes are talky, but worth it — in the hands of a lesser screenwriter the film would have ended quickly and disappointingly under a hail of rote gunfire. Instead Boehm uses the claustrophobic tension of the warehouse to further develop his characters, and in the end offer one of them a sort of redemption. Most of the dialog involves Father Slocum, the prison chaplain, as he desperately tries to save the lives of his fellow hostages. Instead what is revealed is the depravity of Vincent Canelli. Robinson plays it to the bone though — Canelli engages in the conversation yet never softens — even after a ricochet kills Hatti. The film’s harsh milieu is relentless. The cops are equally as fierce in their determination to get their man at any cost, even if it means sacrificing the hostages — realized in one of Black Tuesday’s finest moments, as an anguished police inspector shouts to the captive priest, “I want you to know how it is with me Father. God forgive me, but I can’t help any of you.” It’s Robinson’s matter-of-fact performance that makes it all believable. His character is so authentically, irrevocably  corrupt and untouched by conscience that it’s easy to see how the police could weigh the balance of a few innocent lives in exchange for his. Gone are the nuances of the gangster-hero first brought to life in Robinson’s own little Rico and violently exploded with Cagney’s Cody Jarrett. In Vincent Canelli Robinson strips away the veneer of popular cinematic myth and reveals underneath the underworld figure as a cruel, vicious, and very real psychopath.


In the end, it’s the doomed younger man who sets things right, and achieves some small measure of redemption. As Pete comes to grips with his own destiny and the futility of the situation he makes the only choice that will save the lives of the hostages — he turns on the raging Vince and shoots him in the back. Pete steps through the warehouse door: “I’m coming out Hailey, with a gun in my hand!” and is met with a shower of bullets. The camera lingers on the half-lit doorway for a moment as the music begins to swell, then pans across the shadowy floor to Robinson’s outstretched hand, in death still clamoring for the gun.


Black Tuesday (1954)
stripe
Director: Hugo Fregonese
Cinematographer: Stanley Cortez
Screenplay: Sidney Boehm
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Peter Graves, and Jean Parker
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 80 minutes

8 comments:

  1. Mark, I'd never heard of this one, but you make it sound like just the sort of intense crime drama that I'd like to see. It seems like it was Eddie G's "White Heat," at least in aspiration if not in execution. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

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  2. In every one of his performances that I've seen, Robinson was never short of excellent. Little Caesar is a classic, and he was great in movies like House of Strangers and Key Largo. A very informative write-up of a forgotten Hollywood legend.

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  3. is Black Tuesday available on DVD ?

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    1. Not that I'm aware of. There's a grainy copy floating around out there, which is how I was able to see it. Maybe some day it will get a release, if a quality print can be found.

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  4. Eddie G is one of the most watchable star's from the Golden age of Hollywood and giave a great performance every time. Black Tuesday and Hell on frisco bay really need a dvd release .Great review by the way !

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  5. I want to thank you for a great profile of one of my favorite actors of all time. In every movie I ever saw of his, the performance was believable. As you watched him portray a gangster, you believed he was the mean unfeeling SOB he was playing. One of my favorite movies of his was " Our vines have tender grapes"
    I was sorry to read about his troubled personal life. He was a great American. Thanks again for the biography.








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    1. Thanks Maria - I expanded this piece into a larger bio of EGR for the Film Noir Foundation's magazine. If you'd like to read it, it's hiding here on the blog as well. http://wheredangerlives.blogspot.com/2012/04/mother-of-mercy-edward-g-robinson-and.html

      Thanks again!

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