February 17, 2015

OUT OF THE STORM (1948)


In order to understand how important typecasting was in classic Hollywood, how it could make or break a movie — even a cheap B picture with a twelve-day shooting schedule — look no further than Republic’s 1944 crime programmer Out of the Storm, starring Jimmy Lydon. Lydon gained fame playing comic strip teenager Henry Aldrich nine times for Paramount Pictures throughout the war years. After the fighting ended he signed a contract with Republic Pictures (which he jokingly referred to as Repulsive Pictures!) and made several low rent crime films, the most notable of which was Edgar Ulmer’s Strange Illusion (1945). From time to time Lydon appeared in supporting roles in major studio productions, including a pleasantly funny turn alongside Elizabeth Taylor in the 1947 William Powell hit Life with Father, and, believe it or not, as Ingrid Bergman’s little brother in Victor Fleming’s 1948 colossus, Joan of Arc. Lydon enjoyed a lengthy acting career in Hollywood films and on television before transitioning into a significant role as a producer. He even did a stretch as vice-president of the Screen Actors Guild. As of this writing he’s approaching 92 and living happily in California with his wife of 62 years.

In Out of the Storm, set during the war, he is perfectly cast as Donald Lewis, a clerk at west coast naval yard. Amidst the tumult of the never-ending stream of tankers, freighters, and liberty ships sliding into the Pacific, Donald spends his days in the relative calm of the payroll office, endorsing checks for the yard’s ten thousand workers. It’s Christmastime as the movie opens, and Donald has just taken possession of $125,000 in folding money, when a crew led by Stubbins (familiar hood Marc Lawrence) hurries up the stairs and into the payroll loft. Stubbins shoots the guard, beats another man unconscious, and then forces Donald to grab stacks of bills from the safe. After the gang flees Donald telephones security, but before they arrive he gapingly realizes that the crooks overlooked the $100,000 intended for the workers’ Christmas bonuses and made off with significantly less: the $25,000 in fives and tens meant for check cashing. Donald hesitates for just a moment, and then hides the money. He returns later, in the dead of night, and smuggles it home. The remainder of the movie vacillates between the predictable and the surprising as Donald tries hard to hang onto the loot before eventually coming around — though Out of the Storm pleases even when it treads this familiar ground.

Let’s momentarily imagine the challenge faced by Out of the Storm’s producers, needing to fill the lead. Here we have a fairly straightforward morality tale about a war worker who steals, albeit passively (everything about Donald is passive), and most importantly, whose crime becomes the catalyst for his coming of age. We need an actor who can sell two key characteristics: the audience must be able to understand his motivation to steal, and in time they must be able to forgive him. The movie never explicitly tells us why Donald isn’t in the service, though there are two possibilities: he could have received a 2-B deferment from service as an employee of the war industry, or his designation could have been the dreaded 4-F: “registrant is not acceptable for military service.” The casting of Jimmy Lydon, neither a tough guy nor a dreamboat, makes it clear exactly which weak-kneed designation the filmmakers wanted us to assume, and it shows us why the casting process is vital.

What kind of a guy would take this money? What kind of guy would end up in the payroll office in the first place? Donald lacks the physical strength required to man either a rivet gun or a machine gun. And he’s bitter about it. Here’s a kid with guilt. The movie’s opening narration, in which he resignedly laments his situation over stock footage of the smoking wreckage of Pearl Harbor, and then over images of countless ships under construction during the big buildup of 1942, is a self-pitying diatribe about how some young men “went to the fighting lines [and] some went to the assembly lines.” Donald feels left out of both groups, resenting not just the servicemen overseas, but also the blue-collar workers who make more money than he does:

“Seemed like everybody in the yard was making money. Everybody else was really building something, really doing something. But me? I got stuck in the payroll department with a lot of adding machines and file records and a salary of $40 a week. How far can you make that go?”

And yet Donald is still a good boy — he mails a chunk of his meager earnings home to his mother and struggles by on the rest. We get the impression that all would be well if only he could strap on a uniform and get in the fight like everybody else. All of his simmering guilt is cleverly ratcheted up by the presence of his girlfriend and coworker Ginny (Lois Collier, sort of a poor man’s Gail Russell). Ginny’s a real doll, and entirely out of Donald’s league. They’ve been together for nearly a year, after bumping into each other during lunch. Here's how it needles: it’s a mismatched relationship only made possible by the war, and Donald knows it. He constantly uses his small salary as an excuse not to get married, but we suspect that he really believes he doesn’t deserve such a great girl in the first place. Ginny, for her part, is strangely desperate to get hitched, Donald’s finances be damned. (It’s terribly easy to imagine a dead Marine on Guadalcanal with her picture in his breast pocket.)

At any rate, the film excellently establishes Donald’s angst at being left out of the fighting and his disappointment at not landing an appropriately butch spot in the war effort, and then being saddled with a devoted girlfriend whom he doesn’t feel he deserves. Such a character could easily come across as a weasel. We’d hate Donald if we didn’t think his heart was in the right place, if he didn’t so obviously love his mother, if he hadn’t fretted and called the guards after the theft, and if he wasn’t just a dumb, jealous, understandably immature kid. But we do like him, and we also feel sorry for him. We understand, just as he does, that Captain America is just a comic strip character and that there wasn’t a place on the front lines for every weak-kneed kid who wanted to get in. Perhaps the movie’s best, most transformative moment comes near then end, when Ginny looks Donald in the eye and calls him a coward, and the sting of the remark compels him to finally understand something that all of us ultimately have to come to grips with: that life ain’t fair, and that not getting all the things we want isn’t an excuse to act out.

Out of the Storm presented a complex casting problem that, in this instance, the filmmakers solved perfectly. Jimmy Lydon is nearly flawless as one of the countless fellows left to grapple with self-worth while fighting the war from home. He successfully spins the confused, frustrated angst of youth into the moral ambiguity and misguided choices that lie deep within the tangled heart of film noir.

Out of the Storm (1948)
Directed by R.G. Springsteen
Screenplay by John K. Butler
Story by Gordon Rigby
Starring Jimmy Lydon, Lois Collier, and Marc Lawrence
Cinematography by John MacBurnie
Released by Republic Pictures
Running Time: 61 minutes


2 comments:

  1. Great review,Mark of a rather complex sounding little movie.
    I'm certainly adding this one to my "must track down list"
    Thanks to your previous post on Republic Noir posters I have been trying to source some of these
    little gems,and the ones that I have seen so far have been pretty darn good.
    I just wish somebody would release some of these films on DVD,it would be wonderful to see them in
    the pristine quality that Warner Archive have given some of the Monogram Noirs.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks John - I agree with you and would love to see a boxed set of these at some point — or perhaps even just clean prints on TCM.

    ReplyDelete