Swell Guy - 1946

Swell Guy - 1946

Swell Guy (1946) is shocking.  It grasps the postwar stranger-in-a-strange land parable of the returning vet and twists it into something depraved.  It flaunts movie mores of the day by showing a community falling under the spell of a conniving charlatan, but not because he is so persuasive—because their own darker sides are so easily brought to the surface.  It dares to mock the returning vets—one as an apparent villain, and the other, the “good” one, even worse, as a weak, boring fool.  It dares to show the villain continually getting away with his villainy, until the end when he loses, but completely on his own terms and still in control of his destiny.  It dares to show dysfunctional families, adultery, and a pregnancy out of wedlock as everyday circumstances of life that happen to nice people in nice small towns, as normal as horseshoes at the town picnic, with no real attempt to “shock” the audience at all.  It all comes as laconic as a conversation over a backyard fence—and that is what is so surprising. There is no message.  It’s just the way things are.  It is 1946, and the movies have grown up.  This isn’t a glossy noir, it looks rather low-budget, and it is marvelously unconcerned with its audience. 

Fine acting from everybody in this movie, but especially lead Sonny Tufts, which really shocks me.

Mostly, I am shocked that a movie this good is unavailable on DVD, is rarely shown, has fallen into public domain, and the only copy you are likely to snag is probably going to be as beat up, scratched, and muddy as the one I found.

My only hope for this film is that it was featured a few years ago in a public showing at the UCLA Television & Film Archives at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles, so perhaps this may indicate a resurrection for this truly oddball, truly shocking film.

Another surprising aspect is that it had its world premiere aboard a train.  As is usual for me this time of year, this blog is devoted especially to my favorite holiday this Saturday, National Train Day, which celebrates Amtrak, our national railroad.  Have a look here at the official website for more info.

What is especially surprising about the premiere on a train is that trains, which feature prominently in a few key scenes in this movie, have a rather grim representation.  Especially the brutal ending.  Nothing you’d want to have on your mind with a drink in your hand in the bar car.  (Better hurry on that one, the last bar car in the US is being phased out.) More on the premiere on board in a little bit.

First, I must tell you that since one of the delights of this movie is how it’s plotted, and how many scenes are constructed in what, in the theatre, are called “French scenes” where the focal point changes and the scene kind of begins anew with the entrance and exit of a character, I’m going to be discussing pretty much the entire movie and it’s irresistible flow.  As such, this post is going to be a minefield of spoilers.  For those of you with no stomach for it, stay here.

The rest of you mugs, follow me.

And bring a bag lunch.  This is going to take a while.

This was Ann Blyth’s first movie after her year-long hiatus due to suffering a spinal fracture in the early part of 1945, which we covered in our intro post to this series here.  Her last film had been the blockbuster Mildred Pierce (1945), for which she had been nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar.  Big things were expected of Ann.  Her home studio, Universal, wanted to finally get a chance to cash in on the star that Warner’s made (she had been loaned to Warner Bros. for Mildred Pierce).  Ann was eager to take up her career again.

But this movie was filmed during one of the worst periods of her life, when she found herself dealing with another personal tragedy.  Halfway through the filming of Swell Guy, her mother died, which we also discussed in our intro post.  They had come to California together from New York via the national touring company of Watch on the Rhine, and were seldom apart. 

If trouble matures us, she’d had plenty.  Ann Blyth was 17 years old, and would turn 18 before filming completed.  She played older in this movie, a young woman perhaps in her early twenties, a bored and restless small town rich girl, a hard drinker, sexually promiscuous, whose grim and fatalistic outlook on life would have likely made this role a fulfilling challenge for any actress.  For someone who’d been through what Ann had, one might hope it may have offered an emotional outlet, as going back to work after her mother’s illness and death would have been a horrific struggle, and possibly playing the role of a troubled young woman was better than a comedy at that time for her.  For those who remember Ann as the perpetual ingénue soprano of her 1950s musicals, Swell Guy reminds us that the evil Veda in Mildred Pierce was no one-off fluke.  A number of Ann’s early roles showcased her intuitive, earthy, and intense dramatic talent. (We mentioned in this earlier post that she was afraid of being typecast a villain.)  It was at this stage critics were calling her a young Bette Davis.

She received good notices.

Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times noted: “Miss Blyth is reputed to give her most sensational performance in this…she has made a remarkable record in the midst of terrific emotional turmoil, and what is more, she is amazingly young to have encountered this…Her experiences have undoubtedly given her an unusual maturity in her work.”

Syndicated columnist Dorothy Manners wrote, “This Blyth girl is real star stuff—young, tempestuous, and definitely a screen personality.”

Even Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who generally gave the most dyspeptic reviews, and, indeed, saw nothing to excite in Swell Guy, still lauded Ann’s work as, “…a quite appealing portrait of the compromised girl by Ann Blyth.”

It was Sonny Tufts who was being cast against type this time, his first role as a meanie.  He had found a place in Hollywood during the war years as one of those handsome fellows who, unable to serve in the military, were lucky enough to replace the generation of actors who did.  He first came to prominence as the likeable Marine in So Proudly We Hail!(1943).  Unfortunately, Swell Guy would peak his career, due in part to the usual throw of the dice in a capricious industry, and due in part to his own capriciousness and lack of self discipline.  His off-screen behavior, including several arrests for public drunkenness, shortened his career.  He careened into bad roles in B-movies, and eventually became something of a joke in Hollywood.  Even he, on TV shows such as My Mother the Car, and Laugh-In, where he made cameos as himself, poked fun at the joke that became of his career and his name.

Even in Swell Guy, we can see the handsome newcomer of only a few years earlier now bears a heavily lined, puffy and sagging face from too much alcohol, too much of everything, maybe. But Swell Guy gives us probably his best performance, and he tackles it with a natural ease.  He is so smoothly believable that he carries this film admirably.  What is remarkable is that he’s playing a creep, but he is compellng and not because of any showman’s razzle-dazzle, but because his down-to-earth camaraderie, his moments of vulnerability, and what appears to be his truly helpless inability to change.  He has his demons.

We begin peeking through the credits at what appears to be an overhead shot, a flyover, of a small town.  It tells us the town is as much a character in the movie as the players, who all have a connection to each other.

We settle in at the barbershop where there is a buzz about a visiting celebrity, a war correspondent with a reputation for gallantry and bravado, who’s coming to see his brother who lives here with his wife and son, and their elderly mother.

At his brother’s home they are preparing to leave to meet him at the station.  His mother is played by Mary Nash, veteran of Broadway, and you’ve seen her as Katharine Hepburn’s mother in The Philadelphia Story (1940) and as Shirley Temple’s nemesis, Miss Minchin in The Little Princess (1939).  This is a fascinating role for her, as she is strangely enigmatic. When her daughter-in-law, who has never met Jim, the Sonny Tufts character, wistfully gushes, “Jim’s led such an exciting life,” Mother Nash replies pleasantly, but irrelevantly instead of her married son, “Martin’s a steady man.”

When Martin, Jim’s older brother enters, played by William Gargan, we see he is friendly, contented, not overly bright, and dull as dishwater.  No wonder his wife is looking forward to an exciting visitor. 

The hero-worshiping wife is played wonderfully by Ruth Warrick, in a role that allows her to ride a rollercoaster of emotions in a nuanced performance.  She is the still waters running deep. 

Their young son is played by Donald Devlin.  He is given, unfortunately, pretty standard and unimaginative gee-gosh kind of dialogue and delivers a lightweight performance, but the little boy is important to the development of the Sonny Tufts role, and will figure prominently at the end.

They are the typical American family that waits at the train depot, a familiar Norman Rockwell scene that was still repeated for returning vets a year after the war.

Then we are in the train compartment as Sonny Tufts, the famous war correspondent, snuggles and chats with a lady friend.  A simple of action of her lifting his cigarette from between his fingers, taking a puff on it, and him deftly plucking it back from her is going to be repeated through the movie and take on great significance.  The intimacy of them putting the same cigarette to their lips and smoking it, of gently snatching it from each other, as if to get control of it, is a code that tells us they are sleeping together and each is trying to get control in the relationship.

The Production Code may have been restrictive, but it could be awfully fun.

On this occasion, Mr. Tufts wins, while warmly and humbly thanking her for paying for his trip.  She is already married, but can’t live without him and will get a divorce as soon as possible.  But when the train pulls into our small town of Carmelita, California, Sonny tips the Pullman porter to tell the lady for him, “Goodbye and good luck, permanently.”

It is our first indication that this heroic adventurer is not what he seems.  A moment later, standing on the platform with his family, he seems genuinely pleased by their welcome.

“Has he changed much?”  Ruth Warrick gushes to her mother-in-law.

“Not much,” is her half-smiling, but noncommittal tone.

He asks to be dropped off at the telegram office so he can conduct some business, and while they take his bags home and prepare a welcome home dinner.  He slips into a bar, and, still sporting conviviality like a carnation, chats up bartender Millard Mitchell, who gives him the lowdown on the small-time gamblers betting on a coin toss two stools down.  Mr. Tufts gets in on the game, and with the same bravado he showed in war, tells the local barfly blowhard played by Howard Freeman to go ahead and toss the coin while he makes a phone call.  He doesn’t even look, unconcerned, and such saloon courage earns him quick friends and admirers.  He wins the toss.

When he comes out of the phone booth, Ann Blyth shows up, sassy and smart-mouthed, wanting to use the phone.

This is the first instance of many in the movie where a “French scene” is set up by director Frank Tuttle.  Tuttle had been around since the silents, worked in pretty much every genre, and his work here is excellent.  Soon Mr. Tuttle would run into trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee for his earlier ties to the Communist Party, but saved himself by ratting on others.  Maybe he knew something about the self-centered survival techniques so deftly deployed by the Sonny Tufts character in this movie.  Swell Guy shows Tuttle’s mastery of guiding the audience through the scenes as if we were a fly on the wall.  Neither director nor actors are playing to us.  We just happen to be in the room. 

First, Tufts and Mitchell are hunched over the bar giving us the lowdown on the local scene. Then the camera pulls back and we see the barflies in the foreground, giving us a visual summation of the citizenry as suckers.  Then Ann walks in and the mood changes to one of sexual tension, but Tufts is still juggling the gamblers, his inside info from the gossipy Mitchell, and the phone that represents his apparent quest to get a job on a Los Angeles newspaper.

He and Mitchell discuss Ann, that she is a wild girl, that she “gets around,” the daughter of the local insurance agency owner—who happens to be his brother’s boss.  Everybody’s connected.  As they speak, huddled over the bar, we see Ann in the phone booth over Mitchell’s shoulder, in the little box of the booth like a cartoon strip thought balloon.  She’s the object of the conversation and she’s never left the scene.  (We see something similar in Toland’s wonderful cinematography the same year in The Best Years of Our Lives.)

Her boyfriend has come in with her, following her like a puppy dog, and Millard Mitchell brings him into the conversation.  He’s a returned, vet, too, who saw combat on Okinawa.  Played by John Craven (probably most known for his Broadway turn as George in Our Town), he’s a likeable, sensitive, but intense young man obsessed by the problems of returning veterans and tiring people with his only topic of conversation.  As Mitchell says of him, “He talks like a guy running for re-election.”

By the way, Ann would be reunited with Millard Mitchell in four years, on stage, in the La Jolla Playhouse production of Our Town in the summer of 1950.  We’ll talk more about that in a couple months.

Sonny Tufts admiringly points to John Craven’s “Ruptured Duck” lapel pin, an insignia given to all honorably discharged military personnel as a symbol showing they had served in the war, and agrees the vets need all the support they can get.  Sonny always says the right thing, and his sincerity is unquestionable.

When Ann emerges from the phone booth, sidles up to the bar, downs her first drink and shoos away her puppy-dog boyfriend, we see both she and Tufts have only one agenda for the evening. She calls Tufts, “Marco Polo and Ernest Hemingway wrapped up in one,” and of her earnest boyfriend, “He loves me so much there isn’t any room for me to love him.” 

They end up in her great big fancy convertible in the moonlight, and talk about what makes them tick.  Sonny loves life’s “high spots,” he says, and she replies, “Well, Marco Polo, this is a high spot staring you right in the face.”

She snatches the cigarette from his fingers and takes a puff, and he snatches it back.  His gesture is rougher, more urgent than with his lady friend on the train.  Ann doesn’t want a long-term relationship with him, one-night stands are fine with her, so he doesn’t have to be too nice.

Finally heading back to his brother’s house later, he is shamefaced and apologetic for not returning for his welcome home dinner, but he turns the scene around, enthusiastically tells them that he had spent the time working on an idea for his new novel, an idea for which they, in their kindness to him, provided the inspiration.  “Trouble is, I’d been away from the real things too long!”

They are pleased, excited and flattered to have been part of a great man’s work.  His brother William Gargan replies, “Holy smokes, I guess Carmelita’s not so bad!”  Even the boring guy knows his life is boring.

Tufts never seems phony even when he is.  His warm attention to their son, his gentlemanly compliments to sister-in-law Ruth Warrick are so sincere that it’s no wonder they think he’s a “swell guy” because we do, too.

Only one is not fooled.  Mother Mary Nash.  She sneaks down to the living room in the middle of the night where Sonny is trying, unsuccessfully, to type a letter to someone named Marie.  Mom wants him to leave.  Their dialogue is quiet, intimate, and stunningly harsh.

“Every day I prayed I’d get a telegram from the war department…” she begins.

“…saying I died?”  He fills in.  She wants him to “do one decent thing in your life,” and leave.  Apparently at their last meeting, he stole over $400 from her that was from her late husband’s life insurance policy, all the money she had.

“You hate me because I remind you of Pop…he’s been dead for years and you still hate him.”

Sonny idolized his father, a no-good conniver his mother was ashamed to have married.  Sonny asks her to let him stay, that he’s changed.

“Some can change.  Not your father, and not you.  You’re a tramp.  You’re no good.  You’re just no good.”

But Mom can’t blow the whistle on him without creating a hornet’s nest in her married son’s quiet, boring life.  She watches with anxiety how Ruth Warrick develops a crush on Sonny.

Ruth, while fondling her husband’s shirt, chats with Mom about how exciting Sonny is, how he’s crossed the ocean on a ship and she would love to do that, meet interesting people, drink champagne cocktails.  She blurts out a fantasy of dancing with Sonny on shipboard, flustered, tries to take it back, saying she really meant dancing with her husband.  Mom is quietly understanding and eerily enigmatic, and director Tuttle brings the fluttery scene to an abrupt halt with Mom’s observation that sounds like a blunt warning.

Ruth Warrick has another kind of indirect showdown with Ann Blyth, when Ann stops in to pick Sonny up and take him for a ride in her big fancy convertible.  Ann’s first greeting seems condescending, “How do you do it, Darling, husband, housework, child, etc., and still look like an ad for contented women?”

Ruth is still flustered at being caught by her mother-in-law in her crush for Sonny, and through the film will grow more anxious and neurotic.  She self-deprecatingly replies that looking pretty while folding the laundry is the way to keep a husband.  She keeps very busy in her scenes with Mom and Ann, as if trying not to get caught in her fantasies about Sonny.

Meanwhile, Ann’s dismissive attitude toward home and family, and long-term relationships, seems to have changed as she anxiously attempts to confide in Ruth. She asks her if Sonny has ever discussed plans for marriage.  It is weeks later, and she is still seeing him, but he has cooled off towards her.  Ann has fallen for him, and is just as obsessed with Sonny as Ruth is.  It’s an interesting scene, for both are “the other woman” and Ann doesn’t realize she’s causing acute discomfort for Ruth.

In another “French scene” shift, Sonny then enters, his big frame filling the room, and he shushes the women while he pretends to talk on the phone to a newspaper colleague who has already hung up on him.  His harem dutifully shushes. 

By the way, it was reported that Ann needed to be lifted four inches to do her close-up standing kissing scenes with Sonny Tufts.  He was a foot taller than she.  It was the first of many on-screen romances she would conduct standing on a box. 

The boy comes in, and the two women quietly fuss over him.  Still the same scene, it changes again with the addition of the boy.  He breaks the sexual rivalry of the women for Sonny Tufts and represents the home, their maternal instincts, and he, not Sonny, becomes the center of their attention.  Especially noticeable is the change in Ann, whose first introduction to us as a hard drinking, selfish, and loose young woman, now tenderly touches the boy and asks him if he will be her boyfriend at the town picnic tomorrow.

The all-American boy, no puppy dog, brushes her off.  He doesn’t like girls.  He likes football.

When Ann finally pulls away in her big fancy convertible, with Sonny sprawling carelessly in the passenger’s seat, her first remark is that she likes Ruth Warrick, and we can see she envies her.

“Why?  What do you expect her to do for you?”  Sonny replies sarcastically.  He knows he’s already got Ann in his pocket.  So he doesn’t need to be nice to her anymore.

“Must everybody always have an angle?”  She smiles.  She knows him well by now, yet is unphased.

“Uh-huh.  We like people because it gives pleasure to us, not them.”

She wants to spend the day with him, but he roughly brushes her off.  “Love is feeling, not a diet.”  He’s rented an office in town, he says it is for him to get to work and write his novel.  We will see when he enters, looks at his typewriter at another unfinished letter to somebody named Marie, that he actually uses his office for a weekly craps game, and the men of this sleepy little town show up and hand over their money.  I think one of them is Jack Overman, who played the movie grip we discussed in Once More, My Darling here, though he’s not credited.

Sonny Tufts wins over $800, and calls his brother.  He has a plan to help his brother fulfill his dream of leaving the drudgery of the insurance office and be his own boss, open up a used car dealership.  Again, we think Sonny is a pretty swell guy for doing this.

But he goes to the bar, where Ann waits, drinking her hurt away with the barflies who flip a coin for bets.  She is bitter, and angry at Sonny, who blows in like a big shot.  She calls him down in front of everybody, “The champion big shot of the world.  He won the war single-handed.  He writes books with one finger, and in his spare time, he amuses the natives.”

Sonny Tufts tenses up, but lets her talk because she is throwing down a gauntlet, and he’s a sucker for a dare.

She shouts, a little drunk and very hurt, “Jim wants to work, everybody stops playing.  Jim wants to play, everybody stops working.  The world lives just for Jim Duncan, but Jim Duncan doesn’t know the world’s alive.”

She dares him to join the coin toss game, because she knows the men in town have lost all their money to him.  She wants to see him lose.  He’s a sucker for a dare.

“Toss it, baby,” he says.  Now regretting her outburst, she nervously flips the coin, while the barflies cheer.

With his customary bravado, Sonny doesn’t even look.  He puts up his whole $800, and heads for the phone booth to call his brother.  He will have either good news for him, that he can give him money for his dream, or bad news, to forget it.

He loses.  Ann, with tears of frustration, runs out of the bar.  She knows nothing of his plans to help his brother, only that she’s lost him.

The next day is the town picnic, sponsored by her father, John Litel, one of the town’s most prominent citizens.  All the cast roam leisurely around the fairgrounds.  Frank Ferguson, who we mentioned in our last post on Free for All, here, plays horseshoes.

Ruth Warrick lounges by the lake in a bathing suit, Sonny Tufts chatting with her.  She drinks in the sight of him more than he does her, though she gives him plenty of chances, but we have the feeling he is only being careful—or maybe biding his time.  We sense he has her on the hook, waiting for him, so he must sense it too.

John Craven is called upon by John Litel to make a speech, and Craven launches into his well-worn topic of veteran’s needs in a postwar world, but he is nervous, does not speak well, and quickly bores and irritates his audience, who soon begin to playfully heckle him.  A vet being heckled while talking about the GI Bill.  In a 1946 movie.  Shocking.

One of the hecklers is Jimmie Dodd, our head Mouseketeer.

Sonny Tufts, like the hero he is, comes to John Craven’s rescue by taking over the speech and spewing forth a jumble of jingoistic illusions to gambling on the future and supporting the vets.

“The only thing we must never gamble on is the future of the men who won the war for us.”  Much adulation for Sonny.  He wears it well, humbly, with a halo of light around his blond hair.

He asks Mom, “How was my speech?”

“Like a firecracker.  All noise and nothing inside.”  She still wants him to leave. 

He admits, “You’re the only one that’s got me pegged right.  You always have.”  It is a sad moment for both of them.  They’ve never had a good relationship and never will.

Ann Blyth gets a good line, which she delivers like a cracking whip, “Only a very accomplished speaker could have merged patriotism with craps shooting.”

By the way, that matinee idol Charles Lane gets a brief role as another bombastic speaker.  Makes the whole movie.

She and John Craven are sitting on a blanket, he accepts their relationship has cooled and that Sonny Tufts is the winner.  He can still thank Tufts for saving him by taking over the speech and be disgusted with Ann for ditching him for Sonny.  Nothing sticks to Sonny.  Then suddenly, others dancing or drinking beer huddle around and join in a fascinating and apparently impromptu conversation on fate.  They discuss whether a man’s fate is pre-destined, or if he controls his own destiny.  The extras swarm around for a lazy, but earnest and casual town meeting in the meadow.  Such an oddball scene, but it’s great.  Director Tuttle continually pulls others in to “widen the shot” so to speak, and then zeroes in on the principal characters in pairs, and pulls back again just by how many people are in the scene.  No camera trickery, it’s really more like theatre.  The one who’s talking has the football.

Sonny Tufts thinks fate controls us, that when our number is up, it’s up.  Millard Mitchell and others disagree.  Sonny, in another sucker’s dare and his need for excitement, his need to show his bravado, demonstrates that he will walk into nearby train tunnel to prove that he will not face danger by an expected train because he doesn’t think his number is up.

It’s another toss of the dice, but for higher stakes.

We see his broad shoulders silhouetted against the light of the open tunnel.  Ann, at first scoffing, then grows horrified, and jumps into her big fancy convertible with puppy dog John Craven at her heels.  She speeds around the mountain to hopefully catch up with Sonny still alive at the tunnel’s end.

As he’s walking through the dark tunnel, we see that Sonny is searching for something on one wall.  He appears to find it, chuckles, and continues on.  What we will learn later is that he knows there is a safety slot built into a tunnel like this that will hold one man to take refuge if a train comes.  He was never in any danger.  Sonny knows it’s easier to win with a stacked deck.

On the other end of the tunnel, Ann, frantic, runs to greet him as he emerges in the light of day, and they scramble up an embankment, holding each other just as the train comes barreling down, and thrusts itself into the tunnel.  Well, there’s symbolism and there’s symbolism.  I’ll only suggest it’s a nice crane shot.

Poor John Craven looks away, heads back to the car alone.

The next day Sonny heads to LA for a job interview, he hopes, with the former editor who earlier hung up on him.  He paces in his hotel room, nervously takes a few drinks, and then gets an unexpected visitor.

It’s Ann.  She’s followed him.  He’s furious, wants to get rid of her, is just about to walk out on her.  Then the camera gives our attention to the young woman standing in the half-light of his hotel room, getting older every minute.

“Wait…give me a second for the oldest story in the world.”  I like that line.  I like that way to put it.  It’s a weary delivery, choked with chagrin and, for her, unaccustomed honesty.

He sneers, “You’re lying.”  She’s pregnant.  He doesn’t want to be trapped.  He reminds her of her insistence when they met that there would be no bonds.

Her attempt just to get his attention at last, breaks her, and she starts to fall apart.  “Let’s be honest.  The way I lived is wrong.  Give me a chance to make it right.  The only way I can do that is with you.”

She vows she will not tie him down, nor even shoulder him with responsibility for the baby.  “It will be all mine…just let me be near you and love you.”  She kneels before him and sobs in his lap, “That’s all I ask.  Just let me love you.”

Sonny is quiet now, his mood has changed, and he gently asks her to wait for him.  She is comforted, and so are we, because after all, he loves his nephew.  Plays football with him.  Teaches him how to cheat.  He might like a kid of his own, someone perpetually to look up to him and worship him the way his little nephew does.  Sure.

But he’s got to see his old editor first to get a job on the L.A. newspaper.  He tells her to wait here, tells her where he is going, and tells her to call him there if he’s not back in half an hour.

Dang, but we’re convinced.  He’s such a swell guy.

The scene with his editor, played really well by Thomas Gomez, who cut such an impression as one of the gangsters on Key Largo (1949), delivers some great lines, and some needed back story on our Sonny.

None of his newspaper colleagues like him.  Gomez gets a strong scene here in a face-off with Tufts: “You’ve got guts…but you never come back with a story.  Sure, you’re the hero of every story that happened, but you can’t write about it…you’ve failed because you’re a liar and a cheat.”

Sonny, meanwhile, has been punctuating every sentence with another shot of booze, and by the time the scene ends, he’s drunk.  He runs through a stream of emotions: defensive, sarcastic, self-pitying, confrontational.

“I ought to punch you in the mouth.”

“Sure, you’re good at that.  But could you put it down on paper afterwards?...That’s how you’ve handled everything else, with your fists.  That’s the way you handled Marie.”

Marie?  The person to whom he’s been trying to type several abortive letters?  Marie…is his wife.  Back in Paris.  She booted him out.  The scene ends with Sonny, now quite drunk, falling on the floor and sobbing, crying out for Marie to take him back. 

For all the sub-par performances in lousy films Sonny Tufts had racked up in his career, for all the stories on his private exploits that made him a joke…you have to watch this scene to give him the credit he deserves for reaching down deep and showing what he could do when the circumstances allowed and whatever personal motivation he could muster to do it, at least this time.

The next evening he arrives back in Carmelita, and puppy dog boyfriend John Craven accosts him, angry, wants to know what he did to Ann that she returned home “all broken up.”  Tufts tries to wave him off, tells him he’s off the beam.

“Almost enough to kill you,” Craven answers, a low growl, his angry eyes under the broad-brimmed hat searing into Tufts, and we see that this is no puppy dog.  Craven’s a battle-hardened veteran.  Just because he loves Ann and he’s been patient with her, doesn’t mean he’s going to extend the same courtesy to anybody else.  To John Craven, Sonny's fallen off his pedestal for not treating his girl right.

Tufts, in another wonderful example of his clever, exploiting personality, softens and agrees that Craven is the better man for Ann and suggests they go see her together, as if he is giving Ann to Craven, as if it were some noble sacrifice.

He can’t wait to get rid of her.

At Ann’s home, papa John Litel knows Sonny’s relationship with his daughter has hit a rough patch, and he’s worried, because he really likes Sonny.  He wants them to get married.  He has such regard for Sonny that he gave his boring brother John Gargan a promotion and more responsibility, discovering what a good employee he had all these years and didn’t know it.  “I gave him a chance only on your say so.”

The tight, confidential relationship between these two men shifts when Ann and John Craven enter the room.  Again, no new scene setup, just the mood change when another person enters, the tenor of the scene shifts.  Ann takes over the scene, confesses to her father that when Sonny went to L.A. on his job hunt, she went to his hotel room, threw herself at Sonny.  She doesn’t tell Pop about her pregnancy.  She leaves that part out for now.

“Yesterday, if you’d been willing to marry me, I’d have been your wife, your doormat, anything.  But not now.”  Her attitude is not of anger or accusation at him; rather she is taking a hard look at herself, full of reproach and humiliation.  She faces the fact that he does not, will not, love her. She is resigned to living with her heartbreak like a kind of penance for her wild lifestyle.

Mr. Tufts, gambler that he is, just lets her talk, and through the course of her speech, becomes not the bad guy, but the poor fellow who is being dumped.  He leaves, as if wounded, and pathetically, even comically, John Litel follows him to the door, imploring him to stay.  Tufts leaves, again, as if doing the noble thing.  He’s a gambler, and he’s a lucky guy.

Ann, figuring she owed it to John Craven to let him witness her degradation after the miserable way she's treated him, thanks him and tells him he's free to walk out of her life now.  He’s just about ready to do that, except for one more twist.  He still loves her.  She tells him he won’t anymore when she gives him another newsflash about herself. She’s about to tell him she’s pregnant, giving him the best reason to run out her life.  Before she can, he takes the floor and angrily has his say, lays down the law, then ends with the another surprising twist.

He’s already guessed she’s pregnant. 

“I guess I’ll love your baby just as much, ‘cause it’ll be yours.”  The quiet young hero of Okinawa has become an even bigger hero in a boring little California town. 

Ann’s awestruck expression, her eyes filling with grateful tears, is an emotional image to show the instantaneous redemption of this girl.  The director should have held the shot longer, but fades quickly to Sonny’s next exploit.

It ain’t over, ‘til it’s over, and the pace of the film only gets faster.  Like a runaway train.

Sonny needs to blow town now, and he heads to his next ace in the hole.  Ruth Warrick.

Ruth’s pleased to be spending a quiet evening alone with Sonny, because her boring husband has been sent out of town by the boss on an assignment.  But he’ll be home tonight on the 8:27 train.  He’s been working on a raffle project to raise money for the vets, and he’s got $4,000 from the raffle stashed at home, just waiting to be turned in.

Mr. Tufts knows that.  He makes with the sweet talk to Ruth, tells her that it’s time he moved on.  She sits, back arched, arms lazily overhead in an easy chair, for the first time looking relaxed in her own home.  Sonny sits on the arm of her chair, chatting, and she lifts his cigarette from his fingers and takes an inexpert puff.

Oh, jeez.  They’ve been sleeping together. 

Sonny’s got another notch on his belt, and he parlays this one into his escape plan.  He wants her to tell him where the raffle money is hidden.  He wants to take her away with him, and she is thrilled at the idea, willing to leave her husband and her son, but she can’t give Sonny the money, because that would be wrong.  Eventually, she accidently lets the cat slip out of the bag, and Sonny grabs the dough, instantly turning on her, calling her “a married tramp.”  He says he would to anything for her son, but not her, that she’s not fit to be his mother.  Poor Ruth, humiliated, runs from the room, but Mother Nash has been listening.  She has no reproach for her daughter-in-law, but takes charge and takes the money, telling Sonny he can’t have it.  He’s not getting away with it this time.  Sonny takes it from her, giving her a light shove.

He shoves his mother.  Gasp!

She threatens to call the police, and with an evil Grinchy grin, Sonny dares her to call.  She can’t, not for his sake, but for her boring son and her daughter-in-law, to protect them all from scandal and news of Ruth’s infidelity. 

Sonny doesn’t have too long to triumph, though, because one of his nephew’s little friends rushes in, panicked with the news that the boy is now hiking through the train tunnel in an effort to emulate his Uncle Sonny. 

The 8:27, the train boring William Gargan is on, is due any minute.

You may utter your favorite expletive here.

And get up off that couch, we’ve got to find that kid!

Sonny rushes over there, and with the practically useless weak and pale beam of a flashlight, enters the blackness of the tunnel at night and calls his nephew’s name.  Finally, deep in the tunnel, the boy answers.

Here comes the train.

Sonny grabs the kid, desperately searches for the safety slot.

Train, train, train, hurry, hurry, hurry…

Will you find that slot!

Ha, got it.  Shoves the kid into the niche in the wall—which will only accommodate one person.  The boy is scared, wants to run, but Sonny reminds him that he is “Uncle Jim’s boy,” and can do anything Uncle can.  The boy promises to stay put until the train passes.

Now Sonny has only a minute to run a half-mile to beat the train out of the tunnel.

He runs, he trips, he gets up, the train’s blinding headlamp barrels towards us.

Great visuals, as the back of the boy’s shirt is wind-whipped and gray with soot, but he keeps himself flat and holds on as the train roars by him.

Sonny can’t beat the train.  His number is up.  Curiously, in the last frenetic moments, he stops running, faces the train and throws his arms up, just as it kills him.  Is it a gesture of fright, or a welcome hug of death?

He’s a hero now, and always will be in this town to those who don’t know his less noble exploits.  People like boring Bill Gargan, who mourns his brother, and people like John Litel will always hold Mr. Tufts up as a man among men.  Others, like Ruth Warrick, Mary Nash, John Craven, and Ann Blyth will always carry secrets they dare not share.  But it is a strange irony that these people whom he’s wronged have, by his very interference in their lives, achieved a kind of redemption.  They’ve changed for the better because of him.

His own redemption, purchased at the cost of his life to save the boy, is not meant to wipe away his sins in the eyes of the audience.  It’s just to show there are two sides of the coin we toss.  It’s all a gamble.

A very intriguing film with top-notch performances by Ruth Warrick—whose future career would flourish on television with a long-standing gig as the evil Phoebe Tyler in the soap All My Children; Sonny Tufts—whose future career would limp along in lesser roles in lesser films and his personal life overshadowed all; and from Ann Blyth, a brokenhearted teenager whose work ethic and empathy for her troubled character may have helped pull her through a very dark patch.

Swell Guy, as mentioned above, had its premiere on January 8, 1947 in a most unusual venue—aboard the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad celebrated train The George Washington on the route from Washington, D.C. to Cincinnati, Ohio.  Ann Blyth was board that trip, along with several representatives from Universal, from the railroad, and lots of reporters.  It was an overnight trip, and upon arrival in Cincinnati, they all attended a dinner and reception at the Hotel Netherland Plaza (which is a Hilton now, and an Historic Landmark), along with Cincinnati civic leaders.

Only a couple weeks later, Swell Guy would be dramatized on radio’s Screen Guild Theater on January 27th, with Ann reprising her role, and Joseph Cotten in the Sonny Tufts role.

Universal-International had signed a one-year contract with the Chesapeake and Ohio RR, making the C&O the first American railroad to institute regular nightly movies on board, of current films in 16mm prints.  It started on The George Washington, and would be afterward be included on their other trains “as soon as additional equipment is available, at no extra cost to passengers.”

The George Washington was considered an elite train when it was inaugurated on April 30, 1932, one of only two all-air-conditioned, long-distance trains operating in United States.  I don’t know how long the C&O, or any other railroad might have been showing films on board; times were changing fast for the fortunes of passenger train travel and the golden days were almost over.

But though taking the train today might seem a romantic homage to the past, it’s really embracing the future as the most economic, environmentally sound method to move people around in this great country.  Take the train.  And have a happy National Train Day on Saturday.

Come back next Thursday for another intriguing film with sinister doings from Ann Blyth’s early career, in which she becomes the second wife of Charles Boyer…after his first wife dies under suspicious circumstances in A Woman’s Vengeance (1948).

Deseret News, December 25, 1946, “Movies to be Shown on Trains,” p.10.

Film Daly, January 6, 1947, p. 29; January 7, 1947.

Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1946, “Mean Girl’ Longs for ‘Sweet’ Roles” by Edwin Schallert, p. A1.

Milwaukee Sentinel, May 31, 1946, syndicated article by Dorothy Manners, p. 4.

The New York Times, January 27, 1947, review by Bosley Crowther.
THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.

The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. It is also available at the Broadside Bookshop, 247 Main Street, Northampton, Massachusetts.

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.
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