Jane Wyatt - We're Only Human and Pitfall

The two films we cover today displayed Jane Wyatt’s strength on screen, no less steely for being presented with genteel poise. She is two different women here – a young urban career girl, and then, thirteen years later, a settled suburban housewife and mother. We recognize what is often referred to as her “finishing school accent,” but is she the same person? She could be. In both, she is supportive of the men in her life, but she demands they measure up to her standards.

We discussed last week how the Turner Classic Movies showing of four films of hers from the 1930s through the late 1940s in chronological order gives the viewer a fun tour of Jane Wyatt’s range as an actress, but the eras which reflected her film career were sometimes vastly different from her 1950s sitcom role as the suburban wife and mother. Because this long role on TV (for which she won three consecutive Emmys) is how most of us were introduced to her work, her film career is something yet to be discovered, sometimes with surprise.

Her early roles were sassy, sexy, and allowed her to demonstrate her talent for comedy, to be both sensual and scrappy. The unruffled 1950s woman who vacuumed in pearls waits in the future – but we shouldn’t just dismiss that role (screen role or real life for millions of women) as a consolation prize for youthful adventure lost. It was, rather, a progression, a maturity. For those who might consider it a regression forget how profound an impact those 1950s TV moms made on our lives and in pop-culture – so much as to leave us shocked at Jane Wyatt “girl reporter.”

We're Only Human(1935) pits Jane Wyatt against Preston Foster in her third film. It’s a gritty, somewhat manic cops-and-robbers story. Foster is a fascinating study as an aggressive cop who pushes the rules, breaks a few, to round up the bad guys, Depression-era gangsters, just so many notches on his gun. He is an adrenaline-junkie, and this will be his downfall, his greatest strength is his curse.

Jane Wyatt is the girl reporter, new to New York City from Kansas City, and it is refreshing that nobody – neither her photog sidekick, her editor, or Preston Foster – or the script, treats her condescendingly. She is as hard-hitting in her profession as Preston Foster is in his, and interestingly, even her good judgment leaves her at the end.

James Gleason is dependable as Foster's crusty-but-lovable partner. Jane Darwell, likewise, as Gleason’s wife. Foster lives with them, and they are his example of a supportive marriage and domesticity - Darwell bullies Gleason through a cold and rules the roost.

A collection of favorite character actors are on hand – Moroni Olsen as the police inspector who chews out Preston Foster over aggressive police tactics. Ward Bond is in a brief scene as a bank robber. Arthur Hohl is a crooked lawyer in league with gangsters, and Hattie McDaniel is his maid, whom Foster pushes past to have a hasty meeting with the pettifogger.  Even a few minutes of Hattie McDaniel is better than no Hattie McDaniel.

Mischa Auer is surprising as the crime boss, a far cry from his more famous comedy roles. His boisterous, goofy, charm and his Russian accent are gone here. He’s a hollow-eyed sinister creep, recently escaped from prison. Foster catches him with a display of foolhardy daring – angering his superiors for not calling backup – and when Auer eventually escapes his custody, Foster looks doubly bad.

Jane Wyatt is at first impressed with Foster's heroics. They begin a playful relationship – and though he barks, “How’d you like to be my girl?” they are friends rather than lovers. He is socially inept, and she is amused rather than devastated by his preoccupation with Mischa Auer.

She steers the course of their romance, just as she steers the roadster. At one point, he thinks she is offering him a home-cooked meal; she steers him to the delicatessen where he pays for the armload of food. She’s not a homebody.

The movie is a great big canvas for Preston Foster and he splatters himself all over it. Foster is in practically every scene, arguing, fighting, pushing, brooding, and loses none of his momentum – though nearly loses his mind – when his beloved partner James Gleason is gunned down by the bad guys.

The above spoiler was brought to you by Another Old Movie Blog – “Cheerfully Serving You Spoilers Since 2007.”

In an intense scene, Foster, accompanied by Jane Wyatt, must tell Jane Darwell that her husband is dead. Like an antsy kid who can’t keep a secret, he just blurts it out, wild and anxious. Jane Wyatt is shocked. His lack of sensitivity had been annoying to her, but now she sees the depth of his failure to appreciate or even understand the feelings of others.

Foster, as a reaction to his own grief and sense of guilt, goes off the wall, repeatedly haranguing the stunned widow with his defense that he told Gleason not to be too cautious, to rush in, that to hesitate would leave him a target, that a cop is as good as dead if he doesn’t strike first. It is a defense of his own carelessness, and an unrelenting rant of anger at his friend for dying.

Miss Wyatt silences him with a no less shocking, “Shut up!”

He tries to continue, but she slaps him down for good. “Get out!…Get. Out.”

The little woman shames him and controls him far more effectively than his bellowing police superiors, for she has worked her way into his self-serving conscience. He leaves.  She remains to console the widow.

In a later meeting when he tries to reconcile, he asks, “Mind if I sit down?”

“I wouldn’t mind if you fell down.” The sass and humor is back, but she is not punishing him like an angry girlfriend, she’s keeping herself at arm's length for her own protection.

The plot takes several twists and turns in the chase for Mischa, who taunts Foster with messages. In a shoot out, Foster is wounded in the head, and his eyes are bandaged temporarily. Another intense scene brings Jane Wyatt to his room to babysit him when Miss Darwell has left to buy groceries. Wyatt then leaves to go to the corner for a pack of cigarettes, and he has a meltdown, panicked by being alone, jumping at every sound.

A light bulb left on a table pops when it falls to the floor, and it sounds like a gunshot. 

Completely unglued, Foster pulls out his own gun and shoots wildly. He runs out of bullets just as Jane Wyatt reenters the room, the gun pointed at her.

Mr. Foster has at last learn to be cautious, so much so that when an opportunity arises to capture Mischa Auer, he hesitates, preferring to call for backup. Now it is Jane Wyatt who is rash. She has a tip on the bad guys' whereabouts and shares it with Foster, but doesn’t want anyone else to know. It might ruin her scoop. She is the aggressor now, pushing him – as Darwell says it is the job of a woman and a wife – “to make a man of him.”

There is an interesting scene using the lie detector technology of the day. Invariably, some comments left on the IMDb website reveal an unfamiliarity with the time, as some younger viewers forget that films were not made for our era, but for theirs. For example, there seems to be some disbelief over Foster's tendency to intimidate witnesses and force confessions from perpetrators by beating them up. This was, if not wholly acceptable, at least common back in the day. It should not be surprising seeing it surface in a film of that era. What is surprising is that police brutality continues in this country today – in an era where such behavior is more likely to be discovered. One can only attribute this to the fact that brutality and stupidity so often go hand-in-hand.

Preston Foster has his final showdown with the bad guys, pushed by Jane Wyatt. In the final scene, she is still in the driver's seat, recklessly kissing him as she steers – or not. She is a dynamo in a short curly bob, with a feather in her hat, and an infectious smile.

Jane is still driving in Pitfall (1948), and still challenges her man to measure up.

She is billed third behind Dick Powell, who plays her husband, and Lizabeth Scott, who plays the other woman.

Pitfall is a smooth and amazingly intricate noir, well-written and meticulously acted. Dick Powell is a revelation as the bored insurance salesman (the schmucks of film noir), frustrated by the sameness of his everyday life, who is nearly destroyed by events that all began when he finally finds something to interest him at his boring job - Lizabeth Scott.

In the opening scenes, we might almost take this for a family comedy, so funny is Powell in his sarcastic expressions of his restlessness, but he displays no sign of that shallow, smart-mouthed guy in earlier films where flippancy took the place of real acting. His usual wise-guy persona in early films seems to keep us at arm's length, not letting us get to know him too well.

Here, Powell turns himself inside out in a gutsy portrayal of a man whose integrity, his security, his family, his very life is slipping through his hands, with no one to blame but himself.

Lizabeth Scott plays her trademark role of the noir dame down on her luck who is bad luck to others but accepts it all with depressing resignation.  She is, however, very likable in the role and very personable. And the black beret she wears in the lounge scene is all I need to know she’s a great gal.

Raymond Burr is terrific as the sleazy private detective who is obsessed with Miss Scott. The scene where he poses as a customer in the dress shop where she works as a mannequin/model is one of the creepiest and most disgusting scenes of film noir. It is amazing how much is accomplished, how much is gotten away with in these days of Production Code censorship. She stands before him in an off the shoulder evening gown that demonstrates her attributes, and he as a customer has the right to ask her to remove her shawl, to turn around slowly before him while he undresses her with his eyes, a sneer indicating not only his pleasure in looking at her, but his pleasure in forcing her to do what he wants in full view of others.

She stands, fully clothed, in the midst of a crowd of workers and shoppers, almost as completely humiliated as if he had accosted her in a back alley.

John Litel is the district attorney whose speech to Powell on his idiocy for taking a gun to solve his problems remind us of the earlier movie, We’re Only Human, when the police inspector berates Preston Foster for ignoring police protocol.

Jimmy Hunt, whom we saw as the cute kid in the library in Katie Did It, is younger as Powell’s and Wyatt’s son. He adores his pop, although they have a difference of opinion as regards the comic books little Jimmy reads.

Byron Barr is the palooka who went to prison for going too far to dress his girl, Lizabeth, in jewels. Ann Doran is Powell’s dependable secretary.  Burr's secretary steals her scenes with the simple act of applying nail polish as she ignores Powell and other potential clients.

One of the treats of the film are the location shots of Los Angeles streets, Wilshire Boulevard, and the May department store where Lizabeth Scott works.

We get several postwar mile-markers – the so-called Busby Boys chapter book Powell reads to his son to distract him from the lurid comic books. “With perfect coordination” the Busby boys leaped to safety. That cracked me up. Young Jimmy wants to know why the Busby boys don’t use ray guns.

Powell snaps at him, “These are the Busby boys. They don’t have ray guns. They have slingshots.”

Jimmy sullenly answers, “Dopes.”

I also like the very small action of Powell wiping the nib of his dip pen before he uses it.  As one who occasionally uses a fountain pen, I was delighted as this bit of “business” that rings true.  I find myself always wiping the nib and lower barrel after I take off the cap.  Pen wipers used to be standard issue for offices and kids going back to school.

We start with Jane Wyatt cracking eggs in the skillet, feeding husband and son at the start of another busy day in their unvarying lives. She is just as sassy and intelligent as she was as a girl reporter in We’re Only Human. We have the feeling Jane Wyatt could not play in unintelligent person – it would be believable. Her intelligence is a huge part of what makes her an appealing screen presence. There is an excitement about her time on screen that is not really present with the languid Lizabeth Scott.

Dick Powell laments the sameness of their everyday lives.

"Whatever happened to those two people were going to build a boat and sail around the world?”

She replies breezily, while eating, “Well, I had a baby. I never did hear what happened you.”

We see at once that despite the burden he feels, theirs is a good marriage. Though his frustration will prove lethal, he is not looking for an extramarital affair.

Mr. Powell first visits Lizabeth Scott to get an inventory of the items obtaind by her imprisoned boyfriend with embezzled funds. 

His relationship with her starts as a fun and pleasant friendship. She is open, easy-going, shares her past with him as he takes notes on the insured items. She takes him for a ride in her motorboat, (not a boat to sail around the world) and we see he is instantly one of the Busby boys, going on an innocent but thrilling adventure in the middle of the workday. But Johnny stays too long at the fair, and Raymond Burr, jealous boyfriend-wannabe is lurking in the dark.

Through well-crafted twists and turns Powell gets more entangled with Scott, Burr, and the boyfriend soon to be released from prison.

Raymond Burr is a compelling creep, so sinister and if, as in the case of Jane Wyatt’s TV fans, one has been introduced to Raymond Burr through his decade-long stint as the stalwart Perry Mason, this turn as a smarmy stalker is fascinating. 

When events lead to Powell’s shooting a man, his conscience can take no more and he finally tells his wife what he’s been up to. Her reaction is cutting. No mourning and defeated little woman, she stares at him, with her expression sliding from disbelief to resentment, to something close to hatred.

“I can’t go on with this on my conscience," he says.

“Conscience?  You make it sound like a dirty word.  You worry about your filthy little conscience.  But I’ve got my son to think about…”

He wants to confess to the cops, too, but she orders him not to – not to drag the family through the dirt. “You lied once,” she snaps at him, “Came easy enough for you then.  You can lie now.”

In their early scenes, though he is troubled and wanting to break off from Scott, deeply seeking to appreciate his simple life once more, we are treated to some great lines and wonderful banter between husband and wife and son. When he is depressed, she cheers him up with the teasing, “We won the war together.” This is a brief comment that is so telling for so many married couples of that generation. The men didn’t just go away to war. The home front was as much involved. And on VJ day they had a right to slap themselves on the backs.

At one point little Jimmy wants to know what his father did during the war. Powell, somewhat shamefacedly confesses he was stationed in Denver. Jimmy is a little disappointed. Jane amusingly pipes up, "The Japs never got to Denver as long as your father was there.”

But Jane is not an idiot. She knows something’s going on with her husband. She’s just cutting him some slack, keeping observant, and waiting.

It is Lizabeth Scott who admonishes Powell, “What happens to men like you Johnny? If I had a nice home like you do, I wouldn’t take a chance on losing it for anything in the world.”

Powell’s partner has the same opinion, and also chews him out. We see Powell is a man who desperately wants to unburden himself but he just waits too long.  He’s a decent guy, and we are touched by his humanity and his human failings, by the way he explains a nightmare to his son and kisses him goodnight, and the way he owns up to his mistakes, and tries to solve them.  By the time DA John Litel chews him out, we could cry for Powell.

In a final scene, Jane Wyatt is in the driver's seat again, picking him up from the police station and cruising down Wilshire Boulevard. He is beaten, without energy or hope, but she offers him not so much an olive branch, as a lease on a new life, suggesting that they move away to some new town. She has thought about divorce, and she is still very much on the fence. She doesn’t know if she can put this past her, but with flint in her voice, her determined gaze fixed on the road ahead, she suggests that it might be possible.

No clinch. No passionate, reckless kiss behind the steering wheel. They just go forward from that point in heavy traffic. We don’t really know what’s going to happen to them, or to Lizabeth, or to Raymond Burr, and the open-ended finale is refreshingly honest.

Jane Wyatt has backbone and a streak of independence. Her “finishing school accent” is hard and proud.

She could have been a girl reporter in her youth.

But she’s morphed into a suburban mom, a job no less gritty, shoring up the family, demanding her husband measure up, doing her job to “make a man of him.”

But Wait, There's More: Your friend and mine, Laura of Laura's Miscellaneous Musings covers We're Only Human here.


And another thing:  Join us next week when we take part in the Planes, Trains, and Automobiles Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.  My pick will be Bright Eyes (1934) with Shirley Temple, James Dunn, and a bunch of flyboys.

And the week after that, the Universal Pictures Blogathon hosted by the Metzinger sisters over at Silver Scenes.  My pick for the party -- Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).


"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.

My new syndicated column on classic film is up at http://go60.us/advice-and-more/item/2047-everybody-comes-to-rick-s, or check with your local paper.

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