Friday, April 12, 2013

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "GANGWAY FOR TOMORROW" (1943)

Stop me if you've heard this one. Six carpoolers are on their way to work at the munitions factory. The driver breaks the silence by telling the others his fantasies of what they used to do before their current occupation. Instead of telling him to shut up and mind his own business, they each have their own little dramatic flashback of the events that led them to where they are today.

That's Gangway for Tomorrow, a patriotic B-movie with a script by Arch Oboler, one of radio's most celebrated writers. Released in 1943, smack-dab in the middle of World War II, Gangway for Tomorrow is a "portmanteau" movie made up of the memories of five different characters. As the movie runs a zippy 69 minutes, that makes the average length of each flashback roughly 13 minutes long (or, more accurately, short), not including the wraparound scenes. I wish I had the kind of life to create 13 minutes worth of memories.

Is your carpool this interesting? Front, left to right: Robert Ryan, John Carradine and Charles Arnt.
Rear, left to right: Amelita Ward, James Bell and Margo.

 (Despite the terrible tinting in the photo, the movie is in black & white.)

There's gotta be easier ways to
avoid the military.
As with all memories, some are more interesting than others. One tells the tale of Joe Dunham, a driver at the Indy 500 who gets a blown tire and winds up in the hospital with injuries making him ineligible for military service. That's it, nothing more to see here, folks. The only thing that makes it worth watching today is 34 year-old Robert Ryan, still several years from stardom, as Dunham. And although he plays a good guy, it's my memories of his roles in Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock and Beware, My Lovely that make me uneasy throughout.

A mink coat won't keep you warm at night,
Miss America! On second thought,
maybe it will.
Then there's Amelita Ward as Mary Jones, a former Miss America who realizes that her crown and a role in a Broadway musical mean nothing without a man. Especially when her scenes in the play are cut on opening night. Serves you right for ignoring your boyfriend, Miss A! Ward, an actress I confess to being unfamiliar with, appears to have had a six-year run in movies, about half of which are as the every-popular "Uncredited." She later married Leo Gorcey of the Bowery Boys. Which fate would you have preferred?

"That's 'heaubeau' to you!"
As with the Indy 500 segment, sometimes all it takes to make something worth watching is the star. And so it is with John Carradine as a hobo who's guilt-tripped by a small-town judge into doing his part to help win the War. With his impeccable manners, 50-cent words and cultured diction, Carradine appears to be poking good-natured fun at his off-screen chum John Barrymore. His throaty delivery shows the signs not only of Shakespearean stagecraft but probably four packs of Luckies a day. Nonetheless, Carradine proves beyond all doubt that homeless people were more fun when they were called hobos.

Warning to all singers: if these are
your fans, it's time to find a
new profession.

One of the two completely serious segments -- and the only one that could have been expanded to feature-length -- stars the mono-nomenclatured Margo as Lissette Rene, a one-time member of the French resistance. A nightclub singer popular with the local Nazi leaders, Lissette is arrested, along with her confederates, when her performance of "Les Marseillaises" disrupts Hitler's radio broadcast.

The one segment of Gangway for Tomorrow that's explicitly war-related, it's filled with memorable moments. The Nazi general recognizing Lissette's voice on the radio. The resistance members, spanning from teenager to elderly, being ordered to their execution while a traitor tearfully waits behind in the jail cell. And the firing squad scene itself. Lissette and her boyfriend, Jean, hold hands as the rifles are readied. At the last minute, the general offers to spare the women's lives if they agree to entertain German troops. In a close-up of their hands, Jean willingly lets go of Lissette. They give each other a final look before she walks away, the rifles sounding before she's even out of the courtyard.

From this, we've devolved to
Greta von Sustern.
Escaping to freedom on her way to the front, Lissette returns to her hideout where, via radio, she warns her allies of the traitor in their midst -- and promises the Nazis that their days are numbered. Delivered in one intense take, Margo delivers her message looking straight at the camera, a sequence still effective today. 


By the way, Margo's real name was Maria Margarita Guadalupe Teresa Estella Castilla Bolado y O'Donnell. I know what you're thinking -- "O'Donnell?"

For me, the best segment is the one that has nothing to do with the War. Tom Burke, a prison warden, is awaiting the electrocution of
"Do I have to join
Executioners Local 27?"
career criminal Dan Barton when he gets word that the executioner is unavailable. Should the electrocution be postponed? Burke replies that he'll do it himself. On his way to the execution chamber, Burke recalls the events that brought him to this point (yes, it's another flashback-within-a-flashback so beloved on this blog). It turns out Tom and Dan are brothers. And it was Dan's final crime -- murdering four people in a bank robbery -- that killed their mother from grief on Christmas Eve.


Dan, screaming for mercy, is placed in the electric chair. Ignoring his brother's cries, Burke places his hand on the switch. Suddenly, the phone rings. It can only be a call from the Governor's office. The camera focuses on Burke's hand on the switch. He squeezes... but lets go... Squeezes... and lets go again, the phone ringing incessantly all the while. Finally, and defiantly, he pulls the switch. The lights dim as the electricity courses through Dan's body. It's only when Dan's dead that Burke picks up the phone. "Yes?" he whispers hoarsely. "Yes, this is he... It's too late, Governor. The execution has taken place. And Governor. One other thing. I just sent you my resignation." End of scene. Your only response is, Wow.

James Bell
Erford Gage

A mini-film noir, the segment succeeds not only through style -- it doesn't resemble any other part of Gangway for Tomorrow -- but the lead actors, both forgotten today. James Bell plays Burke with grim determination, taking no joy from executing his brother even though he believes it good and necessary -- and as a little bit of his own soul dies with him. Erford Gage, resembling a cross between Gary Crosby, Richard Widmark and Dennis Hopper, is a near-revelation as the born-to-be-bad Dan Barton, a guy you hate from the get-go. Had he been born ten years later, Gage could have been a mainstay of '50s crime movies; not a star, necessarily, but a character actor who worked steadily in supporting roles in little movies like this before moving on to television. 

Oh, and I misspoke slightly when I said this segment wasn't War-related. Shortly after appearing in Gangway for Tomorrow, Erford Gage joined the army. He was killed in the Philippines just a few months before the end of the War. 

Gangway for Tomorrow is typical not only of the flag-wavers produced by the studios at the time, but also of the several-stories-in-one pictures like If I Had a Million and Tales of Manhattan. The genre all but disappeared until the recent releases of Movie 43 and  InAPPropriate Comedy (yes, that's how it spelled), two low-budget monstrosities that received some of the worst reviews since the invention of Rob Schneider. 

Maybe somebody can make a sequel to Gangway for Tomorrow featuring workers on their way to the missile plant once we have nuclear war with North Korea. Those memories are going to be really short.

 ************************

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