Friday, July 11, 2008

Mountain Justice (Warners, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I took out the DVD I’d recorded last March of Mountain Justice, a 1937 Warners programmer that wasn’t an altogether satisfying movie but was far more interesting than the common run of Warners releases of the period. It starts with a written foreword saying that even in 1937 America, there were still redoubts of people in the mountains who still lived by the stern morality of our forebears, and then it fades in to show us one such family: tyrannical father Jeff Harkins (Robert Barrat), his long-suffering wife Meg (Elizabeth Risdon), younger daughter Bethy (Marcia Mae Jones) and older daughter Ruth (Josephine Hutchinson, the film’s female lead), who went off to the big city to attend nursing school with the ultimate aim of helping the region’s only doctor, John Barnard (Guy Kibbee), set up a string of clinics to bring modern medicine to the mountains. Ruth returned with carefully plucked eyebrows (someone should have told the Pavlovian dogs in Warners’ makeup department what sort of woman Hutchinson was supposed to be playing!) and a chip on her shoulder towards her father and the entire backward mountain culture he symbolized.

The mountain people’s one form of entertainment is a carnival, which the Harkinses attend en masse, and there Ruth runs into New York attorney Paul Cameron (George Brent), who unbeknownst to her is there to lead the prosecution of her father for shooting at a representative of the gas and electric company who was on his property to survey it for a new powerline. Cameron is hated by the townspeople but he nonetheless manages to entrap Jeff Harkins into admitting ownership of the gun with which the assault was committed; he’s found guilty and sentenced to 30 days in jail, and when he returns he finds that Ruth has sold her acre and used it to redecorate the house and, pointedly, to take down from the wall the enormous framed plaque he had hung there reminding them of the Biblical commandment to “Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother.” Jeff also insists that Ruth marry local farmer Tad Miller (Edward Pawley), who’s even creepier than he is, and whips her when she refuses.

Instead, Ruth runs away to New York to complete her nursing education, financing herself with money loaned her by Dr. Barnard — pissing off the good doctor’s fiancée, Phoebe Lamb (Margaret Hamilton), who was hoping they could get married on that money after she’s been waiting for him 20 years. (As hard as it is to believe for anyone whose idea of Margaret Hamilton was formed by The Wizard of Oz — and her almost identical part in Judy Garland’s next film, Babes in Arms — she and Kibbee actually supply what meager comic relief this film has.) While in New York, Ruth is courted by Cameron — who takes her to a typical Warners nightclub only to have her walk out on her date to attend an emergency case with fellow nursing student Evelyn Wayne (Mona Barrie), a New York heiress (and, it’s hinted, a previous boyfriend of Cameron’s) who went into nursing school as a lark. On learning that Ruth won’t marry Cameron until she goes back home and successfully launches the clinics, Evelyn provides the seed capital, the clinics open and Jeff Harkins is even more pissed off at his daughter than ever.

Since Ruth wasn’t willing to marry Tad Miller, Jeff palms off his younger daughter on Tad even though she barely looks pubescent (the American Film Institute Catalog identifies her as 14) — a surprisingly kinky plot turn for a 1937 movie! — and Bethy flees to Ruth’s home and tries to hide out, only Jeff and Tad catch her there and Tad chases Bethy while Jeff confronts his daughter, threatens to whip her (he’s already whipped her once before in the film, so we know he means business), only she grabs the whip from him and clubs him with the handle; he staggers out onto her front porch and then falls down dead. Ruth is arrested for her dad’s murder and Cameron insists on taking the case despite Ruth’s warnings that the mountain people hate him so much that his appearance as her lawyer will only make it more likely that she’ll be convicted — and in a circus-like atmosphere in which (like the judge in the real-life Scopes trial) the courtroom is so hot in midsummer that the judge holds most of the trial outdoors in front of the courthouse (and a radio reporter adds to the circus-like atmosphere by broadcasting the trial live), Ruth is indeed convicted.

She’s sentenced to 25 years, but that’s not long enough for the townspeople, who organize a lynching party to hang her on the spot — only they’re foiled by Dr. Barnard and a few of the other remaining sympathetic characters (most of them women whose children’s lives were saved by the care offered by the clinics), who put on hoods to disguise themselves as part of the lynch mob, get Ruth into their vehicle and drive her to a nearby field where Cameron has chartered a plane to fly her out of the state. She flees to New York, the New York governor refuses to extradite her, and in a plot twist anticipating Dark Passage by a decade, she’s free to live out her life as long as she never returns to her home state. Satisfied that the clinics will continue without her, she marries Cameron and settles down with him.

Mountain Justice is a quite chilling film, with an original screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine and Luci Ward that, aside from the by-play between the Kibbee and Hamilton characters, offers no comic relief and such a dire version of mountain life at times it looks like The Color Purple with white people. It’s also an unusually well directed film for a Warners programmer with a pretty low-voltage cast; the director is Michael Curtiz, who stages quite a lot of it at night in heavily staged Gothic setups that remind us that at the time Curtiz was Warners’ go-to guy for their rare forays into horror films (Doctor “X,” Mystery of the Wax Museum, The Walking Dead). He’s aided by the remarkable cinematographer Ernest Haller, who was usually known as a glamour cameraman but is at one with Curtiz in creating the film’s convincingly Gothic atmosphere — much to the detriment of Josephine Hutchinson, who looks about five to 10 years too old for her role.

According to the American Film Institute Catalog, Film Daily originally announced this as a project for Bette Davis — and as many horrible films as she ducked (or tried to) during her galley years at Warners, this is one she should have done: the role of Ruth Harkins really cries out for Davis’s particular brand of edgy intensity and Josephine Hutchinson, aside from being photographed unflatteringly, is surprisingly bland except on the rare occasions where she tries to shoehorn some of the Davis mannerisms into her own acting. Ideally, Humphrey Bogart would have played the New York lawyer instead of the almost terminally bland George Brent — why did that man become such a big star, anyway? In her autobiography Davis recalls Brent as being so utterly gorgeous off-screen that she and virtually every other woman he worked with had a raging crush on him — but on screen he doesn’t look more than ordinarily attractive (the reverse of people like Rudolph Valentino and Marilyn Monroe, who by all accounts were only decent-looking off-screen but photographed so well they became deathless avatars of sex on screen).

Nonetheless, Mountain Justice is a haunting film — Robert Barrat in particular manages to portray enough of the character’s self-righteousness that he doesn’t come off as totally monstrous; the uncompromising script and Curtiz’s atmospherics really work to create the impression of the petty fears that hold this community in their grip; and if this film has a flaw besides the cast (and the actors it has aren’t bad; it’s just that there were other people on the Warners contract list in 1937 who could have done it even better), it’s a surprisingly modern one: it’s an oddly detached film, restrained in its emotions and keeping us at a distance from the characters instead of letting us in and allowing us to identify with them. (I’ve made that complaint about recent films as diverse as Brokeback Mountain, Capote and The Wackness, and here is a 1930’s movie with the same problem.) Nonetheless, it’s a haunting movie, and though one wonders who its intended audience was (big-city moviegoers who wanted to feel superior to the hicks from the sticks?) it’s well made and its sheer despairing relentlessness make it quite unusual for the period and allow it to hold up surprisingly well.