Friday, March 13, 2009

I Was Framed (Warners, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I Was Framed was a 1942 Warners “B” that clocked in at 61 minutes and drew for its inspiration on two previous Warners movies from 1939, Each Dawn I Die and Dust Be My Destiny. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, both the earlier films were based on novels by Jerome Odlum — though it’s not clear whether Each Dawn I Die and Dust Be My Destiny were based on different Odlum stories or were combined initially, split apart by their original screenwriters (Robert Rossen and an uncredited Seton I. Miller for Dust Be My Destiny, Norman Reilly Raine and Warren Duff for Each Dawn I Die) and then re-combined by the ubiquitous Robert E. Kent to create I Was Framed.

Anyway, the plot of I Was Framed starts out as Each Dawn I Die, with Michael Ames (a.k.a. Tod Andrews) in James Cagney’s old role of Ken Marshall (in the Cagney film he was called “Frank Ross”), ace reporter for the Springfield Morning Record, who’s about to expose the corrupt machinations of gubernatorial candidate Stuart Gaines (Howard Hickman) in his paper when, at Gaines’ instigation, three goons kidnap him, knock him out, break a bottle of booze over his body and put him behind the wheel of a car, aim it down the street and thereby involve him unwittingly in an accident that kills three people. Marshall is arrested and convicted of manslaughter — and he arouses the ire of the judge when he insists he was framed — and he’s held in the county jail pending transfer to state prison.

His cellmate, “Clubby” Blake (a nice portrait of controlled small-time evil by John Harmon), works out an escape plan, luring Marshall into it by persuading him that he’d better get out in time to be with his pregnant wife Ruth (Julie Bishop, a.k.a. Jacqueline Wells), only on the night they’re supposed to break out “Clubby” is transferred to a new cell on the other side of the jail and Our Hero makes the break alone. Then Marshall hooks up with his wife and the two successfully flee to the small town of View Point, where the Dust Be My Destiny plot elements kick in along with a hint of Magnificent Obsession in the character of Dr. Phillip Black (Aldrich Bowker), who’s so compulsively altruistic that he not only takes the fleeing couple — who’ve taken the last name “Scott” as an alias, though they continue to use their original first names (appropriate for a pair of actors who were also making this movie under fake names!) — into his home and puts them up, he delivers Ruth’s baby at no charge (there’s a nice bit of dry wit, atypical of Robert E. Kent, in which Ken confesses he has no money to pay Dr. Black and the doctor sadly reflects, “I thought you were going to be different from all my other patients”) and agrees that they can live there rent-free for the three months Ruth will have to convalesce from her difficult delivery. As if that weren’t enough, he also arranges for Ken to get a job on the town’s newspaper, the View Point Gazette, with the idea that its editor/publisher, Cal Beamish (Oscar O’Shea), is getting ready to retire and needs to attract a talented successor he can groom to take over.

Then there’s a sudden jump-cut and the story advances five years; Ken is now the editor/publisher of the paper and their baby, Penny, is now a thoroughly obnoxious Shirley Temple wanna-be named Patty Hale who gets to recite long poems and even sing a song about fairy-tale characters. Needless to say, since Kent dropped a big hint to this effect several reels before, “Clubby” Blake turns up in town, determined to blackmail the “Scotts” out of all their savings and avenge himself against Ken for supposedly having left him to rot in prison — but eventually the town police catch up with “Clubby,” there’s a big shoot-out in which “Clubby” is captured and Ken is wounded, but while he’s recovering word comes that one of Gaines’ thugs confessed his role in framing Ken in the first place, so the governor (Gaines must have lost the election!) has pardoned him and he can go on being Mr. Small-Town Editor and keep going after the local utility for opposing the TVA-like dam project the government was projecting to build in the area. (Faith in the government to get a big project done and operate it more efficiently than the private sector — how New Deal!) There’s also a major influence of World War II in this plot, though the war is patched in only in the games little Penny plays — she puts her toy boat in the mop water being used by Dr. Black’s Black servant, “Kit Carson” (Sam McDaniel, playing older and at least slightly more dignified than the usual stereotype) and said that she’s previously had it in the bathtub and therefore “I have a two-front Navy!”

I Was Framed is better than the average Warners “B,” mainly because director D. Ross Lederman was a stronger filmmaker than the average Warners hack — there are some quite noir-ish atmospheric compositions in the first three reels — and he had a first-rate cinematographer, Ted McCord, who would go on to shoot The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and other important films with A-list stars.