Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Devil’s Sleep (Screen Classics Productions, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a really peculiar movie I’d just downloaded from The Devil’s Sleep, a bizarre 1949 production from George Weiss’s spectacularly misnamed Screen Classics Production company. Weiss specialized in exploitation films and pretty clearly was depending on getting his product into non-traditional movie venues where he didn’t have to abide by the Production Code, since this film deals specifically with prescription drug abuse (offhand I can’t think of an earlier movie that centers around prescription drug abuse, though there were quite a few about marijuana and illegal hard drugs) and contains one remarkable scene in which a woman is shown getting into a steam bath at a health spa and the camera angle (the cinematographer was William C. Thompson, former Dwain Esper and future Ed Wood collaborator) distinctly shows far more of her breasts than would have been allowed at a major studio in 1949. The Devil’s Sleep is also intriguing for the exploitation nature of the casting: the central role of Judge Rosalind Ballantine (another area in which George Weiss pioneered where the majors feared to tread: I can’t offhand think of an earlier movie in which one of the characters was a female judge!), tough-minded crusader against juvenile delinquency and drug abuse, is played by Lita Grey Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s second wife, who’d had her 15 minutes of fame over two decades earlier during their scandalous divorce action. (The whole thing was such a bad memory for Chaplin that when he wrote his autobiography in 1965 he glossed over it in just two sentences, saying that he didn’t want to embarrass the two sons he and Lita had had by rehashing the scandal involving their breakup.)

The film also features George Eiferman, Mr. America of 1948, sucking off his 15 minutes by casting him as himself and making him an innocent dupe who’s hired to work at the health spa run by gangster Humberto Scalli (Timothy Farrell), not realizing that the “health spa” is just a front for making prescription drugs available illegally to abusers. Eiferman is a nice-looking hunk of man-meat at a time when men could win bodybuilding contests without making their bodies look like relief maps of the Himalayas (though his naïveté about drug abuse plays oddly in this era of almost universal steroid use among bodybuilders), but we get to see all too little of him — he’s only in two scenes, wearing a full business suit in one and a body shirt in the other, and the sequence we were hoping for (as two jaded old Gay men, anyway!) of him showing off his Mr. America bod in trunks or a posing strap never materialized. Aside from that The Devil’s Sleep is a slovenly, ill-acted movie in which police detective sergeant Dave Kerrigan (William Thomason) teams up with Judge Ballantine to fight juvenile delinquency and bust the ring that’s selling drugs to kids, and there’s a preposterous series of relationship coincidences in which Kerrigan’s girlfriend Jerri (Laura Travers) is the sister of Bob Winter (Jim Tyde), who’s been drawn into drug abuse by Scalli’s lieutenant Hal Holmes (Stan Freed, whom we do get to see in swim trunks and who’s the hottest-looking man in the movie!) even though his girlfriend Margie (Tracie Lynn) is Judge Ballantine’s daughter. The idea is that Holmes will lure this dubious couple to Scalli’s big house so they can swim in the pool — and so one of Scalli’s henchmen can get a photo of Margie skinny-dipping, which he can then use to blackmail Judge Ballantine into laying off the gang.

The Devil’s Sleep is one of those annoying movies that actually had the germ of a good story but got sabotaged by the execution: the slovenly direction by W. Merle Connell (through long stretches of the film it seems like he’s never heard of the closeup), the monotone acting of most of the principals (one reviewer calls Timothy Farrell “the legendary anti-actor,” but he’s actually one of the most convincing people in the cast!), the dreary stock music (which sounds like it was recorded in the early 1930’s; there’s a nice pop-jazz instrumental heard while the kids are being corrupted at the pool party but other than that one wonders throughout the movie why George Weiss couldn’t or wouldn’t get any more recent stock music cues!) and the bizarrely painted opening credit card, which also looks like it came from an early-1930’s instead of a late-1940’s movie. One oddity is that Timothy Farrell would go on to play Humberto Scalli in at least two other movies, the 1951 Racket Girls (an even worse movie than this one, in which the action revolves around a cache of footage of hefty women wrestling each other for sport — given the number of buxom babes that appear in this film as well, as the clients of Scalli’s health spa, one wonders if Weiss had a “thing” for big women!) and 1953’s Dance Hall Racket (a bad movie that’s become legendary not only as Phil Tucker’s directorial debut but for the appearance of future comedy legend Lenny Bruce, in an embarrassingly bad performance that offers no hint of his later career trajectory). When Charles and I watched the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of Racket Girls I noted that two years later, in 1953, Weiss would give Ed Wood his first chance to direct, resulting in Glen or Glenda? — and as hard as it may be to believe, Weiss’s association with Wood was actually a definite step up for him as a producer!