Boys at Work: ‘They Drive by Night’ and ‘Manpower’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

They Drive by Night and Manpower gave Walsh some contact with another Warners specialty, the workingman picture. Both films tell us something about the conditions under which their respective kinds of work, commercial trucking and powerline repair, are conducted. Walsh, characteristically, puts greater emphasis on comedy than on any social problems that might arise—particularly in Manpower, where the nature of the script leaves him no choice.

They Drive by Night is a likeable film that doesn’t seem too certain where it’s going. Initial focus is on two fiercely independent truckers, Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and his brother Paul (Humphrey Bogart); but a feisty waitress (Ann Sheridan), Paul’s worried wife (Gale Page), a driver-turned-executive (Alan Hale) and his treacherous wife (Ida Lupino) give the film several kinds of “romantic interest” and eventually lead it off the highways and into various offices and a courtroom. Otis Ferguson suggested that the film’s errant plotting may have derived in part from a failure of nerve in adapting a socially conscious novel: “At least half of the film was ‘suggested’ by the Bezzerides novel Long Haul, and in this I wish they had been more suggestible, for the trucking stuff is very good and could have not only made the whole picture but made it better.” The first half of the film crackles with a sense of the risks the drivers take, but the second gravitates toward conventional melodrama with no special point or effect. (An earlier, non-Walsh Warners film, Bordertown [1935], seems to have been the source for this section.)

The Raft character’s casual, coldly stoical response to the death of a fellow trucker and the fear and desperation that we see in some of the others give the film at least some grasp of the human cost of this kind of work. Women are also an important force in the film: the waitress very deliberately puts an end to Joe’s independence in a curiously disturbing “happy ending”; Lana (Ida Lupino) scolds, scorns, deceives and ultimately kills her husband; and Paul’s wife has ironically mixed emotions when the loss of an arm in an accident finishes her husband’s truck driving career: “I’m almost glad it happened. It’s worth a right arm, Joe, maybe it’s worth it….” But much of the film’s energy is devoted to wisecracking comedy in roadside diners, in the Alan Hale character’s office, and in any scene that brings Raft and Sheridan together. Otis Ferguson liked the “salty” humor of the dialogue (by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay), and the film’s attempts to approach the burlesque house in a chaste era of filmmaking are still among its delights (“He was always trying to tie my apron strings.” “There’s nothing wrong with that.” “There is if you’re not wearing any apron.”). In one bit, Bogart/Paul is missing his wife Pearl and the dialogue finds a way to mention sex without saying anything about it (Joe: “Pearl can’t cook a steak like Billy Mandel….” Paul: “I ain’t interested in steak.”) Elsewhere, Ann Sheridan’s figure manages to be metaphorically explicit (“Classy chassis.” “I’d like to finance it.” “You couldn’t finance the headlights.”).

The most interesting character in They Drive by Night is Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale), an old trucking friend of the Fabrinis who has moved into an executive position. Carlsen delightedly bolts from his office when a fight breaks out in the truckyard, irritates his wife with his uninhibited antics, mimes the fighting style of his younger self, sends out for a bottle (“Bourbon!”) when Joe arrives, reels off a string of puns, gives his wife a rowdy smack on the butt, etc., etc.—all within a few minutes of his first appearance in the film. He evokes the Rabelaisian spirit of a number of earlier Walsh films and, like several heroes from Walsh’s Warner Brothers years, he has fallen for the wrong woman (and, in this case, it costs him his life). Carlsen is a secondary character and his time in the film is relatively brief, but Alan Hale’s performance stands out, and so does Ed as the one distinctly Walshian character. Walsh’s interest in the qualities that Hale projects here is perhaps reflected in the fact that Hale went on to play much the same kind of figure in The Strawberry Blonde, Manpower, Desperate Journey, Gentleman Jim, Pursued and Cheyenne. The “typical” Alan Hale pretty clearly predates this cycle of Walsh characters (cf. Curtiz’s Dodge City and The Santa Fe Trail), but Hale ranks with Victor McLaglen, Wallace Beery, Errol Flynn, James Cagney and Walsh himself as performers who seem exceptionally suited to the world created in so many Walsh films.

Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Raft

***

Manpower is a kind of paradox. It is full of relentlessly silly antics, and yet it also has an abundance of Walshian delights. One of a number of remakes of Tiger Shark (Bryan Foy boasted that he simply changed the characters’ profession for each new version), it centers on two power linemen (Edward G. Robinson and George Raft here) whose friendship is destroyed when a woman (Marlene Dietrich) falls for both of them. Much screen time, however, is devoted to the adventures and especially the antics of the line crew. Most of the crewmen (Frank McHugh, Alan Hale, Ward Bond, etc.) behave like fraternity boys with nothing in particular to do on a Friday night, even though most of them appear to be at least 40, and while the Robinson-Dietrich-Raft relationship undergoes a number of dramatic shifts, motivations are either so arbitrary or so oblique that the film almost becomes an exercise in anti-psychology. It’s not entirely an exaggeration to say that Manpower is a bunch of 40-year-olds playing ageless teenagers who think they’re over 30.

But Manpower has plenty of saving virtues: a large helping of festive Walshian comedy, some extraordinary collisions of humor and suffering, and Marlene Dietrich.

The ribaldry that turned up intermittently in They Drive by Night overflows in Manpower. Jumbo (Alan Hale) barges through the film like an overweight and very talkative Harpo Marx, chasing nurses, ogling female underwear, and cracking sophomoric jokes about girls and sex almost nonstop. His comical lack of inhibition sets the tone for much of the film, and most of the other characters get at least one chance to imitate his humor (“Do you like the long dresses they’re wearing this year?” “Don’t bother me none—I got a good memory.”). In one sequence, however, Fay (Dietrich), who is just out of prison, decides “I could use some powder and lipstick.” “Sorry, I left mine at home,” says the contemptuous Johnny (Raft), and this sets off a scene at a drugstore cosmetics counter which more than enough transsexual humor to alert us to the real meaning of Johnny’s final crack (“Go jerk yourself a soda”) to the simpering druggist.

This sort of humor has special importance here because the central relationship depends a good deal on sex: Hank (Robinson) is sexually ineffectual (“I’m cold water in that department”); Johnny, in direct contrast, exudes an arrogant sexual magnetism; and Fay, obviously carrying the burden of unrespectable experience, makes her living off sex appeal (in a dime-a-dance joint). Hank’s naïve attachment to Fay, Johnny’s absurdly arbitrary contempt for her, and Fay’s involvements—sentimental and confused with Hank, bold and compulsive with Johnny—create pathos and a strikingly suggestive contrast to all the sexual talk of the comic scenes.

Much of the film’s humor is violent, and this in turn seems a crude but necessary response to the dangers inherent in the men’s work. A certain code of behavior is implied very early on: when an older crew member (Fay’s father) starts moping aloud about the imminence of death in their work, Eddie Adams (Ward Bond) objects in very precise terms: “I don’t care what he thinks—it’s the way he talks I don’t like.” Manpower doesn’t give us the sense of tension underlying the code that we get in Hemingway and Hawks, but most of the characters seem to accept Eddie’s distinction; one can only speculate about the anguish behind the nonstop (compulsive?) humor. Nevertheless, a significant portion of the comedy does focus on pain and death. One of Jumbo’s tall tales has to do with a guy who blew out all the fuses in the Death House three times—so they had to shoot him instead. And when the older crew member is hit by falling lines and electrocuted, the comment is grimly unsentimental: “He really got cooked.” Both Hank and Joe, on separate occasions, end up in the hospital, and in both scenes a Mr. Whipple (Walter Catlett) is in the adjoining bed. Mr. Whipple is one of a surprising number of absurdist characters who turn up in Walsh’s pre-Absurdism films, and here high hilarity prevails with Whipple as the butt of zestfully sadistic antics. In the first scene his leg splint is used as a dart board; in the second, his bed collapses under him and he’s left dangling in traction. It’s delightfully cruel comedy of the sort mastered by W.C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy, and part of the pleasure it offers is a violent immunity to pain.

George Raft, Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich is not exactly given a great part in Manpower, but hers is the most interesting character in the film and her presence and performance give us what might be seen as a Walshian Blue Angel. The other intriguingly developed character, Robinson’s Hank, is a permanently arrested adolescent; his attachment to Fay, like Professor Unrath’s for Lola Lola, is fatal without it necessarily being anyone ‘s fault. In one of the film’s few subtle moments, Hank completely misses Fay’s self-directed irony (“Big attraction I am”) and his ingenuousness (“Yeah, I bet ya are”) moves her unexpectedly. The moment parallels Lola Lola’s surprise at the Professor’s regard for her, and gives birth to unfamiliar emotions which lead to tragedy. This relationship has its characteristic Walshian elements (Fay: “So you’re suggesting I move in with you.” Hank: “Sure.” Fay: “I’m wrong for you.” Hank: “We’ll get married and then we’ll talk about it.”), but Dietrich’s Fay is at once one of the strangest and strongest of the women in Walsh’s films. She is a sort of skid row version of the Sternbergian Dietrich, an ambiguous blend of sensuality and fatalism, and her relations with Hank and Johnny evoke surprisingly complex forms of desire. Partly to disprove Johnny’s low opinion of her, she plays the conventional housewife for Hank’s benefit, but when Hank’s apparent impotence and Johnny’s continued proximity produce less conventional emotions, she is ruthlessly and fatalistically honest about what she feels. When Johnny in effect calls her a worthless bitch, she accepts the definition with an irony that evokes the waywardness of all human desire. “If I want to roll in the gutter, let me roll,” she says, and this declaration, partly a challenge to Johnny’s incongruous puritanism, gives her a Baudelairean quality which the film makes no real attempt to condemn. Fay might have been a conventional Hollywood Bad Girl, but Dietrich gives her a dark, indomitable energy in the midst of moral and psychological uncertainty.

Howard Hawks’s Tiger Shark (1932) has a stronger sense of male friendship and takes a subtler approach to changes in the central relationships, but Manpower does include moments of quasi-Freudian insight. Food and drink are again among the film’s main concerns, and Hank’s in particular. His excessive drinking is linked rather obviously with his limitations as a husband and may be seen as an evasion of sexual responsibility. His delight in Fay’s home-cooked biscuits pointedly links her with his mother, and his pleasure in describing the food that goes with married life stands in contrast to failures of another kind of appetite. Moreover, Hank insists on inviting the injured Johnny to recuperate at their home, and when Fay comes to stay at a distant construction site, Hank tries to tell Johnny that there’s no need for them to stop sharing quarters. A 1941 male action film, of course, is not about to deal with the question of homosexuality, but Hank’s willingness to have Johnny intrude upon his marriage just may give us one more clue as to why the new husband is “cold water in that department.”

George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, Marlene Dietrich

Walsh’s direction is efficient and effective, with two late bits of mise-en-scène standing out. When Hank falls to his death in the climactic sequence, Walsh cuts away from Robinson to a close back view of Dietrich, who turns away and screams directly into the camera. The moment intensifies and complicates the shock of Hank’s violent and unnecessary death, but it also acts as a visual counterpart to the hilarious “grapes of wrath in a sport jacket” sequence with the waiter shouting directly at the camera. These strikingly similar shots produce contrasting effects which perhaps underline Manpower‘s tragicomic elements. The final shot in the film, a high-angle longshot which has no dialogue, shows Fay walking sadly to a bus stop and Johnny retrieving her and walking with her back down the glistening, rain-dampened street. One assumes that this is visual shorthand for an understandably subdued “happy ending,” but the characters’ silence and the image’s mixture of film noir gloom and after-the-storm lyricism permit the film to close on an eloquently ambiguous note. There is little that the tragically united couple can say at this point, and the physical and emotional violence that has preceded their joining makes the lush skepticism of the final shot a necessity.

THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT
Warner Brothers, 1940. Screenplay: Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay, after the novel Long Haul by A.I. Bezzerides. Cinematography: Arthur Edeson. Art direction: John Hughes. Editing: Oliver H. Garretson. Musical direction: Adolph Deutsch. Production: Hal B. Wallis; associate: Mark Hellinger.
The players: George Raft (Joe Fabrini), Ann Sheridan (Cassie Hartley), Humphrey Bogart (Paul Fabrini), Gale Page (Pearl Fabrini, Paul’s wife), Ida Lupino (Lana Carlsen), Alan Hale (Ed Carlsen), Roscoe Karns (Irish McGurn), John Litel (Harry McNamara), Henry O’Neill (a district attorney), George Tobias (George Rondolos), Charles Halton, Joyce Compton, John Ridgely, Paul Hurst, Charles Wilson, Norman Willis, Lillian Yarbo.

MANPOWER
Warner Brothers, 1941. Screenplay: Richard Macaulay and Jerry Wald. Cinematography: Ernest Haller. Art direction: Max Parker. Editing: Ralph Dawson. Music: Adolph Deutsch. Production: Hal B. Wallis.
The players: Edward G. Robinson (Hank), George Raft (Johnny), Marlene Dietrich (Fay), Alan Hale (Jumbo), Frank McHugh (Omaha), Eve Arden, Barton MacLane, Ward Bond, Walter Catlett, Egon Brecher, Joyce Compton.

Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue