Life and Death in L.A.: Poverty Row Noir II: Scheming Communists Walk Among Us ... and So Does a Future Sitcom Dad

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Poverty Row Noir II: Scheming Communists Walk Among Us ... and So Does a Future Sitcom Dad

Hugh Beaumont, Frances Rafferty, “Money Madness” (1948).

Ward Cleaver as a psychotic killer? Say it ain’t so!

Like many up and coming Hollywood actors, Hugh Beaumont appeared in noir B-pictures before he became better known as an all-American TV dad, and he played some pretty despicable characters, too. But more about that later. 

From the 1920s to the 1950s, scads of B-pictures were produced by small studios located near the intersection of Sunset Blvd. and Gower St. in Hollywood. These struggling film studios became known as Poverty Row. An untold numbers of westerns, adventure stories, comedies and crime dramas made on next-to-nothing budgets were produced there. 

The smaller studios, including Grand National, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Producers Releasing Corporation were among the cheapie movie production houses where newbie directors honed their craft and industry veterans found employment when work was scarce. 

Both the newcomers and seasoned pros churned out 55- to 75-minute films, most with shooting schedules of less than a week. Some of their films were golden, others were fool’s gold. It didn’t matter so much that the B-pictures were rough around the edges because they were destined to be shown as the bottom half of the bill alongside major studios’ releases. 

Most of these films lacked fancy production values, but some made up for it with hard-hitting stories — so hard-hitting that major studios, fixated on mass-appeal fare, would probably balk at producing them.

Ingenuity without Big Money

R.G. Springsteen
Tight budgets actually proved to be an advantage for some directors, who were forced to invent creative solutions that would make cheap productions sparkle.

One director who made his mark in B-pictures of Poverty Row is R. G. Springsteen, who directed “The Red Menace” (1949), one of the films discussed below. He was a prolific helmer of Hollywood B westerns and television episodes initially with Republic Pictures and later with A.C. Lyles's series of Westerns for Paramount Pictures.  

“The Red Menace” reflects  post-World War II anxiety over the threat of communist infiltration of America. It was released the same year that the Russians detonated an atomic bomb. The film makes no mention of the bomb, probably because it was shot before the nuclear threat was apparent and couldn’t be incorporated into the story.

In addition to “The Red Menace,” he directed noirs such as “Million Dollar Pursuit” (1951) and “Revolt in the Big House” (1958), as well as crime films “Double Jeopardy” (1955), “I Cover the Underworld” (1955) and “Track the Man Down” (1955), among others.

A Productive Director

Sam Newfield

The other film discussed below, “Money Madness” (1948), reflects none of the paranoia associated with communists and nuclear weapons, but instead explores a threat within American society — a mentally unstable ex-convict who terrorizes a naive young woman and her aunt. 

Directed by Sam Newfield (a.k.a. Peter Stewart), the film is a noir whose plot could be easily transformed into a western. In “Money Madness,” a charming and dangerous outlaw arrives in town, ingratiates himself with the locals while plotting to exploit them for his own evil purposes. 

Newfield is noted as one of the most prolific directors in American film history. He began his career in the silent era and directed more than 250 feature films and one- and two-reel comedy shorts, training films, industrial films and TV episodes. Many of Newfield's films were made for PRC Pictures, a company headed by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld. PRC produced  low-budget westerns, horror films and crime dramas. 

In addition to “Money Madness,” Newfield directed crime films “Western Pacific Agent” (1950), “Reform Girl” (1933) as well as “The Wild Weed” (1949) a.k.a “She Shoulda Said ‘No,’” a cautionary tale of the dangers of “Marihuana.”

So, here are a couple of crime stories made by Poverty Row studios, each quite different from the other, and both were made fast and on the cheap.

Hanna Axmann-Rezzori, Robert Rockwell, “The Red Menace” (1949).

The Red Menace” (1949) Republic Pictures

A cloud of dread hangs over war veteran Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell) and Nina Petrovka (Hannelore Axman) as they speed down dark roadways, trying to escape unnamed human predators nipping at their heels. They’re in the grip of paranoia and every stranger they encounter may be an agent of the dark force aiming to do them harm. 

“The Red Menace” wants us to know that the enemy is among us and is waiting to pounce when our guard is down. It’s one of a handful of B-movie noirs, including “The Woman on Pier 13” (1950), “I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.” (1951) and “Walk a Crooked Mile” (1948), that push the conspiracy hot button. The story is seen through Bill and Nina’s eyes. Bill meets her as he’s indoctrinated into the party. She’s been a lifelong member but is having her doubts, and later they will both become disillusioned by the party’s blatant misdeeds.

In Documentary Format

Presented in documentary fashion like films such as “The Naked City” (1948) and “The House on 92nd Street” (1945), the film gives us the lowdown on the fugitive pair in a flashback that begins months before. Fleeced out of his savings by a crooked real estate agent who’s running a G.I. housing project scam, Bill bellyaches to a government agent who offers him neither sympathy nor aid. A man who turns out to be a Communist Party plant lurks nearby. Hearing the frustrated ex-G.I.’s complaints, he swoops into action, chatting him up and bringing him to a bar to meet other party members who offer him a shoulder to cry on. Party member Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller), whose job it is to help hook new male recruits, offers him more than a shoulder.

This parable of an average man thrice duped, first by a real estate scammer, then by an ineffectual government bureaucrat and finally by communists, doesn’t let Bill off the hook entirely for his misfortunes. He failed to perform due diligence before signing on the dotted line and his exasperation with the government isn’t entirely justified. In the film’s 81-minute run time we see what a stinging dose of reality can do to cure him of his naïveté and lessen his sense of victimhood.

Bill hangs out with party members but maintains a skeptical distance. While his new buddies talk a good game, preaching about worker’s rights, racial equality and equal rights for women, behind the scenes the party’s upper echelon is cynical, racist and sexist, much like the capitalist foes they oppose. Bill falls in love with Nina, an Eastern European born teacher of Marxism. Both she and Bill have good reason to become disenchanted and fearful of the party, especially after a rank and file member publicly questions the party’s hypocrisies and pays the ultimate price for his break with protocol. 

A Priest on a Mission

A priest, Father O’Leary (Leo Cleary), arrives on the scene at the behest of Molly’s mother, who disapprove’s of her daughter’s lifestyle. The clergyman delivers one of several lectures sprinkled throughout the film on the evils of communism. After which, he liberates a 50-cent piece from a party member that he says will go into the poor box — sort of like beating the communists at their own game.

The hatchet lady of the party, Yvonne Kraus (Betty Lou Gerson), goes on a Stalinesque rampage to rid the communist cell of traitors. Among the highlights of “The Red Menace” is the scene in which Yvonne has a mental breakdown, making a total confession to the police. Gerson’s performance here is heavy on the histrionics. Perhaps it was typecasting that got her the gig as the voice of the evil Cruella de Vil in the Disney animated film “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961). In any case, she hits the mark in both roles.

Hugh Beaumont, Frances Rafferty, “Money Madness.” 

"Money Madness" (1948) Film Classics

It’s a shock seeing family man Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) of TV’s “Leave it to Beaver” (1957 - 1963) playing former mental patient and cold-blooded killer Steve Clark in “Money Madness.” Beaumont’s most popular role as head of a middle class, suburban family is so thoroughly burned into our collective consciousness that the first sight of his bank-robbing rat of a character is, through no fault of the actor, laughable. But audiences in 1948 had yet to see Ward offer TV-dad wisdom to sons Wally and the Beav. So, those of us raised on 1950s - ’60s family sitcoms just have to suck it up and adjust to Beaumont as Ward’s evil twin. 

Then there’s the film’s title, which hits like a soggy loaf of bread and is a dead giveaway that this is a Poverty Row production. Another 15 minutes of brainstorming would likely produce something more grabbing than “Money Madness.” We can safely assume the clock ran out and they chose the first couplet that popped into their heads. No matter, the Poverty Row credo was shoot it, get it in the can and out the door, pronto — title, schmitle.

A Tough Sentence

At least the story begins with a tantalizing courtroom scene:  the sentencing of Julie Saunders (Frances Rafferty), who, we learn, will receive free room and board for the next 10 years courtesy of the state.

Bystanders mumble that she’s getting a raw deal, and in one long flashback we see how she landed in the mess she’s in. 

Clark rolls into town and fills a safety deposit box with thick stacks of moolah, then gets a job driving a taxi. He meets Julie by chance one night as she tries to fend off a drunken wolf. Clark gets rid of the oaf, then pours on the charm and pretty soon he and Julie are dating. Of course, we already know that things won’t go well for Julie, and that both Clark and his boat-load of cash will be at the root of her downfall.

Julie, who is roundly browbeaten by her overbearing invalid Aunt Cora (Cecil Weston) with whom she lives, is soon to be the useful patsy that Clark has been searching for. He works out a scheme involving Cora, and Julie becomes an unwitting accomplice. He convinces her to wed and the wheels of his scheme begin to turn.

It’s a bumpy ride throughout for Julie, as we begin to see the depths of depravity to which Clark will sink in order to hang onto his stack of loot.

A Study of Actors

What’s fascinating is observing the workings of second-string actors, whose not-quite-there performances can show us, in contrast, just how good the A-listers really are. It might be the indelible image of Ward Cleaver bleeding through Beaumont’s performance, a factor that was unforeseeable in 1948, that robs him of the intangible quality that makes a great performance. But I suspect that Beaumont’s refined demeanor, lacking any underlying danger or threat of violence, is what takes the edge off his performance. Those are qualities that, say, Robert Mitchum could communicate with a cold stare and a nonchalant drag on a Chesterfield.

Although he throws himself into the role and does a commendable job, Beaumont can’t project the smug self assuredness of a Mitchum, a Bogart or a Cagney, but that’s part of the reason why that trio made the big bucks.

Beaumont may not make a convincing tough guy, but he was a heck of a TV dad and, despite all, is still enjoyable to watch here. “Money Madness” holds together as a neat little package of impending doom and that’s what makes it worthwhile.

This is my second post about “Poverty Row Noir.” Click here to read Part 1. 

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