SAM NEWFIELD: King of Poverty Row

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If you take into consideration all his two-reel comedy shorts, educational and industrial films, TV episodes and features, it’s estimated that Sam Newfield directed well over 300 films in a career that spanned from 1919 to 1958. Exact numbers are hard to come by, as he directed under several pseudonyms (most regularly Peter Stewart and Sherman Scott), and new titles are still being uncovered and added to his filmography today. In any case there’s no doubt Newfield reigns as one of the most prolific directors in American film history. That you’re likely unfamiliar with the name may well have something to do with the fact he made most of his films for Poverty Row studios like Victory, Puritan, Lippert, and Tower, though he spent the bulk of his career at Producers Releasing Corporation, which in the 1940s was run by his older brother Sigmund Neufeld. It’s estimated he directed roughly 80 percent of the films PRC released, making the pseudonyms a necessity (they didn’t want audiences noticing it was just one guy directing all these cheap, subpar films). While none of Newfield’s pictures are included on the AFI’s Top 100 (or Top 2,800), he was quietly, and in some cases infamously, responsible for a number of significant cinematic firsts.

Newfield (born Neufeld but later Anglicized) made it through one year of high school before dropping out. Shortly thereafter he moved from New York to California where he began directing industrial and educational films. By the mid-’20s he was making two-reelers for nearly every studio in town, including a popular string of comedy short subjects featuring Buster Crabbe (they would make over 40 films together). In the early ‘30s he moved into features, cranking out endless quickie Westerns for Sam Katzman’s Puritan and Victory studios, and teaming up with his  low-budget producer of a brother for the first time at Tower Pictures to make 1933’s Reform Girl, a no-budget crime melodrama about a young woman fresh out of prison who decides to earn money by pretending to be a political candidates long-lost daughter.

They weren’t great films, no. There was no money for fancy sets or costumes or cameramen or editors or actors who knew what they were doing. In some cases adjectives like “incompetent” or “incoherent” might be apt, but they filled that empty slot on the moviehouse schedules, and that’s all that mattered. Newfield worked fast and cheap (he’d go anywhere and make anything so long as someone was offering a check) and was not burdened by a single shred of artistic pretension, which made him invaluable among the Poverty Row studios.

Even as he was churning out generic crap, however (scan through his countless Westerns and it can seem like the titles were created by simply plucking two random standard Westerny words out of a hat and sticking them together), every once in awhile something unique and unexpected snuck through. In 1937 while working at Associated Pictures, he directed Harlem on the Prairie, the very first African-American Western starring jazz singer Herb Jeffries.  Jeffries saw a potentially eager  audience for black Westerns, so he made four  as Harlem, America’s first black cinematic singing cowboy.

A year later Newfield, among the ten or twelve other films he directed that year, made one of his most notorious. The Terror of Tiny Town was fairly standard as far as Western storylines are concerned—an evil gunslinging villain rides into town and the townsfolk try to figure out what to do about it. Difference was, Newfield’s picture featured an all-midget cast, led by the great Billy Curtis as the hero Buck Lawson, and ‘Little Billy’ Rhodes  as the mean as a polecat villain Bat Haynes. It’s mostly played for laughs (the midgets ride Shetland ponies, walk under swinging barroom doors, and sing cowboy songs), but a year before The Wizard of Oz, audiences had never seen so many midgets onscreen at once . It would remain history’s  only all-midget film until Werner Herzog released his grim dystopian fable Even Dwarfs Started Small in 1970.

Then in 1939 while working with his brother again at Sigmund Neufeld Productions, he directed Hitler, The Beast of Berlin. Prior to American involvement in WWII, the major studios agreed to remain neutral on the tensions in Europe and on the question of the Nazis in particular. The older Neufeld, however, seemed to make a point of thumbing his nose at the majors whenever possible. The film was a thriller concerning the underground resistance movement in Germany, and might well have been the very first bluntly  and staunchly anti-Nazi film released in the US. It would take the rest of Hollywood another two years to catch up.

In 1940, Neufeld took control of PRC, and his little brother Sam set up shop as the studio’s in-house director. Sam kept churning out dozens of films a year (he had to in order to make any money at all, given he was only pulling in $500 a picture) and Sigmund kept thumbing his nose at the majors, using their own fake morality and cowardice to his advantage.

Normally PRC was in no economic position to hire name actors or directors, and so had to rely on less than stellar casts to fill out their pictures. But whenever a known actor or director found himself blacklisted on account of some scandal or another, Sigmund would pick them up on the cheap and Sam would put them in a string of films. When Lugosi’s drug problems started getting in the way and no one would hire him, he went to PRC and made one of their most popular (if not exactly esteemed) films, The Devil Bat. When Edgar G. Ulmer was outcast after having an affair with the wife of a Universal executive, he found himself at PRC, where he directed Detour, one of his greatest films and still held as one of the best noir films ever made. When rumors of Lionel Atwill’s Christmas orgy began coming out and he was arrested on morals charges, PRC kept him working.

Beyond that, if only accidentally, PRC and Sam Newfield helped keep some older actors (like Buster Crabbe) busy, and turned some character actors into stars of a type. George Zucco was a respected character actor at the majors, but no more than that. Newfield gave him top billing in a string of horror films including The Mad Monster, Dead Men Walk, and The Flying Serpent, and made him a horror icon. Glenn Strange was a singing cowboy and movie stuntman best known for playing the Frankenstein monster in a couple Universal pictures, but at PRC he moved up to the top of the credits as the studio’s answer to Lon Chaney Jr. (who made a few PRC films himself).

The films didn’t get much better. There was no money for that. Nearly every film was given a week-long shooting schedule,so there was no time for retakes or coverage (no money either). If lines were flubbed or props misbehaved, so be it, it had to stay in the film. the stories, like the films themselves, had to remain tight and simple and fast. As a result if you watch a lot of Newfields horror films in a row , for example, you might note they all have the same plot (a mad scientist of some stripe exacts revenge against his enemies one by one), and the Westerns are sometimes hard to tell apart. That doesn’t mean they’re not entertaining. The 1944 crime drama I Accuse My Parents not only has a great title, but tells a sympathetic little story about a young man who takes up with some local gangsters in order to impress his nightclub singer girlfriend (things don’t end well with them). And you didn’t like one of their pictures, there’d be another along in a week, and maybe that one will be a jungle adventure (like White Pongo or Nabanga) more to your liking.

Well, all good things must come to an end, and in 1948 PRC was bought out by the British B-film house Eagle Lion. Newfield was out, but not for long. In fact come the early ‘50s while directing for Lippert Films, he made some of the best pictures of his career, including a trilogy of offbeat crime dramas focused on branches of law enforcement usually overlooked by Hollywood: Radar Secret Service, Motor Patrol, and the best of the lot, Western Pacific Agent, in which a railway dick tracks a serial killer who seems to be working along the railway corridor. Much more interesting than the plot or the usual cop shenanigans is the film’s reasonably accurate portrait of hobo culture. In all three films, in fact, it’s the unexpected environment that makes things far more interesting than the standard cop storyline.

By the late ‘50s Sam and Sigmund were working together again, and decided to go into television. Discovering it was cheaper to work outside of the States, in 1955 they shot the Buster Crabbe vehicle Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion in Morocco, and in ‘57 went up to Canada to shoot Lon Chaney Jr. in the weekly series Hawkeye and The Last of the Mohicans.

The following year Newfield decided to retire from the movie business. Only much later did it come out that part of Newfield’s seemingly tireless drive to make film after film might well have something to do with a lifetime of compulsive gambling. according to his nephew he was perpetually broke, and everything he made on the pictures went straight to his bookie. At the time of his retirement he was facing massive debts, which his older brother paid off for him. Sigmund then set him up in an apartment in Hollywood, where Newfield died in 1964. Most of his films have since disappeared or entered the public domain, and his longtime star Buster Crabbe spent the rest of his life complaining how little he was paid at PRC.

by Jim Knipfel

GOOD NIGHT, MRS. CALABASH

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According to Durante family lore, backed by childhood photos, Jimmy was an ugly kid, a runt with tiny pig eyes and a huge honker, from the day in 1893 when the midwife swaddled him on the kitchen table in their apartment at 90 Catherine Street on the Lower East Side. Where that house stood is now the site of the Alfred E. Smith Recreation Center. Like his childhood hero Smith, Jimmy Durante never lost his des-dem-youse accent, and never concealed the fact that he only made it through the seventh grade. In fact, he incorporated all that, and of course his giant schnozzola, into his endearing schtick.

His mother Rose had come from Salerno as a mail order bride. His father Bartolomeo, an outgoing eccentric who sported the sort of giant mustache that was stylish in the era, had earned his passage to America in the 1880s by helping to construct the Third Avenue El when he arrived. He then opened a tiny barbershop he ran until he was seventy-five, 86ing any customer who complained about the Caruso and classical records he constantly played on his beloved Victrola. On Saturdays Jimmy’s chore was to lather the gents before his dad shaved them. After he retired Bartolomeo still carried his scissors and clippers in a satchel, offering a free haircut to any guy who looked shaggy to him. Johnny Weissmuller remembered running into Bartolomeo one time and having to fend off the clippers. He explained to the old man that he’d let his hair grow in preparation for starring as Tarzan. Bartolomeo still insisted he looked like a bum. As Jimmy became famous his dad did too. Writing about Jimmy in her column, Hedda Hopper tagged Bartolomeo “Bizarre Bart.” He had it printed on cards, and when Mayor La Guardia declared May 8 1939 Schnozzola Day, Jimmy’s dad rode in the parade with him, handing out the card.

At school Jimmy took daily abuse for his schnozzola. He spent as little time there as possible and dropped out as soon as he could. It was a time when fewer than ten percent of kids in the city completed all eight grades of elementary school. Relatives gave the Durantes a piano, and Bartolomeo paid fifty cents a lesson for Jimmy to learn it, dreaming that his son would someday become a famous concert pianist. He was bitterly disappointed when Jimmy turned to ragtime instead, and for years refused to listen to him play. “Only boozers play that way!” Jimmy later remembered him yelling.

By seventeen he was playing as Ragtime Jimmy in rough saloons full of drunks, gangsters and hookers, like the Chatham on Doyers Street and the hoodlum hangout Maxine’s in Brooklyn, padlocked by the cops in 1915 for being the site of four murders in one week. In Coney Island during the summers he played all night, seven nights a week, at a dive called Diamond Tony’s, at the slightly more upscale Carey Walsh’s, and other joints. Tony was called Diamond because he wore a lot of fake ones. According to Durante, a gunman once held up the joint; when Tony offered to give him his rings, the gunman sneered he could keep them, his wife had better fakes at home. Durante met and became friends with Eddie Cantor at Walsh’s.

He graduated from there to a Harlem nightclub called the Alamo. Al Capone and some of his boys came in one night while he was playing. The boys heckled Durante about his nose, then Capone gave him a ride home and tipped him a hundred dollars, more than his weekly salary. It was at the Alamo that a vaudevillian, Jack Duffy, stuck him with his permanent nickname Schnozzola. He sold a few songs on Tin Pan Alley and worked in more clubs, like the dismally ill-named Pizzazz in Hells’ Kitchen, the midtown Nightingale, and the Paradiso in Italian Harlem, where, biographer Jhan Robbins informs us, “he was a fill-in for the regular pianist who was serving a sixty-day prison sentence for beating up a customer.”

In 1923 he and a couple of partners, the dancers Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson, performed as a trio, the Three Sawdust Bums, at their own speakeasy on West Fifty-Eighth Street, called Club Durant because the sign painter forgot the e. When he offered to add it for another hundred bucks they said forget it. Later in the decade they opened another club called the Parody. They sang, danced, told jokes, did routines, worked the crowd every way they could. They hired a bad French singer named Fifi just so they could make fun of her. They kidded the stuffed shirts in the audience. Performers in the cabarets and clubs of the 1910s and 1920s had to learn how to step down off the stage and do a floor show, a relatively new concept imported from Paris, pioneering a new, more intimate experience with the audience. Sophie Tucker, shimmying up to the tables and cracking wise with the men, was an expert at it. Durante did it in his own manic way, bouncing all over the room, dancing with the wives, cracking a million awful jokes and then banging out a tune on the “pianer.”

In 1927, when Fanny Brice took ill, the Bums got a shot at biggest-time vaudeville: the Palace in Times Square, the flagship of vaudeville theaters. They were a huge hit, breaking attendance records. Two years later Flo Ziegfeld hired them for the Follies, another step up, and in 1930 they went to Hollywood to appear in their first film, Roadhouse Nights. The trio broke up when Durante signed with MGM (part of the entertainment empire created by another Lower East Sider made good, Marcus Loew).

In the 1934 film Palooka, based on the Joe Palooka comic strip, Jimmy introduced a song he co-wrote with vaudevillian Ben Ryan, the novelty fluff “Inka Dinka Doo.” It was a big hit and his theme song for the rest of his life. Palooka was probably his best picture. Although he would go on to be in more than thirty others, he and Hollywood were never a tight fit. Like other performers who worked their way up from the gin joints and vaudeville, he could be too loud and hyperactive for the screen. As Banjo in The Man Who Came to Dinner he seems to burst in from another movie altogether from the one Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan think they’re making. He caroms around the set, mugs and hams like he’s back in the Club Durant, leaving the rest of the cast looking exhausted. In George Pal’s The Great Rupert he co-stars with a stop-motion squirrel in a kilt, which actually makes more sense than it might sound.

Jimmy did better as a radio and tv personality, unscripted or barely scripted, where he calmed down a little and endeared himself to audiences with his dese-dem-dose and mangled malapropisms. He had a million of the latter. He once told a Metropolitan Opera diva that he loved classical music like “the Midnight Sinatra.” Speaking of “Sweater Girl” Lana Turner, he mused, “Take away her sweater and what have you got?”

It was at the end of his radio show that he started using his famously wistful send-off, “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” Figuring out who Mrs. Calabash was became a nationwide obsession. He was hounded about it till the day he died in 1980 and never gave up the secret. The most widely accepted theory was that it was a pet name for his wife, who died in 1943, the year he debuted on radio. But biographer Robbins writes in his 1991 Inka Dinka Doo that in fact it was just a gag Durante and a producer cooked up offhandedly, never expecting it to become such a big deal. 

by John Strausbaugh

(Illustration by Tony Millionaire)

ANNA MAY WONG

In case you are saying to yourself about now “So-called perfection is unachievable and therefore I will dismiss the idea out of hand and embrace a more attainable and ‘realistic’ notion of beauty … yada yada yada”, I say this: “Obviously you have never seen a Man Ray photograph of Anna Mae Wong. Class dismissed”.

by Jennifer Matsui

RIP MICKEY ROONEY

TESLA

KURT COBAIN (1967-1994)

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He had the vocal chops of a cracker choir boy singing through a ruptured, blood soaked trachea. He was pure and profane in equal measure. Normally I don’t “mourn” famous dead people but I’ll make an exception for Kurt Cobain. I think the fatal bullet that ended him twenty years ago was less a “cry for help” than a successful attempt to avert the inevitability of fame propelling him towards banging the second coming of Katy Perry backstage at the 120th Grammy Awards. That he spared us all the spectacle of his “recovery”, his Twitter feuds with Adam Levine and an appearance on ‘The View’ should be something to celebrate.

by Jennifer Matsui