I remember having a conversation with one of my film history instructors years ago. The course focused on the history of the major film studios. One day I stayed after class to continue our conversation. Clearly, the subject at hand piqued my interest and I wanted to ask him all sorts of questions about the back stories of the studios that made the movies I so loved. “That’s all fine and dandy,” he said to me when I tried to show him how much I already knew, “but if you want interesting stories or to see the work of movie stars before they were movie stars, look at Poverty Row.”
From Flicker Alley in conjunction with Lobster Films and Blackhawk Films Collection comes the story of the many studios that existed on Poverty Row and the productions that resulted. The four-film set, In The Shadows of Hollywood: Highlights from Poverty Row, features newly restored pictures from those studios, many of which disappeared after one or two productions made on tiny budgets.
The movies in the set include Midnight (later released as Call it Murder) from 1934. Chester Erskine’s directorial debut, Midnight tells an interesting story, still relevant today about a jury foreman (O.P. Heggie) who convicts a woman to be executed. Convinced that the law is the only thing that matters, the foreman is forced to question his conviction when he finds out his own daughter has killed a man. The juxtaposition of guilt and innocence and the spotlight on shades of justice are used to maximum effect in this outing. Co-starring in Midnight are Sidney Fox, Henry Hull, and Humphrey Bogart.
Another worthwhile discovery, Back Page (1934) gives Peggy Shannon the opportunity to play the lead, a strong woman in a newspaper pre-code story. What more do you need to know? Then you have Woman in the Dark directed by Phil Rosen and based on a story by Dashiell Hammett. Here we see John Bradley (Ralph Bellamy) who is recently released from prison get into new trouble thanks to Louise Loring (Fay Wray) who is trying to get away from her shady boyfriend Tony Robson (Melvyn Douglas). The crime picture, made at Biograph and released by RKO, is fun to watch for several reasons but mostly because you get to see a Bellamy who’s aces with women, Douglas as an immoral character, and the beautiful Fay Wray.
The final offering is the supremely creepy, The Crime of Dr. Crespi directed by John H. Auer and based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial. The film stars Erich von Stroheim, Harriet Russell, and Dwight Frye. As far as mad doctors go, Stroheim does his part as the respected Dr. Crespi who’s up to the macabre when he believes another surgeon steals the affections of the woman he loves.
All four films included in In the Shadows of Hollywood set look great. The set also includes a terrific booklet with an essay by Jan-Christopher Horak and audio commentaries lending historical perspective to each movie. I highly recommend supporting this entertaining effort and hope this is the first of several releases dedicated to Poverty Row. Do you hear me, Flicker Alley, Lobster Films, and Blackhawk Films?
Thank you to all who work diligently to preserve these films, to preserve our history and to Martin Ibarra-Ramos, Brand Manager/Writer at Flicker Alley, for the review copy of In the Shadow of Hollywood: Highlights from Poverty Row.