Road House (1948)
Here are my thoughts about screenwriter-producer Edward Chodorov’s Road House (1948) – starring Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm and Richard Widmark (in his third film) – which was directed by Jean Negulesco. The title was unfortunately reused for a Patrick Swayze –vehicle some 40 years later, so I thought that reviewing this classic might help those who’ve only seen the 1989 movie to forget.
Although it features a now clichéd storyline – two friends from different backgrounds, one wealthy and another from a poorer family, that grew up from childhood through surviving a war together, end up clashing over the same woman as adults – Road House (1948) is film noir drama that will hold one’s interest and is worth a look because of its stars’ performances. The story, written by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul, was photographed by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who’d won his Academy Award four years earlier for filming Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) which, like this one, had a small but memorable cast (only Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, and Judith Anderson were credited). While there are a few other supporting players – such as an Arthur O’Connell lookalike (O.Z. Whitehead) playing a character that’s aptly named Art, an uncredited Jack Lee as the dependable bartender Sam, and Ray Teal as (you guessed it) a policeman – the screen-time is dominated by the four principals.
The film is set in the fictional small town of Elton (west of Chicago and not too far south of the Canadian border), population 14,270. The locale where most of the plot takes place is Jefty’s Road House, an establishment outside of the one hotel town that features a restaurant, a bar, a bowling alley, and a décor that includes antlers (which is also the name of the hotel) and other hunter paraphernalia of its owner, Jefferson T. ‘Jefty’ Robbins (Widmark). It’s managed by athletically-built Pete Morgan (Wilde), a former state bowling champion, who used to be a pin boy with his rich friend Jefty (at his father’s alley). Enter Lily Stevens (Lupino), the latest in a long line of ‘talent’ that Jefty met during a drunken weekend in the Windy City; apparently, he woos the ladies by promising them a gig in his ‘nightclub’. But when Jefty tires of them, it’s Pete’s job to “send them back where they came from”. However, Lily doesn’t fit the mold for two reasons – Jefty has yet to successfully overwhelm her with his charms AND she actually has talent or, as cashier Susie Smith (Holm) remarks, “she does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard”. Holm, in only her fourth film, plays a role that would become somewhat stereotypical for her – a part that Joan Blondell made famous – a sassy gal whose love is taken for granted by the movie’s hunk (Wilde) and is therefore destined to fade into the background when the femme fatale (Lupino) arrives on the scene. True to form, she’s got a “heart of gold” such that she becomes the new couple’s ally when needed.
Upset that Jefty has promised to pay Lily an inordinate amount ($250 per week for 6 weeks) which cuts into his profits (hence pay), Pete tries to force her to leave town before she’s even sung her first torch song. But she’s a tough streetwise road weary gal that’s tired of drifting and ready to stay in one place for a while, hence her acceptance of Jefty’s offer without the usual (sexual) reciprocals. Sure that his normal attributes will eventually win her over though, Jefty confidently puts Lily in the company of the muscle-bound Pete, whom he has to practically threaten to get to teach her to bowl. Naturally, Lily is quickly attracted to Jefty’s more physically attractive friend, but her attempts to get Pete to play house with her are resisted until two things happen: Jefty leaves town for a week of moose hunting at his cabin in the wilderness AND a burly drunk named Dutch – who decides that the sexy singer is for him, during one of her more seductive songs – starts a bar brawl that causes Pete to ‘fight for’ and rescue Lily. After that, Pete succumbs and the two begin to make plans for a life together.
However, when Jefty returns, he’s made up his mind to marry Lily; he’s even gone so far as to obtain a marriage license which he shows to Pete. But after Pete tells Jefty that he and Lily are in love and that they’re planning to get married, Jefty becomes very angry. When Pete and Lily decide to leave town to elope, Jefty has them picked up by the police at the railroad station. Pete has been framed for robbery by Jefty; he is arrested, jailed and later convicted for the bogus charge, and sentenced to 2-10 years for the crime. But Jefty had convinced the judge to allow Pete to serve probation, under his care so that he could control his friend’s relationship with Lily. Shortly after this, ‘we’ are treated to the cruel laugh that helped Widmark earn an Oscar nomination in his film debut as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947). But the additional illogical and contrived events that follow lessen rather than enhance what remains in this melodrama – instinctively most moviegoers will know that someone is going to die (and who) – though the aforementioned characters’ traits are reinforced and refined: Lupino’s is tough, Holm’s is helpful, Widmark’s is psychotic etc..
Last thought: per my current schedule, I haven’t been watching a lot of classic movies lately, and I was struck (once again) by how much cigarettes – and the smoking of them – are part of the action in these films. Incongruently, this activity is (and has always been) associated with sex, at least cinematically. Director Negulesco, who earned his only recognition from the Academy for Johnny Belinda (1948) – which (ironically) was released by Warner Bros. one week earlier – uses the association symbolically. At the beginning of the film, Pete is seemingly repulsed by Lily’s chain smoking or at least he’s upset with her habit of placing lit cigarettes on the edge of tables (or the piano) because it chars the surface as it burns. Once seduced, he shares one with her while they recline on a boat under a full moon at the lake.
© 2008 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog