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Winterset (1936)

Winterset (1936)

Burgess Meredith’s screen debut was directed by Alfred Santell; Meredith had starred in the Maxwell Anderson (All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)) play which received a screenplay treatment from Anthony Veiller. The film received two Academy Award nominations: Perry Ferguson’s first of five unrewarded Oscar nominations for Art Direction and for Nathaniel Shilkret’s Score (his only Academy recognition). The characters are straightforward and simple (e.g. one dimensional) and are played somewhat over dramatically. The story is both dated and unbelievable at times but the actors seem to believe in it such that it’s still compelling to the end especially since it runs just under 80 minutes.

In 1920 Mio’s (Bobby Caldwell uncredited) radical father (he was against child labor and for other worker benefits that are commonplace today) Bartolomeo Romagna (John Carradine) was railroaded into a quick conviction by Judge Gaunt (Edward Ellis) and put to death (all within 2 weeks!) for allegedly killing someone during a payroll robbery. Helen Jerome Eddy appears briefly as Bartolomeo’s distraught wife. The evidence consisted of the positive identification of his automobile as the getaway vehicle from which the shot had been fired. Trock Estrella (Eduardo Ciannelli) had actually been responsible but Garth Esdras (Paul Guilfoyle) who had been in the car with Trock and his gunman Shadow (Stanley Ridges) was never called to testify. This fact was not lost on any of Professor Liggett’s (Murray Kinnell uncredited) law school students who were studying the case some 14 years later.

In 1934 Mio Romagna (Meredith) returns to New York for the first time since his father had been executed. The facts surrounding the case had been publicized after the law school’s review so Mio decides to try to find Garth. Of course Trock wants to find him too and the Judge is so haunted by the news that he may have sentenced an innocent man to die that he roams the streets a drunkard. So a confluence occurs in the small community underneath one of the city’s bridges where Garth lives with his father (Maurice Moscovitch his screen debut) known simply by their last name Estras and sister Miriamne (Margo). Mio who’d met Miriamne on the bridge during which something (e.g. romantic) passes between them later dances with her in the community’s small courtyard when a street vendor (George Humbert) plays his music box. He’d been chased there by a policeman (Willard Robertson) who chases him away again in part because a radical (Mischa Auer) starts to use the gathering to spread his message.

Once everyone meets everyone else and learns where they fit into the equation within Esdras’s humble home where he lets a homeless halfwit (Alec Craig?) sleep under the pipes the story’s credibility wanes. Trock’s purpose in finding Garth is to ensure that he keeps quiet about who the real payroll murderer was all those years ago. And in fact Garth is too afraid in front of the policeman to tell what he knows. After another man who’d been shot and dumped in the bay incredibly survives the ordeal and more threats not to talk are exchanged Trock and Shadow then stake out the only two exits from this under-the-bridge community and prearrange a signal (from Trock to Shadow whereby he’s) to shoot anyone from the Esdras home that tries to escape the area. The only reason (I can think of) for this method versus killing those who might “rat out” Trock right there in Esdras’s home (other than for the film’s dramatics) would be to prevent the others from being witnesses in these subsequent murders. The way it plays out (e.g. and how it is staged) seems silly and contrived in order for a signal to be crossed that causes one gunman to kill the other and so forth. In the end you know that Mio and Miriamne are going to be together.

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