September 9, 2019
Stars Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Frank Craven.
Pittsburgh, directed by Lewis Seiler, is a trashy wartime potboiler through and through — though as with a lot of predominantly ‘B’ filmmakers who managed to hold on by his fingertips in the industry for four decades, Seiler does keep this calculated follow-up to The Spoilers moving lickety-split whenever a droning voiceover narration that saddles poor supporting player Frank Craven can ever get a breather.
By The Spoilers, I mean the fourth and all but certainly best of the five screen versions taken from author Rex Beach’s “Alaskan” — given that I have seen the almost never shown 1930 version with Gary Cooper and (on its initial release, to boot) the 1955 Technicolor job in which Jeff Chandler and Rory Calhoun must have blown the studio’s annual mud budget for an entire year. What’s more, it’s tough to imagine the preceding 1914 and 1923 table-setters matching the star power of the 1942’s Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott and John Wayne unless there’s, say, a Tom Santschi cult out there that I don’t know about. So, it’s no small deal that we get the same casting triumvirate here, which was a calculated move. The Spoilers, which has also just come out on a Kino Classics Blu-ray, was a June-’42 release, and Universal had Pittsburgh in theaters shortly before Christmas.
As before, Wayne only gets third billing here, even though Pittsburgh is his character’s name — or at least nickname since people probably didn’t really christen male children with that moniker until maybe the advent of Steelers fans. And speaking of “attitude,” Wayne’s miner-turned-magnate has plenty: forging a signature to get a crucial loan for his start-up business; good-naturedly (for awhile) conning partner Scott in every conceivable situation as if he were Bing Crosby and Scott were Bob Hope; failing to follow through on raises and hospitalization for his employed coal miners whose reasonable union rep (Thomas Gomez) has exhaused his patience; treating his main squeeze (Marlene Dietrich) shabbily if you can imagine anyone doing that; and even shafting (to keep with the mining motif) his father-in-law after marrying “up” to a decent-enough society princess (Louise Albritton).
So Wayne is a villain here, you say? Well, at this point, he was trying to carve out his exact screen image, which resulted in him taking on a couple roles as “troubled” males. (See also Cecil D. Mille’s Reap the Wild Wind, also just out from Kino Classics in all its gorgeousness, and a huge personal favorite I’d be reviewing here had I not done the same a few months ago via the all-Region French release that preceded it). Wayne smiles and jokes a lot here, so he’s not exactly hateful nor even sinister. What’s interesting about the Spoilers/Pittsburgh marquee choices is the fact that someone had to come off as a heavy or something like it, and neither Wayne nor Scott ever did this very much. Thus, matters were equitably handled, with Scott as pretty much an all-out bad guy in The Spoilers and Wayne a milder version of that here.
One thing was certain: Pittsburgh was going to have an elaborate brawl between the two because that’s what all five versions of The Spoilers were renowned for — not the greatest ones in screen history, necessarily, but possibly the most Wagnerian. The one here takes place in a coal mine with both Wayne and Scott in street clothes, which precipitates a heavily script-contrived injury to Dietrich (IMDb.com lists seven writing credits here) when she rushes to stop it. The third and last of the Dietrich-Wayne pairings (not counting their famous offscreen romance), the picture never knows quite what to do with her character: a glamour-puss who comes from a mining background herself. To my eye, the actress looks a lot better in the final scenes when she’s less painted up like a doll and suggests a real human being in perhaps her 40s. (Dietrich is “aged” slightly less than her male co-stars, whose hair gets the salt-and-pepper makeup treatment.)
The story is told in flashback against a still relatively recent World War II backdrop, with the virtues of coal and coal mining pounded home in about every other scene. (Well, time marches on.) Craven, a great character actor I just saw as a standout in John Huston’s low-side-of-spotty In This Our Life, is forced to tell us everything that happens in the movie before we see it ourselves. This leaves it to director Seiler to at least keep things moving, which I have to say he does.
At USA Today, I worked next to Andy Seiler (No Relation), and we had plural jawbones trying to determine if Louis had ever made a good movie. The answer is probably something close to “nearly no” — though in fairness, his most famous one and some say best (Guadalcanal Diary) is one I’ve never gotten around to seeing. I do have some pleasant memories of The Great K&A Train Robbery (one of Tom Mix’s career highlights) and his Dead End Kids romps (Crime School and Hell’s Kitchen, whose casting of Ronald Reagan made it closer to Heck’s Kitchen).
And for camp, or at least outlandish, value, there were also three films with Perry Como; Women’s Prison (a poor man’s Caged with duplicated Jan Sterling’s casting, which I think was federal law for distaff Slammer Cinema at the time); and the notorious The Winning Team, with Reagan as baseball pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. (Personally, I always thought the ad campaign for that one should have blared: “Frank Lovejoy IS Rogers Hornsby.”) As for the Como’s, I once, back in my AFI days, programmed a double bill of Seiler’s If I’m Lucky (Como runs for governor) with Daniel Mann’s Ada (Dean Martin runs for governor). I thought it was inspired, but on audience-indifference level, it rated with the time Cool As Ice with Vanilla Ice placed (I believe) 17th nationally at the box office on its opening weekend.
But I digress. The Blu-ray, as with cinematographer Robert De Grasse’s original labors. has to go from mining scenes to shadowy Dietrich glamour stuff to expensive, well-lit parties thrown by Wayne’s not-for-long rich wife — all of which this release captures capably. The score by Frank Skinner, who was seemingly at Universal as long as The Mummy was, makes overly heavy use of “A Garden in the Rain,” an oldie even then that was later revived into half of a huge two-sided hit with “Tell Me Why” in early ’52 by The Four Aces, who at times sang with such intensity that they could have been called The Four Hernias. One real ringer here is the casting of Shemp Howard early in the film (and he’s quite funny) as Wayne’s haberdasher. I don’t think I’ll lose sleep if I eschew research and simply state that this must have been the only time the two of them ever worked together. Though Howard wouldn’t have been out of place as anyone else if someone had found a role for him in The Conqueror.