Taylor and Turner make an explosive pairing in hit gangster romance.
MGM produced a beautiful poster for its 1941 melodrama Johnny Eager, which you see here in all its vibrancy and clever design. Starring Robert Taylor and Lana Turner, the unknown creator or creators used the stars' names crossword style to include “TNT” into the text. MGM knew they had something special on their hands in Turner and had been trundling her out for audiences to goggle at in awe and wonder, building up her career in comedy, musicals, straight drama, a western, and even horror in 1941's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Now at age twenty it was time for her to co-anchor a crime melodrama.
Turner is a sociology student who crosses the path of an ex-con named John Eager (Taylor) at his parole office. Turner is smitten, as well as impressed with Taylor's efforts to stay on the straight and narrow by working as a cab driver. The problem is Taylor is actually running an elaborate scam, heading a criminal enterprise in the form of a profitable gambling racket while keeping his parole officer bamboozled, and others either paid off or bedazzled into silence. Such is his charm that even the head secretary at the parole office is helping him.
Turner, as an innocent young student who isn't in on the scam, of course throws a wrench in Taylor's plans by finding out he's lying. But it turns out she's a little more worldly than she at first seemed. When she learns Taylor is still an underworld goon she's fine with it. She's just gotta have the guy. It means jilting her square boyfriend and disappointing her protective dad, plus she's warned that disaster will result, but the heart wants what it wants. Will she be corrupted? Will Taylor become so loopy that he loses control of his empire? Can true love blossom in the barren soil of the organized crime underground?
In the end Johnny Eager is a smart, well-written movie, with memorable lines aplenty and several refreshing plot surprises. Burgeoning superstar Turner does just fine in her key role, and it helps that her surrounding cast are all confident and talented. Van Heflin even won a supporting actor Academy Award for his role as a poetry spouting, alcoholic sidekick to Taylor's smooth gangster, and the accolade was well deserved. Johnny Eager is a movie every vintage film buff should add to their queue. It premiered today in 1941.
I believe you that it's life or death, honey. But believe it's also life or death that I finish my toes.
The Devil's Spawn was a random acquisition, a cheap throw-in within a six-book lot. It's a 1956 Dell original with cover art by Mitchell Hooks, was written by Robert Carse, and is a very interesting and unusually graphic tale about an escapee from Cayenne Prison in French Guiana (now Guyana) who lives under a new identity in New York City, but learns that one of the four men he fled with has been targeted by a blackmailer. That means, as the protagonist Jean Prevot puts it, “the trail might be followed down to the next, and the next.” That's exactly what happens, and the blackmailer is from Cayenne Prison, the one person everyone there feared—its sadistic executioner, known as le Bouc.
That's a compelling set-up for a novel, and Carse is an able writer. Especially interesting are his shifts from third-person narrative into second-person deliberations and reveries, without the expected italics to offset the latter from the former. The flow between these passages gives the story an occasional trancelike quality. Also interesting is that Prevot takes intelligent countermeasures. For example, in order to neutralize the blackmail threat, he immediately confesses his past to everyone in his inner circle, most importantly his wife. That's real-world smart, but isn't what most authors would choose. Most would use secrecy as a wedge between Prevot and his loved ones, giving even more initiative to the men who threaten to expose the truth. Carse goes a different way.
The core of the threat remains even after Prevot brings his inner circle up to speed. Either he does what le Bouc says, or le Bouc informs French authorities that a wanted fugitive—who, by the way, killed a guard during his escape—is alive and well in New York City. If Prevot is caught he'll lose his wife, his lucrative career, and anything resembling a future. That's as far as we'll go in describing the book, except to say that it's a good, gritty ride. Carse will be another one we watch for during our digging for dusty old paperbacks.
You're too late. I already pulled it out of the stone, and now I'm in charge of everything.
Edwige Fenech was born in Algeria when it was under French control, had Maltese and Italian parents, and became a film star in Italy, so theoretically she gets to rule all those lands, and possibly England too, since we figure she went there to do the sword pulling. Her first decree as wielder of Excalibur? Better titles for her movies. The photo, which is a colorization of a black and white original, was made for 1969's Alle Kätzchen naschen gern, known in English as All Kitties Go for Sweeties, or alternatively The Blonde and the Black Pussycat. All three of those are terrible names for a film. It was later titled in English The Sweet Pussycats, which is a little better. Obviously, it's a comedy, and if you were to guess it's too stupid to be funny you'd be right. However, anything with Fenech is worth a little something.
Only losers wait their turn.
Here's an unusual Dutch cover that caught our eye for Martin Porlock's Het Mysterie van de Telefooncel—“the mystery of the phone booth”—published in 1949, with art by Piet Marée. The two characters here sort of look like they're dancing, but they're fighting, probably over which one cut in line for the phone booth (the Dutch are famously bad at queueing). Anyway, this is beautiful work. We can't find more info about Marée, but we'll keep digging, as always. Martin Porlock was a pseudonym used by Philip MacDonald, and the book is a translation of his 1932 novel Mystery in Kensington Gore, which is also known as Escape.
Fashion accessory or rift in the space-time continuum?
These two Technicolor lithographs feature the one and only Evelyn West, model and burlesque dancer extraordinaire, bearer of interesting nicknames, and pioneer in erotic craft. The top litho is called “Soft and Lovely,” and the one where it looks like a hole has opened in the fabric of space-time is called “Cleo,” for some reason. And while we know what we're seeing in that second litho is a hat, it's weirdly and disconcertingly featureless. But whether dangerously large fashion accessory or voracious cosmic gullet, bystanders would have needed to stand well clear. It's a great shot, though. Both lithos probably date from late 1950s.
Fragility goes back a long, long way.
This famous image appears around the internet, but usually in blurry condition. Today we have a nice, sharp version. It was made by Hollywood photographer Whitey Shafer to satirize the Hays Code censorship regime that came to the motion picture industry like an unwanted guest, and determined what could be shown on movie screens. A reactionary minority believed Americans were too fragile of character to see certain depictions in cinema. Schafer, in his image, chose ten of those no-nos and squeezed them all into one frame. He needed to overlay the machine gun, but it looks like he composed the other nine elements at the same time.
Many websites give the date on this as 1934. The Hays Code began strict enforcement that year, but Schafer didn't create his photographic provocation until 1940. He unveiled it at the inaugural Hollywood Studios Still Show in 1941, which had been created by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize outstanding still photography. Shafer was threatened with a $2,000 fine, which we suspect didn't surprise him. He escaped the penalty, but the photo was banned until turning up in a newspaper decades later—posthumously, since Schafer died in 1951. But his image is remembered. It isn't just razor sharp commentary. It's an amazing creation. We'd be interested to know who the model is, but that information, unfortunately, seems lost.
Miami, Florida: sunny weather, shady people.
We shared a cover for and talked about Herbert Kastle's 1970 thriller Miami Golden Boy back at the beginning of this year. Above you see the 1971 paperback edition from Avon. We could have bought this version, but we were too taken by the hardback's Barbara Walton sleeve art. The effort above, on the other hand, is uncredited, which is always a shame. Miami Golden Boy was good, if a bit forced (the main character's last name is Golden, to give you an idea how Kastle thinks), but the execution is at a high level. You can read more about the book here.
A jazz legend shows her stripes.
Above you see a live concert photo of musical pioneer Jo Thompson, who broke segregation barriers as a jazz performer, particularly in Miami, where she played often and where this image was made by famed photographer Bunny Yeager. Thompson also performed in Detroit, where she was based, New York City, Havana, London, Paris, and other European hotspots. She isn't well known today but she's considered by jazz lovers to have helped pave the way for black performers who came along slightly later, and critic Herb Boyd said about her that she was, “a consummate storyteller whether standing or at the keyboard."
That being the case, we'll highlight a story Thompson occasionally told about Frank Sinatra, the hipster gadabout of the mid-century, who came to see her one night at the Cork Club in Miami. He was with Ava Gardner, and after the show invited Thompson to join them at their table. The Cork, being in the deep south, didn't allow black performers to sit at the tables, let alone with white companions. But Sinatra being Sinatra, the rule crumbled, at least for the night. Thompson greatly appreciated that. And the jazz world appreciated her. She was a trailblazer. She lived a very long time, long enough to receive many overdue tributes, before finally dying just two years ago of COVID-19.
A long day's journey into sleaze.
After reading Stan Shafer's Heat, which we tried only because it had Kitty Swan on the front, and Rand McTiernan's Doctor's Dirty Tricks, which we tried only because it had Christina Lindberg on the front, we had one of our recurring cycles of interest in ’60s and ’70s sleaze novels and decided to download a few. First up is 1971's Hard Rider by Conrad Grimes, which we chose because it was published by top sleaze imprint Midwood. The book is about pals Annie and Claudia, who buy a van, paint it psychedelically, and set out from Kentucky to see the world. Or at least the United States. Or at least the groovy parts. They head east to New York City, then west to San Francisco, and manage to have all the expected cultural-sexual adventures of the era. They unknowingly star in clandestinely filmed pornography, sojourn in an all women's commune called the Sisterhood that's devoted to eradicating men, and enjoy sweet lesbian love with each other. Annie eventually finds her place as a West Coast political radical, and Claudia finds home and hearth in the heartland. The book is nothing special, on any level, even though it's incredibly raunchy. But even raunch demands skill. Grimes could use more.
I'll cover his face with the sports section. I think he would have liked that.
The Frightened Stiff, which was first published in 1944, with this Dell edition coming in 1953, was written by Kelley Roos, and centers on his franchise detective Jeff Troy, who along with wife Haila starred in a run of popular mysteries with a comedic bent. This is the third in the set. We have one of them—1956's The Blonde Died Dancing—so we'll try to report back on it eventually. The above cover art is by Len Oehmen.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1965—UFO Reported by Thousands of Witnesses
A large, brilliant fireball is seen by thousands in at least six U.S. states and Ontario, Canada as it streaks across the sky, reportedly dropping hot metal debris, starting grass fires, and causing sonic booms. It is generally assumed and reported by the press to be a meteor, however some witnesses claim to have approached the fallen object and seen an alien craft.
1980—John Lennon Killed
Ex-Beatle John Lennon is shot four times in the back and killed by Mark David Chapman in front of The Dakota apartment building in New York City. Chapman had been stalking Lennon since October, and earlier that evening Lennon had autographed a copy of his album Double Fantasy for him.
1941—Japanese Attack Pearl Harbor
The Imperial Japanese Navy sends aircraft to attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet and its defending air forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. While the U.S. lost battleships and other vessels, its aircraft carriers were not at Pearl Harbor and survived intact, robbing the Japanese of the total destruction of the Pacific Fleet they had hoped to achieve.
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