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William Beaudine’s Birthday

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

William Beaudine (with pipe) on the set of The Life of Riley (1927), with cinematographer Charles Van Enger.

William Beaudine, Sr. was born this day in 1892. One of the most prolific directors of the American cinema, with more than 300 feature films to his credit, as well as many television series episodes, he had a long career in silents, particularly directing Mary Pickford in some of her major films, such as Sparrows (1926), before professional jealousies consigned him to the margins of Poverty Row, and an endless succession of program films, which are nevertheless much more interesting that most historians give him credit for.

Always ahead of the curve, Turner Classic Movies is spending most of today running Beaudine’s work in a series of sparkling new prints of his fllms during his period in the 1940s at Monogram, which have been screened for years in inferior dupes that didn’t do the original negatives a shred of justice. Now, in clean new digital transfers, we can see them as they were really made; will someone now release them on DVDs? Some are already out in that format, in the Warner Archive series, as I noted in my blog entry for the DVD release of Beaudine’s brutal crime drama Don’t Gamble With Strangers (1946). But more needs to be done.

As The MMC Website notes in their excellent overview of his career, Beaudine was “born William Washington Beaudine in the Bronx on January 15, 1892. His father was also William Beaudine, a driver for a milk company; his mother was Ella Moran. Bill Beaudine was the oldest of three sons. His father and his youngest brother Ted died of pneumonia in 1905, so by age thirteen he was sole support for his mother and little brother Harold. This early assumption of responsibility gave him a practical outlook on life and directing, a determination to keep working no matter what.

Beaudine entered show business in 1909, as a clerk at the Biograph Company in New York City. He doubled as an extra on D. W. Griffith shorts, worked as both cameraman and assistant director for Mack Sennett, while continuing to play bit parts. In October 1914 Bill was offered a job at Kalem Film Company in California. He immediately married his fiancé Marguerite Fleischer, and after one year as an assistant director, he was promoted to director with Minnie the Tiger (1915). In 1916 he switched to Universal Film Manufacturing Company, directing shorts for them, on many of which he worked with writer Jack Cunningham.

From 1918 to 1921 Beaudine went from one studio to another, as companies went under or decided they could do without him. His brother Harold also came out from New York as a director of silent shorts. He was eventually picked up by Warner Brothers, who often loaned him out. With Watch Your Step (1922) for Goldwyn, Bill Beaudine made the jump to feature length films (five reels), and by 1930 had gone freelance, and was living in a Beverly Hills mansion with his wife, four children, and servants.

One of his best films was Penrod and Sam (1931), but after that, he fell afoul of Sam Briskin at Columbia, and was out of work for six months, the longest period in his life. By the time he picked up work again at Paramount, all five of the banks in which he kept his savings had failed. Paramount itself went bankrupt, and Beaudine scrambled to find work wherever he could, sometimes directing shorts for MGM using the screen name ‘William X. Crowley’. Beaudine made one of his most successful films with W. C. Fields, The Old-Fashioned Way (1934), but despite its popularity he received only one job offer, from a British film company. Beaudine would spend four years in England making well-received comedies that very few people in America ever saw.

Returning to the states in 1938, he found that he was forgotten in Hollywood. He had difficulty getting and keeping jobs with major studios, so he went to work for ‘poverty row’ independents. He soon acquired the reputation of a competent workman-like director, who was always well-prepared, and obsessed with maintaining the shooting schedule. He in turn grew a little cynical about the mediocre screenplays and barebones budgets he had to work with.

By the 1950s, Beaudine has moved over to television, and directed for Walt Disney and others during his last years, as well as helming numerous episodes of Lassie. In the 1960s, he directed episodes of Naked City and The Green Hornet. In 1969, Beaudine was given a tribute for his long career by the American Film Institute. He died March 18, 1970, in Canoga Park, California, of uremic poisoning.”

In recent years, Beaudine’s work has seen something of a revival, for although much of his work is journeyman material, at his best, he was capable of really solid genre craftsmanship, and doesn’t deserve the nickname “One Shot” which was erroneously applied to him long after his death. Beaudine, in all of his films, was a conscientious and patient auteur – if professional misfortune hadn’t kept him off the lots of the major studios, he undoubtedly would have done a great deal with better material. As it was, he did very best with the material he was given, and thus his films, especially in the 1940s, given a much more accurate vision of the era than many major studio productions.

William Beaudine – one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood history.

Don’t Gamble With Strangers

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

William Beaudine was a very uneven director, but sometimes, he really delivered the goods.

As Dave Kehr, writing in The New York Times, notes of this film, and Beaudine’s career at Monogram, the 1940s studio where Beaudine did the bulk of his work, “Beaudine was the workhorse of Monogram, signing his name to an astonishing 71 features from 1942 to 1953 [emphasis added]. Although . . . Beaudine had been a prominent silent director [starting out with D.W. Griffith, and later directing Mary Pickford in a series of films, including the highly successful Sparrows (1926)], he seemed to have lost interest in his art by [the 1940s], and most of his films have a generic, disengaged quality . . . Not so this 1946 astonishment, the thoroughly sordid tale of a card shark (the square-jawed serial hero Kane Richmond, cast spectacularly against type) who unhesitatingly betrays pretty much everyone he comes across — including his brother, his female partner and his fiancée — as he takes over a small-town casino somewhere in the Midwest.

Perhaps Beaudine was shaken from his indifference by the strikingly sordid script by the mysterious Caryl Coleman (whose only other credited screenplay [was the equally unrelenting Monogram entry] Wife Wanted) and Harvey Gates (another silent-film veteran who had seen better days); perhaps it is a case of the material’s being perfectly matched to the available means. No major studio of the time would have tolerated the cynicism that courses through this film; nor would a major studio have been capable of capturing the film’s agonizingly expressive shabbiness. In Don’t Gamble With Strangers, Monogram isn’t just a studio — it’s a way of life.”

Along with the equally brutal Black Market Babies, a 1945 Beaudine/Monogram film in which Kane Richmond again appears as a sleazy con man running an “adoption service” with the help of an aging, alcoholic doctor played by Ralph Morgan, Don’t Gamble With Strangers paints a truer picture of post-war American society in the mid 1940s than anything the major studios would touch, as Kehr suggests above. Much of what Beaudine produced is pure junk, and often he simply didn’t care what he was directing, just so long as he got paid – a major force in silent films, Beaudine fell into disfavor after a sojourn in Britain in the late 1930s, and when he returned to Hollywood, found himself unemployable, and deep in debt. But he had to work, so he took anything he could get, and soon was the most prolific director in Hollywood, along with the equally adept Sam Newfield.

Working his way back in at the bottom rung of the studio system, for Monogram or anyone else who would hire him for his flat fee of $500 for six days work – the standard length of time it took him to direct a feature film, working at top speed -  Beaudine racked up more than 350 feature films, in addition to television work on such series as the Green Hornet and Lassie – his last major job as a director – before his death at age 78 in 1970. The famous story is often told of a Monogram executive rushing on to the set of one of Beaudine’s films, demanding to know when it would be finished. “You mean there’s someone out there waiting for this?” Beaudine replied, pretty much indicating what he thought of much of the work he was forced to direct by economic necessity. Or, as he told another interviewer, “these films are going to be made regardless of who directs them. There’s a market for them and the studios are going to continue to make them. I’ve been doing this long enough I think I can make them as good or better than anyone else.” And at his best, he absolutely could.

Monogram films in general have frequently been derided for their poor quality sound tracks, indifferent cinematography and lighting, as if the entire film was shot through a gauze filter on outdated film stock, and recorded with the cheapest equipment available. In the pre-digital era, one could always tell a Monogram film by its flat lighting, cheap sets, and distorted soundtrack. But a new series of DVDs from Warner Archive is setting the record straight; earlier viewers were simply being subjected to cheap 16mm prints of the film, while the 35mm masters were as good in terms of pictorial quality as anything turned out by Universal or Republic. These new transfers are literally dazzling, and give a whole new life to Monogram’s output as a whole. It’s a revelation; these are lost films, come back to life at last.

These two 75 minute films are “pre-code / film noir / neorealism” – the real picture of life in postwar America.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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