Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
LIQUOR, GUNS, BLACK CATS AND AGE WILL SURELY KILL YOU
by Douglas Messerli
Jerry Cady, Dalton Trumbo and Nathanael West
(screenplay, based on a story by Richard Carroll), John Farrow (director) Five
Came Back / 1939
We know from the very title of this seemingly B-grade flick that several
of the improbable travelers aboard The
Silver Queen to—inexplicably—Panama will not make it of the film alive.
Predictably, after setting up most the character typologies, the plane in which
they are flying begins to cough in a heavy down-pour, loses an engine and is
about to crash. Less expectedly, one of the nine nervous passengers, Crimp
(John Carradine)—apparently a free-lance bounty-hunter—threatens the pilots
with a gun, ridiculously demanding that they turn around mid-storm and go back!
A brief battle ensues, with Crimp losing, and the plane, soon after, landing in
a small jungle clearing. All right, that man has to go! One down. Well,
actually, two, we recall, since the helpful steward, Larry (Dick Hogan), has
previously been expelled from the clipper’s door when a loose canister has
crashed into it during the bumpy flight.
We’ve already seen a black cat
cross Crimp and his anarchist prisoner, Vasquez’s (Joseph Calleia) path during
a Mexican stop. So that’s three down. Who’s next?
Sure, Peggy Nolan (Lucille Ball) is a
woman of loose morals, on the lam to escape from the men that have done her
wrong—despite one of their kind’s floral tribute to her clear back in the
airport. But she’s got a heart of gold, and by the time the survivors have set
up a variation of a small, utopian camp, where nearly everyone does their part
to help the community survive and keep up their spirits, she has, as she puts
it, developed maternal feelings for the young boy, Tommy Mulvaney (Casey Johnson),
son of the recently killed gangster who one of his gunman, Pete (Allen Jenkins)
is escorting to Panama.
Although professor Henry Spengler (C.
Aubrey Smith) is somewhat of a know-all blowheart and his bossy wife, Martha
(Elisabeth Risdon) is a bit of an unhappy scold, they soon enough prove their
mettle, Spengler’s knowledge helping them all to perceive they’ve landed far
away from their original route, in the midst of an Amazonia rainforest; and
Martha capability taking on the role of resident cook, bottle scrubber, and
washerwoman—womanly tasks that seem to bring back her good spirits.
The pretty Alice Melbourne (Wendy Barrie)
also does her part, working valiantly to help in group projects despite the
expected daily drunkenness of the wealthy executive, Judson Ellis (Patric
Knowles), with whom she was on her way to Panama to elope. Surely it’s better
to find out that he was the wrong kind of guy before she tied the knot. So have
we also discovered another no-good guy for whom it might be better if he not
The grumpy and complaining Crimp soon
enough disappears, later to be found shot with a poison arrow by the wandering
young Tommy. So he’s out of hair already.
Even if Tommy’s caretaker is
a little tough around the edges, the boy’s utter innocence so crumbles his
defenses, and he’s a good shot, able to bring down an animal for the group’s
dinner—a handy man to have around. It makes utterly no sense, accordingly, when
the clever writers of this “ten little Indians”-kind of tale have him, upon
discovering Crimp’s body, send Tommy back to the others while he hangs around
the spot just to be shot, just like Crimp, by a native poison arrow. I’d hardly
call that playing fair.
An then there’s the anarchist, Vasquez, so
impressed with the friendly efficiency of this little “New Jerusalem,” that he
dares to question his old political values. He might, he admits, if were able
to relive his past, have acted differently after witnessing the human values
that these good folk have suddenly rediscovered in themselves. For him, going
back simply means a return to everything he stands against—and, of course, his
certain death. We’d almost like to keep him on our boarding roster, but he too
was in the path of that black cat, besides being doomed from the very first
Despite Pilot Bill Brook’s (Chester
Morris) cocky attitude and his attempts to “hit” upon good lookers like Peggy,
he has to “go back” if any others are to survive (although, had I known that
off-screen he clumsily tried to woo Ball into his bed, I might have voted him
down). And even though co-pilot Joe (Kent Taylor) holds a gun for a
while—weapons treasured by the dead Crimp and Pete—he’s been working too hard
with Bill on repairing the flimsy clipper to allow the writers and director to
kill him off. Furthermore, he never actually uses the gun.
The local natives had already begun their
drumming, and it will be only a matter of hours—no, the drums have already
stopped—a matter of minutes before only five survivors can board the plane for
a quick trip over the mountains, presumably to be discovered again by civilized
folk. Knowing he has nothing to lose, Vasquez grabs the gun and the right, he
proclaims, to make the final decisions of who goes and who stays.
Fortunately, he doesn’t even
have to make that choice. The self-sacrificing and now perfectly content
elderly Spenglers secretly make a pact with him to stay behind. The only one
who doesn’t seem to know his place is the still stumbling, self-privileged
drunk, Judson Ellis, who tries to bribe the honest disbeliever, who, as Ellis
attempts to board the plane, shoots him dead.
The plane revs up its motors and rises
into the air just above the tree-line. We can see the natives stirring in the
bush. Professor Spengler lets Vasquez know that any man taken by the natives
will surely be tortured. It’s okay, Vasquez conspires, there are three bullets
left, while the camera quickly reveals only two remaining. As the Spenglers
move a ways off, we hear two shots. Vasquez, the bravest of them all, awaits
his fate—not that much different, perhaps, from the lonely hanging he had
previously been sentenced to endure. At least, this time around, he’ll die with
people around him—even if it hurts. (Earlier Vasquez has stated: Hanging is such
an unpleasant death. Besides, a hanged man always dies alone. I much prefer
dying in the company of decent citizens like you... always provided I'm the
last to die.”)
So five came back, we have to presume. But
I still feel those noted writers somehow got it wrong. Knowing Nathaniel West’s
often misanthropic tendencies, I have to believe it was he who determined that
the gentle Spenglers had to go, as opposed to the obviously empty-minded or, at
least, wrong-headed, but somewhat good-looking Alice (played by the actress
whose own career was destroyed through her affair with Bugsy Malone) and the
forlorn, long-legged loser Peggy—in whose maternal instincts I am not for one
moment convinced. And what’s going to happen now to the mother and fatherless
young Tommy? Mrs. Spengler, who lost her boy at Tommy’s same age, would have
made a much better surrogate mother.
Those are not issues, presumably, we are
encouraged to consider. Those whose paths were crossed by black cats, those who
live by the gun, and those who have already endured a long life—as we now know
from the dozens of disaster movies, like Airport,
The Poseidon Adventure or The
Towering Inferno, which this little fable begat—simply can’t walk away at
the end. Only the normally bland failed lovers and would-be dreamers are
permitted to see the new sun rise.
Los Angeles, October 6, 2014
World Cinema Review (October 2014).