Monday, January 18, 2010

Joseph H. Lewis - Notes

Here's a sneak-peek at my program notes for this Thursday's double feature of MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS and GUN CRAZY at the Dryden Theatre. (Starting at 7pm). Joseph H. Lewis is the most formalist director we've had in the series yet this year, which means we get more into the expressionist lighting and "noirish" look:

Joseph Lewis was born to Russian immigrants in 1907. By the age of 9 he was running a subscription scam involving the Columbia Universtiy newspaper with his younger brother. Always resourceful and ambitious, Lewis decided that he didn’t like high school after one month. His mother told him he could get an education or get a job. The next day, he went out and got the first of whatever job he could. In 1924 he paid his way to California on a steam ship by getting a job on the ship and working his way around the continent.

His brother, thirteen or fourteen years older than him, and an employee of MGM, took him in. Lewis had dreams of becoming an actor, but quickly dropped them when his brother showed him the lines of “actors” waiting for extra work every day. His brother got him a job on the lot as a negative loader. When he became bored of that, he wormed his way onto a studio lot and ingratiated himself with the directors of photography, who made him 4th assistant camera boy. He was laid off during the depression and found only limited work between that time and 1935.

At that time, he presented himself as his brother, who was still working at MGM in the editorial department, to the head of Mascot Pictures, who hired him on the spot as the head of Mascot’s editorial department. Lewis learned the job from his employees. Late in 1935, Mascot was folded into Republic Pictures, and Lewis went with them as the head of the editorial department. By mid-1936, however, when he was passed over for a directing job, Lewis left Republic. He found work in the editing department of Grand National, a Poverty Row studio. When production on 1937’s Navy Spy ran into trouble, Lewis volunteered to do the re-shoots on his regular salary, garnering a co-director credit. His first solo credit came courtesy of producer Trem Carr, a fellow Republic reject, who had just signed a six-picture deal with Universal. The film was called Courage of the West, starring Bob Baker (nee Stanley Leland Weed), a low-rent singing cowboy. Lewis made four more films with Carr, and spent the next eight years jumping from studio to studio, making mostly hour-long Westerns, earning him the nickname “Wagon Wheel Joe.” During this period, his credits could be found at Universal, Columbia, Monogram, RKO, and PRC, another Poverty Row studio.

In 1945, after turning down a long-term position on the Blondie series, he was offered My Name is Julia Ross. He shot it in 18 days, nearly twice the estimated ten days, and impressed studio boss Harry Cohn enough for him to say, “I don’t give a damn how long it takes him!” Lewis, with Cohn’s support, previewed the film, unheard of for a B-picture, and after the reviews were released, in Lewis’s own words, “all of a sudden the fireworks went off.”

Now a commodity, Lewis commanded a higher salary and greater control over his projects. He directed two more noir films at Columbia, So Dark the Night (1946) and The Undercover Man (1949), as well as the musical sequences in The Jolson Story (1946) and the kilt-and-claymore epic The Swordsman (1947). When he was taken off his current picture by Harry Cohn after missing a half-day of work for his mother’s funeral, he knew it was time to leave Columbia.

Almost immediately, he was offered a job by independent producers Frank and Maurice King. That film became Gun Crazy. Much of the epic screenplay (Lewis claimed it was 580 pages) was re-written by blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, unbeknownst to Lewis, who only met with Trumbo’s front, Millard Kaufman. His masterful techniques once more had Lewis in demand, and he soon signed a contract with MGM, where he directed three films before he became restless again.

His next independent feature was another low-budget noir success. The Big Combo starred Cornel Wilde as the lone-wolf cop, Richard Conte as the psychotic gang boss, and Jean Wallace as the woman with whom both are obsessed. Lewis had a heart attack at the age of forty-six and lightened his workload. He ended his cinematic career with four features over the next four years, including the interesting entries The Halliday Brand and Terror in a Texas Town. In 1958 he turned to television, working a few days a month, directing fifty-one episodes of The Rifleman, as well as multiple episodes of The Big Valley, Bonanza, The Detectives and Gunsmoke. He retired in 1968 after more than forty years on studio lots.

Joseph H. Lewis died in August of 2000, at the age of 93, and less than a year after visiting the George Eastman House in December of 1999.

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