US / 71 minutes / bw / PRC Dir & Story: Christy Cabanne Pr: Leon Fromkess Scr: Robert Lee Johnson Cine: James Brown Cast: Dave O’Brien, Kay Aldridge, Walter Catlett, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Isabel Randolph, Smith Ballew, Nancy June Robinson, Ruth Lee, Chester Clute, Vivien Oakland, Vicki Saunders, William B. Davidson, Tom Dugan, Eddy Waller, Don Brodie, Dick Elliott, Jack Raymond, Jack Mulhall, Lloyd Ingraham.
I have to admit it. The title, the packaging, the summary that I glanced at far too quickly—all of them conspired to make me think this movie was far more noirish than it actually is. To say it’s even of associational interest is to stretch matters a little. So, if it’s grim nihilism, thrills, suspense, psychological unraveling or any of that other good stuff that you’re after, look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you can tolerate a gentle romantic comedy, with echoes (no more) of the screwball and a subtext of social commentary, bear with me while I briefly (I promise!) talk about The Man who Walked Alone.
Dave O’Brien as Marion Scott and Eddy Waller as the old codger who taunts him as he tries to hitch a ride.
When we first meet Corporal Marion Scott (O’Brien) he’s on a dusty country road trying to hitch a lift to nearby Plainfield; a cornpoke farmer (Waller) taunts his efforts. The humor is laborious and slow, and bodes ill for the movie to come. Luckily the pacing improves soon hereafter. Honest.
At last a car stops, but only because it’s blown a tire. The driver is Wilhelmina “Willy” Pierce Hammond (Aldridge), daughter of the local grande famille . . . although she chooses to keep her identity a secret for now and for some while to come. By the particular way they’re rude to each other, we can tell that already sparks of attraction are flying between her and Marion. There’s a bit more of the cumbersome humor, now with an abrasive admixture of dated sexism.
Kay Aldridge as Willy Hammond.
But at last they’re on their way to town.
Unfortunately, the car she’s driving doesn’t belong to Willy; she has “borrowed” it from her fiancé, young stuffed shirt and political aspirant Alvin Bailey (Ballew). The cops flag the car down and the pair spend a few hours in the police cells before Alvin, by phone, tells the cops he wouldn’t dream of pressing charges against his errant honeybun.
While they’re briefly in jail, Marion and Willy each experience one of the little cameos that mark this movie. We’ve already witnessed the first of these cameos, with Eddy Waller as the garrulous farmer who derides Marion’s efforts at hitching; although, as noted, the scene drags on far too long, there’s nothing wrong with Waller’s rendition of the character or delivery of his lines. Here in the cells, too, we have some splendid work by Chester Clute and especially Vivien Oakland as Mr. and Mrs. Herman Monroe, who have two very different accounts of the incident that landed them both behind bars: Mrs. Monroe claims it was domestic violence that put a bump on her head whereas, according to Herman, it was that his still exploded and she got hit by a flying component—an explanation the Monroes are perhaps reluctant to offer to the cops. A line of Mrs. Monroe’s gives us a clue as to the truth:
“Well, I remember what my father went through. One of the finest men that ever lived. I remember what he went through during Prohibition . . .”
Kay Aldridge as Willy Hammond (left) and Vivien Oakland as Mrs. Monroe.
There are more of these oddball bits of character-based comedy to come. The Hammond family’s major domo, Wiggins (Catlett), a supposed pillar of the community but with a nose for a tipple, is a case in point; it’s one of those roles that might have been funnier had it not been played for laffs.
Guinn “Big Boy” Williams as Alvin’s minder, Champ.
It’s harder to be charitable about the part played by Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, that of Alvin’s minder, Champ. Either Williams was a heck of a lot more famous then than he is now or he had an extremely good agent, because he got fourth billing for an extremely small role—essentially it comprises nothing more than saying the likes of “Quite right too!” or “What he said!” a few times. Williams does everything short of mugging at the camera as he portrays the sort of big-jawed goofball who was more usually, in PRC comedy crime movies, the idiot sergeant to the barely less clueless inspector. Adding to my bewilderment while watching The Man who Walked Alone was that there are two other cast members in this movie, Tom Dugan and Jack Mulhall, who were actually quite good in this type of role (the word “good” seems inapposite in context, but let it pass), and made something of a professional specialty of it.
Tom Dugan as a bark-worse-than-bite desk sergeant.
Yet what’s particularly odd about Williams’s part is not that it’s small but that it doesn’t really belong in the story: why on earth would a small-time politician manqué have a minder? A minder whose presence, let it be noted, he and the others almost entirely ignore—as if even Elwood couldn’t see Harvey.
Heigh-ho, back to Marion and Willy.
On release, the two head for the Hammond mansion. Willy claims she’s the family’s secretary but that, the family being away, Marion is welcome to stay there a night or two. Once they’re home she realizes she’s lost her front-door key: Could Marion climb through a window and let her in?
Walter Catlett as Wiggins.
Moments later, predictably, they’re on their way to spend another brief interlude in the slammer.
That little misunderstanding resolved, they return home for the second time to await the arrival of Willy’s family. She’s by now hired Marion as the new chauffeur, to keep things all respectable-like. It becomes the avowed aim of her hyper-snobbish mother (Randolph) to dismiss this upstart, who clearly has ideas far above his station. Alvin, recognizing a rival, has similar plans . . .
Ruth Lee as Aunt Harriet (left) and Isabel Randolph as Mrs. Hammond.
The other two members of Willy’s family are rather more amenable to reason. Her Aunt Harriet (Lee) clearly played the field a bit in her youth and gives indications that she wouldn’t be averse to doing so again if she thought she could get away with it. And Willy’s little sister Patricia (Robinson) is an example one of those bratty little kids whose efforts at comic relief normally make the hackles rise, yet for once an example who’s surprisingly entertaining.
Isabel Randolph as Mrs. Hammond (left) and Nancy June Robinson as Willy’s insufferable little sister, Patricia.
There are lots of plot twists and turns before the big revelation of what we’d guessed from the outset: Marion is in fact a war hero, honorably discharged for medical reasons, and so all the snobbish antipathy toward him on the part of various other characters is publicly confounded. Cue wedding bells.
Clearly part of the movie’s raison d’être was to serve as a piece of wartime propaganda: our boys risking their lives overseas for our freedom had qualities many times more important than mere money or breeding. As such The Man who Walked Alone sits neatly amid the social environment that had heralded the New Deal a decade or more before and had just brought us such further socially enlightened policies as the GI Bill. It’s difficult not to feel that we could today do with a revival of such attitudes—a society more attuned to people’s needs and worth than their wealth.
Smith Ballew as Alvin Bailey.
I mentioned the sluggish timing of the movie’s early sequences and the bizarre inclusion of an entirely redundant role. This might have given the impression that the screenplay is a stinker.
In fact it’s not. I’m sure I must have come across the script work of Robert Lee Johnson before but, if so, I haven’t been particularly aware of the fact. Here, though, it dawned on me as I was watching how nicely written the screenplay is. It may have problems with its construction—I assume these were imposed by Christy Cabanne—but the lines themselves show the work of a very skilled craftsman: they slip down like a fine Scotch.
As I said at the outset, there’s nothing noirish about this movie beyond the title, and after I’d watched it I was tempted simply to ignore it—at least so far as this site was concerned. But, after sleeping on the decision, I came to the conclusion that The Man who Walked Alone is the type of modest movie that tends to get all too easily forgotten, and maybe shouldn’t be.
So, with apologies, the above outburst of wafflement.