Hello Out There (1949)

US / 31 minutes / bw / Huntington Hartford Dir: James Whale Pr: Huntington Hartford Scr: George W. Tobin Story: Hello Out There! (1941 play, staged 1942) by William Saroyan Cine: Karl Struss Cast: Marjorie Steele, Harry Morgan, Lee Patrick, Ray Teal.

Created as a segment of a three-part anthology feature whose other two segments were later paired as the feature Face to Face (1953), Hello Out There is a fairly faithful—perhaps too faithful—adaptation of a William Saroyan one-act play. One odd change (aside from the removal of the exclamation mark from the title) is that the play’s Emily Smith becomes Ethel Smith in the movie.

An itinerant gambler, Photo-Finish (Morgan), is in jail in the small Texas town of Matador, falsely accused of having raped a married woman in the neighboring town of Wheeling. Everyone’s gone home from the jail except the cleaner Ethel Smith (Steele), who cooks for the prisoners whenever there are any. She arrives in response to his incessant calls of “Hello out there!” and an instant bond springs up between the two: “I’m kind of lonesome too,” she says. “Yeah, I’m almost as lonesome as a coyote myself.”

Harry Morgan as Photo-Finish.

Within minutes they’re planning a future life for themselves in San Francisco, where perhaps Photo-Finish’s extended run of rotten luck can end and they’ll find happiness. He explains his moniker:

“Well, every race I bet on turns out to be a photo-finish, and my horse never wins.”

Of course, for their plans to come to fruition, they must get Photo-Finish out of the jail before the anticipated lynch mob arrives . . .

Marjorie Steele as Ethel.

Ray Teal has a small role as the homicidal husband of the woman Photo-Finish supposedly assaulted and Lee Patrick an even smaller one as the tramp herself, who got Photo-Finish into this mess by retroactively demanding money for services rendered, then accusing him of rape when he rebuffed the extortion. In a powerful conversation between Photo-Finish and the husband the caged gambler forces the husband to confront the fact that the murderous hatred he has chosen to direct against Photo-Finish is in actuality his hatred for the situation he’s trapped in: married to a woman he loves who regularly seduces strangers, then fleeces them.

Ray Teal as the Husband.

This was by quite a few years the last movie of James Whale, the legendary director of movies like Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939); his last feature was They Dare Not Love (1941), after which came just a wartime documentary short and then, seven years later, this. It seems he was in charge of art direction here, in addition to his directing duties, and the mise-en-scène is, along with Karl Struss’s superbly noirish cinematography, what stamps itself on the mind. The cell with its outward-sloping bars, the too-large door of the jail positioned at the head of a flight of stairs so that anyone arriving is seen first as a shadow on the wall . . . it’s all magnificently theatrical, and it conjures a mood for the movie that’s hard to shake off.

The performances are theatrical too, and I’m less sure that this approach is altogether effective. Harry Morgan, a Noirish site favorite (and an actor who appears numerous times in my Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir), is loudly declamatory throughout, as if making sure to project his voice sufficiently that even those at the back of the gods can hear every word clearly. The fact that this oral performance is complemented by similarly larger-than-life behavior underlines the theatricality of it all. Whale (perhaps following Saroyan) could have been trying to present Photo-Finish as simply that kind of a guy—and, let’s face it, the instant, potentially life-molding relationship with Ethel is the kind of thing that “that kind of a guy” goes in for—but the rendition comes across more as an over-reverence for the stage origin of the piece.

Another difficulty I had was with the character of Ethel—or, more precisely, with the casting of Marjorie Steele in the role. Here, supposedly, is a young woman to whom the men of Matador never say nice things, just “laugh at me,” who responds like an unfolding flower when Photo-Finish tells her she’s pretty to the extent that she’s willing to run away with this no-good gambler who’s twice her age . . . and yet Ethel’s being played by an actress who’s truly quite lovely and, to judge by her articulacy, intelligent. It’s impossible to imagine that, no matter how socially inept the male youth of Matador, TX, might be, she hasn’t been wooed a thousand times over by hopeful swains.

Steele, too, declaims her lines. Being unfamiliar with the name, I discovered on doing some basic research that she had a more prominent stage than screen career—in fact, she made just four movies, of which this was the second, after the noirish Tough Assignment (1949). She also played a few TV roles, including a couple in the early 1960s in the BBC’s Sunday-Night Play series.

Around the time she made Hello Out There she married the movie’s producer, A&P grocery chain heir Huntington Hartford: she was just 19, he was nearing 50. (In the movie Ethel claims to be 17; I laughed, because she looks more mature than that, yet in reality Steele was not so much older than her character’s age.) Her second husband, following divorce from Hartford, was the UK actor Dudley Sutton—among whose many roles was a supporting part in Madame Sin (1972 TVM), a movie about which I recently wrote for Noirish. That marriage ended (rather soon) in divorce too, and for her third husband she took the writer Constantine FitzGibbon, author of the profoundly reactionary near-future If This Goes On dire-warning science-fiction novel When the Kissing Had to Stop (1960)—if them promiscuous hippies have their way we’re all doomed, doomed, DOOMED, I tell ee!—and a somewhat oversympathetic but certainly very readable biography of his friend Dylan Thomas, The Life of Dylan Thomas (1965).

For all my carping about some aspects, Hello Out There works as a very powerful piece of moviemaking; it’s also fascinating, of course, for its place in Whale’s filmography. When I sat down to watch it I was under the assumption I’d never seen it before; within no more than a minute or two I realized I was wrong, even though my previous viewing must have been forty or fifty years ago.

You can find Hello Out There to watch online at RareFilmm: The Cave of Forgotten Films.

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This was initially posted on Wonders in the Dark in early June as my contribution to the Allan Fish Online Film Festival.

10 thoughts on “Hello Out There (1949)

  1. Very interesting! I had no idea this filmed version existed. I use Saroyan’s one-act play (paired with Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”) when I teach narrative structure in some Introduction to Theatre classes. Thanks for the review —

    • The other two intended segments were made – The Secret Sharer, based on Joseph Conrad, directed by John Brahm, starring James Mason; and The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, based on Stephen Crane, directed by Bretaigne Windust, starring Robert Preston and Marjorie Steele. These were released as an omnibus feature, Face to Face, in New York in January 1953. Why the time lag, I’m not sure. Maybe the 1949 date for Hello Out There is suspect? In any case, there is more information here: https://brightlightsfilm.com/hello-out-there-the-last-testament-of-james-whale/#.XSZzW4pOmhA

    • I’d thought I’d never heard of it before, but then I found as I was watching it that I’d seen it at some stage, long ago, probably on TV: the odd, acute-angular design of the prison cell is very memorable, and the sight of it opened up memories of other aspects of the movie.

      Patrick Murtha has a fascinating addendum in the comment below, with a link to a BLFJ article that contains far more info than I had room for here. Much recommended.

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