Friday, June 12, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Whispering Smith (1948) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

This month Kino Lorber is releasing some terrific boxed Blu-ray sets.

One of the sets, Western Classics I, was just released this week. It consists of three films in individual cases: WHEN THE DALTONS RODE (1940) starring Randolph Scott, Brian Donlevy, and Kay Francis; THE VIRGINIAN (1946) starring Joel McCrea, Donlevy, and Barbara Britton; and WHISPERING SMITH, starring Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, and Brenda Marshall.

I just watched and thoroughly enjoyed WHISPERING SMITH. I first reviewed the film here over a dozen years ago; in the intervening time I've become a huge fan of Alan Ladd, so I loved circling back to this film after so much time and revisiting it in a fresh context, having seen him in roughly 30 additional films since my first viewing.

The movie begins in fine style with beautiful location photography under the opening credits, scored by Adolph Deutsch. Deutsch began a long association with MGM the same year this film was released.

The credits segue into a shootout which then leads to an evocative nighttime train sequence, where highly regarded railroad detective "Whispering" Smith (Ladd) is unexpectedly reunited with his old friend Murray (Preston), who works for the railroad. Smith is on the trail of a gang which has been robbing the railroad.

Murray is married to Marian (Marshall), and when they're reunited it's soon clear she and Smith still have feelings for one another from days gone by, though they're both honorable people who are loyal to Murray. For his part, Murray is acting increasingly erratically, and it's soon apparent that he's up to no good with local rancher Rebstock (Donald Crisp) and Rebstock's hired gun Whitey Du Sang (an unrecognizable, creepy Frank Faylen).

When Murray is caught looting a wrecked train, he's fired by railroad exec McCloud (John Eldredge) and goes off the deep end, staging repeated train wrecks and robberies with Rebstock's gang. Smith, tasked with putting an end to the mayhem and financial losses, has the painful task of chasing after his one-time pal.

WHISPERING SMITH isn't a perfect movie, but it's one I find very entertaining and enjoy a great deal.

I'll lay the flaws out first, beginning with Marshall as Marian. Marshall was never a multidimensional actress, but I nonetheless have quite a fondness for her; she was a beautiful woman, and I've always enjoyed watching her. Unfortunately in this film she doesn't get to do much more than cry and look sad; part of the problem is that the script by Frank Butler and Karl Kamb doesn't actually give Marian a bigger variety of scenes in the first place. The combination of script and actress leave the character of Marian rather one-dimensional.

Another issue is the frequent mixture of locations with soundstage shots. The movie is very attractively filmed in Technicolor by Ray Rennahan, but it's an odd jumble of effective exteriors, including a nice backlot train station, with soundstage interiors. The strangest moment follows a horse-drawn buggy filmed outdoors, then as the camera pans past a tree the action resumes inside a soundstage. It's extremely noticeable and takes one out of the movie a bit when it's so clear the actors are indoors pretending to be outside.

Finally, there are some noticeable continuity problems, such as Smith knocking a glass off a nightstand, which loudly shatters, but when Marian walks into the room and walks over the area where the glass fell, she doesn't react in the slightest. There's also a harmonica box in the movie which jumps from place to place between shots!

Those are my only quibbles, and in the end they're not particularly big compared to how much I enjoyed the movie. It's a solid, well-paced 88 minutes with the always-compelling Ladd onscreen a majority of the time as he tries to solve the crimes against the railroad. Other than the weak writing of Marian, it's a good story, based on a novel by Frank H. Spearman.

Ladd is great playing his unspoken longing for Marian, and perhaps even better communicating his feelings for his friend Murray; the final scenes with Ladd and Preston have real emotional impact.

Ladd also has some nice lighthearted scenes with actors like Fay Holden, William Demarest, Will Wright, and little Gary Gray (seen here earlier this week in RACHEL AND THE STRANGER).

The deep cast also includes familiar faces like Irving Bacon, Milton Kibbee, Hank Worden, Ray Teal, and Don Barclay. Leslie Fenton capably directed.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is a visual treat with excellent sound. The disc includes a commentary by Simon Abrams, a trailer, and an additional trailer for Ladd's BOY ON A DOLPHIN (1957), also available from Kino Lorber.

All in all, watching one of my all-time favorite stars in a gorgeous print of a solid Western rates a definite thumbs up.

I'll be reviewing the other films in the set here at a future date.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.


Blogger Bill said...

Brenda Marshall was far more enticing and dramatic in The Adventures of Don Juan with Errol Flynn. In this one it's fun to see how often Ladd is photographed carefully so as not let his short stature show.

12:36 AM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I'll bet this looks beautiful. I believe Whispering Smith was the first time I saw Fay Holden outside of the Hardy series. Ah, memories.

6:32 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Brenda Marshall did not appear n The Adventures of Don Juan; that was Viveca Lindfors. Marshall did work with Flynn in The Sea Hawk, black and white, years earlier.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Laura, I agree with you about the movie's faults. Brenda Marshall was very pretty no doubt, but such a boring actress. In The Sea Hawk I was waiting the entire time for Olivia to show up and replace her. She looked beautiful in that movie but I thought there was no spark of life in her.

About the soundstage shots, it's so odd to me that I don't mind an entire Noir filmed in a studio. Actually it works amazingly well and is not distracting at all. It really doesn't work with Westerns.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Bill! I figured right away you must have meant THE SEA HAWK, as Barrylane notes. It's interesting some of my favorite actors were on the shorter side -- Audie Murphy was even shorter than Alan Ladd!

Margot, the first few times I saw THE SEA HAWK I was always dissatisfied that it wasn't Olivia, but over time I've gotten used to Marshall in the film. That said, it's her other films I most enjoy, like EAST OF THE RIVER, THE CONSTANT NYMPH, and STRANGE IMPERSONATION.

Caftan Woman, it really does look great. I almost had trouble recognizing Holden at first; she looks somewhat different but I imagine it's a combination of the hairstyle and being a bit older.

Margot, that's very true about the soundstages. I don't object to them on the whole -- I think part of the problem is, as you note, with Westerns, and another issue is if a film constantly goes back and forth between "real" exteriors and "indoor" exteriors, making the soundstage work more noticeable. If the style is more cohesive throughout a film I find I'm more accepting.

Best wishes,

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re Brenda marshall; have a look at South of Suez opposite George Brent and a sterling supporting cast. Not a big picture, but a pretty good story.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I agree, I like SOUTH OF SUEZ. For anyone who might want to learn more, my review of the Warner Archive release of that film is here.

Best wishes,

1:12 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Laura, I thought I posted that comment regarding South of Suez?

1:16 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

For some reason it came through the comments system as "Anonymous." Have no idea why. Thanks for sharing that it was from you!

Best wishes,

1:26 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Will check out South of Suez. Found it on that other youtube.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Let us know your thoughts, Margot! In my view SOUTH OF SUEZ is just one of those little movies that gets the job done in terms of being entertaining. :)

Best wishes,

2:09 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Glad you mentioned the "creepy" Frank Faylen. I liked this movie but can't really comment on the actors because I really only remember Faylen in what must have been the most out-of-his-typical-type character he ever played. To this date, whenever I read or hear of this movie, my first and only thought is of Faylen.

I've long been a big fan of Frank Faylen, and seeing him in this role only makes me regret all the more that he didn't get more opportunities to play other than cab drivers, orderlies, second-string thugs, and Dobie's dad.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I actually had to look up who was playing Whitey, and my jaw dropped when I saw it was Frank Faylen! I had to look at him really hard to recognize him, LOL -- beyond the hairstyle, he even squinted his eyes strangely. It really was different for him!

I like him very much too. Couldn't begin to count how many movies I've seen him in. Especially grateful for all that he and Ward Bond added to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946).

Best wishes,

6:39 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Just watched South of Suez. Very entertaining indeed. No shortage of plot twists. Considering it's just 84 minutes long, a lot happens. George Brent was just so good in these kind of melodramas, Marshall was certainly more lively than in other movies but Eric Blore steals the show.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Wow, that was quick, Margot! Awesome. So glad you enjoyed it! Blore is just terrific, isn't he?! And a very nice film for both Brent and Marshall. (I also just got to remembering that the set at the beginning of the movie was from the Bette Davis version of THE LETTER!)

Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on seeing that Brenda Marshall film!

Best wishes,

9:09 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I thought both Blore and Brent (without him, there is no picture) are terrific as are Lee Patrick and George Tobias.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Laura said...


Tobias was realllly creepy in this one.

Best wishes,

8:54 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

True about Tobias and Lee Patrick. I don't think I've ever seen her like this. Her courtroom scene reminded me of another actress: "The doors made me do it!!!" I'm sure you all know who that was. :)

6:11 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Yep!! Truly one of the great movie lines you just quoted. ;)

Best wishes,

6:16 PM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Of course.

3:42 PM  

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