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Film Friday: "You Only Live Once" (1937)

When I saw this film a couple of days ago, I found out that it was released on January 29, 1937. So naturally, this week on "Film Friday" I had to tell you a little bit about it.

Original release poster
Directed by Fritz Lang, You Only Live Once (1937) concerns Eddie Taylor (Henry Fonda), a three-time convict who has just received an early release due to the influence of public defender Stephen Whitney (Barton MacLane) and the prison chaplain, Father Dolan (William Gargan). Eddie then marries his longtime sweetheart Joan Graham (Sylvia Sidney), Whitney's secretary, and vows to go straight and work hard. His aspirations at normal life are soon thwarted, however, when he and Joan are asked to leave their honeymoon room after the proprietors, Ethan (Charles "Chic" Sale) and Hester (Margaret Hamilton), learn that Eddie is an ex-con. Eddie gets a job at a truck company, but his boss, Mr. Williams (William Pawley), fires him for being late after he meets Jo to show her a house they plan to buy.

Sometime later, Monk Mendall (Walter de Palma), a member of the gang to which Eddie formerly belonged, stages a bank robbery and frames Eddie for the crime. He leaves behind Eddie's hat, which Monk had stolen from him, and which has Eddie's initials stamped on it. When Monk is killed after his getaway truck skids off the road and into a gorge, Eddie is convicted of both the robbery and the murder of a guard on circumstantial evidence and given the death penalty. On the eve of his execution, a gun smuggled into the isolation ward enables Eddie to escape. As he makes his way to the truck gate of the prison, Father Dolan comes forward to tell him that Monk's corpse and getaway vehicle with the stolen money have just been found at the bottom of a gorge, meaning that Eddie has been pardoned. Eddie does not believe Dolan and, in his confused state of mind, accidentally kills the chaplain. Eddie and the now pregnant Joan go on the lam and are blamed for every robbery throughout the country. After the baby is born, Joan leaves the child with Whitney and her sister Bonnie (Jean Dixon) and then heads for Canada with Eddie. As they are about to cross the border, Eddie and Joan are ambushed by state troopers, who wound both of them. They drive off the road and Eddie carries Joan toward the border. After she dies in his arms, Eddie is fatally shot. He kisses Joan and then hears Father Dolan say, "You're free, Eddie; the gates are open," before he dies.

Eddie Taylor: Go ahead! Take a good look, you monkeys! Have a good time! Get a big kick out of me! It's fun to see an innocent man die, isn't it? If you think I'm going to the chair, you're crazy! They're never gonna kill me for a job I didn't do!

After being discharged from the military in 1918, Vienna-born Fritz Lang moved to Berlin to work as a director at the German film studio UFA and later at Nero-Film. Combining popular genres with emerging Expressionist techniques, Lang directed some of the most iconic European pictures of the time, including the epic science-fiction drama Metropolis (1927) and the disturbing thriller M (1931), considered by many film scholars to be his masterpiece. When Adolf Hitler rose to power in early 1933, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels banned Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) due to its underlying paralells between its title character and the Nazi leader. Worried about the advent of Nazism, partly because of his Jewish heritage, Lang fled Germany and moved to Paris, where he filmed Liliom (1934) with Charles Boyer. A few months later, he went to Hollywood under contract to MGM to direct his first American feature, Fury (1936), a grim tale of lynch law starring Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney. 

Meanwhile, in mid-1936, Sidney attended a dinner with independent producer Walter Wanger and autor Theodore Dreiser, who had written the novel on which the actress's An American Tragedy (1931) was based. In discussing ideas for Sidney's next picture, Dreiser suggested she and Wanger do a story on Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the notorious Texas bank robbers who cut a swathe through six states before dying under machine guns in a Louisiana field two years earlier. Wanger liked the idea and immediately hired Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker to develop a treatment. Known as "two of the most colorful screenwriters in Hollywood," Towne and Baker had previously worked for Wanger in Shangai (1935) and Mary Burns, Fugitive (1935), which starred Sidney. By mid-August, they had turned out a first rough draft entitled "Three Times Loser," the story of an ex-con and a receptionist who dream of home and happiness, but end up running for their lives. Soon afterwards, on Sidney's recommendation, Wanger assigned Fritz Lang to the director's chair and agreed to let him have control over the final cut of the film, a privilege that he was not granted at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda
Although a screenplay already existed when Lang was hired, he began to influence the project as soon as he arrived. Working with Towne and Baker, Lang "tried to get into [the story] what he called social implications that were ultimately overruled, showing how the boy drifted into crime because of bad influences and unfortunate environment instead the picture opens as the boy emerges from the prison, a stranger to the audience." Once the script was the way he wanted, Lang refused to allow the writers to alter it further. A generally favourable response from the Hays Office led to a full screenplay being produced in September, along with a title change to You Only Live Once.

As the script evolved, Lang made sure You Only Live Once would be devoid of "convential Hollywood moralizing." For instance, he eliminated the depiction of Bonnie as a failed career woman and reduced the romance between Joan and Whitney, so as to not detract from her love for Eddie. Eddie's initial appearance as a bad-tempered, arrogant inmate who refuses to shake the governor's hand when he is released from prison was also altered to make him a more sympathetic character. The most important change from the earlier screenplay, however, was the ending. Instead of having Eddie offer a negative assessement of his worth, the eventual resolution provides a greater sense of affirmation between the couple, "bestow[ing] on the pair an endorsement of their tragedy." The "mystical summons" of Father Dolan reinforced the sense of despair and offered "a jaded commentary on the hopelessness of their lives in the material world."

Henry Fonda in a publicity still
Filming of You Only Live Once was accomplished between late September and mid-November 1936, with additional scenes and inserts shot in early January 1937. An enterprising producer, Wanger obtained the services of film editor Daniel Mandell and composer Alfred Newman, who also collaborated on the Best Picture nominee Dead End (1937), as did Sidney. The cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, had done extensive work on documentaries in the early 1930s, the sort of experience that would enable him to give a social protest film like You Only Live Once a natural look, "a fidelity to reality."

According to Sidney, Fonda "cordially hated" Lang, who used to deliberately manipulate the actor to get the desired results in terms of performance. Said Sidney, "What [Lang] would do was take me across the set where Fonda was sitting, and would whisper in my ear. He had a thermos with homemade soup in it and he would pour some for me, all the time speaking softly. Well, Fonda knew that Fritz and I had worked together before, and he assumed that Fritz was giving me preferential treatment; giving me extra coaching, you know, that sort of thing. Well, Fonda would fume and mutter, 'That son of a bitch' [...] while all Fritz was doing was telling me how he had made the soup. And Fonda sort of said, 'The hell with him. I'll show him,' and he gave one hell of a performance." Despite Fonda's dislike for Lang, the two worked together again in The Return of Frank James (1940). In sharp contrast, Sidney loved working with Lang "because I loved the fact that he was so meticulous. He knew more about [the] camera, he knew more about cutting, and when he said he wanted just a close-up, [it was] very much like Hitchcock, it's what we used to call cutting in the camera." Later, she would boast about being the only actor to survive three of Lang's films, the third being You and Me (1938).

Distributed by United Artists, You Only Live Once opened at the Rivoli Theatre in New York on January 29, 1937 to generally positive reviews from critics. Although Frank Nugent of The New York Times felt that You Only Live Once was not as "dynamic and powerful" as Fury, he did praise Lang's direction, which he described as "his usual brilliant compound of suspense and swift action, heightened always by his complete command of lights and cameras in pointing and counterpointing his scenes. The dismal rain at the bank holdup, the swirling fog during the prison break, the black-and-white contrast of the death-house, the photographic crescendo of Taylor's flight — these are ready and perfect illustrations of directorial imagination." The reviewer for Newsweek called the film "the finest of its type since [The] Public Enemy [1931]", adding: "Given a stirring screen play by Gene Towne and Graham Baker, [Lang] directs it with the power and realism that characterized his work in M and Fury." Similarly, TIME magazine said that "You Only Live Once sets a pace which 1937 cops-&-robbers sagas may find hard to beat." 

Despite the enthusiastic response from the press, You Only Live Once was not a box-office success during its initial run. One reviewer summed up the difficulty of finding an audience for it in Depression-torn America: "To those who enjoy having their emotions wracked with the sufferings of a man in the toils of a merciless tale the picture will have deeply moving appeal." The film's reputation has since grown, however, most film experts agree that it one of the best films of Fonda's earlier career, as well as one of the finest pictures directed by Lang.

A Divided World: Hollywood Cinema and Emigré Directors in the Era of Roosevelt and Hitler, 1933-1948 by Nick Smedley (2011) | Gangsters and G-Men on Screen: Crime Cinema Then and Now by Gene D. Phillips (2014) | Henry Fonda: A Bio-Bibliography by Kevin Sweeney (1992) | The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda by Devin McKinney (2012) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review


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