Keep On Trucking
Way before the late ‘70s flurry of CB-trucker Convoy and Smokey bumbling after Bandits, was They Drive by Night aka The Road to Frisco (1940). In the Museum of Modern Art’s month of “Ida Lupino: Mother Directs,” it is among fourteen offerings she did as scheming or vulgar noir actress and/or co-writer and/or producer and/or director. (As the Directors Guild only second female, Lupino had “Mother of Us All” printed on her folding chair.)
Not terribly familiar to newer moviegoers, who may associate her and then-husband Howard Duff with TV reruns of Mr. Adams and Eve, British-born Lupino thought her acting career less than a success for her self-described “poor man’s Bette Davis.” Although she comes in late and never catches up with the three TDbN featured costars, it is fitting that she reprises Davis’ homicidal wife-on-trial scene from 1934 Bordertown (1940 story credit is given solely to Albert Isaac Bezzeride’s Long Haul novel).
From Warners’ pseudo-social realism period but not concerned with California roads, chases or fiery crashes or, beyond lip service, with small independent workers, corrupt companies or unions, the Raoul Walsh film slows to murder-courtroom melodrama for the last fifteen minutes and displays the inconsistencies of the genre. But performances are fine, with a bonus in the endearing corny wisecracking and dialogue (by Jerry Wald and Richard Macaulay) of a type cinema has now abandoned in favor of visual effects.
Ann Sheridan’s Cassie Hartley abruptly about-faces into the stock supportive helpmeet, but as the opening’s tough roadside café waitress she dishes out as good as she gets: her “’classy chassis’ is all paid for,” so a customer who offers installments is put in his place with “you couldn’t afford a headlight.” She quits in a rainstorm when boss Barney’s “twelve hands” try to tie her apron strings when she’s wearing no apron, and self-employed farm-produce trucker brothers Joe and Paul Fabrini give her a lift to L.A. Reportedly no love lost between them off screen, George Raft and here second fiddle Humphrey Bogart team up unusually as the siblings, good guys, honest and decent.
Harry McNamara (John Litel) drives his own rig to feed his family and so pushes himself on the road but can’t down enough java to avoid a foreshadowing sleepy accident. Bogart’s Paul would like a steady job for money to start a family with wife Pearl (Gale Page) but follows Joe’s insistence on being their own bosses even if their old jalopy betrays them, contractors don’t pay on time, and “Irish” McGurn (Roscoe Karns; his uncredited co-driver is William Bendix) urges joining him in wearing a company uniform working for trucker-made-good Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale).
Lupino enters here as Lana, Carlsen’s wife of seven years. Slim and stylish, she plays it too broadly in oozing gold digger, lavishly spending while not bothering to conceal contempt for her goodhearted but boorishly drinking and joking husband. After all the years, she still caries a bright torch for Joe, once quite the ladies’ man but now faithfully fallen for wholesome Cassie.
Another asleep-at-the-wheel crash totals the brothers’ rickety truck and leaves Paul hors de combat, unemployable and not very convincingly bitter. So Joe accepts Ed’s offer, pushed by Lana, of a managerial position. Refusing to accept his chaste refusal of her come-ons, desperate Lana seizes at a newfangled electric eye spur-of-the-moment genre-standard way out. That misfiring, she then seeks out an unrealistically dim District Attorney (Henry O’Neill).
But tone has already been more than set, and the story cannot turn out tragic. A year before he became an undeniable superstar with High Sierra (also Walsh and Lupino, but not included in the MoMA series), Bogart still manages ably behind Raft, whose Joe is the only one not in on the smiles and knowing winks that wrap up everything.
(Released by Warner Bros. Not rated by MPAA.)