The video department at the paper asked if I’d like to do the “closing of Peter’s Grill” story on Friday morning, and I said of course. It’s been around for 99 years. It features in “Autumn Solitaire.” Back in the late 80s I had one of the waitresses in my KTCA “Readaholic” piece. When I was in college, sometimes I’d go downtown - a special event, something that always reminded me I wasn’t in Fargo anymore, but a big place with tall buildings and real hash-houses that had real coffee cups and waitresses in white uniforms and 1930s decor.
That was the original Peter’s Grill; it moved locations twice. Back then you had to go through the kitchen to get to the bathrooms. Back then it had the accumulated weight of decades and felt marvelously worn and occupied; when you slid into a wooden booth your way had been smoothed by decades of rears that preceded you. When the old place was demolished and they decamped to another locale, it was never the same. A 30s decor in a modernist building: you knew it was an implant, a splinter that the building and the times would eventually work out. And it did.
I think you might understand why I loved the place when I first discovered it.
The intern showed up, and he was gracious enough to let me direct it, or perhaps thought I had JUICE, and was THE MAN, so he let me stage the scenes.
While we were shooting I looked at an occupant of one of the side booths, and had a galvanic moment. Remember: when I was in high school I read the Star and Tribune in the library in Fargo. When I got to the cities I read them both and saw the Columnist position as the apogee of the trade. I wanted to be a columnist for the Star and/or Tribune. Well, the Tribune; I liked their graphics better. I used to read Barbara Flanagan, because everyone did.
And it struck me that the nice lady in the booth having soup was Barbara Flanagan.
I introduced myself. I said I was a columnist for the Star-Tribune. And she said “Oh I read the heck out of you!” And so this came about: here's the video.
It's not a review. It's a look at an old movie to meet actors we forgot, tropes long abandoned or newly revived, and scenes from the world where color would just be so obvious.
A minor forgotten film from 1950. It's quite good.
The music director of Universal Studios was a man named Charles Previn. No doubt he knew some guys in the business: hey, give my nephew a chance, sure, he’s 21, but trust me. He’s good.
It’s a hostage drama, but before the crazed killer can make an appearance, we have to know the hostages, so we’ll care. Behold the bilious bartender:
The bartender, by the way, is nicknamed “Chuckles.” He doesn’t. Of course, it's William Conrad.
Yes, that’s a TV set on the wall. Before you think it’s some Buck-Rogers future with enormous telescreens, the bartender grumbles about the guy who sold it to him, and mentions a projector. The unit in the middle-right is the controlling device. I've never seen one of these in any other movie, or even an ad.
Now, let’s all have a round of applause for Marshall Thompson, playing the psycho killer. He’s escaped from the asylum. Believe me, that was a common theme in 40s and 50s dramas, especially in radio. Criminally Insane-types were always busting out of asylums, sometimes because they were Brilliant, or they escaped in a fashion that did not have to be explained, because all that mattered was that a Dangerous Homicidal Lunatic was at large. If the radio announced this, it was guaranteed hewould show up to bedevil the characters we’ve previously met.
This guy is, as they say, without affect.
Oh, happiest of destinations:
The bar, a dive joint on the second floor (!) in Backlot Limbo-land.
Now. Look up the right hand corner. See those letters? There’s only a few, not the entire sequence. First person to identify their meaning in the comments gets a no-prize.
Good thing that cigarette machine has a second sign to tell you it has cigarettes.
There are other characters to meet before the shooting starts:
The man on the left is Leon Ames, whose last role was an old coot in “Peggy Sue Got Married.” He also had a recurring role on “Mister Ed,” and I’ll bet he was the guy who was convinced the horse could talk, but couldn’t prove it. The Gladys Kravitz role. I have no memory of Mister Ed, but I’m certain there was a character who filled that role. There had to be.
Every time the psycho goes to the window, we see his faint reflection, hanging over the street like a malevolent wraith. He sees the cop . . .
. . . and he cracks the glass. Look at the lighting on that - they hit it just right so it illuminates the cracks.
Well, he shoots a cop and takes hostages, and if this was one kind of a movie that would be the start of a tense standoff. It's another kind of a movie: there's a really tense standoff that can only be solved by one thing: a psychiatrist in an ill-fitting suit arguing with a bull-headed cop.
Yes. It's the beginning of the "poor, beleaguered killer who has head problems" genre. Just as sloppy Fruedianism had made a slurry mish-mash of character's motivations in the 40s, the movies of the 50s would try to find a sympathetic element to the bad guys by explaining their actions as a result of psychological difficulties.
Here the shrink explains things to the cop - with a nice reflection mocking the idea of a quick resolution to the stand-off.
But there's something else that's new. Something that must have struck audiences in 1950 as a natural extension of the world in which they lived, even if it wasn't happening in their city at the time. It would, soon. It would be everywhere.
It's the sort of movie where you're supposed to root for the kindly sympathetic shrink who walks into the lion's den and talks the poor sick kid out of harming anyone else. We feel the kid's pain!. We realize what the war did to people. We understand, as the shrink says, that everyone has times in their life when they separate from reality.
Well,, SPOILER: the shrink reminds the kid that he wasn't in the Army at all. He made all that crap up. C'mon, let's go back to the home, okay? BANG. He shoots the shrink graveyard-dead. The movies in which the psycho-killer collapses crying and shouting for Momma or turns into a frightened little boy we can't help but pity - they're a few years away.
If they made it today, there's absolutely nothing that would need to be changed. The difference is that it took half a century to get back to unabashed rooting for the victims of the psycho.
Matchbooks right now. Strib blog resumes after some hiatus time, and of course Tumblr down the road. Have a fine day.