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Heaven With A Barbed Wire Fence (1939)

Heaven With A Barbed Wired Fence CoverStudio: 20th Century Fox

Theatrical Release: November 3, 1939

Blu Ray Release: March 1, 2013

Rating: UnRated!

Directed by Ricardo Cortez

Review by Tim Bodzioney

The year 1939 is often considered to be Hollywood’s best year by film critics and historians. In a year crowded with contenders for top honors (Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Young Mr. Lincoln, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Dark Victory, Gunga Din, Of Mice And Men, The Roaring Twenties, The Wizard Of Oz, and Wuthering Heights), nobody would confuse B-movie Heaven With A Barbed Wire Fence with one of those.

Instead it is a perfect example of the Hollywood machine running flawlessly to produce a wonderful, unpretentious entertainment. It tells the story of Joe, a lowly New York City department store clerk who abandons the overcrowded city for the open spaces of a recently purchased 20-acre ranch in Arizona. The plot is so efficiently set up and executed that there is only one scene in New York—Joe (fourth-billed Glenn Ford in his first feature) at the top of the Empire State Building giving the city one last look before departing.

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The next scene finds us in a roadside diner outside of Cleveland where Joe encounters Tony (Richard Conte, billed as Nicholas Conte), a young hobo with “itchy feet.” Tony, who has been on the road for six or seven years, is dedicated to riding the rails, while Joe is thumbing his way across the country. They go their separate ways as they depart the diner.

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Joe slips into the back of a truck parked in front of the diner. He is soon found out by the driver and ejected. As he makes his way out of the dark trailer, he stumbles upon a sleeping fellow hitcher. Though disguised as a man, we quickly learn that it’s a woman (Jean Rogers). Joe and Anita make their way to the rail yard where Joe is reunited with Tony. The three of them make their way across the country together with the help of The Professor (Raymond Walburn).

It’s very simply and effectively done. Directed by actor Ricardo Cortez (brother of great cinematographer Stanley Cortez, who shot The Magnificent Ambersons), Heaven With A Barbed Wire Fence is one of seven movies he directed at Fox in the years 1939-40 while continuing to pursue an acting career that spanned over forty years. On the basis of this one movie, I wonder why his directing career was so brief.

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Sol M. Wurtzel produced the movie, one of fifteen for the year 1939 alone. All and all, Wurtzel produced over 160 movies during his career at Fox. In a resume that pretty much covers every genre, Wurtzel was responsible for a great deal of B product from Fox. Fox was different from other studios at the time in that its B-movies were more like lower budget A-movies. Wurtzel was responsible for titles such as John Ford’s Judge Priest and Steamboat Round The Bend, the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series, and several post-Hal Roach Laurel and Hardy movies. He even produced a rare Fox horror entry, Dr. Renault’s Secret.

The movie is beautifully shot by Edward Cronjager. Cronjager is one of those unsung craftsmen of the studio system whose work is always striking and rarely mentioned. Looking at his credits you quickly realize that the studio heads understood his worth. He was frequently assigned to novice directors, such as the case with this movie, probably to keep things moving on the set. But Cronjager also seems to have been a favorite of top-tier directors, having worked repeatedly with the likes of King Vidor, William Wellman, William A. Seiter, George Stevens, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Henry Hathaway, Rudolph Mate, and Delmar Daves. He worked with ease in both in black and white and color, as inLubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait.

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Heaven With A Barbed Wired Fence contains little plot, but plenty of incidents and movement. The movie comes late in a cycle of Depression-era movies that either depict or contain elements of life on the road. The script is by Dalton Trumbo, Leonard Hoffman, and Ben Kohn, adapted from an original story by Trumbo. Certainly the Anita backstory concerning her escape from the fascists comes from the later blacklisted Trumbo. Other than For Whom The Bell Tolls and an incident in Rick’s past in Casablanca, it is one of the few instances of a Hollywood movie even mentioning the Spanish Civil War. Switch Spain with any country south of the border and Anita’s story could be done today. It is a movie steeped, like many Depression-era movies, in the melting pot sensibility of FDR’s America. Glenn Ford is the waspy American, Richard Conte is the ‘ethnic’ American, and Jean Rogers is the recent immigrant seeking safety and a better life. Even after tragedy strikes, the audience is led to believe that everything will turn out okay. This culminates in the Arizona desert with a Russian Orthodox priest marrying the romantic leads—only in America!

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The script could be described as a road movie crossed with a screwball comedy. It is filled with eccentric characters such as The Professor and Mamie, a proprietress of an Arizona saloon that caters to Russian emigrants. Ward Bond appears as a dim-witted hobo who tries to rape Anita (similar to a role he played in 1932’s Wild Boys Of The Road). Even the unnamed Empire State Building guard, played by an un-credited Paul Hurst, adds a little zip to the film.

There is not a lot of time spent on exposition or backstory—Anita and The Professor’s characters being the only ones with lives before the start of the movie mentioned. But that doesn’t matter as the movie is only slightly over an hour. Characters are ‘types’, and the actors expertly play them in such a manner that it is all the audience needs to know.

The young leads are fine. Glenn Ford is an actor I’ve always been ambivalent about. I find his range limited. I think he’s fine when playing self-centered, spoiled characters such as 3:10 To Yuma. This role requires just that—Joe’s only concern is working his ranch and getting ahead. Women are an unaffordable nuisance, and Anita’s plight means nothing to him. His late conversion works okay because it’s at the film’s fade out. There isn’t time for him to be charming or likable. When asked to deliver these qualities later in his career, such as in Pocketful Of Miracles, I find him smarmy. This is also Richard Conte’s first major role. He demonstrated throughout his career a wide range, capable of playing heroes and villains, often conflicted (House Of Strangers, The Big Combo, The Bothers Rico). He’s fine in the role of Tony. Jean Rogers is an underrated actress who didn't have the career she deserved. Stuck in Universal serials (adorable as Dale Arden in the first two Flash Gordon serials), she eventually escaped to Fox where she worked as a leading lady in movies such as this. From Fox she moves up to MGM where she is still a leading lady in B-movies, but then is demoted to support when appearing in A-movies. She finished her career in poverty row before retiring in the late 1940s.

This is the first title I’ve seen from Fox’s Archive line. There have been reports of terrible or outdated transfers, such as pan-and-scan transfers of Cinemascope movies. This is especially egregious coming from the studio that introduced anamorphic-lensed movies to the world. I lucked out with this one. It looks great for a transfer that hasn’t been cleaned up and the sound was good. There are no extras.

In short, Heaven With A Barbed Wire Fence reflects a Depression-era fantasy of America. Growing up in a working class, multi-ethnic community and regularly watching movies of this ilk on the late show, I personally have always been sympathetic to this fantasy.  The movie does hint at darker themes that Hollywood would never explore in the march to war.  It is interesting to think of a disillusioned, post-war Joe and Anita morphing into the gun toting couple of the Trumbo penned 1949 classic, Gun Crazy.

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Never the less, I found Heaven With A Barbed Wire Fence to be both funny and moving. Anita’s guileless search for freedom; the lovely scene where Anita explains the difference between crops to a clueless, yet determined Joe; the autumnal romantic comic interplay between The Professor and Mamie; the wedding; and Tony’s post-surgery insight are all effective. What more can one ask for in a 62-minute movie? One last note for genre fans—the role of the nurse who tends to Tony is played by Kay Linaker. Twenty years later, after retiring from acting, she was a co-writer of The Blob, another fantasy of America to which I’m sympathetic.

[Rating: 4]



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