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Red House, The (Blu-ray Review)

14 May, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Film Chest
$15.98 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Not rated.
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Lon McCallister, Judith Anderson, Allene Roberts.

Long among the more prominent residents of Public Domain Hell, this supremely moody backwoods melodrama from 1947 is nonetheless well remembered not just by film fanciers but at least one former father-to-be. An immensely popular broadcast figure at the TV station where I worked throughout college, he told me he’d been so taken here by then newcomer Rory Calhoun’s persona as the story’s not unsympathetic wayward youth that he eventually gave his firstborn the middle name “Rory.” It’s the kind of thing that can pique one’s curiosity about a movie.

But every time I tried to watch prints of The Red House in the past, I was put off by the soundtrack’s grating tin, a problem not completely alleviated (but to a good degree, is) in this otherwise most welcome spiff-up by HD Cinema Classics, which is releasing the picture as a Blu-ray/DVD combo that also does fairly good justice to Bert Glennon’s (Stagecoach) cinematography. And there’s an added reason the soundtrack issue is paramount, thanks to the movie’s composer. It was Miklos Rozsa — contributing a fairly famous score at that — back when he was in his delirious The Killers/Spellbound noir mode before going all Robert Taylor/Chuck Heston “Biblical” in the following decade.

There’s no such male hunk-dom here; the lead is Edward G. Robinson, and his character has a wooden leg at that. A farmer, he lives self-sufficiently out in the woods where even the school bus doesn’t go — with a sister played by Judith Anderson. The latter’s character is a normal person, one we even feel a little sorry for her because she gave up a chance for love to care for her brother. But one can never totally expunge the vibes that linger from Anderson’s creepy and classic performance as Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, so just the fact that she’s around adds to the portent that something sick is up.

Excluded from this (for a while) is their adopted daughter teen daughter played by the haunting Allene Roberts, who got out of the movies after she got religion in real life — but not before briefly specializing (see Knock on Any Door and The Hoodlum) in playing innocent young things who got involved with punks or bad-luck types who were at least smart enough to dig her. Later, Roberts ended up in several “Dragnet” TV episodes of the 1950s, and I always wondered if the connection was her House co-star Julie London, who was married to series star/creator Jack Webb in that same period.

London, in her screen debut, is real teenaged trouble here — throwing sex around in ways that play with the heads of Calhoun and the movie’s main male romantic lead (Lon McCallister), who ought to be sticking with Roberts). But ultimately, she’s still a youngster who’s fearful, late in the story, that her father is going to whup her in the odious manner of Arthur Godfrey’s hit yahoo single of the day, "Slap Her, Down, Pa." Without making a big deal about it, the movie is very, very good at dealing with teenaged insecurities — though the story’s main thrust is discovering just went on years earlier in the tough-to-locate house on his expansive property that Robinson tries to forbid the youngsters to seek out.

Notwithstanding this, he has, and perhaps unwisely, hired Calhoun to oversee the property, a decision that ultimately kicks off 20 or 30 minutes of climactic mayhem. But despite being one of those menacing dark-haired youths that most parents of the day (as they’d later do with Elvis) would have termed a “hood,” he’s just a kid in over his head and anxious to spend the generous bucks Robinson in paying him. In a way, I almost prefer the movie’s quieter moments to its melodramatic ones — but a melodrama this is, and Robinson’s final gesture here (it must be tough driving a standard-shift car with a wooden leg) is not your everyday scene. The director/co-writer here is Delmer Daves, who much later would let his portrayal of teen sexuality do as complete a hang-out as the wheezing Production Code would allow with A Summer Place, Parrish, Susan Slade and — in the most direct down-on-the-farm Red House comparison — the notably hormone-heavy Spencer’s Mountain. But in the ‘40s, he was basically keeping it clean – though it would have been fun to ride the school bus with Julie London and then imagining her as a sultry Liberty Records vocalist of the future. 

Footnote Delmer Daves question to the Warner Archive folk: Say, how long do we have to wait for Gary Cooper, Marty Robbins’ title tune and George C. Scott’s screen debut in The Hanging Tree?

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