They Drive By Night (1940) Directed by Raoul Walsh. Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino (95 min).
A hard scrabble wildcat trucking firm run by two brothers hauling fruit from the California fields to LA faces off against crooked bosses, lonely wives and exhaustion. “As usual, the Warners are delivering in A-1 shape another of their fast action dramas about tough guys and gals, sweaty with honest toil and very loose with suggestive repartee” (NY Times).
They Drive By Night combined the Paul Muni film Bordertown (in which he co-starred with Bette Davis in the Ida Lupino role) with A. I. Bezzerides’ novel about truckers titled The Long Haul (1938). Bezzerides’ first novel was based on his own experience as a truck driver in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, where he grew up. “I’d written two novels, The Long Haul  and Thieves’ Market . They were based on things I’d seen with my father or on my own. I worked with my father, trucking, going to the market to buy produce. There was corruption and they’d try to screw you. When he was selling grapes, the packing house would screw him on the price and then sell to New York for an expensive price. When I was trucking I wouldn’t allow it. A guy tried to rob me in such a blatant way I picked up a two-by-four and I was going to kill him.”
The film may be the first about the trucking business, reflecting the Depression era agricultural economy. For the independent trucker, hauling farm produce was the only cargo option, since manufactured goods factories would have employed company drivers. Some foreclosed farmers took to the road hauling the produce they had once grown. Trucking became an economic alternative to staying on the farm, and truckers like the film’s Fabrini brothers helped to shift a railroad based food economy to the highway. The independent tough guy nature of the truckers is appealing, and is certainly a model for later films with trucker heroes.
Bezzerides’ novel got him a job as a Warner Brothers screenwriter. The studio politely offered him $2,000 for the screen rights, but the script had already been written. “I had no idea whether it was guilt or conscience, or greed to swindle more stories out of me, that motivated Warner Bros. to offer me a seven-year contract … Whatever their reason, I grabbed their offer so I could quit my putrid career as a communications engineer (at the LA Department of Water and Power) by becoming a writer, writing scripts in an entirely new world.” He took the job at $300 a week, working alongside William Faulkner. His first assignment, Juke Girl, about migrant farm workers was made on location in Salinas, CA, and starred Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan. He wrote action films, including Desert Fury, Thieves’ Highway (based on his novel) Beneath the 12 Mile Reef and Kiss Me Deadly. Later in life, he wrote regularly for series tv, for shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, was one of the co-creators of the tv show, The Big Valley. He lived to be 99 years old, dying in 2007.
They Drive By Night was one of the best reviewed of the Warners Brothers blue collar dramas. “Miss Lupino goes crazy about as well as it can be done” raved the NYTimes. The film has a split personality, as it starts out as a social protest film, about “the Okies of the trucking business” according to the Brooklyn Eagle, one of Warners patented “ripped from the headlines” enterprises, and, then, changes gear into a murder mystery. Director Raoul Walsh was known for his hard hitting films at Warner Brothers. He had already directed Raft twice before.
George Raft did a lot for Humphrey Bogart’s career. He turned down the roles made famous by Bogart in High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. He was born in a Hell’s Kitchen tenement in 1895 and was schooled on the hard knock streets of the city. He left home by the time he was 13, bummed around, playing baseball, prize fighting and hustling pool. He became quite a good dancer and by 1919 was dancing in vaudeville and nightclubs. There he got to be friends with gangsters Arnold Rothstein and Dutch Schultz, and when his boyhood friend, Owney Madden got out of Sing Sing after a murder rap, Raft drove and rode shotgun on Madden-owned trucks delivering bootleg whiskey. But, he was still interested in a show business career, getting small parts on Broadway, and eventually, films. His first breakout part was playing a gangster in Scarface. Raft continued working into the 1970s. His most famous role later in his career was self-parody in Some Like It Hot.
Scrapbook photo from Moviediva’s collection. Scrapbookers did not cut out and paste photos of Humphrey Bogart!
Unlike the characters he played, Humphrey Bogart was an upper crust New Yorker. He was the son of a successful Manhattan surgeon and his wife, Maud Humphrey, a noted magazine illustrator who had studied with James McNeill Whistler. A drawing of her adorable baby boy was used for many years as a baby food advertisement. The family lived in a fashionable Upper West Side Apartment, and owned a vacation home upstate. Maud Humphrey made $50,000 a year, an astronomical sum at the turn of the century, and more than twice as much as her husband. After prep school at Andover, rather than going to medical school at Yale, per the family’s plans, Bogart enlisted in the Navy in WW I and then pursued a career on the New York stage, which led, eventually, to the movies.
He had been working at Warner Brothers for years, exchanging gunfire with James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, but he had yet to find stardom. 1940 was his “final phase of purgatory: at the studio” (Meyers 109). A story circulating in Hollywood in the late 1930s had Bogart complaining to studio chief Hal Wallis about his uninteresting roles. “Look, you want Raft’s roles, Raft wants Eddie Robinson’s and Robinson wants Muni’s roles.” “That’s simple. All I do is bump off Muni and we all movie up a step” Bogart is supposed to have said. (Sperber 122). But in 1940, Paul Muni, who had been Warner Brothers top star, left the studio not wanting to do another gangster part, he hoped to play Beethoven. In the vacuum left by the departure of the prestigious star, it was decided to promote Bogart in his place. After Bogart hinted to Raft that since the lead character in High Sierra would die a tragic death, and only villains died in the movies, so Raft should pass up the part, Bogart stepped into what would be his first starring role. He was ready, even if the schedule was less than ideal. “They get you up before daybreak and work your ass off all day until sundown. In the theater, I went to work at eight in the evening and was through by eleven; had all the rest of the night and the next day to play and catch up with my drinking. Working in pictures is for the birds” (Meyers 109).
Ida Lupino was sometimes called “the poor man’s Bette Davis” which meant, essentially, that she was offered first choice of roles if Davis refused them. She had some spectacular parts through the 1940s, but after leaving Warner Brothers, she spent most of her career behind the camera, as one of the few women directors of the classic Hollywood era.
She was born to be in show business, her family had been in the theater since the Renaissance, and her father, Stanley Lupino was considered to be one of the best actor comedians in Great Britain. She grew up backstage, writing and performing, and studied in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She acted in British and American films, but her first big hit was in the Victorian set Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with Basil Rathbone as the great detective, and then acted as the spirited Cockney guttersnipe opposite Ronald Colman in Rudyard Kipling’s The Light That Failed. It was because of her rapturous reviews in that part that she was given They Drive By Night. Her astrologer told her that she could only work on the film certain days without triggering bad luck, but he could not have been more wrong. The studio was furious, but forgave her when both they saw how good she was, Publicity showed her posed alluringly in Milo Anderson’s gowns, especially the gold lame dress in which she attempts to seduce George Raft. Her courtroom scene was such a success that it got her a sweet new contract, only two films a year at $2,000/week, and she could freelance both in movies and on the radio. She won an Oscar nomination and a co-starring part with Bogart in his next film, High Sierra. The NCMA audience loved her bad girl scheming, reacting with glee to each of her squints, purrs and pouts.
Gold lamé by Milo Anderson
Lupino enjoyed working on the film because she got to spend time with Ann Sheridan. Ann Sheridan was born Clara Lou Sheridan in Denton, TX, the youngest of five children. When she was in college, one ofher sisters sent her photo to a Paramount “Search for Beauty” contest, and she was one of six finalists who came to Hollywood with small contracts, and the only one who stayed. Sheridan did bits, extra work, doubled and did inserts (close ups of hands and feet) as Clara Lou, and, after 1935, as Ann, until her contract ran out. She moved to Warner Brothers, where her career immediately began to look up. Typically for Warners, she made 13 films in 1938-9, but one of them was Angels With Dirty Faces, a gangster film starring James Cagney that got rave reviews and an Oscar nomination for him. Warners had always prized its male stars and did not have any glamour queens among the ranks. Their leading actress was Bette Davis, who rightly would have smacked someone, had she been asked to pose for cheesecake. So, freshly single after a brief marriage, Sheridan was elected “The Oomph Girl” in a rigged election. But, Sheridan had a wry way with a wisecrack and was not remote like some glamourpusses Her pin up shots really caught on with the public, she was in seemingly every publication during the war years. Some articles said she disdained the title, “Oomph is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth” she was widely quoted as saying (Bubbeo 195). But she said in a later interview, “It was a press agent’s invention, but I adopted it whole heartedly” (Hagen and Wagner 176). She is quite drab in this film, with no glam costumes at all.
There were many photos of Sheridan wearing this slinky dress, and printed in various fan publications.
This is from a scrapbook I was keeping as a tween, heavy on the classic Hollywood obits.
George Raft used some of his underworld expertise in the film. “Some people say I got nothing from Owney Madden but a bad reputation—but the driving skill I acquired when I worked for him in New York years before undoubtedly saved my life and those of the people in the picture with me. In one scene, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and I are highballing down a long hill in an old beat up truck. Halfway down, the breaks really went out—a situation that wasn’t in the script. Bogart saw me press the pedal and when nothing happened he began to curse. ‘We’re going to get killed’ he yelled. Ann screamed and turned her eyes away from the road as I fought the wheel. I couldn’t have been more scared myself. The speedometer hit 80 when I saw a break on the right where a bulldozer had started a new road. I pulled hard on the wheel and the truck went bouncing up the embankment, where it finally stopped. Ann was too upset to talk, but Bogart said, ‘Thanks, pal.” ‘Don’t thank me, I thought to myself, because I didn’t have the breath to answer. Write a letter to Owney Madden” (Aaker 94).
They Drive by Night was shot in five weeks in April and May of 1940, cost $498,000 and grossed $4,000,000, a huge amount for the day. Supposedly the script was shot in sequence, although that is rather hard to believe. Bogart was paid just over $11,000 for the film, and was billed fourth. Advertising centered on Sheridan. The studio publicity head had a 15 ton semi-truck drive across the country to be presented as a gift to her, along with the good wishes of the half million members of the Teamsters Union. The empty truck was emblazoned with the painted autographs of truckers, mayors and fans, added on as the rig stopped at towns between Chicago and LA. The publicity stunt became a news item, with national papers talking about “the Sheridan truck.” (Sperber 123). The completely misleading ad campaign, “They Drive by Night—and Anything Can Happen At Night!” was a success, even with posters showed Bogart kissing Ida Lupino, when they never even had a scene together (Griffin 73). They Drive By Night was one of WB’s big hits of 1940.
The Women of Warner Brothers by Daniel Bubbeo, Killer Tomatoes by Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner, Bogart: A Life in Hollywood by Jeffrey Meyers, Bogart by A.M. Sperber and Eri Lax, George Raft: The Films by Everett Aaker, What Dreams Are Made Of: Movie Stars of the 1940s by Sean Griffin, Wikipedia entry on A. I Bezzerides, Obituary for Bezzerides in the Guardian UK http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/a-i-bezzerides-432901/, Ida Lupino: A Biography by William Donati. Trucking Country by Shane Hamilton, “George Raft” by Jim Beaver April 1978 Films in Review.