Monday, October 16, 2017

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

In many respects Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) is a very singular film. It could be considered film noir, but it also has elements of Westerns. At the same time it was one of the earliest Hollywood motion pictures to feature Asian martial arts. As unique as Bad Day at Black Rock must seem today, it was even more unusual when it was first released in 1955.

Bad Day at Black Rock was based on the short story "Bad Time at Honda" by Howard Breslin, which has appeared in the January 1947 issue of The American Magazine. It was writer and actor Don McGuire who came across the story and thought that it could provide the basis for an interesting motion picture. He optioned the story for $15,000 and then adapted it as a screenplay. Director Don Siegel, who was then working at Allied Artists, took an interest in Mr. McGuire's screenplay and wanted to cast Joel McCrea in the lead. Unfortunately for Don Siegel, Allied Artists passed on the screenplay. Don McGuire then took his screenplay to Dore Schary, then head of production at MGM. Don Schary had spoken out against the interment of Japanese Americans in camps during World War II, so the fact that the screenplay dealt with bigotry against Japanese Americans appealed to him. At the same time he needed a project for legendary star Spencer Tracy. Don McGuire's original screenplay was then rewritten by Millard Kaufman with Spencer Tracy in mind for the lead role.

Unfortunately Spencer Tracy was not particularly interested in Bad Day at Black Rock and did not want to do the movie. To even get Mr. Tracy to read the screenplay, Dore Schary told him that Alan Ladd had expressed an interest in it. Here it must be noted that there is no evidence that Alan Ladd ever saw the screenplay. It is unclear precisely how it was decided that the lead character played by Spencer Tracy, John J. Macreedy, would have only one arm, but it was ultimately the idea of playing a one-armed veteran of World War II that interested Spencer Tracy in the movie. To give John J. Macreedy some fighting prowess, he was made an expert in karate, something rarely seen in American films of the time.

Initially Richard Brooks was hired to direct Bad Day at Black Rock. Unfortunately, he would prove problematic as a director. Among other things, he referred to the screenplay as "a piece of s***" to Spencer Tracy himself. Mr. Brooks was fired and Dore Schary brought on John Sturges as the film's director. In contrast to Richard Brooks, John Sturges was very happy with the screenplay and even called it "the best screenplay he ever had." He spent hours discussing the project with screenwriter Millard Kaufman.

Ultimately, Bad Day at Black Rock would prove to be historic for several reasons. It was the first film at MGM to ever be shot in Cinemascope. It would also be the last film that Spencer Tracy would make for MGM, the studio at which he spent most of his career. As mentioned earlier, Bad Day at Black Rock  would also be among the very first American films to feature Eastern martial arts. In fact, the Legion of Decency and various state censorship boards were not particularly happy with one scene in which John J. Macreedy uses karate. Ultimately, the Legion of Decency would class the film as suitable for adults and adolescents.

Bad Day at Black Rock was released in January 1955 to largely positive reviews. Variety wrote of the film, "Considerable excitement is whipped up in this suspense drama, and fans who go for tight action will find it entirely satisfactory." Bosley Crowther in The New York Times found a few flaws with the film, but liked it over all. If anything, Bad Day at Black Rock may be even more highly regarded today. At Rotten Tomatoes 96% of its reviews are positive.

Bad Day at Black Rock is at the same time a very simple film and a sophisticated film. John J. MacReedy gets off the train in Black Rock in order to give a Japanese American a medal for his service during World War II. Unfortunately he finds himself in a town that is highly distrustful and suspicious of him. While the film never deals directly with the interment of Japanese Americans in relocation camps during World War II, bigotry against Japanese Americans is at the centre of the film's plot. Indeed, in many ways Bad Day in Black Rock is as relevant as ever, dealing as it does with racism and anti-immigrant sentiment.

At the same time Bad Day at Black Rock addressed another issue of the era, one that had also provided the inspiration for the classic Western High Noon (1952). The Fifties was the era of the Hollywood blacklist, which essentially denied employment to those even suspected of having Communist ties. Sadly, many of those affected by the blacklist had no real ties to the Communist Party whatsoever. Regardless, in Bad Day at Black Rock John J. MacReedy faces a similar problem as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon--a town that is largely uncooperative with him and even at times hostile towards him.

Bad Day at Black Rock was nominated for three Oscars: Best Actor in a Leading Role for Spencer Tracy, Best Director for John Sturges, and Best Writing, Screeplay for Millard Kaufman. Spencer Tracy won the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in a tie with the cast of A Big Family (1954).

Today Bad Day at Black Rock remains highly regarded and is considered a classic. It is also one of Spencer Tracy's best remembered and most highly regarded films. Indeed, today it is difficult to see anyone else in the role of John J. MacReedy than Spencer Tracy.


3 comments:

Silver Screenings said...

Agreed – I can't imagine anyone other than Spencer Tracy in the MacReedy role. He is mesmerizing here, in that effortless way he has. I didn't realize Tracy wasn't interested in doing this film at first.

You made a lot of good points in your essay, which I'll keep in mind the next time I watch this. :)

said...

Bad Day at Black Rock is such an iconic movie. I didn't know Tracy wasn't at first interested in doing it, and I have to agree with you and Ruth: nobody else could have played the role.
Wonderful article. I especially like all the backstage stories you tell.
Cheers!
Le

James Brannan said...

This is a fine article! I, Rebekah Brannan, have not participated much in the blog world in the past, but I intend to become more involved now. I have read some of your other articles, and they are all informative and enjoyable.

I would like very much for you to participate in my upcoming blogathon, The Singing Sweethearts Blogathon, which will be my first real participation in PEPS. This blogathon, which will be hosted around Valentine's Day, is celebrating the famous singing team Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

You can read the rules of the blogathon at https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/12/20/ring-the-assembly-bell-here-comes-the-singing-sweethearts-blogathon/. If you want to join, please comment and tell me your topic, if you have chosen one. I hope you'll join me in honoring this brilliant team and the holiday of love!

Joyfully,

Rebekah Brannan