Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Fury Below (George Mercader Productions, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Fury Below, a 1938 drama about coal mining produced and written by George Mercader, directed by Harry Fraser and originally shot under the title Hell Diggers until the Production Code Administration informed Mercader that he could forget about getting a Code Seal if he put it out with “Hell” in the title. (The American Film Institute Catalog lists quite a few films from the 1930’s with “Hell” in the title — Hell and High Water, Hell Below, Hell Below Zero, Hell Bent for Frisco, Hell Bent for Love, Hell Bound, The Hell Cat, Hell Divers, Hell-Fire Austin, Hell in the Heavens, Hell-Ship Morgan and Helldorado — but all but Hell-Ship Morgan were released before the crackdown on Code enforcement in 1934.) It’s an engaging movie but it’s the sort of story where once the basic premises are established in reel one, you know what’s going to happen for the rest of the film. Once we’re told that coal-mine owner James Cole (Phil Dunham) is about to enter a sanitarium and is handing over control of the mine to his grandson James Cole III (Russell Gleason, usually a comic-relief player but reasonably assured as a lead), only both the miners and the other office people — particularly foreman Joe Norsen (Rex Lease) and his sister Mary (Maxine Doyle, second-billed), who’s the elder Cole’s secretary — think there’s no way a college boy can come and take over a coal mine, we just know that little Jimmy is going to come through in the clutch and save the day.

Once Cole I tells Cole III that the three people he can trust are Mary, Joe and general manager Fred Johnson (LeRoy Mason), we just know that Johnson is going to turn out to be a corrupt slimeball — and indeed he does. And once we learn that the mine has been beset by a series of accidents, including one that has just claimed the lives of two people, and that in addition to the human toll these accidents are also slowing production and threatening the Cole family’s ownership because if they can’t meet an outstanding delivery contract they will lose the mine through foreclosure, we can guess that Johnson’s perfidy will include deliberately running the mine sloppily so that the contract deadline is missed, the Coles lose the mine and he gets an employment contract and a raise from the people set to take it over after that. What’s more, once we’re introduced to Johnson’s sister Claire (Sheila Terry) and she immediately latches onto Cole III and takes him away from the mine the day Johnson’s latest scheduled “accident” is supposed to occur, we’re sure that she’s going to be the “bad girl” from whose clutches he’ll have to extricate himself so he can end up with “good girl” Mary at the end.

All of that happens, and it also turns out (in a plot twist Mercader probably “borrowed” from The Hound of the Baskervilles) that Fred and Claire Johnson are merely posing as brother and sister; that they’ve got a corrupt union boss, Dorsky (Matthew Betz), in cahoots with them, and that part of their plot is that Dorsky will use the latest “accident” to give the miners an excuse to strike, thereby making sure the contract deadline is missed. There are a few semi-original twists in this story, including Cole III ostensibly firing Joe Norson and putting Dorsky in charge of the mine — causing Mary to walk out on him until he calls both Norsons into his private office and tells them that this is part of the trap; he’s learned that Fred Johnson and Dorsky are in cahoots and he basically wants to give them enough rope so their plot will be revealed and he can have them both arrested — and the way Cole III learned of their involvement in the plot in the first place: he overheard Johnson and Dorsky talking about it while sitting in the Johnsons’ living room waiting for Claire to join him on a date.

The ending is also at least a bit different from what we expect: having failed in all his previous attempts to delay production, Fred Johnson sends Emil (John Merton), a miner who had lost his sanity due to a brain injury suffered in the last “accident,” into the mine, and Dorsky has him drill near a sealed door labeled with the words “DANGER GAS.” (“‘Danger gas!’ That’s the most dangerous kind — except maybe ‘deadly gas,’” Charles joked.) The idea is that will cause an explosion that will stop production on the mine altogether — only Cole and the Norsons figure the plot out in time and, though they can’t stop Emil from drilling, they’re able to confine the conflagration to one floor of the mine and keep the rest of it producing. Dorsky and Emil died, Fred Johnson is arrested and Cole III and Mary end up together at the fade-out. Fury Below (whose opening credits, at least in the archive.org downloaded print we were watching, appear to have been added to the film in the 1960’s) is an incredibly predictable film but also a reasonably engaging one even though it’s the kind of movie you think you’ve seen before even if you haven’t.