In advance of our July 20 & 21 double feature of The Steel Trap (1952) and Highway 301 (1950), Ariel Schudson discusses pioneering independent filmmakers Andrew & Virginia Stone.
In today’s cinema, the term “independent filmmaker” has become as familiar to audiences as Summer Blockbuster. However, when Andrew Stone started making movies, being an independent was something you had to fight for tooth and nail. A member of the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (SIMPP), he functioned alongside such luminaries as SIMPP founders Orson Welles, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney and a few others. His early work was created not on big studio sets but on independent lots like General Service Studio, located at Santa Monica Blvd and Las Palmas (later inhabited by Desilu, Burns and Allen amongst others), and his subjects, themes and casting choices were not considered “A-list.” Stone staffed his crew with well-respected members of the silent film era like Jimmy Smith, Cecil B. DeMille’s editor, and his stories were offbeat and quirky (see Hi Diddle Diddle as a great example).
In 1943 Stone formed his production company, Andrew L. Stone Productions. He released films through United Artists, staying as far away from “big studios” as possible. In 1945 he married editor Virginia L. Stone (the “L” stands for “Lively”) and she left her job at United Artists, and became his partner. For the next 30 years the Stones created some of the most interesting genre film work Hollywood has ever scene. In establishing their own production company and gaining the moniker of “Hollywood’s only man-and-wife moviemakers,” Virginia was a central part of Andrew L. Stone’s film work, editing his best-known features. They were quite a team, sharing a home that conversely served as production office and sometimes criminology lab, as the Stones kept a regular eye on national police reports for their crime-related features.
Stone did make some Big Studio Films, for example the groundbreaking Stormy Weather (1943), the first Big Studio film with an all-black cast. While this film does contain musical stereotypes of African Americans, Stormy Weather was also instrumental in media representation. As Kartrina Richardson writes, “seeing African-Americans in something other than a service role, in a film before 1955, is powerful.”
When it came to Big Studio contracts and obligations, Andrew Stone made his feelings clear. Historian Kevin Brownlow notes in Stone’s obituary that the director was approached by MGM in the mid-30s with a sizable contract. Stone refused because he knew what it would cost him on a creative level. Sure, he’d make a ton of cash, but what does money mean if you lose your integrity? He remarked, “I’d have had to pacify the stars and keep them happy – like a priest who doesn’t believe a word of what he says. Then there was a Paramount contract — no big stars, but freedom. That’s the one I went for. It didn’t take me long to see I’d never make a nickel, but I didn’t give a damn.” So off to Paramount Andrew Stone went.
To describe Andrew L. Stone’s filmography in three words, it would be: expect the unexpected. He made musicals (Stormy Weather, The Girl Said No), screwball comedies (Hi Diddle Diddle, The Bachelor’s Daughters), film noir/suspense (Steel Trap, Highway 301), disaster films (The Last Voyage, Ring of Fire) and more. He never stuck to one genre. In fact, watching Ring of Fire (1961) you might call it a “genre-spliced” film. It’s a juvenile delinquent film crossed with a balls-out, pedal-to-the-medal disaster extravaganza. And that’s where you can really see Virginia’s editing genius. But no matter what the Stones did, individually or together, it was as far away from “fantasy” as possible. Eschewing sets and faked scenery, they wanted real. As Brian Trenchard-Smith said about the Stones, they “did not like miniatures, stock footage, back projection or traveling matte, all the tricks of the trade used in those days to give the appearance that the stars really were in the maw of danger. The Last Voyage was about passengers escaping a luxury liner that caught fire and sank. So they found a luxury liner about to be scrapped in Japan, the legendary SS Île de France, leased it for $4000 per day, set fire to it and sank it, at least to the point of capsizing.”
Even before meeting Virginia, Andrew was dead-set on filmic realism. One of the most exciting films that the New Beverly is showing this month is Andrew Stone’s Highway 301 (1950). The script is based on real criminals- the infamous Tri-State Gang – one of the most media-licious criminal gangs aside from perhaps Al Capone and his homies. Not only did they get a Batman episode and an Untouchables episode, but they also got a comic book! This is not to be missed.
To add to the delectable violence of Highway, you’ll get the nail-biting suspense of Steel Trap (1952). Originally titled Panic Stricken, this is the second film to pair Joseph Cotton and Theresa Wright (the first being Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in 1943) and the chemistry has not left the cinematic space. This time it’s shifted to a bank and the film is solid, quick and tight. Not a wasted minute. Again, this was a case when Stone insisted on extensive on-site cinematography to get what he wished. This non-traditional methodology was what regularly produced quality in the Stones’ oeuvre. The shots in Steel Trap reflect such precision that the audience is continually aware of how much the filmmaker loves his job.
Stone certainly had creative differences with colleagues over his working techniques, and that did not always play to his personal advantage. Where many studios had approximately eight setups a day during filming, Stone had 20. Indeed, Andrew Stone would shoot all night if he thought that was what was needed. While he may have been nominated for Best Screenplay for the film Julie (1956), Doris Day and Louis Jourdan did not say pleasant things about working with him. He was tough. And if you couldn’t cut it, it was a rough deal.
Watching the films he made, they are a curious and wonderful lot. He features strong and dynamic women characters. In Bedside Manner (1945), Ruth Hussey is a well-educated doctor and takes no guff. In Cry Terror! (1958) Angie Dickinson is one of the most striking crime ladies to hit the screen. The plotlines are unpredictable! Every time a Stone movie seems to be moving right, it takes a sharp left. Or curves down a different highway. They made genre un-generic. Although Andrew Stone may not yet be a household name, he is in my household. Will he be in yours?