Back Door to Heaven (1939), which concludes UCLA’s Hollywood on the Hudson series on Saturday, is the strangest artifact by a Hollywood director you’re ever likely to find. The hard-luck story of one Frankie Rogers, whose only crime is to have been born on the wrong side of the tracks, it was written by a Communist (John Bright) and a jailbird (Robert Tasker, convict #39962 at San Quentin), and financed by a consortium of capitalists including Floyd Odlum, CEO of American Airlines and future owner of RKO. The man behind this unlikely but very personal project was William K. Howard, who had been an important director in the ’20s and ’30s. By 1939, however, he was on his way down, having completed a frustrating two years in England working for producer Alexander Korda, including an aborted adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia.
Howard was anything but cowered, though, when he set out to make Back Door to Heaven. The film was a trip down memory lane for him, a reflection on several men he’d known in his hometown of St. Marys, Ohio, including hobo-writer Jim Tully and Dillinger gang member Charles Makley. Frankie is molded on Makley; a striking scene based on his real-life escape from Death Row, using a “gat” carved from a soap bar and painted with black shoe polish, was cut by the picture’s horrified backers. To add to the oddity, Howard recreated his western Ohio town in the Bronx, on stages of the old Biograph studio, with background plates filmed in Cleveland. Leading lady Patricia Ellis was Howard’s main squeeze at the time, and reportedly answered him shot for shot, when it came to drinking. Work in the afternoon was slow, and the boozing may explain the low-energy feel of the actors’ performances.
Still, Back Door to Heaven is a heartfelt and strangely affecting film, unabashedly sentimental, but totally devoid of Hollywood hokum, and so matter-of-fact in its depressing outlook that it is unique in American cinema. Shootouts, holdups and prison breaks are studiously kept off screen, and everybody (including child-actor Jimmy Lydon) speaks as if on Valium. As Frankie, Wallace Ford (who had just played George in the original production of Of Mice and Men) gives a haunting performance that makes Henry Fonda’s felon in Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once seem fake by comparison. Howard himself can be seen playing a no-nonsense district attorney who sends Frankie to the chair. The film may seem creaky at times, the jailbird humor tedious, but its matter-of-fact grace and thieves-like-us mentality remind one of Rowland Brown’s 1931 Quick Millions. In sentiment, Back Door to Heaven is not far from Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night, except that in feel and looks and just plain doped-up weirdness, it plays like a socially minded Detour. UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater; Sat., Feb. 7, 9 p.m. www.cinema.ucla.edu.