They Drive by Night: Raoul Walsh and a Few Good Women

Four months after finishing Dark Command at Republic Pictures, Raoul Walsh returned to the Warner Bros. sound stages in Burbank to direct his second picture for the studio, the Jerry Wald- Richard Macauley scripted They Drive by Night, a hard-knocks drama, partly drawn from a novel by A.B. Bezzerides, partly recycled from an earlier Warner Bros. picture starring Bette Davis, 1935’s Bordertown. With Mark Hellinger, who had penned The Roaring Twenties, as associate producer, with the ever-vigilant Hal Wallis as executive producer, and with Walsh at the helm, the picture—even before production began—had success written all over it.

With its dark and gritty palate, its broken-down characters who try to but cannot outdistance their psychological and economic hard times, They Drive by Night is quintessential Warner Bros., a picture in the studio’s tradition of broken-down dreams (what the critic Manny Farber later called the “broken field journey”), the cinematic equivalent of literary naturalism characterized by the inability of men and women to control or get out from under the unforgiving social forces that loom large and significant around them. Walsh gives his lower-middle class characters in They Drive by Night both a lyricism and a biting wit in this story of two brothers who try to make a go of it as truckers in Los Angeles but who find heartache and hard times for their effort. Far more intimate than The Roaring Twenties, They Drive by Night shows off Walsh’s skill in creating lyrical segues between hope and hopelessness, humor and pathos. More than anything else at this early period in Walsh’s tenure at the studio, They Drive by Night demonstrates just how easily he and Warner Bros. entered into a lasting marriage of shared values.

Ironies abounded for Walsh himself during this time in his life, however. Even though They Drive by Night would be one of the most pleasurable shoots he encountered in a long time, the easiness of his work at the studio stood in direct contrast to the chaos swimming around him in his personal life. In the years since D.W. Griffith ingénue Miriam Cooper divorced Walsh in 1926, she hauled him into court as often as she could, demanding more and more alimony, or claiming he failed to pay alimony and child support for their two adopted sons, Robert and Jack, even claiming that his checks to her were delinquent – which they very often were. Miriam was relentless. Prior to and during this shoot, Walsh was in court at least twice, once missing a particular court date only because a subpoena intended for him ended up in the hands of his step-daughter, Marilyn, who happened to open the front door of their Doheny Drive home in Walsh’s absence and afterward neglected to hand the papers over to him. To make matters more urgent and complicated, two days before production began on They Drive by Night, Walsh’s eighteen-year-old son, Robert, who had decided he’d had enough of living with his mother on the East Coast, won the approval of a Los Angeles judge to have himself placed under Walsh’s guardianship instead of Miriam’s, and Walsh found himself with another threat to his equilibrium, a son he hardly knew or had seen for years. Everything associated with Miriam seemed to be sucking the life out of him.

In this state of mind, in late April 1940, Walsh began shooting They Drive by Night. Still trying to extricate himself financially and psychologically from Miriam, no he doubt he approached the picture with a vivid understanding of the human abyss into which a woman could send a man – probably the very awareness he needed to get this film made. As if his life were designed by some kind of perverted serendipity, Walsh now found himself directing a picture whose emotional centerpiece was a deranged female who murders her husband and attempts to bring her lover down since she cannot have him to herself. In Walsh’s mind, it no doubt seemed as if Miriam were everywhere. He could easily believe that since she divorced him (due to his philandering, she claimed) she unconsciously set out to take her revenge any way she could. Walsh could have hardly missed the irony in all this as he read the script, which, interestingly enough, he helped to shape in its early stages. The psychological havoc a fictional female unleashes on the screen bore an uncanny resemblance to that brought upon him by Miriam Cooper. The character of Lana Carlsen in They Drive by Night, played by Ida Lupino—in a recycled version of Bette Davis’ deranged wife in Bordertown—murders her husband (Alan Hale) and almost ruins the life of the man, Joe Fabrini (George Raft), she loves and wants but cannot have. If Miriam were not out and out trying to kill Walsh, she was at least taking a good, emotional chunk out of him.

Warner Bros. paid two thousand dollars for the rights to A.I. Bezzerides’ novel, The Long Haul, in March 1940, although not all of the novel made its way into the script in the studio’s rush to get it to the screen. That same month Wallis hired Wald and Macauley to write the script, whose title was soon changed to They Drive by Night. Jack Warner was pleased enough with the success of The Roaring Twenties that he handed Walsh this new picture without a moment’s hesitation.

Wallis saw the film as a vehicle for Raft and could not be swayed to consider anyone else for the part of Joe, the film’s main character. Raft was not one of Walsh’s favorites, especially since the actor’s trouble-making shenanigans on the set of The Bowery seven years earlier. Unfortunately, Walsh had little to say about Raft being cast. Raft had come to Warner Bros. from Paramount Studios in 1938. At this point in his career, he had enough clout at the studio to be placed in any one of several films on the drawing board, He was seen as a solid leading man who could both tough it out with hoods and woo his female co-stars at the same time.

Wallis was excited about the story and Walsh was equally optimistic about its promise as a full-blown actioner. In mid-March Wallis sent Walsh a memo: “I am glad that you are hopped up on the trucking story. I too feel that it will work out as an excellent vehicle for George Raft. I am entirely in accord with your idea to go out within the next few weeks whenever we get good weather and clouds and make some of the road shots. Will you please begin to line up a truck immediately and after you have made a selection let me see it…?”

Hellinger asked Walsh to help fine-tune Wald and Macauley’s script and wrote Wallis a few days later, “Wald, Walsh and I never stopped talking about it all evening – and when guys are that enthused, something good must come of it.” Hellinger wanted the young British actress, Ida Lupino, for the part of Lana, but Walsh had several other actresses in mind, including Frances Farmer and another yet untested starlet, Catherine Emery. He wrote Wallis, “I saw the test of Catherine Emery and she is a splendid actress and I am sure she could give a fine and intelligent performance of the part of Lana. I think she can be photographed a little more attractively. She has a refined quality, that, if she plays the part, I would like to modify.” He added, “I would prefer to withhold my decision until I make a test of Frances Farmer.” But Hellinger moved faster than Walsh, and Lupino was signed soon after Walsh’s memo to him.

Humphrey Bogart was cast as Paul Fabrini, Joe’s younger brother, and Walsh could see that Bogie was not entirely happy about being the fourth lead in the film. Walsh had no qualms about directing Bogie but was always mindful of Bogie’s often dour mood on the set during a day’s shoot. His mood for the most part depended on whether or not he and his wife at the time, Mayo Methot, fought it out to the wee hours the night before. Bogart’s mood was dour more often than not, Walsh later wrote in his autobiography; he complained most about the hours, as he did not appreciate waking early and spending long hours waiting around on the set. Walsh later recalled a particular complaint Bogart made while they were on location and had to spend some nights in a hotel in a small California town. Due to the thin partitions that substituted for walls in their hotel, Bogey was unwillingly privy to some heavy lovemaking coming from the next room belonging to the actor who played the sheriff in the film. As Bogey put it to Walsh, “’I can’t knock any man for getting his ashes hauled, but there’s a time and place for everything. I don’t know who the sheriff had in his bed last night, but it was like listening to a goddam earthquake.’”

Walsh did not look forward to working with Raft when shooting began. He later said, “Raft was speaking to me again. He seemed to have forgotten The Bowery. His acting improved since that day I told him to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. He was better at memorizing dialogue and he was careful about the way he dressed. He was also a star in his own right.” Walsh never expressed any dissatisfaction he had with Raft to Warner or to Wallis, though, and instead showed only enthusiasm for the picture. As it turned out, production on They Drive by Night remained uneventful except for Bogie’s occasional bad mood, which only endeared him to Walsh in the end.

They Drive by Night is pure Walshian high energy in its tempo and pace. The film’s subject, truckers driving goods to market, moves by means of a relentless masculine energy, and Raft and Bogart work together smoothly and efficiently. The film’s view of the world – that the downtrodden have to tough it out repeatedly– seeps into every frame. The events look like a rehash of many Warner Bros.’ films released before this one. But Walsh injects such high energy into the characters and storyline that the film’s pace becomes its most flamboyant subjects and sets it apart from the others.

The brothers Fabrini, trying to get ahead in a world that dares them not to, move from hard knocks to tragedy before they see the light at the end of the tunnel and are given a meager chance at happiness at the story’s end. Transporting fruit from grower to seller, the brothers are able to make a few dollars and buy their own truck. But one night Bogart falls asleep at the wheel, the truck turns over. Bogie loses an arm in an accident that demolishes their truck. Raft, always the steadier and more ambitious of the two brothers, is forced to work for a friend, Ed, (played by Alan Hale) who owns a larger, more successful trucking company.

Although Raft has already met and plans to marry a street-smart waitress with a heart of gold, Cassie (Ann Sheridan), Hale’s flirtatious and up-to-no-good wife Lana (Lupino) falls hard for Raft and makes countless plays for his affections. While Lana comes to take up more and more of the film’s attention (part of its schizoid nature, which has not gone unnoticed by viewers over the years), Raft’s girlfriend Cassie gets in a few of her own good one-liners before she’s pushed to the sidelines to wait patiently for her man. “That’s enough of the X-ray treatment!” she snaps to a customer at her counter who stares at her. She has a few more before the scenes ends. “Anything else?” she asks Joe when she first serves him coffee at the counter. “Yeah, but it ain’t on the menu,” he throws out. “And it ain’t gunna be?” she throws back.

The psychotic Lana eventually murders Ed to clear the path to get Raft for herself. But Raft still will have nothing to do with her. When he learns that she murdered Ed, he turns her in. But Lana convinces the D.A. that Raft forced her to murder her husband and Raft finds himself on trial. While on the witness stand, however, Lana suffers a breakdown (driven mad by her guilt over killing Ed), spills the truth, and Joe is cleared of any charges.

After Walsh finished shooting, Wallis called in director Vincent Sherman to direct an additional scene. Sherman was asked to keep the shoot under his hat and to complete it “speedily” and “as soon as possible.” It amounted to a group of newsmen at the trial just as they learn that Lana has broken down and confessed to the murder. “City desk! [each man reaches for a phone]… “The doctors say she’s daffy. Yeah, she’s gone nuts…they had to take her away in a straightjacket. The case has been thrown out. Fabrini goes free.” Walsh was not told about the added scene, and studio production notes give no explanation for it.

Warner Bros. released They Drive By Night on August 3, 1940, this despite a threat from the American Trucking Association that had both Harry and Jack Warner worried with claims that depicting Bogie’s character as asleep at the wheel was “detrimental to the trucking industry” and was “a direct slap at the effective safety regulations of the Interstate Commerce Commission (“a driver can’t go more than ten hours and must rest every eight hours before returning to work”). However, the studio headed off any legal action and the film’s fictive elements were left intact.

Warner Bros.’ brilliant publicist Martin Weiser devised an exploitation maneuver to promote the film. A fifteen-ton big rig was driven across the country, purported to present co-star Ann Sheridan to moviegoers. As Eric Lax and A.M. Sperber write in their biography of Bogart, “also on the rig were the good wishes of five hundred thousand members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the painted autographs of truckers, mayors, and members of fan clubs, added at every stop between Chicago and Los Angeles. The empty vehicle became a news item, and before long the whole country was talking about “’the Sheridan truck.’”

They Drive by Night became an immediate boxoffice success and proved lucky for Lupino and Bogie, who were cast in Walsh’s next actioner for Warner Bros., High Sierra. Bogie never had to complain about getting fourth billing again.

Alluding to the film’s bizarre merging of two seemingly disparate stories – a trucking actioner and the story of a psychotic female – Walsh explained the incongruity (that worked nonetheless) with his characteristic sense of humor. “I guess they ran out of the trucking idea,” he quipped, “and tacked on that ending with Lupino going nuts on the stand.” He added, “That got her a seven-year contract at Warner Bros., you know.” Lana Carlson’s crack-up on the witness stand got Ida Lupino a seven-year contract at the studio – just about the amount of time Miriam Cooper continued to haul Walsh into court.

From Marilyn Ann Moss’ biography of Raoul Walsh, The True Adventures of Raoul Walsh, by Marilyn Ann Moss,  published by The University Press of Kentucky.