Gangway For Tomorrow:
And Tomorrow and Tomorrow
Essay by Matt Rovner
CineSavant associate Matt Rovner has written extensively about the legendary radio dramatist and filmmaker Arch Oboler and his continued researches have led him to the 1943 film Gangway For Tomorrow, for which Oboler was at least partly responsible. Oboler’s biggest claim to fame was the spooky radio show Lights Out, and in the spirit of that show Matt cautions readers that this essay is not for the timid soul. The movie is at present available on DVD from The Warner Archive Collection.
A special thank you to the Arch Oboler Estate, to my trusted readers, and to all of the people working at the following archives: UCLA Library Special Collections, The Library of Congress (Arch Oboler Collection), and The National Archives. The dedication and generosity of these individuals and institutions made this essay possible.
People used to shout “gangway!” to warn others to “get out of the way!” or to “make way!” This once common expression is now a cultural artifact. It’s as much of a cultural artifact as the film that incorporates this cry into its title, Gangway For Tomorrow (1943). Along with films like Tender Comrade (1943) and Youth Runs Wild (1944), RKO produced Gangway as one of a handful of features set on the American home front during the Second World War. Like Youth, Gangway is an obscure film that RKO fractured, altered, and reassembled to meet the concerns of the US government propaganda agency known as the Office of War Information (OWI). The OWI was created by executive order on June 13, 1942, to document America’s mobilization for the war in various mass media, and it influenced the making of films like Gangway. One of this film’s posters exclaimed that it was a “sensational drama that x-rays the secret hearts of 5 ‘ordinary’ men and women!” In the spirit of this poster, I’m going to x-ray the film itself to examine the broken fragments and reconstruct it as it was originally intended to be seen. I’m also going to use updated technology on this cinematic curio. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), so to speak, will also give us a three dimensional, detailed anatomical image of Gangway, revealing its creative talents, aesthetics, and historical context. By employing these methods, we will discover this film’s secret heart. Gangway still holds an attraction because the beating of its secret heart, flawed though it is, resonates with the world in which we live. But like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, this film also conveys a sense of doom that foretells its own failure, and seems to forewarn the viewer of even greater doom to come.
In its basic construction, Gangway For Tomorrow is an omnibus film. Its framing story takes place inside of an impromptu omnibus, a five-passenger sedan whose owner — after gas rationing — joined the “I-share-my-car-movement”. 1 The motion-picture “depicts the decisive episodes of … five strangers” whom the owner drives to their jobs at an “aircraft factory in Santa Monica.” 2 Admittedly, the film’s concept doesn’t sound sensational at all. Why not make a combat film when this exciting genre is such a natural subject for dramatic propaganda? Hollywood Goes to War, a fascinating book on American WWII propaganda films explains that,
The home front had the stuff of drama. Hollywood found there a rich lode in the altered lives of its customers. OWI saw there a vital story of democracy mobilized for war. “It’s everybody’s war,” proclaimed the Bureau of Motion Pictures. Thus the studios and the propaganda agency turned to the home front in their quest, one for profits, and the other for propaganda messages. 3
RKO quested for profits by fitting Gangway’s five separate stories into popular genres — a Casablanca– like thriller, a Capraesque comedy, a noir, a musical, and as originally filmed, a psychological horror film. Made for RKO’s B-movie unit and clocking in at only sixty-nine minutes, the studio tried to sell Gangway as five “amazing dramas” for the price of one. The framing story was intended to turn strangers into friends united by common grief, disappointment, and the desire to do their part to defeat the Axis powers on the home front. To accomplish this task, the film was supposed to have its carpooling characters open up to each other about what led them to war factory work. In this manner, the film would pay tribute to the men and women on the home front, by acknowledging that their sacrifices mattered. But, we’ll see that the film came off the assembly line a bit ramshackle. To find out what went wrong, we’ll first examine the history of the production in the RKO film factory. We’ll start with the three talents behind its creation, Aladar Lazlo, Arch Oboler, and John H. Auer.
Gangway started production as an original story titled We the People, which was authored by forgotten writer Aladar Laszlo. Laszlo was never a household name, but in his day he was important enough to draw the attention of a US government intelligence agency. That agency was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and it was the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The OSS hired civilians like Laszlo for their creative abilities. He was born in Budapest, Hungary, and his declassified OSS file reveals why he attracted the agency:
Editor of PESTI HIRLAP (daily newspaper) in Hungary for 20 years. Writer of propaganda articles, radio broadcasting in Hungary. Since coming to this country, subject has worked as a scenario writer for several of the leading motion picture studios, and has written stories about conditions in Europe, and very successful books and plays in this country, such as “Top Hat” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers … 4
The film’s titles credit Laszlo with the original story but give sole credit for the screenplay to radio-dramatist and sometimes filmmaker Arch Oboler. Oboler’s involvement may be explained by the final “decisive episode” in Laszlo’s omnibus propaganda vehicle. In this last episode, a machinist wants “to quit his defense job, but a mysterious night apparition inspires him to stay on to do his share.” 5 Oboler wrote such a story for radio called “Ghost Story”. “Ghost Story” materialized on February 22, 1942, on Oboler’s propaganda series Plays For Americans, over the airwaves of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). NBC was founded by Oboler’s boss David Sarnoff, who was also president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) which controlled NBC, and he formed RKO the film studio that produced Gangway. As part of the “giant entertainment octopus” that he hoped to create, Sarnoff sought to “forge a close relationship between radio and the movies” 6 and Oboler was a part of that relationship. It may be that Laszlo included this final episode because someone made it clear to him that Oboler would be involved with the film.
In 1943, Oboler supported the war effort on radio by giving his talents for free to the NBC propaganda program Free World Theatre. But to support himself and his family, Oboler wrote, produced, and directed for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), a revival of the horror and fantasy series that made him famous, Lights Out. Radio dramas like “Ghost Story” combined Oboler’s twin talents for the macabre and the didactic. Indeed, Oboler occasionally smuggled stories like “Ghost Story” onto this revival of Lights Out. Although Oboler was given sole screenwriting credit for Gangway, he estimated that only twenty percent of the film was his. 7 I reviewed Gangway’s script files and accept Oboler’s claim. Much of the film appears to have been ghost written by an RKO studio writer named Lawrence Kimble. Kimble was a workhorse writer who never became a name, and he frequently collaborated with Gangway’s director, John H. Auer.
John H. Auer, like Aladar Laszlo, was an Austro-Hungarian immigrant to the US. Auer may be best known, if at all, for directing a modest but compelling film starring Laszlo’s fellow OSS employee, Sterling Hayden, about Rear Admiral John M. Hoskins, The Eternal Sea (1955). While noting Auer’s limitations as a producer-director of mostly low budget melodramas, filmmakers like the late French director Bertrand Tavernier admired his attention to composition and his use of traveling shots. 8
From this picture, we can see that Gangway had capable creators working behind the scenes. So what went wrong? The fault was not just with the studio responding to criticism from the OWI. As we’ll see from the following description, there is a fundamental flaw in the basic storytelling. The film opens with the carpool framing device that introduces us to the sedan’s driver, Jim Benson (Charles Arnt) as he picks up his passengers on the way to the aircraft factory. His passengers include Lisette Rene (Margo), Thomas Burke (James Bell), Mary Jones (Amelita Ward), Herbert Wellington (John Carradine), and Joe Dunham (Robert Ryan). Benson causes some discomfort to these strangers when he reveals that he’s been “making up stories” about them to satisfy the curiosity of his wife. He admits to his passengers that he doesn’t really know anything about them. He’d like everyone to get to know each other better. It is here that we discover the flaw in the product. The strangers reveal little if any of their backstories to each other in the sedan. Instead, they make up general stories about themselves because they all have something shameful or terrifying to hide. However, the filmmakers have them confide in the viewer through the use of inner-monologue and flashback sequences. We, the audience, get to know and understand the characters, but since we don’t actually work with them, we can’t become friends with them. Gangway’s different scripts give each of these confessional sequences a name, but these names do not appear on screen. The first of these sequences features Mexican-American actress Margo in the Casablanca-like thriller, “Lisette, the Refugee”.
“Lisette, the Refugee” Sequence
Auer brings us into Lisette’s story by holding on actress Margo’s face while we hear her thoughts on the soundtrack and a visual dissolve transports us to her former life. This type of transition makes good use of the cinematic skill that Tavernier admired in Auer. The transition merges with Oboler’s radio technique to move us instantly through time and space. Auer reveals Lisette to be a chanteuse singing a chanson in a Parisian nightclub patronized by Nazis. One of these patronizing Nazis, Colonel Mueller, is a Henry Higgins-like expert on the human voice. He is attracted to Lisette. Mueller is played by actor Richard Ryen, 9 who portrayed virtually the same character, Colonel Heinze, in Casablanca (1942). Casablanca is also evoked by the nightclub setting and a key plot device of Lisette’s story. She is not only a chanteuse but a spy for the French Resistance. Her work involves jamming a live broadcast of a speech by Adolf Hitler with her rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise”. In this way, the Lisette story is a bit shameless about exploiting one of the most memorable scenes of Casablanca. Unfortunately, Colonel Mueller recognizes Lisette’s voice and her Resistance cell is arrested. When she discovers that a traitor within her group plans to reveal the locations of other Resistance members, Lisette plots a daring escape — an escape that will take her to a hidden boat where, appropriately enough, her group has a pirate radio with which she can warn the other Resistance cells.
With this sequence, Aladar Laszlo used his background in radio broadcasting and propaganda articles to demonstrate the effectiveness of radio propaganda. In effect, “Lisette, the Refugee” is propaganda for propaganda. This may be another reason that Laszlo interested the OSS. His declassified dossier indicates that he worked for the agency briefly, but the record specifically mentions that he was responsible for Gangway For Tomorrow. 10 It’s this fact that makes me wonder if there is a secret connection between this film and real life espionage by chanson.
The idea of an entertainer as spy was at least as old as WWI, with the real life story of Mata Hari. During WWII, the French Resistance recruited actress and chanteuse Josephine Baker to spy on the Nazis, which she did tirelessly and heroically throughout the war. And in real life, just as in Gangway, it was not only the singer but also the song that played a part in WWII espionage. For example, the BBC broadcast Paul Verlaine’s poem “Chanson d’automne” (“Autumn Song”) 11 to signal the French Resistance about the timing of the pending Invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944). 12 In a strange case of life imitating a propaganda film, the Abwehr (the German military intelligence service) tortured a Maquis leader and learned that when the BBC broadcast the second verse of Verlaine’s autumnal poem that the summer Invasion of Normandy 13 would not be far behind. That second verse of Verlaine’s poem is,
Blessent mon coeur
( Wound my heart
With a monotonous
But when this line was broadcast at 23.15 on June 5, “no one warned the Seventh Army in Normandy” because the Nazis “assumed that it must be mere disinformation, as the Allies would hardly have announced the invasion over the BBC.” 14 Apparently, the fictional Colonel Mueller from Gangway was a bit more worldly regarding the tactics of the French Resistance than were his real-life Nazi counterparts. The title of the chanson Lisette sings in the film is “C’est Mon Coeur” (“It’s My Heart”) 15 , and she also sings of a wounded heart. Though she sabotages the Nazis by singing a different song, “La Marseilles”. But given that the OSS specifically noted that Laszlo wrote Gangway, I wonder if someone in that agency mentioned this sequence to someone in the secret British espionage organization Special Operations Executive (SOE). It reminds me of Graham Greene’s comic espionage novel Our Man In Havana (1958) about a vacuum cleaner salesman who is recruited by MI6 and who decides to make his reports exciting by fabricating them. Paying tribute to Greene’s novel, cinema and world history can be grateful that one of Laszlo’s ideas was never used in Gangway, an idea that was to tie together the separate stories with a
supernatural voice … of a nagging old woman, who is nobody else but “Sylvia”, that is – the battered old four-door Sedan, carrying the characters to their destination. The car talks: complains: jokes: gossips 16 … She is the one who really uncovers the life-stories of the five people sitting on “her lap”. She is the one who binds them into one brotherhood. In my opinion, this change would greatly improve the story-construction and possibly enhance the film’s success. 17
Surely the success of Operation Overlord would not have been enhanced had the beaches of Normandy been stormed by a vanguard of kvetching amphibious assault vehicles.
Although he admired Auer, Bertrand Tavernier did not take Gangway seriously. 18 Perhaps his dismissal is explained by Lisette’s story, which implies that nearly all French in occupied France are part of the Resistance. That was an expedient fiction in 1943. Tavernier and his family were French Jews in hiding during the occupation, and they were protected by those French filmmakers who were courageous under the Nazi occupation. 19
However, we do not have to speculate about whether OWI had problems with the Lisette story. Four months after VE Day, on September 18, 1945, the Overseas Branch of the Motion Picture Bureau of the OWI sent a letter to RKO, stating “The feature Gangway For Tomorrow has been found suitable for showing in France providing the French underground sequence is eliminated.” 20 The OWI did not give RKO a reason, but Hollywood Goes to War explains that “America’s messy relationship between Vichy France and DeGaulle’s Free French government was a touchy problem for OWI.” 21 During the war, the depiction of the French as cynical or amoral in Casablanca had made the OWI uneasy. Perhaps Lisette’s story, which evokes Casablanca, in addition to its own depictions of firing squads, collaborators, and French women who volunteer for Nazi brothels to escape death, made the OWI believe that it would be too divisive or dispiriting for post-war France. Further, it’s possible that the OWI reasoned that those who resisted the Nazis would find this story’s en rose depiction of a more unified France to be unwatchable. Lisette, herself, self-censors and gives her co-workers a general cover story.
As originally screened, Lisette’s story was followed by the Capraesque “Hobo” sequence. In this story, John Carradine plays the rail riding free-spirit Mr. Wellington, who is unaware that the United States is at war. He dismisses a newspaper that reports the bombing of Pearl Harbor as “propaganda”. Wellington is arrested for vagrancy in a small town and is shamed into war factory work by the owner of the town’s General Store and Justice of the Peace, Fred Taylor (Harry Davenport). Davenport was a great character actor, and he is very effective in this small role — a role that requires him to deliver a patriotic lecture that sounds, at times, counterproductively fascistic. For example, he declares that Wellington hasn’t any rights for the duration, although he can return to his freewheeling ways after the war. But, Taylor clearly doesn’t mean that he’s going to suspend Wellington’s civil liberties. In fact, he refuses to jail Wellington for vagrancy, offering to turn him loose if he won’t do his part, rather than feed and house him. The point of Taylor’s lecture is that a moral imperative compels Wellington to make sacrifices along with his fellow citizens during a national existential crisis. In reality though, Taylor would have been required to turn Wellington over to Federal authorities to determine his fitness for the draft. 22 Ultimately, of course, Wellington does his part. He also doesn’t tell anyone in the car anything about himself.
In our reconstruction of the film, Wellington’s story is followed by the noir “Warden” sequence. James Bell stars as the titular warden, Thomas Burke. The sequence contains a flashback-within-a-flashback, as Burke remembers the events leading up to his brother Dan’s death sentence. Burke chooses to personally execute his brother (Erford Gage of The Seventh Victim) because his crime proximately caused the death of their mother.
Auer and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca 23 pull out all the visual stops for the most interesting of all the existing stories. Through the use of chiaroscuro lighting, Musuraca helps create a tense and creepy climactic scene. Prior to throwing the switch for the electric chair, we see actor James Bell mostly in darkness but partially illuminated in the foreground, a lamp above his head. Illuminated from an off screen light source below, we see his hand paused over the lever. In the background of Auer’s frame, we see the execution’s spectators, with the shadow of the electric chair projected behind them on a blank wall. Right before Burke throws the switch, he looks up at the overhead light, and it is here that Auer’s mise-en-scene marries Oboler’s radio-montage-technique. We hear Burke’s obsessive-compulsive thoughts “execution as scheduled!/execution as scheduled!/execution as scheduled!”. Then when he throws the switch, we hear the hum of the electricity with each repetitive motion of his hand. We also hear the ringing of a phone — a call that Burke ignores because he knows that it’s the Governor attempting to halt the execution. Watching this story you may be tempted to ask, “What the hell is this morbid and defeatist sequence doing in a propaganda film designed to boost worker morale?” In a film meant to promote brotherhood among men, here is a story about a man deliberately killing his own brother. Under the color of law. And he’s supposed to be the “good guy”!
It’s possible that the filmmakers were trying to emulate the psychological thrillers that Val Lewton made during WWII. 24 Throughout the “Warden” story, James Bell resembles the haunted, tortured, and furtive Dr. Galbraith, the character he played in the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur RKO film The Leopard Man (1943). He even smokes a tobacco pipe like Galbraith. In The Leopard Man, Bell’s Galbraith is rather cagey about what brought him to New Mexico. It’s as if the “Warden” story is an unauthorized prequel that discloses Galbraith’s past. With their themes of crime, punishment, guilt, compulsion, and atonement, the films are spiritually similar. Like Lewton’s wartime thrillers, the “Warden” sequence arguably speaks to the grief that people were feeling about losing loved ones overseas, a sense of survivor’s guilt, as well as guilt over killing the enemy.
Oboler claimed that the “Warden” story was one of only two episodes of Gangway that were completely his. 25 He criticized the story as “trite” and from “the mind of the producer.” 26 However, it was Laszlo who originated the story, and it was initially about a judge who sentenced his own brother to death and “regained his peace of mind only recently by helping his country.” 27 The script file also indicates that this story was, contrary to Oboler’s later assertions, interesting to him. His rough notes on the sequence are brimming with radio and film montage ideas. 28 The story quite clearly reminded him of one of his own radio plays “The Luck of Mark Street”. 29 In that play, a condemned man becomes obsessed with escaping prison in order to kill Mark Street, the man he believes responsible for murdering his wife. This story had recently re-aired on Lights Out under the title “Until Dead” on February 2, 1943. In notes dated May 12, 1943, Oboler also named the villain of Laszlo’s story idea Mark Street. In addition to Oboler, Lawrence Kimble worked on the screenplay for the “Warden” sequence, but it’s unclear how much he contributed. With its interesting use of radio montage, and the presence of a minor character bearing one of Oboler’s favorite surnames — Rogan 30 — the story is Oboler enough. When it comes time to share his story, Burke simply tells everyone that he was in the legal business, that he’s too old for service, that he has no one in his family who could serve — no son or brother[!] — and that he wanted to do what he could when the war came. At this point, I half expected Sylvia the Sedan to wisecrack “the beatings will continue until morale improves.” As a short standalone Lights Out film, the “Warden” story is effective. But as a morale booster, this carpool sequence feels counterproductive at any speed.
“Miss America” Sequence
Next is the cheerful, by contrast, backstage musical with Amelita Ward (B-film bit player) as Mary Jones. It’s called “Miss America”, but it could more accurately be called “A Star Is Stillborn”. At the beginning of her story, Miss Jones tells her fellow passengers that she’s “just a nice pretty home girl”. In reality, she was a Miss America who became alienated from her boyfriend as she pursued a rather third rate career as a performer (life imitating art). When her big number was cut from a musical review because the show was running too long, Jones traded a lead role in a gilded cage for a walk-on part in a war factory job. Most of the excitement in the “Miss America” sequence comes from making the audience worry that its interminableness will make everyone late for work. Unfortunately, the fate of Mary Jones’s big number tolled the bell for the Oboler sequence that was to follow her story.
The final sequence, in its pre-release version, was the “Joe” sequence. It was Oboler’s adaptation of his radio play, “Ghost Story”. This episode starred Robert Ryan as Joe Dunham, a master machinist. It was supposed to be the film’s pièce de résistance and transform these strangers into a welcoming and reassuring community. Joe’s flashback story begins with him walking down the street and imagining the voices of his fellow citizens judging him for not being in the military. He goes to recruiting stations where officers turn him down and tell him he is “essential industry.” 31 Joe even begins to see the faces of his internalized critics superimposed over his machines. He becomes fed-up with his paranoid fear of missing out on the war and decides to leave his job to join the military no matter what. However, before he can leave, he realizes that he’s left his beloved tobacco pipe in the factory. Once in the factory after hours, he is confronted by Polish, Czech, French, and Russian wraiths who work at lathes to atone for their crimes of selfishness in the years leading up to the Nazi invasions. With their stories of regret, these ghosts of complacency past, especially Joe’s Soviet doppelgänger, convince him to stay on the job. This is the same factory where all of the characters are heading to work. The idea was that Joe and his fellow workers would learn from the mistakes of their European counterparts. Gaining wisdom and a sense of obligation to the dead and the living, our heroes would realize that the work they do is important and that they are not alone.
Oboler’s “Joe” sequence makes liberal use of radio and film montage. It gives Robert Ryan a role that would have matched his talents. Joe Dunham is a character that plays to Ryan’s ability to convey bitterness and resentment as well as quiet decency. 32 The supernatural element and ghostly milieu would also have played to Nicholas Musuraca’s ability to conjure worlds out of shadows.
In a letter to John Auer, dated August 20, 1943, Oboler requested improvements to this sequence,
as the picture is now we have a series of stories which do not accumulate emotionally … I believe the basic reason for this is the handling of the final episode … after the dead workers start talking we lose him [Joe] simply because we don’t cut back to closeups of him during the mens’ speeches … once we’re back in the automobile you should cut to individual closeups yes, of each and every person of the car showing their sombre faces as the result of what Joe has just told them … this is all simply cured. 33
Unfortunately, RKO cut the sequence altogether, and replaced it with a “new Joe” sequence also starring Robert Ryan. Additionally, the studio shuffled the original order of the stories. I have not been able to establish whether the film as screened for Oboler still exists. The original “Joe” sequence may now be, itself, a ghost story. But the question remains, why did RKO kill the original “Joe” sequence? It appears that OWI suggested that it die.
In Gangway’s declassified OWI file, a script review for domestic distribution lays out the agency’s objections to the original “Joe” sequence. First, the objections were to the supernatural element, “because of the fanciful treatment … the presentation is not a convincing one.” 34 Second, the OWI asserted that the regretful confessions of the allied ghosts
adds up to only a partial — and therefore misleading — picture of our allies and the factors which led the world to war. There is definite need for extending the knowledge and understanding of Americans regarding foreign nations and past mistakes made by all peoples. But merely to show workers, who are the sole representatives in the story of several United Nations, reciting their crimes could be confusing. Can we say it was the complacency and lack of spirit on the part of Polish, Czech and French workers which led to the blitzing of their countries? Or do their former leaders share the blame, those who fostered isolationism and the old “balance-of-power” diplomacy, those quislings and Vichymen who lied to and sold out their people, among many other factors? 35
The criticism in the review for overseas distribution echoes and clarifies this last point,
[p]eople abroad, many of whom have had first hand experience with near-sighted leadership … and out-and-out quislings, could resent a recital of the past crimes of the common people in Nazi-occupied countries, with the implication that it is the people who led the world to war. 36
The OWI had a point. In a piece of propaganda that is supposed to promote a united front, Oboler’s justifiable warnings about complacency do — without concurrent criticism of national leadership — come off as divisive, parochial, self-righteous, and self-defeating. Wouldn’t the French worker’s story make Lisette feel defensive? However, the OWI’s first objection to the supernatural element as unconvincing per se, is itself unconvincing. The objection reveals the often arbitrary and capricious nature of ideological criticism of art. 37 RKO responded to the OWI’s criticism with a “new Joe” sequence, which was written by Lawrence Kimble. The OWI was pleased. 38
Understandably, Oboler was displeased with the excision of his “Joe” sequence, and he was unhappy with the released film on the whole, which received a tepid response from critics and the public. In a letter dated January 20, 1944, to a film critic, Oboler tried to correct the record,
The screen plan that I turned in for processing at the RKO factory had, I believe, humanity and freshness and idea. What came out contained only two episodes which were completely mine — the tramp episode and the … very trite warden scene … My best episode concerning a war worker who felt he had to have a gun in his hand did not even appear in the picture. 39
Oboler’s attempts to manage his reputation recall some of the criticisms that OWI leveled at his “Joe” sequence. First, his view is only a partial picture of who was to blame for the shortcomings of the film, and second, his criticisms are self-defeating.
Ironically, RKO may have done Oboler a favor by cutting this sequence out of the film because of its support for America’s Soviet allies. The RKO home front picture, Tender Comrade, written by Dalton Trumbo came under heavy scrutiny by the House Un-American Activities Committee and contributed to Trumbo’s being blacklisted. Oboler’s declassified FBI file reveals that he came under minimal scrutiny and that was for his post-war stance against nuclear weapons. But given that Oboler had adapted Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun for radio, I wonder if that fact combined with the original “Joe” sequence would have been enough to have HUAC and the studios cancel him as well.
The “new Joe” sequence
In the Gangway For Tomorrow that we have today, Lisette’s story is followed by the “new Joe” sequence. When Sylvia the Sedan gets a flat, Joe Dunham (Robert Ryan) changes the tire, which leads us into a story of his former life as an auto-racer. This perfunctory sequence consists mostly of stock footage of stock car racing that alternates with medium shots of Ryan in his racer. This footage is also intercut with Ryan’s pit boss Hank (Sam McDaniel 40 ) elated, but then terrified that the car will crash because a tire is unraveling. The car, of course, crashes and lands Joe in the hospital and labeled 4F for the Air Corps.
Although the OWI was happy with this sequence, the agency justifiably criticized it for its depiction of Hank. In an OWI review dated October 1, 1943, the reviewer comments on the following,
A minor problem is raised in some business and a line of dialogue … when the Negro, 41 Hank, gives Joe a rabbit’s foot and says, “… but this bunny foot’ll help … ” This action and dialogue serve to perpetuate the usual false stereotype characterization of the Negro as inherently superstitious, and bears out enemy propaganda to colored peoples 42 overseas, which charges Americans with having an attitude of superiority toward these peoples. If possible, the studio should be asked to eliminate the action and dialogue in question. 43
RKO did not cut this bit of business from the film, and the Hank character would still be rather stereotypical even without it. It’s also worth pointing out that the OWI, itself, simply refers to Hank as “the Negro”, as if this is his sole defining characteristic. The OWI’s well intentioned criticism is typical of the time. Like the Hank role that it criticizes, the OWI isn’t vicious or mocking, but reductive. It’s not the only such character in the film. In the “Hobo” sequence, Claremont (Theron Jackson) is clearly modeled after the Buckwheat (William “Billie” Thomas Jr.) character from “The Little Rascals”. In that sequence, Claremont is the recipient of some condescending sympathy from the Justice of the Peace. These sorts of depictions were past their sell-by dates due to changing attitudes, policy concerns, the efforts of NAACP leader Walter F. White, supporters like former presidential nominee and 20th Century Fox board member Wendell Wilkie, and supporters of civil rights within the Hollywood community both black and white. Along with artists like Duke Ellington and Orson Welles, Oboler was part of the Emergency Committee of the Entertainment Industry, which “drafted a code with respect to the treatment of minorities on the stage, radio, and screen which … materially affected these entertainment media.” 44 After this film, Oboler lived up to this code. For example, his anthology radio play, “Strange Morning” 45 features an entire story told from the point of view of a wounded black serviceman of the Red Ball Express. 46
The Day After Tomorrow
In his letter to Auer suggesting improvements to Gangway, Oboler observed that the “picture peters off no matter how many airplanes or flags you may wave at the end.” 47 In the absence of the one sequence where a character makes a full disclosure whose raw honesty unites his fellow workers, Oboler’s criticism is still correct. Gangway ends with the driver and his passengers locking arms and walking to the aircraft factory in common brother-and-sisterhood despite being little better acquainted than when the film started. We don’t believe the camaraderie because they didn’t really share their stories with one another. In the existing film, the reticence of these characters implies that if these strangers knew one another better, they might not want to be friends. Certainly, they would not like their fellow workers enough to walk arm-in-arm as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays on the soundtrack and the camera dissolves to aircraft flying overhead. The ending is so unconvincing, it made me fear that these fighters were being assembled with the defective aircraft engine cylinder heads from the Arthur Miller play All My Sons (1946).
In The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today, Mark Twain and/or C.D. Warner wrote that “[h]istory never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.” 48 Gangway For Tomorrow, even with its failings and contradictions, is a film in which we can recognize our own present in the Kaleidoscopic combinations that seem to be constructed from its broken fragments and those of American history. As a nation, we are again living through a time when we face existential threats at home and abroad; conflict over free speech and censorship, race and class; anxiety about privacy and exposure, fellowship and distrust; and a multimedia blurring of the lines between reality, art, and propaganda. At first, when you turn the Kaleidoscope it’s fascinating to see the distortions, refractions, and combinations. However, the more you turn and the longer you gaze, the more the picture becomes disorienting and uncanny. When scanned deeply, Gangway For Tomorrow transmits an image that evokes feelings of anxiety, failure, regret, and exhaustion. It’s as if the sedan in the film inadvertently emits a cloud of gloom over the audience. Ironically, this sense of emotional pollution may have been true to what many were feeling on the WWII home front. It’s hardly reassuring and this atmosphere feels all too familiar. It reminds me once again of Oboler’s war time revival of Lights Out. In the introduction to that program, a voice intones a saying that was once inscribed on sundials, those antiques that keep time with the creeping of the sun’s shadow, ancient reminders of the turning of the Earth. The voice recites the words in time with the solemn tolling of a bell, “It … Is … Later …Than … You … Think.” These words of warning make “tomorrow” sound like an uninviting place.
1 “‘We the People’ short synopsis of an original story by Aladar Laszlo”. Undated. Box RKO-S-1000. RKO Collection: Scripts. UCLA-Theater Arts Library
3 Koppes, Clayton R., and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War. London. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. (2000), p.143.
4 “Qualifications and Experience. Aladar Laszlo.” April 29, 1944. Box 434. Personnel Files of the Office of Strategic Services. 1942 – ca. 1962. National Archives and Records Administration.
5 “‘We the People’ short synopsis of an original story by Aladar Laszlo.” Undated. Box RKO-S-1000. RKO Collection: Scripts. UCLA-Theater Arts Library
6 Jewell, Richard. RKO Radio Pictures – A Titan Is Born. Los Angeles, University of California Press. (2012), pgs. 19,21.
7 Arch Oboler to Harold Cohen. January 12, 1944. Box 11, Folder 6. Arch Oboler Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.
8 Decloux, Justin (2022). 50 Years of American Cinema: John H. Auer. Retrieved from: https://filmtrap.com/50-years-of-american-cinema-john-h-auer/
9 Although he may have studied with an expert dialectician and grammarian, I can tell that he was born Hungarian. Not only Hungarian, but a respected stage director who was expelled from Germany by the Nazis in 1938.
10 “… subject has worked as a scenario writer for several of the leading motion picture studios . . . recently a propaganda story ‘Gangway For Tomorrow’ for RKO.” “Qualifications and Experience. Aladar Laszlo.” April 29, 1944. Box 434. Personnel Files of the Office of Strategic Services. 1942 – ca. 1962. National Archives and Records Administration.
11 Verlaine wrote this chanson in 1866 and composer Reynaldo Hahn set it to music in 1893. In 1940, Charles Trenet (“La Mer”) adapted “Chanson d’automne” into a popular song called “Verlaine”. It’s unclear which recording the BBC used or why this particular poem was chosen. Perhaps “Chanson d’automne” was chosen because Verlaine was a symbolist poet, and this poem with its enduring popularity was a symbol of endurance to the French.
12 Roberts, Andrew. The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. New York, NY. Harper Collins (2011), p.471.
15 “C’est Mon Coeur”. Sheet Music. Box RKO-M-755. RKO Collection: Scripts. UCLA-Theater Arts Library. Unlike Verlaine’s poem, this song is rather insipid and seems to have been tossed off specifically for Gangway.
16 Was this the idea that launched the notorious NBC-TV sitcom My Mother the Car?
17 Author’s Note. Aladar Laszlo. Undated. Box RKO-S-1000. RKO Collection: Scripts. UCLA-Theater Arts Library. (Punctuation Lazlo’s)
18 Decloux, Justin (2022). 50 Years of American Cinema: John H. Auer. Retrieved from: https://filmtrap.com/50-years-of-american-cinema-john-h-auer/
19 In his documentary series My Journey Through French Cinema (2016) and Journeys Through French Cinema (2017-2018), Tavernier highlights these filmmakers with moving gratitude.
20 Arnold M. Picker to B.D. Lion. September 18, 1945. Box 3516. “[Studio] RKO — Gangway for Tomorrow (An American Story, 1943-1945.)” Motion Picture Reviews and Analysis, 1943-1945; Entry NC 148 567; Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208. National Archives and Records Administration.
21 Koppes, Clayton R., and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War. London. I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd. (2000), p.290
22 Feature Script Review. June 22, 1943. Box 3516. “[Studio] RKO — Gangway for Tomorrow (An American Story, 1943-1945.)” Motion Picture Reviews and Analysis, 1943-1945; Entry NC 148 567; Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208. National Archives and Records Administration.
23 See Interview with cinematographer John Bailey for an illuminating discussion of Musuraca’s technique on the Criterion DVD/ Blu-ray Edition of Cat People (1942).
24 See Nemerov, Alexander. Icons of Grief: Val Lewton’s Home Front Pictures. Berkley, California. University of California Press, Ltd. (2005).
25 Arch Oboler to Karl Krug. January 20, 1944. Box 11, Folder 6. Arch Oboler Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.
27 “‘We the People’ short synopsis of an original story by Aladar Laszlo.” Undated. Box RKO-S-1000. RKO Collection: Scripts. UCLA-Theater Arts Library
28 “Rough Notes for Treatment of “Confidential Report” by Arch Oboler.” May 12, 1943. Box RKO-S-1000. RKO Collection: Scripts. UCLA-Theater Arts Library
29 “The Luck of Mark Street”. Arch Oboler’s Plays, NBC. June 24, 1939. Radio.
30 In “Until Dead”, the protagonist is named Mac Rogan. “Until Dead”. Lights Out, CBS. February 2, 1943. Radio.
31 “Gangway For Tomorrow/An American Story Screen Play by Arch Oboler.” June 25, 1943. Box 324, Folders 1-5. Arch Oboler Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.
32 Written with implications of alcoholism and xenophobia, Joe Dunham reminds me of the much darker character that Ryan played in a different ‘Tomorrow’ film, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).
33 Arch Oboler to John H. Auer. August 20, 1943. Box 11, Folder 6. Arch Oboler Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.
34 Feature Script Review. June 22, 1943. Box 3516. “[Studio] RKO — Gangway for Tomorrow (An American Story, 1943-1945.)” Motion Picture Reviews and Analysis, 1943-1945; Entry NC 148 567; Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208. National Archives and Records Administration.
37 See Plato’s Republic.
38 In a letter dated October 8, 1943, the OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures wrote to RKO, “We were happy to see this sequence since the re-write eliminates a presentation of the United Nations which this office felt posed some problems from the standpoint of overseas distribution.” William S. Cunningham to William Gordon. October 8, 1943. Box 3516. “[Studio] RKO — Gangway for Tomorrow (An American Story, 1943-1945.)” Motion Picture Reviews and Analysis, 1943-1945; Entry NC 148 567; Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208. National Archives and Records Administration.
39 Arch Oboler to Karl Krug. January 20, 1944. Box 11, Folder 6. Arch Oboler Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.
40 Elder brother of actress Hattie McDaniel. (Gone With the Wind – 1939). Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
41 Preferred nomenclature in its day. See I Am Not Your Negro (2016).
42 Also preferred nomenclature in its day. See Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored (1995).
43 Feature Script Review. October 1, 1943. Box 3516. “[Studio] RKO — Gangway for Tomorrow (An American Story, 1943-1945.)” Motion Picture Reviews and Analysis, 1943-1945; Entry NC 148 567; Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208. National Archives and Records Administration.
44 White, Walter. A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White. Bloomington & London. Indiana University Press. (1948), p. 242.
45 “Strange Morning”. Arch Oboler’s Plays, The Mutual Broadcasting System. April 05, 1945. Radio.
46 See Bamford, Tyler (2021). “Keep ’em Rolling”: 82 Days on the Red Ball Express. Retrieved from: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/red-ball-express
47 Arch Oboler to John H. Auer. August 20, 1943. Box 11, Folder 6. Arch Oboler Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.
48 Clemens, Samuel L. and Warner, Charles Dudley. The Gilded Age: A Tale of To-Day. Hartford, Connecticut. American Publishing Company. (1884), p. 430. Indeed. “That which hath been is that which shall be, and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.” The Book of Ecclesiastes. Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) never wrote that “history rhymes”, but this English translation of Ecclesiastes rhymes. The original Hebrew text has a near rhyme. I will note that Sir David Brewster invented the Kaleidoscope around 1816. Demonstrating that not even the Kaleidoscope was completely new, Brewster wrote that “[t]hose who wish to examine farther the ancient combinations of plain mirrors, and other subjects connected with the Kaleidoscope, are referred to … BAPTISTA PORTA’S Magia Naturalis …”. Brewster, David. A Treatise on the Kaleidoscope. Edinburgh. Archibald Constable & Company. p. 166.
Gangway For Tomorrow
1943 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 69 min.
Starring: Margo (Lisette Rene) John Carradine (Mr. Wellington) Robert Ryan (Joe Dunham) Amelita Ward (Mary Jones, Miss America) William Terry (Bob Nolan) Harry Davenport (Fred Taylor) James Bell (Tom Burke) Charles Arnt (Jim Benson) Alan Carney (Swallow) Wally Brown (Sam) Erford Gage (Dan Barton) Richard Ryen (Col. Mueller) Warren Hymer (Pete) Michael St. Angel (Jim Johnson) Don Dillaway (Frank Danielson) Sam McDaniels (Hank) John Wald (John Wald), Robert Bice, Rita Corday, Ludwig Donath, Edmund Glover, Harry Tenbrook.
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Production Designer: Art Director:
Film Editor: George Crone
Art Direction: Albert S. D’Agostino, Al Herman
Assistant Directors: Lloyd Richards, Robert Aldrich
Original Music: Roy Webb
Screen Play by Arch Oboler based on an original story by Aladar Laszlo
Produced and Directed by John H. Auer
April 10, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Matt Rovner
CineSavant Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson