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Terry O. Morse
Midnight Alibi Is Swan Song For Richard Barthelmess' Career At Warner Bros. Studio
Midnight Alibi is a contrived movie, but it is a chance to see Richard Barthelmess one last time as the star of a Warner Bros. movie. Midnight Alibi is the last of 23 movies (if the IMDb listing is correct) Richard Barthelmess starred in under his contract with First National Pictures. For his first movie under contract in 1927, the 150 minute long The Patent Leather Kid, Barthelmess earned an Oscar nomination. By 1934, Jack Warner was his boss, Warner Bros. having taken over First National and Barthelmess' contract.
In 1933, Hal Wallis was running First National as a separate production company with its own slate of movies. After Darryl Zanuck left as head of studio production in 1933, Wallis got Zanuck's job. Zanuck disagreed with how Warner was imposing "temporary" cuts of studio staff salaries while leaving the salaries of top executives untouched. Jack Warner combined First National with Warners Bros. in 1934, so all that remained of First National was just the name that followed, after a dash, Warner Bros. under the Warners logo.
During filming, Barthelmess must have known Jack Warner was not renewing his contract, a contract which expired in March 1934. Midnight Alibi is only 58 minutes long, made cheaply to get one more movie out of an actor who was still on salary. The movie's director, Alan Crosland, like Barthelmess, was on his way out. Warner seems to have let Crosland go within a year of cutting loose Barthelmess, a pretty shabby way to treat the director of The Jazz Singer and Don Juan. For that matter, Ann Dvorak, the co-star, was having problems, trying to avoid appearing in bad movies she thought would ruin her career, and going on suspension as a result. Until Jack Warner put her on permanent suspension.
Over 70 years later, it seems pretty incredible that Jack Warner would get rid of his stars, his production head (Zanuck) and much of the creative talent behind the camera while his studio was turning out about 48 movies a year in the pre-Code years of 1931-1933, movies made on shoe string budgets but with quality production values.
Richard Barthelmess movie fans did not figure into Jack Warners' equation. Barthelmess had a contract that paid him around $250,000 a year and allowed him to act like a producer in choosing the subject and script of his movies. His run of independence ran out when his contract was up. The same went for Ruth Chatterton, who was let go the same time as Barthelmess. William Powell, like Chatterton another actor Warners had raided from Paramount in 1931 (when Paramount was going into receivership), didn't renew his expiring contract, claiming he wanted to take roles on his own, at $60,000 per picture. Powell then signed with MGM, where he stayed on contract for 15 years. Warner Bros. was not a nice studio to work for, it was run like a sweatshop unless you had an ironclad contract like Barthelmess had.
The subject matter of Midnight Alibi, dealing in part with the old lady's dream of happiness lost, is an appropriate subject in one way. At Warners in the early 30s, the studio had a repertory company of actors turning out movies that have stood the test of time, directors Roy Del Ruth, Mervyn LeRoy and William Wellman were turning out 3 or 4 movies a year. Yet, in the space of year, from when Zanuck left Warners, Warners lost directors, actors (Loretta Young is another one who left) and writers. Much of the talent that left stopped working in Hollywood. Roy Del Ruth continued directing for 25 years but did not make movies again like those pre-Code classics he directed rapid fire at Warner Bros.
IMDb shows the release date of Midnight Alibi as July 15, 1934. From a recent article I read, Sunday, July 15, 1934 was the effective date when Production Code Administrator Joe Breen actually started censoring movies to conform with his rigid and puritanical views on life, completely detached from reality. One great movie career effectively ends at Warner Bros. with the release of Midnight Alibi, while the career of Joe Breen, an enemy of degenerate art (degenerate art is the term Nazis applied to art, especially from Jewish artists, not in conformance with Nazi beliefs), begins.
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