Director: Rowland V. Lee
Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Victor McLaglen, June Havoc, Dorothy Lovett, Roy Gordon, Damian O’Flynn, Marten Lamont, Mary Gordon, Eddie Foy Jr, Selmer Jackson
Screenplay: David Boehm, Grace Norton (uncredited) and John Twist (uncredited), based upon a novel by Max Brand and an idea by Vicki Baum
There’s really not that much “science” in Powder Town, but its main character is a scientist, so here we are. The most interesting thing about this film is its setting, the “powder town” of the title, a community built around a munitions plant devoted primarily to the production of black powder; while the most frustrating thing is that it never makes as much use of that setting as it could have done. The film gives no sort of explanation for anything in its set-up, but I’m assuming that places existed really existed as part of the war-effort, and that war-time audiences would have understood all this without needing to have it spelled out.
Our story opens, however, not in the “powder town”, but at an unnamed university, where J. Quincy Pennant (Edmond O’Brien) is working on the development of a new explosive; and we get our initial indication of the film’s attitude to science in the fact that, although Pennant is clearly a chemist, he’s working in the Physics department. The other thing we get here is a first taste of what will pass in this film for humour. Powder Town is an odd little jumble of shifting tones, part comedy, part drama, part action film, part romance. Its comedy is certainly its least successful aspect, with almost everything that even vaguely resembles a joke being run remorselessly into the ground; and sadly, the film opens with about fifteen minutes straight of this kind of un-funny business.
Even aside from this, Dr Pennant—sorry, Mr Pennant (?)—is an exaggerated conglomeration of every movie scientist cliché you can think of: he is naive, socially inept, romantically clueless and absent-minded to the point of retardation. The film even opens with that most cherished of set-pieces, the scientist who blows up his own lab, Pennant having (in lieu of any other assistance) left the janitor to mind his critical experiment when he is literally dragged away from it by the university president, Mr Tuttle (Selmer Jackson), who has come to tell Pennant that he’s been drafted.
“Oh, I know,” sneers Tuttle in the face of the scientist’s incomprehension. “You live in a little world all your own – and you’ve probably never heard that there’s a vast world outside your laboratory!”
This attack on the scientific attitude (and, by inference, Pennant’s lack of patriotism) is rather dramatically interrupted when bubbling glass flask left behind in the lab—which of course contains a Mysterious Coloured Fluid—ceases to go oh-ba-boo-oh-ba-boo, and starts going uhh-ba-ba-boo-boo-boo-boo instead. It’s all very technical, you understand.
Pennant’s demolition of his lab at the university coincides with the arrival of a letter demanding his presence at the Jupiter Powder Plant, on account of an article published in the Scientific Review, so it all works out for him, at least.
We get a brief, fascinating description here of the town that has sprung up almost overnight around the munitions plant, its population swelling from 300 to 6000, houses under construction, people living in trailers. There’s also a casual reference, strange in a war-time film, to a concomitant lift in the crime rate (“Two moiders last week,” comments Pennant’s cab-driver in an unconcerned tone). A casino in the town run by mobsters will later become the focus of much of this film’s action, but first we are treated to more comedy, with the revelation that due to the overcrowding, Pennant has been placed in a boarding-house otherwise populated exclusively by a gaggle of showgirls (or, perhaps, “showgirls”), all of whom work at the aforementioned casino.
The film has barely begun to exploit the comedic potential of this arrangement – Pennant is, of course, both completely inexperienced with women and oblivious to the character, or lack thereof, of the women with whom he is sharing digs – when it launches into one of the most misguided attempts at physical comedy it’s ever been my misfortune to stumble across.
Enter Jeems O’Shea (Victor McLaglen), who will be given the job of minding – or baby-sitting – Pennant, and as such become his Odious Comic Relief sidekick. O’Shea’s arrival is spectacular, to say the least. Clearly roaring drunk, he throws himself through the front window of the boarding-house and attacks the girls, grabbing and tackling and mauling them, and forcing kisses on them, and howling with laughter at their screams and struggles. This scene goes on and on and on, with O’Shea literally assaulting the girls, almost molesting them—and apparently, we’re supposed to find it hilarious.
For the first half of this film, Jeems O’Shea is just unbearable. However, as the film itself sobers up a bit, so does Jeems (emotionally as well as alcoholically), and becomes rather more tolerable in the role of Pennant’s loyal, two-fisted defender. However, Powder Town, evidently unable to quit while it is ahead, then takes the astonishing step of giving its Odious Comic Relief sidekick an Odious Comic Relief sidekick; so that as Jeems gives it a welcome rest, his offsider, powder-monkey Billy Meeker (Eddie Foy Jr), steps up to deliver his particular brand of comedy. It could just make you cry.
Powder Town is rather more successful with its attempts to posit Pennant as an accidental hero, forever facing danger and rescuing people, and occasionally saving his own life, without ever being aware of it. This starts when he unwittingly knocks Jeems down the stairs of the boarding-house and out cold, thereby saving the unfortunate showgirls from him and earning their gratitude and admiration…which doesn’t stop them chiselling him, once they realise what an easy mark he is.
Indeed, the girls more or less adopt Pennant at this point, wandering in at out of his room at all hours, teasing and laughing at him, calling him “Penji” and “Mr Penguin”, and generally treating him like everyone’s favourite brother. Meanwhile, Dolly Smythe (June Havoc), the girls’ unofficial leader and Jeems’ official girlfriend, starts out chiselling Pennant herself, but in time his innocence and decency wins her over and she begins to look out for him instead.
In some respects, Powder Town makes for an interesting comparison with No Highway In The Sky. Both films adopt the tactic of conceding their hero’s genius, while simultaneously scattering random insults throughout the screenplay – in this case, “nut”, screwball”, and so on. Moreover, not only is J. Quincy Pennant so completely dysfunctional as to make Jimmy Stewart’s Theodore Honey look like a normal human being, but both films are built around the effect of their scientists’ helplessness upon the women around them, whose roused maternal instincts lead them into a fight for his affections.
In Powder Town, this conflict is conducted in a far less ladylike manner than it is in No Highway In The Sky, as the combatants are Dolly Smythe and the most stand-offish of the showgirls, Sally Dean (Dorothy Lovett). Pennant takes one look at Sally and falls for her, mistaking her coldness for class. Unlike the others, Sally wants nothing from Pennant. She is a chilly bit of work, only concerned with money. It is this, um, “quality” that leads the owner of the local casino, Chick Parker (Marten Lamont), to recommend her to Oliver Lindsay (Damian O’Flynn), the second-in-charge at the powder plant, who hires her (for reasons we shall discuss presently) to vamp the scientist. She does, but ends up falling for him, and finally joins forces with the antagonistic Dolly to help protect him.
The film does eventually pair up Pennant with Sally, and gives Dolly to Jeems, which is painful both because of who and what Jeems is, and because Dolly is by far the more attractive personality. However, I have no quarrel with Pennant’s “formula for women”: “You have to mix thoughtfulness, generosity, and consideration.” Jeems finds this ridiculous, of course, and advocates a more, uh, hands-on approach.
As for Jeems himself, he is roaringly hostile at the outset, both because of the accidental blow from Pennant that knocks him down the stairs, and because he comes to believe that the scientist is trying to take Dolly away from him. However, Jeems is then confronted by Pennant’s obliviousness, which he interprets as unshakable courage, and by the way the women, including Dolly, are all drawn to him, which he puts down not to the fact that they feel perfectly safe in his presence, but to quite the opposite. Jeems can’t help but admire what he considers to be Pennant’s sexual je ne c’est quoi. “There’s something about you,” he tells the bewildered scientist, adding rather alarmingly, “I even feel it myself!” (And mind you, this is after Jeems offers to share Pennant’s bed…in the interest of keeping him safe, you understand.) Against his will, Jeems ends up conceiving a profound regard for Pennant, and devoting himself to his welfare, which as it turns out is just as well.
Pennant’s summons to the Jupiter Powder Plant is on the basis of his theory of a new kind of explosive, one that, in effect, acts as a guided missile with no missile involved, being able to “jump over” intervening obstacles to hit a distant target without any loss of force. In this, the film is essentially science fiction, or would be if it gave any thought at all to how Pennant actually goes about achieving his goal. It doesn’t, instead focusing upon the attempts of Oliver Lindsay to steal Pennant’s formula in order to sell it to the highest bidder. It is for this, after several failures, that Lindsay joins forces with Chick Parker, who in turns sets Sally onto the scientist.
When Pennant is initially welcomed to “Powder Town” by his employer, Dr Wayne (Roy Gordon), and by Lindsay, the latter is bitterly disappointed to discover that the new explosive is still in the theoretical stage. Dr Wayne, in contrast, whose title suggests a scientific background, is unconcerned, and gives Pennant a laboratory and everything he needs to pursue his work. However, warned by Mr Tuttle of the scientist’s habit of “blowing things up”, Wayne also appoints Jeems to be his minder.
While Lindsay is taking down Pennant’s personal details – during which we learn that his nearest relative is “an aunt in Australia; Sydney, I think” – he also raises the issue of his experimental notes. Now, the issue here is Pennant’s refusal to write anything down, insisting instead upon keeping all of his research in his head. I find myself rather torn on this point: clearly written and detailed experimental notes are absolutely fundamental to the proper conduct of science; besides which, these days anyway, intellectual property arrangements usually mean that anything you think belongs to the people paying you. However, here it seems that note-keeping is considered optional, and there’s certainly no doubt that within the action of Powder Town, Pennant is right. In fact, it’s only his refusal to maintain proper written records that keeps him alive!
Under pressure from Dr Wayne and Oliver Lindsay, Pennant does eventually start keeping records, but in a hieroglyphic code of his own devising that nobody else can make head or tail of. The girls, coming across some of his discarded notes, and misunderstanding Pennant’s reference to his “formula”, take him for a professional gambler and invite him to the casino. There, their suspicions about him are inadvertently confirmed when Pennant has a run of success – pure dumb luck, of course – that almost breaks the bank; and if Chick Parker’s goons weren’t trying to kill him before, well, they are now.
Except that they were trying to kill him before, which seems a little self-defeating considering that it’s still supposed to be all about getting hold of his formula; perhaps they were hoping to take the notes from his body. Or maybe they weren’t trying to kill him, in which case a bullet that passes through the brim of his hat was probably taking things a bit too far. Either way, the evening at the casino ends in an all-in brawl, during which Parker’s goons very nearly succeed in getting those notes away from Pennant, but are thwarted when Jeems intervenes.
This riotous night – which is, by the way, the very first break from his research that Pennant has taken since coming to the plant – lands the scientist on the carpet in Dr Wayne’s office, and almost gets him sacked: “Gambling! Drinking! Gay women! Fisticuffs!” However, Wayne ignores Lindsay’s suggestion that they take Pennant’s notes away from him and let someone else finish the work; and Pennant is let off with a reprimand after he promises there’ll be no more of this “taking a very occasional night off” nonsense in the future.
Circumstances nevertheless favour Lindsay at this point, or so he thinks, when Pennant gives his notes to Sally for safekeeping. Of course, by now she has no intention of handing them over, but he doesn’t know that. The formula secured, as Lindsay supposes, Pennant is dispensable; and on the very morning that his new explosive is put to its final test, Pennant finds himself trapped inside the plant’s black powder store, bound and gagged, and with the timer on a small explosive device ticking inexorably down…
Powder Town is a pretty mixed bag. Nothing hurts more than failed comedy, and the bits of this film that don’t work are just awful; but to be fair, some sections of it do work quite well, including some of the attempts at humour. As J. Quincy Pennant, Edmond O’Brien is a walking stereotype, but his performance is nevertheless pretty good and quite often funny, including his by-play with Victor McLaglen. The problem here is that Pennant was clearly supposed to be, in a sense, a modern Candide: there are constant references in the script to Pennant’s youth and inexperience – he is called, at various times, “a young scientist”, “young man”, “boy genius”, even “high school genius” – that make it clear the role was conceived with someone at least ten years younger than Edmond O’Brien in mind. It does get a little jarring. Among the other performances, well, Victor McLaglen is memorable all right, although that’s not always for the best; while June Havoc’s charm is a genuine bonus. Powder Town was directed by Rowland V. Lee, but the look of the film is flat and uninteresting, with nothing here to remind us of the visual power of Lee’s horror films of the thirties.
Science and scientists aside, there is one outstanding reason why I’m reviewing this film, one that I have not yet touched upon. I did mention the mode of action of Pennant’s experimental explosive, which “jumps” over intervening objects to expend its force upon a target beyond. The initial test of the explosive looks at first like a failure, until we notice Dr Wayne, who was standing not just beyond the target but beyond the barrier put up to shield the observers, is now sprawled in the dirt, knocked down by an invisible power while everything between the detonation point and himself remains untouched. The formal test of the finished product is even more impressive, with the explosive demolishing a circle of trees sitting at some considerable distance from detonation, and almost knocking over the observers’ barrier, too.
When Pennant first arrives at Powder Town, his explosive is, as I have said, still theoretical in nature, and he is invited to explain his theory to Dr Wayne and Oliver Lindsay. Being a scientist, Pennant is essentially incapable of speaking in comprehensible terms. Nevertheless, at Wayne’s insistence, he finally finds a way of describing his hypothetical explosive…
…whereupon it becomes clear to the incredulous viewer that—Eros the alien was right!!—because damned if J. Quincy Pennant hasn’t gone ahead and discovered Solarmanite!
Don’t believe me? Well, here is Pennant’s explanation of the incredibly powerful new explosive he’s trying to develop:
“You see, it’s based on a cosmic hypothesis… Well, I’ll illustrate. If you’ll stay there – because you’re the earth – and if you don’t mind getting up on that [ladder], sir – because you’re the sun! Now— You’re the earth, and you’re the sun, and I’m a sun-ray; you’re in a constant state of eruption, and you throw me off, and away I go on my trip to reach the earth. I have to go 93 million miles, but I’m very hot. I go down and down on my way, and I pass through an area so cold that if there were any humans standing around, they would freeze so fast that they would shatter into crystal, just like that. But it doesn’t affect me; I’m still very hot; and I go down and down, leaping and skipping, until I’ve travelled the 93 million miles and I reach you, the earth. And I still have enough heat left to give your inhabitants an awful sunburn.”
You see? You see?
Oh, their stupid minds. Stupid, stupid, stupid…