John Rawlins

Tom Vallance
Monday 09 June 1997 00:02

The 1940s are considered the Golden Age of the "B" movie, those quickly shot, low-budget films which played the bottom half of the programme but developed a style and reputation all their own. The director John Rawlins was a prime exponent of that style, being a master of swift exposition and fast action. His no-nonsense approach also made him a fine serial director, and when given the chance of a top-budget adventure film he gave his studio one of its biggest hits in Arabian Nights, the film which established the exotic beauty (and now cult figure) Maria Montez as a star.

Born in Long Beach, California, in 1902, Rawlins entered films during the silent era as a stuntman and bit player in action films and serials. With the coming of sound, he wrote gags for screen comedies, then was signed by Columbia as an editor. In 1933 he made his directing debut with two shorts, Sign Please and They're Off!, but he did not direct his first feature until 1938, when put under contract by Universal. State Police, a lively thriller set in a mining town, instantly established his forte - quickly made, inexpensive "B" movies of around 60 minutes' running time, distinguished by fast pacing and non-stop action.

Air Devils (1938), about two ex-Marines who became flying policeman, was in similar vein, and The Missing Guest (1938) proved him adept at a haunted-house thriller replete with sliding panels, secret passages and self-playing pianos.

Serials were still a staple part of screen fare, and Universal teamed Rawlins with the prolific serial director Ford Beebe on The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1940, with Warren Hull as the masked avenger delivering justice to a gang infiltrating city industries), Junior G-Men (1940), Sea Raiders (1941) and Overland Mail (1942), starring Lon Chaney Jnr as its cowboy hero. Junior G-Men and Sea Raiders both starred the Dead End Kids led by Billy Halop and Huntz Hall - in the former the boys join forces with the FBI to capture a bunch of aspiring dictators called the Order of the Flaming Torch while in Sea Raiders they pursue a mysterious traitor who has been sinking Allied ships.

The Leather Pushers (1940) was the first of five popular thrillers Rawlins directed featuring the team of Richard Arlen and Andy Devine as trouble- shooters, and Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga (1941) a rare excursion into musical comedy (the title was that of a 1940 song hit popularised by Jimmy Dorsey and sung in the film by "Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Velez).

Universal then upgraded Rawlins to a more prestigious "B", The Great Impersonation, a 70-minute spy drama starring Ralph Bellamy in the dual role of an Englishman and a German spy who impersonates him. The female lead was taken by the studio's prime "B-movie" heroine Evelyn Ankers, who told the writer Doug McClelland about the lack of preparation typical of such films.

"I was called on to the set and Mr Bellamy was already there. He was one of my idols but I'd never met him. The director, who I had also never met, said, 'Hi, are you ready to shoot?' I replied, 'You must be Mr Rawlins.' I was anxious to rehearse as I had to lean over and kiss Bellamy in a vampy, Mata Hari style. Suddenly I heard, 'OK - action!' There was deathly silence as Ralph and I sat looking at each other with our mouths open . . . we hadn't even been informed where the director wanted to start and finish the scene.

"Mr Rawlins finally yelled 'Cut!' and asked us what the problem was. I managed to stutter, 'First, I would like to meet my leading man, as I have never kissed a man without being introduced to him. Second, it would help us both if we knew where you wanted to start and end the scene . . .' "

Rawlins worked with Ankers again on his next film, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), the first of the series that the studio made with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. Based on Doyle's story "His Last Bow", the updated tale had Holmes tracking down the Nazi perpetrator of propagandist broadcasts - the film started production wth the grandiose working title Sherlock Homes Saves London.

After these two important "B" movies, the studio gave Rawlins his biggest project yet, their first film made in 3-strip Technicolor, Arabian Nights. Lavishly produced by Walter Wanger using top craftsmen, it was gorgeously photographed by Milton Krasner, opulently set and costumed (the vivid camerawork dazzling the eye with golden sands, ultra-blue skies and the shimmering silks worn by Montez, the heroine, and the palace handmaidens), and vigorously directed with an emphasis on non-stop excitement by Rawlins.

A tremendous success, it inaugurated a series of exotic adventures starring the team of Montez, Jon Hall, Sabu and Turhan Bey. Montez, dubbed "Queen of Technicolor", said of herself at the time, "When I look at myself in Arabian Nights, I am so beautiful I scream with joy!"

(Montez became so obsessed with her appearance that her fatal heart attack in 1951 was attributed to the effects of the hot bath she was taking in an effort to slim.)

Rawlins made another film with the same star team, Sudan (1945), but by then the formula was wearing thin, and even a change of locale to ancient Egypt and the director's trademark pacing could not prevent the result seeming tired. Between the two Montez vehicles Rawlins made two war films, We've Never Been Licked (1943), in which a military school student professes sympathy for the Japanese in order to infiltrate their ranks, and Ladies Courageous (1944), a tribute to the women who ferried war planes for the US air force, starring Loretta Young. Hampered by a dull, soap-opera script, Rawlins's direction lacked its customary vigour, and after the failure of Sudan he was returned to "B" movies and in 1947 decided to freelance.

At RKO, he directed the final two films in a four-film "Dick Tracy" series, Rawlins's earlier background in serials enabling him to give the films the requisite comic-strip ambience. Dick Tracy's Dilemma (1947) had the detective pursuing "The Claw", a villain with a steel claw in place of a hand, and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947) featured Boris Karloff as a splendid villain who deploys a mysterious gas that temporarily freezes victims.

Rawlins's subsequent movies were minor but usually above average, notably The Arizona Ranger (1948), a western with some trenchant observations about the readjustment of men returning from war, and another western, Fort Defiance (1951), which explores the developing relationships among a group of settlers preparing for Indian attacks.

Rawlins directed a few television shows in the Fifties, but after his last film Lost Lagoon in 1958 he left the film business to pursue a highly successful career as a property developer.

Tom Vallance

John Rawlins, film director: born Long Beach, California 9 June 1902; married (two sons); died 20 May 1997.

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