Thursday 7 February 2019

I’ve Lived Before (1956)

Director: Richard Bartlett
Writers: Norman Jolley and William Talman
Stars: Jock Mahoney, Leigh Snowden. Ann Harding and John McIntire

Index: 2019 Centennials.

I often talk about other people when writing centennial reviews, because I select them for more reasons than just the person born a hundred years earlier. Usually, however, they’re other actors in the film or they’re in the crew that made it: a writer, a producer or a director, maybe even a cinematographer or composer. Here, the key person to talk about wasn’t involved at all and I can’t be sure that she even saw this feature. Her name was Bridie Murphy Corkell and she died a year later, having become the centre of a rather bizarre storm that, even more bizarrely, hasn’t quite dissipated yet. For our purposes, her story began in Pueblo, CO, in 1952, even though she wasn’t there either. A housewife called Virginia Tighe was and she was being placed into hypnotic regression by a local businessman called Morey Bernstein, who conjured up the bright idea to take her memories back further than her childhood. The result was that Tighe recounted, vividly and lucidly, her previous life as Bridey Murphy, born in Cork in Ireland in 1798.

While Mrs. Tighe didn’t capitalise on this, insisting that her name be kept private—she became Ruth Simmons to posterity—Morey Bernstein did. He quickly went to the press and William J. Barker published a string of articles in The Denver Post in 1954. Two years later, Doubleday published Bernstein’s book on the subject, The Search for Bridey Murphy, which became a bestseller and a sensation of epic proportions. Naturally, given that the story even prompted Bridey Murphy “come as you were” parties, Hollywood rapidly took notice, adapting the book into a Paramount film, also titled The Search for Bridey Murphy and starring Teresa Wright and Louis Hayward. Just as naturally, there was a rapidly rushed into production knock-off, albeit one rather less exploitative in tone than an Asylum production nowadays. I’ve Lived Before was a Universal picture about the buzzword of the day, reincarnation, but it doesn’t mention Bridey Murphy even once. However, it was still just as clearly a product of her phenomenon as the official adaptation.

Now, all cultural phenomena have their shelf life and Bridey Murphy’s had already run out by the time these two movies reached screens. While Bernstein was eager to continue delving into the wonderful world of reincarnation, he never did, perhaps because reporters working for the Chicago American had figured out the pseudonyms he used in his book and researched the life of Virginia Tighe, publishing a much more believable solution to the mystery than reincarnation. No, it wasn’t fraud; it was cryptomnesia, an interesting trick of the brain that most often crops up in cases of subconscious plagiarism, where memories of creators resurface as what seem to be entirely new ideas. Writers as famous as Friedrich Nietzsche, Lord Byron and Robert Louis Stevenson had bouts of cryptomnesia and it seems that Virginia Tighe did too. She’d forgotten that Bridie Murphy Corkill was her childhood neighbour in Chicago and she’d had a crush on Mrs. Corkill’s son. She didn’t know that her “past life” was just memories. The search was over.

What makes I’ve Lived Before so fascinating to me is that the majority of it is framed as respective attempts to prove or explain away one man’s belief that he was the reincarnation of another. In this instance, as Universal didn’t have rights to Bernstein’s book, it’s a pilot called John Bolan who believes that he used to be Lt. Peter Stevens, an American fighter pilot who was shot down over France during World War I and killed before Bolan was even born. Of course, we eventually reach the point where even the psychiatrist in charge of Capt. Bolan’s recovery from a near fatal aeroplane crash is faced with “incontrovertible evidence” and he ends the movie with the suggestion that, “Mankind, even after all these years, has barely crossed the threshold of knowledge. The only way we can continue to advance is to recognise that all human experiences are a pathway to the truth.” What rocks my world isn’t that he has a rational explanation for everything but that they include mind reading, ESP and mental telepathy. Welcome to 1956, folks!
Bolan is played, as an adult, by our centenarian of the day, Jock Mahoney, but we first meet him as a child in Schenectady in 1931 in a clever presaging of the plot. We’re at an air show and everyone is panicked because little Tommy Bolan, a mere twelve years old, jumped into the cockpit of an old plane, took off and is happily flying around the sky. He lands in a field and taxis up to them. How? “I knew how to do it like I’d done it before.” Fast forward to the present day and he’s now Capt. Bolan of Federal Airways, preparing for take off as the pilot of flight 652 to New York. The 28 people on board are relying on him to get them there but, as he begins his approach, he flashes back to Villars in 1918 with a couple of German planes on his tail, riddling him with bullets from their machine guns. The only reason that everyone survives is that Bolan’s co-pilot, Russell Smith, knocks him out and pulls up from his suicide dive just in time to land safely, if bumpily. Bolan wakes up in hospital as Lt. Stevens utterly bewildered that he’s not dead.

For a while, this is a surprisingly solid drama. The script, by Norman Jolley, a failed actor who found success as a writer instead on Space Patrol, and William Talman, a more successful actor about to be cast in his most famous role, that of D.A. Hamilton Burger on the Raymond Burr television version of Perry Mason, takes itself very seriously indeed and the cast all play along, sometimes a little too earnestly. Nobody has any doubt about Bolan being a good man. His fiancée, Lois Gordon, goes to great lengths to help him out. Dr. Thomas Bryant, who’s there in Bolan’s room when he recounts his wild story, doesn’t believe him but never thinks him a fraud. His friend and co-pilot bends some rules for him. At least his boss, Joseph Hackett, thinks he must be insane, but he still plays along with reason and is happily willing to pay his employee’s medical bills until he’s declared well by a doctor. Today, I’d expect that all and sundry would immediately assume that he’s either pulling a practical joke or some sort of scam.
Naturally, this turns into an investigation. Bolan checks himself out and starts trying to find out everything he can about Lt. Peter Stevens, about whom he suddenly knows quite a lot. He gives his attorney, Robert Allen, the man’s name, rank and serial number, like a prisoner might, because he really is a sort of prisoner of his own mind at this point. He wants Allen to have colleagues in DC trawl through the records and see if Stevens was a real airman shot down in France. I’m sure it won’t surprise you to find that he was and every detail Bolan somehow knows is true, which is validating for him. “You can’t be cured of the truth,” he exclaims. It’s here that he remembers his mysterious ability to fly a plane at twelve. And he also remembers the middle aged lady in seat 2B, whom he saw when boarding flight 652 and with whom he exchanged knowing glances as if they knew each other but were unable to remember how. No prizes for guessing how first time passenger Miss Jane Stone of Philadelphia, PA plays into proceedings!

Yeah, it’s predictable but it’s done much better than we might expect for an exploitative knock-off sneaking onto the film schedule ahead of its bigger budget competitor. Partly this is due to the serious tone taken by the script and partly to the decent acting by an interesting mix of stars. Character actor John McIntire, at this point known mostly for supporting work in pictures like The Asphalt Jungle, The Far Country and The Phenix City Story, does well as the ever-patient, ever-skeptical voice of reason, Dr. Bryant. He’d find a lasting fame in westerns, taking over a pair of shows after the death of their original stars: Ward Bond in Wagon Train and Charles Bickford in The Virginian. The lovely Leigh Snowden is just as patient as Lois Gordon, demonstrating that she was worth more than the cheesecake roles she was hired for. Walking across the stage on a Jack Benny Christmas show to appreciative whistles from the ten thousand sailors present, she was contacted by eleven studios the next day. She’s best known for The Creature Walks Among Us.
To play Jane Stone, who finds herself drawn into this story because Bolan believes that she’s the key to his mystery and, in fact, is precisely that because, shock horror, she was indeed the fiancée of Lt. Peter Stevens, Universal cast Ann Harding, a highly capable actress in her final year of film work. She was notable in precodes and became, in Wikipedia’s words, “stereotyped as the beautiful, innocent, self-sacrificing woman” by the time she took a break from the screen in 1937. She’s as well-spoken and intonated as ever and she brings some real gravitas to this material, even if her character has a habit of changing her mind whenever asked politely. The other recognisable face is Raymond Bailey, who plays the exasperated owner of Federal Airways, Joseph Hackett. In 1956, he wasn’t yet the household name that he’d become, having only recently begun his long television career and being best known for small parts in films like Tarantula. We know him today, of course, as bank manager Milburn Drysdale in The Beverly Hillbillies.

Finally, in an unusual part that isn’t quite a double role but comes close, is Jock Mahoney, who would have been one hundred years old today, and he gives this a real honest shot. I won’t suggest that the scene when he wakes up in hospital channelling Lt. Stevens, who’s freaking out about being alive, is remotely Oscar-worthy but it’s a few steps up from anything we might reasonably expect in a ripoff movie. He’s reliable throughout the picture, whether he’s tasked with being himself or someone else, lucid or confused, the anchor for everyone around him or the apparent mental case stumbling through a plea to a strange woman for information. It’s an impressive B-movie performance and it’s the best thing I’ve seen him do, if we discount the stuntwork he did as a body double for a variety of major actors, such as Errol Flynn, John Wayne and Charles Starrett in a string of Durango Kid films, on which his credited name changed from Jock O’Mahoney to the one we know him best by today, Jack Mahoney.
His real name wasn’t either of those, but it was close—Jacques O’Mahoney. He was born in Chicago but grew up in Iowa and went on to quite a set of careers. He enlisted in the Marine Corps and spent World War II as a pilot, flight instructor and war correspondent. He bred horses in Los Angeles. He entered motion pictures as a stuntman, but progressed to slapstick comedies, including a number of shorts with the Three Stooges. His stunts for the Durango Kid pictures also led to supporting roles in the series and an offer from Gene Autry to star in a new western TV show called The Range Rider. I’ve Lived Before marked the point at which he graduated from a mostly western filmography to other movies, though he returned to TV westerns for Yancy Derringer in 1958. It’s this wild variety of other films that leaps out at me most and, even more than is usually the case for more famous actors with longer filmographies, I found myself with a surfeit of choices to celebrate his career. I may well review some of these anyway, just because.

My first pick was Moro Witch Doctor, for instance, in which he plays a CIA agent who battles drug smugglers and a cult of fanatics in the Philippines, even though co-star Margia Dean described him as “not very pleasant to work with. He was a pompous ass.” Sadly, it turns out to be on a lot of wants lists because it’s not been released outside of theatres and is unavailable on the grey market. It’s not lost because a friend who’s an expert on Filipino cinema has seen it on 16mm and knows where a 35mm copy can be found; it’s just not something we can watch. Moro Witch Doctor was shot back to back with another Eddie Romero movie from 1964, Intramuros or The Walls of Hell, a war picture based on a real incident in which ten thousand Japanese soldiers barricaded themselves inside the section of Manila called Intramuros rather than surrender. The resulting bombing destroyed 95% of the Walled City and killed tens of thousands. These were early American/Filipino co-productions, something that became commonplace later in the sixties.
Another easy choice was Tarzan’s Three Challenges, because Mahoney became the oldest actor to play the Lord of the Jungle when he took that role in 1963. He’d originally auditioned for Tarzan way back in 1948 but he lost out to Lex Barker as Johnny Weissmuller’s replacement. He would eventually take the role in 1962 for Tarzan Goes to India, though he had also played a villain in 1960’s Tarzan the Magnificent. Both the films in which he played Tarzan were shot on location, in India and then Thailand, which led to dysentery and dengue fever and, in turn, a weight loss of forty-five pounds. No wonder he was promptly replaced by a younger actor. He did continue an association with Tarzan though, appearing on four episodes of the Ron Ely television series, two of which later became a feature film, and handling the stunt coordination for the John Derek adaptation, Tarzan, the Ape Man, in 1981, which starred Miles O’Keeffe and was told not from Tarzan’s perspective but from Jane’s, played, of course, by the director’s wife, Bo Derek.

I was also tempted by 1957’s The Land Unknown, another low budget Universal cash-in on a current trend, in this instance Victorian adventure movies, with Mahoney and Shirley Patterson discovering a lost world in Antarctica, complete with an array of dinosaurs which didn’t approach the Willis O’Brien/Ray Harryhausen standard; they were depicted in turn by mechanical puppets, monitor lizards and actors wearing dinosaur suits. I’ve never seen this but I clearly need to find it soon, especially given that it also features music by Henry Mancini. In the end, though, I chose this and I’m not unhappy. It’s a fascinating film from a fascinating career, one which is sadly beginning to be overshadowed by real life. Mahoney married three times and his second wife, actress Margaret Field, was also divorced when they married. Among the various children from prior marriages was Sally Field, who reported in her 2018 memoir, In Pieces, that Jock Mahoney sexually abused her throughout her childhood.
And that’s a rather contemporary place to end up in a centennial review. It reminds us, sadly, that there’s nothing new under the sun. I have no reason to doubt Sally Field’s word, even though Jock Mahoney has no opportunity to state his case, having died of a stroke thirty years ago in 1989. While I’ve only read segments of In Pieces thus far, I plan to pick up a copy to read and try to grasp some of the complexity. “It would have been so much easier if I’d only felt one thing,” Field wrote, “if Jocko had been nothing but cruel and frightening. But he wasn’t. He could be magical, the Pied Piper with our family as his entranced followers.” However, he often had her come to his room alone, until she turned fourteen. “I knew,” she wrote. “I felt both a child, helpless, and not a child. Powerful. This was power. And I owned it. But I wanted to be a child—and yet.” I’m including this at the end of this review, because it’s important and because whatever Jock Mahoney achieved in his various careers, this is just as much part of who he was.

Paul Edwards - Reincarnation: A Critical Examination (1996)
Dave Itzkoff - Sally Field Talks About Her Life ‘In Pieces’ (The New York Times, 11th September, 2018)
Robert McG. Thomas Jr. - Virginia Mae Morrow Dies at 70; Created Bridey Murphy Hoopla (The New York Times, 21st July, 1995)

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