Most B movies of the 1930s through '50s consist of undemanding program pictures, formula entertainment designed to do nothing more or less than fill out the bottom-half of a double bill. Occasionally, however, studios used B pictures as a testing ground for new talent, and rarer still these movies would sometimes rise far above their second-class status. Such is the case of Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939), a 62-minute wonder with a story and characters similar to Kings Row - there's even a life-changing leg amputation in the middle of it - though apparently these similarities are mere coincidence, as Harry Bellamann's novel wasn't published until 1940.
The movie is a jumble of fascinating talent one wouldn't normally expect to find in the same picture. Top-billed is Jean Rogers, best remembered today as Dale Arden in the first two Flash Gordon serials, Flash Gordon (1936) and Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938). Suave, prolific actor Ricardo Cortez, who'd played Sam Spade and Perry Mason earlier in the decade, directed the film, one of seven he helmed during 1939-40 before returning to acting full-time. Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence was an early credit for screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Spartacus), later famously blacklisted as a member of the Hollywood Ten. And it marked the film debut of two future stars: Richard Conte and a fresh-faced 23-year-old named Glenn Ford.
A Fox Cinema Archives manufactured-on-demand release, Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence gets an excellent full-frame, black and white transfer that does the film justice.
At the top of the Empire State Building young Joe Riley (Glenn Ford) bids farewell to New York City, for he's saved his money to buy "Shady Acres," a 20-acre ranch in Arizona. Joe has an amusing debate with a guard (Paul Hurst) over the merits of raising sheep for wool vs. lamb chops, and Joe is next seen hitchhiking cross-country. At a truck stop near Cleveland Joe meets experienced drifter Tony (Richard Conte, billed as Nicholas in the credits), who advises Joe that riding the rails is a better way to get across country. Also at the truck stop Joe meets 19-year-old Anita Santos (Jean Rogers), an illegal immigrant and Spanish Civil War refugee who for her own protection has been disguising herself as a boy.*
The three become inseparable as they make their way west, and later another man joins the trio, gentleman hobo B. Townsend Thayer (Raymond Walburn), whom everyone calls "The Professor." Both Joe and Tony are obviously attracted to Anita, though Joe keeps insisting he's got bigger fish to fry once he reaches his ranch.
Basically a road movie, the film follows their adventures and struggles along the way, which include a violent hobo, Hunk (Ward Bond), who tries to rape Anita, and various law officers eager to arrest Anita for illegally entering the country.
Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence is a completely absorbing little movie. Probably because of its B-status, it gets away with hints of sex, violence, and political content the Production Code would not have allowed in a higher profile A picture. Hunk's attempted rape of Anita, for instance, is more threatening than in most late-1930s movies, and Tony and Joe's interests in Anita as she bathes in a river more obvious.
Dalton Trumbo slips in a lot of unconcealed political commentary: the constant threat of violence by police and others against the homeless riding the rails and foraging for food, Anita's connection to the Spanish Civil War (and her obvious if unstated affiliation to the Spanish Republicans). Once they reach the American Southwest, they visit a local bar frequented by Russian immigrants. Nothing in the film suggests these patrons are communists particularly but neither is there any reason for making them explicitly Russian.
The acting by its mix of callow young leads and veterans (whose ranks also include Broadway star and future Oscar nominee Marjorie Rambeau as an old flame of The Professor's) is excellent. Conte, reportedly cast following a screen test for the lead in Golden Boy, is particularly good, but so is Glenn Ford, here clearly barely out of his teens. Jean Rogers's performance is more difficult to assess. Wearing almost no make-up and completely deglamorized (a sharp contrast to her Dale Arden) her natural beauty is almost hypnotic but she's also limited as an actress. She doesn't look Hispanic at all and while a few lines of dialogue attempts to address this, her accent is absurd. Partly this is the fault of the script, which gives her archly artificial dialogue free of all contractions. ("Why do not we go now? It is not a good time?") But Rogers, who speaks with a slight Boston accent, doesn't sound remotely Spanish, either.
Despite its modest budget, the film never looks cheap with but a single exception. One scene set takes place in a hospital room where there's a big window looking out onto a busy street. This was accomplished via rear-screen projection, but the angle of the outdoor footage being projected just beyond the window makes it look like the hospital room is in the middle of the street.
Video & Audio
Some Fox Archives titles justly received terrible reviews because they sourced inadequate pan-and-scan masters and the like. But Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence looks great. The crisp black and white, full-frame image is as good as anything emanating from Warner Archives' or Sony's Choice programs. The English mono audio, with no subtitle options, is also good. And the disc is region-free. No Extra Features, however, not even a trailer.
Exactly the kind of diamond-in-the-rough little picture that really makes MOD programs like these so invaluable. Had you ever heard of this movie before now? Me neither. Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence comes Highly Recommended.
* Reader Sergei Hasenecz notes this "seems to happen a lot in road movies at this time. Louise Brooks did it in Beggars of Life for William Wellman, who repeated the trick five years later in Wild Boys of the Road with Dorothy Coonan. This latter movie, coincidentally or not, also has a leg amputation. I haven't seen Heaven, but from your description there are other elements which hark back to Beggars of Life, such as the attempted rape by a violent hobo. Not quite the same set-up, but Katharine Hepburn also did young-boy drag while a step ahead of the law in Sylvia Scarlett."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.