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,Steel Against the Sky

Steel Against the Sky

Hollywood's golden age ran from the early 1930s to the middle 1950s, and throughout that time Warner Bros. was known as the scrappy, against-the-grain studio with its eyes on the ball, its feet on the ground, and working-class audiences in its heart. Its reputation came partly from its willingness to embrace socially conscious themes, downbeat endings, and characters with more than their share of human frailties. Also crucial was its knack for telling stories about the working class itself, full of families struggling with the Depression, gangsters gunning their way to (temporary) riches, and feisty proletarians climbing out of poverty against ferocious odds.

Steel Against the Sky, released by Warners in 1941, is a prime specimen of the breed. Dedicated to "the bridge builders who courageously wrestle hundreds of feet above the earth with girders and cables...night and day, in broiling sun and driving storm," it ignores ivory-tower architects and front-office executives, focusing instead on the working guys who make great structures out of their own sweat, tenacity, and toil. It's a generic studio picture, complete with melodramatic action, unsubtle gags, hardboiled dialogue, and romantic rivalry. But it has the virtues of energy, sincerity, and economy, and with its tight 68-minute running time it's well worth a look.

Once the above-quoted dedication has crawled across the screen, the picture opens with a burst of music and an eye-dazzling montage of construction workers practicing their trade while perched at vertiginous heights on slender shafts of steel. In this heady atmosphere we meet Pete Evans (Edward Brophy), whose family is at the center of the plot. Although he's basically a comic character, he kicks off the dialogue with a complaint: "The sun shines, you get sunburned. If it rains, you get rheumatism. No matter what kind of a day it is, there's always weather!"

There are worse things, too. No sooner has Pete finished his soliloquy than a worker named Bugs (Howard da Silva) commits a cardinal sin by dropping a wrench that plummets dangerously to earth, almost conking Pete's brother, foreman Rocky Evans (Lloyd Nolan), on its way down. Bugs has been drinking, it turns out, and not for the first time. That's an intolerable offense in these hazardous circumstances, and sure enough, Rocky fires the unrepentant laborer on the spot. This brief conflict gives the story a high-octane beginning and paves the way for a major plot twist later on.

We move next to the Evans house, where we get a more complete picture of the clan. The gentle patriarch is Pop (Edward Ellis), a widower with a crusty manner, a heart of gold, and three grown sons sharing his home. The oldest is Rocky, the foreman; the middle one is Pete, the grumpy worker; and the youngest is Chuck (Craig Stevens), who'd rather invest in crazy schemes than work with the others at the bridge-building site. And of course there's a lady in the picture: Helen (Alexis Smith), the beautiful daughter of John Powers (Gene Lockhart), who supervises the construction company's operations.

Rocky invites Helen for dinner with the family, hoping to cultivate a romance. Helen hits it off with Chuck, however, leading Chuck to stop lollygagging about and take a manly job at the construction site, where extra workers are needed because an approaching storm has speeded up the schedule. Bugs now returns, hoping to wheedle his way back onto the crew. Rocky throws him out, whereupon he sneaks into the site and sparks a high-altitude fistfight, imperiling Rocky until Chuck heroically saves the day. Helen now reveals her love for Chuck, angering Rocky so much that he asks for a transfer to another project in a faraway country.

The climax takes place high atop a tower during the raging storm, after which the brothers are reconciled and family harmony reigns. An old workplace injury suffered by Pop also plays a part in the story, and there's a very silly subplot about a Professor Sampson (Walter Catlett), a screwy scientist whose fabulous invention - a substance called Samsonite, no relation to the luggage brand - proves good for nothing except setting off explosions in Pop's basement.

The movie was directed by A. Edward Sutherland, a dependable professional whose previous pictures range from comedies - including the W.C. Fields vehicle Tillie's Punctured Romance (1928) and The Flying Deuces (1939) with Laurel and Hardy - to dramas like Diamond Jim (1935), fantasies like The Invisible Woman (1940), and musicals like The Boys from Syracuse (1940). In making Steel Against the Sky he faced the challenge of blending stock documentary footage (some of it possibly from the 1940 collapse of Washington's Tacoma Narrows Bridge) with material obviously shot on a Warner Bros. soundstage. He manages the task reasonably well, giving the bridge-tower scenes a veneer of realism that almost obfuscates the obvious artifice of certain studio effects, such as icicles concocted (according to a trade magazine) from paraffin and sugar.

Critics have noted the similarity of Steel Against the Sky to The Irish in Us, a family-centered comedy with James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, and Olivia de Havilland released by Warners in 1935. But originality isn't the point of this competently crafted, cheerfully predictable picture. What's at stake is the drama, romance, and comedy to be found in the kind of working-class family that Warner Bros. considered its core audience. On that level it's a modest, likable entertainment.

Director: A. Edward Sutherland
Screenplay: Paul Gerard Smith; from a story by Maurice Hanline and Jesse Lasky, Jr.
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Film Editing: Doug Gould
Art Direction: Charles Novi
Cast: Alexis Smith (Helen Powers), Lloyd Nolan (Rocky Evans), Craig Stevens (Chuck Evans), Gene Lockhart (John Powers), Edward Ellis (Pop Evans), Walter Catlett (Professor Sampson), Howard da Silva (Bugs), Edward Brophy (Pete Evans), Julie Bishop (Myrt).

by David Sterritt


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