Riot in Cell Block 11: When Character Actors Star

With a sterling resume as an independent Hollywood producer (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Queen Christina, Algiers, Stagecoach, Foreign Correspondent, Canyon Passage, and in 1963, Cleopatra), Walter Wanger opted to use his talents to expose prison injustice in the 1954 film Riot in Cell Block 11.  The immediate prompt was his 1952 incarceration at the Wayside Honor Farm for putting a slug into the groin of agent Jennings Lang, believed to be having an affair with Wanger’s wife, actress Joan Bennett. 

The resulting spare film (80 minutes) is an attack on a society—wardens, guards, politicians and the public at large—that could care less about rehabilitation or the tendency to dump psychopaths into the general prison population.  Aptly, the director was Don Siegel, cutting his teeth on B-movies generally more interesting and in retrospect more important than most big-budget studio films.  Soon Siegel would helm Wanger’s seminal science fiction movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers and later achieve greater fame directing Clint Eastwood in such films as Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled and Dirty HarryRiot bears his occasional semi-documentary approach, beginning with newsreel film of actual U.S. prison riots.

Filmed at Folsom State Prison in California, Riot in Cell Block 11 is unique in that all of the stars  are character actors:  the riot’s fomenter Dunn (highly decorated WW II soldier Neville Brand in a sympathetic role), his brutish enforcer (Leo “The Scariest Guy in Hollywood” Gordon), the frustrated warden (Emile Meyer, fresh off his role as cattle baron Ryker in Shane), the by-the-book commissioner (Frank Faylen, an It’s a Wonderful Life alumnus soon to play Dwayne Hickman’s dad on TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), Snader (Whit Bissell, once disparaged as an American everyman, here a despicable guard whereas in 1947’s Brute Force he’d been a con—and in 1957 would play mad scientists in I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein), “The Colonel” (Robert Osterloh, veteran then and later of innumerable TV and film roles) here playing an intelligent war vet incarcerated for a lapse in judgment that led to a manslaughter conviction), hepped-up Mickey (William Phipps, a nuclear holocaust survivor in Five as the most unhinged of the prisoners), victimized guard Monroe (Paul Frees, the ubiquitous narrator and voice actor, e.g., Boris Badenov on TV’s Rocky and His Friends), news reporter (William Schallert, the father on The Patty Duke Show in the 1960s), the con who initiates the riot (Dabbs Greer, veteran by the end of his life of over 300 roles), “Gator” (Alvy Moore of the future TV series Green Acres in a long-billed cap that must be seen to be believed).  Pay attention or you’ll miss James Anderson, who will be playing Scout’s brutish nemesis in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and a chain gang captain in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run (1969).

In summary, Riot in Cell Block 11 may be the only major Hollywood film whose performers were all members of the unsung but necessary and often compelling caste:  the character actor.

By Kim

 

References

Holston, Kim.  Susan Hayward:  Her Films and Life.  Jefferson, NC:  McFarland & Co., 2002.  Trace producer Wanger’s trial and incarceration in at least 12 New York Times 1952 articles.

Kaminsky, Stuart M.  Don Siegel, Director.  New York:  Curtis Books, 1974.  See “Chapter VI:  700 Prisoners and a Handful of Actors.”  Siegel said San Quentin ex-con, now actor, Leo Gordon, was not originally welcomed by the warden, who made him enter a separate gate and searched.  Siegel and producer Wanger knew Gordon’s worth.  “Had he not been in the picture it would surely have suffered,” said the director.

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