May 13, 2015

On DVD: Roddy McDowall Produces and Stars In Black Midnight (1949)

As a twenty-year-old maturing child star in 1949, Roddy McDowall must have wondered about his fate. So many actors struggle to successfully make the transition to adult careers. He was at that awkward age when Monogram Studios signed him to a contract, where he would star in and coproduce six films. One of these, the western Black Midnight (1949) is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

Perhaps with McDowall's successes in animal pictures like Lassie Come Home (1943), and My Friend Flicka (1943) in mind, Monogram continued the theme with this story of a boy who tames a high-spirited horse. This isn't just about a boy and his horse though; crime, violence and emerging sexuality all play a role and save the movie from becoming overly sentimental.

McDowell is Scott, the ward of his Uncle Bill, a farmer who lives in the wide open spaces of Lone Pine. Both men are delighted when two women they adore: the widow Martha Baxter (Fay Baker) and her daughter Cindy (Lyn Thomas) who have been long absent return to the area to put down roots for good. While they and the townspeople celebrate at the widow's rousing Fourth of July hoedown, Bill's long lost, rebellious son Daniel returns home. He is accompanied by a herd of horses with mysterious brands and a shifty looking cowhand.

The hoedown before the drama
One of the horses is a wild, dark stallion, who causes so much trouble for Daniel that he's ready to shoot him. Scott intervenes and buys the horse, names him Black Midnight and becomes determined to tame him. And he does, neglecting Cindy in the process. This leaves her open to flirtation from the manly, and more worldly Daniel.

When he discovers Daniel has stolen the horses, Scott struggles to make him do the right thing, especially when Black Midnight gets caught in the middle of the drama. Cindy comes to his aid when she realizes she's gone for a bad boy that's a bit too bad.

Black Midnight is an unusual film. It's almost a family flick, with its wholesome laughs and sweetness, but there's also a strong dark streak and some fairly intense violence. It touches on multiple genres, while defying categorization. Overall, you could call this a coming-of-age tale though, because Scott grows up in many ways over the course of the movie.

At age twenty, McDowall was still often accompanied by his parents on the set, and he hadn't had many opportunities to live life on his own. You can sense his real life naiveté in his scenes with Cindy, where Scott is clearly feeling urges he doesn't fully understand. It makes you wonder if Uncle Bill has gotten around to having the sex talk with him. When Daniel comes into town and makes it clear he knows exactly what to do about his urges, it's easy to understand why Cindy is intrigued.

In a climactic scene, Scott and Daniel have a surprisingly brutal fight. As the blows fly, you can see the younger boy's childhood finally falling fully away. In one shocking moment Daniel plunges a knife through a chair and barely misses his cousin's face, and it seems McDowall's as well. That Scott perseveres, despite his inexperience and plunges into the battle--and consequently adulthood--without hesitation is a sign of his growing maturity.

As with The Hired Hand (1957), which I reviewed earlier this week, I was constantly in awe of the Lone Pine locations. The soft sensuous rock formations against imposing peaks and the sound of birds singing and wind blowing made the story feel much more real. I love that so many films were freed from the sound stage and set in this famous location.

The film was a pleasant way to pass an hour, and impressed me enough that I'd like to see more of McDowall's Monogram productions. Even when he was struggling to bridge the gap between childhood and adulthood, he was an appealing performer. With his non-cloying sweetness and decency, he always inspires you to root for him.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.


  1. I thought this film was quite a nice surprise for many of the reasons you mention. For a "B" film running a little over an hour it was quite nicely staged with some real depth of character -- and especially great use of various areas in Lone Pine! I'm now curious to see more of McDowall's Monogram films as well.

    Love that the Archive is pulling these films out of obscurity and putting them back in front of film fans!

    Best wishes,

  2. This one struck me as okay on my first view, but when I watched it again, I began to appreciate how well the story was layered and how expertly the action staged. I think people tend to think of Monogram productions as cheap, but it's more accurate to say they are economically filmed. The quality was there on every level here, and it succeeded by not trying to make the story bigger than it was.

    What would we do without the Archive? These films are expanding my cinematic view so much!