Let No Man Write My Epitaph: Shelley Winters, James Darren, and Burl Ives burrow through the muck and mire so you don't have to.
Almost 60 years after my babysitter let me stay up to watch it, I finally paid a return visit to the seedy underbelly of life on Chicago’s skid row, Let No Man Write My Epitaph.
— Scott Marks
Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1960)
It was a rare Saturday night that found my parents venturing out after dark. But Larry’s Navy buddy was the father of the bride and tonight was the wedding reception, so Babe alerted the sitter beforehand not to expect them home much before three. Laurie, the older sister of my 7-year-old contemporary J.H., took the short walk across the alley to our apartment. (Our families shared views of each other’s third-floor back porches.) Laurie was in the early stages of a terminally-hip teen, a beat girl who possessed a bohemian style all her own. She was the only young woman on the block who purposely kept her hair Beatle-length before it became fashionable. Having just finished reading Let No Man Write My Epitaph, Willard Motley’s sequel to his 1947 best-seller Knock On Any Door, and not old enough to have seen the theatrical release three years earlier, Laurie was determined to make it all the way through the film early Sunday morning when it played WGN-TV’s midnight movie.
Laurie was cool, and I can’t help but think what an impression her steadfast commitment must have made on me. She gave her blessing to my staying up for the adventure under one condition: no talking! (A person after my own heart.) If I had any questions, that’s what commercial breaks were for. The film dealt, albeit superficially and sentimentally, with such kid-unfriendly subjects as prostitution, heroin addiction, and murder. You’re darn tootin’ I had questions, and if memory serves, Laurie fielded them all with a candor that was unusual in my heretofore relatively sheltered existence. For starters, what about the authenticity of the legless newsboy who, for lack of a wheelchair, gets around on a knuckle-powered hardwood carpet dolly modified to accommodate his torso? He was an actor, she assured me, whose legs were tucked from view underneath the four-wheeled cart. Laurie also introduced an undertone of anti-war sentiment by informing me that in real life, characters like newsvendor Wart (Walter Burke) returned home in that condition after being wounded in combat.
I don’t think I made it much past the one hour mark, but it was long enough for Laurie to tell me what a “B” girl was and where babies came from. (‘Twas Laurie who broke the news, not Babe or Larry.) Laurie’s rebellious soul was giving free-reign to her dark side, and what better place to start than with a tale of home grown sordidness, a Nelson Algren-lite odyssey starring Shelley Winters as Nellie Romano, the gal with the flaxen arm? Christmas Eve on Chicago’s West Madison Avenue: vagrants’ row, lined with flop houses and cheap saloons where a full shot and a beer are yours for the price of one thin dime. Also, shooting galleries, one in particular that operates out of a flower shop, but more on that later. After riding piggyback on a double amputee, young Nicky (Michael Davis, the same lad who would later play the boyish Johnny Cool) continues to spread Christmas cheer with a neighborhood pilgrimage through skid row, delivering handmade cards to hooch-soaked self-pitiers, the co-dependent derelicts that are as close as the boy gets to after-school playmates.
No one flinches when 8-year-old Nicky enters the busiest gin mill on the strip, a neighborhood hub of intemperate activity that plays home to the kid’s “family.” Riding herd on the group is wine-besotted frontman Bruce Mallory Sullivan (Burl Ives), a laureate who’s as much poet as he is Moet. His disciples respectfully refer to him as “Judge.” The garrulous, once mighty magistrate who couldn’t pass the bar without stopping in for a few snorts, now crashes for a quarter a night at a bustling “men’s club.” Making a rare dramatic appearance, Ella Fitzgerald co-stars as Flora, a mainlining saloon singer. In the kitchen, we find Nicky’s mother Nellie, a barmaid working hard to ensure her son a brighter future than her present. The only one peeved over Nicky’s presence is the bar owner, who uses the occasion to make a pass at Nellie. Short order cook Goodbye George (Bernie Hamilton) — a pestiferous ex-boxer, punch-drunk and fresh out of stir — intervenes. His efforts to save the day cost both him and Nellie their jobs.
The bar empties out into Nellie’s flat for a little commiseratory holiday cheer. Joining the Judge, Flora, Wart, and Goodbye George are hard-drinking goodtime girl Fran (Jeanne Cooper) and Mexican character actor Rudolph Acosta as gainfully employed cab driver Max. Before putting a ring on Nellie’s finger, illegitimate Nicky’s dad fried in the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit. As the hour turns late and the liquor begins to do the talking, the army of down-and-outers vow to co-adopt the boy. If a ten year flash-forward to Nick (now played by James Darren) getting smacked around by his classmates is any indication, he’s going to need all the surrogate parents he can muster. Reviewers at the time went nutty over teen heartthrob Darren’s dramatic turn. “Hard-boiled critics literally wept over his dramatic, soul-searching performance” wrote TV Radio Mirror’s Jerry Asher of Darren’s performance.
The passing decade wasn’t kind to Nick’s “parents.” Judge can no longer afford the age-defying shoe-polish needed to camoflauge his hair and beard with a youthful glow. His love for Nellie remains as unrequited as it is incredulous. Single-mom Nellie now makes cash by prostituting herself in a dancehall, where she meets Louie Ramponi (Ricardo Montalban), the spitting image of Nick’s dad and the guy in the back of the flower shop turning poppies into cash. Rather than confront drug addiction, screenwriter Robert Presnell, Jr. exploits it.
The production resulted in one of the biggest embarrassments in Winters career. Her second film after picking up a supporting actress Oscar for The Diary of Anne Frank proved to be a masterstroke of miscasting. At this point in her career the actress was well-versed at playing both mother and whore. When the time came to play a junkie, Winters didn’t have it in her, nor did she take the time to do her homework. With his future wife and father-in-law paying a surprise visit to Nick’s tenement, Nellie — embarrassed and desperate for a fix — makes a beeline from bedroom to bathroom to fill her hypodermic. According to her autobiography (by way of TCM), Winters knew how to cook the heroin in a spoon; it was getting it into the syringe that found her ad-libbing. Rather than draw the liquid through the needle, Winters proceeded to pour it from the spoon through the opposite end of the tube.
“Director Philip Leacock called ‘CUT!’ before he stepped down from the camera crane. ‘Miss Method Actress, you did the research for this role about heroin addiction?’ ‘Of course, Mr. Leacock’... He put the needle into the phony melted heroin and sucked up the fluid through the needle. All I could think of to say was, ‘Well, maybe addicts in New York do it differently.’”
Perhaps I had brought up some of the film’s seamier points (and our commercial break symposia) over a late Sunday morning breakfast with the folks, for I don’t recall mom asking Laurie to watch me ever again.