WeWriWa—Trepidation in a train

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. I’m now sharing from Chapter 45, “Imre’s Revenge,” of my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s, and ends the chapter.

After a violent fight with a former gendarme, Imre Goldmark is being smuggled out of Budapest and into Italy to join his girlfriend Csilla and their friends. Imre is afraid he killed the gendarme, and his mother doesn’t want to take any chances. Imre’s sister Júlia decided to leave Hungary too.

They’re now safe inside a cattlewagon of a train under the protection of the Brihah. Imre has just told Júlia he thinks he loves Csilla, and that he wouldn’t have killed a man for any of his prior girlfriends.

Budapest’s Nyugati Station in 1936
Copyright FOTO:FORTEPAN/Lőrincze Judit

“Are you really sure you killed him? Maybe he just passed out or was badly injured.”

“There was no pulse or breath.” Imre fell silent at the sound of footsteps pacing around outside.

Throughout the night, various voices drifted through the air. Some of them were Russian soldiers, but others were Hungarians. Every so often, they heard voices in a third, unfamiliar language, which they hoped was Hebrew being spoken by Brihah agents guarding the train. It was difficult to fall asleep with only straw for a bed and no blankets, but eventually both Imre and Júlia’s exhaustion got the better of them, and they were sound asleep by the time the train pulled out of the station and began making its way towards the birthplace of Dante, Boccaccio, and the Renaissance.

WeWriWa—Plunged into darkness

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. I’m now sharing from Chapter 45, “Imre’s Revenge,” of my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. This week’s snippet comes right after last week’s.

After a violent fight with a former gendarme, Imre Goldmark is being smuggled out of Budapest and into Italy to join his girlfriend Csilla and their friends. Imre is afraid he killed the gendarme, and his mother doesn’t want to take any chance. Imre’s sister Júlia decided to leave Hungary too.

They’ve just climbed into a cattlewagon of an unguarded train with assistance from their smuggler.

Copyright zenobia_joy

They were plunged into darkness after the door slid shut and the locking mechanism closed. Júlia eased herself onto the straw on the floor, and Imre followed her lead after removing the heavy sack.

“So this is how Csicsi travelled,” he whispered. “Now I know a little bit how she felt. If this feels degrading, I can only imagine how much worse it must’ve been to be packed in with eighty other people in the heat of summer, and with a hostile gendarme hanging onto the outside of the car.”

“You really like her, don’t you?”

“I think I love her. She’s not the type of woman I would’ve considered myself interested in, but we seem well-matched so far. I wouldn’t have killed a man for any of my other ladies.”

White Heat at 70, Part II (Behind the scenes)

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White Heat was originally based on the life of Kate “Ma” Barker, the ruthless matriarch of the Barker-Karpis gang (active 1931–35). Four members of the gang were her sons Herman, Lloyd, Arthur (“Doc”), and Fred), who began committing crimes as early as 1910. At its height, the gang had 25 members. Most of their crimes were bank robberies, though they also engaged in kidnappings.

Warner Bros. bought the rights to the story from writer Virginia Kellogg for $2,000, and Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff set to work turning it into a screenplay. Director Raoul Walsh was horrified by the finished product, which took six months to complete, and pleaded with William Cagney to talk his brother out of doing it. William was his business manager and produced several of his films.

William assured him “Jimmy [would] rewrite it as much as possible.” After many rewrites and input from multiple parties, the film only had the barest of similarities to its real-life inspiration.

Filming commenced 6 May 1949 and lasted six weeks, till 20 June. Locations included the (now razed) San Val Drive-In in Burbank, the Columbia (now Warner) Ranch, the Santa Susana Mountains, an old tunnel of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and Van Nuys.

Jack Warner wanted the famous scene of Cody going nuts in the prison mess hall to take place in a chapel, feeling the “cost of a single scene with 600 extras and only one line of dialogue would be exorbitant.” He relented when the writers pointed out Cody would never voluntarily enter a house of worship, and that the point of the scene is to have lots of noise transmogrifying into silence when Cody screams.

That scene of Cody’s total breakdown was improvised, and the looks of shock on the other actors’ faces were real. No one either behind or in front of the camera knew what was going to happen.

The cost of that scene wasn’t Jack Warner’s only headache regarding this film. He was pissed Cagney had returned to his studio in mid-1949, after leaving in 1942 to form his own company with brother William. Though Cagney never forgot how badly he was treated by Jack Warner during his contract renewal in the 1930s, he needed money badly. The four films he made on his own weren’t financially successful.

For his part, Warner called his prodigal star “that little bastard” and swore he’d never take him back. He was very displeased when Cagney was suggested for the lead of this new picture by the screenwriters, but they were positive no one else could play that role as it needed to be.

Cagney’s new contract gave him $250,000 per film, one each year, in addition to script approval and the chance to develop projects for his own company. Though he’d resisted returning to gangster roles for years, afraid of being typecast, he compromised for the sake of his waning box office draw.

Once he signed on to star in White Heat, the budget was upped to one million, and Raoul Walsh was brought on as director. Cagney had asked for Frank McHugh, but Jack Warner rejected him to save money.

The film earned $2,189,000 in the U.S. ($23,598,063 today) and $1,294,000 internationally ($13,949,700 today). Critics by and large loved it, a reputation which continues to this day. White Heat routinely features on those incessant best-of lists.

In 1950, Virginia Kellogg was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Story, and Ben Roberts and Ivan Goff were nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture. In 2003, the Library of Congress added it to the National Film Registry.

White Heat has been referenced countless times in other films, music videos, cartoons, and songs over the years, most notably Cody’s famous final line (which isn’t the film’s final line).

WeWriWa—Leaving Budapest

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. I’m now sharing from Chapter 45, “Imre’s Revenge,” of my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. This week’s snippet comes about one page after last week’s.

After a violent fight with a former gendarme, Imre Goldmark is being smuggled out of Budapest and into Italy to join his girlfriend Csilla and their friends. Imre is afraid he killed the gendarme, and his mother doesn’t want to take any chance.

Imre’s sister Júlia announced she wants to escape too, and Mrs. Goldmark granted permission. Now they’re on their way to a train with their smuggler, with both their luggage and Csilla’s recovered valuables.

A Brihah train in Austria, 1945

The Brihah man pulled the sled down the stairs, and Imre and Júlia followed after him in the dark. Every step of the way, Imre prayed the pain wouldn’t decide to make a sudden reappearance. He could already feel people looking at them strangely, though people carting around a lot of luggage hadn’t yet become a completely foreign sight in these early postwar months.

The Brihah man led them around to an unguarded train standing still on the tracks. He first tried the coal cars, then began trying to open the cattlewagons. Near the end of the line, a door finally slid open, to the sight of several large cows and their calves. Without wasting a moment, he hoisted the luggage-laden sled inside, and then Júlia climbed inside with the skis, globe, and bag of food. Imre climbed in last, the weight of the postal sack heavier than before.

“Good luck,” the Brihah man said. “Remember what I said about kicking the cows if you absolutely need to make any noises.”

Happy 70th birthday, White Heat!

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Released 2 September 1949, White Heat is widely considered one of the greatest gangster films ever. It’s so white-hot, I’d give it a rare 6 out of 5 stars. Though it was initially based on the story of gangster matriarch Ma Barker and her son Arthur (Doc), the script ended up becoming largely fictional.

Twisted criminal Arthur “Cody” Jarrett (James Cagney) and his cohorts rob a mail train in the Sierra Nevadas, killing four members of the crew. When Cody’s last victim slumps over, he triggers a steam pipe which blasts right into the face of Zuckie (Ford Rainey in his film début) and severely burns him. The gang then escapes to Arizona with their $300,000.

There are two ladies in Cody’s gang, his overbearing Ma (Margaret Wycherly) and his long-suffering wife Verna (Virginia Mayo), who have an acrimonious relationship with one another. Cody clearly prioritises Ma over Verna, which adds to the friction. He also suffers from crippling migraines.

The other members of the gang are loath to leave with an incoming storm, but Cody thinks it’s the perfect chance to slip away unnoticed. Feeling the injured Zuckie a liability, he sends Cotton to kill him and believes the resulting gunshots did just that. Instead Cotton fired into the air.

Zuckie succumbs to his injuries anyway, and the authorities figure out he’s linked to the Jarrett gang. Cody is horrified to learn about this, and even more so when Verna says Ma is at the market buying strawberries for her golden prince instead of safe in their Los Angeles hideout.

Ma’s car is tracked to the motel, where the trio are packing to go on the lam again. The officers think they have their suspects cornered, but Cody shoots his attempted arresting officer and his party races away to a drive-in.

In the car, Cody announces his plans to go to Illinois and give himself up for a lesser crime an associate committed, meriting only two years. Verna thinks he’ll still be wanted for the train robbery, but Cody assures her if he takes the rap for the Illinois crime, it’ll be the perfect alibi for the more serious crime.

Philip Evans, the U.S. Treasury investigator whom Cody shot, hatches a plan with undercover agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) to bring Cody to justice for the crime he actually committed. Hank will be planted in Cody’s cell as Vic Pardo and earn his complete trust.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Big Ed (Steven Cochran) takes control of the gang, starts an affair with Verna, and pays prisoner Roy Parker to kill Cody by dropping heavy machinery on him. Hank gains Cody’s trust when he pushes him out of harm’s way.

Ma visits Cody to warn him about Big Ed, whom she promises to take care of. Cody thinks this is a terrible, dangerous idea, but Ma insists she’s going to do this.

Cody decides to break out of the clink to handle this ugly business himself, and invites Hank to join him. When he receives a piece of crushing news, Cody goes nuts and feels escape is even more urgent.

Once he’s back on the outside, Cody is hell-bent on revenge against Big Ed. The rest of the gang welcomes Cody back, along with other escapees including Hank.

Their next criminal operation targets a chemical plant’s payroll office, which Cody hopes will finally take him to the top of the world.