Sunday, February 19, 2017

What movie is playing in Robert Frank's "Drive-In, Detroit 1955"?

It's an iconic photo if there ever were one -- Robert Frank's "Drive-In, Detroit, 1955," one of the best-rememered of those in his 1958 book The Americans. A couple of weeks ago, my friend James Morrison -- who knows a thing or two about film -- posted a link to this photo, commenting that he recognized the Gratiot Drive-In, where he'd once been to a few movies (101 Dalmations, Funny Girl) as a kid. But what movie was that on the screen? As a reward, he offered a quarter.

This might be the most "textbook example" instance of my condition, after which this blog is named, that of epistemophilia -- the raging curiosity to find out some random fact that, though of no great importance by itself, turns out not to be easily answerable, even in this day and age of Google and Reddit (there did turn out to be question buried deep in a sub-Reddit on this very question -- which was not answered). How to proceed?

I began with Google Image search, which can often pair an image with a source, using only a clever search paradigm based on an analysis of the pixels. Unfortunately, with this iconic photo, all that did was lead me back to innumerable instances of the original Robert Frank photograph. I tried cropping the image, but the grainy detail produced nary a match. So what did I have to go on? A man in a plaid shirt, with a prominent hairline (Rock Hudson, some suggested), and another man in profile, also apparently in plaid, with what I first took to be a hand wrapped in a bandage. The second man looked a little like Anthony Quinn, I thought, so I started there, and with Rock Hudson -- who had been seen in plaid in 1955 (in All That Heaven Allows), but the film was not a match.

I next tried the IMdB's listing of the most popular films of 1955, working my way through more than 200 of them. I eliminated historical films, but checked for stills from every Western, and any film with an outdoor theme. Men in the 1950's, I soon learned, only wore plaid shirts when they were in the woods, although plaid overcoats were deemed acceptable for working-class blokes, such as Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (no dice there either). Finally, I turned to, which has a reasonably easily-searched run of the Detroit Free Press. By searching the movie listings, I was able to see what was being shown every week at the Gratiot, then search for images or online copies of each film. Many of these were the same ones I'd already checked on the IMdB, but a few were different, and it was with one of these that I hit paydirt.

At 6:41 into The Looters
Abner Biberman's 1955 feature The Looters opens in the woods -- that place of log cabins, hot coffee, and plaid shirts all around. And, as fate would have it, the scene on the screen took place early on, as one mountaineer served coffee to another. What I had taken as a bandaged hand was a cup of coffee in motion, as the two men chatted over their plans. The film eventually takes a darker turn; when a plane crashes in the nearby mountains, the discovery of a large amount a cash on board deflects the moral compasses of the rescuers, who then become the "looters" of the title. The fellow I'd guessed was Rock Hudson turned out to be Ray Danton, a staple of 50's film; the other man was Rory Calhoun, a man who actually had spent some of his pre-acting career as a lumberjack. The listings in the Detroit Free Press show that the film was the second feature as of June 30th, 1955 -- pinning down, for what it's worth, the date of Robert Frank's photograph.

Never was a quarter harder earned.