VIRGINIA KELLOGG: THE FORGOTTEN SCREENWRITER BEHIND A STRING OF CLASSIC NOIRS
She wrote some of the greatest crime movies in Hollywood's Golden Age. Today, we know almost nothing about her.
Not much is known about Hollywood writer Virginia Kellogg (1907-1981). She was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she attended school, and later became a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. After that she got on as a “script girl” for Paramount and later landed a gig as a “scenarist” there. Eventually she wrote some movie scripts, some radio plays, and even some magazine pieces in celebrated forums.
Her most notable achievement, though, is her work in the crime genre. Kellogg penned some blockbuster stories for the screen, like T-Men (1947), White Heat (1949) and Caged (1950), and was nominated for two “Best Story” Oscars. As a woman working in the male-dominated world of the mid-century Hollywood crime film, she managed to deliver some fantastic stories with imaginative narrative structures, tales that explore the uneasy nature of the female crime character, and ones that dazzle for their pace and tension. And, yes, she wrote about love, too, but not in a manner typical of the era.
One important fact about Kellogg’s career bears mention before a discussion of her work. In some cases, Kellogg is given screenwriting credit, and in others “story” credit. Indeed, it’s not always clear where the distinction lies. Again, there is lamentably little information on her work, but Kellogg’s themes and unique signatures are evident throughout her four crime films, important works that demand renewed attention for their place in the genre.
In Stolen Holiday (1937, d. Michael Curtiz), Kellogg introduces some of the ideas she’ll take up in her more recognized films later, notably the elevated importance of female characters in crime stories. The plot involves one Mademoiselle Picot (Kay Francis), an ambitious fashion model who aids a con-man named Stefan Orloff (Claude Rains), a scoundrel who seeks “entrée into society.” Sure enough, with her help he “arrives,” but along the way he bilks investors out of huge sums of money through elaborate schemes. When it all comes tumbling down on him, he improbably proposes marriage to Mademoiselle Picot, now a wildly successful couturier, in order to shield him from ruin. Equally improbable is the fact that she agrees. The scheme doesn’t work, however, and the police raid the wedding ceremony itself. Amazingly, Mademoiselle Picot continues to aid Orloff even after he’s confessed that he’s taken advantage of her time and again. She does it for “love,” she explains, though the two have never been lovers, only dear friends.
Like the capable, ambitious, and daring women Kellogg will later write in White Heat and Caged, Mademoiselle Picot is utterly devoted to the Love (capital L) she feels for the criminal male, the gangster, the exploitative rogue. In fact, in order to help Orloff she spurns a healthy love interest, someone truly good for her. Not surprisingly, her business is ruined through her association with the villainous fake, but she knows she can’t do anything about it now. Probably more important is the fact that she couldn’t do anything about it even when she had the chance, despite the many entreaties of her most trusted attendant.
Stolen Holiday is not a fantastic film, and how it ends is ultimately immaterial. But it’s the idea of feminine devotion and entrapment that deserve note here. Often Kellogg’s women exhibit a debilitating loyalty to the men of crime, a form of co-dependency that simply cannot be broken, even though the smitten women can often foretell their own demise in their attachments. It’s a crucial strain in the writer’s work, one already at work in this earliest of efforts.
White Heat (d. Raoul Walsh) is Kellogg’s most commercially successful film, one which earned her an Oscar nomination for “best story.” As she will do later in Caged, Kellogg draws a complex portrait of the criminal female. Principally, she effects this by way of juxtaposing Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) and Verna Jarrett (Virginia Mayo), the women in gangland legend Cody Jarrett’s life. No other film of the era (or since?) explores the role of the gangster’s mother in such depth. In Ma Jarrett, Kellogg daringly writes an able criminal character who runs the gang while Cody (James Cagney) sits in the pen. She cooks up heists, doles out spoils, and challenges anyone who brooks contest with her. Under interrogation, she toys with the Feds, and her clever criminal schemes are set into play even after she’s long gone. Nothing escapes Ma’s keen eye, surely not the duplicitous plots of Cody’s wife Verna and his second in command, Big Ed, a bum whom Ma brazenly sets out to do away with while Cody is behind bars. She’s shrewd, ruthless, independent, and loyal.
Of course, she’s still a mother first and foremost, and she dotes on Cody, at times to her own peril. In one scene she recklessly ventures out to buy her boy his beloved strawberries while the crew is on the lam. Of course, the feds sight her and the lamsters must high-tail it from the hideout. Elsewhere, she gives Cody massages for his crippling headaches. She’s always looking out for him, telling him to be strong in the presence of the other gangsters and famously encouraging him in the well-known phrase from the film, “Top of the world, son!” Of course, her devotion to Cody costs her dearly, something that happens to many of Kellogg’s women, and she ends up dead.
Curiously, it’s Treasury agent Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien), undercover in prison as Vic Pardo, who assumes the maternal role when Cody goes away to the can. Kellogg cleverly writes Fallon as a mother figure from the start, someone ever-loyal to Cody. Like Ma, he massages Cody’s head during his painful episodes in the joint, telling him, “Don’t let the two-bit thugs see Cody Jarrett like this.” Fallon knows how important it will be to cultivate a motherly relationship even before he’s goes undercover. “I’ll work on my lullabies,” he tells a fellow agent as he prepares for the undercover operation. In White Heat, then, the mother element allows Kellogg another means by which to explore one of her favorite themes: devoted and cursed women . . . and the thugs they love.
By contrast, Cody’s two-timing wife Verna plays the foil to Ma and Vic, a true femme fatale concerned only with money and high times. She sells out everyone, at least twice. In short, she’s as loathsome a character as can be written, and one wonders if Kellogg includes her merely to emphasize the virtues of Ma. (Yes, Ma fully condones robbery, violence, and even murder, but in the world of the film, she’s the loyal partner, the noble thief.) For the viewer, it’s puzzling that Cody decides to reunite with Verna after he’s escaped from prison. He tells Vic that he’s lonely, but that it’s not Verna whom he longs for, but Ma!
And White Heat offers something else that we see in Kellogg’s work—a preoccupation with high tech modes of detection. In film scripts of the time this was, of course, almost exclusively the domain of male writers, and remains so even today, though things have certainly changed. The film is careful to document real-life trends in law enforcement detection, like the A-B-C method, chemical soil analysis, medical forensics, and a mode of triangulation involving the vehicular “oscillator,” a tool so fetishized in the film that it seems almost comic now.
The same emphasis is evident throughout T-Men (d. Anthony Mann), a documentary-styled story of a U.S. Treasury agents who go deep undercover to investigate a counterfeit operation that runs from China, to Los Angeles, to Detroit. Kellogg’s T-Men are researchers as much as they are syndicate tough guys. They spend weeks in the library investigating the history of local syndicates; they track trace evidence to Chinese apothecaries; they speak Italian; they analyze paper in the lab to determine origins, and they generally tail their quarry constantly, picking up information and synthesizing it on the fly so that they can make quick decisions to maintain their cover and save their own lives.
No doubt about it, the field agents are cool customers here, trained in behavior as much as detection. They’re full-time actors who don’t get off stage until the case is closed, and herein lies a great strength of the writing. To wit, Kellogg ramps up the tension in the way she places her “syndicate” cops in trouble. Like Fallon in White Heat, the T-Men are under continual stress to maintain their cover. They have to be believable in every sense of the word because they truly live the role, cracking wise and throwing punches when it suits the situation. They take offense at the slights of their criminal cohorts, even though it often means danger. And they never break under the pressure. Torture, beatings, even death can’t make these guys squeal. When one agent meets mob boss “Shiv” Triano, he brazenly gives the mobster a lesson in shooting pool, and then delivers a punch to a hood who had worked him over earlier. (He’d look weak if he didn’t.) Yes, the T-Men are college educated straight guys, but when they become their mobster alter-egos, they’re as tough and quick-witted as the gangsters themselves. Like White Heat, the story is action-packed, full of clever twists and turns that surprise and make for great viewing.
Interestingly, T-Men concerns itself less with the role of women in criminal enterprises than do Stolen Holiday, White Heat, and Caged, though one of the film’s gang bosses is a woman, a fact that shocks an under-cover agent. When he makes a veiled sexual reference to conducting “business” with her, she shuts him down. “My business is business, Mr. Harrigan,” she says.
In Caged (d. John Cromwell), Kellogg delivers her most sophisticated writing. The story is simple, but beneath it lies a complex treatment of the social structures of the day and a critique of the institutions governing women’s agency. Nineteen-year-old Marie Allen (Eleanor Parker) is jailed for her part in a robbery during which her newlywed husband is killed. Marie laments her reluctant role in the event, and she’s only arrested because she’s left the getaway car to aid her injured husband. The couple’s plight seems common enough: They share an apartment with Marie’s mother and her working-class step-father because housing is so expensive. The two men fight constantly, though, and Marie’s husband decides to make a score to get out from under the step-father. But it goes south and Marie is locked up as an accomplice for a would-be $40 haul. In her intake interview with the prison’s reform-minded warden, it’s made clear that Marie’s situation is different from that of the hardened cons in the prison, many of whom are on their second or third bid. But it doesn’t seem to matter, and Marie’s attempts to do “straight time” are scuttled at every turn. This fact introduces the thrust of the film’s critique: The system is rigged against women, and not only the cons, but those who’ve managed, against all odds, to gain positions of authority, like the warden herself.
Early on, Marie manages to serve her time straight, though it’s tough. A fellow prisoner, Kitty Stark (Betty Garde), harps on her in an attempt to recruit her for work with “the syndicate” as a thief in “free side” once she’s released. But Marie refuses. When her first parole hearing comes around, she’s “flopped back” into population for another year. Had she agreed to work for the syndicate as a “booster,” she would have made parole, or so it’s suggested. But the old men on the board have no interest in even listening to her story, or to her plans to stay straight when free. (One member literally doesn’t hear her because his hearing aid is broken!) Even the warden advocates in Marie’s defense, but the board decides that because Marie’s infant son has no “stable” home to return to—she’s given birth in prison—Marie will need to serve more time. The decision doesn’t make sense even as a cover story for the board’s collusion with the syndicate, but no one takes issue with it because the corruption is so thoroughly ingrained.
The fact that Marie’s infant has no safe place to stay is testament to the social structures in place that prevent women’s empowerment. Appropriately, Marie decides to give her baby over to her own mother after her failed parole bid, but when she meets with the woman in a monitored prison visit, the mother refuses to care for the child. She claims that her husband will not take in the baby, and that she remains powerless to do anything because he holds all the strings. The mother would be without economic support were she to leave him, she points out, and when Marie counters her claims, her mother runs hysterically from the interview. Inevitably, the baby is put up for adoption despite Marie’s desire to raise him in a wholesome environment once she’s sprung.
Of course, it’s not just Marie’s stepfather who makes things difficult for women, but men in general. Most of the cons correctly blame their imprisonment on some man, often a lover who has wrangled the women into some criminal scheme. June, for example, is an inmate flopped back after an unsuccessful parole hearing. Mournfully she explains to Marie how she got involved with the man who landed her in jail in the first place, and then did so yet again, after her initial release. And here is where Kellogg’s writing distinguishes itself. It would be easy to blame men for everything, but June points out that, though she second guessed her reunion with her man after her first stint, there was a good reason that she still fell back in with him.
What is it? Love, she says.
“You’re lucky,” June tells Marie, “Your man is dead.” The declaration is important because it identifies men as the cause of much of women’s misery, but it also suggests that love is a key factor in all of it, something inescapable, something difficult to explain rationally, yet something incredible powerful. Maybe love is a social construct that aids men more than women, but it’s more than just that, Kellogg seems to be saying. As the con named “Smoochie” says, “The world’s much better with men in it.” As in Stolen Holiday, it’s as if even strong women are powerless to leave men, to reject love. They’re in love with love, it seems, or at least with the idea of it. Sadly, or appropriately, June hangs herself after the failed parole hearing.
Whatever kind of false consciousness is at work here regarding love, or Love, its power is reaffirmed by the film’s cruel prison matron, Evelyn Harper (Hope Emerson), who taunts the women with suggestions of her sexual dalliances in free-side. In a memorable scene, she enters the ward, the “bullpen” as it’s called, all gussied up to go on a date with “Pete,” her man who has a “cozy apartment” for trysts, “if you know what I mean.” She brags to the women that when he kisses her goodbye, she wants to “leave all over again.” Harper also exerts her power over the women in ways not unlike the men who landed them there—rewarding favors for pay and punishing disobedience with physical violence. In one sense, she represents the full horizon of the women’s desires: she possesses love and a degree of economic autonomy. Still, it’s notable that even as Harper can buck the warden’s control, she remains in the service of the men on the prison commission to whom she pays homage. In the end, they’re the ones who bestow power, not her.
At some point, Marie gives up her efforts to serve her time on the straight and narrow because it’s just too difficult. In order to get sprung, she caves to the pressure and agrees to serve the syndicate as a booster in free-side.
She gets kicked loose.
Now hardened and cynical, she tells the warden (whose reforms have failed) that “you can’t lick the system,” and leaves to work with the gangsters, with the suggestion, too, that she will serve them as more than just a thief.
Interestingly, Kellogg herself went undercover to do research for Caged, serving time for a false conviction for embezzlement. The details are difficult to come by, but she may have served time in as many as four facilities. Whatever the truth is, Virginia Kellogg was a serious writer, someone wholly committed to her craft, and her work greatly enriched the genre. She added depth to her female characters and kept her audience riveted. Until more is done to recognize her importance to Hollywood and to the genre of crime writing, we should all watch her films and talk about them.
Spread the word.