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Cry Tough

Cry Tough(1959)

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teaser Cry Tough (1959)

Universal-International's troubled youth drama Cry Tough (1959) premiered on the crest of a wave of crime films inspired in part by the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. Made with intentions that were alternatively noble and exploitative, these films comprise a thick subset of American youth cinema, from Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955) to High School Confidential! (1958), Riot in Juvenile Prison (1959) and Robert Wise's Cinemascope staging of the hit Broadway musical West Side Story (1961). Unlike many of its contemporaries, Cry Tough had existed previously in the form of a novel. Author Irving Shulman's 1947 book The Amboy Dukes had charted the rise and fall of a gang of Jewish JDs in postwar Brooklyn. Word of mouth on the novel's status as a "dirty book" (replete with frank discussion of sex and drug use) helped drive sales into the millions.

Eager to cash in on the scandalous sales, Warner Brothers tapped Shulman as a potential screenwriter and he adapted the novel as City Across the River (1949) for Universal. That same year, Shulman published his follow-up to The Amboy Dukes, a direct sequel focusing again on troubled protagonist Mitchell Wolf. It would take another decade for Cry Tough to reach the silver screen, and even then with radical changes to the narrative. (In the meantime, Shulman penned the original treatment for Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, with credit for the finished script going ultimately to Stewart Stern.) In the transition from print to film, Mitch Wolf (played by Tony Curtis in City Across the River) became Miguel Estrada (John Saxon), while the novel's Brooklyn setting hopped across the East River and headed uptown to Spanish Harlem.

Latino actors have enjoyed a long history of employment in Hollywood dating back to the silent era, yet all too often their perceived otherness has found them cast as generic exotics with little regard to racial authenticity. During his long career, the Mexico City-born Ricardo Montalban was as likely to be cast as American Indian (Cheyenne Autumn [1964]), Italian (Let No Man Write My Epitaph [1960]) or Japanese (Sayonara [1957]) characters as he would Mexicans, and the same could be said of Pedro Armendriz (an Italian in Lucretia Borgia [1953]), a Turk in From Russia with Love [1963]), Katy Jurado (a Navajo matriarch in the 1968 Elvis Presley vehicle Stay Away Joe, and the wife of Calabrian bandit Ernest Borgnine in Mario Camerini's 1962 French-Italian coproduction I briganti Italiani) and many more. Yet when Latinos were the focus of a particular film, Hollywood rarely allowed a Latino actor to take focus. This trend has been distressingly long-lived, with the equation hardly changing between Greek George Chakiris leading the Puerto Rican Sharks in West Side Story and The Perez Family (1995) being personified by Italian-Americans Anjelica Huston and Marisa Tomei and Spanish-Italian Brit Alfred Molina. The same goes for Cry Tough, in which second generation Newyoricans are played by Italo-Americans Saxon and Don Gordon (born Walter Guadagno), native Alabaman Harry Townes and Barbara Luna (of Italo-Hungarian descent, with some Spanish, Portuguese, and Filipino in the mix), alongside the Malta-born Joseph Calleia in one of his final film roles.

Cast in the part of a Cuban dance hall girl, leading lady Linda Cristal was at least an authentic Latina but no one involved in the making of Cry Tough was actually Puerto Rican. Puerto Rican actors with name-above-the-title remain exceedingly rare in Hollywood, with the exception of Ral Juli, Rosie Perez and Benicio Del Toro. Although John Saxon (born in Brooklyn in 1935 as Carmen Orrico) had been enrolled in one Manhattan acting school or another as early as age sixteen, he was making money as an illustrator for such popular gossip magazines as Modern Romance and True Story when the opportunity presented itself to go to Hollywood. Saxon's agent had passed along some photographs of the dark-eyed youth to a talent agent in Los Angeles, who agreed to represent Saxon so long as he came west. Because he was still a minor, Saxon's first industry contract had been signed by his parents but within three weeks of arriving in Tinsel Town he had a contract with Universal-International. Lying about his age to skirt child labor laws, the now-seventeen year-old (who had an early bit as an usher in George Cukor's A Star Is Born [1954]) was quickly slotted into the rising tide of youth pictures in the order of Rock, Pretty Baby (1956) with Sal Mineo, Rod McKuen and Fay Wray (as Saxon's mother), its sequel Summer Love (1958), Vincente Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante (1958) with Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall (who fed him wine between takes) and Sandra Dee, whom the studio paired with Saxon again in The Restless Years (1958). Saxon had shown his range as a teenage psychopath menacing school teacher Esther Williams in The Unguarded Moment (1956) and it was this sense of brooding, time bomb bellicosity that won him the role of a Puerto Rican ex-con in Cry Tough.

Cry Tough (advertising art and posters added an exclamation point, la Fred Zinnemann's Oklahoma! [1955], Robert Aldrich's Attack! [1956] and Robert Wise's I Want to Live! [1958]) marked the feature film debut of Paul Stanley. In the mid-to-late 50s, the Hartford, Connecticut native established himself as a reliable director-for-hire for television. Prior to taking on Cry Tough, Stanley had helmed episodes of the short-lived anthology series Appointment with Adventure, Have Gun - Will Travel with Richard Boone and Kraft Television Theatre, for whom he staged an adaptation of Bret Harte's satire The Outcasts of Poker Flats starring George C. Scott. Stanley also directed ten episodes of the 20th Century Fox/BBC collaboration The Third Man, starring Michael Rennie in the role made famous by Orson Welles, which split production between the Fox lot in Century City and Shepperton and Elstree Studios in the United Kingdom.

Critical response to Cry Tough was mixed, with The New York Times' Bosley Crowther accusing star Saxon of doing a Marlon Brando impersonation that confused "the ethnic factor." Post-Cry Tough, Stanley returned to episodic television and did not attempt another feature until Cotter (1973), starring Irish-American actor Don Murray as an alcoholic Sioux rodeo clown facing racial prejudice in the aftermath of a murder he didn't commit. Paul Stanley retired from the business in 1985 and died in 2002, at the age of 80.

Producer: Harry Kleiner
Director: Paul Stanley
Screenplay: Harry Kleiner; Irving Shulman (novel)
Cinematography: Irving Glassberg, Philip H. Lathrop
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: Laurindo Almeida
Film Editing: Frederic Knudtson
Cast: John Saxon (Miguel Estrada), Linda Cristal (Santa), Joseph Calleia (Sr. Estrada), Harry Townes (Carlos), Don Gordon (Incho), Perry Lopez (Toro), Frank Puglia (Lavandero), Penny Santon (Senora Estrada), Joe De Santis (Cortez), Barbara Luna (Tina), Arthur Batanides (Alvears), Paul Clarke (Emilio).

by Richard Harland Smith

John Saxon interview by Leo Verswijver, Movies Were Always Magical (McFarland Publications, 2003)
Biography of Irving Shulman by Bruce Eder, All Movie Guide
Obituary for Irving Shulman by Mel Gussow, The New York Times, March 29, 1995

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