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Bryan Foy and John Alton: An Unlikely Team

Producer and director Bryan Foy, 1930

To view the “Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir” theme on FilmStruck, click here.

Anthony Mann gained a reputation for creating lean, mean film noirs with the help of cinematographer extraordinaire John Alton. Mann’s stylish direction and memorable characters in film noir, as well as in Westerns and dramas make him a favorite among classic movie lovers. You can count the Streamliners among Mann-fans based on the many FilmStruck posts about the series “Anthony Mann/John Alton Noir,” including my own article from earlier this year.

While researching Alton and Mann for my previous post, as well as for my film noir course, I came across another name associated with several of these films. It is a name that goes unsung and one rarely associated with film noir: Bryan Foy. Foy produced some of the low-budget noirs by Mann and Alton, including T-Men (1947) and He Walked by Night (1948), which are currently streaming on FilmStruck. Foy’s experience at producing B-movies for most of his career made him an expert at getting the most out of small budgets and short running times.

Eddie Foy (back left) with his children, Eddie Foy Jr., Mary Foy, Madeline Foy, Bryan Foy, Irving Fo

Called “Brynie” by his associates, Foy was born in a trunk as they say. TCM viewers who have seen the Bob Hope movie The Seven Little Foys (1955) will recognize his name, at least his last name. The movie celebrated the career of Eddie Foy, Sr., a real-life vaudevillian who incorporated his children into his act after his wife died. Bryan, the eldest child, performed as part of The Seven Little Foys until he joined the Navy during WWI. Reading between the lines of Bryan’s scant bio information, I got the impression he did not like performing onstage. He did not return to the act after the war, though he did compose several original songs for his family. Shortly after appearing with the Foys onstage for a special event, he suffered a nervous breakdown.

In the early 1920s, Bryan Foy entered the film industry, getting his feet wet in the publicity department of William Fox’s studio. He formed a tiny production company and produced a series of shorts spoofing famous historical and literary figures under the series title Hysterical History. He moved to Warner Bros., where his background in vaudeville served him well. As Sam Warner contemplated and explored the use of sync-sound, Foy was hired to produce and direct vaudeville shorts for WB. After the success of The Jazz Singer (1927) revealed that the switch to sync sound was inevitable—and the sooner, the better—Foy was in the right place at the right time. He took a two-reel, silent gangster saga and turned it into a five-reel all-talking drama. Lights of New York (1928) is cited in the history books as the first all-talking film, though Foy’s name is rarely lauded, probably because the conversion from silent to sound did not result in a very good film. But, Lights of New York was a gold mine for WB. It cost only $21,000 to make and returned $75,000 during its first week in release in New York City.

Foy specialized in low-budget features at WB, and in 1936, Jack Warner doubled his salary and put him in charge of all B-movie production. His unit produced 29 movies in 1936 and 30 in 1937. His films represented over half of the studio’s annual releases and, thus, comprised the backbone of WB’s release schedule. The purpose of Foy’s unit was to keep WB’s facilities and personnel operating with no down time while supplying a steady flow of low-cost features.

Foy always hated the phrase “B-movie,” especially in later years when the term began to connote an inferior production. Most of his output was anything but inferior. His B-unit allowed the studio’s featured players, such as Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane, a chance to star in films (like Torchy Blane series [1937-1939]). His movies were often directed by second-unit directors from A-movies, and the scripts were sometimes the work of A-writers. Some, including Alcatraz Island (1937), were considered good enough by Jack Warner and his right-hand producer, Hal Wallis, to receive a major promotion and to play in theaters on key dates.

Foy produced movies on 15- to 25-day schedules, with budgets ranging from $50,000 to $125,000. But, his reputation rested on his ability to cut corners. For example, he saved money on obtaining story rights by reworking the narratives from WB’s A-budget movies, recognizing that a change in location, a distinctive atmosphere and a different star could alter any story significantly. During the shooting phase, he suggested using inserts, such as newspaper headlines or letters, to advance the story, which saved the cost of acting out plot points in scenes. He also suggested using close-ups in dialog scenes to keep the visual focus away from the minimal sets.

Nothing lasts forever, and in 1940, Foy’s B-unit was phased out at Warner Bros. Foy worked at other studios, including Eagle-Lion Films, a British production company that released English films in the States. The studio also produced original B-movies in Hollywood. In 1947, Foy was placed in charge of the B-unit, but as it worked out, it became more lucrative for him to work as an independent producer for Eagle-Lion. The studio’s strategy to release A-budget British films and make their own B-movies was not wholly successful, though the studio experienced some financial reward with their film noirs. Of the fourteen films produced in 1947-1948, ten were in release by 1949, and five had earned a tidy profit, including three of the films streaming on FilmStruck: T-Men, He Walked by Night and Raw Deal (1948). Foy produced the first two.

Though Anthony Mann and John Alton are often discussed as a team, no one has connected Foy and Alton. Yet, Foy’s cost cutting approach and Alton’s stripped-down artistry work hand in glove on B-noirs. In addition to He Walked by Night and T-Men, Alton served as cinematographer for Foy on Canon City (1948) and Hollow Triumph (1948). Foy’s strategy of saving money by minimizing set design works well with Alton’s legendary high-contrast lighting in which deep, black shadows obliterate set detail. Alton illuminated scenes with the fewest lights possible, sometimes using only a single light source. Also, the cinematographer worked quickly, often setting up the lights himself. This annoyed the crew and the union when he was the cinematographer on MGM’s big-budget An American in Paris (1950), but it suited low-budget productions with short shooting schedules. I don’t know if Foy appreciated Alton’s talents and style in addition to his cost-saving practices, but, given the producer’s reputation at WB and the pride he expressed in his work, I would like to think so.

The Eagle-Lion venture did not last long, because the company lost money on their A-budget movies. Foy returned to WB in the 1950s, producing the 3-D horror classic House of Wax (1953). His last film as a producer was P.T. 109 (1963), significant for its connection to U.S. history, if not cinema history. Foy had an incredible career—from early sound to B-movies to film noir to 3-D. Not bad for a kid from vaudeville.

Susan Doll

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