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March 2009:
The Murphy’s Store that Isn’t

Can you identify the location of this G.C. Murphy Co. five-and-10 cent store?

We’ll give you a hint—according to the narration, it’s somewhere “between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.”

Take another good look. That store sure does look familiar.

It should—but this five-and-10 was never part of the G.C. Murphy Co. In fact, take a close look, and you can see the sign actually says J.C. Murphy Co.

The reason the store looks familiar is that it was on the back lot of what is now called The Culver Studios, west of Los Angeles.

This building and the surrounding structures comprised one of the most famous movie sets of all time, used in everything from Gone With the Wind to The Andy Griffith Show and the 1960s TV series Batman.

Even Star Trek and Hogan’s Heroes used the lot in the 1960s, when it was operated by Lucille Ball’s production company, Desilu.

But from 1929 through 1957, this lot was used by RKO Radio Pictures for many movies. As a result, it earned the name “RKO Forty Acres.”

One of the RKO films shot here included 1947’s The Long Night, starring Henry Fonda, Barbara Bel Geddes, Vincent Price, Ann Dvorak, Elisha Cook Jr., and others.

"The Long Night" newspaper ads

Set in an unnamed steelmaking town just after World War II, The Long Night is the story of Joe (Henry Fonda), a veteran working in the blast furnace department at the Chenungo Iron & Steel Works who falls in love with a flower girl named Jo Ann, played by Barbara Bel Geddes.

A creepy magician named Maximillian (Vincent Price) passes through town, takes a fancy to Jo Ann, and tries to steal her away from Joe.

Much of the story is told in flashbacks—in the opening scenes, we see Joe shoot Maximillian dead, and then we learn of the events that pushed the otherwise good-natured steelworker to murder.

Joe hides out in his apartment overlooking the old town square, where “Murphy’s 5 and 10” is located, and although the store doesn’t figure into the story, it is visible in many scenes.

The Long Night is based on a 1939 French movie, Le Jour se Lève, or “Daybreak” (though the ending of the American film is different) and director Anatole Litvak prided himself on making the production look realistic.

The streets and cars are coated with grime, smokestacks protrude into several scenes, and a steel mill set was constructed (smaller than actual size) in the background.

To ensure realism, the production designers visited real Midwestern steel-mill towns and took copious pictures.

Since so many of G.C. Murphy Co.’s stores were located in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, it’s no surprise that the designers quickly learned that a Murphy’s store was a vital part of any realistic depiction of steel town life.

For legal reasons, “G.C. Murphy Co.” was changed slightly, to “J.C.” (Today, retail companies pay movie producers to get their trademarks into a major motion picture, but such arrangements were less common in the 1940s.)

Past Photos of the Month:

Unfortunately for Litvak, his efforts at verisimilitude fell flat. The “steel town” set looked like a set, perhaps because the same buildings had been used over and over again.

(For instance, some of the pictures above, the train station used in Gone With the Wind is clearly visible at the end of the street. The building at the center of the shoot-out between the police Henry Fonda’s character is better known as the Mayberry Hotel from Andy Griffith.)

Wrote movie critic Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, “The place is supposed to be a mill town in the Pennsylvania-Ohio belt ... but the scene looks entirely artificial ... in short, Mr. Litvak’s production is an obvious fake, exposed by its own pretensions and an over-talked John Wexler script.”

Bob Thomas of The Associated Press was kinder, calling The Long Night “a bravely different treatment ... using novel camera angles, realistic settings and low-key lighting, it establishes a richly somber mood.”

And at least a few critics—including the influential Robert M. White II—claimed the film was “Communist propaganda.” Sniffed White, editor of the Mexico, Mo., Ledger, “the commies are doing their best to undermine established authority in America. In this picture, there is a subtle attack against police officials ... the commies also keep burning the idea that all veterans are nuts—that is, neurotic cases.”

Luckily, White didn’t mention the 5 and 10 at all. (G.C. Murphy Co. never had any stores in Missouri, anyway.)

Though not one of Fonda’s best films, The Long Night is a satisfying if undistinguished thriller in the film noir tradition. It occasionally turns up on cable TV movie channels.

In addition, a restored version of The Long Night was released on DVD in 2000 by Kino Video and includes photos and an essay about the movie.

(Previous photo: December 2008, Christmas greetings)

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