Wednesday, May 5, 2010

“Did you say ‘gander’?—I wonder how she'd go for a goose…”

In You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939), an otherwise unremarkable Warner Bros. programmer starring Billy Halop as a juvenile delinquent sent to the slammer and Humphrey Bogart as the mook responsible for him being there, there’s a scene set in a prison library in which we see several inmates seated at tables reading intently…and the only thing heard on the soundtrack is a gravelly-voiced individual reading a recipe for fried chicken (“Put a young, tender white leghorn chicken in eight pieces and soak in rich, thick Jersey cream...”). The camera follows one prisoner as he makes his way to the library’s front desk, and upon reaching its destination reveals the speaker to be none other than Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, who as “Sam” is describing the admittedly mouth-watering dish to the library’s trustee, an old codger known only as “Pop” and played by none other than “Clarence Oddbody” hizzownself, Henry Travers.

Naturally, if you’re an old-time radio fan—you would have pegged Anderson’s voice by the time he got the first three words out…which I did, much to my Mom’s amusement (“Hey—it’s Rochester!”). I couldn’t help but wonder as we watched the rest of the film whether this was done deliberately by the filmmakers; Anderson made his regular debut on the Jack Benny radio program in June of 1937, and would certainly have been well-known by the time of Murder’s release in May of 1939.

Murder offered sort of a break from our recent indulgence in DVDs from the various Warner Bros. Tough Guys/Gangsters box sets; the movie isn’t available on disc (the graphic to the right might give you an idea of how it would look if it were) but was recorded back in December of last year during TCM’s Bogart salute. I liked Murder—nothing brings a smile to my face than watching Bogie slumming in B-pictures doing his gangster shtick—despite the presence of Halop, an annoying Dead End kid who’s a bit of an acquired taste. Halop was sort of the focal point in most of the Warner “Dead End” films—he was the leader long before Leo Gorcey steered the aggregation into comedy with the Bowery Boys series—playing an essentially decent delinquent who had just fallen in with a bad crowd. In Murder, he essays the role of Johnny Stone—a nineteen-year-old punk (they had to make him that old so that they could stick his keister in prison later in the film) who’s been hanging around hoodlum Frank Wilson…played by our man Bogie. Young Johnny takes it upon himself to swipe a pistol from his sister’s fiancé Fred Burke (Harvey Stephens), which Frank uses in a pawn shop holdup to kill the store’s owner. Frank assures Johnny that if he just keeps his mouth shut no one will be the wiser—but the two men are picked up for another rap (robbing a gas station)…and to further complicate matters, Fred is arrested, tried and convicted of murder…with no chance of appeal. So unless Johnny comes clean about taking the roscoe…Fred is pretty much screwed.

That’s pretty much why Travers (remember “Pop”?) is on hand in this movie—to act as a kindly old mentor and steer Johnny towards the straight and narrow. (To be honest, Travers’ presence only made me curious as to what the old geezer did to be incarcerated in the first place.) But it’s not easy—Wilson has threatened Johnny with telling the authorities that it was Johnny who croaked the pawnshop guy, plus there’s that whole loyalty and not-ratting-on-your-buddies thing. At the film’s end, Frank and Johnny are involved in a bust-out with several other prisoners, and Frank shoots Johnny in the ensuing scuffle. Johnny manages to draw enough breath to sing like a canary to the warden (Joseph Crehan) and save Fred from the electric chair before expiring as sister Madge (Gale Page), Pop and a few others look on. (Yes, I realize this is an unhappy ending but let’s stop and think for a moment—having Johnny survive the shooting would make things a little awkward when Madge and Fred eventually tie the knot. “Hey, Fred—remember that time I put your ass on Death Row…?”)

“Now that was a sappy movie,” Mom observed as the closing credits rolled—but again, I really enjoyed this admittedly guilty pleasure…particularly when I’m able to spot familiar character faces in bit parts. Frank Faylen—who is essentially referred to around Rancho Yesteryear as “Dobie Gillis’ dad”—can be glimpsed as a tour guide, and “professional flatfoots (or should that be flatfeet?)” Robert Emmett O’Connor and Emory Parnell are unbilled as police detectives. Among the individuals who are credited are the ubiquitous John Litel (in attorney mode), Joe Sawyer (as an ill-fated con who learns at the last minute he’s not getting out), Harold Huber (the mastermind behind the breakout) and George E. Stone—who plays an inmate affectionately known as “Toad.” (Travers refers to Stone as a “snooping little rat,” observing “All he lacks is a tail.”) Stone was immortalized onscreen as “Toothpick Charlie,” the hood whose demise sets the events in Some Like It Hot in motion…but in the environs of Castle Yesteryear he is revered for his appearances as “The Runt” in the films from Columbia’s Boston Blackie series.

And for some amusing reason, we can’t seem to get through a Warner Bros. flick without the presence of character actor Joe Downing—he always seems to play a luckless yardbird who, if you’re a betting man, stands to be the first con to be gunned down during a prison break. In Murder, he silently emotes as “Smitty”—and he plays a character with the same name in Larceny, Inc. (1942). (Hey—it could be the same guy, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.) Mom and I have spotted him in A Slight Case of Murder (1938) as “Innocence,” the hood responsible for the dead gangster corpses in Remy Marco’s mansion, and a bit of a bigger role as “Limpy” Julien in Each Dawn I Die (1939)…the squealer whose demise allows “Hood” Stacey (George Raft) to affect an escape.

On a related note, Mumsy and I polished off a pair of Cagney flicks in Picture Snatcher (1933) and Lady Killer (1933) which showcase the actor at his tough-guy best. (Honest to my grandma, I can see why so many people are fond of Cagney—he has charm to spare.) Snatcher stars Jimmy as an ex-con who gets the titular job at a tabloid rag and later gains notoriety when he’s able to snap a picture of the execution of a woman via the “chair” (the film was loosely based on the true story of how photographer Tom Howard took a photo of convicted murderess Ruth Snyder for the New York Daily News in 1928). Ralph Bellamy plays Cagney’s city editor pal, and as we were watching this my mother asked “Is there anyone else in this movie besides Cagney and Bellamy?” BANG! Up pops Sterling Holloway in an uncredited bit as a journalism student. I preferred Lady Killer to Snatcher (although that hokey moustache of Cagney’s in the second half of Killer is a major detriment) only because it was fun to watch the actor poke fun at his profession (Jimmy’s a hood who gets a job in motion pictures and parlays it into a career) and because his The Public Enemy co-star Mae Clarke is on hand (and is sexy as all get-out). (Listen to the dialogue between Mae and Jimmy in the sequence set in the Chicago train station for a funny Enemy in-joke.) Sadly, Mae is on the receiving end of some major abuse in this fast-and-furious film—Jimmy even yanks her off a bed by her hair at one point. Of course, Cagney winds up with the irritating Margaret Lindsay (again)…but I guess that’s show biz.

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Jeff Overturf said...

There are lots of guilty pleasures in my life...Warner Gangsters are right up at the top of the list!

Operator_99 said...

Great post on one of my many favored genres - you haven't lost a step!

Stacia said...

I admit it, I rolled my eyes so hard at that in-joke in "Lady Killer" that my face almost froze that way. Mae's delivery was... er, a bit broad.