Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Crime does not pay (as well as it used to) #4

Well, what had been some simply splendid viewing experiences via TCM on Demand—namely, some showings of those classic Crime Does Not Pay shorts—has completely dried up in the past three weeks. TCM’s On Demand channel has shifted to M-G-M’s Nostradamus shorts cranked out between 1938-44, attempts by the studio to assure the American public that we were going to win World War II because some crackpot French physician had predicted it as such. (I should probably add as a disclaimer that I do not generally subscribe to psychic phenomena as a rule, so if my admittedly snarky tone is a bit off-putting I apologize profusely in advance.)

According to the first short, Nostradamus (1938), Michel de Nostredame was a 16th-century French medico who could allegedly predict future events through a combination of astrology, mathematics and scary powers. Scholars have often speculated that many of the events described in his famous “quatrains” did indeed come to pass; others have posited that these “prophecies” were, according to Mickey N’s entry at Wikipedia, “antedated forgeries written by later hands with a political axe to grind.” I’m not going to come down on one side or the other (well…I’ll try not to, in any case) but again, my innate skepticism has always been to take this stuff cumo graino salto. I will say this—Nostradamus’ stuff makes for great entertainment; many of you might be familiar with a movie entitled The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981)…a documentary which details a lot of the events Nostradamus supposedly predicted, and hosted by none other than Orson Welles hizzownself, who not only appears to be having the time of his life narrating this bit of fromage but I’ll bet he took every dollar they paid him for the gig and spread it out on his mattress at home, rolling around in it and laughing maniacally. (Tomorrow was a popular video at the Ballbuster Blockbuster where I briefly worked from 1989-90…we literally couldn’t keep the damn thing on the shelves.)

After the inaugural Nostradamus short, M-G-M followed it up with a sequel, More About Nostradamus (1941), which is pretty much more of the same (narrator Carey Wilson soothingly informs us that victory is at hand)—but I did get a giggle out of seeing the gentleman to your right…TDOY OTR acting/voice artist god Hans Conried, who has a wordless role as cleric Felix Paretti, whom Nosty apparently predicted would later become Pope Sixtus V. After More came a third one-reeler, Further Prophecies of Nostradamus (1942), which TCM on Demand added last Friday. (I suspect that this Friday will see the introduction of Nostradamus and the Queen [1942] or Nostradamus IV [1944]…and then later down the road, a pair of shorts produced in the anxiety-ridden 50s, Nostradamus Says So! [1953] and Let's Ask Nostradamus [1953]. M-G-M made so many of these darn things I’m surprised they resisted the temptation to do a feature film, something along the lines of Andy Hardy Meets Nostradamus.)

No, in order to get my Crime Does Not Pay fix this week I had to record a short the channel ran before its TCM Underground showing of Girls on the Loose (1958) entitled A Thrill for Thelma {1935). This was the fourth short in the long-running series, and you can tell it’s one of the early entries because our pal the M-G-M Crime Reporter (in this one, played by William Tannen) is still just the “M-G-M Reporter” (he was probably still going to Crime night school). Crime Dude introduces us to “Warden Hannah Graves” and “Captain Richard Kyne”—and while I’m not certain if Hannah is the genuine article (her acting is a bit on the stilted side, which leads me to believe that she is a real person like you and me) because she receives no credit at the IMDb I recognized “Kyne” as veteran character thesp Robert Warwick, whom I always remember as Bogart’s tipsy actor pal (Bogey calls him “Thespian”) from In a Lonely Place (1950).
Thrill’s titular character, Thelma, is played by Irene Hervey—a leading lady of the 1930s and 1940s who appeared in such films as The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), Three Godfathers (1936) and Destry Rides Again (1939) but for some odd reason known only to my admittedly warped sensibilities I remember as ingénue Vicki Logan in the 1942 serial Gang Busters…and as “Aunt Meg” on TV’s Honey West. Warden Graves and Captain Kyne introduce us to Thelma, a demure young thing who starts out graduating from high school (with a line of fellow matriculates who look as if they’re just coming out at the annual cotillion) and landing a job at a beauty salon. But Thelma wants more out of life than just doing other rich dame’s nails—she wants excitement, money and the finer things in life.

I put up these before and after screen caps to impart a little wisdom to the females in the audience who are thinking about doing a stint in the Big House. Always make certain you bring along a stylist and cosmetologist to do your makeup.

Anyhoo, Thelma gets involved with this numbnut, a jobless joker named Steve Black (and yes, that is Bob Livingston of later B-western Three Mesquiteers and The Lone Ranger serial fame) who starts Thel down on the road to perdition by robbing a couple parked along the side of the road (he spotted them in the same nightclub in which he and Thelma were hobnobbing) for shits and giggles—but I don’t have to tell you what happens next…it’s all fun and games until someone gets shot. Thelma, pure, sweet naïve idiot that she is, decides to stick with Stevie Boy even though common sense would dictate that she turn his sorry ass over to the cops faster than you can say “Lullaby Joslin.”

I threw this in only because I wanted you to see Bob’s Bela Lugosi impression.

Naturally, in the black-and-white world of M-G-M crime, the cops eventually catch up to Steve (who’s married Thelma by now, that ol’ “wife-can’t-testify-against-her-husband” thing) and fill him with lead when he attempts to rob another rich society swell (who’s in actuality an undercover cop). As Thrill winds up its twenty-two-minute running time, we learn the sad story that Thelma was great with child at the time they croaked Steve, and that she must now spend the next twenty years in the jernt, unable to see her daughter because she doesn’t want the kid to have to bear the social stigma of her ma being someone's bitch in stir. (Things have changed a great deal since then—nowadays it would be almost something to brag about, along the lines of tattoos or piercings.)

A Thrill for Thelma was a pleasant little diversion, once you maneuver past the typical M-G-M moralizing preachiness—but the “Thelma” that I really enjoyed the past couple of days was the vivacious “Hot Toddy” herownself in a fun little Hal Roach comedy short that teams her with Patsy Kelly, Beauty and the Bus (1933). I’m a huge fan of these shorts, even though I will readily acknowledge at the drop of a hat that they didn’t always have a consistently high batting average. But Thelma is so lovely in them—and Patsy so hilarious—that even the weaker efforts have at least something with which to recommend. I also don’t mind that many of these two-reelers required both women to engage a bit of Laurel & Hardy-type slapstick, a particular bugaboo of film historian Leonard Maltin (as I see it, funny is funny regardless of gender), the individual from which I gleaned my first knowledge of these timeless treasures. Besides, Thelma and Patsy’s physical antics come off a heck of a lot better than, say, the more violent shtick Jules White had Vera Vague do in her Columbia shorts.

In Bus, Thelma and Patsy are present at the local theatre when an unctuous emcee (Bob McKenzie) announces the winning number in the raffle of a pretty expensive-looking 1933 Chrysler—the number which, natch, belongs to Patsy…who tore up the ticket after McKenzie read the original number out wrong (he was holding it upside down). The two women take the roadster out for a spin, and when Patsy goads Thelma into opening the car up to see how fast it will run she tells Pats: “You keep your eye out for a man on a motorcycle.” When a “sickle” cop (Eddie Baker) takes off after the girls as they speed by, Patsy starts waving for the guy to follow them…and as he approaches them, remarks to Thel: “That man on the motorcycle is here”—prompting an Oliver Hardy-like reaction from Miss Todd.
I realize that most of the jokes in the following exchange are so old they were probably collecting pensions at the time this short was filmed…but that doesn’t make them any less funny…

BAKER: Where’s the fire?
THELMA: In your eyes, you great big gorgeous policeman…
BAKER: That ain’t gonna get you anywhere with me, baby…what’s the idea of doing fifty miles an hour down this boulevard?
THELMA: Fifty miles? Why, we weren’t even going forty…not even thirty…why, we could…
BAKER: Wait a minute…you’ll be backing over somebody…I’m going to give you a ticket…
PATSY: We don’t want to go to any policeman’s ball
THELMA (after shooting her a look): Let me handle this… (Laughing nervously) Uh…
BAKER: Just for that, I’m going to take her driver’s license away…
PATSY (laughing): Oh, you can’t do that!
BAKER: I can’t, can’t I? Why?
PATSY: She hasn’t got one…

Later in the short, Thel and Pats have a run-in with the delightfully fruity Don Barclay—a character great who you’ll no doubt recognize as the fussy chauffeur from the Our Gang romp Honky Donkey (“Thank you gigantically…”); he was sort of the poor man’s Edward Everett Horton. Barclay and the girls engage in a dab of Laurel and Hardy “reciprocal destruction” by smashing up each other’s cars…and while this is going on, they inadvertently cause a blowout in the tire on a moving truck being driven by Tiny Sandford. Sandford goes about smashing up what he thinks is Barclay’s ride but is…yes, you guessed it, the brand-new car owned by Thelma. When Thelma finally is able to explain to Tiny that he’s destroying the wrong automobile, Patsy retaliates in the meantime by throwing furniture off the back of Sandford’s truck. “Well—how do you like that, King Kong?” Patsy cracks to Sandford—and while I’m sure audiences laughed at this timely joke (1933 being the year of release for the movie featuring the giant monkey who climbs the Empire State) it played funnier with me because Kong was coming on right after this short. A tremendous multi-car crash/traffic jam results from all these shenanigans, with cop Baker showing up to try and get a handle on things…and recognizing the girls from his previous encounter.

As the short heads into the homestretch, there’s this shot of Thelma and Patsy losing control of the car when it decides to take a stroll down a steep hill—and I thought this was funny, because it’s the same bit o’landscape that I spotted in a Taxi Boys short when I wrote about that ill-fated comedy team on the blog a month back. Bus is a breezy little delight, with appearances from L&H nemesis Charlie Hall and Ernie Alexander (as the poor schmo whose feet get caught in Patsy’s theatre seat; when she scolds him with “Why don’t you put your foot where it belongs?” his laugh-out-loud reply is “Don’t tempt me, lady…”)…and you might recognize this little moppet…

Yes, it’s Tommy “Butch” Bond…a few years before he became the official Our Gang bully (“Come on, Woim…”) and quite a few años before achieving serialdom immortality as Jimmy Olsen in the Columbia cliffhangers Superman (1948) and Atom Man vs. Superman (1950).
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Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Andy Hardy Meets Nostradamus."

I love this. Was that the one with Donna Reed? As I recall, Nostradamus needed white trousers for graduation, but couldn't afford them.

Amanda said...

Fabulous post!