Friday, September 16, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Arson, Inc. (1949)



L.A. fireman Joe Martin (Robert Lowery) has demonstrated he’s got a little moxie on the ball when he rescues some cheap furs (rabbit, etc.) from a fire at a wholesale furriers’—only the furs retrieved from the blaze don’t match the more expensive pelts listed on the insurance claim.  An investigator from the arson detail has already been murdered during the fire department’s inquiry, so Joe is pressed into action to look into the matter.  Martin stops by the residence of the owner of the store, Thomas Peyson (Byron Foulger), to conduct some questioning—and is informed by schoolteacher Jane Jennings (Anne Gwynne) that the Peysons are out for the evening (she’s babysitting Junior Peyson).  When Mr. and Mrs. P get back from nightclubbing, Martin peppers Peyson with uncomfortable inquiries regarding a fire that occurred in their apartment…which the Peysons didn’t report.

Peyson has good reason to be nervous: he’s in cahoots with unscrupulous insurance agent Frederick P. Fender (Douglas Fowley).  (Wait…does this mean the insurance guy is Freddy Fender?  The Before the Next Teardrop Falls and Wasted Days and Wasted Nights guy?  Hokey smoke, Bullwinkle!)  Peyson is deep in debt to Fender, and Freddy P. is trying to help his pal by filing false insurance claims while keeping the real furs under wraps (evening wraps, natch) in his personal warehouse.  Suspicious of Martin and the inconvenient truth that he’s asking too many questions, Fender assigns his right-hand man, pyromaniac Pete Purdy (Edward Brophy), to “shadow” Martin in an attempt to see if he’s on the up-and-up.  Joe manages to fool Pete (it’s not too hard—it is Ed Brophy, after all) into thinking he’s susceptible to taking a dishonest bribe or two, particularly after an incident in a betting parlor raided by the gendarmes.  But it’s all part of Joe’s ingenious plan to bring Fender and Company down, putting an end to their no-goodness.

Arson, Inc. (1949) is really little more than an extended Crime Does Not Pay short (the only difference is that the M-G-M series were typically two-reelers…Arson is a six-reeler).  It begins in semi-documentary style, with an officious-sounding fire chief (William Forrest) admonishing the viewing audience that they need to be more vigilant in fire prevention (thanks for the lecture, Smokey the Bear) …but that the fire department, too, is doing all they can by keeping an eye out for those firefighters who demonstrate that they are S-M-R-T and worthy of being promoted to the upper ranks.  Fire Chief is just about to tell us the tale of one such fireman (in other words, the entire plot of Arson, Inc.) when he’s interrupted by a knock on the door, and our hero Martin enters…thus bringing the documentary to an end and allowing the picture to commence.  (I would have given my eyeteeth to hear Forrest yell “Can’t you see I’m trying to narrate in here?”)

Arson, Inc. may be in black-and-white and it may be a crime picture…but as has often been noted on the blog, that does not make it film noir.  But this did not discourage VCI from slapping these onto collections and labeling them as such…and truth be told, I kind of enjoyed Arson.  It’s three minutes longer than Fingerprints Don’t Lie (1951) …and still manages to be a more entertaining movie.  Arson was directed by B-Western veteran William A. Berke (he rode herd on a lot of Charles Starrett-Russell “Lucky” Hayden oaters at Columbia), who also helmed a VCI “Forgotten Noir” entry that I’m going to be skipping over because I already covered it back in May of 2012—1947’s Shoot to Kill.  (I’ll probably watch it again just to see if this print is better than the public domain one featured on the Mill Creek collection Dark Crimes.)

So why did I enjoy Arson, Inc.?  Sure, the plot is a little absurd (screenplay by Maurice Tombragel from an Arthur Caesar story) and runs out of steam before the hour is out (they have to institute some embarrassing shortcuts, including killing two people off in a high-speed car crash), but this Robert L. Lippert production does have an impressive cast…and I mean impressive in the sense of “Hey…that’s (fill in the blank)!”  Douglas Fowley, before he grew a set of whiskers and took out his false teeth to play scads of old codgers on episodic TV (including the grandfather on Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats), wasn’t too shabby in the villainy department…though he mostly played henchmen, so it’s nice to see him get a promotion here.  There’s a scene in Arson where Fowley, upset that a scheduled inferno did not go as planned, steps out of his office and slaps his secretary Betty across the face, thinking she spilled her guts to the cops.  (She didn’t, by the way, and while I’m not a lawyer I believe she has the makings of a solid sexual harassment case.)

The secretary is played by Marcia Mae Jones, a former child actress who won my heart when she portrayed Shirley Temple’s tormentor in The Little Princess (1939).  Jones was one of the rare kiddie thesps who became better actors (and in Marcia Mae’s case, sexier) as they matured, and I loved every minute she was onscreen in this one.  She gets pouty whenever Anne Gwynne’s character is around (she sees Jane as a potential rival for Fender’s affections…and I won’t beat around the bush—Mr. Fender starts to like Jane…a lot), and has a funny scene where she pretends to be drunk during a night on the town with Lowery, Gwynne, and Brophy.  (She can do much better than Fowley’s Fender…but sadly, she does not.)

Ed Brophy is always great in comic relief roles…but he gets to add a little menace in his portrayal of Purdy, a slightly disturbed guy with an obsession for setting things on fire.  Maudie Eburne is also on hand as Jane’s grandmother (she and Gwynne’s character trade off on babysitting jobs, resulting in a funny punchline in a scene involving Fender), and the cast is further stocked with favorites like Byron Foulger, Lelah Tyler, Matt McHugh, Emmett Vogan, Charles Williams, and our old friend Thurl Ravenscroft (who performs There’s a Tavern in the Town and Little Brown Jug in a party sequence).  If the voice calling the horse race in the betting parlor sequences sounds familiar…it’s bachelor father John Forsythe.

Anne Gwynne, last seen on the blog in Murder in the Blue Room (1944), left Universal after one of her better-known pictures, House of Frankenstein (1944); she then freelanced at other studios (she was Tess Trueheart in 1947’s Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome) but never achieved the same level of stardom that she had enjoyed at Universal.  (She spent the rest of her career doing some early TV and lots of commercials.)  Anne was a most attractive actress (a popular “pin-up girl” among GI’s in WW2) but she doesn’t get much to do here…though in her defense, my attention was directed mostly toward Marcia Mae.  (Sorry, Anne…maybe I’ll drag out Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe [1940] to watch again one of these days.)

The star of Arson, Inc. is Robert Lowery, an actor who…well, here’s the intriguing thing: I’ve seen a lot of movies in which he appeared (he’s kind of unavoidable in serials like The Monster and the Ape and The Mystery of the Riverboat)—and yet I don’t care for him at all.  Honest to my grandma, this is what they write about Bob in his biography, one of Arson, Inc.’s DVD extras: “As he matured into middle age, he acquired a startling resemblance to Clark Gable.”  (Only if you encountered him in a darkened room.)  However, I will recommend two of Bob’s movie gigs: one is The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), because you can chuckle to yourself as to why the then 30-year-old Lowery is still a college student.  The other is the 1949 serial version of Batman and Robin…because whatever his shortcomings are as the Caped Crusader, he’s actually pretty good as Bruce Wayne—playing the Gotham City gazillionaire exactly as he should be portrayed: as a callous, bored playboy.

Oh, and Lowery gets props for a brief scene in Arson, Inc. in which he strolls past a movie theater advertising Highway 13 (1948) and I Shot Jesse James (1949); not only is it shameless self-promotion on behalf of the Lippert people, but Lowery stars in Highway (a picture directed by Arson’s William Berke).

This review turned out longer than I planned…so I should wrap this up with a correction of a mistake I made in earlier Lippert reviews from friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts.  Apparently the production companies I mentioned like “Spartan Productions” and “Encore Productions” were fictitious entities, based out of the Lippert studios in an effort to “spread out the financial responsibility on those pictures.”  Richard observes: “Lippert was a king of creative bookkeeping and low budget production.”  And he’s not just whistling Dixie, because Arson, Inc. opens with this impressive (fictitious) studio logo:


I’m starting to get a better idea of why George Raft saw his 25% of Loan Shark’s profits go south.  Have a great weekend, cartooners.

4 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Ivan:

Are you holding for a possible future post about Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe the mention of Anne Gwynne's Special Relationship to a current science-fiction film franchise?
This is a tease. Details on request (unless of course you already know ...).

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Mr. Television announced:

Details on request (unless of course you already know ...).

My copy of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe -- the first serial I ever watched -- is, to my astonishment, gathering dust in my father's personal Guantanamo Bay. (I tried to track down a copy of the Roan release, but the website I found it at didn't have any in stock.) So bring forth those details at your earliest convenience, sir.

Mike Doran said...

Jeez Loueez, Ivan - I didn't realize ...

Anyway, Anne Gwynne's daughter, actress Gwynne Gilford, married Robert Pine (the Sergeant on CHiPS).

Their son is Chris Pine, aka nuCapt. Kirk in the current Star Trek pictures.

Circle Of Life, TV Style.

An outfit called Image/Madacy put out a deluxe DVD of all three Universal Flash Gordon serials, which is what I've got.
Meantime, Anne Gwynne turns up on Svengoolie quite often in the Universal "sub-horror" flix that turn up roughly half the time these days.

Hope this helps.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Mike expressed sympathy:

Jeez Loueez, Ivan - I didn't realize ...

Truth be told -- I didn't either. I tore up the shelves looking for the darn thing and couldn't find it...so the only other place it can be is the storage shed. Oh, well.