Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Buried Treasures: Crimebusting Double Feature – They Made Me a Criminal (1939) and Lady Gangster (1942)


At the same time I was purchasing the “Boxing Comedy Twin Bill” of The Milky Way (1936) and Kid Dynamite (1943) (which I covered on the blog earlier this month) from Oldies.com, I also invested in a “Crimebusting Double Feature”…which set me back the same amount of change as I ponied up for the “Boxing” DVD—seventy-nine cents.  (It’s now listed on the site for ninety-nine cents.  Can I horse-trade or what?)  Another Roan Group release (from 2004), there is sadly no introduction from Lou Lumenick but it does feature bonus chapters from both Radar Men on the Moon (1952) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).  (All for 79¢.)

First up, the 1939 classic They Made Me a Criminal, in which TDOY idol John Garfield portrays Johnnie Bradfield, a pugilist who’s just claimed the lightweight boxing championship title.  In his dressing room, Bradfield is given a watch by a flatfoot named Monty Phelan (Claude Rains), who carefully observes that Johnnie wears the timepiece on his right wrist because he’s a southpaw.  The watch, reported stolen, was recovered in a pawnshop and it has a certain sentimental value for the young fighter because it was given to him by his sweet, gray-haired old mother.  In fact, after taking some “newsies” out for a celebratory feed, Johnnie is going straight home to his ma because he does not drink nor fool around with women; he drinks milk three times a day and makes sure he gets ten hours of shuteye to maintain his rigorous regimen.

If this is the case, then why is Johnny throwing back drinks in his apartment, while a slinky redhead named Goldie West (Ann Sheridan) hangs all over him like Spanish moss?  Well, his “good-to-his-mother” reputation is a fable concocted by his manager, Doc Ward (Robert Gleckler), and if some muckraking representative from the fourth estate were to stumble onto this secret, it would spell disaster for Bradfield just as he’s starting to move up in boxing’s ranks.  Alas, that’s exactly what happens; a sozzled girlfriend of Goldie’s (Barbara Pepper) brings a gentleman (John Ridgely) to Johnnie’s “party” and he announces his intention to make the boxer’s extracurricular activities front page news.  In the altercation that follows, Johnnie takes a swing at the reporter but his intoxicated state sends him to the floor for the long count.  Doc connects on Reporter Boy’s cranium with a whiskey bottle and the newspaper man winds up dead.

With Johnnie still out like a light, Doc and Goldie deposit him at a hideout and then make a run for the border in his car…which they proceed to wrap around a tree, killing them both.  The next morning, once he discovers he’s been framed for a murder rap, Bradfield makes his way to the office of a skeevy lawyer (Robert Strange)—who advises his client to lay low while pretending to be dead (the cops are convinced the man who died in the car wreck was Johnnie).  The attorney makes a pilgrimage to a bank deposit box belonging to Bradfield where the boxer has stashed $10,000…and gives $250 to Johnnie.  (The remaining money that went south is his fee.  Lovely person.)  Johnnie is advised (and it’s $9,750 worth of advice, so you know it’s sound) to go West, young man, go West.

Bradfield arrives at an Arizona ranch run by cantankerous Grandma Rafferty (May Robson), who operates her spread as a rehabilitative facility for delinquent city yutes (The ‘Dead End’ Kids) with the help of Peggy (Gloria Dickson), the sister of one of the boys (Billy Halop).  Johnnie, now calling himself “Jack Dorney,” gets a job at Gran’ma’s layout and looks to be safe from the long arm of the law.  But back in New York, copper Phelan believes Johnnie is still alive and kicking (the dead man was wearing his watch on his left wrist, for starters)—and since he’s anxious to square his own reputation (he was demoted on the force after an innocent man he arrested went to the chair) he’s going to be as tenacious as a certain Stafford, Indiana lieutenant who doggedly pursued a doctor for the murder of his wife on a popular 60s TV program.

As a rule, when Busby Berkeley was working on a film (as the choreographer on vehicles like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, for example), his job was to manipulate dancers into forming geometric patterns that looked positively smashing when shot from overhead.  Busby gradually moved through the ranks to eventually sit in the director’s chair, helming such Warner musicals as Gold Diggers of 1935 and Hollywood Hotel (1937).  He asked the studio for an assignment directing a dramatic picture, and the result was They Made Me a Criminal (1939)—a remake of an earlier Warner’s release, The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933).

Criminal is a movie I have sat down with many times in the past (even before snatching up this bargain DVD—did I mention I got it for 79¢?), because since it’s slipped into the public domain, TV stations (and for that matter, home video companies/distributors) can show the movie as often as they want and not pony up a dime.  Naturally, the quality of Criminal depends on the print; the Roan DVD is certainly watchable but if you’re looking for something real sparkly you should wait until the movie turns up on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.

I’m fond of the movie for several reasons: there’s the presence of Julie, of course, in his second feature film after his breakout success in Four Daughters (1938).  He has a nice rapport with the mob known as The ‘Dead End’ Kids—Billy Halop (Tommy), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Leo Gorcey (Spit), Huntz Hall (Dippy), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), Bernard Punsly (Milt)—particularly in that memorable scene where Garfield and a few of the kids sneak a swim in a water tank and are placed in peril when a farmer drains the tank’s H2O to irrigate his fields.  You might get a grin out of the fact that it’s Hall’s character who engages in malapropisms (something that Gorcey became famous for in the later Bowery Boys movies), and in one scene he warbles off-key By a Waterfall—an amusing in-joke reference to Footlight Parade (1933; Busby was choreographer on this one, too).  By this point in their movie careers, the Kids had taken a bit of a plunge from their previous appearances in such A-pictures as Dead End (1937) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)—they’d soon start sharing the screen with Ronald Reagan (Hell’s Kitchen, Angels Wash Their Faces), ferchrissake.  (The following year, most of them ended up at Monogram…allowing them to really get their programmer on.)

Claude Rains is completely miscast as detective Phelan.  To the actor’s credit, he didn’t want to tackle the role but eventually acquiesced under threat of suspension by the studio.  However, I’ve never understood why Ann Sheridan was saddled with such an inconsequential part; the role of Goldie is so small that the smart money would have assigned that task to Gloria Dickson (who’s merely adequate as the love interest), freeing up Ann to play Peggy.  These casting missteps don’t completely sink the film, however, and there’s first-rate character support from May Robson, Barbara Pepper (her drunk girl goes by “Budgie”), Ward Bond, Louis Jean Heydt, and the rest of the usual suspects.

The second feature on the DVD (or the “co-hit,” to borrow the VCI Forgotten Film Noir vernacular) is Lady Gangster (1942)—a short-and-sweet programmer starring Faye Emerson as struggling actress Dot Burton, who has somehow managed to find herself in league with a gang headed up by Carey Wells (Roland Drew).  Wells and his mob knock over a bank with Dot’s help (she was a major distraction to the guard, played by Ken Christy—his voice gives him away every time!) and then leave her holding the bag with the district attorney (Herbert Rawlinson).  Dot attracts the attention of broadcaster Kenneth Phillips (Frank Wilcox), who advocates on her behalf initially to embarrass the D.A. (he’s running for re-election) but then discovers that Dot is an old friend.  Sadly, Ken demonstrates that friendship only counts for so much when Dot confesses her involvement in the holdup, and he rats her out…sending her to a penitentiary, where she makes enemies in two of her fellow inmates (Ruth Ford, Dorothy Adams).

Lady Gangster was scripted by Anthony Coldewey, who adapted the play Ladies They Talk About (by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles)—some of you out in YesteryearLand might recognize this title as a far superior Barbara Stanwyck film from 1933.  (Gangster was directed by Robert Florey under the nom de cinema “Florian Roberts.”)  I like a good “chicks-in-chains” programmer as much as the next guy, and when Gangster focuses on Dot’s ordeal in the slammah it’s very entertaining (with a nice performance by Julie Bishop as Faye’s jailed comrade).  On the outside, however…it’s weak as water; Wilcox and Emerson have no chemistry whatsoever and so it’s highly unlikely that their “romance” will be of any interest to the viewer.  Of interest in Gangster are a couple of familiar teevee faces: William “Good work, Paul” Hopper plays Wilcox’s assistant…and The Great One himself (billed fifth as “Jackie C. Gleason”) is Wilson, one of Roland Drew’s goons.  (Drew’s character dons female drag at one point in the film, to visit Faye in The Big House—so…there’s that.)  Gangster only runs 61 minutes, and is certainly worth a glance if you’ve nothing else planned for the better part of the day.

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