Friday, November 18, 2016

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Mr. District Attorney (1947)

After Craig Warren (Adolphe Menjou) witnesses young attorney Steve Bennett (Dennis O’Keefe) emphatically tell fellow lawyer Longfield (Charles Trowbridge) he’ll not help defend Longfield’s crooked client, Warren offers Bennett a job in his office: Craig is district attorney, and he likes the cut of Steve’s jib.  But Steve will soon discover his new boss is a severe taskmaster, and what’s more—Warren strongly objects to Bennett’s romantic relationship with Marcia Manning (Marguerite Chapman).  The D.A. is convinced that his assistant inadvertently tipped off Marcia to the presence of a surprise witness in a case involving the company where she works as personal secretary to crime boss James Randolph (George Coulouris).  That witness, who could have provided testimony resulting in Randolph’s extended stay in the Grey Bar Hotel, has vanished into thin air…so the D.A.’s office has to settle for a lesser charge.

Warren’s suspicions about Marcia are further confirmed when he has his chief investigator Harrington (Michael O’Shea) do a little digging into her past.  You see, Marcia had complained earlier to the D.A.’s office when a picture of her appeared in the local paper identifying her as the victim of an escaped convict who shot and killed a woman in her apartment.  Obviously, it’s a case of mistaken identity…but Harrington’s investigation reveals that the reason Marcia’s mug turned up in the police files was due to an incident in Kansas City: she was accused of the murder of a man who died in a car accident, and was later acquitted of the crime.  Warren uses this information to discourage Marcia’s interest in his protégé (they are planning on getting married), and when Manning chooses to become Mrs. James Randolph Steve quits his job with the D.A.’s office in disgust.  Though he might think he’s out, Bennett is eventually pulled back in when Warren suspects Randolph is behind a scheme to lower property values with a series of traffic tie-ups—then purchase that same land at fire sale prices.

Len Doyle (Harrington) and Jay Jostyn (Mr. District Attorney)
The legendary Phillips H. Lord was the brains behind such popular radio properties as Sunday Evenings at Seth Parker’s and Gang Busters, and he added yet another hit to his production stable when Mr. District Attorney (created by former law student Edward A. Byron) premiered over the Red Network of NBC on April 3, 1939.  Inspired by real-life racket buster Thomas E. Dewey (later Governor of New York and the GOP nominee for the Presidency in 1944 and 1948), Mr. District Attorney was broadcast as a quarter-hour serial in its first few months, but it eventually expanded to a half-hour and enjoyed a lengthy run over NBC (1940-51) andNBC (1940- a lengthy run over NBC Blue (1939-40)entually expanded to a half-hour  as Seth Parker and Gang Busters, and he added NBC Blue/ABC (1939-40; 1951-52).  There was also a syndicated radio version of Mr. District Attorney (from Ziv) that aired from 1952-53.  Dwight Weist was the first actor to play Mr. D.A., then later Inner Sanctum host Raymond Edward Johnson…but it was Jay Jostyn who emoted the longest as the famous crimefighter (1940-52), even playing the role when the series appeared briefly on the small screen from 1951-52 (alternating with a boob tube version of another radio crime show, The Amazing Mr. Malone).  David Brian took over for the syndicated radio version—the character even got a first and last name by that time, Paul Garrett—and reprised the part for a brief syndicated TV version in 1954.

The 1947 Mr. District Attorney was not the first attempt to bring the popular radio series to the big screen.  Republic Pictures instituted a franchise in 1941 with Mr. District Attorney (which will be reviewed in this space sometime in future), following it up with Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (1941) and Secrets of the Underground (1943).  Columbia gave the aborted franchise one last chance with their 1947 release, and what distinguishes this one from the previous Republic vehicles is that the radio show’s supporting characters, Len Harrington and Miss (Edith) Miller, have been added to the mix.  (Harrington, played throughout most of the radio run by Len Doyle, is represented here [and rather amusingly] by Michael O’Shea; Miss Miller—portrayed on radio by Vicki Vola—is played in the 1947 film by TDOY fave Jeff Donnell…though sadly, she gets very little to do.)

In From Radio to the Big Screen, my Facebook compadre Hal Erickson has high praise for Adolphe Menjou, who plays the titular law official in the film, remarking that Adolphe is “seen to excellent advantage.”  I’m not as sold on Menjou as Hal, though I’ll confess that a lot of it has to do with my difficulty accepting the actor in a heroic turn (A.M. had no peer when it came to playing detestable wankers in movies like State of the Union [1948], The Tall Target [1951], and Paths of Glory [1957]).  Menjou’s D.A. isn’t quite as likable as his radio counterpart; he’s abrasive and a little on the brusque side…though I’d certainly accept the argument that a man in his position would have to be.  But Hal also notes that “this is the first picture in which the title character resumes pride of place and takes center stage, rather than being shunted to the background.”  I’ve not seen any of the previous attempts to make Mr. District Attorney a big screen success, but it seems to me that the 1947 picture is more interested in Dennis O’Keefe’s character…and I’m not interested in watching a Mr. Assistant District Attorney movie.

Still, it seems fitting to have O’Keefe on hand because he was also in the first Mr. District Attorney in 1941 (his character’s name is “P. Cadwallader Jones,” which sounds like the movie doesn’t take things too seriously), and while I can’t count myself a fan of his work he’s not too bad in this one.  I seem to have more of a tolerance for Dennis in noir films (T-Men, Raw Deal) and despite VCI/Kit Parker Films’ tagging a lot of the movies in their Forgotten Noir DVDs as entries of that film style, Mr. District Attorney comes as close as some of those I’ve watched—particularly with the participation of noir icons like George Coulouris and Steven Geray (as Berotti, a mobster in cahoots with Coulouris’ Randolph).  Marguerite Chapman makes a damn good femme fatale as the scheming Marcia Manning-Randolph (with a doozy of a demise, I might add) …even though I think the romance between her character and O’Keefe’s could have been trimmed in a few places (Mr. District Attorney runs 81 minutes—a little lengthy for a programmer).

With Columbia films, you always get a giggle out of seeing actors you recognize from Three Stooges two-reelers: Gene Roth has a quick bit as a doorman and Gino Corrado a silent cameo as—here’s a wonder—a nightclub waiter.  Ralph Morgan is also on hand as an associate of Coulouris’ who meets a horrible fate, and you’re sure to spot character faves like Cliff Clark (gloriosky—he’s a cop in this one!), Ralf Harolde, Holmes Herbert, Forbes Murray, Frank Reicher, Cy Schindell, Arthur Space, Emmett Vogan, and Frank Wilcox.  The direction by Robert B. Sinclair is competent enough, and the script (from Ian McLellan Hunter, Ben Markson, and Sidney Marshall) is solid (again, this one could have used a little additional editing to tighten it up).  I seem to have a higher opinion of the finished product than Leonard Maltin (he gives it one-and-a-half stars) because I don’t think the movie is all that terrible; the VCI disc also features an interview with Joan Lord Greenlaw (one of Phillips H.’s daughters), conducted by friend of the blog Richard M. Roberts.

1 comment:

rnigma said...

Since you're associated with Radio Spirits, you may have heard Greg Bell on SiriusXM's Radio Classics channel - he did an interview with Wink Martindale, who confessed that "Mr. District Attorney" was his favorite radio show as a kid, even proceeded to hum the theme and recite the opening narration. Wink told of when he worked as a DJ in Los Angeles years later, he learned that Jay Jostyn was seen around that particular neighborhood, and arranged to meet him.