Friday, February 17, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Mr. District Attorney (1941)

P(rince) Cadwallader Jones (Dennis O’Keefe), newly-minted Harvard Law graduate (summa cum laude!), is given an opportunity (thanks to some political pull from an uncle) for a job in District Attorney Thomas Winton’s (Stanley Ridges) office.  For an Ivy League graduate, Jones doesn’t seem too bright; in handling his first assignment in court, he inadvertently allows a mobster (Ben Welden) to go free by arguing a point of law that forces the judge (George Watts) to declare a mistrial.  This little clusterfudge hits the front page of the paper where ace reporter Terry Parker (Florence Rice) works—the same periodical that hopes to back Winton in a tough reelection race against criminal attorney (emphasis on criminal) Arthur Barret (Minor Watson).

As punishment for being such a doofus, Jones is given a busywork assignment: a closed case (complete with a mountain of paperwork) involving a crooked politico named Paul Hyde (Peter Lorre), who made off with a tidy sum “liberated” from a public fund several years earlier.  Hyde has disappeared and is presumed dead…but when four fifty-dollar bills from that fund turn up at a local racetrack there’s no question that Mr. Hyde is back in circulation; Winton, however, takes the case away from screw-up Jones and hands it off to a more experienced litigator.  Jonesy and Terry team up to investigate the case, which leads them to murder, money, and mayhem before the final fadeout.

Back in November of last year, one of the entries on the blog’s Forgotten Noir Fridays was Mr. District Attorney (1947), a B-picture inspired by the popular radio show of the same name (from 1939 to 1953).  The 1947 version of Attorney was actually the fourth time the movies tried to start a film franchise based on the radio program; this week’s Forgotten Noir entry is the first go-round for Mr. District Attorney, released by Republic in 1941.  The 1941 film was originally going to be just a run-of-the-mill programmer cranked out by the Republic folks, but studio head Herbert J. Yates liked what he watched in the rushes and decided to appropriate a little more fundage to make the picture a “special.” 

In From Radio to the Big Screen, Facebook chum Hal Erickson notes: “To that end, [Yates] hired playwright F. Hugh Herbert (Kiss and Tell, The Moon Is Blue) to contribute additional dialogue, which may explain why the witty badinage between O’Keefe and Rice is the best thing in the picture.”  Mr. District Attorney is a tol’able little feature, but I disagree with Hal about the screwball comedy aspect involving O’Keefe and Rice; I found their relationship forced, and really—if I wanted to watch an attorney and his romantical escapades I’d put on a rerun of Bachelor Father.  I do agree wholeheartedly with Hal when he compares the comedic shenanigans in Attorney to the treatment detective Ellery Queen was receiving at Columbia at that time (with Ralph Bellamy playing the great sleuth for laughs)—neither approach served those gumshoes well.

I will say this in Mr. District Attorney’s favor: as the movie heads toward the end of its 69-minute running time it puts a nice spin on the plot (unfortunately resolved with a comedic car chase involving the principals).  The supporting cast is also first-rate: Grady Sutton is uncredited as a haberdashery salesman who appears at the beginning and end of the movie (he’s in on the lighthearted wrap-up), and I also spotted TDOY faves like Vince “Elmo” Barnett, Billy Benedict, Tommy Cook, Dick Elliott, Fred Kelsey, and Dave Willock (he has no dialogue, but he’s easily recognized as a photographer seated beside Rice in a courtroom scene).  I thought Peter Lorre was a little subdued in his role of villain—otherwise the rest of the veterans turn in solid work.

Republic followed Mr. District Attorney with Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (1941), described by Hal as “a notch better than its predecessor,” and a third entry in the franchise, Secrets of the Underground, was released in 1943—with D.A. “Winton” from the first two films shunted off to a bit role (and played by Pierre Watkin).  If you mosey over to The Sprocket Vault, you’ll find the 1941 movie and previous Forgotten Noir discs back in print—Richard M. Roberts will probably have more info on this but it looks as if Kit Parker Films has decided to release these little gems on their Vault label (which would explain their gradual fade-out from the VCI website).  While I didn’t care for the heavy comedy in Mr. District Attorney (Kit Parker calls it on their website a “whimsical filmization”), overall I found the picture to be a pleasant if unremarkable viewing experience.  (The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther had a dissenting opinion, calling it “the worst bad picture of the year.”  That had to have left a mark.)

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