Once upon a time, I watched so many films per week that I did a regular “Round-up.” Life’s gotten busier and I mix it up when I have time, including films, books, and podcasts. Politics are constantly on my mind, and I haven’t given myself respite from it. However, with the sobering combination of a break from work and the death of a beloved pet, this past week all I have energy for is watching movies and listening to comedy podcasts. I’ve already written about my experience last week with Ace in the Hole, and now here are my thoughts about a few more: these are all non-noir films from the 1930s and 1940s that I chose for the presence of some noir stars as well as to see how I feel about the romance genre, both comic and melodramatic. All of these were new films to me.
Slightly Dangerous (1943)
This romantic comedy, starring Lana Turner and Robert Young, popped up on TCM, and I thought I’d give it a go. I’d never heard of it, and thought it a mighty odd romantic pairing. For noir fans, of course, Lana Turner is the blonde siren from The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). And Robert Young, an actor I consider incredibly drippy, earned some noirish street cred for his role in Crossfire (1947), where he is still dull, but gets to give a fantastic postwar speech:
My grandfather was killed just because he was an Irish Catholic. Hating is always the same, always senseless. One day it kills Irish Catholics, the next day Jews, the next day Protestants, the next day Quakers. It’s hard to stop. It can end up killing people who wear striped neckties.
Overall, I didn’t hate Slightly Dangerous, despite Young being soppy and dopey and Turner being naive and stupid and falling in love with soppy, dopey Young. It does have some of the elements of romantic comedy that I used to enjoy very much, including a happy ending, great sets and costumes, and colorful secondary characters. Slightly Dangerous lives up to much of what I loved with its love-conquers-even-criminal-idiocy denouement, the glorious house and night club sets, some beautiful gowns, and the presence of Walter Brennan (Nobody Lives Forever, Hangmen Also Die, the noirish Bad Day at Black Rock), Dame May Whitty, Eugene Pallette, and Ward Bond (Maltese Falcon, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, On Dangerous Ground), to name only some of the supporting cast. Highlights include Turner breaking out in tap dancing for no reason whatsoever and Turner’s gorgeous Hollywood body in some stunning gowns. I see some resemblance (homage?) in the film to 1937’s Nothing Sacred in the idea of the woman who lies to escape small town boredom by lying (more about Carole Lombard below). And the bumbling bedroom antics between knowing woman and clueless man hearken perhaps to Stanwyck and Fonda in The Lady Eve (1941). Then, there is the comeuppance before our lying lady can be forgiven and earn her domestic happily ever after (and wealth, in this case), not entirely unlike The Philadelphia Story (1940) or, again, Nothing Sacred. In short, historians of romantic comedy may find Slightly Dangerous an attempt to recover the “softer” edge of 1930s romantic comedies, and even a touch of their screwball mayhem, but without the gender equality of the often wise if fumbling heroines. Suffice it to say, in this film, Turner is no Stanwyck or Kate Hepburn and Young is no Fonda (or Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire).
The Little Giant (1933)
Much more pleasant was going back a decade to see young Edward G. Robinson strut his stuff as “beer baron” Bugs Ahearn, a New York tough guy who finds himself entirely out of his depth when he heads to California to live off of his bootlegging money once Prohibition ends. The film turns gangster action to comedy as “Little Caesar” becomes a “Little Giant,” floundering to get a grasp in high society and falling prey to a family of con artists. Helen Vinson (I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang and The Kennel Murder Case) is superbly icy as Polly Cass, the gold-digging blonde. Mary Astor is the kind and earnest Ruth Wayburn, a high-born lady whose father went broke when the Cass family and friends conned him out of his fortune. I’m not a fan of Astor in The Maltese Falcon, so this was a wonderful opportunity to see her in a role that seems to me to suit her talents well. She’s smart but not smoldering, kind but not gooey. Edward G. Robinson is adorably innocent in parts of the film, and I love the way Astor’s character saves him from himself. It’s a lovely reversal of gendered expectations, something the 1930s did so much better than the 1940s.
A Slight Case of Murder (1938)
I enjoyed The Little Giant far more than A Slight Case of Murder, which featured Edward G. Robinson as another former bootlegger, Remy Marco. It’s wild and wacky, but poorly paced and less than satisfying in the end. A list of who falls into the crisis of Marco dealing with forclosing bankers says much:
- Bobby Jordan (of the Dead End kids) as ne’er-do-well orphan “Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom”;
- four corpses left after a heist and a skulking, surviving murderer (who hides the heist dough under Douglas’s bed;
- brash, streetwise wife Nora Marco (Ruth Donnelly — diner owner Martha in Where the Sidewalk Ends);
- Margaret Hamilton in a rather thankless bit part;
- naive daughter Mary Marco (Jane Bryan, who stopped acting in 1940, but was featured in several crime and pre-noir films, including Each Dawn I Die), who just back from school in Paris;
- Mary’s high-class fiance Dick Whitewood) who’s just become a cop to make a living (Western star Willard Parker);
- Dick’s snooty parents, including a patriarch who is much abused for comic effect, played by Paul Harvey, later featured in Spellbound, Side Street, and High Sierra);
- and a bunch of Marco’s former hoods acting as butler, chauffeur, and other servants (including Allen Jenkins and Edward Brophy, from the Falcon films and other crime/pre-noir).
Ultimately, I enjoyed spotting noir stars more than the film itself. It’s a too-broad comedy that never really gels.
In Name Only (1939)
This pick has the weakest connection to my interest in noir. I was looking over actress Helen Vinson’s filmography after seeing her in The Little Giant as the gold-digger, and I was surprised to come across this melodrama starring Cary Grant as Alec Walker, (a lonely, upright husband of means but no job) and Carole Lombard as fashion designer and widowed mother Julie Eden. In Name Only also features Kay Francis as Maida Walker, the selfish, gold-digging wife who won’t let her husband go, even if it means his death. (Francis had faded from view after clashing with her studio over being stuck in melodramas for which she felt she was ill suited — and I agree!). In supporting roles are Charles Coburn as Grant’s characters’ father, Jonathan Hale (the Saint films and Hangmen Also Die) as the family doctor, and Alan Baxter (Strangers on a Train, Saboteur, The Set-up). Helen Vinson has a small, pivotal role here as Maida’s best friend, who also makes a pass at Alec and threatens blackmail.
To me, the film only makes good use of Grant and Lombard in its earliest scenes, where their chemistry is quite good. But the soapier the film gets, the worse everything is. Lombard is forced into over-the-top sobbing speeches and Grant gets little to do other than suffering from pneumonia — he may die without Julie’s love! Francis gets to have most of the fun, playing a vicious, lying wife who gets Alec’s parents on her side and is determined to make him miserable even though she admittedly married him without love. You can see signs that if given the chance, Francis would have made a fabulous femme fatale. The closest she got to noir, however, was B film Allotment Wives (1945), a forgettable tale of women who marry GIs for their pay and life insurance. Such a waste.