Gangster

Memo to MGM: Tread Loudly in Gangster-land

Chester Morris (left) watches for prison guards while ____ searches for smuggled guns.

Chester Morris (left) watches for prison guards while Joseph Calleia searches for smuggled guns.

Crime was big business in the 1930s.

Okay, crime is always big business but during the early 1930s, movie audiences couldn’t get enough of sneering criminals. Perhaps it was an emotional purging – it was the Depression after all.

Warner Bros. were the Kings of the Gangster Pictures, and they certainly knew how it was done. A good gangster picture is more than blasting guns and squealing tires. It’s tense and mean in character and plot.

It’s only natural that other studios would want to make gangster pictures. Even MGM dabbled in the genre – 1935′s Public Hero #1 being one example.

MGM was Hollywood’s premier studio, home of lavish musicals, Andy Hardy movies, and epics about southern belles in green curtain dresses. But gangsters?

Don’t get us wrong. It’s not that MGM shouldn’t – or couldn’t – make a good gangster picture. It’s just there were times that MGM couldn’t help itself from being so…MGM-ish.

Let’s look at Public Hero #1 to show you what we mean.

THE TITLE
The phrase “Public Enemy No. 1″ became popular in the 1930s. It was famously used in reference to Al Capone and John Dillinger, among others. In 1931, Warner Bros. released The Public Enemy, a film about an ambitious Chicago gangster. (The film was criticized for glamorizing crime.) In response, MGM released Public Hero #1 in 1935.

Memo to MGM: The title is almost a parody of itself; it makes us think we’re in for a Preston Sturges treat. A gangster picture must be soaked in Attitude, especially its title.

THE OPENING
Public Hero starts with promise. The main character (Chester Morris) in prison, and he’s always griping about something, e.g. “You ain’t got enough screws in this joint to keep my mouth shut!”

Good stuff, right? Watch as Morris starts a food fight in the prison cafeteria, befriends the kingpin of a vicious gang, and beaks off at the prison warden.

Memo to MGM: The prison warden is Lewis Stone? He’s too soft for this gig. Someone’s likely to plug him when he ain’t looking.

THE LOVE INTEREST
After escaping from prison, Morris meets Jean Arthur, who is funny and smart alec-y like she always is. The scenes of Arthur and Morris falling in love are charming and amusing; you start wishing the movie was about the romance instead.

Memo to MGM: If you’re in the middle of a gritty gangster picture, you can’t suddenly morph into a Capra-esque comedy. We feel like we’re watching two different movies and it’s distracting. Instead of getting a 2-for-1 deal, we feel like we’re watching two half movies.

Wait a minute. Are we in a Frank Capra movie? Image: sdkjf

“Hang on – how’d we end up in a Frank Capra picture?” Image: Tout le Cine

LIONEL BARRYMORE
Barrymore gets top billing, but he’s not in the film as much as he could be. He plays a doctor whose only clients are gang members. His character is almost always drunk, and Barrymore skillfully steers between comedy and pathos. In one telling scene, Barrymore muses about the gang. He tells Morris he’s saved 17 gang members; “all but three are alive.” He wonders about the point of it all.

We wonder if this is why he drinks.

Memo to MGM: Listen, you mugs. This is LIONEL BARRYMORE. Here’s your big chance to show us the not-so-obvious victims of gang warfare, and why we need so-called Public Heroes. Instead, the action sneaks past Barrymore so it can get back to shooting lousy coppers.

However.

Even though we’ve been a bit rough on this movie, we do recommend it. The story is interesting with unexpected twists, and the acting is superb. The most outstanding feature is the cinematography, with really unique and dynamic camerawork.

Memo to Self: If you want a gangster movie with MGM sentimentality, check out Public Enemy #1. For all its flaws, it’s worth it.

Public Hero #1: Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Chester Morris. Directed by J. Walter Ruben. Written by Wells Root. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935, B&W, 91 mins.

This post is part of the MGM BLOGATHON hosted by the lovely & talented Silver Scenes. Click HERE to see the other posts.

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The Dual Edward Fan Club

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Edward G. Robinson squares off against Edward G. Robinson. Image: thatguywiththeglasses.com

Let us be clear about one thing: We adore Edward G. Robinson, and we cannot abide anything negative said about him.

One reason for our adoration is his performance in the 1935 comedy, The Whole Town’s Talking, where Edward plays two characters: (1) a ruthless gangster who has just escaped from prison; and (2) a submissive office clerk who lives with a canary and a cat. Dual Edward is utterly convincing in both roles.

The plot: A subservient office clerk is arrested by police when he is mistaken for Public Enemy No. 1. Poor Office Edward has a time of it at the police station, trying to convince police he’s not the man they’re looking for. Happily, Office Edward’s supervisor arrives at the station and makes a positive ID.

Unhappily, though, Office Edward becomes a minor celebrity due to his striking resemblance to Gangster Edward. He is given a special “Police Passport” so he won’t be arrested again.

Of course, when Gangster Edward realizes he has a twin – with police protection! – he decides to move into Office Edward’s apartment. Here he can come and go unnoticed with the use of the Police Passport. He’s really living the life now; he sleeps by day and robs banks at night.

Things do not look hopeful for Office Edward, as he is bullied and browbeaten by his unwelcome roommate. However, Office Edward has a powerful ally – his lippy, couldn’t-care-less co-worker (Jean Arthur).

Jean Arthur is delightful in this film, as she always is, but we don’t want her interfering with our Dual Edward gush-a-thon.

As the docile clerk, Office Edward tugs at your heart. He works an adding machine with precise, deliberate motions; he is careful not to intrude in others’ personal space; he speaks hesitantly, with a slight stutter. He is orderly, self-effacing and completely endearing. When police arrest, then release him, he apologizes for causing them “all this trouble”.

But as the malicious criminal, Gangster Edward scares us. When a tipsy Office Edward comes home one evening, he is startled by Gangster Edward, who has broken into his apartment to wait for him. Office Edward stops abruptly, and we do too. Here is the gangster we’ve heard so much about, fresh from prison, seated – almost coiled – in a chair, with a look of I’ll-kill-whoever-I-gotta determination on his face, his eyes practically glinting like sharpened steel. It almost makes your blood run cold.

So convincing is Dual Edward in these roles that you’re persuaded you’re watching twins and not one man. We’re able to enjoy both Office and Gangster Edward at the same time thanks to split screen, a technique developed in the silent era.

The Whole Town’s Talking reminds us why Edward G. Robinson was so famous. Not only was he a superb actor, he knew how important it was to give an audience their money’s worth.

If you haven’t yet seen this film, we plead with you to watch it immediately. You’ll become a lifelong member of the Dual Edward Fan Club.

The Whole Town’s Talking: starring Edward G. Robinson (x2), Jean Arthur, Arthur Hohl. Directed by John Ford. Written by Jo Swerling & Robert Riskin. Columbia Pictures Corp., B&W, 1935, 95 mins.

This post is part of the Dueling Divas Blogathon hosted by the lovely & talented Backlots. Click here to see the other contributions to this event.

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Humphrey Bogart’s Oscar Snub

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. It runs Feb. 1 – Mar. 3, in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar.

A grumpy Humphrey Bogart don't like no back talk.

Humphrey Bogart don’t like no back talk.

If you came to our house to watch The Petrified Forest, these would be the rules:

  • No talking.
  • No eating of crunchy foods.
  • No requests to interrupt the movie to check sports scores on another channel.
  • Above all, no comments about the lack of Academy Award nominations.

You heard us. No Oscar nominations and certainly none for Best Supporting Actor.

Why are we going on about this? Because The Petrified Forest is our favourite Humphrey Bogart performance, and we’re using this Oscar season to take a stand – darnit – seventy-seven years after the fact.

Bogart plays (surprise!) a gangster in this film, a character that was loosely based on real-life gangster, John Dillinger. Bogart apparently studied Dillinger’s movements and speech patterns and incorporated them into his brilliant interpretation of a desperate outlaw.

The film takes place in a roadside gas station/cafe near Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park; a place described as “a miserable little service station on the outskirts of nowhere.” A winsome Bette Davis is Gabrielle Maple, the daughter of the proprietor. She dreams of a life filled with poetry and beauty and resents being a roadside hamburger waitress, stuck in an actual and metaphorical desert. Enter Leslie Howard, a drifter with the soul of a poet who stumbles upon the cafe and steals Davis’ heart.

The film’s philosophical themes of destiny, love and unfulfilled dreams are brought into sharp focus when a notorious gangster, Duke Mantee (Bogart), bursts into the cafe with heavily-armed men. The gang takes the cafe hostage as they hide from police and wait for confirmation of a rendezvous point.

Bogart is chilling as Duke Mantee. You believe it would be less trouble for him to kill you than to look at you. His speech is rough but he is calculating; he realizes what you’re capable of before you do yourself.

And yet, Bogart’s character has a soft spot for one of the hostages, Davis’ crusty Gramp (Charley Grapewin), whom Bogart has nicknamed “Pop”. In one scene,  Howard makes a distasteful suggestion to the aged Grapewin. The comment pushes Bogart to his feet and he snaps, “Whaddya mean, talking to an old man like that?” The gangster, who has threatened to kill everyone, is now protecting an old man’s dignity.

In another scene, Bogart refuses to allow Grapewin a drink because Davis has forbidden it. When a character is pouring whiskey, Grapewin holds out his glass. Bogart responds, almost begrudgingly, “Don’t give it to him. The girl says he oughtn’t to have it.” The way Bogart says it, you can tell he’s disgusted that he has shown public affection for the old man, but he can’t help it.

Later, when Bogart learns of a betrayal, you can feel his shock and pain upon hearing the news and, despite yourself, you feel an unexpected surge of sympathy towards him.

Leslie Howard told Warner Bros. that he would not appear in The Petrified Forest if they cast someone other than Bogart in the role of Duke Mantee. (The two had appeared together in the Broadway version.) Luckily for us, Howard made a shrewd decision – and we are left with one of the finest performances in classic film.

Academy Award Nominations (1936):

  • None
  • Not that we’re bitter about this

The Petrified Forest – starring Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Archie L. Mayo. Written by Charles Kenyon and Delmer Daves. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1936, B&W, 83 mins.

A mega blogathon celebrating film honoured by the Academy.

White Heat (1949)

Don't you dare talk about my Ma

James Cagney shows Edmond O'Brien who's boss.

“I made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

This is the tragedy of the legendary movie line: it looms larger than its context. When you hear the line delivered in the original movie, you can’t help but snicker because you’ve seen it parodied a million times. And therein, they say, lies the tragedy.

The “Top of the world, Ma” line is from White Heat, a must-see piece of film noir about a mentally-ill gangster (James Cagney) who breaks out of prison to hold up an oil refinery. It is a tense, cruel story of betrayal.

Cagney plays Cody Jarrett, a gangster who is… um… weirdly devoted to his mother (Margaret Wycherly). Ma is the one who taught Cody about being on the top of the world. She is his world: she massages his crippling headaches; she keeps his gang in line while Cody is in prison; and, most importantly, she has never betrayed him.

Because this is a movie about betrayal, there are two inevitable train wrecks on the horizon. The first is Ma’s death. Cagney is gut-wrenchingly brilliant as the fragile Cody, reacting to the sad news about his beloved mother.

The second wreck is courtesy of Vic Pardo (Edmond O’Brien), an undercover police officer who infiltrates Cody’s gang. Pardo becomes a kind of substitute for Ma in Cody’s twisted world – he massages Cody’s headaches and warns him of danger. Unfortunately, Pardo’s cover is blown at the worst moment, with explosive consequences.

Let us not forget Virginia Mayo, who is supberb as Cody’s opportunistic wife. She is glamorous and mean, and capable of utter treachery.

(On an irrelevant side note, watch for the mobile phones the police use during the scene at the oil refinery. Those things are the size of a car bumper!)

If you’ve ever wondered why all the fuss about James Cagney, or why Raoul Walsh is considered one of the great directors, watch White Heat. Even if you’ve never wondered, watch it anyway! We consider it to be one of the best movies ever made.

Starring James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly. Written by Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts. Directed by Raoul Walsh. Warner Brothers, 1949, 115 mins.

The Little Giant (1933)

This guy's worth MILLIONS

Helen Vinson calculates Edward G. Robinson's net worth.

We love how Edward G. Robinson says the word “coppers”. He spits it out, with contempt, like a swear word.

Now, you should know that we simply adore Edward G. Robinson and we won’t hear a negative word against him. We think he’s the greatest thing since gourmet chocolate sauce.

In the The Little Giant, Robinson is J. Francis “Bugs” Ahearn, a Chicago bootlegger who quits the crime racket when Prohibition is repealed. Now that everyone can drink legally, what’s left for crime boss to do but cash in his millions and join high society?

This is Bugs’ Big Plan: He moves across the country to Santa Barbara – a land of “high-class dames” and no connections to his Chicago past – and rents a mansion with 14 bathrooms. (Fourteen!)

Alas, no sooner does Bugs move into this commodious home than he is glommed onto by a family of gold diggers. Sometimes it just don’t pay to go straight.

Bugs is an endearing character with zillions of great lines. When a Chicago acquaintance tells him he wouldn’t fit into high society, he replies testily, “Oh yeah? I’m just crawlin’ with culture.”

Oh dear! We’re running out of time and we haven’t even told you how delightfully despicable the glamourous Helen Vinson is, nor our amazement at how normal Mary Astor’s hair is. (We are always distracted by Astor’s quixotic hairdo in later movies.)

There is so much fun in this movie it’s hard to tell you everything. And you shouldn’t know everything, anyway, because you’ll want to see it for yourself.

Starring Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor, Helen Vinson. Written by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner. Directed by Roy del Ruth. First National Pictures, 1933, 75 mins.