Edward G. Robinson is best remembered for his gangster roles, his most famous being Little Caesar (1931) and Key Largo (1948) and there were quite a few gangster roles in between. However, when I actually came to look at his filmography, there weren’t as many as I expected, though there were quite a few variations on the gangster-style story: as G-man, cop, doctor, good guy, bad guy. One variation was the spoof of his gangster image and he made four of them: The Little Giant (1933), The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), A Slight Case of Murder (1938), and Larceny, Inc. (1942).
A Slight Case of Murder begins with the end of prohibition. Robinson is Remy Marco, the bootlegger who is going “legitimate” now that it is legal to sell alcohol. He has all his guys lay down their guns and he tells them that they are now salesmen. And he’s going to call his beer “Gold Velvet Beer: it’s the tops.”
Unfortunately, his beer tastes like assorted chemicals. Not that this was a problem during prohibition; people took whatever beer the mobs gave them. Now, however, with capitalistic forces at work, his beer is losing out and his company is about to sink. Everybody knows his beer is bad; even his men know it’s bad, but no one ever told Remy because he doesn’t drink beer and they didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
So, he’s about to go broke. He sends for his daughter to come back from her school in Paris and it turns out that she’s engaged to a cop, which appalls Remy and his wife, Nora (Ruth Donnelly). He and his wife, his daughter, three of his henchmen and an orphan that he has staying with him for the month, all go up to his vacation home. It is the last night before the bank is going to foreclose on him and he is also going to have a big party, meet the fiancé and the fiancé’s hypochondriacal and upper-class father and deal with assorted bodies of murdered gangsters and a bag full of money that is floating around the house. It’s all delightful mayhem.
The movie is based on a play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay. Runyon was a reporter, but also is known for his stories about gangsters and other low-lifers, all with a very light and comedic touch. He is most famous are his Broadway Stories, which the musical “Guys and Dolls” is based on. I can tell that A Slight Case of Murder is based on a play. The action happens almost exclusively in his vacation home, with a delightful cast of characters entering and exiting, up to no good, sneaking around, partying, trying to find some peace and quiet.
One of the things I love about many Warner Bros. movies from the 1930s and early ’40s is their wonderful and colorful cast of supporting character actors. Remy’s henchmen are played by Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber, and Edward Brophy – actors I’ve seen in many genres, but mostly in gangster movies. His wife is played by Ruth Donnelly, another fine character actor, who decides that when Remy goes legitimate, she will go posh. She affects the most incredible fake, “upper class” accent, only to revert back to slang whenever she has an aside comment to make.
Even Margaret Hamilton makes an appearance – immortalized forever as the Wicked Witch of the West. Here, she is the head of the orphanage where Remy grew up. He comes back every year to speak to the kids about success and to choose an orphan to spend a month with him. It is very evident that she is as pleased as punch at her most successful alumni, evidently not considering the legalities of his success.
The orphan that Remy chooses is Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom, a real delinquent and a half: mouthy, likes beer, wants to shoot pool or craps, and Allen Jenkins is always chasing him around the kitchen and having to put him to bed. He is played by Bobby Jordan, a member of the Dead End Kids, who were a group of kids in a play called “Dead End” and who later appeared in many movies, such as Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) as juvenile delinquents who take care of themselves in the street.
The ending is sheer hysteria, with Paul Harvey as the fiancé’s father thinking he has come to a mad house with all of Remy’s friends partying up a storm. Remy’s henchmen find several bodies in the house (gangsters who were going to kill Remy, but were murdered by another gangster who wants all the money they stole from a bookie) and dump them in various locations around the city, only to discover that there’s a reward for their capture and so they rush out and bring the bodies back, right during Remy’s party. Remy is trying to find a way to keep the bank from foreclosing and his wife and daughter are trying to reconcile him to having a cop in the family.
One really great way to enjoy this movie is to do a double feature with Robinson’s defining role in the 1931 Little Caesar, followed by A Slight Case of Murder. Neither movie is very long and you could watch both in less time than it would take to watch all of The Hobbit.