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Category Archives: Gangster Films

A Slight Case of Murder (1938) – Gangster Comedy

still-of-edward-g_-robinson,-jane-bryan,-ruth-donnelly,-harold-huber,-allen-jenkins-and-willard-parker-in-a-slight-case-of-murderEdward 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.

Laying the guns down - they are now legitimate salesmen

Laying the guns down – they are now legitimate salesmen

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.

Drinking his lousy beer - Edward Broph, Edward G. Robinson, Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber

Drinking his beer, or spitting it out – Edward Brophy, Edward G. Robinson, Allen Jenkins, Harold Huber

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.

Ruth Donnelly, Edward G. Robinson and Bobby Jordan

Ruth Donnelly, Edward G. Robinson and Bobby Jordan

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.

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2014 in Comedy, Gangster Films

 

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All Through the Night (1941) and Propaganda in American Films during WWII

1941 – Starring Humphrey Bogart, Conrad Veidt, Kaaren Verne, Peter Lorre – Directed by Vincent Sherman

Poster%20-%20All%20Through%20the%20Night_16[1]All Through The Night really has it all: gangsters, Nazi spies, romance, comedy, murder, kidnapping, a car chase, a fight in a lift, a nightclub song, cheesecake.

And it has the most marvelous cast crisscrossing in and out of Humphrey Bogart’s path as he detects his way through the film. The movie is actually sandwiched between his breakthrough role in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and his ever iconic role in Casablanca (1942), but this one is just plain fun.

Here, he is Gloves Donahue (his real name is Alfred, but he doesn’t like to spread that about) and he is a sports promoter (slightly on the shady side of things, though he does pay his taxes) who likes cheesecake. The man who makes his cheesecake is murdered, however, and his mother has a feeling that the girl who stopped by and wanted to speak with the baker knows something and when Gloves’ mother has a feeling then Gloves and all his men must get involved.

William demarest, Bogart, Peter Lorre

William Demarest, Bogart, Peter Lorre

Gloves manages to track down the woman who works at a nightclub of one of his rivals, where she sings. She seems nervous and her pianist, Pepi (Peter Lorre), is the same man who shot the baker and is noticeably keeping an eye on her. When the bouncer of the club goes back to tell her off for talking with Gloves, he is murdered by Pepi and everyone thinks Gloves did it. He goes on the run, trying to find the woman, who is the only person who can clear his name, and also is trying to unravel what’s going on. He takes William Demarest with him (being his usual cranky, grumbling self) and Frank McHugh, who just got married that night and just wants to go home to his bride.

I was very impressed: the title actually makes sense. The whole tale really happens “all through the night.” On his quest, he runs into Conrad Veidt (think Major Strasser from Casablanca), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, looking just as dangerous here) and figures out that there’s the most impressively organized fifth columnist Nazi spy ring in New York I’ve ever seen.

It’s actually a very fun movie, although the ending disintegrates into slight silliness and a few ‘we-need-to-wake-up-and-fight-the-Nazis” speeches, which – I’m all for fighting Nazis – is rather awkwardly inserted into the film. The film had such a delightful pace until it slowed down a little near the end.

Conrad Veidt, Kaaren Verne, Bogart

Conrad Veidt, Kaaren Verne, Bogart

As a result, the film ends up a little longer than it needs to be with moments like the one where there is a call to arms: gangsters of the country, unite and fight the Nazis! Even gangsters must do their part during the war.

There is one very funny moment near the end when Gloves and his sidekick, played by William Demarest, find themselves sitting in on a Nazi meeting where an act of sabotage is being planned and they are called upon to explain their part in the plan. They are reduced to fake German and some highly imaginative pseudo-science terms to bluff their way through, while the Nazis listening have to keep rising and saying “heil.”

Of course, if you think about it, the sabotage plan is not very bright. The movie was made before America entered the war, although it was released just afterwards, so any attack on America would have been a premature declaration of war, which doesn’t exactly make sense since you would think the last thing Hitler would want is to incite America to enter the war.

The movie was specifically made as a kind of comedic propaganda to awaken Americans to the dangers of the Nazis; the idea that the Nazis were a threat at home and not just in Europe, though the article on TCM’s site points out that as America entered the war, the less likely they were to make fun of Nazis and the more aware they were of the evil of Nazism.

Annex%20-%20Bogart,%20Humphrey%20(All%20Through%20the%20Night)_NRFPT_04_small[1]The film is still very funny and well worth watching and I’m surprised I had never heard of it before. I only saw it because it came in a Humphrey Bogart collection that I picked up at Costco (Costco has lovely deals on all sorts of classic films and classic film collections).

Notes: Three of the cast members actually did have to flee Nazi Germany: Conrad Veidt, because his wife was Jewish, Peter Lorre was also Jewish, and the female lead, Kaaren Verne. Kaaren Verne and Peter Lorre actually fell in love during the making of the film and would marry later, though they divorced 5 years later.

All Through the Night is yet another movie that the actor George Raft turned down, thus opening the way for Humphrey Bogart. George Raft was also offered the parts of Sam Spade and Rick in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. I’ve heard it said that George Raft single-handedly made Humphrey Bogart’s career.

Bogart’s mother is played by Jane Darwell, who I always think of as the Bird Lady from Mary Poppins and it was fun to see her in another role with no birds on her head.

 

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