Friday, July 28, 2017

Crime Does Not Pay #11: “Soak the Poor” (08/21/37)

This week’s entry in our Crime Does Not Pay series features two actors in the opening credits that would go on to bigger and better things in the motion picture bidness.  The first is Leslie Fenton, a British-born thespian who made an impression in silent pictures (Lazybones, The Road to Glory) before smoothly transitioning to the talkies and appearing in such features as The Public Enemy (1931), The Guilty Generation (1931), and Boys Town (1938).  Fenton later walked around to the other side of the camera and became a director, starting out with shorts (he even helmed a pair in the CDNP franchise) before graduating to feature flicks, notably Tomorrow, the World! (1944) and Pardon My Past (1945).  (If it happens to swing by The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ sometime in future, I highly recommend Tell No Tales [1939]—a great little B curio starring Melvyn Douglas…believe me, I am not a fan of Douglas in his “leading man” days but he’s positively first-rate in this one.)

The other familiar personage who gets a nod in the opening credits is Leon Ames, a hardy character actor whose was billed as Leon Waycoff early in his picture career (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Famous Ferguson Case) before he changed it to the more familiar handle and cemented his cinematic immortality with memorable turns in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Peyton Place (1957).  Ames would later channel William Powell in a boob tube version of Life with Father (1953-55) and Spencer Tracy in Father of the Bride (1961-62) before landing the role he was born to play: Wilbur Post’s (Alan Young) next-door neighbor (and former commanding officer) Gordon Kirkwood in Mister Ed (he replaced Larry Keating’s character when Keating died in 1963).  Ames continued to work even into the 1980s; he’s got a nice bit in Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), his cinematic swan song.

“But, Ian,” I hear you saying.  “What of our old friend, the MGM Crime Reporter?”  Well, Philip Trent must have called in sick that day because the Crime Reporter is played by an unidentified actor…who looks like he might also have a sideline in the funeral parlor game.  He introduces Leon Ames as “Mr. Stanton” (no first name), a “special investigator of the Crime Prevention Bureau.”  (Don’t tell me they didn’t make that up.)

STANTON: The federal government in our several states met the challenge of unemployment and hunger during the Depression years by creating the Home Relief Bureau…hundreds of millions were distributed during the first few months of direct home relief…

Hundreds of millions of what?  This sounds like that government cheese thing.  I also like how Stanton refers to “the Depression years”—according to my father, they lasted until 1962 (the year he got married).

STANTON: …twice a month, each needy family received a relief ticket…exchangeable at authorized neighborhood grocery stores for food…

A precursor to food stamps, in other words.

STANTON: Then without warning, something went wrong…

I’m guessing Blue Dog Democrats got elected to Congress?

STANTON: …relief became a national nightmare…

Nailed it!  Okay, I’m just jinkin’ ya.  Stanton is going to illustrate an unsettling example of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions, as we are whisked away to a humble grocery store (not the one owned by Herbert T. Gillis, sadly enough) to find its proprietor humming a happy tune.  Without warning, a pair of rough customers enter the store and send the grocer to the floor of his establishment courtesy of a sock in the jaw.

FIRST HOOD: This is the last time we’re gonna tell ya to get into line
SECOND HOOD: You know what happened to Belvin
FIRST HOOD: He didn’t want to do business with us either

Well, when you go around punching people in the jaw it’s bound to effect customer relations, Mr. Henchman.  I’d try the soft sell approach.  The second goon in this little morality play goes by “Mac” (I wish it could have been something more colorful, like “Monty the Gonif”) …but we recognize him as Ben Welden, a character great who played more hoodlums than you’ve had hot dinners.  (I think that scar across his left eye is a nice touch):

The scene shifts to yet another grocer getting a shakedown…and it’s none other than character veteran Byron Foulger!  My very good friend Cliff “Sugarball” Weimer, who carefully measures out the fountain soda machine syrup with utmost precision In the Balcony, once joked that he had probably seen more movies featuring Byron than Foulger’s immediate family…so I (un)officially made Mr. Foulger the mascot of ITB’s Facebook page.  An unidentified hood puts the squeeze on Grocer Foulger:

THIRD HOOD (counting pieces of paper): Sixty-four dollars’ worth of relief tickets…
GROCER FOULGER: You’re grabbing forty cents out of every dollar…how do you expect me to keep goin’?
THIRD HOOD: Quit beefin’…you’d have to wait sixty days down at relief headquarters for your dough…we give you cash on the line

So, what seems at first glance like unsavory criminal activity is just a concerted effort to cut through bureaucratic red tape.

GROCER FOULGER (after counting): Hey—this is thirty dollars’ short…even the way you figure…
THIRD HOOD: Last week you sneaked over to the relief office yourself with a flock of tickets…we’re taking our cut just the same…don’t try that again

I retract my earlier statement.  With all this lawlessness rampant in the welfare system, eventually there are going to be courageous men who say, “Enough is enough” …and they just decide to opt out of the program.  Such a man is played by Harry Hayden, and this time the (always reliable) IMDb gets the identification right.

GROCER HARRY: I’m all through—I’m washed up with this relief business…
FOURTH HOOD (grabbing the sign): Yeah?  This ain’t your business you’re throwin’ out…it’s ours…you know, accidents happen to guys who put up signs…well, come on, come on…let’s have what you got…

If the henchman that shakes down Harry the Grocer looks familiar…it’s because it’s an incredibly thin Horace McMahon, the character actor who later appeared on the right side of the law as “Lt. Mike Parker” on the TDOY television fave Naked City.  McMahon’s thug returns to Hoodlum Central, where he tells the second-in-command of the operation (identified as “Slim”) that Grocer Harry was all set to back out of the Relief deal until he was told it would be a shame if someone were to set fire to his store.

FIFTH HOOD: Nobody wants to handle tickets anymore!
FOURTH HOOD: We’re takin’ all the gravy!
DARLA HOOD: A lot of grocers are gonna fold up on you, Slim…
SLIM: You guys gettin’ soft?  Just get me the tickets, that’s all…

Slim takes up the tickets collected by his hard-working “staff” and takes them to the headquarters of the operation’s Big Boss, a charming snake named Nick Garvey (Fenton)—we’ll meet him in a second.  First order of business: Slim hands out stacks of tickets to a quartet of grocers who will, in turn, cash them in at the Relief Bureau for sweet, sweet moolah.  One of the merchants, a human-weasel hybrid named Schultz, is portrayed by a character stalwart named John Butler—who will appear in later entries in the Crime Does Not Pay series but I always remember him from appearances in several Robert Benchley shorts (How to Watch Football, Opening Day).

SCHULTZ: Say, Slim…
SLIM: Yeah?
SCHULTZ: I haven’t got much of a store…they’re gonna wonder at relief headquarters, turnin’ in this many…
SLIM: Why. Schultz—you’re the first guy I ever saw who didn’t like big dough

Suddenly, a terrible smell permeates the office…which can only mean Nick Garvey has entered.

GARVEY: You haven’t had any trouble up to now, have ya? 
SCHULTZ: No, I haven’t, Nick…but I…
GARVEY: Then forget it…your job is to take those tickets over to the relief office and bring back the dough…let me do the worrying—I’ll take care of you…

This is what is known in the two-reeler business as “foreshadowing.”  Meanwhile, Nick wants to see Slim in his personal office.

GARVEY: I understand you’re having trouble with some of your grocers…we gotta keep them from going out of business…
SLIM: Let ‘em try it…I’ll shake their ears off…
GARVEY: Now no rough stuff, Slim…we gotta give ‘em back their profits…

Um…I’m pretty sure this isn’t the way capitalism is supposed to work…

SLIM: Whaaaat?
GARVEY: Tell every grocer in town to raise his prices forty percent

(Wiping brow) Whew!  You had me worried for a sec…that’s how capitalism is supposed to work.

GARVEY: The people on relief are getting something for nothing…let them pay…

Nick Garvey, noted Republican economist, seems to have forgotten that everyone pays in this system.

I guess we should have expected those headlines.  What follows is a montage of grocers jacking up their prices to satisfy the parasites running this racket.  Ten pounds of potatoes: formerly 25 cents…now 35 cents.  Bread rises (no pun intended) from ten cents to twelve cents a loaf.  And milk—children’s milk, Mandrake!—sees a two-cent increase from eleven to thirteen cents!  Madness!  Superimposed over these rising prices are angry crowds of men, women, and chillun…who are all too aware that getting by on what they normally get on relief is a tragic set of circumstances at best.

As a small mob of relief holders loudly protest the rising costs of groceries, Hastings, a representative from the Home Relief Bureau attempts to address the situation:

HASTINGS: Please…please…we must have order here or we can’t do anything…remember…we’re here to help you…all of you… (Crowd mutters in anger) We’ve stretched our present budget to the limit…but we hope for increased appropriations any day…
FIRST MAN: Well, that’s what you said yesterday!

“Well, yesterday I was convinced Congress would do something…apparently I suffered some sort of head injury…”

SECOND MAN: If we had jobs, we wouldn’t be here!
FIRST WOMAN: Why don’t you go after the grocers!
SECOND WOMAN: I just can’t keep my family on four dollars a week…I can’t do it, I tell you…
HASTINGS: We’re doing everything that we can to get prices back to normal…
FIRST MAN: Well, when?
SECOND MAN: That’s what I say…when?
THIRD WOMAN: You’ve got to do something now!

“We plan to convene a committee this afternoon to address the matter…and a report with their findings should be out sometime in 1939…”  Helpless as only a government bureaucrat can be, Hastings has called in Our Man Stanton to examine the situation.

HASTINGS: It’s the same thing every day, Stanton…
STANTON: That’s one of the reasons I’m here…
HASTINGS: Oh…is that so?

“Well, that and to justify the taxpayers ponying up for my obscene salary…”  The state muckety-mucks have asked Stansy to consider why there are only four grocers getting compensation from all the relief tickets.  Hastings is convinced everything is on the up-and-up, but he asks Stanton if he wants to look at the cashier records.  As the two men head inside another office, Stanton stops…because he recognizes Schultz, who’s collecting his ill-gotten welfare gains.

STANTON: Is that one of the four grocers?

“No—I believe that’s one of the Four Freshmen.”  Schultz asks the clerk if any checks came through, and when he’s told “no” tells the man he’ll see him tomorrow.  Hastings assures Stanton that Schultz is one of the “four grocers” and the two of them walk over to the clerk’s area so Stanton can get a gander at the tickets Schultz turned in.  Stanton finds it peculiar that many of the tickets are from addresses that are not normally in the vicinity of the store, and his observations are heard by this nosy parker:

Stanton tells Hastings that he’s going to look into the peculiarity of people shopping from as far as ten miles away, and he signs a receipt for some of the tickets he’ll use in his investigation.  Nosy Parker offers to file the receipt…but what he’s really planning to do is phone Nick Garvey to let him know some flatfoot is sniffing around his operation.  He gives Nick the names of the relief customers, and in turn Nick issues orders for Slim to send his confederates out for damage control.  One of the people on the list goes by “Briggs,” and he’s played by another familiar face…

…it’s George Chandler, whom has a movie and TV resume as long as your arm—he’s “Chester” in the classic W.C. Fields comedy The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), and on television he played “Uncle Petrie” on Lassie (and “Ichabod” on the sitcom Ichabod and Me).  Briggs is a bit of a nervous Nellie when Stanton comes a-callin’…but that’s easily explained…

…some of the Garvey mob (shame on you, Ben!) are hovering over Briggs’ family ready to work over La Familia.  Another individual who’s reluctant to talk is Mrs. Clark, who tells Stansy that even though she and her husband “do without” it’s not enough to keep her sick daughter healthy—the child’s not getting enough to eat.  When Stanton asks about Schultz, Mrs. Clark becomes upset: “You’re the third man who’s been here today…Schultz…Schultz…Schultz!  That’s all I hear!  I’m sick of it!  I can’t stand anymore of it!  Get out!  Get out!

STANTON (on the telephone): Why, these people are scared stiff, Hastings…somebody’s been ahead of me browbeating them…there must be a leak in your office…
HASTINGS: What?  Anything I can do?
STANTON: No, I just wanted to warn you—hereafter, we’ll meet in Captain Burke’s office…we’ll get together after I’ve looked Schultz over…

“And in the meantime, I can put that new guy—Scaramucci—in charge of plugging the leaks.”  There’s a scene shift to Schultz’s grocery, where a clerk informs a “Mrs. Flynn” that she’s just twenty-eight cents over.

MRS. FLYNN: Oh, well…uh…couldn’t you take it out of our next week’s ticket?  It’s only three days off…
SCHULTZ (interjecting icily): We don’t give credit on relief tickets…
MRS. FLYNN: All right…take out the sugar… (The clerk starts removing items from the sack) And the butter…

“The milk…eggs…bread…vegetables…”  Schultz, spotting Stanton in the store, asks what he can do for him.

STANTON: I’m from relief headquarters…I’d like to see your tickets…
SCHULTZ: Oh—what for?
STANTON: We’re checking up on some families who are getting luxuries instead of necessities…

“You know, sugar…butter…milk…eggs…bread…vegetables…” Stanton looks over the tickets from the customers he visited, and everything appears to be in order—he bids the smug Schultz adieu, while Slim emerges from a nearby corner.  Schultz starts to file the tickets away but is stopped by Slim: “Hey, just a minute—those go back where they came from…”  The old-substitute-relief-ticket ploy (thanks, Nosy!) …and Stanton fell for it.

Stanton, Hastings, and other assorted underlings are having a meeting in Captain Burke’s (Davison Clark) office:

STANTON: Schultz was all primed…we’re dealing with fast workers, and they’re ruthless…

I wonder where Ruth is?  (Love the Firesign Theatre.)

STANTON: …to break this case by ordinary methods, it might take three months…but we haven’t got time—people are starving

You’ve also only five minutes left in this thing.  Stanton decides to go for broke: he hands out court orders to his deputies to serve on the four grocers—a little surprise audit!  “Bring me back a telephone number…a scrap of paper…or a name…anything!  Something that will give me a clue as to who’s behind this thing…”

Schultz is saying good night to his employees when one of Stanton’s men enters with the court order, asking to look at his books.  Schultz tells him “Help yourself,” but when he heads toward his safe to close the doors he’s told to leave everything open.  And then this happens:

DEPUTY: Just a minute—you can’t do that!
SCHULTZ: You’ve no authority to go through my private papers!  That’s my own personal box…I’ll be right back…

“I…forgot to program the DVR for that Michael Phelps/Shark thing.”  The deputy waits for a few moments, but Schultz does not return.  (Because he’s all ass and elbows, headed for the state line—that’s my guess.)  He phones Stanton at Burke’s office and gives him the lowdown about Schultz locking the box—“I’ll jimmy it if you say so.”  Stanton, in a rare display of adhering to the Fourth Amendment, tells his man he’ll need a witness…so he’s on his way.

At Nick’s headquarters, Garvey is reading Nosy Parker (his real name is “Joe,” for the curious) the riot act for not tipping them off about the court orders…and Parker emphatically tells his boss they didn’t come from the relief office.  Schultz bursts in, sweating in a way that would make Edmond O’Brien jealous:

SCHULTZ: They jumped my books—you gotta get me out of it!
SLIM: Well, keep your shirt on…
SCHULTZ: But you don’t understand—he’s got a court order!  He’ll go through everything!
GARVEY: Whaddya mean, everything?!!
SCHULTZ: He’ll go through my safe…
GARVEY: What’s the matter with your safe?!!
SCHULTZ: Well, I…that is…
GARVEY (grabbing him by the lapels): Come on!  Spill it!  What’s in that safe?!!

Schultz lets it be known that there’s a little book inside that safe…one that he kept the relief records in.  I know what you’re thinking right now—“That seems kind of stupid.”  (Not nearly as stupid as writing “The Real Relief Records” on the cover of the book, of course—he’s not a complete idiot.)  Schultz assures his “friends” that he’s locked it up and though Nick is telling him to make like a tree and get out of there, Slim beseeches his boss: “He’ll squawk!”

As Schultz backs up toward the evidence he plaintively screeches “You said you’d take care of me!  That’s what you said!  You’d take care of me!

“We’ll take care of you,” declares Garvey.  Say what you want about Nick and his associates—but they make good on their word.  As Schultz is ducking down alleys like someone trapped in a noir nightmare, he’s gunned down by the Garvey mob…though not before the studio gets in a plug for their current release of The Good Earth (1937) starring Paul Muni and Luise Rainer—based on the novel by fellow Mountaineer Pearl S. Buck!

On the poster behind him.

By this time, Stanton and his man have opened Schultz’s private box (well, in all fairness—it’s not like he’ll be needing it anytime soon) and have found the grocer’s book with the incriminating evidence (he even took the time to write Garvey’s name in it!).  As Stanton gets on the horn to contact Captain Burke and have him raid Nick’s headquarters, several members of the Garvey mob pull up outside the store and relieve the deputy of some ledgers and papers he’s carrying out.  What follows is a scene in which Stanton conceals the incriminating book inside a desk drawer as the hoods tear apart the store looking for it.  It’s pretty much all over but the shouting…but I did get a hearty chuckle at this blatant bit of product placement:

I'd like to buy the world a Coke...

...and use it as a deadly weapon!

Garvey grabs The Pause That Refreshes, breaks it across a store display and starts toward Stanton with it.  Stanton tells him the book is in the cash register to stall for time, but by that time the jernt is swarming with cops ready to escort Nick and his chums to The Grey Bar Hotel.

STANTON: Nick Garvey and his killers went to the electric chair…the grocers who hid their greed behind respectable storefronts received no mercy…and were sentenced to jail for terms long enough to realize that crime does not pay

Oh, puh-leeze.  They’re white collar criminals—I’m guessing they pleaded to a lesser charge and fines were involved.  Next time on the blog: Crime Does Not Pay rips the lid off phony charity rackets with Give Till It Hurts (1937)!  G’bye now!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

“Daughter of the night…what music she makes!”

Yes, this tired Dracula pun is about the only enjoyment I got out of watching Daughter of the Night (1920), an edited version of a German film entitled Der Tanz Auf Dem Vulcan/Der Fluch der Menschheit (a.k.a. Dance on the Volcano).  The joke referencing the 1931 horror classic is appropriate (though your mileage may vary) because Daughter is one of the earliest films featuring Glen or Glenda Bride of the Monster White Zombie star Bela Lugosi, who had a significant film career in that era though only a few of his features have survived.  Daughter and two other Lugosi silent were packaged in an Alpha Video bundle titled the Bela Lugosi Silent Collection, which I purchased from because a) I like Bela, and 2) I needed another item so I could get free shipping.

The other two films in the Collection will be reviewed on the blog in upcoming weeks…but Lord-a-mighty, I hope they’re better than this one; I’m not disappointed by too many silent films but I can attest that this is one that was painful to sit through.  I suspect this might have to do with the whittling down of the original source material; Der Tanz Auf Dem Vulcan was originally presented in two parts of five reels each while the American version was edited to six reels.  The humorous thing about this is that even with the shortened length I still struggled to stay awake during the darn thing; the box for the Alpha release says it’s 83 minutes (I clocked it more at fifty-three) so I guess I should be thankful for small favors.

Then again, if I had watched the German original my attention might have been a bit more rapt.  The brevity of Daughter of the Night makes it a tad difficult to follow the narrative but as near as I can discern it’s a tale set against the background of the Russian Revolution (the Bolsheviks vs. the Royalists), with a young female vocalist named Marie Dourouska (Lee Parry)—“the toast of the boulevards”—struggling to conceal a secret from her aristocratic beau, Andre Fleurot (Lugosi).  It seems that Marie and her confederate Ivan Michelov (Robert Scholz) are nationalists who are neither in league with the Bolshies nor the Royalists instead, they are pursuing a “third way” whereby they hope to bring democracy to their native country.  (Lots of luck, comrades.)  Fleurot is eventually briefed on Marie’s secret past, and that makes him only more determined to be her boyfriend…but there’s conflict when Andre’s former paramour, the Countess Kaminska (Violetta Napierska), enters the picture—she’s heading up the Royalists’ network of spies in Paris…and she’s a little ticked off at Fleurot for throwing her over.  (Hell hath no fury and all that rot.)

I’ve stated on the blog before that a first-rate print of a movie can make you enjoy it that much more.  The presentation of Daughter of the Night falls terribly short of any measurable mark of quality; the contrast is positively atrocious and gives the players a severe case of clown white-face, as if they all decided to launch into imitations of Harry Langdon.  I’d recommend this film only to Lugosi completists (it’s amusing to see him as a dashing leading man); the DVD also features a nine-minute clip from a July 27, 1953 telecast of You Asked for It that is also in dreadful quality.  Poor Bela.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Buried Treasures: Gun Moll (1938)

Harlem’s hottest night spot is The Cellar Cabaret, owned and operated by Gat Dalton (Laurence Criner).  (His mother was frightened by a gun when he was born, apparently.)  Dalton does all right with his nightclub business, but he really rakes in the big bucks with an enterprise known as the “Harlem Protective Association” …a fancy appellation for “shakedown racket.”  One of the small businessmen in Gat’s neighborhood—a greengrocer named Bowers (Arthur Ray)—is a little reluctant to pony up for Dalton’s “gold bond” insurance…and so his business winds up blowed up real good.  (Tragically, Mr. Bowers was inside his establishment when it was leveled by explosives.)

The cops quickly move in, and not only round up Dalton but the Cellar Cabaret’s resident chanteuse—Laura Jackson (Nina Mae McKinney), who gives Gat an alibi when she’s interrogated by Inspector Doyle (Edward Thompson).  It’s not because she’s carrying a torch for the racketeer, though—it’s because Laura is an undercover officer who’s working as a mole to get the goods on Gat and Company.  Laura convinces Doyle to cool his jets so that he can get a few more fish in the net—notably Lefty Wilson (Monte Hawley), an enterprising hood who’s been transferred to Gat’s from the West Coast so he can boost collections and make things right on the business side of the ledger.

Mantan Moreland in The Scarlet Clue (1945)
When I glanced at the list of upcoming releases from Alpha Video about a month ago, I was drawn to Gun Moll (1938—originally titled Gang Smashers) for two reasons.  One was seeing Mantan Moreland’s name in the cast.  I’m an unabashed Mantan fan—a comedic actor who was such a force in motion pictures that even when he was relegated to disconcerting African-American stereotypes of that era like valets, porters, etc. he always walked off with the movie.  I know my opinion isn’t shared by folks who dismiss Mantan, Willie Best, and Stepin Fetchit as embarrassments (there’s no getting around it—they really had to slog through some demeaning stuff) but I will argue that the immense talent present in these men and other performers shines through despite these handicaps.  Moreland’s probably best remembered for playing “Birmingham Brown”—the wisecracking chauffeur of Charlie Chan when the Chan series moved to Poverty Row king Monogram.  The Monogram Chans were a tremendous step down from the prestige (despite their B-picture status) they had previously enjoyed at 20th Century-Fox, but Moreland makes them all worthwhile…particularly if his old stage partner Ben Carter turns up in the feature (The Scarlet Clue [1945], Dark Alibi [1946]).

Mantan plays one of Dalton’s stooges—a dimwit named “Gloomy”—and while the material with which he had to work is painfully thin, he still managed to induce a few chuckles in your humble narrator (at one point in the film, he gets to shake a tail feather with a beautiful woman out on the dance floor).  In an early scene, Moreland’s Gloomy keeps misplacing his pencil (he’s forgot he’s tucked it behind his ear) and when Dalton threatens him because he hasn’t produced the instrument in record time per his request he cracks: “Pencil, you’ll be the death of me yet.”  Gloomy is an unusual acting turn for Mantan in the films of his that I’ve seen; the only thing I can compare it to is his performance as one of Rex Ingram’s demon henchmen in Cabin in the Sky (1943).

Nina Mae McKinney and Paul Robson in
Sanders of the River (1935)
The other talent in Moll that I wanted to see was Nina Mae McKinney…another outstanding performer who wasn’t quite as fortunate as Mantan where film assignments were concerned.  She made quite the impression as the femme fatale in the all-black MGM musical Hallelujah (1929)—the studio even signed her to a five-year contract—but Leo the Lion seemed reluctant to capitalize on her talents.  She’d do her best 1930s work in movies for other studios, notably Warners’ Safe in Hell (1931—my favorite McKinney performance) and a UK production that cast her alongside Paul Robeson, Sanders of the River (1935).  The backward attitudes of that era would continue to keep Nina from larger cinematic exposure—I was gobsmacked seeing her play a domestic in The Power of the Whistler, a 1945 film—and so McKinney had to go overseas to work as a stage star in cabarets (she would be dubbed “the black Garbo” in Europe) or work in “race movies” like Moll and The Devil’s Daughter (1939).

Nina Mae
The highlight of Gun Moll for me is an extended musical sequence at the Cellar Cabaret where singer Neva Peoples performs That’s What You Get in Harlem.  It’s Neva’s show all the way…but what prevents Peoples from stealing it completely is that Nina is off to the side, conducting the Phil Moore Orchestra…and looking as if she’s having the time of her life with a simple wave of the baton.  (Nina does a couple of numbers in Moll, too—but nothing on the order of a song like When It's Sleepy Time Down South, which she does magnificently in Hell.)  Peoples’ number is followed by an equally amazing tap dance by Bo Jinkins (billed as Bo-Jenkins).

Author John Grant writes about “race movies” on a post about Gun Moll at his Noirish blog: “Made between about 1910 and the early 1950s, these typically featured all-black casts and were shown to all-black audiences, and were produced outside the Hollywood system on budgets that made Poverty Row enterprises seem positively DeMillean.  Because of the cheapness, the production standards generally weren’t high and the acting could on occasion be amateurish; moreover, there was a reluctance to tackle genuine African American problems in the race movies, probably because most of the studios creating work in this genre were white-owned.  Despite all this, the movies often show great verve, and some of the acting is top-notch; here you can see many fine African–American actors in leading roles who could get nothing but bit parts, often racially demeaning caricatures, in Hollywood productions.”  Gun Moll is an excellent example of a film that has a lot to offer behind its B-picture origins; the Peoples number alone is worth the price of admission, and the acting throughout is superior to a lot of movies I’ve seen of its type.

Gun Moll was directed by Leo C. Popkin and produced by brother Harry M.—the two would later go on to independent features like the film noir classic D.O.A. (1950) and a film from my childhood that still leaves an impression, The Well (1951).  (The IMDb says this was produced the states’ rights company Million Dollar Productions—you may have seen their The Duke is Tops [1938] on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ with Lena Horne on occasion—but the Alpha Video print is credited to Toddy Pictures [which bills McKinney as “Nina May”—it looks a like a reissue print].)

Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: Playboy Laughs: The Comedy, Comedians, and Cartoons of Playboy

“Since the launch of Playboy magazine in 1953, two elements have been remarkably consistent: the first is the celebration of nubile, female flesh and the second is Playboy’s involvement in the music scene.  The Playboy experience was never just about sex but about lifestyle, and music—particularly the finest jazz, a personal passion of Hefner’s—has always been an essential component of that lifestyle.”  So states the biography of author Patty Farmer, acknowledged to be the expert on the entertainment side (performers, television, etc.) of the legendary magazine that introduced the phrase “I only read it for the articles” into the American lexicon.  Farmer chronicled “the rise, history, and cultural impact of the Playboy empire, including the magazine, clubs, music festivals, and television shows” in her book Playboy Swings—published in 2015 after the success of The Persian Room Presents (2013), a history of the Plaza Hotel’s famed nightclub.

Lenny Bruce
Patty’s follow-up to Swings—which will be released August 3—is Playboy Laughs, a book that concentrates on the comedic side of Hefner’s empire.  (You don’t need to be familiar with the earlier book to enjoy Laughs, because there are some stories repeated here.)  I should be honest—when I requested a review copy (many thanks to my Facebook compadre Jeff Abraham at Jonas PR, who slipped me the freebie) of this book I thought it was going to be a little out of my wheelhouse at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  I’m pleased to admit that I was stupendously wrong, for Farmer’s exhaustive history of the funny men who entertained appreciative audiences since the first Playboy Club opened in Chicago in February of 1960 is crammed with wonderful anecdotes about such comedy greats like Joe E. Lewis and Lenny Bruce, and first-hand accounts from stand-up practitioners as Professor Irwin Corey, Phyllis Diller, Tom Dreesen, Jackie Gayle, Shecky Greene, Dick Gregory, Joan Rivers, and Larry Storch.  Laughs is one of the best books I’ve read on stand-up since devouring my pal Kliph Nesteroff’s amazing The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy.

Milton Berle
Playboy Laughs is one of those books where you want to keep a notepad nearby while reading it so you can jot down anecdotes and relay them back to like-minded friends interested in the history of laughter.  One of the anecdotes that leapt out at me concerns “The Thief of Bad Gags” himself, Milton Berle—who had a bit of a reputation of being a putz where his contemporaries were concerned.  Comedian Lou Alexander relates that when he was just starting out in the business, “Uncle Miltie” took an interest in him and his act, telling him: “I’m going to come to your show once a week and I’m going to heckle you, but before the show I’ll go to your dressing room and tell you what I’m going to say.  This way you can think of things to say back to top me.”

That’s what this great man did for me.  He came in once a week and heckled me, and I’d have all the toppers—the comebacks—and I’d kill him.  He’d put on this act: “Look at this kid, he’s got me again.”  And after a while, maybe two months, it was all over town that there’s some schmucky kid killing Milton Berle at the Interlude.  I loved him.  I loved Berle.  We became very good friends. He was a great guy, a very kind, sweet man.

The Vagabonds
Another memorable passage from the book that has a tenuous connection to a recent post here at TDOY concerns the comedic vocal group known as The Vagabonds, who certainly made their presence known in the 1946 feature film People are Funny.  I’m not quite as enthusiastic as Farmer about the aggregation (she describes their People antics as “scene-stealing”—we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one) but she did provide me with some information with which I was not aware, in that the quartet were favorites on the nightclub circuit (they even owned and operated nightspots in Frisco and Miami) and made quite a few appearances on shows telecast during the medium’s Golden Age (The Colgate Comedy Hour, Ed Sullivan, etc.).  “With the Vagabonds, even tempo was funny,” she writes.  “Sometimes they’d go so fast they left the audience breathless; other times, they’d drag out a song at such a snail’s pace that listeners would sweat with suspense.  It was as if they were comic masters, always carefully calibrating their punch lines.  And of course, that is exactly what they were.”

Jack Cole's famous comic book creation
Farmer’s wonderful stories about the people and personalities that either started their careers at the Playboy Clubs or benefited from those venues after already establishing themselves comprises a goodly portion of Playboy Laughs…but there are also chapters dedicated to those artists who created the cartoons that dotted the pages of the magazine.  One of particular interest to me was a nice little history on Jack Cole—which I’ll need to set up here.  I knew of Cole because I owned a copy of Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes as a kid (coincidentally, Feiffer also contributed cartoons to the magazine and has some wonderful stories in Laughs) as a kid and knew Jack as the creator of Plastic Man.  My father, on the other hand, was more familiar with Cole’s post-Plastic Man career as—you guessed it—a prolific contributor to Playboy.  (I admit—my opinion of the old man gained a few points that day after finding out he used to read the mag.)  Other cartoonists discussed in the pages of Patty’s book include Doug Sneyd, Shel Silverstein, Dean Yeagle, Arnold Roth (whose work I knew from TV Guide—his stories about assisting Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder on Little Annie Fanny are priceless), and Al Jaffee (the legendary MAD artist was a contributor, too).

Hugh Hefner and author Patty Farmer
Farmer does a bit of a sidetracking with histories on Playboy artists like (Alberto) Vargas and Olivia (De Berardinis); a little beyond the scope of a book on both humor and cartoons, in my opinion…but it won’t detract from your enjoyment—and it’s always nice learning about something you didn’t previously know.  As someone who actually did read Playboy for the articles (I had a subscription while I was in college—born to be mild, baby) I enjoyed Patty’s concluding take on Hugh Hefner (an informative history on the man and his pajamas) because anyone who put as much time, money, and effort to restore the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films my mother loves to watch is aces in my book.  Classic movie fans might get a kick out of this observation of Hef in Playboy Laughs: “At ninety, he carries on the tradition he started decades ago of hosting weekly dinners followed by movies.  One night a week is set aside for a current film, another for a classic film noir, and sometimes a third is added for one of his favorite Chaplin movies.”  Gooble, gobble, one of us!