Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Movies I’ve stared at recently on from TCM #74 (John Litel Edition)


It’s back by popular demand!  (Spoiler alert: it’s not really…it’s not even that popular, to be honest.)  The last one of these I did was back in November of 2015, and since I have been availing myself of some of the splendid B-movie fare from The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ of late (if you work it right, you can fit two second features on one disc), I figured why not apply some paddles to this long-dormant Thrilling Days of Yesteryear feature.  (I have also taken the liberty of cleverly changing its title; I have become terribly spoiled with our DISH Hopper—it allows me to transcribe a lot of TCM’s movies to play back at a more convenient time—so it's more accurate to say “from the DVR.”)

I have kind of a running joke here on the blog (I use “joke” in the loosest sense, since I may be the only person who chuckles at it) where I occasionally comment on whether or not character veteran John Litel is playing a lawyer in a movie.  I realize Litel demonstrated much versatility in his cinematic endeavors (as well as scads of TV appearances) than I give him credit for…but there’s no getting around the fact that he seemed to be the go-to guy for playing onscreen attorneys.  He was Carson Drew—father of Nancy in Warner’s brief attempt to bring the popular teenaged sleuth to the silver screen.  Later, in Paramount’s Henry Aldrich series, he was the awkward adolescent’s pop Sam (also a member of the bar).  Still later, he portrayed Hugh Mitchell in Columbia’s “Rusty” franchise…still poring through the ol’ legal books to pay the rent.  (Fans of the blog might remember that Mr. L was also the diabolical Spencer Merlin in our Serial Saturdays presentation of Don Winslow of the Navy [1942].)

The four features I DVR’d from Tee Cee Em not only feature Litel but Dick Purcell—the unofficial “King of the B’s” at Warner’s.  Here in the House of Yesteryear, we remember Dick as the titular hero of the 1944 serial Captain America—one of his last movie roles before his untimely passing that same year when he succumbed to a heart attack after finishing 18 holes of golf.  I recorded these programmers during a day-long tribute to Purcell on the channel, which also featured Accidents Will Happen (1938)—reviewed in this space last week.

Alcatraz Island (1937) – John Litel gets top billing in this Warner’s effort released by the studio’s B-picture unit after their success with another “ripped from the headlines” vehicle, San Quentin (1937).  Our man John is ‘Gat’ Brady…and though he should write “notorious racketeer” in the ‘Occupation’ portion of his income tax returns, he’s also a doting father who’s stashed his daughter Annabel (Mary Maguire) in a private girls’ school lest she learn the truth about what her pop does for a living.  (It don’t make no never mind to Ann, though—she’s been clued into her father’s activities and loves him just the same.)  Gat is planning to take Ann to visit Europe when he gets a visit from the Feds: it turns out he hasn’t been filling out those tax returns I mentioned earlier, and though Gat’s clever attorney Fred MacLane (Addison Richards) cuts a deal for Brady to get a slap on the wrist (six months in the pokey and a $50,000 fine) the judge (Walter Young) winds up throwing the book at the Gatster, sentencing him to five years in Leavenworth.  (Just like real life, he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm.)

Ann Sheridan, John Litel
Being in stir is bad enough…but Gat’s troubles have just started.  ‘Red’ Carroll (Ben Welden), a hood out to settle a score with Brady (Gat refused to help Carroll’s brother, who was facing a murder rap), tries to put the snatch on Ann for revenge…and because he took her across state lines, he winds up doing a stretch in Leavenworth as well.  Red and Gat have a scrap, resulting in the loss of Brady’s “good behavior” time and a transfer to the titular pen of this movie…and Red arranges to follow him not long after, just to be a constant burr under Gat’s incarceration saddle.  In the meantime, Ann, MacLane, and Gat’s moll Flo Allen (Ann Sheridan) are hard at work trying to make things easier for Brady while he’s in the slammah, with Ann cozying up to lawyer George Drake (Gordon Oliver)—the legal eagle responsible for Gat’s internment in the first place!

In a review of Alcatraz Island Variety observed that “due to weakness of story, an average directorial job and failure to inject desired menace, it has its drawbacks as entertainment.”  That’s a tad harsh; I’ll admit my interest in the story started to subside once Gat was put behind bars (I liked the gangster-daughter angle of the tale, and wished that had been explored in further detail) but going in I didn’t expect anything more than the usual slam-bang Warner Bros. prison picture, scripted by Crane Wilbur and helmed by journeyman director William C. McGann…so I was thoroughly entertained for its 63-minute running time.  Island’s prison sequences are aided immeasurably by the presence of Purcell, everyone’s favorite “Runt” George E. Stone (as a philosophical inmate: “It's just the same in here as being in your grave—only you miss the fun of being dead”), and Vladimir Sokoloff as a convict known as “The Flying Dutchman.”  Having Ann Sheridan on hand is always a plus—my favorite “Oomph Girl” movies are always the ones where she plays the hard-as-nails, take-no-guff gal from the wrong side of the tracks.  (I know—this is a little like admitting “I like the Woody Allen films where he plays the funny, neurotic Jew.”)

Missing Witnesses (1937) – Litel is on the right side of the law in this entry; he’s Robert L. Lane, an inspector who’s been appointed by the governor as a special prosecutor to head a law enforcement unit that will deal with complications stemming from the reluctance of eyewitnesses testifying against a trio of hoodlums—‘Little Joe’ Macey (Raymond Hatton), Chivvy Prado (Earl Gunn), and Heinie Dodds (Louis Natheaux)—who have been shaking down merchants for protection money on behalf of an anonymous “Mr. Big.”  Assigned to Lane’s unit is ‘Bull’ Regan (Purcell), a hard-nosed cop who’s faster with his fists than his brains…and his continued capacity with the department hinges on his success at his new job (if he f**ks up, Lane will make certain his future employment opportunities involve the lucrative field of nighttime security).

Jean Dale
Regan is obsessed with locating a woman he spotted during an incident involving the protection stooges (the witness [Michael Mark] in that case was prosecuted for perjury after chickening out of testifying) and he finally tracks her down in the form of Mary Norton (Jean Dale), who’s been working as a secretary under the gentleman running the racket—Ward Sturgis (Harland Tucker).  Bull’s investigation into Sturgis runs into a brick wall when Ward’s corpse turns up a-floatin’ in the bay…and it appears Mary may be responsible!

Missing Witnesses is an unofficial remake of Bureau of Missing Persons (1933).  Both feature hothead cops (Pat O’Brien in Persons, Purcell in Witnesses) who are dangerously close to getting the heave-ho from the force…and while O’Brien’s favorite phrase is “I’ll bet you a dollar six bits” Purcell prefers “Well, there’s no harm in tryin’.”  (The characters played by Bette Davis [Persons] and Jean Dale [Witnesses] are also quite similar, even both hiding in closets at points in the action.)  Missing Witnesses was purportedly based on several cases investigated by then-Big Apple D.A. (and future New York Governor/Presidential nominee) Thomas A. Dewey.

William Clemens, the auteur behind Accidents Will Happen, also directed this film (and the evil dame from Accidents, Sheila Bromley, appears in Witnesses as the wife of Ben Welden’s character—another reluctant “witness”) scripted by Kenneth Gamet and Don Ryan.  Making return appearances from Alcatraz Island are Welden, Hatton, Young, Lane Chandler, John Harron, Al Herman, Stuart Holmes, Edward Keane, Milton Kibbee, Jack Mower, Willard Parker, Edwin Stanley, Myrtle Stedman, Elliott Sullivan, Joan Valerie, Tom Wilson, and William Worthington.  (You can’t say Warner’s didn’t keep actors busy—TDOY favorites like Veda Ann Borg, John Hamilton, and Mary Treen also have small roles.)

Litel, June Travis, Dick Foran
Over the Wall (1938) – Litel is back in stir…but this time, he’s prison chaplain Father Neil Connor, trying to straighten out an inmate named Jerry Davis (Dick Foran).  Davis, an aspiring pugilist with a quick temper, was wrongly sent to the jug after killing his manager, Eddie Edwards (Ward Bond)—but the responsible party is gangster Ace Scanlon (Purcell), who croaked Edwards after Eddie started making major moves toward taking over Ace’s racket.  Jerry’s assimilation into the prison population does not go smoothly at first—partly due to his prickly disposition and partly due to his protestations of innocence—but under Father Connor’s tutelage Davis reveals an unknown knack for carrying a tune and soon becomes a favorite with audiences via his radio performances.  Jerry’s best girl Kay Norton (June Travis), is convinced of her beau’s innocence…and even gets a secretarial job in Scanlon’s office to ferret out evidence that will free her man.  But after a deathbed confession from Ace’s henchman ‘Gyp’ Hatton (George E. Stone), Davis stupidly decides to crash out at the exact moment the governor (Jonathan “Mr. Dithers” Hale) is considering re-trying the case due to Kay’s discoveries.  (I never cease to be amused when the wrongly convicted are given a second chance in the movies…because it rarely happens in real life.)

Mentioning that Foran’s character becomes a singing sensation in this film naturally means that Dick is going to warble a few tunes (four by my count, including Ave Maria) …so if you’re not a fan of prison musicals (if that’s even a thing) consider this your caveat emptor.  I don’t care for Foran’s singing…but I soldiered on because I already paid the rent on the hall; truth be told I would have enjoyed Over the Wall more if someone other than Warners’ resident singing cowboy had played the part.  (For a prison break picture, it also takes its sweet time getting Foran’s Davis out of the joint; he never technically goes “over the wall” but makes a run for it while on the outside as a prison orderly on special assignment.)  The movie’s story was written by real-life Sing Sing Prison warden Lewis E. Lawes (personified in Wall by John “Great Caesar’s Ghost!” Hamilton), who had to be one of the savviest civil servants when it came to self-promotion (his pop culture contributions include the radio programs Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing [also a 1933 movie] and The Crime Cases of Warden Lawes and the films Invisible Stripes [1939] and You Can’t Get Away With Murder [1939]).  Despite the handicap that is Dick Foran, Wall is a diverting little flick with good performances from Litel, Purcell, Bond, Stone, Hamilton, and Veda Ann Borg (as the dame what spills the beans on Purcell).  (I also giggled at seeing Preston Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin as Foran’s “handler” and a young, thin Dick Wessel as the inmate responsible for Stone’s “accident.”)

Marie Wilson, Sheridan, Margaret Lindsay
Broadway Musketeers (1938) – John Litel might have been stymied in his pursuit of settling down with Ann Sheridan due to a stretch in the sneezer in Alcatraz Island…but he gets to sashay down the aisle with that Oomph Gal in Broadway Musketeers, a fun little B-pic once you accept that it’s not going to be as racy as its pre-Code predecessor, Three on a Match (1932).  Annie gets John on the rebound once wife Margaret Lindsay runs off with gambler Richard Bond; Sheridan, Lindsay and third wheel Marie Wilson bonded as friends while growing up in an orphanage and are reunited when Margaret and Marie attempt to help Ann out of the lockup (she’s convicted of doing a striptease act at the nightclub where she works—Ann sings two numbers, which were a tremendous treat after having to put with up with Dick Foran’s caterwauling in the previous entry).

Janet Chapman, Litel, Sheridan
Margaret’s affair-on-the-sly is revealed when she makes newspaper headlines after a crack-up in Bond’s car; she heads for the hills to get a divorce (Reno, baby!), allowing Ann to assume her matriarchal duties with her only daughter, a cloying little moppet played by Janet Chapman.  Later, Margaret stops by her former home (Sheridan remarks that she looks ill, downplaying the effects of the drug dependency that plagued Ann Dvorak in Match) and persuades Ann to let her spend some time with young Janet…but then some goons in the employ of racketeer Dick Purcell stop by the house to collect a debt owed by Bond.  There’s a scuffle, knives are drawn…and soon Poor Richard is…well, even though it doesn’t sound like it will fit the phrase “sucking up the sawdust on the floor” does work, considering the untidy state of his and Lindsay’s apartment.

Litel takes a backseat to the three female stars of Musketeers…and, again, if you refrain from comparing them to the trio from Three on a Match (Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis) I think you’ll find it’s a most serviceable little B.  (A pin-prick of a nitpick: I love Marie Wilson like nobody’s business, but her character in the film fluctuates from smart cookie to the kind of dumb blonde she made famous on My Friend Irma.  However, her boyfriend, who appears toward the end of the movie, is played by the aforementioned Jimmy Conlin.)  I also enjoyed seeing Dewey Robinson (who has some nice moments where he bonds with little girl Chapman) and Horace McMahon as two of Purcell’s henchmen in this spirited little mellerdrammer scripted by Missing Witnesses auteurs Garnet and Ryan and directed by John Farrow.n cases supervised by New York D.A. (and future Presidential nominee) Thomas A, Dewey

1 comment:

rnigma said...

One attorney John Litel portrayed memorably was Patrick Henry... in "Give Me Liberty," one of the American-history shorts Warners did in the late 30s, which played fast and loose with facts but are entertaining in their own right. Of course, he closes the short with the famous "give me liberty or give me death" speech, punctuating it with drawing his sword from its scabbard. (That scene would be rotoscoped by Chuck Jones' animators and included in the Porky Pig "Old Glory" cartoon.)