Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Where’s the Rest of Me: Accidents Will Happen (1938)


In March 2009, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ decided to fete actor Ronald Reagan as their “Star of the Month.”  Unless you were in a coma throughout the 1980s (and if you were, I’m green with envy), you’re also aware that Reagan later cashed in on his after-show-business career in politics to become the 40th President of these United States.  There are many schools of thought on President Reagan.  The one from which I graduated believed that Reagan was an addled old coot whose policies did so much long-term damage to our country's economic system the ramifications are still being felt today.  (At Rancho Yesteryear, the merest mention of the man will produce a stern rebuke from my father equivalent to dropping an F-bomb.)  To Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, he is St. Ronnie (hallowed be His name).

Ann Sheridan, Reagan, and Bob Freaking Cummings in Kings' Row (1942)
Leave us push politics aside.  Ronald Reagan enjoyed a successful film career beginning with a screen test for Warner Brothers in 1937 that led to his debut in Love is in the Air, released that same year.  His movie resume is dotted with “B” pictures—as the actor himself joked about Warner’s programming unit, the producers “didn’t want them good, they wanted them Thursday.”  To be completely honest—whenever I make a conscious decision to watch a Reagan movie, I prefer his “B” product.  Critics argue that Ronnie was underrated; that he actually made some very good movies—Knute Rockne, All American (1940—the feature that gave him his nickname, “The Gipper”) and Kings’ Row (1942) are often cited as his best.  They may be good movies…but that doesn’t mean Reagan was good in them.  (I mean, in the case of Kings’ Row…Reagan’s acting competition is Bob Freaking Cummings, ferchrissake.)  I always found Reagan—despite an endearing Everyman quality that had enormous appeal for audiences and voters—to be a bland, uninspiring presence in pictures…yet in the world of B-movies, this is not necessarily a handicap.

When Ronald Reagan was TCM’s “Star of the Month,” I had planned to devote many of the posts from the blog in that same month to examining many of the man’s motion pictures.  I didn’t get as far with that project as I had wanted; I wrote three posts covering Hellcats of the Navy (1957—the only feature film he did with his future First Lady, Nancy Davis), the two features in which he co-starred with “The Dead End Kids”—Hell’s Kitchen (1939) and The Angels Wash Their Faces (1939), and the “Brass Bancroft” series (four franchise films R.R. made between 1939 and 1940).  At the time, I explained that I lost interest in the Reagan posts after completing the Brass Bancroft essay…but in retrospect, I suspect it may have had to do with the fact that I wasn’t wild about the prospect of having to sit through movies like That Hagen Girl (1947) and Night Unto Night (1949) again.  (I don’t get hazard pay, you know.)

My dormant interest in this “produced and abandoned” project was rekindled Sunday night when I sat down with a Ronald Reagan B-movie double feature.  I’ll save the “second feature” for a later date, but the first was a 1938 quickie entitled Accidents Will Happen.  “Dutch” plays Eric Gregg, a claims adjuster for the Central Casualty Insurance Company…and he’s moving up fast through the company’s ranks due to his dogged tenacity in investigating fraudulent claims.  For example: Gregg looks into the matter of an automobile that apparently plummeted over a cliff—the scene reveals that there were no skid marks on the road allegedly traveled by said vehicle, plus the brakes weren’t set and the steering “knuckle” was smashed with a chisel.  Judge Gregg's ruling: claim denied!

The outfit trying to rook Eric’s insurance firm is the Friend-in-Need Loan Company, run by Jim Faber (Dick Purcell) and Blair Thurston (Addison Richards).  (“Blair Thurston”—the perfect handle for a soap character.)  They’re going to get a little assistance in their crooked insurance rip-offs from Eric’s missus—Nona Gregg (Sheila Bromley) has reached the breaking point concerning her hubby’s empty promises he’s due for a raise soon; she wants money and the finer things in life (a new apartment, for starters), baby, and she wants them yesterday.  She borrows $500 from Friend-in-Need on the Greggs’ car and uses $450 of it on a fur coat ($7,545 in 2017 dollahs) …and when she’s unable to make the loan payments, agrees to be a “witness” in one of the company’s fraudulent accidents to square what she does owe.  Eric, believing his wife’s details of the incident, arranges for the claim to be paid off…then he’s told by his boss (Hugh O’Connell) that it’s as phony as a three-dollar bill.  Gregg is out of a job, but with the help of candy counter clerk Patricia Carmody (Gloria Blondell)—who’s been carrying a torch for Eric throughout the film—he devises a scheme to foil the racket and restore his good name in the insurance business.  (I wouldn’t blame you if you started chuckling at the last part of that sentence, by the way.)

Sheila Bromley, Reagan
Accidents Will Happen is little more than Ronald Reagan in an elongated Crime Does Not Pay short…but I’ll wager you won’t find a more entertaining B-picture.  Its 62-minute running time dictates it must move by so fast the audience isn’t bored, with the screenplay by George Bricker and Anthony Coldeway (story by Bricker) discarding ballast like nuanced characterizations and the like.  As in the Crime Does Not Pay series, the story’s participants are painted solely in strokes of black-and-white—none more so than Bromley’s Nona Gregg, who is the personification of greedy, grasping, pure dagnasty evil.  “From now on I’m going to have all the things I’ve always wanted!” Nona shrieks at her husband after he discovers she lied to him.  “I’m through sitting home listening to explanations and excuses!”

Nona ditches Eric (Reno, baby!) but later, when she’s caught up in the clever net he’s constructed to bring the insurance fraud racket to heel, she pleads with him: “You’re not going to let them send me to prison?  After all we’ve been to each other?”  A bailiff with a sh*t-eating grin strolls by and remarks: “Oh yes he is, lady—come on!”  (I would have stood up and applauded at that point…but does it look like I’m not lazy?)

"Thank you gigantically."  One of the highlights of Accidents Will Happen is seeing Hal Roach stalwart Don Barclay in a small but hysterical role as a man who impersonates a drunk in one of Friend-in-Need's insurance scams.

Another familiar Roach face (sounds like a Dick Tracy villain!) is Spec O'Donnell, who plays an office boy at Central Casualty.  Spec is chatting it up with Gloria Blondell, doing her part to encourage the spread of adult onset diabetes.

Blondell, Reagan, and director William Clemens
I was most amused at seeing character stalwart Addison Richards with a full head of hair in this one (it had to have been a rug), and there is fine support from Gloria Blondell (Joan’s sister, in her first film for Warner Bros.), Dick Purcell, and Anderson Lawler as a particularly smarmy Central Casualty employee who’s later laid out with one punch by our Ronnie.  (The African-American gentleman getting his arm broken to participate in one insurance swindle is our old Jungle Queen pal Clinton Rosemond—his voice gives him away every time.)  Director William Clemens, who had a flair for second features (he helmed all four of Warner’s Nancy Drew films), never worked again with Reagan but it’s a pity he didn’t—he might have been able to inject a little life into Dutch’s Brass Bancroft programmers.  Remember, kids—crime does not pay!

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