Saturday, August 3, 2013

Stubs – A Slight Case of Murder

A Slight Case of Murder (1938) Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Jane Bryan, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Willard Parker.  Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Produced by Samuel Bischoff. Screenplay by Earl Baldwin, Joseph Schrank. Based on a play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay. Run Time: 85. Black and White, U.S.  Comedy, Crime.

Gangster films have been a stable of Hollywood for decades and no studio was more closely associated with the genre than Warner Bros. After all, they made such iconic films as Little Caesar (1931), Public Enemy (1931) and Petrified Forest (1936) and stars out of Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart.

And while gangster films were popular with audiences, the Production Code Administration didn’t particularly like them. Gangster films walked a fine line with the code, which forbade the depiction of crime and didn’t appreciate the glorification of criminals. But depicting gangsters in a comedic setting was okay and that’s why we have films like A Slight Case of Murder.

While Edward G. Robinson might be closely associated with the gangster genre, thanks to Little Caesar and Key Largo (1948), he was really an actor with a wide range. Comedies, such as this film, were not a stretch for him. The Romanian-born actor had a film career which lasted six decades and included many memorable film roles, too numerous to mention here.

In 1933, Prohibition ended putting bootleggers like Remy Marko (Robinson) out of business. Except Marko has bigger plans, deciding to re-launch his prohibition still as a legitimate brewery, Gold Velvet. After informing his gang that they are all now salesmen, he goes home and tells Nora (Ruth Donnelly) of his plans and she immediately tries to clean up their act.

With Prohibition over, Remy Marko (Robinson) tells his gang they're going legit.
But four years in, the business isn’t working out the way Marko thought. Unbeknownst to him, the beer is horrible. And while no one complained during prohibition, it is not selling against competition. Since he doesn’t drink beer and no one has the courage to speak up to Marko, he doesn’t know how bad it is.

However, he does know how bad times are. Remy’s wife, Nora (Ruth Donnelly) informs him that they’re six months behind on their daughter Mary’s (Jane Bryan) Parisian school tuition and they recall her home.

When Mary gets back into town, she informs her mother that she met a boy in Paris, Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker) and is engaged. But despite his money, Mary has told Dick to get a job and he’s chosen, on a whim, to become a state trooper, though Mary doesn’t know that just yet..

Worse, the bank wants to call in his loan of nearly $500,000 and officers Post (John Litel) and Ritter (Eric Stanley) give him until noon the next day to pay. Remy tries to talk them into an extension, but they’re adamant
Trying to buy a little time, Remy takes his family and closest former gang members, including his chauffer and footman, Mike (Allen Jenkins); his cook, Gip (Harold Huber) and Lefty (Edward Brophy) up to their Saratoga summer home.

They make one stop on the way, at the orphanage Remy grew up. Every year, Remy takes one orphan to spend the summer with him and his family in Saratoga and he’s not about to let a little thing like bankruptcy stop this tradition. Mrs. Cagle (Margaret Hamilton), who runs the orphanage, has picked four of the top students for Remy to choose from, but instead he wants the worst one, Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom (Bobby Jordan).

On their way, the newly deputized Dick, riding his state trooper motorcycle, tries to surprise the family car, but Mike speeds away.

Little Caeser meets the Wicked Witch of the West? No. Remy stops at
orphanage run by Mrs. Cagle (Margaret Hamilton) to pick up his
summertime guest orphan Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom (Bobby Jordan).

But things aren’t any easier in Saratoga. Waiting for Remy are five members of Little Dutch’s (George Llyod) gang, who originally owned the brewery and have unfinished business with Remy. They’ve held up an armored car carrying money belonging to the racetrack bookies. The total is about $500,000. After the robbery, they’ve driven to Remy’s home to get even with him. But one of the gang, Innocence (Joe Downing), thinks he’s about to get bumped off, so he kills the other four gang members, including No Nose Cohen (Joe Caits), Blackhat  Gallagher (John Harmon) and some guy referred to only as the stranger (Harry Tenbrook).

Innocence (Joe Downing) thinks the others in his gang are
planning to bump him off, so he take preventative measures.
But Lefty’s and Gip’s arrival at the house, forces Innocence to hide the money under the bed and hide himself.

Douglas turns out to be quite the handful, which Mike is assigned to take care of. He smokes, drinks and mouths off to everyone, including Nora. The room they plan to use for  Douglas has the four bodies in it. The Markos want the bodies out of the house as fast as possible; Remy has a reputation and Mary’s fiancée to consider. But Remy doesn’t want to waste the bodies and he and Lefty and Gip go to spread them around, leaving them with people who have wronged them in the past.

Mike (Al Jenkins) looks like he's already had his fill of
Douglas and they're still in the car on their way to Saratoga.
While they’re gone, Dick arrives to take Mary to meet his father (Paul Harvey). But when Remy comes back, he tries to kick Dick out of the house before he realizes he’s betrothed to Mary. Remy is extremely upset by the news.

Remy is not welcoming to Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker), who is engaged
 to his daughter, Mary (Jane Bryan), because he's a New York state trooper.
Remy’s crew know about their bosses financial woes and after reading there is a $10,000 reward for each of the armored robbers, dead or alive, leave to retrieve the bodies before they’re discovered. They bring them back into the house, just as a party starts. They hide the bodies in a closet in one of the back bedrooms.

Further complicating things is the arrival of Mary, Dick and his father to meet the Markos. Al Whitewood has a weak heart and can’t take too much excitement. Meanwhile, Innocence comes back to the house to retrieve the money, but Douglas discovers it under his bed first. Finally, Post and Ritter arrive in town and inform Remy that there will definitely be no further extension.

Remy finally comes clean with Nora on just how bad things are. She is willing to help and offers to even let Remy hawk her jewelry, but he has to admit he’s already done that. Still, she’s loyal to him. He has one more plan to make good and tries to talk Al into buying a half interest in the brewery for the $500,000 he’s in debt.

Remy tells Nora of his plan to con Al Whitehead out of $500,000 in order to save the brewery.
But Al actually tastes Gold Velvet and honestly tells Remy how bad it is. Al threatens to leave, but he’s faint. Nora takes him upstairs to the back bedroom to get a good night’s sleep.

Remy doesn’t believe it’s that bad until he actually tastes the beer for himself. He goes into the kitchen to confront his gang and they would rather admit how bad it tastes than drink a bottle. Remy plans to improve the quality by hiring a real brewmaster, but the boys remind him that he’s about to lose the brewery to the bank.

At that time, Douglas, who has pocketed as much of the money as he can stuff into his pajamas has come downstairs to get some beer to drink. When Lefty discovers money in his pocket, the gang goes upstairs and finds the rest of the money. Even though they know it’s the bookie’s money, Remy still sees it as the answer to his prayers. Innocence watches helplessly, as Remy takes control of the loot.

Once Remy finds out how bad his beer really tastes he makes his cronies admit
they had kept the truth from him, or else they have to drink the beer themselves.
Remy calls Post and Ritter to come settle up his loan, while Innocence looks for a way to grab the money. Meanwhile, party guest and bookie Sad Sam (Bert Hanlon) discovers a money wrapper with his name on the floor in the kitchen. He tells Kirk (George E. Stone), another bookie who was robbed, that he thinks Remy stuck up the bookie’s truck. But even though Remy is a friend and the money is insured, they decide to call the cops and collect the reward.

Post (John Litel) takes Remy's call to settle the loan.
They try to get Dick, who is still wearing his uniform, to arrest Remy, but Dick is apprehensive. Instead, he calls for the local police to come to the house. Meanwhile, Post and Ritter arrive, but when they see that Remy actually can pay them off, they decide to give him more time to settle the loan. With that ruse over, Remy takes the money to Dick so he can turn it in informing him that it is indeed the money from the bookie robbery.

Two bookies whose armored car was robbed try to convince Dick to arrest his future father-in-law. 
Al, who has been lying down in the back bedroom tries to hang up his coat and finds the bodies in the closet. He doesn’t realize they’re dead, but he thinks they were waving their guns at him. Remy takes Dick upstairs to either arrest or shoot it out with them if they don’t come out of the closet. Dick isn’t comfortable using a gun and is first shot is wide, but with Remy’s help, he shoots through the closet door “killing” the already dead robbers. One stray shot, which goes  out the window, accidentally hits Innocence, who is lurking outside on the roof, knocking him off, just as the local police arrive.

Dick faints after firing his gun.
Even though he faints, Remy paints Dick out to be a hero and the police agree. But when Marko hears about the lucky shot that hit Innocence he nearly faints himself.

Remy talks up Dick's heroics to the local police.
When the film was first released, the New York Times considered it to be one of the ten best of 1938. However, over time the film has been somewhat overlooked. Robinson had been in so many films that some get left behind in any survey of his career. But this is a film worth watching.

In addition to its star, the movie has a terrific supporting cast, which includes the likes of Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, Harold Huber, Margaret Hamilton and Ruth Donnelly. While Hamilton might be the most recognizable name, due to her appearance the next year as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, all of them are faces you’ve seen before, but whose names you might not be able to place right away. (That’s what IMDb is for.)

The script, based on a play co-written by Damon Runyon, an influential American writer, is smart and funny. The characters talk in Runyonese, a mixture of formal speech and slang, which characterized his writing style.  In addition to this play, several of Runyon’s stories were turned into movies, such as Lady for A Day (1933), Little Miss Marker (1934) and Guys and Dolls (1955), the latter first appearing as a Broadway musical in 1950.

While Lloyd Bacon’s name doesn’t carry the same gravitas as some of his contemporaries, he was versatile, directing such diverse genres as musicals, comedies, westerns, biographies and war films. His work includes several classics such as 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933) as well as The Oklahoma Kid (1939), Knute Rockne, All American (1940), Action in the Atlantic (1943) and The Fighting Sullivans (1944). 

Not a great film, A Slight Case of Murder is still satisfying and well worth watching next time you have the opportunity. Check it out and you shouldn’t be disappointed.  

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