Lady Killer (1933) Roy Del Ruth

James Cagney most likely did not think much of “Lady Killer,” not even giving it a mention in his autobiography, “Cagney by Cagney.”  The film was a typical Warner Brothers programmer with the studio heads ensuring that Cagney’s character was exactly how the public liked Jimmy served; tough, cheeky, a hardboiled know it all with a winning sly smile. He had already in his short career played similar brash characters in earlier films like, “Taxi”, “Blonde Crazy” and “Hard to Handle.”  Released at the end of 1933, Cagney already seems to be spoofing his tough guy persona in this rough and tumble comedy/drama.

Dan Quigley, a typical smart aleck Cagney type does not like to play by the rules. Unlike his role of Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” that made him a star, Dan Quigley is more a small time con-artist than a big time gangster. Dan is soon fired from a job as a uniformed usher at  Warner’s famed Broadway Theater, The Strand after treating customers shabbily along with other previous infractions including running a dice game in the men’s room.  Though he is a con artist, Dan is quickly conned himself when a beautiful dame named Myrna (Mae Clarke) “drops” her purse on the street and he gallantly retrieves it delivering it to her apartment where her “brother” and some friends are playing a friendly poker game. Dan is quickly suckered into the game and loses his money just as fast. As he leaves, just outside the apartment, he runs into another chump delivering another lost purse! Realizing he has been had, Dan intimidates his way into the gang taking charge as the gang sucker more marks into losing their money with the help of a draw full of lost purses. With Dan at the helm, the gang’s cons quickly escalate their fortunes until they are running an upscale nightclub, and scamming better dressed suckers. They soon graduate to burglary until one of the crew kills a housemaid during a jewelry robbery. The entire gang skips town heading west to Chicago and on the L.A. where Dan is quickly picked up and questioned by the police. Held on five-thousand dollars bail, Dan calls Myrna who he gave his money to hold, only to find out she and gang member Spade Maddock (Douglas Dumbrille) are skipping the country heading down to Mexico leaving Dan out to dry.

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Scarlet Street (1945) Fritz Lang

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“They’ll be masterpieces!”

 

Kitty March (Joan Bennett) is not one of the brightest femme fatales to grace the screen though she certainly ranks up there as one of the nastiest. She would even give Ann Savage in “Detour” a run for her money. When her milquetoast admirer Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) finds out she has been selling his paintings under her own name, instead of being upset, he seems actually glad. He has only one demand, that she allows him to paint her portrait, to which she replies, “sure, and you can start right now,” as she hands him a bottle of nail polish so he can paint her toenails.  “They’ll be masterpieces” she slyly sneers as the scene fades. 

This is just one of many masterful scenes in what is arguably Fritz Lang’s greatest American film and one of his finest overall. Based on the French novel “La Chienne” (The Bitch) with a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, “Scarlet Street” is a brilliant, dark tale of an emasculated husband who naively yet willingly subjects himself to humiliation and being made the fool when he falls in love with a beautiful heartless streetwalker. The novel was previously filmed in 1931 by French master Jean Renoir. “Scarlet Street” has been available for years in cheap low grade public domain copies until KINO, in 2005, released a solid pristine newly mastered print preserved by the Library of Congress.

ss-0n-sidewalkChris Cross (Robinson), a mild mannered cashier and Sunday afternoon artist, is being honored at a dinner in a Greenwich Village restaurant for twenty-five years of loyal service to his company. Later that night, on his way to the subway to go back to his Brooklyn apartment, he sees a woman being smacked around by a man. He comes to her rescue, surprisingly knocking the man down with his umbrella. When he goes to calls out to the police for help, the man runs off. The woman is Kitty March, who Chris becomes quickly captivated by. After walking her home, he ask to see her again.

Chris’ home life is lonely, dominated by his tyrannical wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), who brow beats and criticizes him every minute of the day. Chris’ only pleasure is his painting which he is forecd to do in their tiny bathroom.  If that is not enough, Adele keeps a large painting of her first husband (he supposedly drown trying to save a woman) hanging on the wall looking down on everyone who enters the apartment.

 scarlett-streetKitty gets the impression that Chris is a rich and well-known artist, a notion he hopes impresses her, and does nothing to dispel. Her “boyfriend” Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), the guy who was slapping her around earlier, convinces Kitty that this old man is a goldmine and she should continue to pursue a relationship with him even start asking him for money.  This dirty scenario sets in motion events that will lead to everyone’s eventual demise.

Chris soon sets Kitty up in a fancy studio apartment in Greenwich Village. Unbeknownst to both Kitty and Johnny the only way Chris can afford all this is by stealing from his company, also by cashing in an insurance policy of his wife’s (from her first husband, policies she was saving for her old age). Johnny’s next scheme is to sell Chris’ paintings, over Kitty’s half-hearted objections. When an influential art critic and gallery owner praises the paintings and offers to sell them, Johnny convinces the two art experts that Kitty is the artist going by the name of Katherine March.

Shopping one day, Adele passes by the art gallery now displaying “Katherine’s artwork.” At home, Chris is cutting up some freshly purchased liver when Adele arrives back home furious. She demands to know how long Chris has known Katherine March. Chris, believing Adele discovered his secret passion for Kitty, is visibly shaken but denies knowing the woman. As the scene evolves with Adele demanding to know about this Katherine March, Chris begins approaching his wife with the knife in his hand. We and Chris soon discover Adele mistakenly thinks Chris has been copying her artwork and that his “lousy” paintings are not even originals. Denigrating him for being nothing more than a copycat, she stalks off to another room. Chris drops the knife; its point sticking into the floor.   scarletstreet1

When Chris confronts Kitty about the paintings being sold, he is surprisingly happy to let her sell them under her name. His one demand is he wants to do a portrait of her.  Soon after, Adele’s first husband shows up alive which frees up Chris now to  propose marriage to Kitty who laughs in his face at the proposal, telling him he is “old and ugly and I’m sick of you, sick, sick, sick!” In a fit of sexually frustrated rage, Chris, using a handy ice pick stabs Kitty multiple times to death.

Chris believes his crimes are discovered when two cops show up at the office where he works. Believing they are about to arrest him for Kitty’s murder he is stunned they are there only to charge him with the embezzlement of $1,200 previously stolen from the company. His boss fires him but decides to not press charges.

The police find enough circumstantial evidence to charge Johnny for Kitty’s murder. At the trial, Chris denies knowing anything about the paintings, sealing Johnny’s faith to the electric chair. Though his revenge is complete, Chris’ guilt is only beginning. Haunted by Kitty and Johnny’s voices, Chris attempts suicide by hanging himself. Six years later, still haunted by voices, Chris is living on the streets. Two policemen, kick him off a park bench where he was sleeping, telling him to go down to the bowery where he belongs. We next see him as he passes by an art gallery that just sold the portrait of Kitty for $10,000. Chris walks by the gallery, unknown, curled up, hunched over still tortured by the voices of Kitty and Johnny. No one get away with murder.

Edward G. Robinson has played mild meek men before (The Whole Town’s Talkin’) but nothing prepares you for Eddie G. in a frilly apron with his over bearing wife constantly pouncing on him to wash the dishes. Lang, with sly humor, arranged several scenes where he puts Robinson in an apron. Robinson’s Chris Cross has lived a life of dull repetition and constant submission consisting of a nine to five job as a cashier, a loyal employee for twenty-five years, and a nagging wife at home. His only pleasure is his art work which he can only do on Sunday’s in between the constant complaining from Adele that he does not make enough money for them to even afford a radio. For Chris, Kitty is a breath of fresh air, a chance to have a life. Edward G. Robinson has never given a bad performance and he is terrific here. The final part of the film as we watch his decent into hell is especially noteworthy.

For Kitty and her slap happy boyfriend Johnny, Chris is an instrument to be used for ill gotten financial rewards. Chris is a sap to Kitty. He believes anything, she says. Johnny convinces Kitty to lead him on and she does. Sure, she tells Chris, she would marry him, but hey, he’s married, so what can you do. They’re both using Chris to extract as much money as they can, though Johnny seems to be the one who ends up with every dollar that comes Kitty’s way. No matter what Johnny does, nor how he treats her, Kitty stills love him.

 Though it is never clearly stated, due to the restrictions of the production code, Kitty is a streetwalker (she doesn’t seem to have any other job) and Johnny’s her pimp, which make clearer his actions on how he is constantly treating her, more as a commodity than a girlfriend. Joan Bennett, in her third of four films she would make with Fritz Lang is a convincingly nasty piece of work, beautiful, seductive and evil. Dan Duryea is credibly slimy as dirt bag Johnny Prince.

There are no likable characters in the film, everyone is corrupt, Chris who only married his battle-axe wife out of loneliness admits he has never seen a woman naked, which you could interpret to mean his marriage to Adele has never been consummated. His wife doesn’t disagree and comments, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I should hope not.” Kitty and Johnny are two bottom feeders, ready to snatch every dollar they can from Chris. Chris’ wife is a nagging, demanding, complaining, unhappy individual. Returning from the dead, Adele’s first husband whom she treasured (he was a police officer!) turns out to have been a thief and actually was on the run faking his own death. Chris’ boss who eventually fires him for embezzlement, left Chris’ party early because he has a beautiful young lady waiting patiently for him out in his limo and she is not his wife!

 

 If the film has a weak spot, it is the return of Adele’s first husband from the dead. It is totally contrived and unbelievable. The only reason for his return seems like a forced plot device that will get Chris single so he will go to Kitty and propose marriage, setting up her laughing fit and vicious verbal tirade that will result in his ultimate violent revenge.   

 joan-bennett-fritz-lang-scarletstreet   I’d be remiss if I did not mention Lang’s use of the song “Melancholy Baby” throughout the film. The song is as bleak and dark as the characters that fill the screen. Finally, the amazing cinematography of Milton Krasner who made the dark and damp wet-filled back lot version of Greenwich Village glisten in the early part of the film as he does for the rest of the film.

    “Scarlet Street” opened to mostly positive reviews. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, if you are familiar with his work, New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers (1) missed the boat on this film giving it a mixed review calling it a “sluggish and manufactured tale”….“an average thriller job.” As for Robinson’s performance, he “performs monotonously and with little illumination of an adventurous spirit seeking air.”  For Joan Bennett, she was “static and colorless.” He only had good word for Dan Duryea who “hits a proper and credible stride, making a vicious and serpentine creature out of a cheap, chiseling tinhorn off the streets.”  Most other critics of the time liked the film and more importantly, the film was a hit with the public. The previous year, Lang and the three actors made an almost equally as good noir with “The Woman in the Window.”     

    “Scarlet Street” was the first film for Diana Productions, a production company consisting of Walter Wagner, Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang.  For those who are not aware, the relation between the three was more than professional. Wagner was Joan Bennett’s husband and Lang was her lover, so the relationship, business and professional was “complicated, to say the least. In the early 1950,’s Wagner shot and wounded by then agent Jennings’s Lang, Bennett’s alleged lover at the time. Wagner spent four months in jail and Bennett’s film career was effectively ended. She did managed to make a few more films though most of her future work would be in television.   

 4280-scarlet-streetIn talking to Peter Bogdanovich (2), Lang mentions that he had no trouble with the film from the censors. Lang must have been forgetful or his memory of events has been distorted over the years. Depending on the state you lived in, the feverish stabbing of Kitty consisted of one to seven stabs (3). The film was banned by three state censor boards, New York, Atlanta and Milwaukee. The New York censors held up the release of the film until February of 1946. However, it was in Atlanta where the film was delayed for ten months! All this notoriety surely contributed of the film’s financial success, making it one of Universal’s biggest grossing film’s of the decade.

   

 

  

Sources:   (1) The New York Times Feb 16, 1946

                (2) Fritz Lang in America – Peter Bogdanovich

                (3) The Rough Guide to Film Noir – Alexander Ballinger & Danny Graydon

             

 

The Mayor of Hell’s Kitchen Goes to Crime School

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     I was watching “Hell’s Kitchen” the other night, a 1939 Warner Brothers programmer with The Dead End Kids. They were still riding the crest of a wave of success that began with William Wyler’s “Dead End” and continued with films like “Angels with Dirty Faces”, and the lesser successful “Angels Wash Their Faces.” This is, of course, before they began deteriorating into overaged caricatures of their former selves as they continuously changed names, from The Dead End Kids to The East Side Kids to The Little Tough Guys and finally the Bowery Boys. Moving from major studios like Warners Brothers and Universal to the depths of poverty row with Monogram. What struck me about the Hell’s Kitchen was this feeling of déjà vu, I had seen the film once before but that was not why I had the feeling. Somehow, I thought Humphrey Bogart was in this film or maybe it was James Cagney. In addition, to The Dead End Kids, “Hell’s Kitchen” starred Ronald Reagan (who also appeared with the boys in “Angels Wash Their Faces”) billed way down on the list of characters after all the DEK’s!

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    About halfway into the film, it struck me that “Hell’s Kitchen” was similar to the Humphrey Bogart film “Crime School” made just the year before. While there are differences between the films, the similarities are striking beginning with the fact both films are directed by Lewis Seiler, and Crane Wilber is given credit for both the story and co-screenwriting on each film. Then it came to me there is another similar film, 1933’s “The Mayor of Hell” where young James Cagney plays a reformed gangster who takes over a juvenile reformatory attempting to fix a corrupt system, which was what Ronald Reagan’s almost reformed gangster father-in-law Stanley Fields does in “Hell’s Kitchen.”

 All three films contain corrupt sadistic superintendents. Both “Crime School” and “Hell’s Kitchen” have scenes where the juvenile inmates establish a self-governing system though, in “Hell’s Kitchen” it is sanctioned by the officials in charge whereas in “Hell’s Kitchen”, it quickly turns to a lynch mob mentality. In “Crime School”, Bogart, a deputy commissioner, takes over the corrupt reformatory, as does lawyer Reagan in “Hell’s Kitchen.”  In “The Mayor of Hell”, a young James Cagney plays as a reformed gangster who takes over a juvenile reformatory attempting to fix a corrupt system.

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     Of course, all the films have caring, beautiful leading women. In the “Mayor of Hell”, it is the lovely Madge Evans, while it is Margaret Lindsay who attempts to take care of the boys in “Hell’s Kitchen.” “Crime School’s” leading lady Gale Page is a bit different as she is the older sister of juvenile problem child Billy Halop.  One difference between the films is that “The Mayor of Hell” is pre-code while the other two films, made late in the decade, were more restricted in what they could show.                                                                                                      

    Today, remakes, sequels are almost an expected part of movie going. Can anyone imagine a summer season without a remake or a sequel?  We know creativity and the financial guts to take chances is a rare commodity in Hollywood. With these three films, we are given a snapshot that taking chances and looking how to save a buck in Hollywood is not new.  Warner Brothers recycled the same story, and in the case of two of the three films, the same actors (The Dead End Kids), the same director and the same writer, all within six years. That’s economy.

     None of the films could be called great but all are entertaining, however, “The Mayor of Hell” shines with good  performances by Cagney and Frankie Darro and “Crime School”, is well worth your time if for no other reason than it has Bogart. “Hell’s Kitchen” biggest problem is really a lack of a strong leading man. Ronald Reagan comes across as just bland. Of the three films, “The Mayor of Hell” is the only one available on DVD.  Your best bet to catch the other two films is when they occasionally appear on TCM or download on-line.

Frisco Kid (1935) Lloyd Bacon

    Unlike “The Oklahoma Kid” starring James Cagney and directed by Lloyd Bacon, “Frisco Kid” starring James Cagney and directed by Lloyd Bacon is not a western. “Frisco Kid” takes place in San Francisco’s vice and violent teeming Barbary Coast. Here Bat Morgan (James Cagney) is a sailor just arriving in town fresh from another voyage. He soon is shanghaied by powerful gang leader Spider Burke (Barton McLane). With the help of a friendly Jewish tailor, Bat overcomes Spider and sends him off to sea instead. Bat returns to the saloon run by the crooked Paul Morra (Ricardo Cortez) where he meets up with Shanghai Duck (Fred Kohler) who arranged the deal for Bat to be shanghaied. He confronts Shanghai, who has a lethal hook in place of his missing right hand, and they get into a ferocious fight that is one of the highlights of the film. Bat kills Shanghai, impressing Morra who offers him a job as a bouncer working in his saloon.  However, Bat has bigger ideas and soon becomes the boss of the Barbary Coast running a crooked casino and getting in with crooked politicians to take over the city. Bat meets Jean Barret (Margaret Lindsay) who runs the San Francisco newspaper and is trying to clean up the Barbary Coast along with the help of Judge Crawford.   Judge Crawford (Robert McWade) who seems to be the only honest man in town is soon murdered resulting in Bat being accused of the murder. Barbary Coast citizens are now outraged by the murder they want to clean up the city and resorting to a murderous mob rule, they hang Morra. Bat is spared the same faith with when Jean Barret realizes, after numerous denials that she love hooligan Bat and pleads for his life.

    When the film opened in 1935 at the Strand Theater on Broadway, the New York Times gave it a good review calling Cagney’s character “a violent Irishmen who became the Al Capone of San Francisco’s vice district.” However, many critics were not impressed comparing it unfavorable to Howard Hawk’s “Barbary Coast” with Edward G. Robinson  and Miriam Hopkins which opened a month earlier the same year. ” “Frisco Kid” is a typical Warner Brothers programmer and not one of their best efforts. The film starts okay but is uneven and at times seems rushed. Bat Morgan’s rise to the top and the building of his grand saloon seem to happen quickly. Cagney and Margaret Lindsay do not seem to have much spark between them.  Most of their scenes fall flat. Director Lloyd Bacon and his crew do a nice job of creating the salty fog bound atmosphere of the Barbary Coast and the scenes of the fiery lynch mob are exiting and well done. Other cast members include Barton McLane, Lili Damita and Ricardo Cortez whose performance as rotten saloon owner Paul Morra is worth watching this film for by itself.