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A quick glance at Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection, Vol. 4 sees a dearth of big titles and an almost total reliance on Edward G. Robinson, with Humphrey Bogart in able support during his seemingly endless pre-stardom period. But it's a great package. The movies selected excel both in entertainment value and genre interest, showing how the Burbank studio twisted the gangster theme to squeak by the censor demands of the late 1930s. Always more politically left than the anti- New Deal propagandists at MGM, the Warners filmmakers sometimes stretch the "environmental factors" argument a bit too far in their zeal to tell stories from the point of view of society's underdogs.
Each disc in the collection carries a Warner Night at the Movies selection of short subjects, cartoons and other relevant extras.
The ball gets rolling with The Little Giant, the only pre-code film in the bunch. Said to be the studio's first gangster comedy, this Edward G. Robinson vehicle isn't visually provocative but loads the dialogue with zingers about cocaine, minorities and "fags with handkerchiefs up their sleeves" -- an odd reference to the idle rich. You'll be throwing the remote into reverse to make sure you heard some of these lines correctly.
Robinson has fun with a somewhat obvious script that shows gangland being put out of business by the repeal of prohibition -- an opening montage endorses the election of F.D.R. as no other studio would. Robinson's Bugs Ahearn cashes in his bootlegging operation, only to be "trimmed" by a family of crooked aristocrats when he tries to crash high society in snooty Santa Barbara (things haven't changed much). The daughter (Helen Vinson) plans to swindle him into a quick marriage and faster divorce settlement, while the dad (Berton Churchill, the all-purpose evil capitalist in New Deal movies) tricks poor Bugs into buying a shady investment company -- which is about to be shut down by the Feds. Bugs has sworn off his gangster past, but he brings his boys West to set things right, with good old-fashioned Chicago machine guns and torture!
Mary Astor is fine as the real estate agent who captures Eddie's heart, but the movie sags while we wait for Bugs to catch up with a story the audience has long figured out. Some attempts at broad humor at a polo game are on the weak side, but the dialogue brims with interesting references and more pre-code "woo-hoo" lines. Robinson refers to a wrestler named Zbyszko, who film noir fans will recognize as Stanislaus Zbyszko, the Greco-Roman great immortalized in Jules Dassin's Night and the City. Eddie surprises his buddy by knowing enough French to stumble through a restaurant menu: "Ah, that's nothin', I used to own ten percent of a French dame."
1939's Kid Galahad is hokum elevated to a higher level by excellent direction and acting. Working way below their abilities, Edward G. Robinson and Bette Davis bring out the best in a tired tale of love in the fight game. Caustic manager Nick Donati (Robinson) finds a potential champion in farm boy / bellhop Ward Guisenberry (Wayne Morris), but trouble comes from two sides at once. Racketeer Turkey Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) is determined to defeat Donati by underhanded means, while both Donati's girlfriend Fluff Phillips (Bette Davis) and his sister Marie (Jane Bryan) fall in love with the young boxer, newly dubbed Kid Galahad.
The movie is a fine springboard for Morris and Bryan, who were clearly being primed for bigger careers. Bogart is more loathsome than usual as yet another crook, and Robinson makes the shortsighted and amusingly arrogant Donati very likeable. The fun is watching Bette Davis bring her rather silly character to life. Fluff is a good name for the girl who just parrots Robinson's emotions and then has to go all gaga over Kid Galahad. Davis almost makes it, except for one scene where her "love blooms to the surface." She rolls her eyes and gestures broadly in ecstasy, and we have to laugh. She can't throw the emotion away so instead overplays it. The scene works anyway.
Michael Curtiz keeps everything zipping, the scenes in the boxing ring aren't too exaggerated and the suspenseful climax is unusually brutal -- Turkey guns down an anonymous stranger just to provide a distraction to get at our heroes. Trainer Harry Carey serves as a conscience for the vindictive Donati. Kid Galahad sounds corny but turns out to be solid, old fashioned entertainment.
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse is a truly different movie for Warners, an odd crime tale that isn't entirely one of its gangster comedies. The script by John Wexly and John Huston, from a play by Barré Lyndon, centers around the eccentric Dr. Clitterhouse (Edward G. Robinson), a respected surgeon who becomes a burglar (and eventually a murderer) as part of a serious study of American criminality. The script contrasts the usual WB street jargon (voiced by mugs like Allan Jenkins, Maxie Rosenbloom, Curt Bois and Ward Bond) with Clitterhouse's articulate, controlled politeness -- when he joins their gang, the Doctor becomes very popular by adroitly rebuffing a police Lieutenant's attempts at intimidation.
While his nurse (Gale Page) looks on aghast, Clitterhouse parades a bag full of stolen jewelry past police Inspector Lane (Donald Crisp); it's as if he couldn't get arrested if he tried. Clitterhouse takes over the mob of Rocks Valentine (Humphrey Bogart), conducting research tests on individual crooks while planning perfect heists. Rocks soon decides to knock off Clitterhouse, especially after the gang's attractive fence Jo Keller (Claire Trevor) takes a shine to him.
Director Anatole Litvak keeps things just enough off-balance in a movie that we're surprised got past the censor. When Dr. Clitterhouse's rational judgment leads him to murder a man (partly in self-defense), he finds he has no moral reaction to the act. We don't know whether it's all a joke or what, as the story logic exonerates Clitterhouse in our eyes. The "funny" ending is much more profound than it seems. Clitterhouse admits to having enjoyed planning and carrying out his crimes. Instead of questioning the Doctor's sanity, the movie concludes with the idea that being exposed to criminal activities exites something inside a person. In Clitterhouse's case the "Mr. Hyde" figure is simply a version of himself no longer attached to moral scruples.
This is just a coincidence, but it's interesting that John Huston's crime classic The Asphalt Jungle should share a theme almost identical to this movie's: "Crime is simply a left-handed form of human endeavor." A more direct connection can be made to Huston's Key Largo, which recasts the three stars Bogart, Robinson and Trevor in more conventional genre roles.
1939's Invisible Stripes returns us to the standard Warners mythology linking crime to social injustice, and prescribing a noble sacrifice when things go bad. Crooks Cliff Taylor and Chuck Martin (George Raft & Humphrey Bogart) are released from prison. Chuck goes right back to his criminal ways, while Cliff returns to his loving Ma (Flora Robson) and hothead brother Tim (William Holden, in his second big role and looking too young to be real). The indignities of Parole result in humiliation and firings, which Cliff takes in stride. But Tim decides that society is rigged against honest guys, and picks a fight when a rich playboy mistakes his girlfriend Peggy (2nd billed Jane Bryan) for a homeless flower vendor. Cliff is run in as a suspect in a fur robbery, and Tim expresses his frustration by breaking the law. Deciding that going straight won't work, Cliff joins Chuck's gang and sends money home for Tim to open his own garage. But then things go very wrong.
Invisible Stripes is pretty tame stuff enlivened by bright performances from the supporting cast. William Holden is particularly good, along with Jane Bryan, but the best efforts by Flora Robson are needed to prop up the blandly inexpressive George Raft, who relies solely on his accumulated genre image. With the hero played by such a stiff, Humphrey Bogart's typical gangster gets more attention than usual. Chuck Martin proves to be a stand-up guy and the equal of Cliff, who violates his own code of honesty. The movie seems to say that criminality is bad, but that loyalty between pals is more important than the law!
More in line with earlier Edward G. Robinson crime comedies, Larceny Inc. is the one where robbers buy a luggage store next to a bank and try to tunnel their way in. Based on a play by Laura and S.J. Perelman, the comedy and the theme are way out of control, with antics nearly as broad as the Three Stooges and glimpses of larger ideas that never come together. Robinson is "Pressure" Maxwell, first seen as an umpire on a Sing Sing baseball team with Jug, a thick headed fellow con (Broderick Crawford). Maxwell is able to talk the warden out of his pinstriped suit, but he can't get a loan from a bank. So they team up with conman Weepy (Edward Brophy, always funny) to try the tunneling scheme.
That begins an amusing series of incidents dealing with other merchants and confused customers, who don't understand why Maxwell wants them out of his store. In one genuinely funny sequence, Robinson "gift wraps" a purchase with the worst sales attitude you'll ever see; it's almost as good as the beer drinking scene in A Slight Case of Murder. Jane Wyman is charming as Maxwell's daughter, and Jack Carson fine as the sales rep of a large luggage concern.
The movie goes in an interesting direction when the mismanaged luggage store proves a big success, and Maxwell becomes a local hero by inadvertently clearing up a stalled subway project that has left the street in rubble. For a moment we wonder if the merits of capitalism will triumph over the false promise of crime, or if Larceny Inc. will make a dark statement equating banks and thieves, like Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. 1 Instead, a bad crook played by Anthony Quinn shows up to force Maxwell to go through with the bank raid. Larceny Inc. is funnier than most of Warner's crime comedies, but doesn't follow through on its ideas.
Public Enemies, The Golden Age of the Gangster Film
Warners have promoted many of its film collections with film clip-oriented documentaries that usually get shown on the Turner Classic Movies channel. This nearly two-hour history is a worthy examination of the social forces and movie trends that formed the incredibly popular Depression-era gangster classics. It works better than most because Warner Bros. was the maker of most of the genre's highpoint pictures. A lively beginning gives us good clips from silents The Musketeers of Pig Alley (look for Harry Carey as a Bowery cutthroat) and Raoul Walsh's Regeneration, an early you-are-there film that used real street toughs for actors. The show also goes outside the Warners library for a few clips from Von Sternberg's Underworld, an important silent picture.
White Heat is considered the end of the line for the Golden Age and the coverage gets thin from there on. The show uses a long list of noted authors, filmmakers and movie experts to tell the tale; it's nice seeing Nicholas Pileggi along with clips from Goodfellas, as well as screenwriter Mardik Martin. Excellent critical studies of the gangster genre were written in the 1970s, perhaps here represented best by Colin McArthur, the author of the now-rare Underworld USA. The critical literature has plenty to say about the genre's relationships to politics, the economic system and the American Dream, which the docu by necessity touches upon only very lightly.
The feature-length docu has been afforded a disc to itself, but no package credit is given to its producer, New Wave Entertainment or its writer-director Constantine Nasr.
The Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection, Vol. 4 continues the studio's policy of releasing DVDs of titles only when good restorations have been completed: all of the shows look better than they ever have, especially The Little Giant and Larceny, Inc..
All five features carry audio commentaries, by recent authors, film historians and a film professor or two. We've heard so much watered-down discussion of the movies in the Depression Era and the Production Code, etc., that it's refreshing to hear the commentary on Invisible Stripes, which substitutes the usual celebration of movie stars for a biting analysis of the WB style and its place in the industry. Alain Silver and James Ursini start off by emphasizing the truth that Hollywood censorship was dominated by intolerant conservative Catholics with strong anti-Semitic agendas. That kind of factual reportage doesn't show up in casual documentaries.
The Warner Night at the Movies lineup of extras is fatter than usual, with many interesting short subjects and cartoons bearing tangential relevance to the gangster genre. Some of the newsreels are actually newsreel dailies, and one shoot showing Edgar J. Hoover in the FBI printing room gives us a very good look at the man who personally vetted several Warners releases for official approval. Some shows carry two cartoons and the docu disc has a generous four. In other words, this fourth Gangster collection is packed with a full range of entertainment. A full list of extras content is below.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Actually, Fritz Lang made a similar film about thieves who learn that it pays better to run a store than to rob one, called You and Me with Sylvia Sydney and George Raft. It's a weird movie with semi-musical sequences written by Kurt Weill.
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