The Escape (1939) is yet another head-scratcher release from Fox Cinema Archives. While I'm grateful for the opportunity to see it and the transfer is generally good (not, alas, always the case with this label), the movie nonetheless is a routine B running 58 scant minutes, has no stars, and despite some minor points of interest isn't particularly memorable. Warner Archive more wisely tends to package such films as double- and triple-feature sets, sometimes packing nine or even twelve movies into an appealing boxed set. For a short feature like The Escape, a title likely only to appeal to the most hard-core of classic movie buffs, the price just isn't justified.
The movie itself is a gangster melodrama probably inspired by the success of Dead End and the renewed Hollywood interest in crime films (The Roaring Twenties, etc.). This one packs an awful lot of exposition into its brief running time though it's also riddled with clichés. Ricardo Cortez, former silent era star and the first actor to play private eye Sam Spade (in the 1931 film of The Maltese Falcon) and the second to play attorney Perry Mason, briefly flirted with directing during 1939-40, helming seven B-movies before giving it up and returning to acting full-time. Some of these films, such as Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939) are quite good, but this one is unexceptional, if filled with incident.
The main story is told in flashback, on the day of New York gangster Louie Peronni's (Edward Norris) funeral, with family physician Dr. Shumaker (Frank Reicher, the Skipper from King Kong) filling in the details about Louie's life to story-hungry newspaper reporter Chet Warren (Jack Carson in an early role). These scenes were added three months after principal photography, and it's not clear if they were edited in an attempt to make the film more coherent, because the main story came up too short in terms of the running time, or because Fox thought they had a winner on their hands and wanted to beef the picture up a bit. Your guess is as good as mine. In any case Shumaker tells Chet things he couldn't possibly have known about, while adding little to the narrative's already-overcooked plot.
Louie is released from prison and a rival gang wings him as he arrives home (Why? The incident is quickly forgotten), where he's reunited with his elderly father, Giuseppe (Henry Armetta, who talks-a like-a Chico Marx) and pretty sister, Juli (Amanda Duff), a schoolteacher. He also learns that upstairs neighbor Annie Qualen (June Gale), a nightclub entertainer he married in secret, gave birth to Louie's daughter while he was in prison, but that she felt compelled to give the baby up for adoption.
Juli becomes engaged with Louie's childhood pal, Eddie Farrell (top-billed Kane Richmond), who like his murdered father before him has become the genial neighborhood cop. Despite their long friendship, Louie hates all cops and unceremoniously puts the kibosh on the couple's wedding plans.
Upstairs, three orphaned boys - 18-year-old Jim (Jimmy Butler), troubled middle child Tommy (Rex Downing), and innocent kid brother Willie (Scotty Beckett, late of Our Gang) - go to live with their cousin Annie and her mother, Mamie (Leona Roberts), who soon after must quit her job as the elderly lady is suffering from tuberculosis. Tommy falls in with a group of juvenile delinquents, and through Jim's new job at a fur warehouse, Tommy steals a fur and brings it to Louie and his gang. Rather than fence the single fur Louie hits upon the idea of hitting the joint and nicking its $50-grand worth of stock.
Edward Norris had been a promising talent at MGM but quickly was more or less passed over in favor of rising star Robert Taylor. Soon after good performances in They Won't Forget (made at Warner Bros., 1937) and Boys Town (1938), Norris ended up at Fox's B-unit. Norris is stuck playing the stereotypical Italian-American gangster: he smokes nothing but the tiniest of cigarette butts, has a perpetually raised left eyebrow, five o'clock shadow, and never blinks. As Louie, Norris closely resembles Joe Flaherty in an SCTV parody sketch.
Yet, in the film's climatic scene, a sort of gender-switch from 3 on a Match, and following an all too predictable plot twist, Norris surprises with a brief look of simultaneous tenderness and resignation that comes out of nowhere and The Escape briefly comes to electrifying life. It lasts all of five seconds, tops, but hints at a much better movie that could have been.
The rest of the picture is standard genre stuff, disappointingly sanitized under Hollywood's fiercely enforced Production Code, but which studios like Warner Bros. often found ways around. Here, everyone's poor but happy and optimistic about the future; only Louie is bitter and discontented. Serial star Kane Richmond's policeman is the idealized, incorruptible cop, and the delinquents are more like the bad apples from Our Gang than the Dead End Kids.
Video & Audio
The Escape's black-and-white, 1.37:1 video transfer is generally good despite some odd artifacting here and there, such as at the 43:37 mark. Likewise, the
mono audio, with no accompanying English or other subtitles, is noticeably wobbly and distorted, though this is mainly noticeable during the opening and end titles and fairly imperceptible in scenes without music. No Extra Features.
Not bad but not really worth the price, either, The Escape is a Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.