An amusing but very light throwaway for Metro's final Red Skelton comedy. Warner Bros.' own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service, the Archive Collection, which caters to movie lovers with a yen for hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released The Great Diamond Robbery, the 1954 comedy from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer starring funnyman Red Skelton, Cara Williams, James Whitmore, Kurt Kasznar, Dorothy Stickney, George Mathews, Harry Bellaver, and Reginald Own. The set-up is humorous and the supporting cast is first-rate, but the "B" nature of the production (with a criminally abbreviated running time) and a rather glum Red clearly add up to a movie that both studio and star could take or leave. An original trailer is included in this good-looking black and white transfer.
Assistant jewel cutter Ambrose C. "Central" Park (Red Skelton) is ready to cut the fabulous 2 million dollar Blue Goddess diamond...if only his boss, jeweler Bainbridge Gibbons (Reginald Owen), believed in Park's contradictory calculations. You see, Gibbons' heavily sedated cutter, Mr. Sahutsky (Sig Arno), insists the diamond should be cut this way, but Ambrose insists it be cut that way, or crumble into worthless dust. Haughty Sahutsky leaves Gibbons in a huff, so the jeweler must find another master cutter―because he's not using Ambrose. Meanwhile, Ambrose spends his lunch hour as he does every day: waiting in Central Park, where he was left as a foundling, hoping his long-gone parents will re-claim him (he puts an ad in the paper every birthday). Getting sadly soused at Jack Kruschen's diner, and subsequently trying to marry old bar fly Connie Gilchrist, Ambrose is arrested on a D & D before shyster lawyer Mr. Remlick (James Whitmore), sensing an easy con, helps him out. Seeing what a nice dope Ambrose is, Remlick figures on soaking Ambrose by "finding" his family for him: gambler Duke Fargoh (George Mathews), his ex-floozy Emily Drumman (Dorothy Stickney), and her real-life daughter and nightclub dancer, Maggie (Cara Williams). Duke, however, thinks Remlick's plan is small potatoes, so he brings in heavy-hitting thugs "Uncle" Tony Medeli (Kurt Kasznar) and "Uncle" Herb (Harry Bellaver), who come up with a more ambitious scam: having Ambrose steal the Blue Goddess diamond.
If only a little more care had been taken with this promising set-up. Now don't get me wrong: The Great Diamond Robbery is a mild laugh-getter, with the occasional chuckles coming mostly from the terrific supporting players. However, seeing how truncated the storyline is, with a paucity of gags and jokes for a distracted Skelton, it's apparent that both studio and star were just going through the motions to satisfy a contract neither were happy with by this point. As I wrote in my review of Half A Hero, Skelton's penultimate film for Metro, Skelton had by 1953 increasingly set his sights on his lucrative, more artistically rewarding work in television. In 1951, he had re-upped with Metro with an expensive contract, but grosses for his films were already dropping off, and his brand of humor wasn't a good match with new studio head, stuffy Dore Schary (M-G-M's increasingly calcified house style did the peripatetic Skelton no favors, either―live TV and radio were far better suited to his manic talents). Running a scant 69 minutes (barely a "B" programmer and almost a "short subject"), The Great Diamond Robbery, according to what I've read, wasn't even reviewed by many major urban papers, such was the lack of publicity and enthusiasm on the part of Metro.
The real proof of The Great Diamond Robbery's reduced circumstances can be seen in Skelton's performance. Subdued to the point of playing straight man to the cast of funny actors, Skelton has maybe one scene where he acts like the "Red Skelton" we know and love: getting drunk at a café and trying to convince floozy Connie Gilchrist to marry him. It's no great shakes in the pantheon of filmed Skelton moments, that's for sure, but its relative singularity in his otherwise undemanding performance is noteworthy...and not in a good way. In a "Red Skelton" movie, he should be the whole show, and he should get the majority of laughs with his mugging, his goofy vocal delivery, his slapstick and pratfalls, and his expert pantomimes. But here in The Great Diamond Robbery, almost none of that is on display in this sincere-but-tired (and frankly boring) performance.
Written by László Vadnay (The Great Rupert, Easy to Love, Ten Thousand Bedrooms, Way...Way Out) and Martin Rackin (1951's The Enforcer, The Stooge, The Horse Soldiers, North to Alaska), and directed in Robert Z. Leonard's clean, anonymous style (The Great Ziegfeld, Maytime, Pride and Prejudice, In the Good Old Summertime), The Great Diamond Robbery does generate some laughs when Skelton's sham family interact. Mathews' rubber-lipped pugnaciousness is always amusing, and Stickney is quite funny and charming when she starts honestly believing her part, worrying about her overworked "son." It's just too bad that The Great Diamond Robbery couldn't have been fleshed-out a bit to allow more gags with Red getting to know his "family" (didn't anyone see the comic possibilities of Red and his attractive "sister" Maggie, played well by sexy Cara Williams, getting closer, instead of the film's abrupt last scene where they suddenly clinch?). Couldn't someone have come up with a finale that delivered an adequate pay-off (the final diamond-cutting scene is funny...but it's over lickety-split). At only 69 minutes, there's not much time in The Great Diamond Robbery for anything further than the most basic plot machinations, leaving little more than a mildly humorous skeleton for this last Metro Skelton.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.