Unexpectedly bland gangster romantic comedy. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Love That Brute, the 1950 remake of Fox's 1941 Tall, Dark and Handsome. With a comedic supporting cast to die for, including Cesar Romero, Keenan Wynn, Joan Davis, Arthur Treacher, Jay C. Flippen, Edwin Max, and little wiseguy Peter Price, Love That Brute should have crackled and snapped, given the familiar-but-funny premise of a gangster trying to romance a prim and proper governess. However, mismatched leads Paul Douglas and Jean Peters are a rather desultory pair, not aided by Alexander Hall's flat direction. No extras for this solid-looking black and white fullscreen transfer.
Chicago, 1928. Christmas. Two gunsels (Kenneth Tobey, Jack Elam) for Northside gangster "Pretty" Willie Wetzchahofsky (Cesar Romero), try putting the squeeze on a balking cigar store owner (Charles Lane), with all three winding up dead in a shootout. Arriving before the cops, and seizing the opportunity for reasons left unsaid (at this point, reader), henchman Bugsy Welch (Keenan Wynn) puts white carnations on the corpses--the calling card of his boss, murderous gangster E.L. "Big Ed" Hanley (Paul Douglas). When the cops come looking for Big Ed, he's got a solid alibi--he was feeding the ducks at the park. Experiencing a severe case of existential angst ("Where am I going? Where does it all pay off? I've got nothing!"), Ed is struck by the sight of Ruth Manning (Jean Peters), a country girl from Michigan looking to make it as a singer in the Chicago clubs, but now working as a children's supervisor for the city's parks service (she doesn't want to work for gangsters or "handsy" club owners...both of which cover "Big Ed"). Immediately recognizing a "woman of class," Ed lies to her, telling Ruth he's a wealthy widower in the trucking business with two sons in need of a governess. She agrees to meet him on Christmas Eve for a job interview, so Big Ed moves into high gear, instructing his Paradise Club showgirl and former flame, Mamie Sage (Joan Davis) to hightail it to his mansion and pretend to be his maid, while Bugsy is charged with finding two kids to pose as Ed's offspring. Bugsy only finds one in time: little "Harry the Kid, Jr." (Peter Price), a tough-talking wiseass usually left to his own devices, courtesy of a boozing aunt. Ruth is leery of the position, particularly whenever Big Ed makes not-so-subtle verbal passes at her, but she agrees to help Ed's little boy. Problems immediately arise for Ed from multiple directions, however, including an uneasy truce with Pretty Willie, and multiple failed attempts to bed Ruth. Everything comes to a head, though, when Big Ed's "tough guy" reputation is questioned, by both Pretty Willie and Ruth.
I can't remember seeing the 1941 version of Tall, Dark and Handsome, with Cesar Romero playing the lead part that Paul Douglas has in this remake, so I can't compare the two versions (an inevitable process, even though I usually dislike doing so). However, something tells me that earlier version might have had a little more pep, a little more zing, with dashing Romero's more probable romancing of Virginia Gilmore guided by helmer H. Bruce Humberstone. Of course, that's guesswork, but I have to believe that first version was somehow better, considering how listlessly Love That Brute comes over. The script is credited on-screen to Tall, Dark and Handsome's original scribes, Karl Tunberg (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, A Yank in the R.A.F., Lucky Jordan) and Darrell Ware, as well as veteran John Lee Mahin (Red Dust, Captains Courageous, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Yearling), although another source I found stated Mahin alone adapted Tunberg's and Ware's old script. Whomever wrote it, Love That Brute's story certainly starts out promisingly enough, with the viewer initially intrigued with Wynn deliberately implicating his seemingly unconcerned boss in a triple homicide (Wynn scores in this first scene, coming over as a funny wisenheimer giving the clueless cops the business). Later, when we learn Love That Brute's central story twist--MAJOR SPOILER ALERT! "Big Ed" isn't a killer but rather a kind-hearted businessman pushed into the rackets, who doesn't actual murder his rivals, but humanely imprisons them in his cellar--it's a fairly clever, novel comedic plot device that "allows" the viewer to like "killer" Douglas. We may not exactly buy the other crucial story element--that Ruth would stay with Big Ed, despite her misgiving about him, for the sake of "Harry the Kid"--but we allow for it along expected lines of romantic comedy genre conventions.
No, what drags down Love That Brute isn't its script, but the main casting and the direction. Given that story set-up, it's essential that we believe, at least at the start, that "Big Ed" is a killer, and that he could believably romance the pretty governess (and vice versa--we have to understand why she'd still be attracted to him despite his crude passes). Peters, one of the most gorgeous stars of the late 1940s and 1950s (for my money, she blows cheap, tawdry tramp Marilyn Monroe right off the screen in the noir classic, Niagara), was known for disdaining any attempts by Fox to manufacture her as a sex symbol, so the uptight, moral governess should have been a good fit for the serious-minded actress. And Douglas, getting some sizeable press and build-up at this time as a sort of loveable mug in the mold of William Bendix and Wallace Beery (his baseball feature, It Happens Every Spring, with Peters and Ray Milland, had been a big, big hit the year before), should have fit in the role of a seemingly tough-guy gangster with a heart of gold.
Unfortunately, neither star is comfortable in their roles, resulting in zero on-screen chemistry when they're together. Douglas, better in dramas like Executive Suite or Clash by Night rather than his comedy outings, not only doesn't register here as a potential tough-guy killer (he's decidedly more schlub than murderer), but he can't pull off romantic suitor, either (his leering, eyebrow-waggling innuendoes towards Peters are...gross; what till you hear him call heartbreaker Peters "baby"). Even his pleading, sincere good-guy trucking boss persona, begging Peters to stay with him over and over again, comes off as forced and off-putting. Peters fares no better, making Ruth seem like a stiff prig incongruously attracted to Douglas right off the bat. We don't buy her, exactly, as a singer/dancer, either; her one number, You Took Advantage of Me is a clumsy effort. She's looks terrific, but she wouldn't even make it to the back row of a chorus line in Peoria. With roles like this, no wonder Peters' up and down career almost bowed out at this early point. Even dependable Cesar Romero seems glum here, perhaps not a surprise when you consider he had the lead role in the story's first incarnation nine years before. It's up to Wynn, Davis, Max (very funny as a sleepy-eyed stooge) and little Price to score the movie's big laughs...too bad they're not on-screen more often (the wonderful Arthur Treacher has nothing to do here). Still, it's hard to say that would have made much difference overall for Love That Brute, since director Alexander Hall (Little Miss Marker, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, My Sister Eileen) approaches the material with such a hands-off, lackadaisical manner. Frequently, set-ups drag on far too long, with the pacing deadly when it should cut in, get its laugh, and cut right out. By the remarkably clunky, dull third act, after the climatic dinner party (which should have been expanded into a farcical finale, naturally ending the whole thing), the plot still has to grind on to its conclusion, long after we've figured everything out. And long after we stopped caring.
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.