erik lundegaard

Wednesday February 19, 2020

Movie Review: Behind Office Doors (1931)


Makes sense that a lot of women-in-office movies were made in the pre-code era. Cheap sets, easy sex.

Mary Astor’s Mary Linden here is the opposite of Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily in “Baby Face.” The latter used her body to get ahead in the business world; Mary uses her brain to help one man get ahead. She’s the smartest person in the room but not exactly looking out for herself. That said, can you still make an argument for her as the better feminist—or at least the better wish-fulfillment fantasy? Where’s the challenge in using men sexually? But getting a man to actually clean up his act? To mold the man you love into the man you want? That’s real power.

Not exactly Gary Cooper
“Behind Office Doors” isn’t much, and the blurry, public-domain version on Amazon Prime doesn't help. I wish they'd stop that. 

First, a few cultural tidbits.

  • In the first scene, we see some partying adults play a game called “Truth,” which is like “Truth or Dare” before the “Dare.” It’s just an agreement you won’t lie or prevaricate. Here, as with the longer version today, it’s a party game, a means of titillation, a potential precursor to making out/sex. Ronnie Wales (Ricardo Cortez) plays it with Mary but it stops at kissing. Turns out she’s in love with another man.
  • When Mary proves unwilling, another girl offers herself, saying she’s a “grass widow”—meaning her husband’s often away. Yes, I had to look that up.
  • You know that kid’s bit where you point at someone’s chest and when they look down, flick your hand up at their nose? Mary’s friend, Delores (Kitty Kelly), does it to Mary here. The implication is: Don’t be a sucker. I find it fascinating it was already a thing in 1931.
  • As was talking about yourself in the third person. The man Mary loves, womanizing salesman Jim Duneen (Robert Ames), does it constantly in the first half of the movie. “Consider the Duneen is on his way.” “The Great Duneen isn’t dressed yet, but come in, honey.” Yes, he’s a jerk. It was the province of jerks back then, too.

The Great Duneen is the movie’s main sticking point. He’s a real creep (slapping Delores on the ass and saying “You pack a gun, girlie?”), and not exactly Gary Cooper (Ames died within a year at age 41 of alcoholism), so what does Mary see in him? It’s such a head-scratcher that Delores asks her to explain. For us. She tells a story about being so overwhelmed on her first day of work that she wound up crying in the hallway. Duneen found her, bucked her up, told her to keep up a bluff. He gave her the secret to life: “Everybody in the world was bluffing.” She never forgot it. 

“Oh, he don’t look like no big brother to me,” Delores says.

Exactly. And Mary doesn’t seem the type to wilt in the hallway. But onward.

Delores thinks Mary’s a sap for not going for Ronnie, who’s rich, estranged from his wife, and crazy about her. Plus he’s the dude on the poster. But no soap. He’s barely in it.

Instead, Mary does the following:

  • Convinces the retiring owner of Ritter & Co. Wholesale Paper (Est. 1889) to sell the company to his employees.
  • Convinces Ritter, and banker Robinson (William Morris), that Duneen would be a good man to lead it.
  • Tells Duneen what to say to get the gig. She even writes it down for him.
  • Then she squirts ink on his loud, striped shirt and recommends a white one for the meeting.

That’s just for starters. After Duneen gets the VP job, she tones down his angry letters, suggests new business avenues, and he becomes president. And how does he repay her? Hires another assistant, a floozy named Daisy Presby (Edna Murphy), who seems good at just one thing. Yes, that. How do we know? The price tag of the lingerie she’d bought at Wimball’s—and cattily showed off to Mary—winds up on Duneen’s bedroom floor.

Eventually Mary classes up Duneen enough that he’s actually a catch, and, whoops, he becomes engaged to Ellen (Catherine Dale Owen), the banker’s daughter. Ellen’s no fool, either. She senses Mary’s love for her fiancé and wants her out, but as always Mary has to do the heavy lifting. She concocts an excuse (job offer with better pay), and quits, leaving Duneen flustered and out of his element.

The script was written by Carey Wilson (112 credits, AA nomination for “Mutiny on the Bounty,” said to be Louis B. Mayer’s favorite screenwriter), and Alan Schultz (one credit—this), and we get some good lines. When Mary gets dolled up for a business soiree, and asks Duneen what’s wrong with her frock, he responds, “Absolutely nothing. Looks like you been poured in it and forgot to say when.”

My favorite, though, is the piecemeal way Daisy reveals the disasters that have happened in Mary’s absence:

  • No, she never processed the orders Duneen sent while on his business trip because they weren’t marked RUSH; she waited for him to get back.
  • No, she can’t process them now because she forwarded them to his house.
  • No, the butler can’t bring them to the office because of the fire at his home.
  • No, she’s not sure how it started, but she thought the firemen were very rude to imply it was her cigarette.
  • No, she didn’t fall asleep smoking; she was just “thinking with her eyes closed.”

Eventually, Daisy is canned, the engagement is called off, Mary returns. For a second it looks like we’ll end there, with Mary taking dictation again from the company president she made. Instead: cut to a final scene of Delores at the switchboard, getting a late call from her boyfriend, and seeing a note before her: Duneen and Mary have left to get married. “Ain’t that grand?” she says. That’s the end. The marriage, like Cagney’s death in “Public Enemy,” takes place off-camera. One wonders if it was added at the behest of a studio head or preview audiences. Or both.

Nobody gets out of here alive
“Behind Office Doors,” an RKO Picture, starts out like a wise-cracking Warner Bros. flick, then, under Mary’s tutelage, becomes a more staid MGM movie. I like the Warners part. That's where the cultural references are. At one point, Mary tells Duneen, “What do you think I came here for? Find out there’s one more cough in a carload?” Turns out Not a cough in a carload was an ad slogan for Old Gold cigarettes back then. In the same conversation, Duneen offers her a cocktail but it has OJ in it and she turns it down. For that, he calls her “Mrs. Rick” and adds “And the next time you come, we’ll have that sauerkraut you crave.” Radio show? Song lyric? Another ad? Anyone? I can't find it. 

Overall, there’s a real “Nobody gets out of her alive” vibe to the cast. Most of the people in it either stopped making movies shortly afterwards or died:

  • Ames died of the DTs in 1931.
  • Catherine Dale Owen stopped making movies in 1931.
  • Edna Murphy stopped making movies in 1933.
  • William Morris died in 1936.
  • Charles Sellon died in 1937. 

Only three of the principles had any kind of career after this.

Kitty Kelly, who may be the best thing in the movie, continued to work steadily into the 1960s, but mostly in small roles. In one of her last, she played “Third Poor Person” in a 1966 episode of “Batman.” And no, she’s not that Kitty Kelley.

Ricardo Cortez, nee Jacob Krantz, who was trying to become the next Valentino, and who played the first Sam Spade in “Maltese Falcon” this same year, gave up acting for Wall Street in the early 1950s—although he returned for an episode of “Bonanza” in 1960. He died in 1977. 

Mary Astor, of course, continued working in movies and television until 1964. She won an Oscar in 1941 for supporting actress in “The Great Lie”—most likely aided by the fact that she played her most famous part, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, in John Huston’s “Maltese Falcon” that same year. She died in 1987.

As “Behind Closed Doors” began, I actually mixed up my Malteses. I thought, “Hey, they’re together here before they’re together in ‘Maltese Falcon.’” It took a second before the other shoe dropped.

Could you make this movie today? Possibly. But you obviously couldn’t end it where it ended it. Tables would need to be reversed. Mary would get the company, and maybe Ronnie, who would be a doctor for the poor or something. I do like the idea of a woman refining and molding the man she loves only to lose him because he becomes such a catch. She cleans him up beyond her pay grade. You could make dark comedy out of that.

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Posted at 12:28 PM on Feb 19, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
Tuesday February 18, 2020

Joe vs. the Volcanic Mob

“No, I don't think the Astros used buzzers.

”And I do think that it is time for Major League Baseball to forcefully, explicitly and unequivocally say exactly that, to say that the Astros did not cheat in 2019 and all statements to the contrary are false and irresponsible unless they come with new evidence.

“We are in the middle of the feeding frenzy portion of this Astros cheating thing. Every crisis has one. It's the point where everybody — the media, the others in the industry, everybody — piles on and tries to push the story as far as it can go. One person suggests taking away the 2017 World Series, the next person suggest barring the Astros from postseason play for three years, the next person suggests giving all the players involved a one-year suspension, the next person suggests it should be a five-year suspension, the next person suggests pulling the Astros off television, the next person suggests taking the Astros away from Houston, on and on, there will be no end to the wrath, not until this portion of the crisis fades.”

“And it is the responsibility of MLB to try and get to the point where the crisis starts fading. There's only so much the commissioner Rob Manfred and his people can do ... but my argument here is that they have to do EVERYTHING THEY CAN to get baseball moving forward.”

— Joe Posnanski, “The Astros Experience”

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Posted at 01:38 PM on Feb 18, 2020 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  

‘Louis, I think this is the beginning of a — Watch out! Behind that pier!’

From “City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s,” by Otto Friedrich. This is in a section on “Casablanca”: the making/marketing of:

There was such indecision about [which man Ilsa would choose] that the authorities finally decided to shoot both possibilities. “They were going to shoot two endings,” Miss Bergman said, “because they couldn't work out whether I should fly off by airplane with my husband or stay with Humphrey Bogart. So the first ending we shot was that I say good-bye to Humphrey Bogart and fly off with Paul Henreid. . . . And everybody said. ‘Hold it! That’s it! We don't have to shoot the other ending.' ” Even that ending, with Bogart and Rains walking off into the night, needed a closing line. One version was that Bogart would say, “Louis, I might have known you'd mix your patriotism with a little larceny.” Wallis claimed that he was the one who thought of something better: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And even then, they didn't know what they had achieved.

At a sneak preview in Huntington Park, the audience seemed mildly pleased, but several viewers handed in cards that said the ending seemed unclear. Would Bogart and Rains be arrested? Wallis ordered a new closing scene written, in which Bogart and Rains escaped from Casablanca on a freighter. And somebody in the publicity department said a new title should be found, because Casablanca sounded like a brand of beer.

Can you imagine if they'd listened? Filmed more? Showed their flight out of Casablanca? But I assume most people in Hollywood know that if your test-screen audiences says they want more, then you‘ve got ’em. 

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Posted at 07:27 AM on Feb 18, 2020 in category Market Research   |   Permalink  
Monday February 17, 2020

Joe's Top 100: 41-50

No. 41. Both ways. 

This is the part of the list where Joe gets a little cute. Too cute? He was a bit cute placing Joe DiMaggio 56th, for the streak, but check out what he does here:

50 Nolan Ryan 37 81.2 60 P
49 Warren Spahn -6 99.7 32 P
48 Ken Griffey Jr. 3 83.8 56 OF
47 Wade Boggs 5 91.4 43 3B
46 Eddie Mathews -8 96.6 33 3B
45 Bob Gibson -6 89.1 47 P
44 Cal Ripken Jr. -9 95.9 36 SS
43 Yogi Berra 2 59.8 191 C
42 Jackie Robinson 0 61.4 170 2B
41 Tom Seaver X 109.9 21 P

Three of the last five are in the same place as their uniform number: Gibson 45th, Robinson famously 42nd, and Tom Terrific at 41. 

Gibson and Jackie I can see, but bWAR ranks Seaver 21st overall, so 41st feels like a demotion for the sake of the number. Not sure what's next. Rickey Henderson at No. 24? Frank Robinson at 20? A-Rod at 13? Killebrew at No. 3? 

Kidding. I‘ve resigned myself to Killer not making the cut. 

That said, the pitchers who will rank ahead of Seaver are also legends: Grover Cleveland, Maddux, Unit, Lefty, Christy, Cy. What are you gonna do? The one argument is Pedro Martinez. I know Joe ranks his 1999 and 2000 seasons among the best ever, but he didn’t have the longevity that Seaver did. 

Speaking of pitchers, they‘re dominating. The first 60 greatest players by position:

  • P: 20.5
  • C: 5
  • 1B: 8
  • 2B: 3.5
  • SS: 5.5
  • 3B: 5
  • OF: 12

I figure 10 more pitchers, too, making a third of the lineup. Is bWAR weighted too much for pitchers and too little for catchers? I still make that argument. By bWar, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry and Bert Blyleven were all better than Johnny Bench—and it’s not close. They‘re also better than George Brett, Rod Carew, Pete Rose and Ken Griffey Jr. 

Speaking of: Nice to see Junior here. In the earlier list, he got stuck at 51. So two of the guys I watched regularly in the ’90s will make the top 50 all-time. No, wait: three! A-Rod as well. Are there three other guys in the top 50 who were teammates for at least three seasons and whose team never won a pennant? Ah, the joy and sadness of being a Seattle fan. We saw greatness just not there. 

It's interesting to see which legends he's going to eliminate. He's running out of room. Forty spots left. If he includes both Mike Trout and Turkey Stearns, which I think he's gonna, one of the legends is gone. I assume Cap Anson. 

You know what else this means? Just 40 days to Opening Day.

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Posted at 08:50 AM on Feb 17, 2020 in category Baseball   |   Permalink  
Sunday February 16, 2020

Box Office: ‘Birds’ Falls, ‘Parasite’ Leaves Basement


Now at $43 million domestic, $171 worldwide. Beats folding pizza boxes.

There was a lot of chatter on Twitter last week about the opening-weekend box office for “Birds of Pre,” the “Suicide Squad” spinoff starring Margot Robbie and other young actresses playing kick-ass Gotham City villains/not-villains, with nary a Batman or Joker in sight.

OK, the chatter was less about the box office ($33 mil) as the way it was reported: “low,” “down,” “flailing.” The usual suspects attacked the messenger, argued the stats, and talked up organizing groups to go to the movie's second weekend to keep the world safe for women-made and womencentric movies. 

Me: More power to ya.

The results? Yeah, the movie's BO dropped nearly 50% to $17 mil. It finished second for the weekend to “Sonic the Hedgehog,” whose 3-day total of $57 million almost matches “Prey”'s 10-day total of $59 million. The usual suspects will probably object to this now, or to the way it's being framed, but I don't know how you could frame it positively. DCEU movies already plays sloppy seconds to MCU movies, and “Birds” has the worst box office among those. The previous DCEU low was “Shazam!” but even it reached $59 million in four days. For “Wonder Woman” it took a day and a half. “Batman v. Superman”? Not even a day. 

Alright, here's a way to frame it positively: “Birds” opened to about the same gross as Fox's “Dark Phoenix” ($33/$32), but “Phoenix” fell off 71% on its second weekend and wound up with a total domestic box office of $65.8. So “Birds” will at least do better than that. 

Oh, here's another: It's probably not the movie, which got good reviews (79% on Rotten Tomatoes). It's deciding to make the movie in the first place. Yes, Robbie was the best thing in “Suicide Squad” but that's like saying the maraschino cherry is the best thing on a shit sundae; most folks are still going to remember the shit. Plus these are all third- and fourth-tier characters. I suppose you could frame it like that; that it's a wonder it's done as well as it has. But no one in Hollywood is framing it that way. 

Elsewhere, the much-slammed “Fantasy Island” horror reboot (9% RT) finished third with $12.4; the black romance “The Photograph” was fourth with $12.2; “Bad Boys for Life” added another $11.3 as it creeps toward $200 million domestic ($181); and the disappointing “Downhill” (40% RT) with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell finished 10th with just $4.6.

Last Sunday, “Parasite” got all the love at the Oscars, winning best picture, director, screenplay and international film, and its distibutor, Neon, tried to capitalize by increasing its distribution twofold to 2,001 theaters. It worked: the movie earned another $5 mil to reach $44.3 domestic, $171 worldwide. But the Oscar-winner still finished the weekend behind “1917,” which grossed another $8 million to reach $145/$323. That said, “Parasite” is now the fifth-highest-grossing foreign-language film in the U.S., and tomorrow will surpass “Instructions Not Included” for fourth place. I think it'll wind up there. Ahead of it: “Hero” ($53), “Life is Beautiful” ($57) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ($128).

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Posted at 03:24 PM on Feb 16, 2020 in category Movies - Box Office   |   Permalink  
Saturday February 15, 2020

Screenshot: You Only Live Once (1937)

From Fritz Lang's “You Only Live Once,” starring Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda. And yes, that's not Henry Fonda.

“...the electric eye which detects metal”: love that. How long before they shortened it? Or was this an overlong name for moviegoers unfamiliar with the tech? And hey, when did metal detectors become a thing anyway?

For the modern version, apparently, the 1920s

In this scene, Joan (Sidney), the secretary to a perpetually scowling public defender (Barton MacLane), is trying to smuggle a gun to her boyfriend, Eddie Taylor (Fonda), who's been convicted of a crime he didn't commit—a favorite Lang theme. Father Dolan (William Gargan) covers for her here but then demands the gun. Is this her first attempt at breaking the law? In the last half hour, Eddie and Joan become a kind of Bonnie and Clyde, but nicer. Fonda's character is similar to his Tom Joad two years later; he begins both movies getting out of jail and is pretty touchy about anyone asking questions. Fonda's persona would smooth out over the years but I like this version, too.

Does anyone know if this is where we get the James Bond title “You Only Live Twice”? Was it playing off of this movie? Or just off the general adage?

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Posted at 08:28 AM on Feb 15, 2020 in category Photo of the Day   |   Permalink  
Friday February 14, 2020

Kirk Douglas (1916-2020)

As Col. Dax in Stanley Kubrick's “Paths of Glory.” Douglas made the most of his movie stardom. 

I first saw him as an impression, Frank Gorshin or David Frye on some late ‘60s or ’70s variety show, all seething talk through clenched teeth in a sometimes-cracked voice, with maybe an index finger creating a hole in the chin. He was always one of the regular imitations, along with Bogart, Cagney, Nixon. I still think of Joe Flaherty's line, “Must be some kind of FREAK,” in an SCTV episode of “What's My Shoe Size?,” and laugh.

So when did I first see him on the big screen? Much later. Probably “The Man from Snowy River” when I ushered at the Boulevard I and II in south Minneapolis. That became one of my mom's favorite movies. No, wait! “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”! Of course. As a kid. He wore a striped shirt. Like us.

Most of his movies, though, came to me as an adult, piecemeal. I never binged on him the way I did with Bogart or Cagney. I would be reading about John F. Kennedy, say, and then watch “Seven Days in May,” which Kennedy thought plausible as a potential American coup. Martin Scorsese's film history doc led to “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “Two Weeks in Another Town.” An interest in film noir led to “Out of the Past.” Did I see “Paths of Glory” before I wrote that piece for The Believer? I think so but I didn't realize how good it was until then. And “Spartacus” just once? On a big screen somewhere?

When I was growing up, Douglas' great films were considered “Lust for Life” and maybe “Champion.” Now it's the ones I just mentioned. Via IMDb's user ratings:

  1. Paths of Glory (8.4)
  2. Ace in the Hole (8.2)
  3. Out of the Past (8.0)
  4. Spartacus (7.9)
  5. Seven Days in May (7.9)
  6. The Bad and the Beautiful (7.8)

He made the most of his 1950s movie stardom but stumbled after the mid-1960s. Burt Lancaster, his partner in crime, the Wyatt Earp to his Doc Holliday, kept getting memorable roles in memorable films: “Atlantic City,” “Local Hero,” “Field of Dreams.” Less so, Douglas. When did he begin to realize it was no longer going his way? He kept playing military men (“In Harm's Way,” “Cast a Giant Shadow”) as much of the U.S. turned from the military. He retreated to the western (“The War Wagon,” “The Way West”) as the western was dying, then tried to hook up with one-time A-list directors like Elia Kazan and Joseph Mankiewicz for edgier material (“The Arrangement,” “There Was a Crooked Man...”). Soon he was making made-for-TV movies and playing sloppy seconds to the latest craze. Two years after “The Omen,” he found out his son was the anti-Christ in the Italian-made “The Chosen.” A year after “Raid on Entebbe,” he starred in “Victory at Entebbe.” In 1980's “Saturn 3,” he was paired with two favorites from 1977: sci-fi and Farrah Fawcett. But at least there was “Snowy River.” 

He was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky, the son of a poor ragman selling wares by wagon in Amsterdam, New York. It was such a part of his identity it became the title of his 1988 autobiography: “The Ragman's Son.” His theater pal Lauren Bacall helped him get into movies, and, again, he made the most of it. Not everyone agreed. John Wayne was apparently horrified, for example, that Douglas chose to play Vincent Van Gogh. After the premiere of “Lust for Life,” he lambasted him. “Christ, Kirk, how can you play a part like that? There's so few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.” Douglas responded that it was all make-believe, and that he, John Wayne, wasn't really John Wayne, after all, but that just confused the Duke. Douglas might‘ve brought up WWII, since Douglas fought in it and Wayne didn’t. 

Will his true legacy be helping to end the blacklist by giving Dalton Trumbo credit on “Spartacus”? Though the battle for that legacy is still being fought. And the reactionary right still disparages Hollywood every chance it gets. 

Man, but look at that birth year. Imagine the world he came into and the one he left, and seeing it all.

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Posted at 07:17 AM on Feb 14, 2020 in category Movies   |   Permalink  
Thursday February 13, 2020

Movie Review: Frisco Kid (1935)


It works for a while. Bat Morgan (James Cagney) is a sailor who comes ashore in 1850s San Francisco only to be shanghaied onto another vessel. Or nearly. He wakes up as his attacker is rowing him to the ship, attacks the attacker, and both men go into the drink. Bat swims ashore, where, under the boardwalk, he’s found by a friendly Jewish tailor, Solomon “Solly” Green (George E. Stone), who could get as much as $250 for him but instead nurses him back to health. Bat chastises him later for it. 

Bat: And you call yourself a businessman? Why didn’t you turn me over to his ship?
Solly: I sell merchandise, not men.

Nice line. After that, Bat follows Solly’s example and becomes a better man.

Kidding. Bat adopts the code of those who shanghaied him (“dog eat dog”) rather than the one who saved him. In fact, he winds up causing the death of the one who saved him.

Yeah, it’s kind of fucked up.

The swells
“Frisco Kid,” directed by Lloyd Bacon (“42nd Street”), and written by Warren Duff (“Angels with Dirty Faces”) and Seton I. Miller (“Adventures of Robin Hood”), is Cagney’s first period piece. He’s in fine form with longish hair and a stocking cap, but he never thought much of the flick. In his autobiography, he called it “one of those catch-as-catch-can affairs Warners put out purely because they had to be put out. By that I mean Frisco Kid had already been sold to the exhibitors even before a foot of it had been shot or conceived.”

Bat’s rise on the Barbary Coast is fun but too quick. He shanghais Slugs (Joe Sawyer), the guy who shanghaied him, then tosses in another of Slugs’ victims for a quick $500 ... which he quickly loses at the blackjack table to a cheating Paul Morra (Ricardo Cortez, Sam Spade in the original “Maltese Falcon”), who also happens to own the place. So much of Bat’s rise is in the establishments. At the low end is The Occidental, where he first got shanghaied, and which is run by Spider Burke (Barton MacLane, the future Gen. Peterson on “I Dream of Jeannie”). With cash, he rises to Morra’s, which includes a few respectable people, and where he becomes a bouncer after killing Slugs’ accomplice, the Shanghai Duck (Fred Kohler). But he’s got bigger dreams. He wants to be the biggest and most important guy in town—and he does that by enlisting the help of powerbroker Jim Daley (Joe King). Together, they create the Bella Pacifica, with its mirrored glass and marbled bar, and which caters to “the swells” and “society blades.”

Why does Daley even listen to Bat? Because he’s got an idea, see? The local newspaper, run by Charles Ford (Donald Woods), is on a campaign to clean up the Barbary Coast. “The town is tired of having a dirty neck,” Bat tells Daley. “And they may try to wash it—unless we buy up all the soap.”

Right. It’s a little vague. All the businesses kick in to Daley/Bat—protection money, I believe—but the first part of Bat’s scheme? Quieting Ford and his newspaper? Doesn’t happen. In fact, Daley wants Ford dead. But Bat met Ford once and immediately liked him, for no good reason other than he’s supposed to like him, so Bat confronts the would-be assassin, Spider Burke, and knocks him out. Later, Burke tries to shoot Bat, but Solly inadvertently steps in the way. Down he goes. And with him, the best part of the movie.

Now we’re just left with the romance. Jean Barrat (Margaret Lindsay) is the publisher, or something, of the newspaper. Her father used to run it but he was knifed in the back for taking on the Barbary Coast. “I’m only telling you this,” she says to Ford, “so you know you’ve taken a dangerous position.” Judge Crawford (Robert McWade) warns Ford, too, but in the other direction: He has to say something to clean up the town. The Judge is a pain throughout. He shows up just to hector people: Ford isn’t doing enough; Jean shouldn’t get involved with Bat. Etc.

Jean: I think there’s a very worthwhile and human side to his character.
Judge: I can’t understand you, Jean.
Jean (light laugh): I can’t understand myself sometimes.

Yuck. But it’s that Warner Bros. ethos. Our guy isn’t bad, he’s just trying to survive in a crummy world. If only he could become respectable. At the same time, we don't want him to become respectable. Those guys are boring. Basically:

Scum Charming Crooks Dull Society
Spider Burke Bat Morgan Jean Barrat
Slugs Crippen Paul Morra Charles Ford
Shanghai Duck   Judge Crawford

The Judge is so annoying that when he builds an opera house, Bat can’t resist tweaking his nose. He invites a few raucous Barbary friends, who horrify the swells. Unfortunately, Morra shows up uncharacteristically drunk and invades the Judge’s box; when the Judge objects, he shoots him.

The rest of the movie is lynch mobs. Ford turns back the first mob with a fiery speech about rule of law—only to discover Daley has freed Morra. So he confronts Daley, decks him, and is shot dead by him. That leads to the second lynch mob, which extracts both Morra and Daley from prison, puts them through a kangaroo court, and hangs them. (Morra goes with aplomb; Daley whimpering.) Now they target Bat. He prevented the Barbary Coast mob from burning down the newspaper, but the citizens’ mob doesn't know that, and probably wouldn't care, and they burn down his place and take him prisoner. At the kangaroo court, he's about to get a death sentence when Jean shows up and pleads his case: “You hanged Morra and Dailey because they killed. Bat Morgan has killed no one!” 

Me: Well, Spider Burke, most likely, but we can let that one go. 

In his own defense, Bat says this:

The only thing I’m guilty of is trying to make good. Make good my own way. [Pause] Which was wrong, I found that out.

Ouch. That pause. 

Anyway, the vigilante committee remands Bat to her care. She says she has faith in him. He says she won’t regret it.

We regret it. The end.

Where have you gone, Lili Damita?
It's an odd end. The couple is together but basically surrounded. This was from the period when Warners didn't kill off Cagney. After “Public Enemy,” I don't think he died onscreen again until “Ceiling Zero,” his next picture after this one, which was a sacrificial death, as was, in a way, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” a few pictures after that. Then it was off to the races. Then moidah the bum. 

A couple more things worth mentioning about “Frisco Kid.”

On race matters: There’s just one non-white face, Wong Chung playing Chung. We first see him as another player at Morra’s blackjack table; after Bat builds Bella Pacifica, we see him in Bat’s office, shining his shoes. That’s about it. Of the 45 credits IMDb lists for Wong, 44 are uncredited. The one that isn’t is the Anna May Wong vehicle “King of Chinatown” (1939), in which he plays “Chinese man”—which is his credit (or uncredit) in 11 other movies. This is the fourth movie in which he actually has a name, and it’s his third with “Frisco” in the title. The others: “Frisco Jenny” (1932) and “Fog Over Frisco” (1934).

Charles Middleton, soon to play Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon,” also has a bit part as a rabble rouser.

Fourth-billed is an actress named Lili Damita, who’s barely in it. She plays Belle, Morra’s girl, and helps him cheat. She’s also in a lot of publicity shots for the film—including cheek to cheek with Cagney—but again, she’s barely in it, and never with her cheeks near Cagney’s. Was her part cut? Was she was just a name to draw in the crowds? In her obit from 1994, The New York Times says the French-born actress was “one of Hollywood's most glamorous celebrities in the early years of talking pictures,” starring opposite Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper and Laurence Olivier, while romantically linked to Prince Louis Ferninand. A 1929 Times headline reads: LILI DAMITA ENGAGED TO KAISER’S GRANDSON. A day later, this errata: HOHENZOLLERNS DENY PRINCE IS TO WED.

“Frisco Kid” is one of her last pictures. What happened? Chiefly, she married an up-and-comer named Errol Flynn. They divorced a few years later, of course, but they had a son, Sean, who—no surprise—was a handsome sonovuabitch. He made a few knockoff movies in the early 1960s trading on his dad’s fame but apparently died in Cambodia in 1970. As a soldier? No, a photojournalist. He went to Vietnam in 1966 for Paris-Match, was wounded, left to cover the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, then returned with plans for a documentary. He and a colleague went missing from Cambodia in 1970; they were never found. His mother had him declared legally dead in the 1980s.

Me: Wow, they should make a movie of this.

They did: “The Road to Freedom,” 2010, loosely based. The Times thought it awful, calling it “a howler.”

Damita did marry again. From her obit: “Her second marriage in 1962 to Allen B. Loomis, an Iowa manufacturer, also ended in divorce.” Not sure why the Times sounds so dismissive here. They were married 20+ years. Plus it’s somehow charming: from a prince, to a movie star, to an Iowa manufacturer. Even those guys—us guys—get a chance now and again. 

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Posted at 07:12 AM on Feb 13, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s   |   Permalink  
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