Monday October 11, 2021
Movie Review: A Slight Case of Murder (1938)
I don’t mean Edward G. Robinson playing a gangster, since he was supposed to do that. He played eight of them between “Little Caesar” and this. I'm talking something more specific: Robinson, in a comedy, playing a gangster boss who tries to go legit after Prohibition is repealed in 1933 and runs into trouble.
In “The Little Giant,” from ’33, Robinson played “Bugs” Ahearn, who decides to take his Prohibition-era dough and scram to LA/Hollywood, and mingle with the jet-set there. The joke is he thinks he’s entering refined society but they’re actually bigger crooks than he is.
In this one, he plays Remy Marco, a Prohibition-era gangster who decides, after repeal, to keep selling his beer legally. The joke is he doesn’t know his beer sucks, and, with tons of legal options, no one will buy it. Thus: trouble.
“A Slight Case of Murder” is based on the play by Howard Lindsay and Damon Runyon—Runyon’s only theatrical production—which ran for 60 or so shows in the fall of 1935. It was basically contemporaneous with repeal so the “sucky beer” gag makes sense. Warner Bros. also makes “Slight Case” contemporaneous—but to the year it was released: 1938. Meaning Marco has been trying to sell his awful beer for five years? And no one’s told him? I had trouble getting past that.
- “Say, you mugs, why aren’t we selling anything?”
- “Well, the beer sucks, boss.”
- “What are saying about Marco’s beer?”
- “I’m saying it’s no good, boss.”
- Sips. Spits. “Say, you’re right! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
We get a scene like that but way, way too late. As a gag, I’ll buy his ignorance for a month or two. But five years? The gag loses its fizz and loses my interest.
That’s one aspect of the plot: Marco wheeling and dealing to keep the bank from seizing his brewery because he’s selling sucky beer and doesn’t know it. (Robinson is good, by the way, at drawing out the comedy of a man super confident in what everyone else knows is wrong.)
Marco’s financial troubles necessitate calling back his daughter, Mary (Jane Bryan), from her studies in France, and they all decide to meet at their Saratoga home in Upstate New York. And she’s got news: She’s engaged to the well-heeled Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker), who, feeling he should have some kind of job, gets one with the police. But his attempts to introduce himself at the Saratoga home are constantly rebuffed by Marco and his gang (Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, Harold Huber, an All-Star assemblage of Warner Bros. character actors), who assume he’s just another cop hassling them.
Remy brings with him an orphan from his former orphanage—a kid named Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom, played with “so’s your old man” charm by Bobby Jordan, one of the original Dead End Kids. Oh, and before they arrive, the nearby racetrack is robbed and the five crooks are hanging out with the dough at Marco’s home, upstairs, until one of them, the oddly named Innocence, panics and shoots the other four.
All of this, plus Whitewood’s uptight dad at Marco’s boisterous party, set the stage for madcap antics and misperceptions. You can definitely see the play in it. Once we arrive in Saratoga, I don’t think we move from the home.
I like the idea that finding four dead bodies upstairs isn’t a big deal for these gangsters, as it would be for most of us. In fact, they put the bodies to good use by depositing them on the doorsteps of Marco’s enemies. But once the gang finds out there’s a reward, dead or alive, the bodies are retrieved and stuffed in a closet upstairs.
Amid the chaos, order of a kind is restored. Marco uses the stolen racetrack money to convince the bankers he’s flush, so they extend his mortgage and his brewery is saved. He convinces his future son-in-law that the dead gangsters in the closet are alive and has him shoot them—and the kid becomes a hero in the process. A stray bullet from his jittery hand kills Innocence. The movie ends abruptly with Marco fainting at the news.
A standout is Ruth Donnelly as Marco’s wife, Nora, who is forever forgetting to put on airs and keeps returning to her plain-talking patois. But “A Slight Case of Murder” is just that: slight.