erik lundegaard


Monday March 20, 2023

Movie Review: The Widow from Chicago (1930)

And a swastika satchel shall save her.


Commissioner Gordon is in the middle of molesting a young dime-a-dance girl when he spots his Nazi-emblazoned leather satchel in the corner of her bedroom and realizes something is up.

OK, so a few misleading parts to that sentence.

Yes, about a half hour into “The Widow from Chicago,” actor Neil Hamilton—who would memorably and comically play Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s TV series “Batman,” and who here plays mobster “Swifty” Dorgan—spots his satchel in the bedroom of dime-a-dance girl Polly Henderson (Alice White). And yes, it does have two prominent swastikas emblazoned on one side. But this was 1930, several years before the Nazis came to power in Germany, and, at the time, the swastika in the U.S. was basically a Native American good-luck symbol. Per the outer rim of these symbols, in fact, we see the satchel came from the “Swastika Hotel,” which was a chain, or at least a name, that really existed. There were many Swastika hotels and lodges throughout the western United States at the time. Other things were named for or emblazoned with swastikas as well: towns, avenues, companies. This began changing in the late 1930s—as this 1938 headline says—for obvious reasons:

The one thing that’s not misleading about my sentence above? “Swifty” Dorgan is about to rape Polly. He backs her into her bedroom saying “Chick-chick-chick-chick, shoo shoo” (super creepy), then grabs her and kisses her against her will. It’s only when he sees the swastikas that he stops. Thank god for swastikas.

Oh, he’s not the villain of the movie, either. He’s its romantic lead.

The charade
Edward G. Robinson, who does play the movie’s villain, Dominic, didn’t think much of “Widow.” A Broadway star of the 1920s, he’d made a few silents and had been courted by MGM’s Irving Thalberg but turned him down. “His eyes showed me that an actor was beneath contempt,” Robinson wrote in his 1973 autobiography. Instead, Robinson signed with Warner Bros., and “The Widow from Chicago” was his first film under that five-year deal. 

It wasn’t exactly he wanted. Edward F. Cline, he said, was nice enough but no real director, star Alice White was “almost entirely without acting ability,” and he was full of doubts about himself. “What the hell did I know about a vice baron with a passion for nightclubs?” he wrote. Since his next picture, “Little Caesar,” made him famous for playing such “vice barons,” I assume that line is tinged with irony. It’s wrong, too. He’s great in this: measured, calculating, in charge. I’d add he was also wrong about Alice White. I don’t know if she could play Ophelia, but she’s great as a big-eyed, tough-talking flapper. Most of the actors in this movie are rather flat. The only ones that pop are White, Robinson, and Frank McHugh playing a comic-relief, Harold Lloyd-ish gangster. He’s so good in a silent film kind of way, it made me wonder if talkies came too early for McHugh. He might’ve been bigger earlier.

The story starts out convoluted and then gets nonsensical.

Two cops investigating Dominic’s gang confront a visiting Chicago gangster, Swifty, on a train, but he bolts over the side and into the river. Since no one in Dominic’s mob has ever seen Swifty, one of the cops, Jimmy Henderson (Harold Goodwin), pretends to be him. He keeps bragging to his sister, Polly (White), and talking himself up in the third person. “Something tells me I’m gonna get a big earful,” he tells her. He does. He’s shot in the street. 

Already, problems:

  1. What do the cops have on Swifty that he’d risk his life rather than simply talk to them?
  2. Does Dominic know he just killed a cop? (He does)
  3. Do the NYPD? They seem pretty blasé about losing one of their own. (Until the 11th hour)

Anyway, that’s why Polly goes undercover as Swifty’s wife, the titular widow from Chicago. But on the same day Dominic hires her as a dime-a-dance girl, guess who shows up? Swifty. Oops.

Except at this point she’s the known commodity—no one’s ever seen him—so in a way Dominic uses her to I.D. him, and Swifty plays it cool until he figures out what her game is. Back at her place, she says she’s just taking Dominic for a ride, which is when we get the “chick, chick, chick” scene; but after he sees his satchel (which he calls his “grip”), she comes clean. He wants to come clean, too—to Dominic—but doesn’t. Why? “It’s a lucky thing for you that you ran across a good guy like me before you stubbed your toe,” he says. Right. Near rape notwithstanding.

Suddenly, for no reason, she’s holding all the cards. He wants her to scram but she figures Dominic will need to see them together so they’ll need to maintain the charade. Not by living together, of course. She tells him to get a room someplace, and then use the back staircase to take her to breakfast every morning. After listening to her orders, he says, “This is just like being married.” Badda-bum.

Much of the subsequent tension is about the charade. Does Dominic suspect? Is he onto them? Meanwhile, Swifty goes undercover as a waiter at the nightclub of rival mobster Chris Johnson (Lee Shumway)—which is surely the blandest name of any Hollywood gangster ever. Dominic plans a midnight heist/hit on Johnson, but Johnson is warned away by Jimmy Henderson’s old partner, Finnegan, (John Elliott), who then puts a gun on Swifty. Polly to the rescue. She kills her brother’s old partner, and everybody lams it. Then she dismisses Swifty as a small-timer. Now Dominic makes a play for her but she’s wondering if he isn’t small time, too. It's all a ruse, of course, to get him to brag about the people he’s killed—including Jimmy—since the phone is off the hook and the cops are listening on the other end. When they descend (with Finnegan, very much alive, that was part of the plan, too), Dominic douses the lights in the joint, they search for him via spotlight, and when they finally spot him he grabs Polly—who for no reason is rushing through the nightclub. Then Swifty to the rescue.

Bozo with indigestion
Dominic is oddly jaunty in his farewell:

Oh, handsome. Don’t forget to invite me to the wedding. You better make it soon, I might not be here very long. [Salutes] Up the river!

That last part just means going to prison—as in “They sent him up the river”—but I’ve never heard it as a stand-alone salutation before.

I don’t know if playing Dominic helped Robinson land “Rico” Bandello—I’m sure it didn’t hurt—but the movie’s a mess. Apparently there were musical numbers, most likely in the nightclub, that were cut for the American release, because pre-“42nd Street” Warners decided Americans didn’t like musicals much. Those scenes are still extant in the European version. I saw the U.S. version, trimmed to a tidy 64 minutes.

But that’s not why the movie is a mess. It often doesn’t make sense from line to line. At one point Swifty is trying to get into Polly’s apartment, she discovers her door is unlocked, he tells her, “Well, think over what I told ya,” which is him basically saying “Bye!” and her response is: “Not tonight, Romeo. Go on.” Right, he was already going on. She does the same later with Dominic.

Dominic: You just bumped a cop, didn’t ya? Ever hear of a thing called an alibi? Well you better have one. Hmm. We all better have one.
Polly: You better get one yourself. Somebody might want to know where you were around midnight.

That’s what he just said. Was Alice White adlibbing nonsensically or was it just a shitty script by Earl Baldwin? In the same talk with Dominic, she also implies that she’s leaving New York and “heading for the big town…” Not sure what the big town is if New York isn't it.

At the same time, we do get good dialogue. The scene where Dominic constructs his alibi with the nightclub bartender is Michael Mann-ish in its economy:

Dominic: Hey, Benny, what time ya got?
Bartender: Twenty minutes after twelve.
Dominic: A little fast, aren’t ya?
Bartender: [Pause] You been here all evening, Mr. Dominic. 

I also like this early back-and-forth as Dominic’s right-hand man Mullins (Brooks Benedict) is trying to get close to Polly, while Polly wonders over Dominic:

Polly: Who’s the little bozo with indigestion?
Mullins: Sssh. Not so loud.
Polly: What’s the matter—do ya know him?
Mullins: Yes. And he’s got a very bad temper.
Polly: [Laughs] Who wouldn’t have with a face like that?

A second later, we get an early movie reference. She says Dominic “looks like the heavy in ‘Way Down East,’” a famous D.W. Griffith film from 1920. Initially I was wondering if it wasn't supposed to be self-referential—“East is West,” Robinson’s previous film, in which, yes, he plays the heavy. Probably not. Both were different studios and “Way Down East” was much more successful.

James Cagney often talked up the comic chops of his friend Frank McHugh, and I’ve usually been like “Sure, whatever,” but, as mentioned, they really shine through here. A favorite moment is when the cops are running that spotlight through the darkened nightclub and land on Slug sitting alone at a table. He looks around, more embarrassed than caught, eyes blinking, hands fidgeting, and Keaton-like, puts on his bowler hat and exits. I laughed out loud.

And I love me some Alice White. Shame her career was truncated.

Posted at 09:09 AM on Monday March 20, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s