Monday, June 6, 2011
“A SLIGHT CASE OF MURDER” (1938)- Dir. Lloyd Bacon
What I Remember
This was a true mash-up of a gangster movie and a screwball comedy. Edward G. Robinson plays a bootlegger who wants to go legit with his business once Prohibition is repealed, but doesn’t realize that the beer he has been selling is vile.
EGR did more than a bit of self-parody in this movie, and I recall that this "meta factor" really enhanced the comic elements. He carried the film almost single-handedly, although the premise itself, that I believe came from Damon Runyon, is funny enough. It’s a big cast for such a short film, and there are loads of sub-plots, including a Sopranos-like plot with his oblivious daughter and her boyfriend from college.
I have no memory of where and when I first saw this film. I am sure it was on television, and probably on broadcast in New York. That would mean commercial interruptions for things like crossplugs for The Joe Franklin Show , ads for Martin Paints, PC Richard, or Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee. A guess would be “Million Dollar Movie” on channel 9, WOR.
HAH! Million Dollar Movie. That used to mean the most expensive, big budget blockbusters of all time. Nowadays a million only covers the cost of George Clooney’s trailer.
Anyway, this movie struck me as original, and very funny. It was pretty much as if Preston Sturges had made a gangster flick.
“I was gonna speak ta dem about it, but Boss—I don’t t’ink dem people are in a position ta listen too much. Dey don’t seem ta be alive.” – Mike
It’s the evening that Prohibition is repealed, and bootlegger Remy Marko has decided to turn his illegal beer making business into a legitimate brewery. Nobody who works for him seems to have the heart to tell him straight out that his beer is undrinkable. Cut to four years later, and the once flush Marko is now on the verge of bankruptcy, with the bank about to take over his brewery unless he can come up with a half a million dollars. Meanwhile, Remy’s daughter, Mary comes home from being schooled in France, and announces that she is engaged to a blueblood scion. Even though he is wealthy, she wants her fiancée, Dick, to get a job. Dick decides to become a State Trooper, adding to the comedy and tension of the situation. Up in Saratoga, five gangsters have robbed the local Bookmaking establishment of, you guessed it, a half a million dollars. They plan to settle a score with Remy, too, but things go wrong. One of them overhears the others about to cut him out, so he kills all of them, but just as he is about to escape, the Marko’s show up at the house. Outnumbered, the lone gangster left hides in the guest room, which is soon to be occupied by an obnoxious orphan Remy has brought up for some clean air and relaxation.
Let’s see: a comedy that features a gangster going legit, class differential engagement, bad seed causing trouble, murder, revenge, theft. Whew. All this in about 85 minutes. And that riveting drama “Somewhere” was 97 minutes long. Go figure.
The first question I always ask of a comedy is, did it make me laugh out loud? I like to laugh, and I love a good comedy. But the humor has to hit me a certain way. “Bridesmaids” made me laugh a lot, and hard. “There’s Something About Mary” did not. That might actually be a good one for my “I Didn’t Get It” entries.
“A Slight Case of Murder” made me laugh more than a few times. Yes, there’s a lot of plot. But it never got in the way of the laughs to the point where you spent more time trying to figure out what was going on, than just enjoying what was up on the screen. The source of the comedy was mostly the one joke, of a bunch of people from the lower class putting on airs. This is a running gag in all of Damon Runyon’s work, in particular Apple Annie of “Pocketful of Miracles” posing as a member of New York’s elite class for her visiting daughter, and of course Sky Masterson romancing Sarah in “Guys and Dolls”. Putting bluebloods in proximity with lower class citizens (like this movie) or wack jobs (“You Can’t Take It With You”) was a big source of humor during the Depression. Often in these films, it’s not the central characters who do the heavy comic lifting, but the sidekicks.
This is true in “A Slight Case of Murder”, but the main character is also a major part of this levity. Remy is one of those people who think big, and use street smarts to get what they want and need. Bootleggers usually get a pass from depression era audiences. They were supplying a needed staple of life that the government had shut off. They were considered human, almost Robin Hood types. Bank robbers, on the other hand, were killers and stole our money. No comedies about them would be popular.
Of course the truth is, Al Capone and most of the really bad guys from gangster land did everything criminal, and bootlegging was a major part of their income. Bootleggers shot each other over territory, strong-armed (beat into submission) innkeepers and storeowners into selling just their brand. They were not nice guy, Robin Hood types at all. They were brutal criminals, making an illegal buck regardless of the consequences.
Geez….lighten up, Francis.
Regardless, they made good Hollywood stories, and I can only imagine how different “A Slight Case of Murder” was when it came out. Having a host of actors known for playing tough guys and criminals do it for laughs really makes this film a treat.
Director Lloyd Bacon may be most famous for directing movies wherein the only memorable elements are those with which he had minimal involvement. By that, I mean he directed a lot of the movies that included Busby Berkeley production numbers; those stunning dance and showpieces which included the camera as part of the experience. Bacon cranked out feature after feature, rolling up an unthinkable 130 credits as director over 32 years. He seems like the epitome of a studio director. He did comedies, musicals, sports films, gangster pics, war movies during WWII, jail epics, and even westerns. I think that makes him a good fit for a gangster/comedy/family drama like this movie. Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m surprised there was no prize fight somewhere in here!
There are some well-timed shenanigans with the hold-up man who is hiding out, and a big party with a lot of action that is surprisingly easy to follow considering how much is going on. Otherwise, it’s typically Hollywood for the ‘30’s, the stars are really the dialogue, the acting and the pacing. Bacon handles all quite well, and never gets in the way of the laughs. To be sure, in Sturges’ hands, the movie could have risen much higher, but there are a lot of directors from the period that I think would have messed this little gem up with their imprimatur. Lloyd, you were a hard-working SOB, and someday you will get your props. Meantime---good job on this one.
You probably think I am going to wax rhapsodic about Edward G. for the next three paragraphs, and I certainly could. A 5 foot 4 inch leading man, who could play a tough guy as good as anybody (Johnny Rocco in “Key Largo” for example), and also turn in moving performances like Christopher Cross (no not THAT one) in Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street”, or thoughtful, incisive characters like Barton Keyes in “Double Indemnity”—why, that’s an actor’s actor. EGR said that playing Remy Marko was one of his favorite experiences as an actor, and he sure seems to be having a great time. It’s a great role, and he is wonderful in it.
For me, the revelation is Ruth Donnelly, as Remy’s wife, Nora. She switches back and forth between aristocrat and moll effortlessly, and to great comic effect. You’ve probably seen her in many films; she too has over 100 titles in her resume. She acted on Broadway until the stock market crash, then moved out to Hollywood just in time for talkies. A good thing, since her skill at repartee is up to par with her great facial expressions.
Sidekicks Lefty (Edward Brophy), Mike (Allen Jenkins) and Guiseppe (Harold Huber) provide perfect foils for the Marko family members. One of the best moments comes when Remy is telling them about the bookies getting their take stolen, and while they are all saying things like “how terrible”, they are smiling and laughing and getting a huge kick out of it. Their interplay with orphan Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom (played by Bowery Boy veteran Bobby Jordan) is also a great source of humor throughout.
If there is a weakness in the movie’s performances it comes from Jane Bryan and Willard Parker as the daughter and fiancée, Mary and Dick. They feel like placeholders, and even at the climax when Dick has a chance to really do some slapstick, it’s Robinson that makes it work.
ON SECOND LOOK
If you have yet to see this great comedy, make a point of guide searching for it on Turner Movies or ordering from Netflix. I promise you one thing, you will not be bored, and I am sure you will get some huge laughs out of it. It holds up beautifully.
1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★1/2