Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: PLAYING AROUND (1930)

Chester Morris was the bad boy of early talkies. He probably gained his greatest fame in the Forties as the reformed crook Boston Blackie in movies and radio, but he was far from reformed in 1930. The rediscovery in the home-video age of Morris's three films for director Roland West -- Alibi, Corsair and the amazing The Bat Whispers -- reestablished an edgier image of the actor in the minds of movie buffs. He seems a natural fit for director Mervyn LeRoy, who was a year away from releasing Little Caesar and launching the official Warner Bros. gangster cycle. Morris's character in Playing Around, Nicky Solomon, may be LeRoy's first cinematic gangster, but while he has some of the charisma Morris gave his antiheroes in the West films, he ends up being a small-timer and something of a loser. He takes second billing to Alice White, whom Warner Bros. and First National were trying to turn into a major musical-comedy star, and you could believe that Playing Around is one of those relics from the first backlash against musicals that had most of their numbers cut out. There's still a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the floor shows at the Pirate's Den, the popular nightclub to which Sheba is taken by her penny-pinching soda jerk boyfriend Jack (William Bakewell). We're not so deep into the Depression yet -- the film was released in January 1930 -- that we can sympathize much when Jack insists on ordering a glass of buttermilk, the cheapest item on the Pirate menu. At the same time, Sheba seems shallow for resenting Jack's economies. In any event, they're about to leave the place when, on impulse, Sheba decides to participate in a Prettiest Legs contest for which Nicky Solomon is cajoled to act as judge. When Sheba wins, the master of ceremonies convinces her to sing a song, supposedly the only one she knows. Her silver loving cup becomes the talk of her neighborhood -- the gossip of two immigrant housewives becomes a running gag -- and this hint of fame goes to her head, as does Nicky.

Everybody seems to know Nicky and he seems to be a big man in his milieu, so it's a surprise to find him begging to borrow money from a  restaurant proprietor to pay for Sheba's dinner. He doesn't let on about it to her, and he assures his creditor that he has a big deal in the works that makes him a good risk. I hope he didn't mean the job he actually does, which is to knock over the store where poor Jack and Sheba's father both work. Nicky has to shoot the father when the old man goes for a gun -- don't worry; it's just a flesh wound! -- while Jack makes him because Nicky honks his car horn as he pulls out for his getaway. Nicky's four-note car horn sounds like just about every cartoon car horn you've heard from this period, yet Jack assumes -- correctly! -- that Nicky Solomon and only Nicky Solomon has such a horn. Nicky is all too easily tricked -- by Jack, no less -- into lamming out of town and is caught at the train station, but mercifully this is not the end of Nicky. As befits an Alice White vehicle he's taken alive and will only get five years for his crimes, and Morris reclaims some of his bad-guy charisma by joking with the cops as they take him away.

Playing Around isn't yet a gangster picture because it isn't really about the gangster. He isn't the menace of social problem that needs to be exorcised violently in Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. Instead, Nicky Solomon is just the villain who tempts the heroine with a lifestyle of easy money but is thwarted by Jack, our ultimate virtuous and resourceful hero. Morris is the best thing about the picture but given the competition that isn't saying much and his role does him no favors. The crime plot is nearly overshadowed by the Pirate's Den production numbers -- the place has segregated choruses, the black dancers getting their turn to perform late in the picture -- and the odd ending reinforces the feeling that this was meant to be more of a musical than it actually is. Some pictures of the period have exit music, but to date Playing Around is the only one I've seen that accompanies the exit music with a recap of the story, the sort of montage that might play over end credits decades later. Whether LeRoy was trying something new for novelty or the studio was trying to pad the picture out, I can't say. But while little makes Playing Around particularly good, this last moment definitely makes it different.

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