Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Pre-Code Capsules: CENTRAL PARK (1932)

Audiences today would almost certainly feel gypped by a feature film that ran under an hour, but Warner Bros. actually boasted of how much action they crammed into 57 minutes directed by John G. Adolfi, who usually directed George Arliss vehicles and died the year following Central Park's release. This is a Depression picture so our hero and heroine are poor. Rick (Wallace Ford) and Dot (Joan Blondell) bond while eyeballing lunch wagon cuisine they can't afford. When Rick gets into an unprovoked fight with the lunch man, Dot steals a sandwich and later shares it with her new friend. Rick later lands a temporary job washing police motorcycles while Dot gets embroiled in a criminal scheme to hijack the proceeds of a charity beauty contest. More of a dummy than Blondell usually plays, Dot is persuaded that the crooks are actually detectives carrying out a sting operation. Meanwhile, Officer Charlie (Guy Kibbee), who steered Rick to that job, struggles to conceal his failing eyesight from his superiors. It shouldn't be that big of a deal since his beat is little more than the Central Park Zoo, but when an escaped lunatic with a lion fixation sneaks in, he's too far away for Charlie to make him out clearly. Instead, the old man waves him through, mistaking him for a buddy, and the loon lets a lion out of his cage and gets the keeper mauled. The lion has an adventure of his own, getting locked inside a taxi cab for a good chunk of the picture, then let loose to run amok at a high-society party. It looks like bad comedy when he comes in through the kitchen and frightens a room full of acrobatic Negro cooks, but the white folks on the dance floor are just as terrified for what that's worth. Meanwhile, poor Charlie is suspended for his negligence and incapacity, but redeems himself in the pursuit of those beauty-contest bandits. He and Nick join forces to stop Nick Sarno (the reliably sinister Harold Huber), but it costs Charlie a rock to the head and a bullet in the vitals, and those things add up when you're an old man. So Charlie gets a sentimental exit as a reinstated officer in good standing and the poor boy gets the poor girl and you wish them luck. It's a studio film of course but it opens with an impressive aerial shot of the actual park that conveys its vastness quite nicely. Bookend montages of joggers, horseback riders, etc. tell us all this mayhem was just another day or so in the park. Like Big City Blues it portrays the big city as the land of exhilarating chaos where the possibility of anything happening nearly makes up for the lack of steady opportunity in those dark days. It's brevity helps put across the whirlwind nature of events and keeps you from thinking too long about how corny much of it is. And most likely you got a second feature wherever you saw it (if not at the Fox) or at least a cartoon and a newsreel. Central Park is a trifling item in the Warner Bros. canon but unlike many trifles today it has a proper sense of proportion.

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