Friday, December 16, 2011

Pre-Code Parade: Edward G. Robinson Roundup

As long as TCM keeps dishing 'em out, I'll keep lapping them up. Last Monday was Edward G. Robinson's 118th birthday, and the Turner channel served up a daytime marathon of mostly lesser-known items from the filmography, ranging from his breakthrough year of 1930 through the late-noir period. For this occasion, let's look at four pre-Code pieces, two with Robinson in archetypal gangster mode, two in something closer to the Edna Ferber style, tracing the rise and fall of titans of enterprise.

Less than two months before the January 1931 release of Little Caesar, Robinson was the gangster heavy in Eddie Cline's THE WIDOW FROM CHICAGO. He's second-billed under lead actress Alice White in this peculiar comic revenge story from the co-director of many of Buster Keaton's classic silent short subjects. The set-up isn't exactly comic: White's cop brother is gunned down in a drive-by courtesy of Dominic (Robinson), nightclub owner and bootlegger supreme. The cops can't build a case against Dominic, so White takes steps on her own. Her brother had just conveniently told her about the daring escape from a moving train off a bridge made by supercrook Swifty Dorgan, who has been unseen ever since. Taking Dorgan's swastika-covered grip with her, which poor brother had kept as a trophy, White poses as Dorgan's widow, hoping that sympathy and her own good looks will earn her a job at Dominic's club and enable her to get dirt on the gangster. The plan works until Dorgan (Neil "Commissioner Gordon" Hamilton) makes good on his reputation by turning up alive. He can expose White's imposture, but since Dominic will only accept the wife's word as proof of Dorgan's identity the master crook goes along while planning a big hotel robbery for Dominic. White's vengeance scheme threatens to go off the rails when she shoots a cop in the back to protect Dorgan, but there may be a method to her madness.

Robinson doesn't exactly steal the film from White, but did steal top billing in some markets.

White is impossible to take seriously as an avenger, even when the film insists, and Cline maintains a comic, almost hysterically hard-boiled tone throughout -- practically every other line is an insult of some sort. Robinson is effortlessly domineering but relatively unthreatening; the overall comic tone allows him to be taken alive so he can make more wisecracks on his way up the river. The highlight is a gun battle between Dominic and the cops after they've raided his club and he's dimmed the lights. As the patrons panic the cops bring in searchlights, but when you know the lay of the place like Dominic, a cop turning on a light only makes himself a target. Even this nicely staged and shot action scene is interrupted by shots of Frank McHugh (in what must be one of his first turns as a comedy-relief lackey) seeking shelter and stoically slinking away from the spotlight. Widow is odd and awkward, as a star vehicle for a failed and forgotten star often is, but it retains historical interest as an early-draft version, albeit one of the latest, for the Warner Bros. gangster genre.

Once Robinson was established as a star, Warners guessed that the rise-and-fall gangster formula was translatable into other genres. In a period when big businessmen were still thought of as "robber barons," turning Robinson into a morally-conflicted entrepreneur seemed like a good idea. The first fruit of this transformation was Alfred E. Green's SILVER DOLLAR, released in December 1932.  In this "based on true events" saga, Robinson is Yates Martin, a Colorado pioneer who accepts shares in a silver mine as payment for groceries from his store. He's practically forgotten about it when the miners return from making a strike and making Martin rich. Though it takes him a while to figure out the difference between silver and gold, he soon builds on his investment to become a silver tycoon, a philanthropist and a political force in the young state. He's naively ambitious in an almost lovably stupid way -- when asked to run for lieutenant governor he tells his wife he's just been made governor -- but begins to feel that the wife (Aline MacMahon) is a drag on his aspirations, especially after he's fallen for another woman (Bebe Daniels). The film won't be complete, however, unless the Robinson character falls and falls hard. Just as he's striving to corner the silver market the government establishes a gold standard, drastically reducing the value of silver and bankrupting Yates Martin in one stroke. While future films of this sort might be described as rise, fall and rise, this film and the next one end with the fall, without redemption or reconciliation. They play on the pathos of Robinson as a broken man, Silver Dollar ending on a Wagnerian note as he collapses in delirium on the stage of the grand opera house he built in Denver, with the reconciliation left to his two wives at the funeral. The film has decent production values reflecting the studio's desire to put the star over as a great and versatile actor. He's likable enough to make you regret Yates Martin's fall, but his performance and the film as a whole pale in comparison to Robinson's next effort in this line.

Green took the Silver Dollar formula to further extremes in I LOVED A WOMAN, released in September 1933. The title acquires bitter irony as the story progresses. Despite the poster art to your left, this is another period piece, reaching back to the early 1890s. Robinson plays John Mansfield Hayden, the young heir to a meatpacking fortune called home from his grand tour of Europe when his father dies. Young Hayden is something of an aesthete and contemptuous toward the business practices of his father's rivals. He's more concerned with becoming a philanthropist and indulging the charitable whims of his wife (Genevieve Tobin), the daughter of one of his new rivals. They appear to share a contempt for the corner-cutting that inflicts "condemned" meat on consumers, but Mrs. Hayden seems crestfallen as hubby's principled practices put his business further behind the pack. His own complacency is slapped silly when he falls hard for glamorously ambitious opera singer Laura McDonald (Kay Francis), who sees how inhibited he is and urges him (in a speech that could have been uttered in Baby Face) to become utterly ruthless in pursuit of his dreams. Hayden abandons all his scruples, scrambling to sell any meat he can sweep into a can to the troops bound for Cuba in 1898, earning a face-to-face rebuke from Teddy Roosevelt. To impress Laura, he becomes king of meatpackers while Mrs. Hayden seethes with hate. Hiring a detective to catch him in flagrante with Laura, she discovers before he does that Laura has been cheating on him all along with a younger man. The artiste's idea of love had never included fidelity, it seems, and she feels that Hayden still owes her, since he'd needed her to motivate himself to succeed in business. In his fury, he vows to become bigger than ever to prove that he never needed her -- and proves his point by becoming a war profiteer on a megalomaniacal scale, purchasing land and cattle around the world to feed the armies of World War I. The only problem is that the war eventually ends, and the sudden cancellation of so many orders leaves him short when the bills come do. He ends up a senile exile -- a strange prophecy from Robinson and Warner Bros. of Al Capone's end -- failing to recognize Laura when she visits him in Greece, where the film began. He doesn't even get the dignity that comes with death, as the film fades out on him lapsing into troubled sleep. As in Silver Dollar, the refusal of any real redemption makes I Loved a real downer, and the sweeping character arc Robinson describes from idealist to pathetic criminal makes this film a somewhat soul-crushing experience. I Loved passes a judgment more bleak than we'd get in the crime-does-not-pay era of Code enforcement, when Hollywood would rather reward virtue than punish hubris. The pre-Code era's greater willingness to countenance tragedy is probably another point in its favor.

Curiously, while Robinson played businessmen in tragic mode, his gangster character turned comic in Roy Del Ruth's THE LITTLE GIANT, released in between Silver Dollar and I Loved A Woman. This is one of Warner's pro-FDR propaganda films of 1933, though the political stuff is dealt with quickly at the onset. The movie opens with a news montage illustrating two recent revolutionary events, Roosevelt's election and the repeal of Prohibition. Following the news closely is John Francis "Bugs" Ahearn (Robinson), who reads the writing on the wall and quits organized crime. Arguably, Little Giant is the first "end of an era" gangster film, though the effect isn't elegiac but comically optimistic as Robinson embodies the nation turning a corner toward a new deal. His abandonment of crime symbolizes the nation's commitment to follow FDR on the path to renewal while leaving open the question of injustice. This becomes clear as Ahearn heads to California to retire in luxury amongs the horsy set, only to learn that some criminals are still operating in broad daylight. These are the criminals of high finance, represented by the predatory Cass family, who ironically see Ahearn as an easy mark. The really ironic thing is that they're right; the reformed gangster is so eager to make an impression on the rich that he guilelessly walks into a trap, stamping him even more as One Of Us. Pretty Polly (Helen Vinson) is the lure to catch Bugs's money, which the Casses hope he'll invest into their shady investment bank, which has been issuing bad bonds for some time. Bugs is so hot to go legit that he blindly buys into the scheme, against the advice of his friendly realtor (Mary Astor), whose family fortune was wiped out by the Casses, reducing her to renting out her mansion, without admitting her desperate ownership, to Ahearn. Finally realizing what a sucker he'd been, Bugs fights back the Chicago way, within limits, in an amusing reversal of the vigilantism usually directed at gangsters in 1933 movies. Probably the most "pre-Code" of all these films, Little Giant is a testimony to how beloved Robinson had become among moviegoers as a gangster. He never has to answer for whatever misdeeds he perpetrated as a bootlegger, and never seems in danger of prosecution once Time magazine exposes his presence in California, except for holding the bad Cass bonds. In this film, the New Deal and Repeal are a kind of amnesty for the movie gangster, freeing him to take the fight to the economic royalists and ripoff artists who arguably made many more people's lives miserable. Robinson has a ball with his fish-out-of-water role and the charismatic challenge of playing a tough guy and a sap in one person. He forms a weird little pre-Code triangle with Astor and Russell Hopton, who plays Bugs's loyal sidekick Al. There's something virtually homoerotic about Al's devotion to Bugs ("Where papa goes, mama goes too" he says of himself) and a sense of damaged goods about the overall character that makes him more sympathetic than creepy. He gets the Pre-Code Line of the Film when Bugs invites him to admire an abstract painting he's just acquired. When's the last time you saw something like that? Ahearn asks. "Just before I quit cocaine," Al answers. The film goes a little too far into physical comedy, closing anticlimactically with Bugs's Chicago buddy wreaking havoc on a polo field, but it charms you into forgiving this indulgence. While Silver Dollar and I Loved A Woman demonstrate Warner Bros' feeling that Robinson was destined for better things, Little Giant suggests more persuasively that pre-Code audiences already loved Eddie just as he was.

To close, a trailer double bill. First, Warner Bros. uses every promotional device at its disposal, from rave reviews from contract players to the mailed fist of persuasion, to put over I Loved A Woman. BadMoJos uploaded this frantic preview to YouTube.

And here's a Little Giant trailer straight from TCM.

No comments: