Wednesday, July 17, 2013


The best-known team-up of director Mervyn LeRoy and actor Edward G. Robinson is Little Caesar, the founding Warner Bros. gangster film from 1930. But when they reunited at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941, everyone's point of reference was Five Star Final, the 1931 film in which Robinson played a newspaper editor. That makes sense, since Robinson was again playing a newspaperman. At this point he may have been typed more as a newsman than as a gangster, having starred as a newsman for several years on the Big Town radio show. His unholy partnership this time was with Edward Arnold, who has Robinson's usual role as the gangster. Arnold had been both a newspaperman and a formidable villain in Frank Capra's Meet John Doe earlier in 1941, but Capra tapped into a deeper, calmer current of menace in Arnold than LeRoy could find. Capra suppressed any impulses Arnold had to play broad, allowing the actor to give a chilling performance. For LeRoy Arnold is practically exuberant yet pathetically ineffective as a criminal overlord. The one advantage of Arnold's broad but ultimately unthreatening performance is that it spotlights by contrast Robinson's effective underplaying as a fearless publisher who tricks the gangster into becoming the financial backer of his innovative tabloid newspaper. Once the deal is made, it's a question of which partner will destroy the other first, but Arnold's gangster is so implausible in his failures to control or eliminate Robinson and so unimaginative about exploiting a newspaper to his benefit -- imagine the film that might result -- that it becomes impossible to take the story seriously.

LeRoy and his writers seem intent on making a historical statement. Their story starts with Robinson returning home from World War I with the idea of a tabloid along the lines of his military newspaper, and there's some thought of chronicling the Roaring Twenties through occasional familiar headlines and newsreel clips. But little effort is made to evoke the period apart from having Marsha Hunt sing "After You're Gone." Yet Unholy Partners clearly means to portray an era it considers over, the "tabloid age." Some of the early gimmicks and stunts Robinson tries to boost circulation might have reminded the original audience of the outrageous New York Daily Graphic or the bad old days of the Daily News. But it's unclear what the film is comparing all of this with. You could almost believe that LeRoy is really tipping his hat to the Pre-Code era of cinema, when he and Robinson made Little Caesar and Five Star Final -- both better films than this one. The Code, presumably, dictated that Robinson had to die for finally bumping off Arnold. Robinson commits suicide on spec, flying with a French pilot in an attempted transatlantic trip with the clear conviction that he won't come back. The film plays lamely for pathos as Robinson renounces marriage with his loyal girl friday (Laraine Day) to face his fate. As it turns out the deck is so stacked that Robinson does die, but his pilot survives. This odd insistence on the necessity of the tabloid man's demise is the most interesting feature of this tepid drama that has been rightly forgotten while LeRoy and Robinson's earlier collaborations live on in movie history.

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