Sunday, June 1, 2008

Atlantic Adventure (Columbia, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie I’d recently recorded from TCM onto DVD: Atlantic Adventure, a 1935 Columbia film (while they were still using that marvelously tacky animated version of their Statue of Liberty logo) directed by Albert Rogell from a script by John T. Neville and Nat N. Dorfman based on a Cosmopolitan story by Diana Bourbon (Charles joked this was a pseudonym for Deanna Durbin and I said no, it was a surviving member of the former French royal family that had been overthrown in the Revolution) and starring Nancy Carroll as Helen Murdock, young daughter of a well-off (judging from the lavishness of their on-screen apartment) mother (Maidel Turner), who’s been dating the New York Chronicle’s star reporter, Dan Miller (Lloyd Nolan, the youngest I’ve ever seen him) and putting up with how often he stands her up because he, in the company of his photographer “Snapper” McGillicuddy (Harry Langdon), is off covering one story or another.

Dan’s absences are forcing Helen into the arms of the man her mom wants her to marry, stuck-up rich boy Douglas Stanton (Cornelius Keefe), and at one point he ducks out of a press conference called by the district attorney — so sure of what the D.A. will say he figures he can write the story without being there — to make a lunch date with Helen, only he’s late anyway, she jilts him and he gets fired for having missed the story of the year: at the press conference the D.A. was shot by a gangster he was about to indict, Mitts Coster (John Wray). On a tip, and hoping that if he can get to Coster before the police do he’ll have a scoop and the Chronicle will take him back, he boards the ocean liner Gigantic — as does Helen, who’s mistaken for a member of the jewel-robbing gang of Frank Julian (Arthur Hohl); he slips her $2,000 and says he’ll give her the “ice” as soon as he gets it.

The “ice” is a batch of diamonds originally stolen by the husband-and-wife jewel-thief team, the Van Diemans (Robert Middlemass and Nana Bryant); to get the secret knock with which Mr. Van Dieman plans to signal his wife — he’s told her to open the door for no one else — Julian bugs her room (probably one of the first instances of electronic eavesdropping as a plot gimmick in a film) and eventually, after her husband leaves, gets in her room, ties her up and steals the diamonds; only they’re in turn stolen from him by Spike Jones (Dwight Frye) — the character so-named before the real-life comedy bandleader of that period emerged — who’s working with Coster, who’s disguised himself as Jones’ father and been using a wheelchair (which, of course, he doesn’t really need) as a cover. Helen, Dan and “Snapper” all get on the ship and end up in the middle of the intrigue — after a while we get the impression that aside from our three heroes every passenger on the ship is a crook — and eventually all the criminals are apprehended in mid-ocean and Dan and Helen are about to be married by the captain when there’s a cry of “Man overboard!,” Dan’s journalistic instincts kick into high gear again, and he abandons his bride at the altar to cover the story.

Atlantic Adventure is basically a Columbia attempt to do a Warners film (and it wouldn’t be hard to guess how Warners would have cast this script in 1935: James Cagney as Dan, Joan Blondell as Helen and Frank McHugh as “Snapper”), and though it isn’t as relentlessly fast as a Warners version would have been it is charming, luminously photographed by John Stumar (for a cheap studio, Columbia took unusual care to achieve a quality visual look in their films, one reason they and they alone of the so-called “Poverty Row” companies attained and kept major-studio status) and with Carroll achieving a nice combination of winsomeness and spunkiness in her role (a year after she’d made Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round, another crime thriller set at sea during an Atlantic crossing). Nolan turns in a competent performance but he’d get better at these sorts of parts later (especially when he did the Michael Shayne series at Fox in the early 1940’s); Langdon is utterly wasted in a quite ordinary comic-relief part that (unlike his role in A Soldier’s Plaything) doesn’t give him any opportunities for slapstick; Frye is a real treat even though he’s a bit too twitchy for what’s basically a “straight” crook role (and how many mid-1930’s crime “B”’s feature an actor Alice Cooper wrote a song about?). Atlantic Adventure is unpretentious fun; you can see the clichés coming a mile away, but it’s still a good movie and well worth the 67 minutes it runs.