Monday, June 9, 2008

Girls on Probation (Warners, 1938)

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

I stayed up and watched a movie that’s an old quirky favorite of mine: Girls on Probation, a 1938 assembly-line “B” from Warners, written by silent-era veteran Crane Wilbur and directed by William McGann, who actually got a couple of genuinely creative-looking setups (Arthur Todd, whose best-known credit was probably the Marx Brothers’ film Monkey Business, was the cinematographer) into his otherwise coolly professional, workmanlike direction. The American Film Institute Catalog helpfully notes that previously Wilbur had written Alcatraz Island (men in prison) and Crime School (boys in prison), so he knew all the formulae for a girls-in-prison movie, and within the limits of a 64-minute running time and some surprisingly cheesy stock-music cues, he came up with a solid one: unbelievably innocent 22-year-old laundry bookkeeper Connie Heath (Jane Bryan, top-billed) gets mixed up on the wrong side of the law when her friend and co-worker Hilda Engstrom (Sheila Bromley) “borrows” a dress that they’ve cleaned for a customer so the two can go dancing one night.

Alas, at the “Hula Club” where they go, stuck-up society bitch Gloria Adams (Susan Hayward, in an early credit she probably forgot about completely by the time she became a star) notices Connie wearing her dress and goes ballistic to her date, rising young attorney Neil Dillon (Ronald Reagan) — who in the meantime has been instantly smitten with Connie and is unwilling to believe anything bad about her, like she filched herself a dress from the laundry just to party one night. As (bad) luck would have it, when Connie and Hilda get out of the cab taking them home, the cab door slams on the dress and it’s torn; Hilda tries her best to mend it, but when Gloria picks it up the next day the patchwork is all too obvious. What complicates matters is that not only is Connie still living with her parents — though she’s so goody-good she’s paying them board — but, though her mom Kate (Elisabeth Risdon) is understanding, her dad Roger (Sig Rumann) is a total fascist, viciously tearing into her whenever she wants to go out or do anything for herself, and tearing into everyone she tries to befriend as well.

Anyway, when Connie is busted for stealing the dress, thanks to Neil’s intervention she’s let off with a warning but her dad throws her out of their house and she’s forced to relocate to another small New York town 500 miles away. There she gets a secretarial job and makes regular payments to Neil to cover the cost of the ruined dress, until who should show up in town but bad ol’ Hilda Engstrom, in the company of her bad-news boyfriend Tony Rand (Anthony Averill), who’s there to rob the Union National Bank. Connie sees Hilda in the car and they get into an argument — Connie wants Hilda to write a letter declaring Connie innocent of the dress theft and Hilda, of course, wants no such thing, especially since at the moment she’s waiting behind the wheel of the getaway car while her boyfriend is inside the bank robbing it. The whole altercation is witnessed by a boy selling movie magazines, but he goes unremembered and unrecalled as Tony comes out of the bank, Hilda forces Connie into the car at gunpoint, the three of them lead the cops on a merry chase, Hilda breaks out the back window of the car while Tony drives and starts firing at the cops chasing them, Connie reaches for the gun (not that again!) and gets it away from Hilda, then holds it to Tony’s head and forces him to stop the car so all three will be arrested. Connie is convicted of being part of the robbery gang — since there’s no independent evidence to back up her story — and she’s put in the county jail for a year, where Hilda makes Connie into her virtual slave by threatening to write her dad and tell him she’s been convicted.

Eventually Connie is contacted by probation officer Jane Lennox (Dorothy Peterson), who digs up the newsboy and manages to get Connie probation, whereupon she does the thing she should have in the first place — she goes home and seeks out that nice young lawyer played by Ronald Reagan, who in the meantime has become a deputy district attorney and immediately hires Connie to be his secretary with, of course, no idea of her past. This lasts for about a year and a half, during which Neil and Connie start dating and end up engaged — until who should show up but sleazy young Hilda Engstrom, newly paroled and helping Tony, who’s just escaped from prison (a highly dramatic sequence but one probably padded out greatly with stock footage from previous Warners’ prison epics), by hiding him out and blackmailing Connie into pawning Neil’s engagement ring for a getaway nut — only Connie slips the pawnbroker a note explaining the situation and telling him to call Neil, who of course calls the police, with the result that Tony is shot trying to clamber down on the fire escape of Hilda’s building, and Hilda takes a bullet to save Connie and gets one of the great bad exit lines in the history of Hollywood: seeing a priest while she’s being loaded into an ambulance, she says, “Pretty soon I’ll be seeing your boss!”

By any normal standards Girls on Probation is a pretty mediocre movie — the title is an obvious misnomer since Connie is the only girl on probation we actually see (indeed, the title was such a stock one that Warners actually used it for another film just six months earlier, a teen drama with Bonita Granville, only they ended up calling that film The Beloved Brat instead and thereby freed up the Girls on Probation name for this one) and there are holes galore in the plot, notably Hilda’s abrupt transformation from man-crazy slacker ditz in the opening scenes to hardened gun moll later on. (Give Crane Wilbur a break; he only had a 64-minute running time to work with.) We also end up wondering how someone with so thick a German accent, and so Nazi-like a demeanor to go with it, as Sig Rumann’s character here ended up with so Anglo a character name as “Roger Heath” — though maybe we’re supposed to believe the family’s real name is Harzfeld or something and they changed it during World War I.

Nonetheless, its sheer overwroughtness makes this a haunting movie — that and Jane Bryan’s blithe innocence in the lead role; her very limited acting skills, particularly her utter inability to play anything other than sticky-sweet goodness (in her best-known role she was Bette Davis’s impossibly sweet kid sister in Marked Woman, whose murder at the hand of Davis’s gangland employers leads Davis to turn state’s evidence against them), make her oddly right for this part: we really believe in her fundamental decency as a human being despite the criminal things that happen to her, and at the same time we get frustrated that the rest of the people in the movie — particularly her dad and Hilda’s mom (Esther Dale), cut from the same cloth as Margaret Hamilton’s Miss Gulch persona in The Wizard of Oz (if Connie had had a dog Mrs. Engstrom would have tried to take it away from her), an interesting anticipation of the later J.D. movies that also made the parents the principal villains — can’t see her essential goodness like we can. Girls on Probation also has an interesting cast; Reagan and Hayward both went on to biggers and betters, and judging from her performance here Sheila Bromley should have too. Her performance, especially when she’s playing the cold-bitch sleazebag of the later reels, is entertainingly edgy and quite the best in the film. I remember when my partner Charles and I first watched this one, we were amused at the written foreword which, in the usual fustian tone of these things, said that for some women probation was the only thing “between happiness and degradation” — and we couldn’t decide whether being married to Ronald Reagan constituted happiness or degradation!