Sunday, December 28, 2008

Escort Girl (Continental Pictures, 1941)

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

Escort Girl turned out to be a pretty quirky movie in its own right, a film that though clearly a product of 1941 in its relative photographic clarity has the “feel” of an exploitation movie from about a decade earlier. When I first saw this listed on the Turner Classic Movies schedule I was startled that the star was Betty Compson, who had been born in 1897 and had starred in some of the earliest Warners talkies after a 12-year career in silent films, whom I therefore would be quite long in the tooth to be playing an escort girl. As it turned out, she wasn’t; she plays Ruth Ashley, the madam running the escort service in partnership with the man in her life, Gregory Stone (Wheeler Oakman), who appears to be her husband or at least her lover even though the dialogue describes them as having separate apartments.

She must have been married, or at least involved with someone else, before because she has a daughter, June (Margaret Marquis), whom she’s used the profits from the escort service to educate and keep her as far from Los Angeles as possible — only June has fallen in love with Drake Hamilton (Robert Kellard), he’s moving to L.A. to take a special job he’s been offered and June suggests that she go with him so they can live in the same city and be married. At this point I thought that the fate writers Ann and David Halperin had in store for June was that she would get to the Big Bad City, drift downhill (perhaps as the result of a transitory falling-out with Drake) and become an escort girl herself — and give her mom the shock of her life when she turned up as a staff member in mom’s agency — but instead, as luck (or the scriptorial fiat of the Halperins) would have it, the special job Drake is in town to do is to go undercover and bust the escort services — which extend to far more than just escort services: Stone also owns his own hotel and a nightclub/restaurant in it to which the “escorts” (he offers escorts of both genders, though the services they provide are strictly heterosexual) are instructed to bring their clients. When Drake and June choose Stone’s club as the scene of their first date in L.A., they’re waited on by a man with such a terrible phony French accent (and the supercilious manner to go with it) that Charles joked, “Hi, I’m your waiter and I’m going to cleep you now.”

There’s quite a lot of padding in this movie, including shots of the dance team that entertains at this establishment (according to, the female dancer was the very young Cyd Charisse!) and a clip of a strip tease which is played on a Soundies machine and, though grainy and visibly from another cinematic world than the main part of the film, includes a performer in pasties and underwear who projects far more charisma than any of the actors in the plot portions. Eventually it groans to a conclusion when Drake calls Stone’s front man, Breeze Nolan (Guy Kingsford), to request an escort girl as his entrée into the racket he’s trying to bust, Stone sends June to Drake’s room for what she assumes are innocuous purposes, only to have him accuse her of being an escort girl and the two of them get into an argument that leads to a jealous hissy-fit that lasts for a couple of reels until June finally figures out what happened and realizes that Stone is the brains behind the escort gang.

Like a typically stupid movie protagonist, instead of going straight to the police — or to Drake — with this information, she confronts Stone directly — and Stone fires back that June’s own beloved mother is his partner in the escort gang and that’s where she got the money to pay for June’s expensive education and vacations. A better writing team than the Halperins might have done more with June’s crisis of conscience — let my mom continue her illegal racket or turn her in? — or come up with a more inventive resolution than Drake and Stone both reaching for a gun (Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney!) and accidentally shooting June’s mom in the process, allowing her to weasel out of legal responsibility by conveniently dying — while Drake ultimately pitches Stone out the window, also by accident, and he dies in the fall.

Escort Girl is a pretty silly movie, competently directed by one Edward E. Kaye (one wonders what Edgar G. Ulmer could have done with this script, given his success even with something as silly as Girls in Chains) and acted with authority by Compson and spectacular incompetence by everyone else — and it doesn’t help that the extant print is so riddled with splices much of it is almost unwatchable and Charles was joking that the producers could have got rid of anything potentially censorable simply by deleting it and pretending the frames were lost in a splice.