Monday, March 30, 2009

Pursuit (MGM, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Pursuit is a truly remarkable 1935 MGM “B” (I know Louis B. Mayer frowned on designating any MGM production a “B,” but with a 61-minute running time, a cast high in acting skills but low on star power, some cheesy stock music and no one billed above the title, what else would you call it?) that’s one of those movies that blended so many of the clichés together in such a unique and original way that it achieved a kind of unwitting surrealism and a genuine charm. The TCM schedule description of Pursuit — “The reward in a kidnapping case attracts a variety of desperate characters” — and the presence of Chester Morris and Sally Eilers in the leads made the film seem like a gripping, intense gangster melodrama; instead it’s, more than anything else, a comedy — at least a lot of it evokes laughter, and clearly that was the result intended by director Edwin L, Marin and writer Wells Root (adapting a magazine story by one Lawrence G. Blochman called “Wild Goose, Golden Goose,” later revised and republished as “Gallant Highways”).

Morris plays Mitchell, an out-of-work aviator whose plane has been repossessed. He’s hired by private detective Nick Shawn (C. Henry Gordon) to fly Donald McCoy (Scotty Beckett, who like virtually all of the movie kids of the 1930’s — whatever their gender — comes off as a saccharine Shirley Temple wanna-be) to Mexico to keep him safe from relatives of his rich, now-dead father, who want to grab him away from his mom (Dorothy Peterson), a former actress, and raise him themselves. Mom is offering a $4,000 reward to keep her son out of the clutches of his dad’s family, and Mitchell and another of Shawn’s operatives, Maxine Bush (Sally Eilers), agree to the flight — though Mitchell first demands proof that his client really is the boy’s mother (to make sure he’s not being lured into a kidnapping plot, which in 1935 — three years after the Lindbergh baby — was still a major concern to a lot of people), which he gets when the kid himself greets her affectionately. Alas, the kid accidentally starts the plane while he’s supposedly sitting in it waiting for the takeoff, it crashes, and Mitchell and Maxine have to drive.

Mitchell concocts a plot to hide their car under hay and transport it on the bed of a truck — ostensibly the truck is just transporting a load of hay — and when the police and the detectives for the family discover the truck, they can abandon it and drive the car instead. Only a police officer (Erville Anderson) who’s driving down the road eating an ice cream cone is run off the road by the truck, and he figures out much of the plot. Mitchell tries to abandon Maxine and she retaliates by reporting the car as stolen to the conveniently present cop, and when he tries to arrest Mitchell, Mitchell grabs the handcuffs and he and Maxine end up handcuffed together. (In case you were wondering, the makers of Pursuit did not rip off this gimmick from Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps — the two movies were actually in production at the same time, but on different hemispheres, and The 39 Steps wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1938, three years after Pursuit.)

They end up at an “auto court” (“auto courts” or “tourist cabins” were what motels were called in the 1930’s), where the film ventures into It Happened One Night territory as the two handcuffed hatebirds have to pose as newlyweds until Mitchell can separate them with a hacksaw he’s lifted from the tool racks in the gas station attached to the auto court. (Charles noted one vast difference between the 1930’s and today: when they drive up to the pumps to get gas, they don’t have to worry about how they can operate the pumps while handcuffed to each other — self-serve gas stations are a far more recent development.) Alas, they’re spotted again, this time by an obnoxiously nosy paperhanger named Tom Reynolds (Henry Travers, in a surprisingly Harry Langdon-esque performance not at all what you’d expect from an actor best known as the good scientist in The Invisible Man and the guardian angel in It’s a Wonderful Life — even though he’s so annoying through most of the film we half-expect Mitchell and Maxine to knock him off and send him to guardian angel-dom early). They escape from Reynolds by stealing a little girl’s dress from the auto court’s clothesline and dressing Donald in drag, figuring that the authorities and detectives will be looking for a little boy and not a little girl.

It gets even crazier when Mitchell learns that the family of Donald’s deceased dad is offering $20,000 for whoever takes the kid to them in San Francisco, and Mitchell is about to double-cross the kid when the boy runs away, Mitchell has to recapture him — and save him from drowning when the boy ends up hanging from the edge of a cliff and the tide slams both of them against the rocks below (these sequences were filmed on location at Laguna Beach). They finally get the kid to the Mexican border but still have to figure out a way to get across — their attempts to crawl through the barbed-wire fence are stopped by a Mexican mounted policeman with a typically stereotyped accent — and they ultimately get across by joining a Black traveling revival and disguising themselves in blackface (so Scotty Beckett is doing both a transgender and a transracial impersonation!) — while in the meantime it turns out that Nick Shawn, the man who hired them, planned to double-cross Donald’s mom for the big reward (well, he’s played by C. Henry Gordon — what did you expect?), but it all ends happily with the good guys evading both the authorities and Shawn’s goons (including one who’s just been released from a mental institution!), delivering the kid to his mother and falling in love themselves in the process.

Pursuit is the sort of movie that, had it been made a few years later by Preston Sturges at Paramount with a star cast (say, Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck), would have a reputation as one of his demented genre-bending masterpieces; as it is, it’s a surprisingly wonderful film, unpretentious and very, very funny in a sort of loopy way that wasn’t at all typical of most movie comedies of the day — it’s not laugh-a-minute slapstick or screwball but it is consistently amusing, and Chester Morris’s totally deadpan performance (he plays Mitchell the same way he played similar characters in serious movies of the time) and his clear chemistry with Eilers (who also acts with power and authority in a role that, according to the American Film Institute Catalog, was originally intended for Jean Arthur — just as Charles Butterworth was also announced for this movie, almost certainly in the part ultimately played by Henry Travers) just make it all that much funnier. A real gem from the studio era!