Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Tip-Off (RKO-Pathé, 1931)

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

The Tip-Off is a 1931 RKO-Pathé production from the same team (Charles Rogers, producer; Harry Joe Brown, associate producer; Albert S. Rogell, director) that brought us Carnival Boat the following year, and also featuring Ginger Rogers in the female lead, though in this case the men were by far the most important characters: the billing had Eddie Quillan’s and Robert Armstrong’s names in big letters above the title, and then below the title in really tiny type it said, “And Ginger Rogers.” It’s a quite charming movie even though a good deal more could have been made of its almost surreal genre shifts, and it could have used both a better star than Quillan (like Buster Keaton) and a better director (like Preston Sturges).

It begins as a proletarian drama with Eddie Quillan as Tommy Jordan, a radio repairman with dreams of stardom — when he’s introduced he’s standing in the window of the store where he works, miming to a rendition of “I Surrender, Dear” and drawing an admiring crowd which quickly disperses when he’s called away on a job while the record continues to play (though the voice he’s lip-synching to appears to be Quillan’s own). The call he’s sent out on is to the home of “Babyface” (Ginger Rogers) — the character has no other name — and he comes upon her while she’s bathing her feet and gets a good look at her legs (oddly fatter than we remember them from her later movies with Fred Astaire — apparently all those dance rehearsals really slimmed them down!). They embark on a tentative flirtation that goes as far as her mixing drinks for them when suddenly her very jealous boyfriend, middleweight boxing contender “Kayo” McClure (couldn’t writers George Kibbe Turner and Earl Baldwin be bothered with thinking up normal names for the protagonists?) — played by Robert Armstrong a year after he’d made the movie Be Yourself with Fanny Brice, in which he also played a boxer — comes home, and Babyface bids Tommy hide under the bed.

When he finally emerges because he thinks Kayo has left, he ends up in the middle of a confrontation between Kayo and a gang led by gangster Nick Vatelli (Ralf Harolde). Kayo has been managed by Vatelli but he’s trying to break the contract, and Vatelli wants him to renew it … or else. Tommy uses the same voice amplifier he used back at the radio store to trick Vatelli into believing that the cops are staking out the place, Vatelli’s gangsters leave and Kayo rewards Tommy by giving him tickets to an upcoming dance — where Babyface wants to dance with him, but scared of Kayo’s possible reaction, Tommy refuses. (“Jerk!” I wanted to yell at him. “You just turned down a chance to dance with Ginger Rogers!” Then Charles pointed out to me that when this movie was made nobody cared whether Ginger Rogers could dance.) Instead Tommy leaps from the frying pan into the fire by picking as his dancing partner Vatelli’s girlfriend, Edna Moreno (Joan Peers), and what’s more he actually falls in love with her — and she with him, though she’s too concerned about his safety to dare bringing down Vatelli’s wrath on him by continuing to date him. It all comes to a head when both Tommy and Kayo learn that Edna is about to marry Vatelli at a restaurant variously called Sarno’s (in the dialogue) and Scarno’s (on screen), and the movie suddenly becomes a grim gangster film with Tommy shot down at the end and doing a death scene that appears to be a parody of Edward G. Robinson’s death in Little Caesar — only [spoiler alert!] he’s really not dead, and the final scene is his wedding to Edna now that Vatelli has been conveniently disposed of.

The Tip-Off isn’t exactly a world-beater, and it’s not altogether clear why it’s called that, but it’s still a fun movie, directed straightforwardly but with a good sense of pace by Rogell and with a script that, like a lot of 1930’s movies, taps into many of the old familiar clichés but deploys them in a sufficiently inventive way that through much of the movie we’re really not sure in what direction the plot is going. Ginger Rogers is good, though it would have been hard to tell from this what she became later — dark-haired and not too attractively costumed, she’s decent-looking but hardly as goddess-like as she appeared in her films with Fred Astaire — and Robert Armstrong overdoes the dumb gags but otherwise is acceptable even though he’s remembered only for his role-of-a-lifetime in King Kong. Eddie Quillan is the star and the movie was obviously a vehicle for him, but he’s pretty obnoxious; he gets laughs, but a subtler comedian with a dryer sense of wit would have got more of them — but while there are times when we just want to strangle him, at least most of his performance can be read as good (if rather overdone) fun and the film itself emerges as clever and entertaining.