Friday, August 28, 2009

The Lady and the Mob (Columbia, 1939)

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

I picked out one of the more obscure films featuring Ida Lupino TCM had shown earlier in the day in their “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to her: The Lady and the Mob, a 1939 Columbia “B” whose cartoon-style main titles and the top-billed casting of Fay Bainter, as well as the cheery music, indicated this would be a comedy. It wasn’t drop-dead funny (let’s face it, so soon after watching The Cameraman it’s hard to imagine being especially impressed by a movie comedy whose star isn’t named Keaton or Chaplin — and no, I don’t mean Michael, Diane or Geraldine!) but it was consistently charming and amusing.

Lupino plays Lila Thorne, who previously to the start of the film has got herself engaged to Fred Leonard (Lee Bowman), the son of a wealthy widow who owns the bank in her small town, and has promised to visit her mother-in-law to-be to get to know her and get her to accept her as a worthy marriage partner for her son. When Lila arrives, she finds her fiancé’s mother, Hattie Leonard (Fay Bainter) incensed that her latest dry-cleaning bill was $2 instead of $1.75. She contacts her dry cleaner, Vincenzo Zambrogio (Henry Armetta, whose mock-Italian accent for once comes across as funny instead of overbearing), and learns he’s had to raise his prices to cover the $7 per week “protection” money he’s being charged by racketeer “Harry the Lug” (Harold Huber). This just makes Hattie even angrier: she insists on being at Zambrogio’s business the next time Harry comes to collect, and in order to go up against the crooks she recruits an old friend of hers who used to be a crook himself: Frankie O’Fallon (Warren Hymer),who once tried to steal Hattie’s purse. Instead of pressing charges, she agreed to help O’Fallon find a legitimate job and bought him a taxi so he could make his living as a cabdriver. Now she wants O’Fallon to beat up Harry and drive him out of business — and when Harry beats up O’Fallon instead, Hattie determines to recruit a gang of her own, asking the district attorney (Forbes Murray) to round her up some crooks who have records but aren’t wanted for anything at the moment to become her own gang and take on the extortionists.

The Lady and the Mob is essentially a three-joke movie — the main joke is a woman of Hattie’s age and history delving into crime-fighting; the subsidiary joke is her fish-out-of-water inability to relate to the crooks she’s recruited or to get comfortable with their jargon (her bobbling the expression “take it on the lam” is one of the cuter bits of the film); and the third joke is Lila’s increasing exasperation with Hattie and the doubts she’s having about whether she should marry into a family with such a crazy matriarch in the first place. (This isn’t the first time Hattie’s antics have driven one of her son’s girlfriends away; early on in the film she reminisces about a previous one who came over as a houseguest and seemed really nice, then adds, “Funny thing, after that weekend we never saw her again.”) The script by the usual writing committee (George Bradshaw and Price Day, story; Richard Maibaum — later writer of pioneering spy movies, including the 1946 O.S.S. with Alan Ladd and even the adaptations of the first few James Bond films! — and Gertrude Purcell, screenplay) plows its way through to the predictable resolution, but this is one of those movies in which getting there is almost all the fun — and one particularly clever part of the movie is the spoof of the formula of Columbia’s then-number one director, Frank Capra (one of whose films, You Can’t Take It With You, is referenced via a movie poster on one of the street shots). The tradespeople being victimized by the racketeers are perfectly willing to keep paying and leave well enough alone — it’s Hattie who rallies them to resist with rhetoric from the Founding Fathers — and there’s also a bit of metafiction in the way Hattie and her gang trace the protection racket from low-ball Harry the Lug to his boss, Mr. George Watson (George Meeker), and then in turn to someone even higher up. “There’s always got to be someone higher up!” says Hattie, in a ferocious tone of voice that suggests she’s seen enough movies to know all the clichés herself — even of the one in which she appears as a character!