Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Hoodlum Saint (MGM, 1946)

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

The film was The Hoodlum Saint, a 1946 MGM vehicle for William Powell, which judging from its description in the TCM schedule (“After finding religion, a cynical newspaperman tries to help young hoods”) I thought would cast William Powell as a mentor to some Dead End-style young toughs on the New York streets: a Bowery Boys movie with an MGM budget and star. Instead it’s a considerably wilder tale than that; it begins in 1919, with Powell as Terry O’Neill, who’s just returned from serving in World War I and expects to be given back his old job as a reporter in Baltimore (a plot line of obvious topicality in 1946). Instead he’s told that in order to make room for him, his editor would have to fire someone else — and rather than let anyone else lose their job over him, Terry walks and is out of work, which means he can no longer give money to the comic gangsters who have been tapping him all along: Snarp (James Gleason), Fishface (“Rags” Ragland, in his last film before his sudden death on August 20, 1946, three days short of his 41st birthday), Three Finger (Frank McHugh) and Eel (Slim Summerville).

Terry manages to land another job by crashing a wedding reception and pretending to be the boyfriend of Kay Lorrison (Esther Williams in a non-swimming role, at which she’s capable if not especially impressive), then bluffing his way into a job on the newspaper owned by Lorrison’s father Joe (Charles Trowbridge). Lorrison père puts Terry on a series of investigative stories to expose the commodities company owned by Lewis J. Malbery (Henry O’Neill) — only Terry makes a deal with Malbery to quit the newspaper and spike the stories in exchange for a job doing P.R. for Malbery’s company in New York — where the comic gangsters also migrate so they’ll be within handout distance of Terry. Over the next decade Terry rises to vice-president of the company and makes $2 million on his stock options, while Snape opens a pool hall and runs a bookmaking operation out of its back room.

When he’s busted by two cops, Terry decides to bail him out but not let him know he had a hand in it — instead he concocts a story based on the Biblical character of Dismas, the so-called “good thief” who was one of the three on Golgotha with Jesus and who was not bailed out by the crowd but was crucified along with Christ. All Snape is supposed to know is that Dismas “miraculously” provided the money to bail him out, and as a result the gangsters get religion and start regularly attending the St. Dismas church pastured by Father Nolan (Lewis Stone, whose approach as a minister seems mainly to consist of giving individual congregants the kinds of “heart-to-heart talks” he used to inflict on Mickey Rooney in the Hardy Family movies). Meanwhile, singer Dusty Millard (Angela Lansbury — who, as in all her other MGM movies in which her character sang, got saddled with a voice double she neither wanted nor needed), the New York girlfriend Terry took up with after Kay Lorrison refused to join him and instead married someone else, works with the gangsters and sets up a charity to help the poor in the name of St. Dismas and eventually turns it into a racket, with the proprietors taking 95 percent off the top for “administration.”

Everybody gets their comeuppance thanks to the use by screenwriters James Hill and Frank “Spig” Wead (the Navy veteran whom John Wayne played in the John Ford-directed biopic The Wings of Eagles and who was better known for writing films about aviation) of the 1929 stock market crash as a deus ex machina. Just before the crash Terry tries to woo back the now-widowed Kay with his lavish apartment and $2 million bank balance — and, in a scene strongly reminiscent of the one in A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge’s girlfriend walks out on him for similar reasons, she virtuously turns him down — and when the market collapses and takes Terry’s paper fortune with it, he’s returned to where he should be, with another newspaper job and in the good graces of both his friends and the church, when Dusty (who goes from being a good sport to an avaricious gold-digger and back with no hint from the writers as to what changed her either way) contributes a bracelet Terry bought her in flush times to make up the shortfall between what the Dismas charity collected and its actual cash on hand, thereby saving it from closure by the Charities Board and its principals from prosecution — and Terry, who up until now has been cynical about religion in general and St. Dismas in particular, finds his faith for real (largely as the result of another “man-to-man talk” from Lewis Stone!) and also gets Kay to marry him at long last.

The Hoodlum Saint is a good movie but also a really quirky one — one of those films that changes tone so often one things the writers just gave up on the task of melding their various plot lines into a coherent script, and also annoying in that the Dismas angle, which gives the film its title, isn’t introduced until midway through. Still, it’s an appealing movie, with a lot of quality actors (especially Powell, Lansbury, Gleason and Ragland) doing their things and a certain charm. The director is Norman Taurog, who had a reputation for working with child actors that stemmed from his having helmed Jackie Cooper’s star-making vehicle, Skippy (1931); and while there aren’t any significant pre-pubescent characters in this one, he had a pretty rambunctious and oddly matched set of talents whom he managed to meld into a surprisingly credible ensemble cast.

Incidentally, The Hoodlum Saint is not to be confused with The Hoodlum Priest, a 1961 movie based on the real-life attempts of a priest actually named after Dismas — Father Charles Dismas Clark (Don Murray, who also co-wrote the script as “Don Dare”) — to rehabilitate some juvenile delinquents on those mean inner-city streets — and Charles informs me that the story of Dismas as told in The Hoodlum Saint is actually quite close to the historically and theologically accepted version, especially in his role as the saint for people who have fallen especially low into vice or crime.