Sunday, March 28, 2010

City of Missing Girls (Select Attractions, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” was City of Missing Girls, a 1941 independent production billed as by “Select Attractions, Inc.” and directed by exploitation hack Elmer Clifton (Pearl White’s leading man in the 1914 Perils of Pauline) from a story by himself and a script by Oliver Drake and George Rosener. The premise was a potentially good one, if rather stale (even then): assistant district attorney James Horton (John Archer) and his girlfriend, reporter Nora Page (Astrid Allwyn, usually a blonde villainess, here as a dark-haired good girl and surprisingly effective) set out to investigate the Crescent Talent School, which is luring stage- and screen-struck young women with promises of stardom, only the lucky ones get careers as showgirls at the nightclub owned by sinister impresario King Peterson (Philip Van Zandt, turning in one of those performances I like — superficially charming but a slimeball below the surface), while the unlucky ones get shipped out of town for fates Messrs. Clifton, Drake and Rosener are maddeningly ambiguous about. We get the impression that they’re being sold to a white slave racket and ending up as prostitutes, but even at the low level Select Attractions, Inc. occupied on the studio food chain in 1941 they were still hyper-concerned about the Production Code and the writers here were nowhere near as good at hinting at evils that dared not speak their names as their confreres at the major studios.

The plot kicks off when one of the Crescent students, Thalia Arnold (and naming her “Thalia” — defined on Wikipedia as “a rustic goddess, one of the three Graces, and the Muse of comedy and idyllic poetry” — is by far the most creative touch in this film’s script!), is found dead after being in the missing persons’ file for a week. Homicide captain McVeigh (H. B, Warner, in a marvelous bit of off-type casting even though, when he protests that he’s lived in the city where this takes place all his life, it’s hard not to expect him to add, “Well, at least since I came back to life in Jerusalem after being crucified for man’s sins”) works with Morton on the case, and after a few brief shots of an urban skyline (probably stock, though one scene of the camera panning up the side of a skyscraper looked like it was done with a model) the film resolutely spends most of its time indoors, cutting between two locations we quickly get incredibly tired of — Morton’s office and the office of the crooks — with an occasional shot of the interior of Peterson’s nightclub just for an tiny bit of relief.

This is one of those movies that cried out for the Warner Bros. approach — fast-paced, relentless, with thundering music (we don’t even get a number supposedly representing Peterson’s floor show) and actors delivering rapid-fire performances, also enough of the backlot to do some exterior scenes and spare us the claustrophobia we start to feel after a while of scene after scene of people talking in a room, all filmed from a stationary camera at a discreet distance. Eventually the plot lurches to a resolution in which Nora decides to disguise herself as an aspiring actress and enroll in the Crescent school to find out what’s really happening to its students — only she’s “outed” almost immediately and only a police raid led by H. B. Warner (a pity he couldn’t just turn the crooks’ guns into plowshares!) saves Our Heroine from the Fate Worse Than Death. Just before this happens, however, Nora sees that her own father, Joseph Thompson (Boyd Irwin) — and why, if she’s described as unmarried, do she and her dad have different last names? — is part of the gang, and there’s a shocked recognition scene between them before he gets gunned down by the gangsters just before the cops arrive.

The big problem with City of Missing Girls is that it’s simply boring; recommended it as one of the films you should consider if you liked The Sinister Urge (along with two genuine masterpieces by major directors, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, as well as the 1999 Steven Soderbergh film The Limey), but Clifton’s direction is so boring and plodding he makes Ed Wood seem like a master of suspense by comparison. About the only good thing City of Missing Girls has to offer is the eccentric casting of Warner and Allwyn; reviewer “picfixer” called Warner “unfortunately miscast,” but I loved his playing against “type” here and he’s certainly at least as believable as a veteran cop as Barry Fitzgerald was in The Naked City. “Picfixer” also had nasty things to say about John Archer, but I found him well suited to his role, playing it something like Ralph Bellamy in one of his infrequent outings as action hero instead of loser in the battle of the sexes.

But the actors — including 19-year-old Gale Storm (still using the more normal “Gail” spelling of her first name), in a brief role as one of the school’s pigeons — are left at sea by the repetitive dullness of the script and the snail’s pace of Clifton’s direction, and ultimately City of Missing Girls emerges as just what reviewer “dbborroughs” said about it: a film just good enough to keep you awake but not so good that you stay genuinely interested in it — “it’s a film of the twilight between asleep and awake.” I suspect that Select Attractions and its owners, producers Max Alexander and George Merrick, filmed this at the Hal Roach studio, if only because two people involved had long associations with Roach — character actor Walter Long (best known for his villain roles in some of the Laurel and Hardy movies, but here cast as a cop) and musical director Marvin Hatley — though the score here, which alternates between orchestral bits that sound like stock scores and radio-style organ flourishes, certainly couldn’t have tapped Hatley’s imagination anywhere near as much as the famous theme, “Dance of the Cuckoos,” he wrote for Laurel and Hardy!