Saturday, April 17, 2010

In Fast Company (Monogram, 1946)

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

Afterwards I ran Charles a 1946 Bowery Boys movie — their second together under that incarnation, though this group of super-annuated juvenile delinquents had been acting together under one sobriquet or another ever since they’d been recruited, first for the original Broadway stage production of Dead End and then for the 1937 film version. As they worked their way down the Hollywood food chain from Goldwyn to Warners to Universal to their final resting place (funereal implications definitely intended) at Monogram they were variously the Dead End Kids, the Little Tough Guys, the East Side Kids and finally the Bowery Boys. The present film was called In Fast Company (not to be confused with the two MGM productions, one from the 1930’s and one from the 1950’s, merely called Fast Company) and had gang leader “Slip” Mahoney (Leo Gorcey, a much better actor than he got to show in this series and the man who would have been in line to take over the James Cagney roles if Cagney had ever let them go) drafted by a local priest, Father Donovan (Charles D. Brown), to take over driving the cab owned by John Cassidy (Frank Marlowe) after it’s run off the road and his arm is broken by drivers working for the rival Red Circle company.

The accident is one of a series being staged by Red Circle manager Steve Trent (Douglas Fowley, playing his usual gangster “type” two years after his remarkable performance as the leading man in Lady in the Death House at PRC — a state executioner obliged to pull the switch on his innocent but legally convicted girlfriend — and six years before he got a minor part in a prestige picture, as the director in Singin’ in the Rain) to put Cassidy Cab and all the other independent taxi operators out of business so Red Circle will have the monopoly on taxi service in New York City — and of course “Slip” enlists “Sach” (Huntz Hall) and the usual gang (including one played by his brother David — their father Bernard also appears, as the owner of the soda shop where the gang hangs out), even though their efforts on behalf of the Cassidys mean that “Slip” has to keep breaking his dates with dumb-blonde girlfriend Mabel Dumbrowski (Judy Clark).

That’s about all the plot there is to it — aside from a mid-film reversal in which the gang find out that the real owner of the Red Circle company, Patrick McCormick (Paul Harvey), is a decent guy who doesn’t have any idea what Trent is doing to build the business, and the gang successfully appeal to him to call an end to the taxi war — but In Fast Company stands at least a smidgen above the Bowery Boys’ usual output thanks to an interesting director, Del Lord. He started out in the teens as one of Mack Sennett’s original Keystone Kops — it was apparently he who drove a car down a nearly sheer cliff, a breathtaking stunt Sennett used as stock footage again and again — and by the 1930’s he was a director handling some of the Three Stooges’ funnier shorts at Columbia. Lord couldn’t do anything about the script for this movie, which was written — or at least compiled — by Martin Mooney (“original” story), Edmond Seward, Tim Ryan and Victor Hammond, but he could stage some effective and genuinely amusing slapstick scenes, including the film’s highlight: a number of principals get themselves stuck inside the phone booth at the soda shop (obviously someone on the writing committee remembered the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera) and can’t get out again until they finally shake the phone booth apart with their vibrations.

There are also other people besides Fowley who got to make bigger and better films than this — like Jane Randolph as McCormick’s daughter, four years after she’d been the “other woman” who threatened Simone Simon’s marriage to Tom Conway in Cat People and two years after she repeated the role in the sequel; and Mary Gordon as Mrs. Cassidy, the same year she played Mrs. Hudson the landlady in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes series for the last time — and a flavorful performance by former Hal Roach leading lady Marjorie Woodworth as a vamp working for (and dating) Trent who entraps “Slip” and his cab into an ambush. (There’s also another rather clever scene in which “Slip” picks up a supposedly “blind” passenger who does the same thing.) Nobody would ever confuse any of the Bowery Boys’ (or their predecessors’) films with great movies, but there must have been some audience appeal in this series to keep it running for two decades, until the lead actors were well into their 30’s and no doubt wondering why they were still portraying “lovable” teenage rogues. And it does help that, thanks to Monogram’s ultra-low production budgets, the working-class streets, rooms and soda shops in this movie look credibly proletarian and not well beyond the budgets we’re told the people in the movie have access to!