Thursday, May 13, 2010

Half a Sinner (Grand National/Universal, 1940)

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

Charles and I eventually squeezed in a short film, Half a Sinner, from the Mill Creek Entertainment “Dark Crimes” 50-DVD box, a Universal release from 1940 — though it wasn’t a Universal production; it had actually been filmed in 1939 by Grand National, but when that company went out of business its remaining unreleased films were purchased for distribution by Universal. It was a quirky film to turn up in the “Dark Crimes” box because, though it’s got a gangster subplot, it’s actually a comedy — the director is Al Christie, who had been producing comic films since running a two-reeler studio under his own name in the teens (he ranked third among comedy producers behind Mack Sennett and Hal Roach) and hooking up with Educational Pictures at the start of the sound era and heading their comedy department. How he happened to hook up with Grand National and direct a film (he was usually just a producer) is a mystery — and how this film got its title is an even bigger mystery: the working titles were Everything Happens to Ann and The Lady Takes a Chance, and Half a Sinner was probably stuck on the film when Universal bought it since they’d already used that name in 1934 for a totally unrelated story: a gambling movie based on a play called Alias the Deacon that Universal had also filmed under that name in 1927 and would make again with the original stage title in 1940.

Anyway, the 1939/40 Half a Sinner is a sort of fish-out-of-water comedy in which prim and proper schoolteacher Anne Gladden (British actor Heather Angel, given a singularly homely makeup and ugly pair of glasses in her opening classroom scene so when she does kick over the traces her natural beauty will seem more like a contrast) decides that life is passing her by (at 25!), so she takes the money she’s saved, buys a fancy dress and decides to go out for a day on the town in what Christie, anticipating John Hughes, might as well have called Anne Gladden’s Day Off. The first thing that happens to Anne on her day off is she goes to the park and is hit on by a rather slimy gangster type — she’s already repulsed by his advances when she notices his gun and realizes that just saying no to him could be dangerous, so she spots a car that’s parked but has its motor running and drives off in it. What she doesn’t know is that the car was stolen by two other members of the same gang, who had used it in a murder: they had killed a rival gangster and stuffed his body in the back seat, preparatory to driving somewhere where they could dispose of it. The head of the gang is pissed when his underlings report that they not only let someone else steal the stolen car in which they hid their victim’s body but they covered it in the gang head’s overcoat — so if the police find the body it can be traced to him and the whole gang will be busted — so they set off and start chasing the car.

The car also attracts the attention of a professional informant and the cop he reports to, both of whom hang out at a gas station run by Walter Catlett — who interestingly is billed fourth even though he has surprisingly little screen time — and a handsome young man played by actor John King, who flags down Anne as she’s driving it. He pretends that his own car has broken down (it really hasn’t) and asks her to drive him to the gas station, where he plans to have it towed — it’s all really an excuse to spend time with her — and he points out to Anne that there’s a dead body in the back of the car, which she hasn’t known up until then. He switches license plates with a car belonging to dowager socialite Mrs. Jefferson Breckinridge (Constance Collier, a stage diva who made all too few films but brought delight to the ones she did make, including Stage Door), and he breaks into Mrs. Breckinridge’s mansion because part of his scheme to make himself more alluring to Anne is to pose, light-heartedly, as a crook. In the final reels Mrs. Breckinridge, anticipating the elderly heroine of The Lady and the Mob, takes charge of the situation, using her cane to subdue the gangsters and calling the police — whereupon it turns out that John King’s character is Lawrence Cameron, the rightful owner of the car the gangsters stole from him and Anne stole from the gangsters — and of course he and Anne end up together at the fade-out and Anne’s seemingly repressive grandmother from the opening scene (Emma Dunn) approves of her “catch.”

Half a Sinner is one of those films that is nothing particularly special but it’s a lot of fun — and at an hour it doesn’t overstay its welcome; it does get off on the wrong foot with a useless scene in which Anne keeps Willy, one of her students (played by a typically repulsive child actor named Sonny Bupp), after school, but once Anne leaves the classroom and starts off on her trek in search of normal people’s fun, it’s a delight and Christie’s direction of a script by Frederick Jackson (based on a story by Dalton Trumbo, an odd name to see on such a trivial film as this) is assured and quite mobile and active; this certainly doesn’t look like the work of a director whose career began in 1913!