Thursday, May 13, 2010

Prison Shadows (Mercury/Puritan, 1936)

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

I got out the 50-film “Dark Crimes” DVD boxed set again and pulled out an intriguing 1936 film called Prison Shadows, filmed by an outfit called Mercury Pictures and released on the state’s rights market (i.e., with a separate distribution deal for each state or region instead of a nationwide arrangement with a releasing company) through Puritan Pictures. Puritan dealt mostly with Westerns (the stock in trade of most cheap producers then, at least partly because they could be shot entirely outdoors and therefore you didn’t need to rent lights) but this is a modern-dress picture and, though prison figures prominently in the plot, it’s actually a boxing movie. The film begins with a boxing match, filmed by director Bob Hill from a peculiar bird’s-eye angle looking down on it as the referee summons the fighters to the center of the ring and tells them he wants a good, clean bout … and then the camera pulls back after the hero, Gene Harris (Eddie Nugent), knocks out his opponent and we see that the fight has taken place inside a prison, where Harris is serving a five-year sentence for manslaughter owing to the death of one of his previous opponents in the ring.

Al Martin’s script, which wasn’t going to win many points for originality — though it did offer some nicely done variations on some of the standard clichés — has Harris torn between two women, good girl Mary Grant (Joan Barclay, a talented if not spectacularly brilliant actress who deserved better than co-starring with Bela Lugosi in Shadows Over Chinatown and Black Dragons) and bad girl Claire Thomas. Mary shows up to meet him when he’s paroled — and brings along his dog, “Babe” (played by a dog identified in the cast list as “Corky” — and how they got the dog, which is described as female in the script but could have been a male cast Transgender à la Lassie, to come when they called “Babe” instead of “Corky” is a mystery to me). Bad girl Claire Thomas (Lucille Lund) doesn’t show up to meet Harris when he’s let out, and when she and Harris finally do meet, it becomes clear that she’s just stringing him along and is really dating his boss, fight promoter George Miller (Forrest Taylor), who pulled strings to get Harris paroled because a fighter that can be advertised as “Killer” Harris is a big potential box-office draw.

Claire strings Harris along to keep him in Miller’s stable — much to Mary’s acutely jealous displeasure — and at his first fight since his release, Harris’s opponent, “Dynamite” Murphy, also dies even though Harris was deliberately pulling his punches, aiming for a win on a decision rather than going all-out to knock Murphy out. Harris is investigated by the police (naturally) and is convinced that Murphy met with foul play at the hands of someone else, but it’s not until Babe the dog pulls out a towel from Murphy’s locker, lays on it and is taken seriously ill that the scheme unravels. It turns out that Claire’s real lover is neither Harris nor Miller but Bert McNamee (silent-film veteran Monte Blue), trainer and secret gambler, and she and McNamee were placing bets for Harris and ensuring that he’d win by hiring McNamee out as trainer for Harris’s opponents, in which capacity he would wipe them off between rounds with a towel impregnated with a special poison based on a Chinese herb (Claire, we learn in passing, had lived in China for several years) that kills on contact with skin and then evaporates without leaving a trace, so even a doctor doing an autopsy can’t find any trace of it. For Harris’s next fight, since he’s actually favored to beat heavyweight contender “Kayo” Reilly, McNamee persuades Miller to give him a job as Harris’s trainer (even though Harris already has one, Dave Moran [Sid Saylor], whom he hooked up with in prison and who supplies the supposedly obligatory “comic relief”) and targets Harris for elimination with the super-poison.

Harris visibly weakens during the fight with Reilly and goes down in round two, and is duly pronounced dead by the ringside doctor — only it’s all a trap, worked out by Harris with Moran and Mary to find out who’s behind the scheme: Moran stole McNamee’s towel of death and substituted one soaked in ordinary rubbing alcohol, and Harris deliberately threw the fight and played dead to flush the schemers out of hiding. There’s a nice shot when, as McNamee and Claire are in the dressing room after the fight congratulating each other on the success of their scheme and the $250,000 they’re going to earn from it, Harris gets up from the table he’s lying on and it’s shot like a resurrection scene in a horror film, straight on for shock value. Harris is disappointed that Claire was in on the plot to murder him, but in the end the bad guys are arrested, Harris is pardoned (since McNamee poisoned the original victim as well) and can therefore marry — which he couldn’t legally do while still on parole — the boxing commission declares the fight a “no contest” and there’s a sticky final scene in which Harris, Mary and Moran hold a memorial at Babe’s gravesite (complete with a clear glass headstone containing a photo of the noble dog!) lamenting Babe’s passing, though Harris and Mary agree that the hound deserves their eternal gratitude for having brought them together.

Prison Shadows has some of the usual problems of a mid-1930’s indie: (mostly) clear, bright cinematography (by Bill Hyer) even in scenes that cry out for atmospheric proto-noir treatment; a cheesy musical rent-a-score accompaniment (though director Hill leaves much of the film unscored); and a substandard cast. Eddie Nugent tries hard but he’s just too slight of build to be believable as a boxer (especially a heavyweight — had Martin’s script moved him down a weight class or two it would have been more credible) and the women turn in the best performances, but even they are just doing what we’ve seen much better actresses do in similarly plotted films from the major studios. The plot premise is intriguing enough that one aches for what Warner Bros. could have done with the idea — with James Cagney as the boxer (even though he would probably have had to play a bantamweight!), Bette Davis as the bad girl and Joan Blondell as the good girl — but Prison Shadows is still a nicely entertaining movie and the production values are above average for companies as far down the totem pole as Mercury and Puritan: the photography is clear and bright and the sound, always a bugbear in mid-1930’s indies, is relatively noise-free and you don’t have to strain to understand the dialogue.

Even the boxing footage is well staged — and though there are some intrusive cut-ins of stock shots of real bouts (one gets the impression that the final fight takes place at Madison Square Garden simply because Mercury had access to a stock clip of their entrance on the night of a big fight!) there’s enough footage clearly shot for this film that the fight scenes are actually quite credible and even exciting. There are also clever variations on a couple of the most famous scenes in It Happened One Night — one in which Harris and Mary are trying to dunk doughnuts in coffee, she’s giving him an illustrated lecture and Babe is bumping into them and sabotaging both their attempts; and another in which, exhausted after a road-work run, Harris and Moran attempt to hitchhike. Though a more imaginative director could have made more of this script, Prison Shadows is a quite nice film and well worth watching.