Monday, July 26, 2010

The Adventures of Jane Arden (Warners, 1939)

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

The film was an intriguing 1939 Warners’ “B” called The Adventures of Jane Arden, based on a then decade-old comic strip about a wisecracking, aggressive woman reporter who solved crimes; it was created by Monte Barrett and Russell E. Ross and ran from 1928 to 1968. Though her boyfriend is her managing editor instead of a cop, this was essentially a Torchy Blane film with different character names (indeed Warners may have intended it as the first part of a series to replace the Blane films), with an actress named Rosella Towne whom I’ve otherwise never heard of playing Jane Arden (quite effectively, too, with the same indomitable spunk Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell brought to similar roles for the studio) and William Gargan his usual boring self as her editor, Ed Towers.

The plot starts out with the murder of socialite Martha Blanton (Maris Wrixon), a participant in a jewel-robbery ring run by phony “doctor” George Vanders (James Stephenson, a quite interesting actor Warners was building up as a specialist in suave villainy — though his most famous role was a sympathetic one, as Bette Davis’s attorney in the 1940 film The Letter, and after having started his film career relatively late, 49, he died suddenly of a heart attack at 53 in 1941). The police arrest a rather milquetoast guy as a suspect but Jane’s convinced he didn’t do it, and she has a plan to catch the person who did — but after the rival papers scoop hers on the case Towers abruptly fires her, and also fires her roommate Teenie Moore (Dennie Moore), the paper’s advice-to-the-lovelorn columnist.

Later — in a scene possibly borrowed from the 1936 film Bullets or Ballots (Edward G. Robinson as a cop ostensibly fired from the force so that, still working for the police, he can be recruited by the crooks and infiltrate their gang undercover) and ironically recycled by Warners for several of their war movies (Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn supposedly turning traitor so the enemy will contact them for some nefarious sabotage plot) — Towers meets Jane surreptitiously and explains that he’s going to send her on a mission to infiltrate the gang of jewel thieves for which Martha was working, whose above-board front is a jewelry store owned by Albert Thayer (Pierre Martin). Jane goes in with a pair of pearl earrings that’s been privately reported stolen by an association of jewelry stores but not officially reported to law enforcement, Thayer recognizes the stones and is about to have Jane arrested, when Dr. Vanders sees her through a one-way mirror and decides he’d like to recruit her for his latest scheme: to steal a priceless item from a government ball in Bermuda. He’d also like to recruit her for sexual purposes, much to the chagrin of his existing girlfriend and partner in crime, Lola Martin (Peggy Shannon).

Jane hooks up with Vanders on the ship to Bermuda, but Thayer quickly learns who she is and radios the information to Vanders aboard ship. The crooks do a ship-to-shore phone call and decide to have Towers kidnapped and threaten to kill him unless Jane goes through with the jewel theft as scheduled, but meanwhile Towers escapes and takes a plane to Bermuda to intercept the thieves — and when Vanders and Jane show up at the ball they find that the jewels they were after were already stolen — by Lola, who wanted to get back at Vanders for apparently having jilted her in favor of Jane — and there’s a spectacular chase sequence in horse-drawn carriages as Towers tries to get to the airport, where Vanders has a plane waiting to take him out of Bermuda with the loot, with at least one head-on shot obviously clipped from a Warners Western and used here as stock footage. Eventually Towers corners Vanders at the airport and shoots him, Lola gets a neat death scene (Vanders pushed her from the carriage at high speed and she dies of the injuries sustained in the fall) and Towers and Jane end up alternately kissing and arguing on the steamship taking them home as the movie ends.

All this story gets told in a brisk 53 minutes, courtesy of zippy director Terry Morse and a concise script by future director Vincent Sherman with Lawrence Kimble and Charles Curran, and why Rosella Towne didn’t become a star at the level of Blondell and Farrell is a mystery to me: she certainly matches their snappy authority in this sort of role. It was also ironic, the day after San Diego’s Comic-Con concluded, to be watching a movie based on a comic strip long before movies (especially ones that weren’t serials) based on comic strips were cool.