Friday, July 16, 2010

Dangerous Blondes (Columbia, 1943)

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

The film was Dangerous Blondes, a 1943 “B” from Columbia starring Evelyn Keyes and Anita Louise in the title roles. Keyes plays Jane Craig, who seems to be the girlfriend and is only later revealed to be the wife of successful mystery writer Barry Craig (Allyn Joslyn), whose friend Julie Taylor (Anita Louise) is in unrequited love with her boss, commercial photographer Ralph McCormick (Edmund Lowe), even though he’s already married. What’s more, he’s counting on his wife Erika (Ann Savage, who played one of the great screen femmes fatales in Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour in 1946 but here is ill-used) to get her aunt, Isabel Fleming (Mary Forbes), to do an advertisement for a brand of silverware; it seems that getting the fee for this picture is a make-or-break proposition and if he doesn’t do it, he’s going to go out of business.

Julie starts the movie by coming home and saying that she was assaulted in McCormick’s darkroom by a mysterious assailant who slashed the negatives of the Isabel Fleming picture — which means that Ralph has to re-call all the models who were in the photo and take it all over again. Only Aunt Isabel takes violent objection to a substitute model who appears in the second picture, Madge Lawrence (Bess Flowers), and won’t go through with the photo unless she’s fired — and, with no one else available on such short notice, Julie steps into the picture (literally and figuratively) herself. Needless to say, the lights go out and Aunt Isabel is murdered — as is Erika McCormick, considerably later in the film — and the Craigs and the offical police, led by Inspector Joseph Clinton (Frank Craven) and his sidekick, Detective Gatling (played by the marvelous William Demarest, who gets way too little screen time even though he’s that rarity in these sorts of movies: a “comic-relief” character who’s actually funny), have a friendly — and sometimes not-so-friendly — rivalry trying to solve the case and find the killer.

Dangerous Blondes was clearly working the same sort of comedy-mystery territory that had been ploughed so productively by MGM in the Thin Man movies, but despite some good gags and snappy dialogue it never really takes off. Part of the problem is that the mystery part of the story is singularly uninteresting, part of it is we’re confronted with a plethora of suspects and a shortage of comprehensible motives — this is one of those movies in which it’s difficult to keep track of who is who and how they all relate to each other, especially since it’s cast with a pretty anonymous group of actors who look all too much like each other — and the killer turns out to be a peripheral character, a gangster type who’s been hanging around the photo studio and who, it turned out, was in love with Mrs. McCormick and thought Aunt Isabel would get in his way … while with Mrs. McCormick conveniently offed during the action, the way is paved for Mr. McCormick and Julie to get together at the end, not that we really want them to.

The best sequence in the film comes early on: a radio quiz show in which Barry Craig and Inspector Clinton are leading rival teams — detective fiction writers vs. real detectives — answering questions about crime, and Detective Gatling misses the question, “Who invented the machine gun?,” hemming and hawing and admitting in frustration that he can’t come up with the answer even though “I know it as well as I know my own name!”