Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Woman Condemned (Willis Kent Productions, 1934)

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

The night before last Charles and I had squeezed in a movie at the end of the evening: The Woman Condemned, a 1934 film from Willis Kent Productions with direction credited to Mrs. Wallace Reid (most of the women directors who tried to crack the glass ceiling on that job in Hollywood in the 1930’s and 1940’s are forgotten but Mrs. Wallace Reid — some of whose films were credited under her own name, Dorothy Davenport — is even more forgotten than most; if she has any reputation at all today it’s as the director of both the silent and sound versions of The Road to Ruin, a slightly better-than-average exploitation number whose main selling point was probably her reputation as the widow of the first Hollywood movie star to die a drug-related death) and with no writing credit at all, so it’s impossible to determine just who to blame for the dull, soporific script that wasted a potentially compelling premise.

The film opens with the final broadcast of singer Jane Merrick’s (Lola Lane) radio show for the season — she’s taking a layoff and hasn’t told either the network, the ad agency that put the show together, or the sponsor how long she’s going to be out — and no sooner has she done her last show than she disappears completely. Jim Wallace (Jason Robards, Sr.), her producer, who’s had an unrequited crush on her, hires a private detective agency to find her — and the head of the agency tells him that because of Jane’s fame, he’ll have to assign an undercover operative to tail her and even Jim won’t know who this person is. The person turns out to be Barbara Hammond (Claudia Dell, top-billed — two years after she co-starred in the first version of Destry Rides Again with Tom Mix at Universal), who gets caught on the fire escape outside Jane’s apartment and is arrested for burglary. Crime reporter Jerry Beal (Richard Hemingway — presumably no relation) is immediately smitten with her and tells the night-court judge he’s engaged to her — whereupon the judge immediately marries them. She wants to get the marriage annulled but he wants to make a go of it, and asks her on a dinner date. It turns out that the two men, Jim and Jerry, are friends, and Jim persuades Jerry not to publish the story of Jane’s disappearance.

Barbara sneaks into Jane’s apartment and overhears a conversation between her and a thug who’s apparently been blackmailing her, then sees the thug shoot her dead — only Jane appears as a live character later in the story. Barbara gets arrested and charged with the murder (she picked up the murder weapon at the scene and got her fingerprints on it, a mistake a trained private detective shouldn’t have made), and Jerry launches his own investigation and traces the still-living Jane to a sanitarium operated by a Dr. Wagner (Mischa Auer, playing a serious role — as he usually did in Willis Kent’s productions before he got typecast as a comedian), and at one point it looks like Dr. Wagner is a mad scientist working on a bizarre experiment to bring Jane back to life. He isn’t, though — he’s just a surgeon doing a plastic job on her to remove an embarrassing birthmark — and eventually it turns out that the murder victim wasn’t Jane but her twin sister (that’s such a cliché no wonder the screenwriter wanted to remain anonymous!), and Jane agrees to impersonate her sister’s ghost to trick the killer, gangster “Dapper Dan,” who murdered Jane’s sister after she broke up their relationship.

The Woman Condemned is one of those 1930’s indies that takes a potentially provocative premise and totally ruins it by inept execution; the acting is barely competent, too much of the action is staged in dull long shots, for something that’s supposed to be a thriller there’s almost no sense of pace, and cinematographer James Diamond offers utterly no sense of atmosphere; the story cries out for proto-noir visual effects and gets scene after scene of evenly lit gray tones with utterly no attempt to create any drama visually. It’s especially disappointing since the only other Davenport-directed film I’ve seen, the sound version of The Road to Ruin, contained at least a few visually compelling shots — not this one, though.