Sunday, October 31, 2010

This Marriage Business (RKO, 1938)

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

The film I finally ran us was This Marriage Business, a 1938 RKO “B” directed by Christy Cabanne from a script by Gladys Atwater and J. Robert Bren that seems like a mash-up of everything Frank Capra had directed to that point. The film starts up with an exciting chase scene in which runaway heiress Babs Delaney (Ida Vollmar) and her old high-school sweetheart Robert Riordan (Richard Bond), whom she insists on marrying despite the marriage her parents have arranged for her with a European prince, are being tracked by New York Dispatch reporter Bill Bennett (Allan Lane) and his photographer “Candid” Perry (Jack Carson). While hurrying in pursuit of the runaway couple, the media guys see a car that’s stalled because its driver, Nancy Parker (Vicki Lester — the real one! She was a starlet, who according to the American Film Institute Catalog was under personal contract to Mervyn LeRoy but was loaned to RKO for this movie — which seemed odd because the only other credits I’ve seen for the real Vicki Lester were all RKO films, usually billed well down in the cast list whereas here she’s billed third and is playing the female lead; what makes it even more ironic is that 16 years after appearing with the real Vicki Lester, Jack Carson would have a key role as the press agent in the George Cukor/Judy Garland remake of A Star Is Born, in which Garland played the fictional Vicki Lester), has run out of gas.

Bill zips by her but promises to send back some gas — which he doesn’t do, of course: he’s too busy ambushing the amorous couple at the home of Middletown city registrar Jud Parker (Victor Moore, top-billed), Nancy’s father, who among his other duties is responsible for issuing marriage licenses. Bill and “Candid” show up at the wedding in time to get roped into serving as the witnesses, and the runaway heiress and her new husband totally disappear from the story from then on as Bill learns that Jud has kept track of every couple he issued marriage licenses to and none of them have filed for divorce. Bill senses a story and he writes it up — and soon Middletown is flooded with people applying for marriage licenses from the man the reporter nicknames “Cupid” Parker in hopes that this will ensure that their marriages will last. Needless to say, Bill also falls in love with Nancy and decides to hang around Middletown to court her — even though she’s already got a boyfriend, local attorney Lloyd Wilson (Jack Arnold). Jud can’t stand Lloyd and is convinced his daughter could do better, and from the moment we look at him — with his pencil-thin “roo” moustache and his overall imperious manner — we’re convinced he’s up to no good.

It turns out that Jack is in league with Joe Selby (Richard Lane), the gangster who runs a roadhouse on the outskirts of town and is bribing the mayor, Frisbie (Frank M. Thomas), and the entire city government to keep his roadhouse (which also includes a casino — at least so we’re told; we never see any gambling equipment and indeed the supposedly corrupt roadhouse actually looks like a pretty decorous place) open. Lloyd says that Selby is simply his client, but we see a meeting of Selby and his lieutenants, including Lloyd, so we know better. Bill and “Candid” go to the roadhouse after Nancy has gone there on a date with Lloyd, and the police stage a phony “raid” on the place to satisfy local business owners concerned about vice in their town; Bill escorts Nancy out of there when the cops arrive, and that finally starts to melt her heart towards him. The Middletown business leaders get together and ask Jud to run for mayor on a reform ticket — they haven’t before had a candidate with enough popularity in town to buck the Selby-Frisbie machine — and in order to sabotage Jud’s campaign Selby has his girlfriend Bella Lawson (Kay Sutton), who sings at the roadhouse and who formerly dated convict Frankie Spencer (Paul Guilfoyle), who took the rap for a crime both he and Selby committed, try to entrap Jud in a sex scandal. The frame works better than Selby anticipated when Frankie gets released from prison and turns up in Middletown seeking revenge against Selby for setting him up and stealing his girlfriend, and it all leads up to a confrontation in Bella’s room where Jud (lured there because he’s supposedly issuing a marriage license so Bella and Selby can marry) witnesses Selby shoot Frankie but can’t remember what he saw and falls unconscious — whereupon Selby puts the murder weapon into Jud’s hand, thus getting his fingerprints on it.

A coroner’s jury holds Jud over for a murder trial, but as he reviews photos of the room “Candid” took for the local police, Jud remembers he heard two shots and Bill figures from that that there must have been two guns. He and “Candid” catch Selby and a henchman attempting to bury the second gun, and “Candid” takes a picture, but Selby’s henchman runs “Candid” off the road and snatches the camera, smashing it — only the day is saved by Corky, Jud’s pet dog (an obnoxious mutt but also sometimes the most intelligent character in the film!), who saved the plate with the key photo and delivers it to Jud in jail, where Bill is visiting him. Bill gets the picture developed and spreads it around town, leading to the arrest of Selby and the corrupt politicians who’ve been helping him, Jud’s election as mayor and Bill’s and Nancy’s tying the knot. It’s yet another example of just how much plot the “B” moviemakers of the 1930’s could cram into 71 minutes’ worth of running time — a modern movie would probably take twice as long to tell that much story — and though it’s no world-beater This Marriage Business is a fun movie, not laugh-out-loud funny but certainly amusing, and Victor Moore’s performance is relatively restrained, at least for him: he keeps the whiny mannerisms down to a minimum and for the most part turns in a heartfelt performance as a father who cares about his community, his daughter and the nice young man she clearly belongs with.