Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Devil Is a Sissy (MGM, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

I ran Charles the 1936 film The Devil Is a Sissy, a rather oddly titled MGM film based on a story by director Rowland Brown about Claude Pierce (Freddie Bartholomew), product of a British architect father (Ian Hunter) and an American socialite mother (Katherine Alexander) who have divorced before the film begins and who each have custody of Claude for six months out of every year. As the story opens Claude has just moved in with his dad after the six months with his mom, and he's relieved -- only dad, not being able to get work, is living in a tenement neighborhood. Claude tries to befriend the two boys leading the local street gang, "Buck" Murphy (Jackie Cooper) and "Gig" Stevens (Mickey Rooney), whose father is being executed for murder that very night. The story deals with the inner conflicts inside Claude between the socially responsible values of his father and the budding criminals in the streets who, as virtually the only people his own age he sees, he wants to accept him -- and of course their solemn warnings that he never "squeal" about anything they do, or else.

The dramatis personae also include Rose Hawley (a subtle and beautiful performance by Peggy Hawkins), who in situations described surprisingly explicitly for a Production Code-era film is living with an older man who's supporting her financially but refuses to marry her. The plot deals with Gig's and Buck's attempt to raise the money for a tombstone for Gig's father, Claude's suggestion that they rob rich people instead of just picking on people in the tenement neighborhood who have no more money than they, and Claude's setup -- he leads them to an empty house and has them break in and steal valuable toys that are actually Claude's property. The three are arrested and Gig and Buck are placed on probation, and when they decide to try to get out of town rather than report to their probation officer, Claude intercepts them at the cemetery where Gig's dad is buried and tries to get them to go back -- only they're kidnapped by three adult crooks and Claude gets them rescued because they happen to stop at a French restaurant and Claude, the only person there besides the proprietor who knows French, tells the proprietor in French to call the police. But because the night was cold and wet, Claude gets pneumonia and it's touch and go at the end whether he's going to live.

There's a happy ending -- Claude lives, the two other boys become his fast friends and determine to live law-abiding lives, and Rose ends up coupled with Claude's dad -- but for the most part The Devil Is a Sissy is a surprisingly dark movie, especially for MGM in 1936, not only thematically but visually. Much of it is shot in intense darkness, making it difficult to see what's going on but also ably communicating the netherworld in which Gig and Buck are living and into which they're attempting to drag Claude. The Devil Is a Sissy was originally intended as a project Brown would both write and direct, and he started shooting the film but was fired in mid-project and replaced with MGM's all-purpose relief director, W. S. "Woody" Van Dyke, whose reputation for being able to shoot quickly (his nickname on the lot was "One-Take Woody") got him the assignment to rescue a lot of troubled projects other directors had half-finished.

The American Film Institute Catalog quotes a Daily Variety report from August 4, 1936 to the effect that all the finished film except for one or two scenes was directed by Van Dyke (who got sole on-screen credit at a time when director credits were solely up to the studio, before the Screen Directors' Guild was recognized as a bargaining agent and given the right to arbitrate conflicts over credits), but that's belied by the dramatic differences in appearance between the tougher, grittier scenes -- shot in a chiaroscuro style that anticipates film noir -- and the lighter, brighter sequences that are obviously the work of the MGM house guys who were put on the film to lighten it up after Brown was let go: Van Dyke, writers John Lee Mahin and Richard Schayer (who were probably responsible for that ghastly hearts-and-flowers finish in the hospital) and cinematographer Harold Rosson -- who replaced George Schneiderman, the great cameraman on John Ford's silent classics, who presumably shot the footage Brown directed), including a silly song called "Say Ah!" by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown that wrenches us out of Rowland Brown's dark world and back to MGM sweetness-and-light.

I also suspect it was Brown who was responsible for one of the most surprising performances in Mickey Rooney's career -- surprisingly because he powerfully underplays his role and is therefore more effective than usual (just compare his work here with his scenery-chewing in a similar role in Boys' Town). Who'd have thought that Rooney, whose name practically became synonymous with rancid overacting, had the makings of a subtle, powerful performer in him?