Sunday, December 19, 2010

Postal Inspector (Universal, 1936)

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

On Friday night Charles and I had run the film Postal Inspector, made at Universal in 1936 and made available on as “the only musical featuring Bela Lugosi,” which it isn’t: the 1932 film International House, made at Paramount, is a much better movie both as a musical and a Lugosi vehicle (he plays a Russian trade representative in the Chinese city of Woo-Hoo to bid on an ancient inventor’s new remote TV; he’s also the ex-husband of real-life gold-digger Peggy Hopkins Joyce, who was top-billed in the film to capitalize on her off-screen fame, and he delivers a marvelous comic-villain performance even though what people remember about International House is neither Lugosi nor the musical numbers, but the absolutely brilliant comic performance by W. C. Fields in the latter half of the film).

Postal Inspector isn’t much of a musical — it only features two songs, “Let’s Have Bluebirds” and “Hot Towels,” with music by Irving Actman and lyrics by Frank Loesser (Bela Lugosi and Frank Loesser, no degrees of separation — who knew?), both sung by Patricia Ellis — and as a film about the United States Postal Inspectors (the Postal Service’s own private police force) it’s hardly as good as the Alan Ladd vehicle Appointment with Danger from 1951 — but it’s an interesting curiosity. Basically, Postal Inspector is an attempt by Universal to poach on Warners territory: a loosely fact-based story that incorporates documentary-style footage on what the Postal Inspectors do (it opens with a private radio broadcast to the Postal Inspectors by President Franklin D. Roosevelt — played by a voice actor whose impersonation is pretty good but readily discernible as not the voice of the real Roosevelt — congratulating them on moving the nation’s gold reserves), including breaking up frauds conducted through the mails.

One of the film’s oddest running gags involves women who come in to report work-at-home scams — actually the same one: they’ve been sent a weird-looking gadget that looks like two egg beaters having sex but which is supposedly a machine for making socks; the fraud is that the people who sold them this item promised to buy any socks they made with this equipment, then reneged — and there’s another item about a woman who sends pictures, ostensibly of herself, to would-be husbands, extracts money from them and then never shows up, and when she’s brought in she’s sixty-something and looks it. (So the gimmick of posting decades-old photos to Internet social-network sites to woo potential relationship or sex partners online is nothing new; it’s an old scam and only the technology has changed!) The film’s main intrigue is introduced when an airplane approaches a fictitious city called “Milltown” in a heavy fog that makes visibility almost totally impossible. Aboard are ace postal inspector Bill Davis (Ricardo Cortez) and nightclub singer Connie Larrimore (Patricia Ellis); he’s returning to his main job assignment after having been part of the elect of the postal inspector service that got to hear President Roosevelt’s remote thank-you — while she’s flying in for a gig at the nightclub owned by Gregory Benez (Bela Lugosi), who’s waiting for her at the airport and getting anxious about whether her plane is going to crash.

It lands safely, but (anticipating a gag done in one of the Airport movies at Universal decades later) Connie, backed by an obnoxious kid (Billy Burrud) on the harmonica, calms down some panicky passengers by singing “Let’s Have Bluebirds.” (I must say that Frank Loesser’s daughter Emily was under no illusions about this phase of her dad’s career; in her biography of him, A Most Remarkable Fella, in an authorial voice dripping with irony she describes the films he worked on at the time as “such unforgettable classics as Turkey Dinner, Postal Inspector, and Freshman Year.”) Benez, seeing a public-relations bonanza that will boost his business when Connie opens at his club, releases the story about how Connie’s singing helped calm the passengers of a seemingly doomed airplane as its pilots and the air traffic controllers at the Milltown airport guided it in to a safe landing.

Once she opens at the club, Connie meets Bill’s younger brother Charlie (Michael Loring), also a postal inspector, and they fall in love. Connie also casually mentions to Benez that one of Charlie’s assignments was delivering a batch of worn-out currency bills to the Federal Reserve for replacement by new bills — and Benez, who until now hasn’t done anything even remotely criminal or given any evidence of being crooked, suddenly hatches a plan to steal the next shipment of such bills and use it to pay off the debts he’s run up at his club. (Had screenwriter Horace McCoy — later famous for his novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? — established Benez as a former criminal and fugitive from justice before he opened his club, the way Howard da Silva’s character was in Raymond Chandler’s script for The Blue Dahlia in 1946, his turning crooked would at least make narrative sense.)

Meanwhile, a flood inundates the neighboring town of Yarborough (where Bill goes to help them relocate their post office to higher ground) and threatens to engulf Milltown as well, which gives director Otto Brower a chance to raid the Universal newsreel archives for lots of stock footage, most of it coming from the Mississippi River floods of 1927 (which we’ve seen in PBS documentaries about that event as well as other dramatic films, notably Abel Gance’s 1929 Fin du Monde) and Benez the idea that he can take advantage of the flood to make his getaway by speedboat. Eventually, aided by Ritter (Harry Beresford), yet another fraud victim who complained to the postal inspectors, the inspectors trace Benez to his hideout and, after an argument between the Davis brothers (Bill was convinced Connie was in on the robbery and Charlie of course defended his girlfriend’s honor and honesty), Charlie and Connie, driving their own speedboat through the floodwaters, see a beam holding up the building Benez and his gang are in and realize that if they crash into it, they can knock down the whole building and collapse it into the water, making the crooks easy to catch. This duly happens — in a model scene expertly staged by Universal’s special effects whiz, John P. Fulton — and the movie ends more or less happily.

Postal Inspector is one of those annoying movies that attempts to crowd too much into its slender running time (58 or 60 minutes, says the American Film Institute Catalog, though the print runs a shade under 57 minutes, probably because of all the footage missing due to splices — this is one of the jumpiest movies we’ve ever seen) — at once an action thriller, a semi-documentary story, a romantic comedy, a musical and a disaster picture, and McCoy and his collaborator Robert Presnell simply aren’t good enough constructionists to move us smoothly from one plot strand to another — and as a Lugosi item it’s a real disappointment, moving him from decent guy to crook with utterly no opportunity to show a coherent motivation for the change. Lugosi could do other things besides horror — his performance in The Return of Chandu is a quite remarkable romantic lead and shows he could play a fully sympathetic character when given the chance — but his straight-gangster roles, here as in Black Friday (where he appeared with Boris Karloff but was demoted from a co-lead to a meager supporting role for which he was singularly overqualified), tended to be dull.