Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Devil Diamond (Conn, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Devil Diamond, a 1937 indie from something called the Conn Pictures Corporation (headed by someone named Maurice Conn and, to my knowledge, with nothing to do with the Conn Instrument Company that produced the short Mr. B Natural as a promotional film) and starring Frankie Darro in what I was hoping would be a 1930’s version of Blood Diamonds. Instead it was a melodrama based on a story by Peter B. Kyne (whose most famous work, The Three Godfathers, has been filmed several times, including once by William Wyler and twice by John Ford) which, as adapted by Charles Condon and scripted by him and Sherman L. Lowe, rather confusingly glued together two plot lines which really didn’t have that much to do with each other. The film opens in what looks like a corporate boardroom but is in fact a gathering of criminals debating how best to get rid of the Jarvis Diamond — obviously, given all the dialogue about how this stone (shown in supposedly uncut form) has been cursed through the years, Messrs. Kyne, Condon and/or Lowe were thinking of the Hope Diamond here — in such a way as to realize its value while at the same time not allowing potential buyers to be discouraged by that little matter of the stone supposedly being cursed.

The strategy they cook up is to get a retired diamond cutter, Peter Lanning (Burr Caruth), to cut it into smaller gem-quality stones so they can sell it as fully finished diamonds and can beg off any explanation of where the raw diamond came from. To do this they have to get the diamond to San Juan — which at first I thought meant the one in Puerto Rico but turned out to be a town in California notorious as the hideout of the legendary bandit Joaquin Murrieta (who interesting was enjoying a brief vogue as a film subject just then — MGM had made an entire movie about him, plus a pseudo-documentary short to promote their fiction feature, and in the 1940 film Virginia City Humphrey Bogart’s character was obviously supposed to be Murrieta even though, probably to avoid a lawsuit from MGM, Warner Bros. “Anglicized” the character’s name to “John Murrell,” though they still had Bogart talk with a Latino accent that, like his attempt at a brogue in Dark Victory, proved that as versatile an actor as Bogart was, one thing he couldn’t do was accents) — and in order to have an excuse to descend on San Juan while waiting for Lanning to cut the stone and their buyers to arrive and take it off their hands, they seize on Lee “Kid” Harris (Frankie Darro), a hotel doorman with ambitions to be a prizefighter. Supposedly they’re taking him out to San Juan so he can train — though, in one of the film’s few good scenes, the people driving the car supposedly pacing him on his roadwork get tired and call a halt to the proceedings while the Kid himself is rarin’ to go for more!

The writers get so bored with the plot involving the diamonds — Darro’s Life of Jimmy Dolan-esque training routines and boxing ambitions clearly interest them more than the diamond story, and the same is true of director Leslie Goodwins (himself on his way to a berth in the RKO “B” department, where he directed most of the comedies featuring Wally Brown and Alan Carney, RKO’s attempt to synthesize their own Abbott and Costello), whose future as a comedy director is shown by the fact that the gag scenes obviously turn him on more than the rest of the movie. There’s a nice bit in which Darro gets rid of a girl whose goop-eyed admiration of him is getting to be too much by having her hold the end of a jump rope he’s supposedly using in one of his exercise routines … and then he disappears and leaves her literally holding the rope forever, or at least until she finally realizes she’s been had. Other than that, the film is little more than an excuse to involve Frankie Darro in a whole bunch of fight scenes — and not prizefight scenes, either, but amorphous him-against-everyone-else brawls — and also a series of romantic rivalries in which Yvonne Wallace (Rosita Butler) and her sister (Fern Emmett) — identified only as “Miss Wallace” and the girl at the wrong end of that jump rope — both cruise Darro while Lanning’s granddaughter Dorothy (a personable June Gale) sets her cap for Jerry Carter (Kane Richmond, later a regular Republic serial hero), who’s ostensibly in San Juan to research a history article he’s writing on Joaquin Murrieta but is in fact an agent for a jewelers’ exchange there to recover the Jarvis Diamond (though he doesn’t seem at all put out when he recovers it, not intact but cut up).

Byron Foulger is there — his last name spelled without the “u” in the credits — but he’s merely playing a Swedish houseboy, complete with the standard stereotypical “Swedish” accent, rather than the nerdy little crook he usually played (this was his first film and he hadn’t yet been “typed”). Some of the independent “B”’s that have turned up in public-domain sources like archive.org and boxes like The 50 Greatest … of All Time (which usually turned out to be far from that, though the 50-film Dark Crimes box has had some engaging thrillers) have been surprisingly good, and others at least watchable, but Devil Diamond is just a pretty empty waste of time.