Thursday, July 28, 2011

Monte Carlo Nights (Monogram, 1934)

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

The film was Monte Carlo Nights, an unoriginal but genuinely entertaining hour-long number from the later days of Monogram’s first iteration, directed by William Nigh (usually not a good sign, but this time around he actually turned in a directorial effort with some energy and seemed genuinely to care about what he was doing) from a script by Norman Houston based on a story called “Numbers of Death” (which would probably have been a better title — though it’s called Monte Carlo Nights the setting doesn’t move to Monte Carlo until 35 minutes into this 61-minute movie) by veteran mystery writer E. Phillips Oppenheim. It starts at a horse racing track — though the first 35 minutes of the movie take place in the U.S. it’s still drenched in gambling and the locales thereof — at which playboy Larry Sturgis (John Darrow) is sitting with a blonde gold-digger, Mazie (Billie Van Every), but is also cruising heiress Mary Vernon (Mary Brian, top-billed) in the next box. Larry is scheduled to ride his own horse in the next race, a steeplechase (Charles noted that John Darrow looked far too big and robust to be playing a jockey, though it was billed as a “gentleman race” and perhaps that meant they relaxed the weight rules for owner-ridden horses), and when John takes a tumble off his horse his gold-digging date ignores him but Mary rushes out to where he’s fallen and rides with him to the hospital in the back of his car. The two fall in love and Mary is determined to marry him despite the opposition of her Aunt Emma (Kate Campbell) and her own concerns about how much he gambles.

On the eve of their wedding — after he’s been late for the wedding rehearsal because he was paying off the gold-digger and her attorney — he takes her to an illegal casino, wins $11,000 at the roulette table and then gets rowdy and abusive when Brandon (Carl Stockdale), the casino’s owner, asks him to leave. He goes to Brandon’s office to collect a check for his winnings and somebody else, hiding behind a curtain, pulls out a gun and shoots Brandon dead. Idiotically, Larry picks up the gun, and the next thing he knows he’s being arrested for the murder by his old friend, police inspector Ned Gunby (a surprisingly understated performance by George “Gabby” Hayes, billed here without the nickname). Earlier Gunby had asked Larry to help him find a gambler who murdered a bank messenger in a robbery; the only clue to his identity is a slip of paper found on the scene with four numbers written on it, evidently representing a roulette system (hence Oppenheim’s original title “Numbers of Death”), and Gunby concludes that the crook was there at the casino and killed Brandon so Larry couldn’t reveal that he’d seen him play the four numbers of the mystery system.

Larry is convicted of manslaughter and given a 10-year sentence, but on the train to prison his fellow prisoner Butch Meeker (Jack Curtis), to whom he’s handcuffed, escapes and literally pulls Larry with him. Butch dies in the escape and Larry manages to make it look like he too is dead, then goes to Monte Carlo after he learns the identities of the people who played the Numbers of Death that night, Jim Daggett (Robert Frazer) and his girlfriend Blondie Roberts (Astrid Allwyn, whose name is misspelled “Allyn” on the credits), who were identified by Brandon’s croupier (George Cleveland). Larry traces them to Monte Carlo (we finally got there!) and dates a woman named Madelon, but she’s not a real girlfriend; she’s a decoy as part of his scheme to entrap Daggett and Blondie by catching them playing their system. There’s a shoot-out between Larry and Gunby in which Gunby is wounded, but later he becomes convinced of Larry’s innocence, and eventually Daggett and Blondie are caught, Larry and Mary reunite, and they plan to get married and honeymoon in Monte Carlo (as they originally planned) — and then, since Mary doesn’t want Larry to gamble again, he plans to join the police force at the end.

Monte Carlo Nights isn’t exactly fresh screenwriting, and the title promises much more of a romantic thriller than the rather ordinary crime drama we get (the second half of the film could just as easily have taken place in Nevada!), but it’s good drama, it holds the interest and it’s the sort of pleasing entertainment churned out by the yard during the studio days. It’s also noteworthy that William Nigh could make a genuinely interesting movie — though oddly the U.S.-set first half is more exciting than the Monte Carlo-set second half, which seems to have combined standing sets and stock shots of the real Monte Carlo casino for a not altogether convincing depiction of the legendary principality. The acting is competent; it’s nice to see Mary Brian cast as something other than W. C. Fields’ long-suffering daughter (or the woman who tried to break up Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson in the 1931 version of The Front Page), and John Darrow is an O.K. romantic lead (good-looking and personable enough we can understand why Mary stays with him and keeps the proverbial torch burning even when he’s sent up for manslaughter, escapes and then is presumed dead), but Astrid Allwyn has too little to do and there aren’t the array of great character actors that livened up many an otherwise doggy movie in Hollywood’s golden years. Still, Monte Carlo Nights is a fun movie, considerably better than one would expect from the later records of its studio and its director!