Sunday, August 28, 2011

Central Park (Warner Bros. as “First National,” 1932)

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

The film was Central Park, a 1932 “B” (58 minutes) from Warner Bros. in “First National” drag and a quite exciting film that manages to pack a lot of plot in a relatively short running time, with the sort of narrative economy that’s one of the big differences between films then and now. It’s basically two stories: Dot (Joan Blondell, top-billed — we were watching this in a recording I made from TCM on their “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to Blondell), an unemployed would-be actress in New York City, meets Rick (Wallace Ford), similarly unemployed after the rodeo he was touring with fell apart in the Big Apple, meet in Central Park one morning (after a beautifully done montage sequence of the park and its denizens, both human and other species of animal, awakening at the start of a day — I get the impression Rouben Mamoulian’s “city symphony” opening of Love Me Tonight, based on an idea he’d already done on stage in his production of DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, was influential on a lot of other filmmakers!) while they’re cruising a luncheon counter and eyeing the big sausages the counterman (Henry Armetta) is cooking up with a combination of hunger and lust.

The counterman knows they’re hoping for a chance to grab some of his food, and when a group of kids playing baseball in the park hits a ball through one of the windows of his counter, he thinks Rick has done it — and while he’s grabbing Rick, Dot makes off with two sausage sandwiches and they hang out in another part of the park and eat them, sparking a romantic attraction (unnaturally quickly, but then this is a 58-minute movie). Dot gets called over by two mysterious men in a taxicab, who identify themselves as police officers (and flash badges to prove it) and ask her to pose as an undercover operative at a contest being given that night at the Central Park Casino for “The Most Beautiful Girl on Fifth Avenue.” The gimmick is that the event is a fundraiser to help the unemployed — the admission is $100 per ticket — and the contest winner will be given a key to the box containing the proceeds and will ceremonially open it and hand it to the representatives of the charity. The people she’s talking to say that they’re worried about protecting the money from any attempt to steal it, but as we suspect (and so does she, though she takes the job anyway), they’re really the crooks who intend to rob the event and are using her as a decoy to substitute for the (already selected, secretly) contest winner.

Of course the pretend “cops” swear Dot to secrecy about the operation, but she has enough misgivings about it (even though she’s been promised $100 for her part in it) that she tells Rick while they’re having a quite ample meal, funded by the $2 he got from a cop — a real one — to wash the police force’s motorcycles so they’ll look bright and shiny for the Big Event. The other plot line is set in the Central Park Zoo and involves Charlie (Guy Kibbee), a (genuine) police officer who’s patrolled Central Park for over three decades and got to know the people who work there; Luke (Charles Sellon), who’s the keeper in charge of the cage in which they keep the dangerous lion Nebo; and Smiley (John Wray, who was briefly hailed as “the new Lon Chaney” when Paramount remade The Miracle Man in 1932 and he played Chaney’s original part of the actor who fakes being crippled, and then being healed, as part of a faith healer’s act), who formerly had Luke’s job until he went crazy and was put in a mental hospital, only he’s escaped. Charlie’s eyes are going bad on him (weren’t police officers allowed to wear glasses in 1932?) but he wants to hang on for one last week so he can get his pension — when we hear that about him we’re all too aware that his character is likely to be exiting this movie horizontally — and because he can’t see he mistakes Smiley for Luke and allows Smiley to lock him in with a pair of tiger cubs he likes to play with, while Smiley goes on with his plan to avenge himself against Luke by locking him in the cage with Nebo and letting the lion killed him. (Though it’s likely it was a stunt person, it really does look as if Nebo is mauling a genuine, live human and I wondered how they got this scene in the can without long-term damage to the homo sapiens involved.)

Luke is rescued just in the nick of time but Nebo escapes, hides out in a taxicab (there’s a nice comic scene in which a couple of would-be passengers flee the cab in horror while the driver, who has no idea a lion is in his back seat, wonders what’s going on) and ultimately shows up at the big charity benefit at the Casino, forcing everyone to flee. Meanwhile, the gangsters, headed by Nick Sarno (Harold Huber — who else?), have kidnapped Rick because they were worried he would spill the beans about their plot — eventually he escapes, but when he shows up at the Casino, disheveled and homeless-looking, the cops don’t believe him, and ultimately they’re convinced both he and Dot are part of the plot. The gangsters make off with the satchel containing the money and Rick chases them; ultimately the bad guys crash their car near where Charlie, who’s been suspended for allowing Smiley into the zoo and letting the lion escape, is resting. Charlie goes over to the crash site and Nick shoots him, but he lasts long enough to clear Rick and receive his badge back — though in the meantime there’s been a grim scene at the jail in which Dot lies and says she no longer loves Rick in the hope that the police will let him go even as they hold her for the crime. Eventually the zookeepers trap the lion, Smiley is apprehended and Dot and Rick are exonerated, and the dawn breaks over Central Park in a close copy of the opening montage sequence.

Central Park is an exciting, fast-paced film, moving quickly enough that we don’t doubt the logic of Ward Morehouse’s and Earl Baldwin’s script, and it’s surprisingly creatively directed by John G. Adolfi. I’d previously assumed he was just the guy who got his name on George Arliss’s films while Arliss actually made them himself, but on the basis of this movie Adolfi emerges as a genuinely creative filmmaker with a flair for unusual camera angles (when a Warners movie has this many overhead shots, usually it’s a Busby Berkeley musical!) and quite atmospheric cinematography (Sid Hickox was his director of photography), and he also gets good performances from his leads — Blondell was a reliable commodity who was virtually director-proof as an actress, but Ford seems credible as a beaten-down but still heroic man instead of the offensively whiny schtick he usually played. It’s a quite good movie, one of those diamonds in the rough that stick out among the usual products of the studio system.