Monday, October 3, 2011

Up in the Air (Monogram, 1940)

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

Charles and I eventually ran a not-bad movie, a 1940 film from Monogram called Up in the Air, a murder mystery set in the offices of the Amalgamated Broadcasting Corporation (ABC, three years before that became the acronym of a real radio network, the American Broadcasting Company, which was spun off of NBC in an antitrust action back before the antitrust laws were considered obsolete and quaint) which seemed awfully familiar. It turned out we’d seen the remake, There Goes Kelly, from just five years later — which had been nominally a sequel to a 1943 Monogram production called Here Comes Kelly (which itself had been a remake of a 1933 Monogram production called He Couldn’t Take It based on a script by Dore Schary, a far more prestigious name than one expects to see on a credit from Monogram!) — and which not only faithfully followed the scenario of Up in the Air (the two films were close enough that Edward Kelso received screenwriting credit on both, though for There Goes Kelly Tim Ryan was credited with “additional dialogue”). In order to impress Anne Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), a newly hired receptionist, and try to get a date with her, ABC page boy Frankie Ryan (Frankie Darro, actually billed first and above the title!) offers to audition her as a singer.

He commandeers an office and gets ABC’s Black janitor, Jeff (the marvelous Mantan Moreland), to play piano as Anne sings “By the Looks of Things,” a song by Monogram music director Edward Kay and Harry Tobias, that was reused in There Goes Kelly (probably from the same recording!). Frankie, Anne and Jeff are caught by Farrell (Tristram Coffin), who produces the station’s highest-rated program, a music program, sponsored by a toothpaste company, featuring temperamental singer Rita Wilson (Lorna Gray). Rita says she’ll quit the program and sign with a rival toothpaste company for a show on another network unless she gets twice as much money and approval rights for everybody else who appears on the program — the announcer, the comedian (there’s yet another gag here about radio writers routinely raiding the turn-of-the-last century Joe Miller’s Joke Book for “funny” lines), the band and all the off-air personnel as well. The sponsor, B. J. Hastings (Dick Elliott), tells her to get lost and chews out Farrell because he had promised to keep Rita’s demands under control. The scene then shifts to the rehearsal for Rita’s latest program, in which Frankie and Anne let in singing cowboy Tex Barton (Gordon James) as long as he promises to sit quietly in the back and not make anyone aware of his presence. Just after Rita sings “Doin’ the Conga” (by Edward Kay with Lew Porter and Johnny Lange), the lights in the studio go out (“just like San Diego!” Charles joked, referring to the September 8 blackout), a gunshot is heard and when the lights come on again Rita is found on the floor, dead.

The police try to seal off the rehearsal studio but Tex slips out, and they “naturally,” being typically dumb movie cops, assume that means he did it — until they trace him to his car, ask to see his gun, and find out he doesn’t have one. Farrell tries to bribe Frankie to keep quiet about an argument he and Rita had just before the fatal rehearsal — if Frankie doesn’t blab to the cops, Farrell will audition Anne as Rita’s replacement — and Frankie bluffs his way into an audition of his own by doing a blackface routine with Jeff (which, according to the American Film Institute Catalog, Moreland actually wrote — containing that intriguing trademark of his in which two people finish each other’s sentences and respond as if they could anticipate exactly what the other person would say), after which the two of them find the gun in a ventilator shaft. The police trace the gun as the same one used in the shooting of Gladys Wharton, a singer at a small radio station in Cheyenne, Wyoming; she survived, but subsequently disappeared. Since Tex came from there, the police are once again convinced he did it — until he turns up dead in the office of ABC’s owner. Later it turns out that Tex also worked at the station and was married to Gladys, but she left him for a wealthy station executive.

The police eventually deduce that Rita and Gladys had been the same person, and that the same person who tried to kill her in Cheyenne probably finished the job in L.A. (where ABC is headquartered) and killed Tex, too, because he had known the killer back when and could have ID’d him. They do the old let’s-put-all-the-suspects-in-the-same-room-and-see-who-cracks routine, and Van Martin, the announcer on Rita’s program, turns out to be the killer — only he pulls out a gun and is about to start shooting when Jeff opens the door on the other side and knocks him over. The gun falls out of his hand and the police recover it and arrest him, and the final scene shows Anne Mason singing “Doin’ the Conga” on Rita’s old show as her replacement. (Intriguingly, two years later Marjorie Reynolds would make her major-studio breakthrough at Paramount doing Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire — and the name of her character would be Linda Mason.) The film’s director, Howard Bretherton, had got his start in the silent era, albeit barely (his first credit was While London Sleeps in 1926), and at Monogram he made mostly Westerns, though with occasional branching off like this film and Sidney Toler’s last Charlie Chan movie (in fact, his last movie, period), The Trap (1946).

Though the remake drew a better director, Phil Karlson, Up in the Air has the advantage of a superior cast (though his slight build made him difficult to cast, Frankie Darro was actually quite credible as an action hero — one of those people, like Leo Gorcey, who would have qualified to take over the James Cagney roles if Cagney himself had ever let go of them), especially the presence of Mantan Moreland, who, as usual, wriggled around in the dumb-Black stereotype and somehow managed to make it funny instead of mind-numbingly offensive. It’s a neatly done little movie and proof that even early in its second iteration, Monogram was still capable of good if not great things (they’d hit greatness a couple of times in the first iteration — with the 1933 thriller The Phantom Broadcast, also a radio movie but a more compelling one than Up in the Air/There Goes Kelly, and with the first sound version of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, with Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive, in 1934); they hadn’t yet set the pattern of running the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys, Bela Lugosi and Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan into the ground and keeping them there by overworking them!