Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Convicts at Large (Selig/Chadwick, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Convicts at Large, a 1938 production from a few names that seemed to have hung on residually from companies that were at least semi-major in the silent era, Selig and Chadwick, which I had downloaded from mainly because Ralph Forbes was the star, and I’ve been interested in his movies ever since I saw the marvelous 1933 Monogram film The Phantom Broadcast (and my high opinion of him was only confirmed by the 1926 silent film Mr. Wu, in which Lon Chaney, Sr. starred in the title role and Forbes played the B. F. Pinkerton-esque white guy who shamed the Wu family by falling in love with Mr. Wu’s daughter). He was considered a sort of backup to Leslie Howard but I find him lacking the prissiness that too often crept into Howard’s performances (though he was also stockier and he couldn’t convince as an action hero the way Howard could in films like The Scarlet Pimpernel and Spitfire). Forbes was marvelous in this movie and the film itself, despite its having two directors (Scott E. Beal and David A. Friedman — sounds more like a law office than a movie!) and three writers (Beal, Lee Chadwick and Walter James), turned out to be quite literate, one of those minor gems of classic Hollywood that used the clichés but also knew how to tweak them.

The film opens with a lot of stock shots of prisoners being lined up and marched around an exercise yard — I certainly recall having seen this footage elsewhere in other low-budget prison movies — and a cheesy musical underscore that blessedly ended when the dramatic event that all those prison scenes were supposed to be setting up happened: a group of convicts tried to escape, and while most of them were either recaptured or killed (the film shows the guards on the walls picking off the escaping convicts with high-powered rifles without giving them any chance to give up first), two succeeded in getting away. One of them is recaptured almost immediately but the other one, who calls himself “Ronald Stanton, Esquire” and has therefore been nicknamed “Squire” by his underworld buddies, is helped by nightclub owner Steve Moran (William Royle), whose legitimate business is merely a front for a jewel robbery gang and who engineered Squire’s escape because he wants him for his gang’s latest job. Steve is also in unrequited love with his star singer, Ruth Porter (Paula Stone, who probably didn’t get major-studio officers because she’s a bit horse-faced, though she’s otherwise quite attractive and personable, has a decent voice and, in one sequence, real talent as a dancer).

So is aspiring architect David Brent (Ralph Forbes) even though he’s never met Ruth, nor has he seen her perform live: he’s nonetheless got a crush on her from hearing That Voice on the radio. David is also being chewed out by his boss because he’s working on an idea of his own called “Happy Homes,” designed for just two people (which kind of begs the question of what the two people — who, this being a Production Code-era movie, are assumed to be legally married heterosexuals — are going to do with their Happy Home once nature takes its course and baby is about to make three) and specifically excluding a guest room — an annoyance David has to live with personally because in his own home he’s beset by his chatterbox brother and his brother’s girlfriend. Upset at the make-work he has to do for a job instead of working on his own ideas, David goes for a walk — and is mugged by Squire, who knocks him out and steals his clothes so he can have normal street clothes to wear instead of a prison uniform. (The shot of Ralph Forbes in his underwear, though nowhere near as hot as it might have been with some other actors of the day, is still appealingly kinky for a 1938 movie.)

Then Steve and his thugs, Buggsie (John Kelly in a Nat Pendleton-ish performance) and Gus (George Travell), drive by the park where David got mugged and throw out the suit of clothes they’d intended for Squire, not knowing he made other arrangements. David puts on the clothes, finds some money in one of the pockets of his suit jacket, and stumbles on the nightclub Steve owns, where Ruth performs (thereby he finally meets her for the first time), and of course he’s mistaken for Squire (especially when he tries to pay his check with Steve’s own counterfeit currency, which Buggsie slipped into the jacket so as not to waste any real green on Squire) and he spends about a reel or two trying to bluff the gangsters until, naturally, the real Squire shows up. At times Convicts at Large seems almost a spoof of The Petrified Forest (in which Leslie Howard’s character was named Alan Squier) even though most of it’s set in an urban rather than a rural area (though the climax takes place in a barn in which the real Squire hid the jewels Steve was after), and while the naïveté of Forbes’ character gets a bit too much at times (especially when he emerges from the barn with the box with the jewels and wonders why on earth the police arrest him), the film is nicely balanced between comedy and drama and it’s 57 minutes of surprisingly engaging and well-done entertainment.