Monday, May 21, 2012

Police Court, a.k.a. Fame Street (Monogram, 1932)

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

The film was Police Court, an download which began with a 1951 title identifying it as an Edward Finney production, though the rest of the credits indicated its true origins as a 1932 Monogram production (with long-time Monogram production chief Trem Carr prominent in the credits as studio head, and I. E. Chadwick as the actual producer). According to the American Film Institute Catalog, the film was reviewed in 1932 by Variety and the New York Times under the title Fame Street, which conveys a lot more than Police Court of what the movie is actually about. It starts in a police court, all right, with the usual assortment of flotsam and jetsam being hauled in for vagrancy and public drunkenness — including a surprisingly pathetic (in the good sense of the word) mini-sequence in which a blonde woman pleads guilty to “walking the streets” and gets a 15-day suspended sentence after the judge says it’s terrible that she’s been forced to walk the streets (a “pre-Code” euphemism for prostitution) or starve — and we finally meet the central character, Nathaniel Barry (Henry B. Walthall). We soon find out that he’s a former stage and screen star — with the last name screenwriter Stuart Anthony gave him you don’t need two guesses for the real-life alcoholic stage and screen star who was the clear model for the character! — who has not only fallen from fame but has been reduced to regularly getting drunk, though as we soon learn he’s been able to hang on to a small house and keep custody of his son, Nathaniel Barry, Jr. (Leon Janney). Junior manages to convince the judge to suspend the six-month sentence he was going to hand down because “Uncle” Albert Furman (Lionel Belmore), the head of Master Pictures, Nat’s old studio, has promised him work.

The job is a minor role as a minister marrying the two leads in a romantic film, but Nat flubs his lines, goes off set, cries and ultimately bolts the studio. Junior traces him to their home and finds him sitting in front of a bottle and shot glass but fortunately not actually drinking. Junior pleads with Furman to give Nat yet another chance to work, and he tears into Furman so angrily that Furman decides that Junior is “a chip off the old block” and potentially a great actor himself. He casts Junior as the lead in a film called Father and Son, and Junior accepts on condition that his real father Nat, Sr. play his father in the film. Alas, that doesn’t happen — at least at first — because in the meantime Nat, Sr. has fallen off the wagon, and what’s more he’s had the misfortune to do that in a bar in which two of the other customers pick a fight with each other that results in a classic barroom brawl and gets all the patrons arrested. The judge (Edmund Breese) orders Nat incarcerated for six months, and the strain of having his father in jail affects the quality of Junior’s work. With his dad in jail, he’s living with dad’s former co-star Diana McCormick (Aileen Pringle) whom, it’s hinted, Nat, Sr. was involved with off-screen as well — though just how deeply involved they were remains a mystery and it’s pretty clear that Diana is not Junior’s actual mother (and just who the other partner in conceiving Junior was and what happened to her are also not explained in the movie) — and Diana and the film’s director, Harry Field (King Baggott), persuade Furman to use his connections to get Nat, Sr. paroled into their custody so he can play the part of Junior’s father in the movie as originally planned.

Meanwhile, Nat, Sr. has been transferred from the main part of the county jail to the hospital ward because years of alcohol abuse have weakened him — while in the ward he gets to room with Fred “Snowflake” Toones, one of those stupid-shuffling-servant-stereotype Black comedians whom we met in the opening scenes and who speaks in a whiny high drawl but sings “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” in a ragged but surprisingly deep voice (the contrast between how genuinely moving he is when he is singing and how offensively unwatchable he is when he’s talking is bizarre) — and when he’s finally released the ward doctor says it’s insane for him to go back to work immediately and he needs a long period of rest instead. Once we hear that, we know how this is going to turn out, and indeed it does — we cut to the studio, where Field is shooting the final scene of Father and Son, which calls for Sr. to play an unjustly convicted prisoner about to be executed saying goodbye to his son for the last time — and cheating the hangman by dying of a heart attack just as Jr. leaves. Field decides Sr.’s first take is too weak, and he asks for another, in which Sr. gives a heart-rending performance and then, you guessed it, dies for real right on cue. The film ends at what’s ballyhooed as the “Premiere of Premieres!” for Father and Son — Charles joked, “You mean there were no other premieres before this?,” and I joked right back, “That’s right. This is the first time anything was ever shown for the first time” — and Junior is there, wishing his father were present as well, and Furman, Field and Diana all assure him that his dad is there in spirit ­— and this film’s real director, Louis King (Henry King’s brother who, like Leo McCarey’s brother Raymond and John Ford’s nephew Phil, had some of the family talent even though they never got out of the shadow), cuts to the marquee with the names “Junior Barry & Nat Barry” in lights as the stars of the film. The End.

What was most amazing about this movie was how closely it tracked the end of the 1937 and 1954 versions of A Star Is Born even though in this case it’s the alcoholic actor’s son, not his wife, who tries (futilely) to rescue his career and who has to suffer his downward spiral and pick him out of drunk tanks and try to convince understandably skeptical judges that the once-famous man can be rehabilitated. This film was made the same year as What Price Hollywood?, with George Cukor directing and Constance Bennett playing the young hopeful who’s built into a major star by alcoholic director Maximilian Carey (Lowell Sherman, who not only plays the role very much like John Barrymore — there, I’ve said The Name — but is even made up to look like him), which was sort of the beta version of A Star Is Born, and the gimmick of having the barely-recovering alcoholic lead die of a heart attack just when he’s redeeming himself seems to have been copied from the 1931 MGM film A Free Soul (based on a story by Adela Rogers St. John, who also wrote the original story for What Price Hollywood?), in which Lionel Barrymore (That Name — or at least that last name — again!) plays a drunken attorney who dries out just long enough to win an acquittal for his daughter’s (Norma Shearer) good suitor (Leslie Howard) after he killed her bad suitor (Clark Gable — I’ve sometimes referred to A Free Soul as the beta version of Gone With the Wind, if only because it’s a two-man, one-woman triangle in which Howard and Gable play the two men). About the only way the Powers That Were at Monogram in 1932 could have made this film seem closer to John Barrymore’s real-life story would be if they could have cast Barrymore himself in the lead — as was done at MGM with Dinner at Eight a year later. The ending of Police Court a.k.a. Fame Street a.k.a. Son of Mine (the British title) tracks so closely to the ending of A Star Is Born (which William Wellman, who not only directed the 1937 version but won credit — and an Academy Award — for the original story, insisted was based on John Barrymore even though other candidates, notably John Gilbert, have been named) that one half expects to see Leon Janney at the premiere standing in front of a radio mike and, in a halting, tear-soaked voice, saying, “This is … Nathaniel … Barry … Junior!”

Though it’s not at the level of the very best films first-iteration Monogram was making in the early 1930’s (like The Phantom Broadcast, Sensation Hunters and the Virginia Bruce-Colin Clive Jane Eyre), Police Court is a quite good movie (unexpectedly so, especially given the tacky reissue title that gives the impression it’s going to be a cheap thriller instead of what the credits actually proclaim, “A Monogram Melodrama”), sensitively written by Anthony and directed by King, who had something of his brother’s knack for getting understated performances from his actors (aside from Janney, who does such a fierce attack on the scenery with his teeth he comes off as the beta version of Mickey Rooney!). We’ve seen other performances from Walthall (especially in his early talkies, without D. W. Griffith around to discipline him) in which he hams it up all over the place, but in this film he’s powerfully understated, convincingly portraying a weak man who doesn’t quite understand himself what’s happened to him or why he has fallen so low. Monogram’s second iteration produced so many dreary series films (the Dead End Kids/East Side Kids/Bowery Boys/whatever they were called, the cheapies Sam Katzman dragged Bela Lugosi through, and the last Charlie Chan movies) it’s often hard to remember just how good Monogram’s first iteration (which ended in 1935 when the company’s owner, W. Ray Johnston, took it into the merger that formed Republic; the second iteration began in 1937, when Johnston left Republic and reorganized Monogram) often was!