Friday, September 14, 2012

Larceny on the Air (Republic, 1937)

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

The film was Larceny on the Air, a product of the short-lived interregnum between Mascot Studio and its successor, Republic Pictures. Republic was formed in 1935 by Herbert Yates, owner of Consolidated Film Industries, which didn’t make pictures but was actually the film developing lab used by virtually all companies who couldn’t afford to maintain one on their own sites. Several independent companies, including Mascot and Monogram as well as Liberty Pictures, Majestic Pictures, Chesterfield Pictures and Invincible Pictures, were into Yates for a lot of money for film developing they hadn’t paid for, and so Yates forced their owners to sell him their studios or risk him foreclosing on them. Monogram was the largest company Yates absorbed this way but Mascot had the most technically sophisticated studio plant, so Yates based his new operation at the Mascot site (which previously had been Mack Sennett’s studio) and used Mascot production chief Nat Levine to run Republic — only Levine bailed after the first year and took with him a $1 million payment for Mascot which he apparently blew on bad horse-racing bets. W. Ray Johnston left the Republic combine and reactivated Monogram in 1937, but Larceny on the Air was one of the films Levine produced during his one year as Republic studio head (along with the Marion Talley vehicle Follow Your Heart and the first Dick Tracy serial). It’s one of those films (originally released at 60 to 67 minutes but now extant only in a 52-minute version cut down from the original for release to TV stations in the 1950’s) that has nothing particularly original about it but is still good entertainment despite its predictability.

The star is Robert Livingston, who generally appeared in Republic’s Westerns (the company’s mainstay), including as the leader of “The Three Mesquiteers” (when he left that series he was replaced by another Republic contractee, John Wayne), but this time out got a modern-dress role as Dr. Lawrence Baxter, who has a one-hour per week radio show on which he exposes potentially dangerous patent medicines, particularly ones containing radium as an ingredient. He singles out an alleged rejuvenation pill sold by a company owned by Kennedy (Pierre Watkin), who along with his attorney Thompson (Wilbur Mack) has been careful to stay just barely on the right side of the law, avoiding making out-and-out health claims for the product and relying on consumer testimonials for most of his advertising. Dr. Baxter is convinced that if he can find one consumer who’s actually been harmed by the product — preferably a long-time user who has got radium poisoning and had no other risk factor for it (like working for a paint company or a watch company — well into my childhood watches with glow-in-the-dark hands and numbers painted with radium were still being sold) — he can bust Kennedy’s company. But in the meantime Kennedy and Thompson go to the owner of Dr. Baxter’s station and buy out his time slot, putting him off the air — until Dr. Baxter gets a visit from Jean Sterling (Grace Bradley, attractive and with the appealing spunkiness of a lot of female leads in Republic’s serials), who says her dad, Professor Rexford Sterling (Granville Bates), is willing to finance a daily program for Dr. Baxter on another station with the earnings from his magazine, Your Good Health. 

The moment we see Prof. Sterling holding a copy of his magazine (with a hot-looking drawing of a presumably healthy male on the cover) and get that writers Endré Boehm and Richard English have modeled him on the real-life “health” publisher and tabloid sleaze artist Bernarr MacFadden, we know that his offer to Dr. Baxter is too good to be true. Later we learn just what the professor and his comic-relief sidekick Jimmy (Smiley Burnette, who was just barely tolerable as Gene Autry’s sidekick in Republic Westerns but is way too hard to take as a comic-relief villain!) are up to: they go to the companies making radium-based products that Dr. Baxter blasts on the air and extorts advertising from them by saying they can stop the attacks on them from Dr. Baxter. Dr. Baxter learns this and, rather than virtuously refuse to go along with it — as Jean, who hadn’t known about her dad’s misdeeds until Dr. Baxter briefed her about them, had expected him to — he demands half the proceeds. Of course it’s all a trick, worked out by Dr. Baxter and his friend, FBI agent “Mac” McDonald (Willard Robertson), to allow Dr. Baxter to infiltrate Kennedy’s operation and bring it down from within. Meanwhile, Kennedy and Thompson kidnap the radium-poisoning victim Dr. Baxter found, Pete Andorca (Byron Foulger, for once not playing a criminal sidekick himself), and take him to a house in the country that’s part of Kennedy’s far-flung headquarters — another one of Kennedy’s establishments is an open-to-the-public enterprise called the “Restorium” which features a vegan menu and a dance band, and where Dr. Baxter goes (with a disgusted Jean in tow) to sell Kennedy on his latest brainstorm, a common-cold remedy containing radium.

Only Dr. Baxter is “outed” when, acting on a tip from him, McDonald arrests the black-market dealer from whom Kennedy was going to acquire the radium, and there’s a series of confrontations in which Kennedy accidentally kills his own man, Andrews (William Newell) — whom Dr. Baxter tricked into revealing where the gang was hiding Pete Andorca by convincing Andrews that he himself was sick with radium poisoning and the only cure was a serum for which Dr. Baxter needed Andorca’s blood — and the police arrive just in time to take out Kennedy’s hired gunman before he can take out the good guys. Kennedy is arrested and Prof. Sterling promises to start a new magazine and run it on the up-and-up this time, and of course Dr. Baxter and Jean get together. It’s not much of a movie — though there’s a certain degree of novelty in the use of radium-laced medicines as the MacGuffin (the only other movie I can think of offhand from this era that used dangerous pharmaceuticals was the 1934 Warners film The Big Shakedown, and that was different: the bad guys were making ineffective counterfeit versions of genuinely efficacious drugs and their victims were dying because they thought their diseases were being treated when they really weren’t) and Charles liked the gimmick towards the end in which Dr. Baxter alerted the police to the fact that they were being held by the bad guys by writing a message to a pharmacist, disguised as a prescription, and writing the warning in Latin. Larceny on the Air is a clever movie and it’s a lot of fun — and somehow Robert Livingston out of Western drag is a matter-of-fact everyman sort of hero one can believe in, while Grace Bradley shows potential for better roles she didn’t end up getting, while the direction by veteran character actor Irving Pichel, like the movie itself, is unoriginal and uninspired but workmanlike and still entertaining.