Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Moth (Screencraft Productions, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I screened Charles an intriguing 1934 “pre-Code” indie called The Moth. The real surprise about The Moth is that it was made under the same auspices as the unspeakably bad A Scream in the Night a year later (that movie was so awful it wasn’t even released until 1943, eight years after it was made, and then only because its male lead, Lon Chaney, Jr., had gone on to horror stardom at Universal and a reissue company named Astor picked up the rights and threw it out for a quick buck), including director Fred C. Newmeyer (who’d got his start working for Harold Lloyd, first as supporting player and then as director) — and it proved to be quite good. Not that the plot by “original” story writer Joseph O’Donnell was all that fresh or innovative, but Newmeyer’s direction of it was: the film is full of oblique angles, shadowy proto-noir compositions (the director of photography was George Meehan) and clever dissolves, including one in which a radio speaker dissolves into a circular shot of the party where people are doing dances to the radio music, with varying degrees of lasciviousness. Among the guests at the party is heiress Diana Wyman (Sally O’Neil, who had co-starred with Joan Crawford and Constance Bennett in the 1925 MGM film Sally, Irene and Mary, and while she hardly went on to as illustrious a career as the other two women leads in that film she was a quite capable actress and this role was perfectly suited to her talents), who’s basically decent but loves the hard-partying lifestyle and so far has burned through all but $300 of her income for the year. (Since the Mardi Gras figures prominently in the plot, she’s managed to do this by mid-March.) Her father died and left her his fortune, but only in trust and only if she doesn’t get into any scandal that embarrasses the family name. She does so when she undresses at that party and does a dance in the nude — and when one of the other guests throws a Cupid statue through the window of the high-rise apartment where all this is going on, the cops stage a raid and Diana is arrested. Her guardian, John Gale (Wilfred Lucas) — described in the synopsis as “a lecherous old man who has the hots for her” but actually portrayed in the film as a pathetic (in both senses) figure who has an honorable but hopeless crush on her — warns her that her recent escapade, which has landed her on the front page of one of the New York papers, has cost her her fortune.

Desperate to escape from New York and all its bad associations, she takes what little money she has left and heads for a train station, where she gets a ticket to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras celebration (the poster advertising it misspells it “Mardy Gras”). Gale sends George Duncan (Paul Page), traveling engineer for his company, to follow Diana, and he gets on the same train. So do Marie LeMaire (Rae Daggett), a nightclub dancer who’s really the notorious jewel thief “The Moth,” and her partner (in crime and, we get the impression, in bed as well) Don Pedro (Duncan Renaldo, about the only member of this cast besides O’Neil I’d actually heard of). Marie has a job dancing at a nightclub during the Mardi Gras celebration, but she’s also supposed to rendezvous with Don Pedro to give him the jewels she’s been stealing — only she outsmarts herself: in order to abscond with some of the jewels herself and dump her partner, she fakes a sprained ankle and asks Diana to do the dance job in her place. Don Pedro gives Diana the portion of the stolen jewels he’s holding — since she’s wearing a mask (and the two women look strikingly alike anyway — only their different hair styles and Daggett’s slightly taller height and more angular face enable the audience to tell them apart) he’s mistaken Diana for Marie — and Detective Blake (Fred Kelsey, who usually played stupid cops but this time was portraying a relatively smart one), who followed Marie and Don Pedro from New York on the same train as the other principals, arrests both Diana and George Duncan (ya remember George Duncan?), who of course by this time has fallen in love with Diana. Fortunately our two young lovebirds are able to talk Blake into going after Marie instead; they catch her in her hotel room with the jewels she was planning to get away with, and Diana announces to John Gale (ya remember John Gale?) that she’s going to marry George and follow him to his latest job assignment in Siberia.

The plot line of The Moth isn’t much in synopsis, but it’s actually a quite entertaining movie; though it’s hardly as “original” as advertised, Joseph O’Donnell’s script is full of wisecracks — including one early on when Diana says she’d rather wear pants than dresses and one of her friends says, “You can’t have two pair of pants marrying each other!” (a line which plays quite differently now than it no doubt did in 1934!), Newmeyer’s direction is fast-paced and visually interesting, O’Neil gives her performance the vim and vigor the character needs, and Rae Daggett also manages to make her character at least partially sympathetic — though there’s no evidence in the script O’Donnell intended this, she comes off less as a master jewel thief than as someone forced into a life of crime and feeling trapped in it, seeing her latest haul as a way to get away not only from Don Pedro but the whole business of stealing for a living. I picked The Moth last night as an hour-long time filler and got a surprisingly good movie, well above the norm for an early-1930’s indie and taking full advantage of the “pre-Code” glasnost — when the opening scene showed Sally O’Neil in her underwear we knew right away we were in “pre-Code” land!