Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Falcon in Hollywood (RKO, 1944)

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

I switched on TCM and watched The Falcon in Hollywood, a 1944 entry in the series made after George Sanders, the original lead actor in the role, was replaced by Tom Conway (Sanders’ real-life brother, though Conway had changed his last name so he wouldn’t find the path to success greased by his brother’s coattails), a remarkable little movie that’s most noteworthy for its plot premise [spoiler alert!], which is the same as The Producers only carefully not played for laughs: an unscrupulous Broadway producer, Martin S. Dwyer (John Abbott), best known for dramas — he did a production of Hamlet on the Main Stem and proudly displays a poster for it in his office, along with a bust of Shakespeare, whose dialogue he’s fond of quoting — comes to the “Sunset Studios” in Hollywood to make his first film. He picks a musical, Magic Melody, and sells 200 percent of the film to various investors, including John Miles, a playboy with a fortune which he’s willing to use part of to bankroll a movie so he can act the lead role even though he’s never acted before; Alec Hoffman (Konstantin Shayne), a Stroheim-like director with a string of flops behind him; and Louie Buchanan (Sheldon Leonard), a gambler who was imprisoned in New York for fixing horse races but escaped. Tom Lawrence (Tom Conway), nicknamed “The Falcon,” is in Hollywood on a vacation when he encounters movie star Lili D’Allio (Rita Corday), a believer in numerology, at a horse race. He also encounters Peggy Callahan (Barbara Hale, a bit of a surprise to see as a baddie since we’re used to her role as Della Street in the 1950’s Perry Mason TV series), Louie Buchanan’s girlfriend; and Billie Atkins (Veda Ann Borg in a great vehicle for her), a lady cabdriver who zips Tom Lawrence around the L.A. streets (playing themselves instead of being safely represented by the RKO backlot) at near-warp speeds.

She explains that she’s a stunt driver in movies when she isn’t working as a cabbie, and her salty performance makes her a considerably more interesting character than the more openly attractive glamour girls the cast abounds in — Hale, Corday and Jean Brooks (Richard Brooks’ first wife and the star of the magnificent Val Lewton production The Seventh Victim) as Roxanna Miles, costume designer for Magic Melody and John Miles’ estranged wife, who has the hots for director Hoffman and hopes to marry him — as does D’Allio. There’s a lot of running around the “Sunset” lot and the character of an old gatekeeper who becomes a red herring, but eventually Tom Lawrence figures out the whole plot: producer Dwyer was sabotaging his own production, including murdering his leading man, wounding his director with a supposedly blank-loaded gun (and deliberately exposing the day’s film, ruining it so that it couldn’t be developed and reveal the truth about the attempted murder of Hoffman), and eventually killing Buchanan with a trick ring from India that contains poison in its metal so that as the wearer has it on, the poison is slowly leaching into his system and ultimately knocking him off. The film has some interesting real-life L.A. locations, including a confrontation at the Coliseum as well as an opening scene at the Hollywood Turf Club at which we meet most of the principals, but the most fascinating thing about it is the Producers plot element (Dwyer was sabotaging his own film so he wouldn’t have to pay off the investors since either it would never be released at all or would fail) done deadly seriously. It was actually an urban legend on Broadway for decades before Brooks filmed it — indeed, Groucho Marx actually wanted to use it as the plot for A Night at the Opera but MGM production chief Irving Thalberg vetoed it.