Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Fixer Dugan (RKO, 1939)

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

I ran a film from the Lew Landers tribute TCM showed a few months ago: Fixer Dugan, which turned out to be one of the better movies made by this usually hacky but occasionally interesting “B” director. It also turned out to be a quite different film from what I was expecting from the title — I had thought it would be a movie about political corruption in 1890’s New York but instead it was a circus film, though like most circus films it emphasized the darkness and skullduggery behind an entertainment presented as innocent fun. As Charles pointed out later, given the two recent headlines about circus-type performers — Karl Wallenda’s successful tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon last Sunday, June 30 (without the tether he was forced by ABC to wear when he walked across Niagara Falls last year) and the death of Cirque du Soleil performer Sarah Guillot-Guyard at a routine performance in Las Vegas Saturday, June 29 — this was odd timing to watch a circus movie, especially one in which a performer’s fatal fall from a high wire is a critical part of the plot! Charlie “Fixer” Dugan (Lee Tracy at his Lee Traciest) is the general fixer for the Barwin Greater Shows circus (greater than what, one wonders? Those Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey parvenus?) and the former lover of at least two female performers, tightrope walker Patricia O’Connell (Rita La Roy) and lion tamer Aggie Moreno (the luminous Peggy Shannon, who’s been a favorite of mine since I saw her in the 1933 film Deluge — which exists only in a dubbed print from Italy, and RKO’s Italian branch for some reason got an Anna Magnani-style screamer to dub her, creating a jarring contrast with Shannon’s aristocratic good looks). Patricia’s daughter Terry (Virginia Weidler, in one of the ballsiest performances ever turned in by this marvelous child star who could steal scenes from John Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn) has been traveling with the circus and running her own scams, charging local kids a nickel each to sneak them into the circus — which leads Dugan to joke, bitterly, that she’s probably making more from the show than its owner, Barvin (Bradley Page). Patricia takes herself out of the running in the first reel when her big stunt — a tightrope walk done blindfolded and without a net — goes horribly wrong and kills her. Dugan and Aggie assume responsibility for Terry.

Then bad-guy circus owner Frank Darlow (Jack Arnold, later known as Vinton Haworth) and his goon show up claiming that, as Aggie’s former employers, they own her lions. They have a legal document, albeit one obtained through trickery, and the only way Dugan can save the lions is to have the circus move quickly from Missouri to Kansas, where the paper isn’t valid. Later on, when the circus plays Missouri again, Darlow and the thug show up again and Terry tries to warn Aggie that her lions are about to be repo’d. With no other way to get to her — she’s in the middle of a performance at the time — Terry sneaks into the lion cage, uses the entrance to confront Aggie in the ring, and Aggie has the difficult task of protecting Terry from the lions long enough for Terry to give Aggie the warning. The audiences love the spectacle of a 10-year-old girl in the ring with three ferocious beasts and Barvin insists that Terry become a permanent part of Aggie’s act. Then Darlow, seeking revenge, reports Terry to the authorities in Kansas and says a 10-year-old is performing a dangerous circus act without permission; he files a complaint and Terry is put in an orphanage in Marysville. Dugan and Aggie visit her by arranging a benefit performance for the orphans — the place seems to be decently run and a far cry from the Jane Eyre-ish hellhole movie orphanages usually are — but, predictably, Terry runs away and wants to rejoin the circus. Darlow and goon show up again, and this time Dugan determines to regain legal title to Aggie’s lions by the same trick Darlow used to cheat her out of them in the first place — only Aggie doesn’t know that and accuses Dugan of double-crossing her. Smiley (William Edmunds), thinking he’s doing Aggie a favor by making sure no one can have the lions if she can’t, lets one of them loose and the lion mauls Smiley, threatens Terry and scares the audience before Aggie finally brings him under control and the circus warders net him and return him to the cage. Mrs. Fletcher (Edythe Elliott), the director of the orphanage, witnesses all this — she’s been summoned by Aggie to take Terry back — and is so impressed by the display of courage by both Aggie and Terry that she says she’ll reconsider whether the circus is a proper environment for her. The film ends with Dugan, Aggie and Terry together on the road — it’s established that Terry is being home-schooled by one of the clowns — and amazingly for a Code-era film there’s no indication that Dugan and Aggie were obliged to get married before they could adopt Terry.

Fixer Dugan was written by Bert Granet (future RKO producer) and Paul Yawitz from a 1928 play called What’s a Fixer For? by future film director H. C. Potter, and according to the American Film Institute Catalog RKO started this project under the same title as the play and planned for Chester Morris to play Dugan (his would, I suspect, have been a considerably darker reading than Tracy’s) and male child actor Donnie Dunagan to play Terry (which explains the gender-ambiguous name and Virginia Weidler’s androgynous appearance in the role) — though Weidler was the absolutely right person for it at the time, a welcome breath of fresh air given that virtually all other child stars of both genders were then being pressed into the rancidly sappy-sweet mold of Shirley Temple. It’s one of those studio-era products that isn’t a particularly ambitious movie but works on all cylinders, a fun romp in which virtually everything is done right and we can forgive the clichéd situations because they’re at least used in a challenging and entertaining way. Lee Tracy’s act can get pretty obnoxious at times but he’s perfectly cast here, and though Peggy Shannon was the Lindsay Lohan of her day — she drank herself to an early death at 34, just two years after making this film — she’s in marvelous form here. Ironically her birthplace was Pine Bluff, Arkansas — also the home town of blues legend Bukka White.