Thursday, September 12, 2013

“X” Marks the Spot (Tiffany, 1931)

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

The film was “X” Marks the Spot, a title Hollywood has used several times (including a 1942 Republic actioner with Dan “Captain America” Purcell that might be worth seeing), but this one was a 1931 indie from Tiffany Studios that was quite well done. Like later enterprises like World Wide and Grand National, they were at least trying for the “finish” and polish of a major-studio production, and this one was unusually good for an early-1930’s indie (alas, Tiffany was another under-capitalized casualty of the Depression). The story starts in 1923, when Ted Lloyd (Wallace Ford) is a reporter on a paper called the Blade in an unnamed medium-sized city. He’s hoping to land a job in New York, and his hopes tick up when his editor, George Howard (Lew Cody), gets hired by a New York paper and promises someday to send for Ted and hire him. Alas, Ted’s kid sister Gloria (Helen Parrish) is run over by a car and the only way she can keep the ability to walk is if Ted can raise the $5,000 to send her to Germany to see the one doctor in the world who knows how to do the operation required. After asking Howard and several other friends for help, Ted appeals to the one person in town who seems to have that kind of money available, Riggs (Fred Kohler), the head of the town’s gangs. At first Riggs turns him down because the two men can’t stand each other — the Blade has been attacking gangsters in general and Riggs in particular — but eventually, as a sort of noblesse oblige, Riggs casually hands Ted a bundle with the money and says he won’t expect Ted to pay him back but Ted will owe him a favor someday.

The film flashes forward eight years and moves to New York City, where Howard is editor of a tabloid called the Gazette and Ted is the paper’s star columnist — when Howard tells his production people to take out a story about a Presidential proclamation to make room for more coverage of a sensational divorce case, both Charles and I thought, “Plus ça change, plus ça même chose” — and Ted has just broken a story about chorus girl Vivian Parker (Mary Nolan, with a spectacular head of platinum-blonde hair that should have had Jean Harlow worried about the competition) and her sugar daddy. Only said sugar daddy threatens the paper with a libel suit, and in order to forestall this Ted makes a date with Vivian at her apartment — thereby understandably pissing off his secretary and girlfriend, Sue (Sally Blane, Loretta Young’s real-life sister) — to try to get her to sign a release ending the lawsuit. Vivian crumples the release form in contempt but doesn’t tear it up — that becomes an important plot point later — and later, after Ted leaves her apartment, someone else comes in, steals a few of her jewels and knocks her off. Ted is suspect number one — after all, he clearly had a motive, revealed to the police when they uncrumple the release form and decide Ted murdered Vivian in a fit of rage when she refused to sign it — only he soon learns that the real criminal is Riggs. Riggs summons Ted and tells him not to reveal to the cops that Riggs was involved; he also demands $5,000 from Ted so he can escape — and Ted obliges, but the whole conversation is overheard by, of all people, Ted’s sister Gloria (now an adult — though still a pretty naïve and stupid one — and played by Joyce Coad). She reports it to Ted’s bosses at the Gazette and they in turn report it to the police, who stake out Ted’s bank and follow him once he withdraws the money to find out whom he’s taking it to. The cops arrest Riggs and he, of course, is convinced Ted double-crossed him. Riggs goes on trial for the murder, with Ted as a reluctant witness for the prosecution, and the night before the verdict comes in he sneaks something into the courtroom which turns out to be a gun. After the guilty verdict comes in, Riggs grabs the gun he’s previously hidden there, shoots a court clerk and takes an old man hostage, and it ends with a gun battle between Riggs and Ted that ends the way you expect it to, though curiously it takes place in a room full of smoke (the cops have shot tear gas into the room hoping to incapacitate Riggs and take him alive) and it’s hard to see what’s going on.

“X” Marks the Spot is a quite good movie, cleverly written by Warren Duff and Gordon Kahn, full of nice wisecracks — notably the scene in court in which Vivian’s servant (Clarence Muse) is testifying, the lawyer says, “You’ve established that there was a fire escape outside the building,” and Muse says, “Yeah, I said there was, but I didn’t establish it — it was already there before I was” — and vividly directed by Erle C. Kenton, who includes Venetian-blind shots (the easy “atmosphere” gimmick used by directors in low-budget films then), oblique camera angles, lots of close-ups (usually low-budget films skimped on close-ups because they took time to light properly and these productions were on ultra-tight schedules) and a sense of pace rare in an indie director of the time. It’s no wonder within two years Kenton was working at the majors, doing movies like the 1933 Island of Lost Souls (the first, and by far the best, film of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau), and later in the 1940’s he’d be under contract to Universal and do three of their later Frankenstein cycle films (Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula), the movies on which rests however much of a reputation he has today. Though we were watching “X” Marks the Spot in a typically tacky download — the images were ghosted and un-crisp, and a couple of times the print they were transferring jumped the sprocket holes and took a few seconds to settle back in — the film itself was surprisingly good, though still well within the Hollywood cliché bank, and for once I could watch an indie crime film without wishing it had been made at Warner Bros. with James Cagney as star!