Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Kansas City Princess (Warner Bros., 1934)

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

The film was Kansas City Princess, a 1934 Code-bender from Warner Bros. (it was released in October, two months after the Roman Catholic Church formed the Legion of Decency and declared holy war on Hollywood “immorality” in general and Mae West in particular, but it still had much of the spirit and many of the racy lines from so-called “pre-Code” films — notably one in which Robert Armstrong, playing a gangster who’s attempting to go straight, sort of, responds to a particularly outrageous suggestion from his sidekick by saying, “You been sniffin’ that nose candy again?”) co-starring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as Rosie Sturges and Marie Callahan, respectively, two manicurists at a Kansas City barbershop. Marie is an out-and-out golddigger trying to hook a rich man — though her first target, Mr. Greenway (Arthur Hoyt), is so queeny our only question is why he’s cruising a young, attractive woman — while Rosie is in a tempestuous love-hate relationship with gangster Dynamite “Dynie” Carson (Robert Armstrong). Yes, it’s the sort of movie in which even the nicknames have nicknames! Marie finally lands a dinner date with Mr. Greenway, but Rosie and Dynamite crash the swanky nightclub where it’s taking place and blow Marie’s chance at landing her sugar daddy. Dynamite has to go to St. Louis on “business” and he assigns his sidekick Quincy (Vince Barnett) to watch over Rosie — only Rosie responds to Marie’s pressure to date someone well-off while Dynie is away (Marie’s “pressure” is literal — she’s poking Rosie with some unseen object to encourage her to cruise the rich customers), But the guy she picks is Frankie Smith (Gordon Westcott), a gangster friend of Dynie’s whose only interest in her is stealing the engagement ring Dynie bought (Dynie makes a big to-do about how he actually bought the ring instead of stealing it!) for her — which he does, only Dynie steals it back.

Fearful over what Dynie will do when he finds out Rosie lost his ring, Rosie and Marie flee Kansas City for New York by posing as members of the “Outdoor Girls of America” heading to the Big Apple for their annual convention (what are they going to do, spelunk up the Empire State Building?). Dynie charters an airplane and beats them to New York, whereupon the girls flee again, this time hiding on an ocean liner bound for Paris in the company of two (presumably crooked) aldermen, Jim Cameron (T. Roy Barnes) and Sam Warren (Hobart Cavanaugh), who pay for their tickets and naturally expect “services” in return — and not the kind that just involves making their hands look pretty, either. Once they get to Paris (how they get off the boat without passports is a mystery writers Sy Bartlett and Manuel Seff don’t explain — surely they didn’t do it by impersonating Maurice Chevalier!) they get involved with a scheme by French private eye Marcel Duryea (Osgood Perkins, Anthony Perkins’ father — and there is a discernible facial resemblance between them) to get “Lovums” (Renée Whitney), the wife of fabulously wealthy Junior Ashcraft (Hugh Herbert), to come back to him by convincing her that her outside boyfriend, psychiatrist Dr. Sascha Pilnakoff (Ivan Lebedeff, who in the early sound days played leads at RKO before his campy incompetence as an actor got him bounced down to comic supporting roles), is seeing other women. The idea is Rosie will vamp Pilnakoff and Duryea and Ashcraft will catch them in flagrante delicto — only Duryea is in cahoots with Pilnakoff and instead it’s Ashcraft who gets caught with Marie. In case you’re wondering what happened to Dynamite Carson in all this, he stowed away on the same boat the girls took to Paris and got himself hired as Ashcraft’s bodyguard. The film ends with Rosie and Dynamite paired off, while Marie and Ashcraft are canoodling and headed for the altar as soon as Ashcraft’s divorce comes through.

Kansas City Princess is sheer delight for its first half, and while it gets a bit tired midway through (the Parisian scenes are “French farce” in all the overly predictable ways) it’s still got the tremendous Warners energy and great performances from the female leads. Armstrong is ill-used here, as usual; though at least he’s the male lead, I suspect his character was written for James Cagney and Armstrong seems miscast as such an unpleasant person. (Fortunately his best role is also his best-known — as obsessive but not heartless producer Carl Denham in King Kong and its sequel, Son of Kong.) William Keighley directs in his usual no-nonsense fashion, and though at times I could have wished that the near-namesake of Joan Blondell’s character, Preston Sturges, would have been at the helm (it’s the sort of loosely connected looney-tunes farce at which he excelled), Keighley makes the Warners factory machine work just fine and even gets a few creative camera angles in towards the end (the cinematographer was Joan Blondell’s first husband, George Barnes). It’s not a world-beater but an efficient, effective product of the studio system.