Tuesday, October 8, 2013

St. Louis Woman (Screencraft Pictures, 1934)

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

I ran Charles a film we’d downloaded from archive.org: St. Louis Woman, a 1934 movie from such cheapjack fly-by-night indies as Screencraft Pictures and Showmen’s Pictures— though some of the people involved were Monogram regulars later (director Albert Ray, associate producer Sam Katzman and editor S. Roy Luby). It turned out to be an intriguing attempt to do a Mae West movie without Mae West — indeed, they even grabbed the title St. Louis Woman after the censors forced Paramount and West to abandon it for the film eventually released as Belle of the Nineties — in which the “West” character is Lou Morrison (Jeanette Loff), alternately known as “St. Louis Lou” and “the Nashville Nightingale.” She holds forth at a nightclub in St. Louis which she ostensibly owns, though the real power behind it is her boyfriend, scummy gambler and entrepreneur Harry Crandall (Earle Foxe). The male lead is John Mack Brown, in the middle of his bizarre career trajectory that led him from a real-life football career to an MGM contract that put him in movies with their big female stars — Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford — until in 1931, reviewing the rough cut of a Crawford film called Laughing Sinners, MGM head Irving Thalberg saw Brown’s performance, didn’t like it, and had all his scenes retaken with another actor, Clark Gable. Three years later Brown was reduced to working for people like Al Alt, who produced this film (“Alt” is the German word for “old” but otherwise I have no idea how he got that name, or whether that was his original one), though he would eventually find a decent living making a “B” Western series for Universal in the late 1930’s.

He’s cast here as college football star Jim Warren, who goes to Lou’s club one night with two of his teammates — breaking the team’s strict training regimen (like the U.S. military, the coaching staff has declared Lou’s place off limits) — and he gets into a barroom brawl. Crandall has made Jim an offer to quit college and play for his pro team, the St. Louis Lions (in the one game we see them play in the film, the Lions’ opponents are the “Cincinnati Stars”), but Jim virtuously declines the offer because he wants to finish college, go to medical school and become a doctor like his dad. Alas, Jim’s escapades get him expelled from school, he’s unable to get any other gainful employment — there’s a series of montages showing him trying to get work and all of a sudden St. Louis Woman looks like a Warners movie — until Lou pulls him out of a bread line and buys him dinner. She also pressures Crandall to hire him for the Lions, even though Crandall is convinced Jim will no longer be a box-office draw (why? One would think, along the lines of The Blue Angel — a film that, as Charles noted, this strongly resembles even though the man disgraced and led into ruin by an enigmatic blonde in The Blue Angel was a teacher, not a student — that people would pay good money just to see the disgraced former hero make an ass of himself!) and he instructs his teammates not to protect him so he’ll get the shit pummeled out of him during the game. Lou catches on and gives the team her own pep talk during halftime, saying he expects them to make it possible for Jim to score a touchdown and win the game — which of course he does in the final seconds of play. Crandall signs him to a five-year contract but, encouraged by his parents, Jim still wants to quit and go back to college to become a doctor.

Lou breaks into Crandall’s office and tries to tear up his contract, and a scuffle occurs in which they both reach for the gun (Maurine Watkins, your plagiarism attorney thanks you for his three mansions and his Duesenberg), Crandall gets wounded, but he’s a good enough sport about it that he tells the cops he accidentally shot himself, and even though there’s been a “nice girl” — Eleanor Farnham (Roberta Gale), essentially Micaëla to Lou’s Carmen, carefully set up for Jim to end up with at the end — there’s a marvelously ambiguous ending in which Lou is on her way to visit Crandall in the hospital and it seems like she and Jim will end up together after all. It’s an odd movie, quite well made in some ways — there are a surprising number of moving-camera shots even though a lot of them are shaky (as if the cinematographer, George Meehan, was just walking through the set with the camera strapped to himself since they couldn’t afford a dolly, track or crane) and some interesting directorial effects from Albert Ray, including shameless copy of the point-of-view prism shots invented by Dudley Murphy to indicate how a character might see the world when drunk. On the other hand, though the voice we hear on Lou’s song “You’re Indispensable to Me” is probably her own (she sang three numbers in the 1930 Universal super-musical The King of Jazz, with Paul Whiteman’s band), it’s got a lot more surface noise than the rest of the soundtrack and is clearly dubbed either from a commercial 78 or (more likely) a radio transcription. Still, St. Louis Woman is generally an unusually well-crafted indie for the period, and though writers Elwood Ullman (story) and Jack Natteford (screenplay) deploy some of the usual clichés they at least do so in a few unexpected ways.