Sunday, May 18, 2014

Missing Girls (Chesterfield, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Originally posted September 2, 2012.

Charles and I ran a movie, a 1936 Chesterfield production called Missing Girls which was the second film in a row we’d seen starring Roger Pryor as the male lead. I looked up Roger Pryor on and was startled to find that he was the son of Arthur Pryor, the star trombonist in John Philip Sousa’s band until November 1903, when he left Sousa to organize a band of his own (backed in part by Columbia Records, who wanted an attraction to compete with Sousa on Victor) which recorded regularly until 1925. Arthur Pryor retired in 1933 and died in 1942, but in between those dates his son Roger tried for a career as a bandleader on his own — sometimes having his wife, movie star Ann Sothern, sing for him. Roger Pryor made his last film in 1945 and his band, unlike his dad’s, was such a flop he declared bankruptcy in 1947, left the entertainment business and joined the advertising agency Foote, Cone & Belding as vice-president in charge of broadcasting at their New York office. (His brother had the same job for another ad agency, Batten, Barton, Dustine & Osborn, also in New York.) Roger Pryor’s page quotes him as saying, “I never felt I was very good and in seventy-two features I don’t think I improved very much.”

In Missing Girls he plays Jimmie Dugan, a reporter for the New York News who decides to do an investigative piece on what happens to young women who leave their families, come to New York to make their fortunes, and are never heard from again. From the title and the opening reel — one such missing girl, Ann Jason (Ann Doran, who puts the rest of the cast one degree of separation from James Dean — a generation later she played Dean’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause, going from playing a victim of overbearing parents to playing an overbearing parent herself), flees her family when she comes home late from a date and her father, disapproving of her boyfriend, slaps her, flees to New York and has run through almost all the money she came to the city with when she goes to the Travelers’ Aid Society and seeks help from the film’s female lead, Dorothy Benson (Muriel Evans) — I had expected Missing Girls to be an exploitation from about the racket then known as “white slavery” and now called “human trafficking” — the luring, and sometimes outright kidnapping, of young women to be forced into prostitution. No such luck; instead Missing Girls turned out to be a convoluted tale of reporter Dugan, Travelers’ Aid worker Benson — who’s Dugan’s girlfriend and who gives him the idea to do his “missing girls” pieces — and her father, Senator Benson (Wallis Clark), who’s had the bright idea to introduce a bill in the legislature to legalize gambling, so it can be taxed, regulated and taken away from the racketeers who control it now. Needless to say, the racketeers who control it now aren’t about to give it up without a fight, and one racketeer in particular, Dan Collins (Sidney Blackmer), is trying to stop Senator Benson but without killing him for fear that if they take him out, the legislature will pass his bill on a sympathy vote. Collins does arrange for a corrupt D.A. who’s in his pocket to subpoena Jimmie Dugan to get him to name the sources for his stories on the missing girls, and when Dugan refuses to reveal them, the D.A. gets a judge to give him a one-month sentence for contempt. (This part of the story was Martin Mooney, the screenwriter, writing what he knew: as a crime reporter in New York he had gone to jail rather than reveal his sources for a series of articles on the New York mobs, and when Warner Bros. hired him to write the Edward G. Robinson crime vehicle Bullets or Ballots in 1936, the film’s trailer even promoted his background: “Written by Martin Mooney — The Man Who Wouldn’t Talk!” In his 1945 PRC production Crime, Inc. Mooney again included a sequence in which a reporter is threatened with jail for refusing to reveal his sources to a grand jury.)

While in jail Dugan befriends his cell-mate, Ben Davis (Noel Madison), who previously went to prison when Collins framed him for a murder rap and wants to frame Collins in turn — so when he gets out he and a partner shoot Senator Benson and make it look like Collins did it. What’s more, the crooks kidnap Dorothy Benson and Ann Jason (whom Benson gave a job in her own house as a maid) and take them to a deserted farm presided over by super-crook Ma Bolton (Vera Lewis) — obviously Mooney and his co-writer, John W. Krafft, were thinking of Ma Barker here! — and Dugan works with a friend of his, an FBI agent stationed in a city near the Bolton farmhouse, to get the evidence and arrange an FBI raid, though once he learns Benson and Jason are there he’s naturally concerned that stray bullets either from the FBI or the crooks will kill them. Daily Variety reported on September 26, 1936 that this was the first Chesterfield production to open on Broadway — in a theatre called the Globe — and it’s a perfectly competent movie, directed by Phil Rosen in a way that shows not all the talent he’d displayed in his two great films from the early 1930’s (The Phantom Broadcast for first-iteration Monogram in 1933 and Dangerous Corner for RKO in 1934) had yet been leached out of him by years of hack assignments at cheap studios. Though, as with a lot of 1930’s crime thrillers, one laments the slow pace and wishes it could have been made at Warner Bros. with James Cagney in the lead, Missing Girls is an estimable picture with a good, personable performance from Pryor, who’s wearing a moustache in this one (he usually did, though he shaved it off for Belle of the Nineties) and who in his first scene as the reporter looks like he’s trying to channel Clark Gable’s reporter role in It Happened One Night.