Saturday, August 2, 2014

Lady Scarface (RKO, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Lady Scarface, a 1941 oddity from RKO that recently turned up on the Turner Classic Movies schedule and which I thought would be an interesting counterpoint to the two versions of Scarface Charles and I recently watched together. (Incidentally lists a 1928 short called Scarface and a third feature of that title “in development.”) It’s a film that had a lot of potential but fell far short of what it could have been; directed by Frank Woodruff from a script by Armand D’Usseau and Richard Collins, its main failing is that it wanders all over the genre map. It begins with what’s by far its best sequence: James A. Pierce (Huntley Gordon), the head of the Chicago Securities Exchange, is shown working late at night and using the telephone — we don’t see the person he’s talking to, or hear her voice, but it’s obvious she’s a gold-digger and he’s her current sugar-daddy. A series of hands whose owners are unseen at first is shown breaking into his office, and when we finally start seeing the people full-figure it turns out that the leader of the criminal gang is a woman, Slade (Judith Anderson, whose performance here practically defines the term “overqualified”), who’s disguised herself as a cleaning lady to give herself an excuse to get into the building and lead the robbery. The crooks get away with the loot but the police, led by Chicago lieutenant Bill Mason (Dennis O’Keefe), chase them away and the gangsters, realizing they’re “hot,” decide to leave town, flee to New York City and mail the loot to the Leonard Sheldon Hotel in care of Mary Jordan, the alias of a gun moll for New York gangster Lefty Landers (Marc Lawrence). Mason intercepts the envelope with the money but decides to let it go through anyway because it’s the only real lead he has to trace the gang members. Mason is also locked in a love-hate relationship with Ann Rogers (Frances Neal), a photojournalist for Snip magazine who keeps getting herself and her camera into places where he doesn’t think she belongs. The film’s action, such as it is, then moves to the Leonard Sheldon hotel, with just a slight detour to a seedy old brownstone to which Mason and his New York police colleague, Lieutenant Onslow (Damian O’Flynn, who seemed to me to be better looking and more charismatic than O’Keefe!), have traced the gang; Slade gets away but her lieutenant, Matt Willis (Arthur Shields, who usually got to play the cranky but charming old Irishman parts for which they couldn’t get Barry Fitzgerald), is shot, and as he dies Mason asks him to divulge Slade’s whereabouts. “I haven’t the slightest idea where she is,” he says — the first clue any of the law-enforcement characters have had that Slade is a woman, even though we’ve known that all along.

Had Lady Scarface been the film its title promised — a tough-minded gangster tale of a woman fighting and killing her way to the top of a criminal enterprise despite the underworld’s entrenched sexism — it would have been a considerably better movie than it actually is. Instead it’s a weird combination of gangster movie, Grand Hotel knockoff, Torchy Blane-series knockoff (one of the odder conceits is that in the opening scene, Ann has taken a photo of Mason helping Slade escape the original robbery because he was taken in by her charwoman disguise, and rather than do what any even remotely competent cop would do with the photo — crop himself out of it and distribute it widely as part of the notice to be on the lookout for Slade — he’s determined to destroy it, which he does at the end) and loaded down with way too much comic-relief. The film also rips off a previous RKO “B”, Wanted! Jane Turner, particularly the preposterous coincidence that the crooks’ package of loot intended for the fake “Mary Jordan” is picked up by a real — and totally innocent — woman named Mary Jordan (Mildred Coles), who’s there at the Leonard Shelton for her honeymoon; she’s just married James Powell (Rand Brooks, who seven years later was Marilyn Monroe’s leading man in her first starring feature, the 1948 Columbia “B” Ladies of the Chorus) and they’re expecting money from one of his relatives to finance their honeymoon. The comic-relief characters include hotel detective Art Seidel (Andrew Tombes in a Tom Kennedy-type role) and Mr. Hartford (Eric Blore, billed fifth — so the cast members of this cheesy movie are one degree of separation from Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe!), who owns a pet store and keeps bringing dogs to the Leonard Sheldon Hotel in hopes of selling them. What he doesn’t realize is that the “dogs” referenced in the personal ads he’s responding to are code names for the various members of Slade’s gang.

It’s somewhat amusing that so many of the characters’ names seem to be in-joke references to various Hollywood personnel: “Matt Willis” was an actual character actor of the time (most famous as Bela Lugosi’s werewolf sidekick in The Return of the Vampire), the hotel’s name is a reversal of actor Sheldon Leonard’s moniker and Lefty Landers appears to be an in-joke pun on “B” director Lew Landers. It’s also weird to watch Judith Anderson’s performance; through much of it she seems confused by how much to “dumb down” her normally cultured voice to suggest a lower-class gangster (Lady Macbeth and Medea were more her style in villainy), but she’s still an electrifying screen presence and one wishes we saw more of her instead of continually cutting away from her to the boring plot lines involving the “good” characters. The cinematographer is Nick Musuraca, who had been at RKO since the studio’s founding in 1929 but would become best known for the dark, chiaroscuro photography he brought to many of RKO’s classic films noir in the 1940’s, and his work here is as split as the movie’s plot. He brings powerful and vivid noir atmospherics to the scenes involving Slade and the gangsters, but everything else gets flat, “normal” lighting — just underscoring how much this film is a virtual compendium of greatest-hit movie clichés. About all that’s missing is a musical number in the in-house nightclub of the Leonard Sheldon hotel — Warner Bros. would no doubt have thrown one in but RKO didn’t budget its “B”’s for that sort of thing. It was nice to notice that the front of the seedy building in which the police trap (some of) the gangsters was also used in Citizen Kane — as the “love-nest” in which Kane’s relationship to Susan Alexander (played by Dorothy Comingore, whose husband Richard Collins co-wrote Lady Scarface) is exposed — and rather less nice to notice that the mistaken-identity gimmicks that power so much of the plot (including the misconception the police labor under through most of the film that Slade is a man) were done so much better in the Astaire-Rogers Top Hat (also with Eric Blore!).