Monday, September 22, 2014

Parole Girl (Columbia, 1931)

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

After “A Caribbean Mystery” I ran Charles a recent recording from TCM of a film that proved surprisingly good: Parole Girl, a 1933 Columbia short feature (67 minutes) prefaced with that marvelously cheesy version of the Statue of Liberty logo the company was using in the early 1930’s. Norman Krasna wrote an “original” story whose debt to Bayard Veiller’s play Within the Law — already filmed twice in the silent era as well as a sound remake, Paid, with Joan Crawford, in 1930 — is pretty obvious, but it’s taut, suspenseful and well constructed even though there’s no real doubt as to how it’s going to turn out. The film opens in a department store, where heroine Sylvia Day (Mae Clarke) is accused of attempting to steal a male customer’s wallet. She’s called into the office of the store manager, the customer comes in and finds the wallet still on him, and Sylvia is released with an apology and a check for $500 to settle any legal claims she might make. Then we see her and her supposed “victim,” Tony Grattan (Hale Hamilton), in a cab together, and we learn this is a scam they’ve worked out together: he pretends to be a victim, she pretends to be the suspect, and they get the store to pay them off. She really doesn’t want to be doing this but feels she owes him because when the three of them were living in a boarding house together, Tony paid the medical bills of her dying father. She wants out of the racket but he persuades her to do it one last time, and of course she’s busted when Walsh (Sam Godfrey), the store manager, receives a call from an insurance agent warning him of the scam just as she’s in his office pulling it. Sylvia tells Walsh she’s really not a habitual crook and pleads with him to let her go — he’s willing but the store’s insurance contact, Joe Smith (Ralph Bellamy in a surprisingly edgy role for him), says he can’t do that. Sylvia is arrested and sentenced to a year in prison, where she swears she’ll have her revenge on Smith when she gets out. She’s regularly visited by Tony, who somehow escaped the rap, and she gets him to smuggle three matches into her prison inside the binding of a book. Her plan is to set fire to the pile of fabric scraps in the prison’s clothes factory, then use the fire extinguisher in the room to put it out and, Munchhausen-style, thereby establish herself as a heroine worthy of parole.

When she gets out she manages to trace Joe Smith, find out his address (he lives in a wildly modernistic building that seemed to have come from the same artistic world as the El Lissitzky exhibition at San Diego’s Timken museum Charles and I had been to earlier in the day), “accidentally” run into him at a nightclub, get him drunk and “marry” him — “marry” in quotes because not only does he already have a wife (a girl he met and hooked up with in college, who soon left him but never bothered to divorce him — at least as far as he knows) but her “marriage” is a phony, officiated by Tony disguised as a justice of the peace. Nonetheless, she sets herself up in his apartment and poses as his legitimate wife (though — even in a 1933 movie, made during the so-called “pre-Code” period of loose Production Code enforcement and benefiting from it in some surprisingly salty dialogue and risqué situations — it’s made clear that they aren’t sleeping in the same bed or having sex), and even impresses Smith’s boss, Mr. Taylor (Ferdinand Gottschalk). Alas, Sylvia’s old prison friend Jeanie Vance (Marie Prevost, who met a bleak real-life end — she died at 38 of extreme malnutrition and alcoholism, and her body wasn’t found until about a week after she expired — a rumor started that her dogs had started chewing on her body and Nick Lowe wrote one of his most bizarre songs about her: “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner”) turns up — and, needless to say, she’s Joe Smith’s legal wife and asks Sylvia to team up with her to sting him for a major settlement. Sylvia, who by now is genuinely in love with Smith, refuses, but she agrees to leave town and travel with Jeanie to Florida, where she’s cooked up some scams to target the tourists. Only while they’re on the train together Jeanie reveals that she isn’t Mrs. Smith anymore — she divorced him in Mexico two years earlier — and so Sylvia returns on the quickest train she can get back to New York City. She arrives at Smith’s apartment just as he’s finished reading the note she wrote him confessing all, and they enter a clinch at the fade-out, obviously headed for a genuine marriage and an above-board existence.

Parole Girl isn’t much of a movie plot-wise, and it’s powered by two pretty hard-to-believe coincidences (Norman Krasna was usually a better writer than this!), but it’s redeemed by the toughness with which it’s played by director Edward F. Cline, a former Keystone Kop who’s best known for his comedies (especially his vehicles for W. C. Fields) but here turns in a quite good job in a dramatic script and manages to get a stronger performance from Mae Clarke than quite a few more prestigious directors, including William Wellman and James Whale, did. Hard as nails, and sporting a butch haircut (I’m not sure which of the leads, Clarke or Bellamy, had the shorter hair!), Clarke is absolutely convincing in her role, portraying both the character’s surface toughness and her inner vulnerability. Parole Girl is one of those minor little gems of the studio system, a movie that draws on the cliché bank but repays it with interest, and it’s helped revise my opinions of Clarke as an actress and Bellamy as an actor (it’s a role that offers him a lot more than his romantic losers later on) considerably upward! Two other points about this quite interesting movie: Robert Kalloch is listed as the costume designer, presumably for the entire cast — later he went to MGM but there he designed men’s clothes almost exclusively (which perhaps explains why Mae Clarke’s outfits in this film, especially after she’s released from prison, are so butch!) — and two years after Clarke got the famous grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in The Public Enemy here she is again, seated at a breakfast table with a half a grapefruit in an ornate cup in front of her, only at least this time she gets to eat it normally.