Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Lady Gangster (Warner Bros., 1942)

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

Charles and I ran Lady Gangster, a 1942 Warner Bros. “B” directed by “Florian Roberts” (according to imdb.com, a pseudonym for the always interesting and sporadically excellent French director Robert Florey, whose best films were Murders in the Rue Morgue with Bela Lugosi and the underrated Ex-Lady with Bette Davis) from a script by Anthony Coldewey (sometimes his last name is spelled “Coldeway”) based on a play called Gangstress: Or, Women in Prison by Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles. Even before the plot started to seem familiar I could tell this was a remake of a more prestigious production rather than a story that had started out as a “B,” and I was right: the original film was called Ladies They Talk About (which sounds more like a soap opera about bored suburban housewives tempted to adultery than a movie about women prisoners), was made by Warner Bros. in 1932 and starred the amazing Barbara Stanwyck in the leading role — which Mackaye, an actress as well as a writer, had originally written for herself to play on stage. More than anything else it was the moral ambiguity of the lead character — Mrs. Dorothy Burton, t/n Dorothy Drew (Faye Emerson) — that marked this as a story originally aimed at a higher-than-“B” level of production.

When the film begins she’s in a car with a trio of bank robbers — Carey Wells (Roland Drew from Beasts of Berlin), John (an almost unrecognizable William Hopper, best known as Paul Drake on the 1950’s Perry Mason TV series) and their getaway driver, Wilson (an even bigger TV “name” from the 1950’s, Jackie Gleason — still billed here with a middle initial, Jackie C. Gleason — ironically Gleason’s star-making show, The Honeymooners, would also cast him as a driver, though of a bus rather than a getaway car!). Her job is to get the security guard at the bank to open it a half-hour early — at 9:30 instead of 10 a.m. — claiming she needs to make a deposit to cover the check she’s written for her train ticket out of town (let’s see how many elements of that plot date this movie — a bank that doesn’t open until 10 a.m. and a form of long-distance public transportation where you can actually write a check for your fare!) — though her real purpose is to get the guard to leave the bank door unlocked so the robbers can do their thing without a lot of customers (and potential witnesses) in the way. The males in the gang get away with $40,000 but Dorothy is popped, and district attorney Lewis Sinton (Herbert Rawlinson) and his investigators blow her story when it turns out the dog the gang obtained for her to strengthen her pose of innocence doesn’t answer to the name by which she called it, “Tiny,” and a tell-tale tag from the pound where they got it states its name is “Boots.” Kenneth Phillips (Frank Wilcox) sees the photo of Dorothy in the newspaper story announcing her arrest and recognizes her as Dorothy Drew, a girl he grew up with in the small town they both came from. Now he’s the head of the Commodore Broadcasting Company (I joked that their broadcasts really lived up to Walter Winchell’s promise of reaching “all the ships at sea”) and he promises to use the resources of his radio network to free Dorothy and show up Sinton as a corrupt D.A. who makes a big to-do of busting and prosecuting small-time crooks while the big-fish gangsters and racketeers get away. Alas, when Dorothy tearfully confesses she was part of the gang, Phillips changes his mind and packs her off to jail, where (as with Ladies They Talk About) the film’s most interesting scenes take place.

Though Lady Gangster doesn’t go as far as its predecessor in giving us the backstories of the other women prisoners, there’s intrigue a-plenty as matron Mrs. Stoner (Virginia Brissac) lays down the law to the women cons: “The quicker you realize that this is neither a country club nor a concentration camp, the better. It’s up to the women themselves how they’re treated. If you behave yourself, we’ll meet you more than halfway, but if you want to be tough, we can be tough with you.” Dorothy meets up with Myrtle Reed (Julie Bishop), who’s sympathetic to her, but also runs afoul of prison stool pigeon Lucy Fenton (Ruth Ford) and “Deaf Annie” (a nicely chilling performance by Dorothy Adams), who passes information to Lucy that she’s gleaned by reading the other prisoners’ lips. Midway through the movie Dorothy is dumbfounded when she’s told that she’s getting a prison visit from her sister — she’s dumbfounded because she doesn’t have a sister — and the “sister” turns out to be Carey Wells in (bad) drag. He’s visiting her there because just before she was arrested she stole the briefcase containing the $40,000 — she’d overheard the three guys in the gang planning to make off with the money and leave her not only to face the rap alone but to do so without the money — and moved it from one hiding place in the boarding house run by Ma Silsby (Vera Lewis) to another, instructing Ma not to give the briefcase to anybody unless they present the matching half of a dollar bill she tears and gives half of to Ma. Dorothy behaves herself in prison and works herself to be in position for parole, but at the last minute Lucy leaks to Mrs. Stoner that Dorothy hid the stolen loot before she went to prison and is the only person who knows where it is, and as a result Mrs. Stoner abruptly withdraws Dorothy’s name from the parole list. Dorothy is originally convinced Kenneth Phillips engineered her incarceration and therefore hates him, but eventually she turns around and decides he loves her (and vice versa), so he agrees to give him the half of the dollar bill that will entitle him to retrieve the loot — only she realizes that the three gangsters who were in on the initial robbery with her are using Phillips to trace the loot and will kill him as soon as he recovers it, so she escapes to warn him that he’s being lured into a trap. The movie ends in a shoot-out with Phillips wounded in the arm, John dead, Carey and Wilson arrested and Phillips and Dorothy in a clinch.

Lady Gangster is surprisingly well made: vividly directed (Robert Florey throws in some of the oddball camera angles for which he was famous), photographed (by Arthur Todd, whose most famous credits these days are probably the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and W. C. Fields’ Million Dollar Legs) and acted. Faye Emerson may not have the authority or pathos of Barbara Stanwyck — but then, who did? — but she plays the part excellently, making the most of a script that gives her the chance to play a morally ambiguous character, a basically decent person who threw herself into a life of crime and is having a great deal of difficulty getting back out again. Julie Bishop is also quite good as her confidante (under her real name, Jacqueline Wells, she’d been the ingénue in the 1934 Karloff-Lugosi The Black Cat, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; this was only her fifth film under the “Julie Bishop” identity and she would go on to a TV show, but a short-lived one called My Hero that lasted only one season, 1952-53, rather than a blockbuster hit like The Honeymooners or Perry Mason), and Frank Wilcox actually brings more authority and emotion to his role than Preston Foster did in the analogous character in Ladies They Talk About — but then there are rocks with more authority and emotion than Preston Foster! It’s certainly a much better movie than the similarly titled Lady Scarface, made the same year at a different studio (RKO) and with a more prestigious actress (Judith Anderson) in the lead, but a considerably more clichéd and less well constructed plot line and more slovenly direction (by Frank Woodruff). Though it’s no great shakes, especially by comparison with the original version, Lady Gangster is a quite exciting, entertaining thriller, genuinely moving from the power of Emerson’s performance and Florey’s direction as well as a characterization and story conception whose relative sophistication moves it miles ahead of the standard major-studio “B”-unit production.