Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Shadow Laughs (Trojan Pictures, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After that unusually interesting film it was back to the archive.org salt mines again for The Shadow Laughs, a 1933 indie made in New York by something called “Trojan Pictures” and written and directed by Reefer Madness screenwriter Arthur Hoerl, which we watched from one of those annoying archive.org downloads whose uploader decided to shrink the file size slightly by lopping off the opening credits. The film was described by imdb.com as, “The police investigate a bank robbery, and when they don’t seem to be making much headway, a newspaper reporter decides to investigate it on his own.” That’s sort of what seems to be going on; in the opening scene two armed robbers do indeed invade a bank, but when they leave it again they have a hostage with them: a middle-aged bank executive who had been embezzling to get money to feed his gambling addiction. The robbers steal five $1,000 bills from the bank vault (in addition to money in smaller and thereby easier to spend or fence denominations) and murder their hostage. The cops in charge of the case are the relatively competent Captain Morgan (Harry T. Morey) and Sgt. Owens (John F. Morrissey), and Morgan’s idiot “comic-relief” assistant Clymer (Harry Short). The hero is reporter Robin Dale (Hal Skelly, male lead in the 1929 Paramount musical The Dance of Life, a.k.a. Burlesque — the title of the stage show it was based on — but considerably less oppressive here even though Hoerl was obviously having him channel Lee Tracy), who joins the police investigation after bluffing his way onto the scene at the bank; originally irascible Captain Morgan doesn’t want any part of a reporter at his crime scene, but he ultimately yields.

Eventually other people, including the embezzler’s killers, are themselves found dead with $1,000 bills in their hands, and the police, Robin, his girlfriend Ruth Hackett (Rose Hobart, the “nice” girl in the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, here giving one of the most authoritative and least stuck-up performances I’ve ever seen from her) and the audience are all mystified about what’s going on and why. It all seems to center around Ruth’s brother George (Robert Keith), gangster Jack Bradshaw (Bram Nossen) with whom George naïvely got involved, Bradshaw’s henchman Tony Rico (Cesar Romero, in his first film, appearing in only one scene but readily recognizable even though he’s at one end of the frame and the brilliant camera positioning by Hoerl and cinematographers Don Malkames, who as late as the late 1940’s was still the go-to guy for producers shooting movies in New York, and Nick Rogalli keeps cutting off the back half of his body in his side shots). Though there are no shadows, there’s no laughter and this film has nothing to do with the famous pulp and radio crimefighter The Shadow, The Shadow Laughs has some occasionally interesting shots in which Hoerl takes his camera up and shoots down at some of the action from oblique angles — unfortunately, those shots end up being strictly for display in an otherwise awfully plainly directed film, one of those movies in which the director seemed to give up on the actors and let them play scenes in whatever way they wanted. After that dynamic opening robbery sequence, which seemed to promise a much better movie than the one we got, The Shadow Laughs settles into a comfortably ponderous groove of slackly paced so-called “thrills” and ends up as one of those movies I call “less a whodunit than a whocareswhodunit.” In the end, if you cared, the culprit turns out to be Tennant (Walter Fenner), a bank official who worked directly under the original embezzler and saw the opportunity to steal from the bank himself and set up the embezzler for what Tennant stole as well as his own ill-gotten gains — though how hiring gangsters to knock off the embezzler, and then hiring other gangsters to knock off the first gangsters, was going to do any good was a mystery locked in Arthur Hoerl’s head. Or was he already doing his, um, first-hand research for Reefer Madness and writing this one largely “under the influence”?