Thursday, April 21, 2016

Lucky Devils (RKO, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I wound up watching a “B” movie from RKO in 1933 I’d recorded off Turner Classic Movies when I could still record TV shows before Cox’s accursed “all-digital” conversion made that impossible: Lucky Devils, a quirky story that begins with a brilliant and surprisingly violent sequence that’s oddly brutal for a 1933 movie, even one made during the relatively loose “pre-Code” era. It’s a bank robbery, but one in which both the robbers themselves and the people in the bank they’re robbing — especially the bank’s security people — seem to be more interested in inflicting the maximum death toll on each other than the priorities that usually apply in a situation like this. (Usually bank robbers want to do as little mayhem as possible — their objective is loot, not carnage — and bank employees are told to stay calm, go along with the robbers, wait until they’ve got away and it’s safe, and then call the police.) In the middle of a lot of spectacular action, we get a pull-back and find that this is taking place on a movie set and what we’ve seen is a bank-robbery sequence being shot for a film. Then we’re introduced to our principals, stunt people Skipper Clark (William Boyd — the one who later played Hopalong Cassidy, not the William “Stage” Boyd whose scandalous antics got the other William Boyd fired by RKO under the morals clause in his contract, seemingly ruining his career until Paramount signed him to do the Hoppy movies and Boyd insisted on the TV rights to them, which made him a fortune when they were reissued to TV in the early 1950’s) and Bob Hughes (William Gargan). After work ends for the day Skipper and Bob hang out at a bar that seems to cater mostly to stunt people (“A stunt person’s bar?” Charles asked incredulously), though one of the other patrons is Fran Whitley (Dorothy Wilson), who’s run out of money after an attempt to crack Hollywood as an aspiring actress and is about to commit suicide when Skipper and Bob realize what’s happening and rescue her. (A sign reading “HOLLYWOOD” is blinking in the background as she prepares to jump off the building’s balcony into the Hollywood canyon below, and both I and an contributor thought the scene might have been inspired by the then-recent suicide of minor actress Peg Entwistle, who’d killed herself by jumping off the Hollywood sign following a similarly failed attempt to make it as an actress — though she did get at least one credit in RKO’s abysmal Thirteen Women, a movie so bad a lot of jokesters in Hollywood said that anybody who’d been in it would have been so embarrassed it wasn’t surprising at all that one would kill herself.) They let her stay with them, and of course there’s a romantic-triangle rivalry in which Fran thinks Skipper is taking her out just to warn her away from Bob, but in fact Skipper wants her for himself. This leads him to break one of the cardinal rules of stunt person-dom: don’t get married, because if you do you’ll have another person (or two or more, quite likely, especially given the penchant of women in movies to get pregnant the very first time they have sex) in your life to care about and you’ll lose your edge, get worried, get careless and die.

We’ve actually seen this happen to Slugger Jones (William Bakewell, playing a minor role just two years after he was billed ahead of Clark Gable in the 1931 MGM film Dance, Fools, Dance with Joan Crawford) — yes, this is one of those bizarre movies in which the writers (Casey Robinson and real-life stunt person Bob Rose, “original” story; Agnes Christine Johnson and Ben Markson, screenplay) give the male characters silly nicknames like Skipper, Slugger and Happy to indicate how butch they are — in the bar scene, in which Slugger introduces his pals to the woman he’s about to marry, Doris (Julie Haydon), and we just know that as soon as they get married Slugger is going to screw up a stunt and it’s going to kill him and leave her an instant widow — a pregnant instant widow, this being a movie (and one produced, ironically, by David O. Selznick, who later in a memo during the preparation of Gone with the Wind lampooned “these infallible pregnancies at single contacts”). The stunt is a scene in a gangster movie in which he’s supposed to be driving a car in a chase scene and sideswipe a lamp-post; instead, on the first take he misses the lamp-post altogether and the second one he crashes the car into the lamp-post, sending it through a plate-glass window in a storefront set and killing himself. (In 1933 a “glass” window on an outdoor set, especially if it were supposed to break as part of the action, was usually made of spun sugar precisely so anyone crashing through it wouldn’t get hurt by shards of glass.) This example doesn’t stop Skipper and Fran from tying the knot, though the film dramatizes another stunt people’s superstition — if one of the stunt people breaks a bottle the night before, it means someone will get killed on the set the next day. Skipper and Fran accidentally break a bottle the night before their friend Happy (Bruce Cabot) is supposed to do a difficult stunt — he’s playing a firefighter who’s supposed to swing over to the building on the other side of the backlot “street” and rescue a police officer (played by Bob) from the building before it collapses (and there’s a marvelous shot from director Ralph Ince showing that the “buildings” are just false fronts — it’s well-known now that movie sets are built that way but not many moviegoers realized that in 1933).

Once again, as with the earlier scene, it appears that a lot of the dodges real-life moviemakers used in 1933 to minimize the potential damage to life and limb from doing a scene like this aren’t being used in the film-within-a-film, “Right Living” by director Hacket (Alan Roscoe), depicted as an unfeeling bastard who doesn’t care how many lives he has to sacrifice to get the big action scenes he wants). Hacket has his effects people actually set fire to the building that’s supposed to burn (wouldn’t it have been safer to do it with a model and patch it in with a process screen? Maybe not, given how awful the process work is throughout this movie; though ace cinematographer Vernon Walker is credited with the special effects — and that, not “trick shots,” is the actual term used on his credit — the process shots look incredibly phony and it’s hard to believe this movie was being shot on the same lot at the same time as the magnificent and still convincing effects film King Kong) and Happy’s gloves stick on the rope he’s supposed to be swinging from and he dies. Hacket insists on shooting the scene again the next day and hires Skipper to take Happy’s place — only Fran, who wants her husband to get out of stunt work because it’s too risky, picks exactly the wrong time to make her point. She crashes the set just when Skipper is about to do the stunt, and her presence jars off his timing and he does the swing too late to catch Bob, who takes a plunge into the fire. Fortunately Bob survives with only minor injuries, but Skipper is now considered unemployable as a stunt person and, in a grim montage sequence that looks more like something from a Warner Bros. film than anything we expect from RKO (though if Warners had been making this, James Cagney would have been playing Skipper and Pat O’Brien would have been playing Bob!), he’s unable to find any other sort of work either. Eventually he lands a job on the labor gang (i.e., the carpenters who build sets) for another Hacket picture, this one set against a waterfall and featuring a climactic stunt sequence involving a person taking a boat over the waterfall and hopefully surviving. Hacket offers $100 to whoever will do this stunt, his assistant director ups the ante to $200, but there are no takers … until Skipper receives a telegram from Dr. Leith, the $25 medical man he hired to take care of his pregnant wife Fran and deliver her baby (is it that big a surprise that he knocked her up as soon as he had sex with her?), that complications have set in and he needs $200 to put Fran in a hospital.

If you’ve seen more than about six movies in your life you’ll know what happens next: Skipper talks Hacket into letting him do the supposedly lethal stunt, survives it, then he and Bob get into Skipper’s car and race down the mountain from the location to the city so they can get the money to Fran’s doctor so she can have her baby in a hospital. Only they (or the real stunt people who were doubling for William Boyd and William Gargan playing stunt people!) crash the car halfway down the mountain and Gargan tricks one of the motorcycle cops who were chasing them and that allows Boyd to steal the cop’s motorcycle (the nameplate “Harley-Davidson” is clearly visible on its gas tank, by the way) and use it to ride the rest of the way into town. Lucky Devils is a good movie on its own terms — Ince stages the action well and the characterizations are breezily entertaining in a way you didn’t often get in similar RKO attempts to poach on Warners’ territory — and the only defect in it is how relentlessly predictable it is. Throughout the film you seem to be about a reel or two ahead of the writers (for Robinson and Rose to take credit for an “original” story seems even more of a perversion of language than usual!), and every time you think, “I know where this is going,” it duly goes there. No wonder Robinson later on got so persnickety about not taking credit for any scripts except the ones he wrote entirely by himself — even though that cost him a share of the Academy Award for Casablanca, for which he wrote the love scenes between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman but didn’t qualify to share the award because he’d declined credit.