Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Midnight Alibi (Warner Bros. as “First National,” 1934)

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

The film was Midnight Alibi, which I recorded from Turner Classic Movies last July as one of a run of quirky “B” movies they were showing from 3 a.m. on (one thing I miss about no longer being able to record since Cox’s damnable “all-digital” conversion is the long runs of “B”’s from the classic era TCM generally shows in the wee hours), this time as a birthday tribute to actor-turned-director Vincent Sherman. From the title I had guessed Midnight Alibi would be a gangster movie, which it was — sort of — though the credits proclaimed that it was based on a story called “The Old Doll’s House” by Damon Runyon, and once the film started and we got to see the usual Runyon lowlifes Charles had the feeling we’d seen it before even though we hadn’t. (Runyon was a good writer but he did tend to write the same stories over and over, which is why the most successful adaptation of him was the 1950 musical Guys and Dolls, which blended several Runyon tales and characters instead of basing itself on just one.) The central character is gambler Lance McGowan (Richard Barthelmess), who as the film opens is just returning on an ocean liner from a trip to Europe. While on board he romanced Joan Morley (Ann Dvorak, acting even more than usual like the beta version of Bette Davis) and fell in love with her, but there’s a problem with their relationship: she’s the sister of Angie Morley (Robert Barrat) — that’s right, a boy named “Angie”; Charles suggested it could be short for “Angelo” but a first name like “Angelo” hardly seems to go with a last name like “Morley” (unless we’re supposed to think the name was originally “Mortellini” or something and his family “Anglicized” it) — and while Lance has been away Angie has completely taken over the illegal gambling business in New York (we know the setting is New York because at the film’s beginning we saw a tacky-looking matte painting of the New York skyline) and managed to stay in business despite the major hit in organized crime’s income following the repeal of Prohibition.

We see Lance at work in one of Angie’s casinos, shooting craps and hiding the dice under his hat so no one can see what he’s thrown and they have to take his word for it when he says he’s made his point. Lance’s attempts to romance Joan are continually being frustrated by the attempt of Angie’s gangsters to kill him, and during one hair’s-breadth escape he flees into the supposedly “haunted” house near Angie’s Hummingbird Club. Lance makes a joke about Boris Karloff living there — it’s interesting that just three years after Frankenstein, a screenwriter at another studio (Warren Duff, adapting Runyon’s story and getting quite a few Runyonesque wisecracks into the film) was already invoking Karloff’s name as a symbol of menace. The house is actually occupied by Abigail Ardsley (Helen Lowell), an elderly woman who inherited a fortune from her father, who got the bright idea of buying up as many corner lots in New York as he could at a time when most people regarded them as worthless. Abigail tells Lance it has been a long time since anyone visited her at home — though she’s not as reclusive or as deranged as Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, she was similarly traumatized as a young woman by the loss of her great love, though instead of falling in love with a man who stood her up at the altar she fell in love with a clerk in her dad’s office, and her dad not only threw her boyfriend out of the house but ultimately shot him dead for trespassing. (Presumably, as a well-connected 1-percenter in the Gilded Age, he escaped legal jeopardy.) We learn all this in a flashback to Abigail’s younger days, in which the youthful Abigail is played by Helen Chandler from Dracula and her clerk-suitor, Robert Anders, is Richard Barthelmess in a dual role, equipped with a moustache and with all the greasy kid stuff scraped out of his hair so for once Barthelmess looks like a normal human being instead of (as S. J. Perelman once joked about him) someone with Duco cement lacquered to his scalp.

When the film returns to the 1934 present, Lance accepts an invitation from Angie to visit him in his office at the Hummingbird to settle their differences, and much to the consternation of Lance’s own gang members he refuses to bring a gun — only one of his henchmen follows him into Angie’s office and, when Angie pulls a gun on Lance, the guy from Lance’s gang draws his own gun and shoots Angie dead. Then the actual killer gets himself killed in an accident and Lance is arrested and put on trial for the crime, courtesy of a “reform” administration anxious to use Lance’s case to set an example and let the citizens of New York know that the age of gangsterism has ended with Prohibition. All seems to be going well for the prosecution — none of Lance’s former friends in Damon Runyon’s underworld are willing to risk the wrath of the city government by putting up money to bail him out, so he has to stay in jail until his trial, and the prosecution puts up a strong case until at the very last minute Abigail Ardsley emerges from her decades of seclusion and demands to testify. (One of the biggest things the movies get wrong about courtroom procedure is the whole idea of the “surprise witness.” In real trials, each side must provide a list of all the witnesses they intend to call and make it available to the other side before the trial begins; if they want to call someone who isn’t on the list they have to petition the judge, and they have to have a pretty damned good reason to convince a judge to let them put on the so-called “surprise witness.”) Since the prosecution already established that the murder occurred at midnight, Lance’s defense attorney asks what Abigail was doing when the clock in her home was at midnight, and she said Lance was with her — thus providing him the titular “midnight alibi.”

Lance’s attorney gets the charges against him dismissed by the judge, and Lance is released, he and Joan get together at last, and in a tag scene Abigail reveals that the reason she could testify that he was there when her clock was at midnight without committing perjury was that her late boyfriend was killed at midnight lo those many years ago, and she responded by stopping every clock in her house at midnight — though there’s a final shot of her restarting her big grandfather clock at last once Lance and Joan are safely paired up. Though hardly a great movie, Midnight Alibi is a solidly entertaining one with a certain charm that makes up for the plot’s improbabilities. TCM showed it as part of a birthday tribute to actor-turned-director Vincent Sherman, but this early in 1934 he’s only an actor, playing the minor part of a dealer at Angie’s casino and just appearing in one scene. The actual director of Midnight Alibi is Alan Crosland, who in 1926 and 1927 had been one of Warner Bros.’ top directors, helming the first Vitaphone music-accompanied film, the John Barrymore Don Juan, as well as the generally recognized “first talkie,” The Jazz Singer. Then his star had fallen from grace on the Warners lot until by 1934 he was getting “B” assignments like this and Warren William’s first film as Perry Mason, The Case of the Howling Dog — but Crosland was still a highly talented filmmaker and there are some striking and sometimes disorienting camera angles here. When I looked this film up on I noticed a review by someone variously identified as “gerrytwo” and “gerrythree” from New York, who claimed that after Warner Bros. bought the First National company in 1928 — First National had been formed in 1918 by a group of independent theatre owners who were worried that Adolph Zukor’s Paramount studio was going to freeze them out by releasing their star product only to Paramount theatres, so they put together their own resources, formed a studio and hired the two biggest stars in the business, Mary Pickford (from Paramount) and Charlie Chaplin (from Mutual) — they continued to run it as at least a nominally independent company with Hal Wallis as studio head, while Darryl F. Zanuck ran Warner Bros. under Jack Warner’s supervision.

Then came the Depression, and by 1933 most of the studios were under court-ordered receivership under what was then called Chapter 77B of the federal bankruptcy law (today it’s Chapter 11), and to forestall the studios going out of business altogether Louis B. Mayer of MGM (ironically the one studio that hadn’t had to declare bankruptcy, and was even paying dividends to its shareholders) concocted a plan that everybody in the movie business take a 50 percent pay cut for the duration of the crisis. Needless to say, the studio workers, particularly the ones on the lower end of the income scale who weren’t making anything like star salaries, went ballistic — instead of forestalling unionization of the movie business, the plan actually accelerated it — and Zanuck angrily quit Warner Bros. when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was in charge of Mayer’s plan, refused to allow him to restore Warners’ workers to full salary when he had promised them he would. Jack Warner’s response was to fire a lot of the people on the lot who had supported Zanuck or were working with the unions to organize the studio — though, significantly, he did not drop James Cagney from his contract list even though Cagney was one of the 12 founding members of the Screen Actors’ Guild and was as tough off screen as he was on when the rights of his fellow actors, including character actors and bit players, were concerned. Among the people he fired were Alan Crosland and Richard Barthelmess, whom Jack Warner had inherited from First National — who in 1927 had signed him to a contract guaranteeing him $250,000 per film and giving him story and script approval as well as powers nearly amounting to being an independent producer. Midnight Alibi, a 58-minute film, was Barthelmess’ last film under either the Warner Bros. or First National banner (which were actually used pretty interchangeably — the 1934 Al Jolson/Dick Powell musical Wonder Bar was billed as a First National production on its own credits but as a Warner Bros. production on its trailer), and afterwards he cycled through the cheaper studios playing minor parts until he bade farewell to the screen as the second male lead in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings for Columbia in 1939. What was ironic about gerry-whatever’s defense of Barthelmess was that throughout Midnight Alibi I had been thinking what a better film it would have been if Jack Warner had given it to Cagney! Still, it’s an engaging movie and a nice blend of gangster movie and soap opera in the typical Damon Runyon style.