Friday, June 23, 2017

Panic on the Air (Columbia, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s movie was taken from a January 2016 Turner Classic Movies tribute to Lew Ayres, Panic on the Air, a 55-minute Columbia “B” from 1936 (a bit late in the day for the charmingly cheesy, cartoonish version of the Columbia logo that appeared on this print) directed by D. Ross Lederman (I used to make fun of him, joking that one should never trust the work of a director whose name looks like it should have the letters “D.D.S.” after it, but then I saw the one truly great film he made: End of the Trail, the remarkable pro-Native American Western made by Tim McCoy at Columbia in 1932) from a script by Harold Shumate based on a short story called “Five Spot” by Theodore A. Tinsley. Charles wondered if the word “Air” in the title referred to aircraft or radio, but the diagonal shot of a radio transmission tower gave that away, while the montage of various sporting events seen under the opening credits indicate that Lew Ayres was going to be playing a sportscaster. Actually his character, Jerry Franklin, has two jobs at the fictitious “Continental Broadcasting Service”; in addition to sportscasting he’s also a late-night news reporter doing a show called “You Heard It First” sponsored by Gordon’s Garters (it’s a measure of how dated this movie is that Gordon’s company could stay in business making nothing but garters), whose slogan is “Gordon’s Garters Never Let You Down.” Gordon is threatening to pull his sponsorship of Jerry Franklin’s show because the newspapers are beating him to too many spectacular scoops. Jerry sees his chance to break a big story and get back in the good graces of his sponsor when he and his sidekick Andy (Benny Baker, a Stuart Erwin imitator who manages to be even more obnoxious than the original) come across a $5 bill with what looks like a moustache drawn across President Lincoln’s upper lip. On closer examination, they realize it’s actually a string of numbers — 15-6-10-15 — only when they take it to a cryptographer Jerry knows, Major Bliss (Wyrley Birch), he tells them that the numbers aren’t part of any code he’s aware of and there aren’t enough of them for him to be able to break it. Bliss tells them the meaning is probably arbitrary, something that the sender and the intended recipient of the message would be aware of but no one else would. Then Jerry and Andy, along with their Asian houseboy who in a neat bit of humor on the part of the writers is named “McNulty” (Eddie Lee), receive an anonymous note from a woman telling them that their lives are in danger unless they rendezvous with her at a particular time and place — the place being the lobby of the Cateret Hotel (which was probably an odd name for a hostelry even in 1936) and the time being 6 p.m. that day.

They expect a hard-bitten woman and one duly materializes — and Andy cruises her, only to find that she’s married and both her husband and her family have violent tempers and know how to use their fists. The real woman who sent them the note is Mary Connor (Florence Rice, who like Lew Ayres later decamped from Columbia to MGM — at MGM she played simpering ingénues like Kenny Baker’s love interest in the Marx Brothers’ film At the Circus, but here she’s surprisingly good, not at the level of Joan Blondell but portraying a similar combination of surface toughness and inner vulnerability), and when our intrepid radio reporters trace her to her apartment, there’s a dead body inside. They realize the cops are going to suspect Mary but Jerry, noting how much the victim’s blood has congealed and deducing from that that the murder occurred while he and Andy were still with Mary, deduces that she didn’t do it. The murder victim turns out to be the wife of a notorious criminal who kidnapped a rich man and extracted a $250,000 ransom from his family, then got caught but only had $50,000 on him when he was captured. The bill has been traced all over town by Martin Danker (Murray Alper), member of the gang of Lefty Dugan (Gene Morgan), and when Jerry and Mary finally catch up with each other they go to Major Bliss’s home to see if their guess that the numbers are code for an address where the missing $200,000 is being stashed is correct. Only Bliss slips them a note that the gangsters got to him first — before that I was wondering if Bliss himself was going to turn out to be the mastermind behind the crime and that’s why he was so unforthcoming when Jerry and Andy first visited him for help, but Tinsley and Shumate blessedly didn’t take us down that set of clichés. Instead they have the gangsters figure out the location of the money, and Jerry has to phone his radio station and get himself broadcast over the phone line so he can alert police captain Fitzgerald (Charles Wilson) to the address so the cops can catch the crooks and recover the money. Once all the parties arrive there there’s a surprisingly violent, especially for a 1936 “post-Code” movie, shootout between cops and crooks; the cops win, though Lefty attempts to escape with the money and gets taken alive even though the other three members of the gang get killed, and of course at the end Jerry not only gets his contract renewed, he gets Mary.

Panic on the Air is actually a quite well-done thriller; though one might have expected a better movie to result from the collaboration of the star of All Quiet on the Western Front and the director of End of the Trail, what we have here is quite stylish, fast-moving (it’s only 55 minutes long, unusually short even for a “B” — a lot of “B” Westerns in the 1930’s were that brief but a “B” with a contemporary setting usually hit at least the 65-minute mark), well acted by the leads (though you do want to strangle Bobby Baker — all too few of the so-called “comic relief” characters in these films were actually funny) and moved at a quite smart and engaging pace by director Lederman, who’s quick enough we don’t spot the plot holes until we start thinking about this movie well after it’s over. It’s this kind of nice, reliable, comfortable entertainment that you really don’t get anymore — not in features (a modern movie based on the plot of Panic on the Air would probably be at least twice as long and would drag in sinister crime bosses and international intrigue — as a motivator for criminal scheming, $200,000 just doesn’t go as far as it used to!) and not on TV either (one could imagine Dick Wolf’s writers generating a plot similar to this bout it would be a lot more violent and grim).