Thursday, July 19, 2012

Old Movies and Old Friends

For those of us who tastes gravitate towards older films, many of the character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age become reliable friends—people we enjoy seeing in a movie even if that movie is only so-so. That was the case in Dakota, the Western I wrote about a few weeks back. The presence of Mike Mazurki, Ward Bond and Walter Brennan in that film adds to its appeal even beyond consideration of how well they play their roles.

We just like hanging out with these guys. It kind of makes up for the fact our real-life friends are all mind-numbingly boring.

(Oh, and if any friend of mine is reading this—please rest assured that I forgive you for being less interesting than Mike Mazurki and will continue doing you the honor of being your friend.)

Anyway, the 1941 B-movie Mr. District Attorney contains another visit from an old friend. Peter Lorre is there, playing a small but important role as one of the bad guys.

The movie is an odd one. It’s supposedly based on the then popular radio show of the same name. But whereas the radio show was a straightforward procedural, the movie is almost a screwball comedy.

The main character is P. Caldwallader Jones, a young lawyer hired by the D.A.’s office because he has an influential uncle. He and spunky (and really cute) girl reporter Terry Parker stumble their way through a case involving murder and corruption until—pretty much by dumb luck--they nab the crooked lawyer who is running the local rackets.

Lorre is an embezzler who’s been in hiding for years, sitting on some hot money and enough evidence to break the rackets. To cover his trail, he bumps off a couple of people.

As Ron Backer points out in his excellent book Mystery Movie Series of 1940s Hollywood, Lorre’s scenes seem almost disconnected from the rest of the film. Whenever he shows up, the mood of the film abruptly switches from comedy to film noir, both in mood, in staging, and in lighting. It’s almost jarring.

But what the heck. The movie is flawed in this regard, but it’s still a fun little film. Dennis O’Keefe and Florence Rice play the two leads and bring a fair amount of charm to their roles. Sarah Edwards is great as Miss Petherby, the District Attorney’s “doesn’t take any guff from her boss” secretary, while Charles Arnt is perfect as a wimpy bank clerk who unwittingly embezzles from an embezzler to get money to spend on his burlesque-dancer girl friend. Arnt, in fact, was often cast as a wimpy or hen-pecked man throughout his career.

And of course Lorre is effectively menacing in his small role. To quote Becker’s book: “Lorre is a rare actor whose mere presence adds to a scene, even before he begins to talk in that strange voice of his.”

He’s really just another of the many old friends we meet when we come to appreciate the films of this era. If he’s in a movie, then it automatically gets some points in its favor regardless of its faults.

So—if any friend of mine IS reading this: That’s how you can finally become interesting. Just emulate Peter Lorre. Or Mike Mazurki. Or Ward Bond. Or Charles Arnt. Heck, with so many choices, you really have no excuse for being mind-numbingly boring, do you?

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