Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Edward G. Robinson Film Festival, Part 4

It is impossible--IMPOSSIBLE, I say--to watch 1942's Larceny, Inc without smiling non-stop in those rare moments you're not laughing.

Like The Little Giant (made 9 years earlier), Edward G. is playing a parody of his gangster image. But this time, his character (Pressure Maxwell) isn't a bootlegger or bank-robber. He's a smooth-talking con artist. We discover that right off the bat as we watch him play catcher on a prison baseball team, talking his friend and partner (Broderick Crawford) into taking a hit-by-pitch for the team. A few minutes later, he's talking the warden out of a nice pinstriped suit before he's released.

The opening scene also establishes the relationship between Pressure and Crawford's dimwitted character Jug. According to the film historians doing the DVD commentary, studio executives asked that it be modeled after George and Lennie from Of Mice and Men. Remember that the Studio Era, for all its flaws, was a time when producers and studio execs were often men who had a good sense of storytelling, so executive meddling wasn't always a bad thing. This dynamic between Pressure and Jug is perfect, setting up a lot of the comedy later in the film.

Anyway, Pressure has promised his sort-of adopted daughter to go straight and he really, really does plan to do so. He's going to buy a dog track in Florida. All he needs is 20 grand to finance this. But when the bank won't give him a loan--well, if he has to do one more job before going straight, that's not so bad, is it?

He and Jug run a quick "hit-and-run" scam with a passing car to get a thousand bucks, then use this to buy a down-and-out luggage store that happens to be next to a bank. The idea is to tunnel into the bank vault.

But Pressure's daughter wants him to go straight right away and a salesman (Jack Carson) wants the store to do well for reasons of his own. So they conspire to bring in customers, which interferes with digging the tunnel. Also, the other store owners on the street rope Pressure into helping them deal with a contractor who is prolonging street repairs and hurting business. Soon, at first much to his aggravation and later to his slowly realized delight, Pressure becomes a successful businessman.

But then another old "friend" who's a lot more prone to violence forces himself into the bank job and won't let Pressure give it up.

The movie is simultaneously a screwball comedy and a tribute to small business capitalism. The script is clever and ingenious, calling on Pressure and his friends to constantly improvise as they desperately try to carry out their schemes. The wonderful cast helps bring that script to joyous life.

Try watching this movie without smiling non-stop. Try it. I dare you.

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