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Saturday, 22 September 2007

Illegal (1932) William McGann

It's good to see a precode once in a while that contains precisely nobody I recognise (though I've seen the lead before in a few films without really noticing who she is). This one looked like about as precode as precodes got on the face of it, and I was surprised to find that it's actually English. It's a Warner Brothers/First National production, made at Teddington Studios, and it does show a markedly different attitude to vaguely similar American productions of the era.

We have a female lead, Isobel Elsom, who plays Mrs Evelyn Dean. She doesn't take any nonsense and we meet her as she's kicking out her second husband who is notably troublesome. She spends the rest of her own money to pay off his gambling debts, buy him a passage to Cape Town and put ten pounds in his pocket to make sure he leaves. Then with the financial assistance from a lucky windfall and opportune assistance from a decent neighbour, she opens up the Scarecrow Club to make money off drink and gambling, precisely the things that have brought her such bad luck.

We run forward in time pretty quickly, given that we have at least a decade to pass while Mrs Dean's two young daughters grow up and reap the benefits of their mother's profits to gain a top notch education. Unfortunately ten years also brings the eventual attention of the law and Mrs Dean gets to spend three months at His Majesty's pleasure in Holloway.

This is a strange picture. It plays out nicely for a while, obviously written for the screen rather than for a play and with plenty of heartstring pulling at the right points, and both Isobel Elsom and Ivor Barnard are decent as the main couple of characters. However, the kids are very forced, as played by Margot Grahame and Moira Lynd, both of whom would have been a little less wooden as shop mannequins. They get to take opposite angles in helping keep the Scarecrow Club alive, by running it themselves. Ann inherits her mother's industrious attitude and runs the show properly and well, but Dorothy is the glamorous one who sings in the club and falls for her returning stepfather's shenanigans.

Perhaps Grahame was named England's answer to Jean Harlow, the Aluminium Blonde, aptly because Harlow couldn't act for quite a while either, even though she got there in the end. Harlow always played fun characters who were always fun to watch, because they were always good characters, however common or out of place they were; but Dorothy is a brat, pure and simple, and it's nigh on impossible to like her. Then again, next to her stepfather, she's an angel. Miscredited D A Clarke-Smith plays a true cad, and he's damn good at it.

Unfortunately the film as a whole was far more enjoyable than it was good. Part of the problem is that the film is so short that some of the numerous actors have no time to instil life into their parts, and there are certainly a whole slew of other questions that don't get answered but really ought to be. It speeds by way too quickly and many of the little subplots just disappear without explanation or satisfactory conclusion.

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