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Saturday, 11 July 2009

The Good Bad Girl (1931)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Mae Clarke, James Hall and Marie Prevost

Marcia Cameron isn't happy so she's leaving. She appreciates everything Dan has done for her, she tells him in a letter, but she just can't stand the racket. Now we know she's not talking about noise, because this is a precode: it means her boyfriend is a gangster, 'Dapper' Dan Tyler. Sure enough, he promptly turns up to render the letter apparently worthless because she can tell him that it's all over in person. What Dan doesn't know is that there's still a really good reason for us seeing the letter: it's the only way we'd ever believe that Dan is a gangster.

'Dapper' Dan is apparently so tough and dangerous a gangster that in the very next scene he bumps off a competitor on his own turf, but even doing that he's utterly unconvincing. He's played by Robert Ellis, who is absolutely wrong for the part. He's slow and sure, like these early scenes, but too slow and too sure. He has perfect diction, careful to enunciate every single syllable, and it's all wrong. This was 1931, the year of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, when gangsters hijacked over the cinematic world and there's a reason that we all know who Edward G Robinson and James Cagney are but have never heard of Robert Ellis.

To be fair, he's not bad, he's just totally wrong for the role; and Mae Clarke is too slow and sure herself as Marcia. She's trying to be Barbara Stanwyck but she just doesn't have the personality for it. Luckily for us, there's another couple that gets plenty of screen time and while they're not too crucial to the story, they're a joy to see. They're Tony Pagano and his Trixie Barnes who says that she has Tiffany ideas but a Woolworth's papa, all in fun. Trixie is Marie Prevost who was a fast mouthed bundle of fun in whatever part she got and Tony is Paul Porcasi, who also reprised his role in the Spanish language version. This is the most screen time I've ever seen him with and he's a worthy foil for Prevost.

There is a story in here. Marcia gets rid of Dan and leaves the gangster's life behind, marrying a man who knows absolutely nothing about her. She doesn't know anything about him either, though he proves to be a rich heir, Bob Henderson by name. And sure enough, being a precode, her past comes back to haunt her and the family drum her out so she has to survive on her own, bringing up the son that they don't know about. And if you're well versed in precodes, you'll be able to write much of the rest of the story too. It's not unpredictable, that's for sure, except that there's a real copout of a happy ending.

I don't think the story is really the problem, not that it would sparkle too brightly even if someone injected the pure essence of life into its veins, which patently nobody did. Beyond Marie Prevost and Paul Porcasi, who are blissfully alive, there's not a lot of life here: James Hall isn't bad as Bob Henderson and Nance O'Neil is fine as his mother, but I'd be stretching a long way to mention anyone else. I'm stretching a little to get that far, to be honest, as this is a wooden affair throughout.

I wonder what made this wooden. I don't think anyone's claiming that Roy William Neill was a genius director but he was turned out solid material for a long while, often without an appropriate budget. Jo Swerling, who adapted Winifred Van Duzer's novel, was a highly capable screenwriter, writing The Pride of the Yankees, The Westerner, even Guys and Dolls. And Mae Clarke was was not a bad actress, though she does suggest it here, failing utterly to lead the cast.

Perhaps it's the casting that's really at fault. Robert Ellis shouldn't have landed this part and realistically neither should Clarke. Mae Clarke had a powerful knack of being overshadowed, however important her roles were, and that's not good when she's supposed to be the focus of the plot. To highlight this, I'm sure you've seen her before, but do you remember her? I've seen her in a number of films, even a number of films made in 1931, and to my recollection she's been fine in all of them, but every one of them I remember for reasons other than her.

Her closest claim to immortality probably still lies in one uncredited scene in The Public Enemy where, as Jimmy Cagney's girlfriend, she gets a grapefruit in the kisser. To be brutally honest it's Cagney and the grapefruit we're remembering, not Mae Clarke. The same year she was Colin Clive's wife in Frankenstein but when we think of that film we probably remember Karloff, Frye and Clive, in that order. The best I've seen her has to be as Molly Malloy in The Front Page, also 1931, but that was a film with a dream cast, all of whom screamed out to be remembered. That means three good parts in three classic films in one year but not much to stand out.

Perhaps the most telling example came a year later when she even attempted a solid role in Penguin Pool Murder, a film starring Edna May Oliver, making the attempt as close to deliberately trying to be overshadowed as you could possibly manage. Luckily TCM showed this film amongst a slew of Mae Clarke movies, all precodes, so I'll shortly have more opportunity to try to find a role that she can make her own.

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