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Sunday, 9 August 2009

Operator 13 (1934)

Director: Richard Boleslawski
Stars: Marion Davies and Gary Cooper

Here's another chance for Marion Davies to strut her serious acting stuff, which means that we're more than likely to enjoy it but wish it was a comedy instead. She's an actress, Gail Loveless, who we thankfully first meet putting on a cute and comedic song routine as one of the players from Ford's Theater (who also include Mr J Wilkes-Booth) appearing at the US Military Hospital No 1 for the troops. However the comedy mostly ends there. Backstage she's recruited by Maj Allen who runs the secret service for the Union and so she becomes the Operator 13 of the title, a spy sent into confederate territory.

All this is all fine and good, but her first cover is as a black washerwoman called Lucille, working for another much more experienced female spy, Operator 27, really another actress called Pauline Cushman. She passes off her pale colour by pretending to be from Martinique, and to be honest, she's better in blackface than most but that doesn't mean that she's believable in the slightest. At least this serious role gives her the opportunity to play around with her impersonations, and sure enough she sounds a lot better than she looks.

This film is a pulp story in every way, though it's dressed up as something much more serious. The story comes from Robert W Chambers, renowned for his work in the weird genre, such as The King in Yellow, though I'm guessing that what ended up on screen here doesn't much resemble what he wrote at all. At heart this is a romance rather than a story of intrigue, albeit one between a confederate spy and a yankee spy. Davies is the latter and she has no less a name than Gary Cooper to romance as the former.

Cooper is Capt Jack Gailliard, not just a confederate spy but the organiser of the Sons of Liberty, a secret confederate organisation in the north colloquially known as the copperheads that's all ready to spring into action at a word and fight from within the union states. Their aim is to build a North Western Confederacy and they're over a million strong, but Gailliard is suspected or being involved. So Operator 13 is sent back south as a northern confederate sympathiser called Miss Ann Claiborne to investigate Gailliard while Gailliard is sent to investigate her. Naturally they fall in love.

Yes, this is so much nonsense and while it does get serious at points it's hardly a hard impacting drama. It's more of a light hearted pulp outing and it works pretty well on that level. Davies looks good in period costume and she has a versatile role her that suits her well. The material is beneath Cooper but he's fine as her leading man from the other side. Backing them up are people like Jean Parker, Douglass Dumbrille, an uncredited Hattie McDaniel (and her equally uncredited brother Sam McDaniel) and Sidney Toler again. After finally recognising him in a film as a white man playing a white man, here he is as another one. He looks a little less wrong with facial hair than he did clean shaven in Blondie of the Follies. Nonsense but fun nonsense.

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