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Sunday, 30 August 2009

Whirlpool (1934)

Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Jack Holt, Jean Arthur and Donald Cook

The Greater Rankin Show of 1910 is a carnival with all the usual attractions, but along with the half man, half woman and the ventroloquist there's also Jack Holt and Allen Jenkins so I'd buy a ticket. Holt is Buck Rankin and it's his show, but he's finally fallen for one of his local girls, Helen Morrison, and for the first time he doesn't want to move on. So they get hitched. As she can't live with him on the road he sells the show, but as he tells his right hand man Mac the score the locals start a fight and he promptly gets sent up for twenty years in the state pen for manslaughter.

Eight months later he finds out that his wife is almost due and they're going to be three. He was going to persuade her to divorce him so that she can be free from life as wife of a jailbird and live the best life she can, but she won't do it. So when his cellmate Farley tries to escape by diving into the whirlpool outside the prison, only to die in the effort like the fifteen men who tried it before him, he uses his brain. He's doing clerical work in the warden's office so writes his own suicide note and forges a cover letter from the warden to commiserate in her loss. With Helen believing him dead, she gets on with her own life.

Now Allen Jenkins was always the stalwart right hand man, so Mac shows up twenty years later to pick up his former boss when he finally gets released. They move quickly up in the world, as Rankin has high aims and he achieves them too, becoming Duke Sheldon, the big shot owner of the Flamingo Club. He keeps himself to himself, so as to ensure that his face stays out of the paper, but that's about to change as he's the surprise alibi in the Kelly case, that the whole defense is resting on. It's a huge deal in New York and one that the papers are very eager to investigate.

Anyone paying attention will have noticed that there was a baby about twenty years ago. Of all people, the journalist that the paper sends to find out about Sheldon turns out is his daughter, now Sandy Morrison, daughter of a Superior Court judge, Helen having remarried and done very well for herself in the process. She recognises his ring, the one he's never taken off and which matches the one his wife has never taken off, and causes an introduction. Unfortunately while this sparks a perfect reunion, it also sparks a lot more. Now he can't fly to New York and that means that the Kelly gang will be after him.

This is a surprising film because it never goes where we expect it to. Beginning as a carnival yarn, it becomes a romance, then a prison break movie, then a melodrama and finally a gangster flick. Somehow though it fails to be the incoherent mess it probably should have been, instead unfolding across three decades and multiple genres with panache. At more than point the years fly by in so many rapid fire clips of stock footage or in more creative ways. The length of Sheldon's rise to power is shown through a set of number plates, one per year, always on bigger and better cars.

Jack Holt is excellent here. His career began back in 1914 and it would go on until his death in 1951 but his time to shine was in the late silents and early talkies. He was there at the beginning of Hollywood, as a founder of the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and he still lives on today, perhaps not as a name but as an image. Chester Gould based Dick Tracy on him and Al Capp based Fearless Fosdick on him. I've seen a number of his precodes, a few of which were made for Frank Capra, and he's always appeared as a solid and reliable actor. That said, he's perhaps better here than I've seen him elsewhere, the aging make up helping him to look somewhat like The Godfather era Brando.

Jenkins isn't aged as well, because it's mostly done through hair rather than facial makeup. That mostly works for Holt, but Jenkins spends most of the film with a hat on that covers all his hair. When it's off he looks fine, when it's on he looks precisely the same over the entire three decade span of the film. Fortunately he's such a charismatic supporting actor that he can't help but succeed. Jean Arthur has a harder task on her hands because she was 34 but having to play 22. She's far older than her years, in all the right ways for a newly found daughter but all the wrong ways for someone we're supposed to believe is 22 years of age. She's a good foil for Holt, helping the story to race along like lightning. The three decades are over in eighty minutes.

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