Thursday 29 May 2008

Public Hero #1 (1935)

The Purple Gang is making the headlines, with all sorts of raids and killings and whatnot, terrorising the nation. In return, the nation demands that something be done about it all and so the cops oblige, arresting a whole slew of gangsters. One of them appears to be Chester Morris, but he's in the urgently overacting while in disguise mode that he used often as Boston Blackie. He's playing a tough first timer called Jeff Crane and unsurprisingly he's an undercover federal agent. We first meet him on his way into prison to spring a Purple Gang leader by the name of Sonny Black, better known as Dinkie.

Of course where there's Chester Morris, you shouldn't be too surprised to find George E Stone too, though this is six years before the first Boston Blackie movie. Usually he's Morris's sidekick, but here he's just a member of the Purple Gang with a debonair moustache. I thought I recognised Lloyd Corrigan too, who played Arthur Manleder in the Blackie films, but it turned out to be a lookalike instead. Anyway, the strange thing here is that they're all supporting players, even though it's all Chester Morris for the first half hour. We soon meet the real two leads though, and Morris does his best to warrant more than his third place billing.

During the escape Black catches a bullet, so off goes Crane to fetch Dr Josiah Glass, alcoholic physician, to attend his wounds. Glass is Lionel Barrymore, having a field day with the alcoholism. Even more memorable is the young lady Crane bumps into on the way and doesn't have much luck losing. She's Maria Theresa O'Reilly, she's Sonny Black's sister and she's played with a joyously sassy mouth by Jean Arthur. These weren't minor names in 1935, though Jean Arthur was very much on the up, with The Whole Town's Talking behind her but Mr Deeds Goes to Town and many other classics to come. Barrymore fitted it in between two Tod Browning films, Mark of the Vampire and The Devil Doll, but he'd been acting on film since 1908 and was a major star not long after.

The film itself isn't particularly memorable and does seem a little forced, but the cast are universally sound and on occasion impress. Lionel Barrymore chews up the scenery but has an awesomely fun time doing it. Morris is decent but not as memorable as usual because there's not much meat in the part. Joseph Calleia isn't bad as the bad guy, Sonny Black, even though he's lumbered with the nickname of Dinkie. Better still is Paul Kelly, as a tough fed in charge of the operation. Best of all though is Jean Arthur, who doesn't just get the best lines but the part with the most potential. She does a great job of it, coming across as a girl able to crack wise with the best of them but doing so over a sad soul.

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