Monday 25 May 2009

Bordertown (1935)

Director: Archie L Mayo
Stars: Paul Muni, Bette Davis and Margaret Lindsay

With this film under my belt, that leaves only six Paul Muni films to go and it's been an interesting ride. He played characters of what seems like every ethnic background in the book, and in an age where such activity produced some of the most embarrassing moments for established stars. Kate Hepburn was one of the greatest actors Hollywood ever saw but she should never have played Scotswomen or Chinese peasants. Muni may have been the only actor to really get away with it, though even he failed on occasion. His eastern European coal miner in Black Fury was painful to listen to and while he provided one of the better Caucasian attempts at an oriental character in The Good Earth, that still doesn't mean it should have happened.

Here he's a Mexican, as he would be again four years later in Juarez with the same co-star, Bette Davis. In that one he was the leader of Mexico, although he had to fight to get there, but here he's Johnny Ramirez, a 'tough guy from a tough neighbourhood' who pulls himself up by his bootstraps to graduate from the Pacific Night Law School. This is in the Mexican Quarter of Los Angeles, which is so Mexican that there are signs that point out that English is spoken there, the precise opposite of what I see today in West Phoenix where you can't get a customer facing job unless you speak Spanish.

Unfortunately for Johnny, his first real case turns out about as badly as it could. He tries to assert the truth in a case where a wild and drunk young social butterfly called Dale Elwell races her car out of control, ploughing into and destroying the truck and livelihood of an old Mexican man. However while he means well he hasn't prepared his case well in the slightest and he's utterly outclassed by the opposition, so much so that he ends up punching him out when he gets called a cheap shyster. Needless to say, this doesn't sit well with the judge, who chews him out for it, and sure enough he finds himself disbarred.

So in a quest for the money he thinks will even the stakes between him and all these other people who plague him, he heads south of the border and ends up at a gambling joint called the Silver Slipper. He begins as a bouncer, after knocking out the existing bouncer, then works his way up to the man who gets done whatever needs to be done and eventually to partner. The boss is Charlie Roark, played by Eugene Pallette who was 19 years older than Bette Davis who plays his screen wife Marie. This is only one reason why Marie falls for Johnny, and Johnny is only one reason why she takes advantage of her husband's drunken state one night to leave him in the garage with the car's motor running.

Now, up until this point Bette Davis doesn't have much to do but from here on out she gets the opportunity to strut her stuff, going gradually insane with guilt and frustration as Johnny still doesn't respond to her advances even in the absence of her husband. This was 1935 when she was just another contract player at Warner Brothers, trying everything she could to land roles with substance, something she'd finally managed a year earlier in Of Human Bondage and she does her share of shivering and shaking here too, along with a whole host of other mannerisms that add subtle and no subtle depth to her character.

Now Bette isn't the only woman in the film, though you may be forgiven for forgetting Dale Elwell way back at the beginning. She's played by the lovely Margaret Lindsay, who was always so good at being desirable on screen and is no less here. She spent her time in court drawing young green lawyer Johnny. The word she writes under the picture of his face is telling; it's 'savage' and she remembers that an indeterminate amount of time later when Johnny has a new casino built and her party turns up for the opening night. She's really back to be the love interest who shakes up Johnny as nobody else can.

Yes, this is melodrama and it bears no grudge against the genre. The story is merely a background to give the characters opportunity to emote and the scenes are constructed only to teach them lessons that apparently only melodramatic scenes can teach. This isn't good. While the story does keeps us interested, it fails to really draw us in and it cops out throughout the picture. Davis gets a few scenes of power setting up a scene, but then she's gone; and Lindsay likewise. It's as if the filmmakers wanted those few powerful lines but didn't really care about them once they'd been spoken.

The Production Code is very much apparent here too, and that must have driven the direction of the story to the final copout at the end. As a Mexican American, Johnny is a lead character from a minority and he spends the film being pursued by white American women, one of whom has the audacity to throw rather memorable insult at him: as he proposes marriage, fully expecting the reciprocation of his love, she retorts, 'You're from another tribe, savage.' And with both white women gone, Johnny suddenly finds direction in his life and goes back to his people. No, this isn't satisfying at all.

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