Tuesday 24 November 2009

The Great O'Malley (1937)

Director: William Dieterle
Stars: Pat O'Brien, Sybil Jason, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and Frieda Inescort
Back in the days when Humphrey Bogart was the perennial supporting actor at Warner Brothers he got into trouble at the hands of every leading man at the studio. Here he's up against Pat O'Brien, a beat cop called James Aloysius O'Malley who's better known to the eager press as 'the blue eyed terror of the 7th precinct'. The press love him because he's the epitome of the overzealous cop, literally reading the book of city ordnances and happily discovering new ones he hadn't seen before. His fellow cops, as well as his superior officer, Capt Cromwell, don't love him quite so much because he's giving the force a bad name, dishing out to the folks in his community tickets for everything under the sun. He even gets upset with his mother for throwing crumbs out to the sparrows because it violates some ordnance about debris in the street.

Bogie is John Phillips, a man down on his luck. He's been out of work for a long while and he has a wife and crippled daughter to take care of, a daughter who only has a badly healed broken leg that he just can't afford to have reset, but he's finally landed a job after a long dry stretch. He's on the way to it when O'Malley stops him for a noisy muffler and makes him a couple of minutes late, late enough to cost him the job. Unable to admit this to his family and unwilling to claim relief as charity, he tries to pawn his war medals and gun. When he's only offered a fraction of what he needs and insulted to boot, he sees red, knocks the owner of the pawnshop silly, empties the cash register and runs, only to get stopped yet again by Officer O'Malley for that muffler.

He goes to jail, of course, to serve two to ten years in the state pen, but the papers play up the angle that officers like O'Malley are driving law abiding citizens to crime. In reaction to that, Capt Cromwell needs him somewhere else and unable to fire him because of his technically pristine record, he downgrades him instead to public school crossing guard, to do the bidding of Judy Nolan, one of the teachers. The aim is that it'll either make him or break him and it won't be too difficult for you to work out which comes to pass. I'm sure it won't be too much of a stretch either to guess that he's sent to the very school that little Babs Phillips attends, and sure enough we get some fireworks when mama finds out, even though he's just saved her daughter's life and after finding the house empty when he gets her home, coughs up some cash to order groceries for the family.

The Great O'Malley really epitomises the sort of programmers that Warner Brothers churned out in the thirties in vast numbers. It has never a dull or wasted moment but it does nothing particularly spectacular. It has a solid message, though one that's hammered home with a startling lack of subtlety. O'Malley is a blatant example to us, going from one extreme to the other, starting off as little more than a machine without a shred of humanity. As Nolan tells him, 'You're right. You're always right. That's what's wrong with you.' Of course he ends up as a hero nonetheless, as the title of the film suggested from moment one, by being dragged through the life lesson of the Phillips family. It tugs shamelessly at our heartstrings, because Sybil Jason is spot on in the cute and bubbly little crippled kid role. And of course its well acted, odd kids who only just manage to get out their lines aside.

Pat O'Brien was such a good actor that a role like this that is painted in precisely two colours, black and white, still comes off as meaning something. Nowadays such a role would be played by someone like Ben Stiller and it would become a cartoon. Even if you don't watch old movies you know what Bogart could do and he's fine here, with really the only acting job in the film. The best scenes by far are the ones with Bogie fresh out of jail and trying to avoid O'Malley, sweating every moment of it and overplaying more than a little to highlight that hey, it's possible to actually act in a film this obvious. Ann Sheridan and Frieda Inescort share the top billing but they're wasted as Judy Nolan and Mrs Phillips respectively. Warner Brothers had so many quality supporting actors that they could just pad the cast list with them, Donald Crisp turning in a fine turn as Capt Cromwell even though he could do such a thing in his sleep.

And that's both the positive and the negative side of films like The Great O'Malley. Warners were so solid at this point in time that they could churn out films as consistent as this in their sleep but so often it feels like that's precisely what they did.

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