Saturday 7 November 2009

I Promise to Pay (1937)

Director: D Ross Lederman
Stars: Chester Morris, Leo Carrillo, Helen Mack, Thomas Mitchell
It's over ninety degrees and the hottest day of the year so I guess it can't be Arizona unless it's March. Everyone's heading off to the mountains or the beaches and it's where billing clerk Eddie Lang would like to take his family to be when he takes his vacation time next week. The only catch is that he needs fifty bucks to do it and the office manager at Morse & Co won't give him an advance on his annual bonus, even though it's due in a couple of weeks. So he ends up taking out the equivalent of a payday loan, not the sort you get nowadays at the corner store but the sort that gets set up by some guy that hangs around the building and involves picking up the money from the proprietor of a cigar counter.

Lang doesn't care about interest because he'll be paying the whole thing back out of his bonus in two weeks and he doesn't mind what gets slapped onto it. Of course we wouldn't have much of a story if everything went the way he expected and sure enough it doesn't. Morse & Co cancels the bonuses and Lang finds himself stuck with 20% a week interest to pay on his loan, ten bucks out of every week's wage just to cover the interest alone. It's a pretty racket that's being run by men who never give their names. It was a fun few days at the Pine Lake Lodge, but it soon comes back to bite them hard. You can imagine how quickly downhill the whole thing goes.

This was a quickie churned out by Columbia Pictures in 1937, running a short 68 minutes, and it stars Chester Morris as Eddie Lang. I'm used to seeing Morris in charge, whether it be as his regular character Boston Blackie or in other films like The Big House or Public Hero #1. Here he's the victim, albeit a bubbly and engaging one, and it seems a little strange to see him outwitted so easily and thrust into such a downward spiral. Yet when push comes to shove and he gets knocked silly on a building site by a few hoods he becomes the first one in five hundred victims to talk to the DA, who is more than eager to build a case against the loan sharks. The versatile Morris is excellent throughout but it's only here that we see the one we're used to.
He's not the only name in the film. District Attorney Curtis is Thomas Mitchell, a couple of years before he provided possibly the most prominent single year's work any actor has ever given, making in twelve months Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Gone with the Wind and the Charles Laughton version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. With the exception of one silent in 1923, Mitchell began his career in 1936 but quickly became a name to be reckoned with. He specialised in being a prominent supporting actor, rather than taking the lead, something that gave him plenty of opportunity to steal scenes. He does that here too but not as outrageously as he would later in his career.

Helen Mack is OK as Eddie's wife Mary, but she gets very little to do, not much more than the always welcome Philip Ahn as yet another Chinese butler. The most prominent actor in the film behind Morris is Leo Carrillo, seemingly always cast in a sleazy Hispanic role, this one being no different as he's Richard Farra, the ringleader of the racketeers who call themselves the Aloha Social Club. Carrillo was 5'10" but usually looked small because he was surrounded by huge henchmen, hired muscle who he bosses around with panache. My favourite scene here may well be the one when he tries to talk his way out of trouble at the cop station, his face and eyes utterly mobile as he struggles to find an expression that will stick.

Unfortunately these few performances outshine the story, which is predictable though unfolds with ease. It's reassuring to watch short B movies from the golden age and realise that while they're hardly pinnacles of cinematic achievement, the talent at every level that went into them, from the editing to the acting, from the camerawork to the scriptwork, was palpable. Even when making lesser films, the quality was so frequently high that it often hides the quality. This one fits that bill to a tee, being a film solid in every way and which in so doing elevates itself higher than it probaby should. You could cycle films like this as constant background, look over at the screen every once in a while and see something worth seeing. That's the definition of reassuring to me.

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