Monday 4 July 2011

Midnight Alibi (1934)

Director: Alan Crosland
Star: Richard Barthelmess

Richard Barthelmess is one of the forgotten greats of Hollywood and while he made a few more films, including a late and great turn as Rita Hayworth's screen husband in Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings, Midnight Alibi effectively marked the end of a great career, because Warner Brothers did not renew his contract. Throughout the precode era, he had enjoyed a fixed annual salary and the ability to choose his own material. With such freedom, he served as the screen's preeminent social conscience, making powerful message films railing against the corruption of government, society and business like The Finger Points, Son of the Gods and Heroes for Sale, along with cinematic visions as powerful as The Dawn Patrol and The Last Flight. None of that meant much to Warner Brothers, who felt it financially imperative that they shed expensive contracts like his or Ruth Chatterton's. When they came up for renewal, they simply didn't renew them.

That's fair enough, though sad for us in hindsight. What isn't fair is that they gave Barthelmess such a half baked sendoff after a unique career. Based on a Damon Runyan story called The Old Doll's House, Midnight Alibi is a scant 58 minutes short and it doesn't feel remotely as cared for as any previous Barthelmess picture. It feels like a vaguely ignored afterthought, what the music industry calls 'contractual obligations', one that rambles across what seems like every genre in the book in a vain hope to find one that sticks. It really shouldn't be worth watching and you can be sure that it fails on a grand scale, but there's still much for us to see because Barthelmess is an almost constant presence and there's Helen Chandler to look forward to as well, another unjustly forgotten name who gifted precode audiences with a string of magnificent performances that go well beyond her turn as Mina in the Béla Lugosi version of Dracula.

It begins as a thriller, Barthelmess playing Lance McGowan, some sort of crime boss who returns from abroad on the noon boat. His importance can be gauged through everyone in town knowing of his return, from senators to drunks who put their heads through doors for ten bucks. He's calm though, carrying himself with purpose, but politely chatting up a fellow passenger, Joan Morley, who he met on the boat. His men tell him that Angie the Ox is the head honcho now, running his illegal empire from the Hummingbird Club. It isn't surprising to find that Joan is Angie's kid sister. So McGowan starts taking on the Ox by showing up at his underground gambling halls, exuding so much presence that the folks running the games let him win, even when he rolls dice under a hat. Eventually, of course, he ends up at the Hummingbird, though he's been warned not to. The ensuing battle leaves him leaping over the wall to the Old Doll's House next door to escape.

And here all the momentum the film has built is promptly stopped in its tracks. Thus far it's sped along with a dynamic lead, a morally ambiguous antihero with a suitable mob. There's conflict everywhere you look, with hints of turf war and dangerous romance. It's dynamic and powerful. Well, it was. Now we leave that entirely behind so that Abigail Ardsley, the Old Doll who has lived alone in this house for decades, tells him a story about her youth because he looks like someone she loved long ago. We experience this story in flashback, with Helen Chandler turning eighteen as her ethereal younger self and Barthelmess as her father's clerk, Robert Anders. The pair are in love and want to marry, but her father won't have any of it. After discovering them mid-kiss, he casts Robert out and, when he comes back that night to ask her to elope, he shoots him dead. That's this film all over: every time a story begins it promptly ends again.

Barthelmess reminds a little of Brando in the first half and Patrick MacGoohan in the second. He's much better as the tough guy, because he had a serious presence to him that commanded our attention, even though he was hardly what you'd expect in a dynamic leading man. He was short, though a little taller than Cagney or Robinson, but wasn't as striking as either. Lillian Gish thought he had the most beautiful face of any Hollywood actor, but somehow he appeared both inconsequential and utterly deserving of our attention. He's too soft in the romantic scenes here, in which Helen Chandler dominates. She had a nervous sort of energy about her that makes it difficult to watch anyone else when she's on screen, even when playing opposite someone else with the same sort of magnetism. She's wonderful here, but she and Barthelmess were both better in The Last Flight.

Having changed from a thriller to a historical drama, now it becomes a romance as we return to the Lance and Joan subplot, but compared to Helen Chandler Ann Dvorak isn't much to look at and she's too melodramatic for us to care. Lance McGowan decides to be both tough and soppy. He goes back to Angie's place unarmed on a dangerous mission to forge a future and he goes back to the Old Doll to take her a dog. After all, she never talked to her father again and her door stayed unlocked for 45 years until he walked through it, so he wants her to have some company. Actually he brings her a bunch of dogs so she can pick one. She chooses a wire haired terrier, because it is 1934 after all. He calls it Skippy, which was the real name of Asta, to which name it changed after The Thin Man, which was released about six weeks earlier than this film. And then it becomes a melodrama, a courtroom story and of course a folk tale with a happy ending.

This film has everything, but most of it isn't that substantial. The story is riddled with holes, not something Damon Runyon was known for so perhaps we can blame Warren Duff's screenplay, or the restrictions of length the film was subjected to. At less than an hour, it can't even effectively explore one story, let alone half a dozen. What we can watch are the actors who give it what life it has, not just Barthelmess and Chandler but Helen Lowell, who plays the Old Doll. Already 68, this was surprisingly close to the beginning of her screen career rather than the end. She'd made five silent films between 1919 and 1924 but proceeded to hit 1934 with a vengeance, making no less than seven in that year alone. She'd make another nineteen before she died in 1937. She's well worth watching. While the explanation of the title is hardly surprising by the time it arrives, it's a touching moment that she carries well.

At the end of the day, the film is more important for what it represents than what it contains. It's the last film Richard Barthelmess made under his First National contract, which had transferred to Warner Brothers when they bought that company. Without the control that contract gave him, he made a couple of B movies then retired to live off his real estate investments. He returned for Only Angels Have Wings and three more pictures in the early forties, but that was it for a career that had flourished for a decade and a half. Fortunately he made a lot of movies in that time and we can look back at many of them, including three famous pictures. It was when D W Griffith cast him in two great leading roles opposite Lillian Gish, in 1919's Broken Blossoms and 1920's Way Down East, that he became a star. A third film, Tol'able David, made for his own production company, cemented a stellar career which didn't founder until here. This was the end of an era.

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