Friday 20 May 2016

Postal Inspector (1936)

Director: Otto Brower
Writer: Horace McCoy, from a story by Robert Presnell and Horace McCoy
Stars: Ricardo Cortez, Patricia Ellis, Michael Loring and Bela Lugosi

I’ve tried to select ‘interesting’ films for this project, but they really don’t come any more interesting than this. It’s a 1936 picture from Universal that runs a mere 58 minutes but still manages to cram more in than most TV shows manage in an entire season. It starts out as a drama, turns into a musical, then becomes a mystery. It’s a romance, of course, a thriller and, eventually, a disaster movie. More than anything, it’s a real slice of history. Yes, we had postal inspectors; in fact, we still do. They’re USPIS, the United States Postal Inspection Service, and they’re not just the oldest law enforcement agency in the country, they even predate it! Back in 1772, Benjamin Franklin, the colonial Postmaster General, appointed a surveyor to regulate and audit the mail. The service has changed over time, dealing with mail fraud, terrorism (remember media companies being sent anthrax?) and the transportation of contraband; the Comstock Law of 1873 barred the sending of erotica, contraceptives and even sex education material.

Of course, they’re also tasked with protecting the mail and the people who transport it, which is what comes into play here, when it’s threatened by both thieves and a natural disaster. The value it provides is personified in the form of Ricardo Cortez, who plays USPIS Inspector Bill Davis who, as the film begins, is one of a number of inspectors the US President is thanking over the radio for their work in moving gold reserves to inland cities. Yes, this does play out like USPIS propaganda and Davis is a saintly action role for Cortez, who was a matinee idol in the twenties, the last actor to be billed above Greta Garbo (for Torrent in 1926); a leading man in the thirties (his most important role was probably playing Sam Spade in the original version of The Maltese Falcon in 1931); but a fading name in the forties (playing support in Romance of the Rio Grande and I Killed that Man). He retired after Bunco Squad in 1950, but returned to the screen once more, for the aptly named The Last Hurrah eight years later, before becoming a stockbroker.
1936 was around the time that he was still top billed but starting to fall out of fashion. He demonstrates here, however, that he was up to any challenge that the studio could throw at him; for some reason, they rarely chose to do so. A running time of less than an hour means that the story unfolds quickly and, as soon as the President finishes talking, he’s off to Millstown on a plane that’s out of a different age. It’s not just that it’s tiny with only a single seat either side of the aisle, it’s that Davis can wander into the cabin to chat with the pilot, there’s a no smoking sign that clicks on with the bad weather and, because it’s unnerving the passengers, he persuades the young lady on the other side of the aisle to sing something as ludicrous as Let’s Have Bluebirds on All Our Wallpaper to avert panic, accompanied by little Billy on the harmonica. She’s Connie Larrimore, a nightclub singer returning to her home town to sing at the Golden Eagle. She’s played by Patricia Ellis, who would have been one hundred years old today.

In many ways, she’s the lead in a story that unfolds next to Cortez’s and continues to cross over into it, not least because Bill’s little brother Charlie went to school with her and had a big crush on her that never went away. That’s understandable, as she’s both the girl next door and the next big star; and I’m talking there about both Connie Larrimore and Patricia Ellis. Sadly though, stardom is an elusive creature and it continually danced around her during a busy decade that saw her appear in 44 films in only eight years. A WAMPAS baby star, she started in pictures at sixteen and worked her way up from uncredited secretaries to leading ladies, just in second tier pictures that led her to call herself ‘the Queen of B-movies at Warner Brothers’. I knew her best from The Case of the Lucky Legs, in which Ellis played the lucky legs and Warren William played Perry Mason (Cortez would inherit that role in his very next film, The Case of the Black Cat), but she didn’t have that much to do there. She’s much busier here and she clearly enjoyed it.
In case we think this picture is about her, we shift quickly back to Cortez to explain why we should care about a postal inspector, a job so unlikely for action hero that we expect it to go to Steven Seagal. But no, they do serious work! Mr. Ritter was scammed by a conman who put his life savings into gold mine stock; Davis can’t help until he points out that he paid that money by cheque, sent by registered mail and he has the receipt. Others have been ripped off too, ordering unlikely gadgets from advertisements: nose-straightening devices, hair-growing machines, vision improving drumsticks. ‘There’s one born every minute,’ Davis tells Charlie, but he adds a major caveat. ‘When the crooks use the mails,’ he says, ‘they make Uncle Sam a party to their transactions’ and that means that he can get involved. ‘You know there’s something pretty comforting about the thought that, with no more insurance than a mere postage stamp, a man may entrust his life savings or his most personal secrets into the hands of absolute strangers.’

In case we think this picture is about him, we shift quickly back to Ellis because there are a number of angles going on. One is the fact that she’s the singer in this show and she gets a couple more chances to prove it: one in the shower, with the fantastic Hattie McDaniel joining in as her maid, Debbie; and another up on stage at the Golden Eagle. It’s obvious that there’s a story developing here, because the nightclub owner, Gregory Benez, is played by a suave Bela Lugosi, because we soon discover that he’s heavily in debt and because Insp. Davis emphatically dislikes him. Another is the fact that Charlie is clearly falling for Connie and she could well be falling for him right back. A third to tie these together is the revelation that Charlie collects old banknotes and works with them at the Federal Reserve. In fact, he’s about to escort three million bucks worth to his brother at the Post Office to ship back to Washington, DC. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect those dots.
In case we think this picture is about her, we shift quickly back to Cortez. You see what I mean about intersecting storylines in an hour long movie? One minute it’s all about Connie the romantic lead, the next it’s all about Bill the dedicated postal inspector. And that angle is about to get particularly topical. Lt. Ordway shows up demanding that Davis open a letter that’s proving important in a murder case, only to find him refuse. Only the recipient can open it, he insists, bringing to mind the recent affair in which Apple refused the FBI about breaking encryption on a terrorist’s phone or the current one in which a Florida court reversed a finding to say that an alleged pervert must provide the passcode to unlock his iPhone. Of course, he distracts neatly from this moral issue by handing Ordway the file the Post Office has built on a clever insurance fraud ring so that he can take the credit. If only it was that easy to figure out a complex point of law! And anyway, it’s about time this became a disaster movie.

Are you keeping up? Mystery, romance, drama, thriller, musical... We can add comedy to that, given that someone just dropped a pair of guinea pigs off at the Post Office, even though they refused to send them through the mail. What will they feed them? One employee retrieves a bottle of pills from the Medical Frauds cabinet. ‘It’s the scientist in me,’ he laughs. We can also add gangster flick because, shock horror, the mail truck carrying those three million in old notes promptly gets robbed, using a car stolen from one of our leads. And now, we start the disaster movie, with stock footage floods overwhelming the state; Yarborough Post Office is underwater and Davis flies up to help out. ‘We’ll keep the Post Office open, flood or no flood,’ he tells the local postmaster, but, by the time he gets back, Millstown is flooding too and he’s really up against it. Which way will he turn? Watch the next thrilling episode of Postal Inspector to find out! Well no, this is a feature but it did often feel like it was condensed from a 12 part serial.
What’s most impressive is that screenwriter Horace McCoy, working from a story he wrote with Robert Presnell, stays focused on the little details. Remember Mr. Ritter, who lost his money to a gold mine scam? He gets a second scene in which he provides new information critical to the plot and gets an opportunity to develop his character, even though he has less than a minute of screen time in the entire movie. That’s impressive and it helps us to realise that this movie isn’t just about Postal Inspector Bill Davis and night club singer Connie Larrimore, it’s about a whole bunch of characters who have their own stories unfolding alongside theirs. Novelists talk about being able to imagine the story from the perspective of every character in their books. I don’t often get to see that on screen and never in an hour long B-movie. Suddenly, it’s not surprising to find that McCoy was actually a novelist. He had just published They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? in 1935, even though it wasn’t filmed until 1969. Other novels followed.

And that’s why this feels so schizophrenic. Cortez is the star of one of those odd propaganda pictures that Hollywood made back in the thirties about federal law enforcement officers; the same year saw Grand National release Great Guy, which had Jimmy Cagney battle corruption as an investigator for the Bureau of Weights and Measures! Yet Ellis is the lead in a romantic musical, while her love interest, Charlie, played by Michael Loring, is both the hero and the sidekick in a gangster movie and Bela Lugosi is his villain. Lesser characters like Mr. Ritter and Lt. Ordway have their own human interest stories and even the guinea pigs get their subplot wrapped up by the end. That’s not to say that any of these stories are particularly deep, because the sheer balls of McCoy to cram all of them into a sub-sixty minute movie means that none of them are, but they certainly keep us on the hop! There’s even time for odd little historical comment, such as when KWZZ radio cancels their programming to allow people to send personal messages.
I’ve lost count of how many Bela Lugosi movies I’ve seen and I’ve watched a bunch starring Ricardo Cortez too, but this is a riot I’m happy to have discovered because of Patricia Ellis. She was never the greatest actor in the world, coming off here like a Myrna Loy stand-in, but she’s enjoyable to watch and even to listen to and it’s sad that she couldn’t find her way up the ladder to act in better and better distributed material. The biggest film she made was 42nd Street, but she was just an uncredited secretary. However, she did get to play Jimmy Cagney’s love interest in both Picture Snatcher and The St. Louis Kid; an underage target for Adolph Menjou to seduce in the notorious Convention City; and backup for Laurel & Hardy in the Oscar-nominated Block-Heads. She was even top-billed in Down the Stretch, above Mickey Rooney, and Hold ’Em Yale, above both Cesar Romero and Buster Crabbe. She retired in 1939 to be a wife and mother, but did leave behind a sizeable if brief filmography, ‘the Queen of B-movies at Warner Brothers’ indeed.

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