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Friday, February 20, 2015

HI, NELLIE! (1934)

In a reunion for some of the cast & crew of I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG/’32, actors Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell & Edward Ellis, helmer Mervyn LeRoy & lenser Sol Polito shifted from heavy dramatics to lighthearted wisecracking. The effort shows. Most of the first half is something of a miscast programmer, a newspaper comedy about a principled editor (Muni) who holds back on a hot, but unconfirmed story only to find himself demoted to writing the popular, but nauseating ‘Heartthrob’ column. Muni, never light on his feet, was more comfortable loathing Ms Farrell in FUGITIVE than as frenemies here. LeRoy & Polito, a bit bored with a formulaic script that’s all set-ups & reverses, play around with showy high-angle shots & tricky framing devices (transom windows, glass doors, etc.). Anything to keep the interest up. Happily, things improve when an old missing-persons case, the one that got Muni demoted, dovetails with something from the HeartThrob files. Suddenly, the film rises out of programmer mode and turns into a sharp (and sharply played) underworld takedown, with Muni leading half the newsroom (including deadpan expert Ned Sparks) on a mob investigation that doesn't quite add up, but is paced so fast you hardly notice the gaping plot holes. LeRoy ditches the fancy shots as soon as the production starts to ante up for more elaborate sets, like a nightclub with an indoor Merry-Go-Round bar. It’s still nothing to phone home about, and the fancy photo-work is missed, but it’s reasonable fun.

DOUBLE-BILL: LeRoy had a more serious outlook on these things a few years back in the slower paced, but effective early Talkie FIVE STAR FINAL/’31. Too bad the news hounds from that film (Edward G. Robinson & Aline MacMahon) didn’t get cast in this one, the first half might have worked as well as the second.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Especially in left profile, Muni, looks strikingly like the young Frank Capra. Maybe Howard Hawks caught that angle before casting him as SCARFACE/’32.

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