Monday, February 4, 2013

Lloyd Bacon | A Slight Case of Murder

going straight
by Douglas Messerli

Earl Baldwin and Joseph Schrank (screenplay, based on the play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay), Lloyd Bacon (director) A Slight Case of Murder / 1938

Lloyd Bacon's 1938 murder comedy begins where Damon Runyon's A Pocketful of Miracles ends, with the central character--bootlegger Remy Marco (played with wonderful swagger by Edward G. Robinson)--going straight. His former mobster crones are told to get shaves, to dress less loudly, and somehow alter their famed Runyon accents in order to becomes salesmen for Marco's brewery which, suddenly with the end of prohibition, is legal!. At home, Marco's wife Mary (Jane Bryan), when told of his business plans, quick attempts to speak like a society dame (for a moment successfully channeling Margaret Dumont) and nixes the various crap games going on in the living room during a raucous party. Their slot machine room now is described as a music room! In short, their world is about to change.

     Fortunately for us, none is 
successful in his or her intended transformations, the accents they imitate slipping back into the street jargon, with Marco’s formerly illegal occupation—which once made him rich—are now going bust. For Marco, a teetotaler, has never tasted his ghastly Velvet brew. Bankers are about to call in their loan in order to take over the brewery with the knowledge that it’s not the facilities that are at fault, but the product. As if that weren’t enough, Marco, who has been forced by finances to call home his expensively educated daughter, is determined to return to their rented summer house in Saratoga with a young orphan—the worst behaved boy in his alma mater, an orphanage headed by the eagle-eyed Margaret Hamilton—in tow.

     Meanwhile, unknown to them, their home has been intruded upon by five hoodlum acquaintances, who have just robbed a bank roll of millions belonging to gambling bookies. Four of them are shot dead by their fifth nervous partner just as the Marcos and their retinue arrive, followed by a state trooper, Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker)—son of a wealthy Saratoga scion—who, unbeknownst to Marco, intends to marry his daughter Nora (Ruth Donnelly). Despite this comic works’ title, there is obviously nothing slight about Marco and his family’s dilemmas.

This mulligan stew has so many loose threads, in fact, that it seems from the outset that they can never all be tied up, and Runyon’s tale can end in any number of various ways, as the discovered bodies are shipped out to various locations and gathered up again with the news of a “dead or alive” award; the murderer slinks through the house to reclaim the satchel of stolen
money; the bad-boy, slightly drunken orphan uncovers the satchel hidden beneath his bed; and the trooper’s wealthy, frail father visits the roaring party that seems to be more of a reunion of lunatics than a civilized celebration. Nonetheless, the pieces all fall into the right places, as Marco pays off his debts (or, at least gets another loan), discovers how godly awful his beer is, and helps his future son-in-law to become hero by shooting the four-already dead bodies and, quite by accident, winging the fifth man on the run!

    At film’s close, I am sure there are still some loose ends (what happens to the orphan? how is old man Whitewood reunited with the Marco family?), but it doesn’t really matter! So much as happened in this funny farce, we have no time to cavil. And Marco, presumably, having changed the recipe of his beer, will finally be able to go straight and earn a living both!

      Employing dozens of Hollywood’s best character actors, Bacon’s spritely adaptation of Runyonland is a hit!    

Los Angeles, February 4, 2013

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