Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

Director: Lloyd Bacon                                   Writers: Earl Baldwin & Joseph Schrank
Film Score: Adolph Deutsch                          Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Jane Bryan, Allen Jenkins and John Litel

A bit of whimsy from Warner Brothers, with Edward G. Robinson sending up his gangster image in this mobster farce. A Slight Case of Murder began as a Broadway play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay in 1935 and was adapted for film three years later. The film opens with the repeal of Prohibition. Robinson is a gangster who has been selling illegal beer and now has made the decision to go straight. He figures to keep selling beer and make millions legally. The only problem? His beer tastes terrible. During Prohibition people didn’t have a choice, but now they do and stay away from his beer in droves. Robinson, however, doesn’t drink and he won’t allow his boys to either, so they can keep a clear head doing their work, and so none of his people know.

The conflict comes when the bank officer, John Litel, calls Robinson’s loan for four hundred thousand dollars. He doesn’t have it, but pretends he does, and heads with his family, daughter Jane Bryan and wife Ruth Donnelly, up to Saratoga to their summer house. On the way Robinson stops at the orphanage where he grew up and asks headmistress Margaret Hamilton to select a boy to spend the summer with him to provide some real world education. Before Robinson’s men arrive with the baggage, the scene shifts to five men waiting in the house for him. They’ve just robbed an armored car for a half a million dollars and one of them is about to be cut out of the take, so he kills the rest and hides the money under the bed just as Robinson and his boys arrive. Bryan’s fiancé shows up at the door but, since he’s a state patrolman, Robinson’s boys give him the bum’s rush. The climax comes at the big party that Robinson throws.

It’s not knee-slapping hilarity, but it is a nicely done film. Lloyd Bacon was a prolific director at Warners, having helmed projects in nearly every genre. His direction here is fairly tepid, but that’s to be expected as he was never really artistic. Robinson is the real gem, playing his character straight to good comic effect. He even refers to himself in the third person ala Little Caesar. But the supporting cast is just as marvelous. Ruth Donnelly looks as if she stepped straight out of a Marx Brothers film. The great Edward Brophy is on hand as one of Robinson’s gang, but Allen Jenkins steals the show. His rendering of “Little Red Riding Hood” in gangster speak is one of the greatest comic bits of the thirties. It’s not the best film ever, but A Slight Case of Murder is a terrific little comedy that makes fun of the Warner’s gangster pictures in a very entertaining way.

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