Friday, April 30, 2021

Angel on My Shoulder (1946)

Director: Archie Mayo                                   Writer: Harry Segall & Roland Kibbee
Film Score: Dimitri Tiomkin                           Cinematography: James Van Trees
Starring: Paul Muni, Anne Baxter, Claude Rains and Onslow Stevens

After scoring a hit with Claude Rains playing an angel in Here Comes Mr. Jordan in 1941, it was natural that screenwriter Harry Segall--who had penned the original--would seek to replicate the formula a few years later, this time with Rains playing a devil. But apparently Columbia wasn’t interested and so Angel on My Shoulder became an independent production by Charles R. Rogers, who had produced films at the end of the silent era and then made half a dozen more in the mid 1940s. That the film works at all is primarily due to Rains reprising, sort of, his role from the first film, and the powerful presence of Paul Muni revising the Robert Montgomery role. Unlike a lot of independent productions where one or two stars are hired and the rest of the cast is pretty bad, this picture boast a supporting cast that, while certainly second-tier, are still very good. In addition to the actors, Rogers was also able to acquire the services of composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who would go on that same year to score It’s a Wonderful Life for Frank Capra. Director Archie Mayo does a solid job helming the project, and the special effects by Harry Redmond Jr. are seamlessly done. It’s a quality film and a great story, something that isn’t typical for independent productions that usually invest a tiny amount of cash in order to exploit a trend or copy a popular film.

The story begins with mob boss Paul Muni being released from prison, where his second in command Hardie Albright picks him up. As the two are driving though the countryside Muni asks for a gun, and when Albright shoots him to death he naturally winds up in hell. The place is run like a prison, and Muni wants to bust out, which comes to the attention to head man, Claude Rains. The devil wants to ruin a judge who looks just like Muni, and so he pretends to be a trustee and offers him a deal. Rains will help him “break out” if Muni will pose as the judge and take his revenge on Albright. Meanwhile Onslow Stevens, the judge’s psychiatrist, is convinced that he’s working too hard, and suggests that his secretary and fiancé, Anne Baxter, do what she can to make his schedule a little lighter, especially since he’s in the middle of a campaign for governor. But of course since Muni the criminal is now in the judge’s body, his strange behavior is even more troubling to those who know him. Stevens, however, thinks he’s mentally unbalanced, and so urges everyone to humor him. The biggest problem for Muni is that Rains won’t let him kill Albright until he’s impersonated and ruined the judge first, but that’s the wonderful irony the story is built around. The judge’s opponent for governor is backed by the mob, and in attempting to ruin the judge Muni instinctively resists them, and inadvertently winds up being even more beloved by the people of the state, as well as Baxter. And the result is that Muni begins to seem him self differently because of it--and is therefore less inclined to kill Albright because of it.

Muni is wonderful as the mobster with a heart of gold, a role he’d been playing for over a decade by this point. Unlike the first film, in which Edward Everett Horton was the angel in charge and Rains only occasionally interceded, Claude Rains has a much larger role here and his frustration as circumstances intercede and Muni begins to change is fun to watch. Anne Baxter wasn’t yet the household name she would become in the fifties, beginning with All About Eve and peaking with The Ten Commandments. But she was a hard working actress who had already appeared in a dozen films at this point, including Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. And she’s terrific in this role as well. Onslow Stevens’ singular claim to fame was his appearance as the mad doctor in Universal’s last monster rally, House of Dracula, while in this film he plays the sort of ancillary role that Tom Conway tended to play over at RKO. But the real genius of the film is Harry Segall’s unique story and the twist he puts on the original film rather than attempting a straightforward remake. And he has some clever moments, like making the judge a non-smoker and teetotaler, so that when Muni tries to drink and smoke he nearly chokes to death. Though the religious assumptions are a bit heavy handed, Angel on My Shoulder is still a fun picture, well worth seeking out, and certainly a must see for those who enjoyed the original.

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