Wednesday, March 26, 2008

LADY KILLER (Warner Bros. 1933) Warner Home Video

Of all the cockeyed crime/comedy capers to emerge from Warner Bros., Roy Del Ruth’s Lady Killer (1933) is perhaps the most joyously unhinged and down right crazy of the lot. Based on a legitimate short story, ‘The Finger Man’ by Rosalind Keating Shaffer, the screenplay by Ben Markson and Lillie Hayward plays it strictly for laughs.

Resident studio bad boy, James Cagney, who only two years earlier had cut his teeth playing the ruthless grapefruit-in-the-face smashing Public Enemy is a gangster’s chump and romantic fop on this outing. With the exception of one powerful scene in which Cagney hauls off and drags a woman out of his boudoir by her hair, any tension that might have arisen from this otherwise slightly tawdry tale is utterly defused in favor of a quick shot, free and easy.

The story opens with Dan Quigley (Cagney) a smart mouthed, shoot-from-the-hip usher at one of New York’s big time movie palaces. Dan’s not bad, per say, but his heart isn’t in tearing ticket stubs for the paying customer. His spare moments between flicks are spent shooting craps in the men’s washroom. Eventually fired, Dan eyeballs femme fatale, Myra Gale (Mae Clark) in the lobby of a swanky hotel. Unaware that Myra’s purse dropping routine is prelude to a rouse that lures unsuspecting gamblers back to the fixed game of Spade Maddock (Douglas Dumbrille) and his cronies, Dan walks right into the rigged set up and loses fifty bucks.

Figuring out the score, Dan forces Spade to give him back his cash when another pigeon arrives to be bilked at the apartment. Thereafter, Dan becomes an integral part of Spade’s fix. In no time at all, Dan, Myra, Spade and his motley crew are running a big time nightclub that’s raking in the dough. However, Spade is a greedy creature. When he seizes on the idea of turning from legitimate business to robbing the homes of wealthy patrons that frequent the club, Dan goes along with the idea in his sort of devil-may-care playful way until he is set up to take the fall for a jewel heist at the estate of Mrs. Marley (Marjorie Gateman) where a maid is accidentally murdered.

Escaping custody, Dan goes to Hollywood where he becomes an extra in the movies. Dressed as a Sioux Chieftain, Dan accidentally meets and falls for film siren, Lois Underwood (Margaret Linsay). To bump up his own credibility and gain bigger roles opposite Lois, Dan writes his own fan mail – convincing studio bosses that he ought to be their newest leading man. Unfortunately, at the moment that Dan’s popularity in films begins to soar, Myra reenters Dan’s life – as do Spade and his henchmen later on.

They threaten to topple Dan’s success unless he goes along with their plans to begin a crime wave amongst the rich and famous in Beverly Hills. Dan attempts to bribe the gang first – then expose them. He is framed for the heist of Myra’s jewels and incarcerated. Spade, recognizing that his crime spree will be over if Dan tells the truth at trial, puts up Dan’s bail money for an early release. Spade further tells Myra to drive Dan out of the city where he and his gang will be waiting to silence Dan once and for all. Fortunately, Dan has already figured out their dastardly plan. He tips off the cops – leading to a fast chase and shoot out that ends with Dan being reunited with Lois before the final fade out.

Lady Killer isn’t one Warner Bros. movie, but rather a bizarre amalgam of three or four irreconcilable plots and genres that are all jumbled together into one crazy quilt of a narrative. The opening scenes play like a fairly serious crime/melodrama from the studio’s early vintage - right up until the heist gone wrong at the Marley estate. However, once Dan makes it into Hollywood the action is played strictly screwball with Cagney’s larger than life gangster persona given the oddity of a fish-out-of water backdrop. He becomes, first a sap, then a romantic bungler, a violent anti-social and lastly, a matinee lover on the lam.

There’s no consistency to any of the characters – least of all Dan. Myra is drawn as a tough as nails scheming vixen who intercepts Dan’s happiness at every chance before taking him into her confidence in the last act in an attempt to spare his life. Spade is a two parts Edward G. Robinson to one part Buster Keaton – an evil doer whose heart is as silly and uninspired by his work as the rest of his cronies. In the end, Lady Killer is a diluted, if diverting claptrap of several stories; its ultimate message of ‘crime doesn’t pay,’ watered down with a special amendment for Dan…only sometimes!

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is just a tad below average. Age has not been kind to the film elements. Despite considerable clean up and adequately reproduced contrast levels with a smattering of fine detail throughout, the image is marred throughout by age related artifacts and a very unevenly reproduced roughness with considerable film grain present. Dissolves and wipes suffer the most. While the image can appear sharp at times, it mostly suffers from a rather soft characteristic. The audio is mono and more strident than expected – very scratchy in spots. Extras include a very informative audio commentary from Drew Casper and shorts and trailers a la Warner Night At The Movies.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3

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