Five Cool Things and John Prine

Many years ago, back when I was writing for another site, I requested to watch and review a new DVD set called Warner Gangsters Collection, Vol. 4. It contained five movies from the ’30s and ’40s starring guys like Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and George Raft. I was a pretty big Bogart fan at the time and gangster movies sounded fun so I was excited to find it in my mailbox. I watched The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse first because it starred both Bogart and Robinson and had that ridiculous title. I hated it.

While I was already a fan of Bogart I’d really only seen his big, classic films – Casablanca, The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, etc. – and hadn’t dipped my toe into his lesser films, and hadn’t even touched his early movies in which he often played the heavy. The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse wasn’t like those films. It had a ridiculous plot and Bogart wasn’t the cynic with a big heart like he was in the movies I loved. Here he was a straight bad guy. He wasn’t even the lead! Robinson gets that part but he’s not so heroic as he is insane. I knew Robinson by name and I believe I’d seen him in Key Largo by then, but nothing else.

Buy Warner Gangsters Collection Volume 4 DVD

Anyway, I didn’t care for the movie at all and it put a bad taste in my mouth for watching the rest of them. This was Volume 4 of the gangster collection which suddenly suggested all these films would be second or third tier movies. For the first time in my life as a film reviewer, I didn’t write a review for something I had received. There were secondary circumstances. We were either just about to move to China or had just returned from there. Either way, I know I was living with my parents and a major life-changing event had just occurred. I still feel guilty about not reviewing it.

A few weeks back I randomly watched Kid Galahad through some streaming service. I really liked it and last weekend I realized it was part of that gangster set I received way back when. That pushed me to finally watching those films and now, more than a decade later, I’m finally gonna write about them. Sorry for the delay, boss.

Invisible Stripes (1939)

Cliff Taylor (George Raft) grew up poor with his loving mother (Flora Robson) and younger brother Tim (William Holden). It seemed like he could never get ahead and he grew tired of playing the game so he robbed a few stores. He wasn’t good at it so he’s spent the last five years in prison. The film begins with him getting out. He’s a changed man. He understands the way to have a good life isn’t through crime. He was such a model prisoner the warden shakes his hand before he leaves and offers any help he can provide. Chuck Martin (Humphrey Bogart) wasn’t such a model prisoner. He gets out the same time as Cliff but the warden doesn’t shake his hand for he knows Chuck will go right back to a life of crime.

On the train back to the city, Chuck tells Cliff there is no going back to any other life but crime. Life on the outside for an ex-con is nothing but trouble. Cliff soon enough finds out how true that is. Before the sun sets on that first day of freedom, his girl tells him they are through, that she only kept up the charade of love to save his feelings while he was in prison. He tries to secure a job but when they find out he’s an ex-con, he’s either fired or his coworkers set him up.

He finds his brother on the brink. He’s tired of working like a dog. He’s tired of being too poor to marry his sweetheart. He’s ready to start holding up stores himself. To save his brother from a similar fate, Cliff calls Chuck for a few scores. He makes enough money to buy Tim an auto-garage. He tries to get out of crime but that proves more difficult than he thought. You can figure out where it goes from there.

Invisible Stripes is a curious little movie. It is a social message movie with a pretty progressive message. Much of the movie pretty heavy-handedly preaches about prison reform, about how straight life for ex-cons is nearly impossible. But it is also a movie made within the constraints of the morals of the time which means that its ending pretty much has to come down heavy on punishment, not charity. The story is pretty hokey, but the performances are solid all around.

The Little Giant (1933)

One of two films in this set in which Edward G. Robinson satirizes the gangster character that made him famous. Here he plays James “Bugs” Ahearn, a Chicago beer baron who, when he realizes prohibition is going to be repealed and thus his illegal income is going to dry up, moves to California and attempts to enter into high society. He quickly falls for Polly Cass (Helen Vinson), a beautiful society girl with a dark secret – she’s broke. Her family has been selling bogus bonds and that jig is just about up. She figures he’s just the patsy she needs to bail her out, and thus lets him seduce her.

Mary Astor plays Ruth, another young woman with a secret. I won’t spoil that one, except to say she’s clearly the lady Bugs will wind up with. She’s great in it, too. Such charm. Such humor. The film needs both. For most of its run time, The Little Giant isn’t particularly funny even if it is billed as a comedy. It is more lightly enjoyable than laugh out loud anything. Things do get pretty silly towards the end when Bugs brings in all his old gangster pals to rough up the Cass family. All in all, it’s a light-weight little comedy that’s entertaining enough, especially if you like those lead actors.

Larceny, Inc. (1942)

Another gangster comedy with Edward G. Robinson. This one actually is laugh out loud funny. This time Robinson plays Pressure Maxwell, an ex-con trying to go legit. He wants to buy a dog-racing outfit, but when the bank won’t lend him money the proper way, he decides to rob it. To do so, he buys a luggage shop on the cheap (because it sits on a torn-up road where they are constructing a new subway line). The idea is to tunnel from the shop basement into the bank vault and steal everything. Trouble is customers keep coming in wanting to buy luggage. The more Pressure tries to keep them out the more successful he becomes as a legitimate shop keeper and the less he’s able to rob the bank.

Robinson’s terrific in the role as the straight-man trying to keep everything together, and the supporting cast, including Broderick Crawford and Jack Wyman as his dim-witted co-conspirators, are hilarious. Anthony Quinn is appropriately menacing as the con who gets word of the bank robbery idea and muscles his way into it even as the rest of the gang are ready to turn into legit luggage salesmen. There’s nothing surprising about it but it’s great fun.

The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)

I really enjoyed revisiting this one. It has been too many years since that first viewing to remember what I didn’t like about it, but I can totally see why it rubbed me wrong. The plot involving a doctor who begins committing crimes in order to study the physiological effects so that he can write a book on it is utterly ridiculous. Humphrey Bogart is a snarling, mean gangster with none of the heart he had in so many of his later roles. That’s got to be a little jarring when you come in expecting another Rick from Casablanca or Charlie from The African Queen. It is Robinson who plays the lead again and at the time I really didn’t know him very well at all.

But watching it now with a better understanding of Bogart’s larger career and being a fan of Robinson and old gangster films, I found this film to be rather delightful. The plot is still quite silly but the film never takes it particularly seriously. Robinson is Dr. Clitterhouse, an academic who begins robbing some of the rich friends in his circle to get a feel for what crime does to him physically. Eventually he gets hooked up into “Rocks” Valentine’s (Bogart) mob and it turns out he’s rather good at being a criminal mastermind. He’s got the brains to perfectly plan the jobs, and the demeanor of a doctor so that he can remain cool when things get dicey.

The joy of the film comes from watching him interact with all these dim-bulb crooks who are both amazed by his criminal ingenuity and baffled as to why he’s always taking their pulse and temperature. The whole film is a bit batch of nonsense, but it sure is enjoyable to watch.

Key Largo (1948)

I talked about Kid Gallahad, the fifth film in this collection, a few weeks ago so I’ll not discuss it again. Instead, I’ll talk about a similar film I also watched this week. Key Largo is another crime story starring Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. Directed by John Huston, it uses one set (that really does look magnificently like it is in the Florida Keys through all of it was shot on the studio lot) and an eclectic cast to tell a story that builds in tension until you feel like you are gonna explode.

Bogart is Major Frank McCloud, who has come to the Hotel Largo to visit James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), the father and wife of a man Frank served with in Italy during the War. He’s paying his respects as that man was killed in battle. Also staying at the hotel are a group of gangsters lead by Johnny Rocco (Robinson), who are awaiting a shipment of counterfeit money.

Tensions escalate between the two groups to an almost unbearable level. Not helping matters is the hurricane stirring outside and the group of natives trying to seek shelter. Robinson is at his most menacing, and Bogart is well into his noble cynic mode. Bacall is as wonderful as ever and Barrymore steals every scene he is in. Huston pushes the shots in tighter and tighter, giving it a claustrophobic feel. It takes a good twenty minutes for Robinson to show up, but his shadow looms large. Much like Orson Welles in The Third Man, his actual introduction (Robinson lying in a bath, smoking a cigar, his belly swelling out of the water) on screen is one for the ages.

It is a near-perfect film and one I can’t recommend highly enough.

John Prine – “When I Get To Heaven”

John Prine is one of the great American songwriters. His songs are often riotously funny and whimsical, wise beyond their age and full of melancholy. He’s been in the hospital this week with Covid-19 like symptoms. So far he’s hanging in there but it doesn’t look good.

Here, he is singing a song from his latest album, The Tree of Forgivness, from his last performance on Austin City Limits. Like so many of his songs, it is sly and beautiful, lovely, and sad. Here’s hoping he doesn’t get to heaven just yet, but lives long and has plenty of more songs to sing. Get well, John, we need you more than ever.

Mat Brewster

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