The Big Shot / Swing Your Lady DVDs Review: A Binary Blast of Bogey

Just when you thought you had seen just about everything Humphrey Bogart ever made, along comes the Warner Archive Collection to set you straight, by pointing out that “just about everything” may only just scratch the surface. Once more, the MOD division of the studio that made Bogey a star back when the whole world was black-and-white has unburied a few rarities. Making their home video debuts here are two vastly different contributions to cinema starring Hollywood’s Golden Age alpha bad boy himself, beginning with a serious crime/prison drama – something Bogart was quite good at. Then we have an early weird hillbilly comedy, which our cinematic antihero claimed to have hated as much as his one and only horror film, The Return of Doctor X.

But we’ll get to that in a bit. First, let’s take a gander at The Big Shot, a 1942 crime drama which finds Mr. Bogart as a three-time loser named Berne. Once a prominent figure of the local urban underworld (see: the title), Berne has been set up, sent up, and has spent so much time up in the big house that he is now little more than a carbon copy of his former self, and Xeroxed about three times over on top of that to boot. A string of newbie hoods successfully lure Berne out of retirement after they inform him the best criminal defense attorney in town, Martin T. Fleming (Stanley Ridges), is also in on the job, and that he will ensure nobody takes a trip up the river. And it all seems like that one perfect final score every criminal dreams of. That is, until a damn dame walks into the picture.

And in this instance, it’s Berne’s former flame Lorna (Irene Manning), who is now the trophy bride of Mr. Fleming himself! Opting to choose love over loot, Berne winds up taking the fall for the entire job after his old buddy finds out he’s been messin’ ’round with his old lady, so it’s back into stir – for good, this time. But how long will Berne sit idle inside, knowing nearly everyone betrayed him on the outside? Richard Travis is the naïve alibi-for-hire who gets incarcerate for his honest stupidity, Susan Peters is Travis’ equally none-too-bright female, and the great Chick Chandler has an unbelievably outrageous supporting role as Dancer, the convict who makes a prison break while dressed as a minstrel – complete with blackface (!) – in this fairly routine but visually impressive noir/crime gem from director Lewis Seiler.

Turning the clock back a few years to a time when Humphrey Bogart didn’t always get a final say in which films he would appear in, we have the 1938 comedy Swing Your Lady. Now, while that title may bring up an entirely different connotation in this day and age (especially if you frequent the Personals on Craigslist), in this instance, it refers to the timeless sport of wrasslin’. And I’m 100% certain Bogey wanted nothing more than to pick up each and every one of the people responsible for wrangling him into this strange little backwoods musical rom-com, twirl ’em around, then hit them over the head with a prop chair after tossing them outside of the ring. Yes, kids, Swing Your Lady is bad. It’s pretty darn dumb, too. And yet, there’s something strangely alluring about this one – just like The Return of Dr. X itself.

Here, Bogart plays the crooked manager of a giant ignoramus of a wrassler, as played by the wonderful Nat Pendleton. Skimming through the Ozarks for a few easy venues to make some quick dough off of, Bogart thinks he has hit gold when he meets up with a burly, Amazonian lady blacksmith (former silent starlet Louise Fazenda). It’s the ideal match – except for the fact Bogey’s manchild star won’t fight a woman, and that he has also fallen in love with the widowed mother in question after a chance encounter. Toss in a heap of silly old western novelty tunes (aren’t they all novelty tunes?), the beautiful Penny Singleton, and an appearance by some young upstart named Ronald Reagan, and you have yourself a funky little B movie mess from yesteryear. Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins also star.

Both The Big Shot and Swing Your Lady make their home video debuts here courtesy the continuing efforts of the folks at the Warner Archive Collection. Each release sports the best-looking 1.37:1 video and monaural audio presentation we’re ever likely to see in this lifetime. Or any other, for that matter, as neither film is terribly AFI-worthy: The Big Shot‘s grand blackface escape scene certainly wouldn’t go over well with audiences today, while it would take nothing short of a cosmic wrestling miracle to make Swing Your Lady become a popular item! Nevertheless, the MOD DVD-Rs suffice admirably, and each title boasts its original theatrical trailer as a bonus item for these otherwise barebones releases, best recommended for Bogart aficionados.

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Luigi Bastardo

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