Saturday, November 17, 2001

PUBLIC HERO #1 (1935)

This movie felt like a combination of WHITE HEAT (without the Oedipal psychodrama and the masterful Cagney performance) and BRINGING UP BABY (without the dinosaur or the leopard). Chester Morris is a Fed planted in prison to help crack a murderous holdup gang, led by Joseph Calleia. They break out of prison and, while on the lam, run into Calleia's sister, Jean Arthur. Her interaction with Morris when they first meet is the stuff of screwball comedy--she's whimsically pushy and he's interested but preoccupied--but soon the tone turns back to crime melodrama. Lionel Barrymore is a drunken doctor who tends to the gang members when they return all shot up from their heists. Like Arthur, his performance is comic at first, then more melodramatic. Barrymore gets top billing, which I assume must have been some kind of contractual perk since his is definitely a supporting role. He also seems to be running on half-speed, which for some is perhaps preferable to his full speed (though I tend to find Lionel Barrymore a definite plus in any film).

I think I'm growing fond of Chester Morris. I've only seen him in a handful of movies, but he does the cocky and/or stoic part well. He's also sort of good looking, if you like the broken-nose, square-jaw look of the comic book hero. I know his biggest fame was as Boston Blackie, but I've never seen one of those movies. As far as acting chops, he can't really keep up with Arthur or Barrymore, but in his scenes in the prison early in the movie, where he's not competing with them, he's pretty good. Arthur is, as always, very good and fun to watch. Not a classic, but certainly worth catching if for nothing else for its odd mix of screwball romance and prison-escape melodrama.

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