Wednesday, September 24, 2008


This mild B-crime comedy is Damon Runyon-lite, and, since the movie adaptations of Runyon (Guys and Dolls, Lady for a Day, Lemon Drop Kid) are all themselves gangster-lite, filled with crooks and lowlifes who never do anything really bad, this film so airy and fluffy that it risks floating away. But though the script could have used another draft, the acting is OK and the central character is unique: a wealthy and powerful gangster (Cesar Romero) who is so soft-hearted that he can't bring himself to kill any of his rivals, so he makes it look like they’ve been rubbed out while actually keeping them imprisoned, in comfort, in the basement of his mansion. It takes a while for this conceit to become clear, so the opening scene doesn't make much sense at the time: Milton Berle, Romero's chief sidekick, walks in on a bloody scene in which a shopowner and two thugs have killed each other in a dispute and plants evidence to make it look as if Romero was responsible. Later, we realize he does this to keep up his boss's tough-guy reputation.

The rest of the contorted narrative barely makes sense: at Christmas, Romero takes a shine to a young lady (Virginia Gilmore) working as a department store child-wrangler, assumes she likes children, and hires her as a nanny. However, since he doesn't have any kids, he has Berle get him an urchin from the streets (Stanley Clements) to pose as his son. Meanwhile, as Romero romances Gilmore, he has to deal with his main rival, Sheldon Leonard. In the holiday spirit, the two declare a truce, but later when some of his “dead” henchmen get out of the mansion prison, Leonard realizes Romero is a pussycat and he decides to get rid of him once and for all. How it all plays out from here is good fun that I won’t spoil. I wish the movie’s set-up had been stronger: we don’t get enough background about any of the main characters to make us care about them, and the chemistry between Romero and Gilmore is zilch—I can see Romero trying, but Gilmore has no personality. Berle is very good, and other fine support comes from Charlotte Greenwood (who gets a novelty dance number to show off her crazy long legs), Marc Lawrence, Frank Jenks, Leonard, and the young Clements, who went on to play the street kid Tony in GOING MY WAY. There is also a lovely Christmas tree in Romero's apartment. Harmless fun which could have been better with stronger writing. [FMC]

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