Monday, May 12, 2014

Off the Record

Joan Blondell could be energetic and entertaining to watch even when she was stuck with sub-par material. A good example of this is the 1939 movie Off the Record, which is on TCM tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM.

Blondell doesn't show up in the first few scenes. That honor goes to juvenile actor Bobby Jordan, playing teenaged Mickey Fallon. Mickey has a mother who is dying without him at her bedside, because he's out playing in the streets as kids did in movies of that era, telling everybody that his brother is going to be coming back and doing big things for him. Mom dies, and it would be off to the orphange for Mickey, except for the fact that he really does have an adult brother Joe (Alan Baxter), who looks after Mickey, more or less....

It's at this point that Joan Blondell comes in. She plays one of those 30s tropes, the lady report who's going to show she can be a crusading reporter and just as good as the guys, dammit! She goes to do a story on relief (ie. welfare), one that takes her into a drugstore where several kids are playing the pinball machine. One of the kids tries to cheat the machine, which is where Mickey comes in. He's an eforcer, paid by the racket supplying the pinball machines to make certain nobody gyps them. Jane sees this, and decides that this would make a better story than writing about relief. She's right, of course, as the story brings heat on the racket. Joe is a bit of the ways up the ladder, but not so high up that he can't be sacrificed by the big bosses. It's three years in the slammer for Joe.

With nobody to take care of Mickey, it would mean the orphanage, except that he was kind of committing a crime himself. So he gets sent someplace worse than an orphanage, that being a reform school. And this is where things really beging to strain credulity. Jane has pangs of guilt, thinking she's the one responsible for Mickey having to go to reform school. So she and her superior, Breezy Elliot (Pat O'Brien) get married, in part because he's been pursuing her, and in part because she sees this as a way to take guardianship of Mickey and get him out of reform school! As if the authorities in real life would sanction this. But, this is Hollywood, so the authorities agree. Mickey goes home with Jane and Breezy, although Breezy isn't so happy with the arrangement and it seems obvious that Mickey is going to try to escape at the first opporutnity.

But back in the first reel, when Mickey was first mentioning his big brother, he said that Joe was going to bring him a camera. Apparently knowing Mickey's interest in photography, Breezy and Jane get him a camera, and have him made a cub photographer on the newspaper. As with James Cagney in Picture Snatcher becomes fairly good using some slightly shady methods, but his new job gets him accused of a diamond robbery. And then he hears that his brother is planning to break out of prison, setting up the finale....

Off the Record is a film that's mildly entertaining, thanks to the presence of Joan Blondell and, to a lesser extent, Pat O'Brien. But, the script is a bit of a mess. It takes rather sharp turns from one plot point to the next, with some of them (getting custody of Mickey, and Mickey's becoming a photographer) seeming quite unrealistic. There are also times when you wonder whether the movie is trying to be a comedy, or the sort of serious social drama that Warner Bros. made so well in the 1930s. But being one of those B-movies the studios were churning out back in those days, its brief running time (TCMDb lists 71 minutes, IMDb 62; I don't recall which of the two lengths it was when I watched on TCM a few months back) keeps it from getting too boring. Off the Record is nowhere near great, but it's OK for the breakfast hour or a rainy day.

I don't believe Off the Record has received a DVD release, even from the Warner Archive, so you'll have to catch the TCM airing.

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