Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Angels Over Broadway

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to watch Angels Over Broadway, which is one one of those low-priced box sets from Mill Creek. Since it's available on DVD, I have no qualms doing a full-length post on the movie even though I don't know that it's coming up on TV any time soon.

The movie starts off on a rainy night in New York. Bill O'Brien (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), looking like he belongs in a Damon Runyan story (the movie was actually written and co-directed by Ben Hecht, not Runyan), is a small-time con artist talking about how he's going to roll a 7 tonight, he just knows it. More on him later, though, as his story is going to cross with that of the other main characters. The movie quickly jumps to the person who should be the real main character, but is only fourth-billed. Charles Engle (John Qualen, with much less of an accent than he normally has, and in a much bigger role than he normally gets), is in his office writing a suicide note. It turns out that his boss Hopper (George Watts) has discovered that Engle embezzled $3,000 from the business to help his estranged wife start a business. Hopper wants the money back by 6:00 AM tomorrow or else it's criminal proceedings for the Engles. Engle, of course, has no way of getting the money back, hence the suicide note.

Engle is seen by a cop just before he can jump into the river, reminiscent of the opening of Mildred Pierce just after Monty Beragon gets it. So Engle wanders around town, eventually joining a group of people entering one of the city's swankier night clubs. He's giving his money away in preparation for his suicide attempt, so his big tips get him a good table and the perception that he's a rich man. This is where Bill comes into contact with him. Bill has been working as a tout for Dutch, a man running a high-stakes poker game that brings marks to the game to clean them out. Bill spots Engle as a wealthy man, and tells Dutch he can get Engle to come to the game, which will bring a tidy profit to Bill, too. At the club, Bill meets would-be actress and dancer Nina (Rita Hayworth), and cruelly ropes her into the plot to bilk Engle.

But there's one other person who could do something about the plot. Playwright Gene Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell) is down on his luck, too. He won a Pulitzer several years earlier, but his latest play was a monumental flop, in part because Gene has become a hard drinker seemingly spending more of his time drunk than working on his craft, which is why he's at the nightclub. As he's about to leave, he's given Engle's coat by mistake, which is where he finds the suicide note. Gene realizes he has to come up with some plot to get Engle the $3,000 and allow Engle to go on with life. Gene reclaims a piece of jewelery from a former mistress, but she later informs him that piece is just a cheap copy; no way you're getting $3,000 out of that. But then Gene learns about the poker game, and comes up with the audacious idea of having Engle scam the scammers!

There are a lot of interesting ideas in Angels Over Broadway, but I found the presentation to be a bit muddled, with the two main stories being developed too slowly and not meshing for a while. Bill's motivations, too, don't quite add up. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was well-suited for light romantic roles, but in this one I think he's a bit miscast. Rita Hayworth isn't given much to do here, but she does what she does well. The honors go to the two "supporting" characters, Thomas Mitchell and John Qualen. Mitchell plays another lovable drunk and delivers Ben Hecht's dialogue with gusto, although he disappears 15 minutes before the end in another implausible plot twist. John Qualen made this one the same year he did The Grapes of Wrath and His Girl Friday, and really sinks his teeth into the part. I've always enjoyed Qualen, but he's a revelation here. It's too bad the material isn't quite good enough.

Overall, based on the price of the Mill Creek DVD set, I wouldn't have any qualms suggesting you seek that out. You'll get some other really good movies, and can think of this one thrown in as an interesting extra.

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