Monday, February 13, 2023

Mary Burns, Fugitive

One of the 1930s actresses who gave a lot of fine performances but doesn't really get enough love is Sylvia Sidney. One of her films that's been sitting on my DVR for quite a while now is Mary Burns, Fugitive. So recently, I sat down to watch it.

As you can probably guess, it's Sidney who plays Burns, as she's got top billing. And she becomes a fugitive, although she's not one at the start of the movie. Instead, she's working as the owner of one of those small roadside diners that dotted rural America back in the day, kind of like the Aline MacMahon character in Heat Lighting, only Mary isn't escaping a past as far as I could tell and doesn't have the motor hotel either.

She makes the best coffee around, and one of the people who has repeatedly come through to partake of the coffee is "Babe" Wilson (Alan Baxter). Other than possibly Babe Ruth, it seems to me that a man with the nickname "Babe" back in those days was bad news, or at least so in movies. But Mary doesn't know she's in a movie, so she doesn't see the threat. Instead, she's kind of fallen in love with Babe. So one day, when Babe and a friend show up, she doesn't know how her life is about to change. Babe says he has to go to Canada on urgent business, and wants Mary to marry him and go to Canada. In fact, Babe is a criminal fleeing the law with a bunch of stolen money. Before the police can get to Babe, he shoots his partner and makes an escape, but not with Mary in tow.

The police, unsurprisingly, believe that Mary is Babe's moll, and that she knows where Babe was fleeing to. She doesn't know that second half, and since she can't give the police the information they want and didn't exactly stop Babe from leaving, they consider her an accessory to the crime and have her put in prison for 15 years. She could get a much reduced sentence, however, if only she would tell the authorities where Babe went. (As if he went one place and stayed there all this time.)

Mary can't give the authorities what they want, so they try a different tack. They arrange it so that another prisoner, Goldie Gordon (Pert Kelton), will break out of prison and take Mary with her. Mary, of course, doesn't get that it's all part of a plan by the higher-ups, who think that with Mary out of prison, Babe and his gang will find where Mary is and Babe will take the bait, allowing the authorities to catch him.

Eventually, Mary takes a job as a nurse in a private hospital, where she gets the task of tending to notoriously cantankerous patient Barton Powell (Melvyn Douglas). He's a professional explorer, going to places and then doing speaking tours. But he's had an eye operation that's left him with bandaged eyes, and being ticked at all the other nurses and their lousy coffee. Remember, as I mentioned at the top, Mary is known for her good coffee, so when Barton tries is and likes it, the two fall in love. Perhaps Mary could have a relationship with Barton, if only it weren't for Babe....

Babe and his underlings have found where Mary is, and decide to sent Babe's associate Spike (a young Brian Donlevy) to bring Mary to Babe. This is finally going to give the cops the chance, but it's also going to put Mary in some danger....

Mary Burns, Fugitive is one of those great old programmers that studios churned out in the days before television might have made stuff like this fodder for TV episodes. It's an engaging story, if nothing spectacular or ground-breaking, with good performances from all three leads and a few surprises along the way. It's definitely worth watching if you can find it.

One interesting thing is that the print TCM ran had both a Universal and a Paramount opening sequence. Now, it's well known that Universal (well, MCA) got the TV rights to Paramount's talkies up through 1949, and there are any number of movies that have a modern Universal opening before the old-fashioned Paramount opening. Mary Burns, Fugitive, however, had the old early 1930s opening from before the mirrored-ball. Kind of an odd surprise.

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