Chi Shyster Brew with an Ambulance Chaser

An unlikely movie hero, unscrupulous Illinois mouthpiece John J. Malone, the demented brainchild of mystery author Craig Rice, remarkably made it to two big-screen comedic adventures, RKO’s Having Wonderful Crime (1945) and MGM’s Mrs. O’Malley and Mr. Malone (1950), now available in a delightful double-feature DVD-R (logically entitled the JOHN J. MALONE MYSTERY DOUBLE FEATURE) from the Warner Archive Collection.

Malone, the human definition of Irish blarney, was always one step away from disbarment, due to his less-than-kosher methods of practicing his art. His addiction to lowlife dregs, gangsters, hookers, drunks, and other rogue’s-gallery denizens endeared him to the underworld and the Fifth Estate, but caused countless untold headaches for the Chicago justice department and local police constabulary.

Fast-talking Malone was sorta like Nick Charles sans Nora and scruples. Where he rivaled the Thin Man sleuth was in charm and investigative skills.

True, the Saint, the Falcon, Boston Blackie and others often relied upon their underbelly connections to do the right thing. In Malone’s case, the right thing is whatever and/or whoever fills his coffers with the most coin. While his competitors often weren’t proud of the depths they had to slink to in order to come out on top, Malone simply doesn’t care. In fact, when not cheating his ravishing secretary out of her pay, he’s boasting of his infamous tactics, defiantly proud of his notoriety – not the least being the fact that he continually gets away with unbridled chicanery. Kinda like Congress.

Ironically, Malone would have been a perfect pre-Code Hollywood character (imagine an entire series of pics starring Cagney’s Jimmy the Gent), yet while the watered-down 1940s and 1950s versions remain ingratiating on one level, they nevertheless were still distasteful enough to keep the majority of movie-goers away in droves.

Malone, aside from his lying, tampering with evidence, and penchant for violence, was also a womanizing fool. In both entries, Malone’ll stop in mid-sentence to hit on some poor lass who unfortunately happened to choose a precise moment to cross his crooked path.

Hollywood Malone was lucky to have two likeable Irish mugs bring his antics to life: Pat O’Brien and James Whitmore.  Also an amiable array of costars, writers, directors and cinematographers – no doubt proving that the devil is indeed in the details. The movies fortunately are jokey film-noirish adventures, never attempting to justify the activities of their protagonist. The plots themselves are silly and predictable – it’s the riotous bumpy road from A to Z that fuels these rollicking vehicles.  And, in keeping with the Warner Archive standards, both titles, culled from excellent 35mm materials, look and sound swell.

So sit back and relax, but keep your hands on your wallets and valuables: John J. Malone takes no prisoners.

 

In 1945’s HAVING WONDERFUL CRIME (a title parody of the famous Broadway play and later RKO movie Having Wonderful Time), Malone gets involved with sleazy mystics, murder and mayhem, beginning in a Chicago burlesque house and ending at a posh vacation spa (which proves for some to literally be a last resort). This provides a beautiful diverse springboard for the not-so-shy shyster’s shenanigans through the various strata of 1940s urban society. The pacing is swift, thanks to the smooth direction by veteran comedy maven A. Edward Sutherland, working with an okay script that nevertheless took four cooks to concoct the narrative broth (Howard J. Green, Parke Levy, Craig Rice and Stewart Sterling). The cast is dynamite, with the supporting players saving the day for the leads. I mean, O’Brien is aces, but the inclusion of lowly young swinging couple/pals George Murphy and Carole Landis is a bit of a downer. They’re obviously supposed to be in the mold of Topper’s Kirbys (‘ceptin’ they’re alive) with mold being the operative word. I mean, let’s face it, even with a Lubitsch script (which this ain’t) Murphy and Landis are no Cary Grant and Connie Bennett. Landis tries hard, and isn’t too bad, but her cracks aren’t all that wise. It’s Murphy, however, who’s the lead anvil that sinks the picture whenever he opens his pie hole. He may have been a deft hoofer, but he’s a lousy light comic. Murphy has the wacky delivery of Mitch McConnell, minus the madcap persona. O’Brien, on the other hand, can drift into the frame, toss off a “Good morning, how are ya?” with his patented Warner Bros. pre-Code staccato and effortlessly get a laff.

Again, it’s the stellar support that saves the day with George Zucco and Lenore Aubert as mind-reading sham artists sharing top honors (Aubert being particularly adept at tossing out one-liners with panache). In close pursuit are such welcome pans as Gloria Holden, Wee Willie Davis, Chilli Williams, Rosemary LaPlanche, Emory Parnell and Dewey Robinson. From Sutherland’s silent days are nice bits from Chester Conklin, Vernon Dent, Claire McDowell, Mildred Harris and Frank Mayo.

Considering the director’s comic chops, it’s a bit startling to see some rather graphic murders in the pic (unusual for both a 1940s movie, to say nothing of a comedy); this sprinkling of mean-street elements (as indicative of the period) actually peps up CRIME, and, all-in-all, it’s an entertaining, fun show. The photography by RKO house D.P. Frank Redman is quite good, as is the score by the studio’s yeoman composer Leigh Harline.

 

It was a full five years before Malone tried his luck at crashing Hollywood again, and, in 1950, he hit pay dirt (and at MGM, no less) with the very unmarketable title of MRS. O’MALLEY AND MR. MALONE. The picture, mostly set on a Chicago-New York railroad, had the far more bankable moniker of “Once Upon a Train or The Loco-Motive” when it was a novel by Malone chronicler Stuart Palmer and the mouthpiece’s creator Craig Rice. The script, by the prolific William Bowers (Destry Rides Again), has a fair share of verbal barbs, although the mystery isn’t too mysterious. Indeed, even non-detective fans are likely to figure it out before the on-screen characters; however, as the travel ads used to state back in the day: Getting there is half the fun. In this case, it’s all the fun.

Directed by comedy veteran Norman Taurog, the picture casts James Whitmore as the dishonorable Malone; it’s one of his best roles (and only starring one) from his Spencer Tracy, Jr., period. Mrs. O’Malley is the seemingly mismatched Marjorie Main. As with all pros, these two demonstrate their considerable thesp abilities quite well and nimbly bounce zingers off each other like recipients in a human racquetball match.

There was little risk on Metro’s part, as this was B-movie in every aspect of the word. That said, a B-movie at MGM was an A-picture anywhere else. The look is extravagant, as are all the tech credits (Adolph Deutsche music, Ray June photography). The cast is superb, serving up the inhabitants of character-actor heaven, ca. 1950 (the “B” giveaway is the 69-minute running time).

Riding on and off the tracks are such notable punims as Fred Clark, Dorothy Malone, Douglas Fowley, Willard Waterman, Herb Vigran, Regis Toomey, Don Porter, Clinton Sundberg, James Burke, Frank Cady and Mae Clarke.

Whitmore’s Malone is in full womanizing mode, balancing love stuff betwixt his gorgeous secretary (Phyllis Kirk), Main’s even more gorgeous niece (beauteous starlet Nancy Saunders) and the (most gorgeous of all) ex-wife of an embezzler (the amazing Ann Dvorak, who, mercifully, has much to do and, as far as I’m concerned, steals the show with her sassy demeanor).

Malone must track down a sleazy client who skipped town owing the shyster a fortune. Mrs. O’Malley is headed toward the Big Apple to likewise collect some swag, a 50K boodle won on a phone-in radio show (naturally, upon hearing this, Malone is interested in looking out for her welfare).

O’Malley’s no fool and lets Malone play one, as she’s a mystery buff and the fact that bodies seem to pile up around him is like catnip to the bored spinster.

Suffice to say, Marjorie’s the main attraction in this movie.  As a wise and strangely sophisticated boarding-house owner from Proudfoot, MT, her expertise at identifying an obscure ditty proves to be her dream come true. When her grubby miner tenants ask her if she’s ready to leave Montana for the bright lights of Manhattan, she snaps, “I’ve been ready to leave for thirty years!”  En route, at a stopover in Chi, she even gets to warble a song, a horrific groaner entitled “Possum Up a Gun Stump” that is as lowbrow funny as it is agonizing.

I absolutely cherish one bit in MRS. O’MALLEY AND MRS. MALONE, and that’s where the aforementioned just-released felon/client throws a lavish soiree for Malone and Chicago’s upper crust of mobsters, entertainers and socialites – and ducks out before the party ends, sticking the swells with the tab. I personally find that admirable in that serves-ya-right karma sort of way.

There’s also a concurrently shocking and hilarious moment where a gob-smacked Waterman believes that Whitmore and Main are having sex in a locked bathroom (I can vividly now envision thousands of readers simultaneously shrieking “Ewwww!”).

That this melee of corpse and robbers is thoroughly enjoyed by the delighted female lead becomes underlined when she proudly unveils evidence to the D.A.: “There it is, big as death!” It’s funnier when you see it.

MGM, having turned down Martin & Lewis, was desperate to strike an economical mother lode at the box-office. MGM had Main under-used and under contract for years before loaning her out to the lowly Universal-International for The Egg and I, a bonanza that mushroomed into the Ma and Pa Kettle franchise, earning the major-minor studio millions. This particularly pissed off Metro, who now was ferociously prowling the Writers Building for a chance to cash in on their previous missed opportunity. “MGM’s New Scream Team!” blazed the uninspired ads (a head-butting two-shot, nearly identical to the posters for their 1949 hit Adam’s Rib). Really? What was the old one? The one-sheets went one further, banging audiences over the noggin with “The uproarious star of ‘Ma Kettle’ comedies” and “The tobacco-chewing sergeant of ‘Battleground’ is a riot” How’s that for a night-at-the-Movies incentive?

The idea that this combination could have survived more than one pairing is borderline brazen, but, gotta admit, in keeping with its prime male character tactics and ethics…it’s so Malone!

JOHN J. MALONE MYSTERY DOUBLE FEATURE.  Black-and-white.  Full frame [1.37:1].  Mono audio.  Made-to-order DVD-R from the Warner Archive Collection.  CAT # 1000547827.  SRP:  $21.99.

Available exclusively from The Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com

johnjmaloneCOVER

 

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