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International con artist Martha Hicks a.k.a. Countess von Claudwig is released from another stay in prison and decides to treat her rheumatism with a stay at her estranged husband's hotel at a Wisconsin spa. There undercover, she checks in on the two daughters she abandoned as infants. One wishes to marry an upstanding young man, but his priggish father wants him to marry money. The younger daughter has taken up with hood. Though denying any filial bond, the Countess uses her wiles to try to get her family on track and avoid the detective on her trail. Written by
One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. See more »
SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD. Alison Skipworth is remembered solely for partnering W.C. Fields, and here (in a rare leading role) she plays a distaff version of Fields's confidence trickster. The opening shot shows Skipworth regally presiding at a tea party, then pulls back to reveal that this soiree takes place in a women's prison. (I spotted Elizabeth Patterson among the inmates.) This scene and the last scene of the movie serve as amusing bookends.
Get this premise: Skipworth is an habitual con artist, who has left two infant daughters in the care of her milquetoast husband Elmer. Now, after nearly 20 years, for no particular reason, she decides to go back and see how they're doing. Richard Bennett (grandfather of Morton Downey Jnr) gives a standout performance as her husband. Evalyn Knapp is dull as dishwater in the role of the elder daughter, but Gertrude Messinger is excellent as the Jean Harlowesque kid sister. Irving Bacon, Hollywood's perennial desk clerk, is better than usual in that role here.
There are some impressive slapstick sequences, necessarily featuring a male stunt person doubling for Skipworth. George Raft, as a spiv on the make, is excellent. I could have done without the makeup job on Edward Brady, who seems to be impersonating Andy Clyde in an old Keystone comedy.
The real revelation of this movie, though, is J. Farrell MacDonald as the cop who periodically arrests Skipworth. MacDonald appeared in many films of the '30s and '40s but seldom had much to do. Roles he could have performed admirably often went to Edgar Kennedy (who usually did them justice). Here, in a long sequence, MacDonald sits idly in a chair while a music box tinkles twee melodies nearby. MacDonald's upper body remains motionless while his feet perform a toe dance to the music. It's hilarious and also touching, as we glimpse the inner sensitivity of this gruff cop.
It's a shame that Skipworth got so few chances to play lead roles: she could easily have rivalled Marie Dressler. I can think of several Margaret Dumont roles that would have been better served if Skipworth had been cast in her stead. 'Madame Racketeer' is a delight, including the fast-paced (and well-photographed) climax. This movie rates 9 out of 10.
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