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"Panama Flo" is a hardboiled soap opera of a kind they don't make
anymore but that was popular back in the twenties and thirties. It's
the sort of story that pulp magazines used to publish month after
month, with a resourceful but temporarily helpless blonde (in this case
the nearly forgotten but topnotch Helen Twelvetrees)trapped in a jungle
at the mercy of a tough guy (the really rough tough Charles Bickford)
who's almost, but not quite, a dangerous sociopath. This picture is
melodramatic fun all the way through, with some snappy dialog ("A
Mickey Finn--and make it stick!"), a sleazy saloon, a big biplane, good
acting and camera work, and a twisty ending.
Fans of Harlow and Gable in "Red Dust" won't be disappointed in "Panama Flo." Turner Classic Movies deserves credit for bringing it back.
Here's one of those totally obscure but jaw-dropping precodes that pop
up at 2 am every month or so on TCM. This one fits squarely in the
Tropical Tramps sub-genre, a cousin to the Carole Lombard flick "White
Woman", but with an even rawer atmosphere.
RKO's cutie-pie sob-sister Helen Twelvetrees is surprisingly cast as a cabaret dancer in a sleazy Panama saloon. The old crone who runs the joint (Maude Eburne, in a wonderfully grotesque characterization) announces that she can no longer pay her dancers or supply them with promised tickets back home. But she invites them to hang around the club anyway and make money off the customers any way they please. Our heroine reluctantly helps relieve a two-fisted, hard-drinking oil man (Charles Bickford) of his wad of cash by slipping him a mickey, but he gets wise. Rather than do time in the nightmarish local hoosegow, she agrees to be Bickford's "housekeeper" in his shack in the croc-infested Venezuela jungle. Eventually, an aviator ex-boyfriend (Robert G Armstrong) shows up, and the testosterone flies like spit in a bullpen. The finale is quite a curve ball.
There's great slangy patter, lots of innuendo, and some very seedy sets. The principals play it full-throttle, and though it's definitely not great art, it shows what realities Hollywood could vigorously grapple with before the Code. Apparently, contemporary critics mocked the picture for its unbelievable shifts of character, but I'd say that this very unpredictability helps give it a modern edginess. Don't miss it when it turns up again. Remade by the studio as "Panama Lady" with (wait for it...) Lucille Ball in the title role (and she's surprisingly good).
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Helen Twelvetrees is excellent as Flo, a burlesque dancer who gets fired by her harridan of a boss (the amazing Maude Eburne) and ends up virtually enslaved by a brutal oil explorer (Charles Bickford) in the heart of the South American jungle. Panama Flo is a top notch melodrama which also features Robert Armstrong in the rather thankless and not terribly interesting role of Flo's true love, Babe the aerial photographer. What really sets this film apart, however, is the exemplary cinematography of Arthur Miller, which shows just how far film had recovered from the static and stagebound early days of talking pictures. In Panama Flo, the camera moves fluidly--at times its almost hyperactive--swooping in and out of the action with long dolly shots and outstanding use of deep focus. Miller went on to win Academy Awards for his work on How Green Was My Valley, The Song of Bernadette, and Anna and the King of Siam, and he also shot the atmospheric western The Ox-Bow Incident, which deserved a nomination but didn't get one. Panama Flo benefits further from second-unit work by a 24-year old Stanley Cortez, who clearly learned a lesson or two from Miller. An excellent little film that can be enjoyed as much for its technical superiority as for its very enjoyable and appropriately spicy pre-Code plot.
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