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Society-woman Hattie Leonard organizes her own band of 'gang-busters' when she discovers a garment she sent to the dry-cleaners had been taxed twenty-five-cents to pay for gang 'protection.' She sends to New York City for a reformed gangster she had befriended, Frankie O'Fallon, and he hires the manpower needed from the usual Columbia hoods. Her gang hi-jacks the racketeers, recovers the merchant's money and returns it to them. Lila Thorne, engaged to Hattie' son, Fred, throws in with her future mother-in-law when she sees the old lady is fighting for the American principle of freedom of choice...and action. Lila frames the gang-leader, George Watson, and Hattie's big-city vigilantes kidnap him, and extract the information that the town-mayor, Johnny "J.J." Jones, is the brains behind the protection-gang and is getting the big cut of the money. But Hattie still has to rob a bank before she can secure the evidence needed to convict the mayor. All in a day's work for a crusading society... Written by
Les Adams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
As a fan of comedies from Hollywood's Golden Age, I've seen such classics as "Duck Soup,", "His Girl Friday," and "Bringing Up Baby" many, many times. Though I never tire of them, I often wonder if there are many unheralded gems still deep in Hollywood's vaults awaiting the light of day. For this reason alone, the invaluable cable television station Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is always worth visiting for a little prospecting.
Today, I found a fair-sized gold nugget there: "The Lady and the Mob" (Columbia Pictures, 1939). Ever hear of it? I hadn't, and chances are, you haven't either. Ever since TCM gained access to Columbia's vaults, some interesting films started reaching the public again, like "Ladies in Retirement" (1941), a twisty suspense film with a superb performance from Ida Lupino. I mention Miss Lupino because she's second-billed in "The Lady & The Mob." Comedy was never a big part of her career, but she acquits herself quite well in the supporting role of Lila Thorne, fiancée of Fred Leonard (Lee Bowman) who sends her to meet and be approved by his mother, Hattie Leonard (Fay Bainter) who has a track record for scaring away prospective brides.
What seems to be the set-up for a '30s Hollywood comedy of manners quickly shifts gears into another comedic sub-genre, the mob comedy, best typified by such films as "Brother Orchid" (1940) and "A Slight Case of Murder" (1938), two Warner Bros. light-hearted offerings that gave Edward G. Robinson a chance to spoof his tough guy image.
After visiting her local cleaners to complain about a $2 bill, Hattie learns that the owner, Mr. Zambrogio (Henry Armetta) had to raise prices because a "protective association" is extorting $7 a week from him and others. Outraged after the mayor assures her that the matter will be remedied eventually sometime, she sends for Frankie O'Fallon (Warren Hymer), a reformed thief whom she met when he tried to steal her purse, to lend a hand. Framkie is quickly decked by Harry the Lug (Harold Huber), the racket collector prompting Hattie to order Frankie to recruit her own mob. Before long, we are introduced to Blinky Mack, Brains Logan, Bert the Beetle, Big Time Tim and The Canary (with a voice that sounds like Curly's from The Three Stooges, though it's not) and the laughs which were decent from the beginning start coming at you with the rapidity of a tommy gun.
The film abounds in bright lines sch as when Hattie, correcting Frankie after he calls her "lady", rebukes him with: "My servants call me madam." Perplexed, Frankie comments, "Gee, that don't hardly sound respectable." I love the scene where the local hoods that Hattie has recruited stroll about her mansion looking at her artwork. Seeing a Gainsborough-like painting depicting a child on its mother's lap, one of them urges the others to "get a load of the ventriloquist here!" And wait 'til you see their armor-plated getaway car replete with smokescreen generator and dropping tacks, anticipating James Bond's Aston Martin car by a quarter of a century.
In the lead role, Fay Bainter may appear an odd choice, here looking a lot like May Robson and sounding very much like Billie Burke, two actresses who may have seemed like more natural casting for such a dizzy society matron role. After all, Miss Bainter had established a reputation as a dramatic actress, having been nominated as Best Actress for "White Banners" and Best Supporting Actress for "Jezebel," (and winning for the latter role), both for Warner Bros. in 1938, the year before. To work for Columbia (then trying to fight off its "poverty row studio" image) in what was at 66 minutes, a B-movie, seemed to be a comedown. Whatever the circumstances -- I'd like to think it was simply someone recognizing a good role in a good script --she makes the film a ton of fun.
About midway in, an interesting scene occurs that warrants special mention. After a horde of owners have come to her house, insisting she call off her campaign because the ensuing brawls between the two mobs are wrecking their cleaning stores, Hattie launches into a dramatic monologue about patriotism, quoting Robert G. Harper's "Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute." In quick succession, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Patrick Henry's most famous lines are also heard. Declaring that a real American will never tolerate a dictator, she likens Mr. Watson, the mid-level operator of the town's protection racket, to one who "doesn't believe in your rights." Don't let him take your America from you, she urges.
Warner Bros. is often credited (and rightly so) with alerting the country to the dangers of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany with its exciting, "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" in 1939. That film was released May 6. "The Lady & The Mob", first in theaters nearly five weeks earlier on April 3, stole a bit of its thunder. Granted it was only one scene and its impact can hardly be compared to this other film. But I mention it to illustrate that Warner Bros. wasn't the only studio concerned about the Nazis that was willing to make a public statement at the risk of foreign revenues, even if Hitler was never directly named. Although you might think that Hattie's plea might stop the comedy cold, the words are so well-integrated into the plot that they don't kill the mood which is quickly flowing again.
If you're a fan of gangster comedies, this film is well-worth your time thanks to a good script, several wonderful character actors at their peak, and a high-flying lead performance that will bring a smile to your face long after the movie's over. Rated 8 of 10.
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