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When I see old-time prison/crime movies, I laugh out loud at some of
the things I see, at least compared to films of the last 40 years which
may be very profane and sadistically violent but at least they are
In this film, the lead female character " Dot Burton," played by Faye Emerson, is sent to a women's prison. Inside are all white women except one black, who dances all the time. Talk about a stereotype. Emerson and her best buddy in here look like lesser versions of Rita Hayworth, Look around and you more of these nice, wholesome-looking babes. I guarantee you no prison population has ever looked this good! Yes, there are a few "baddies" and, of course, they are ugly women.
The story also gives us a typical classic movie romance in which a guy falls in love with a "dame" the first time he talks to her. Then she falls for him quickly and but right away, of course, there is a misunderstanding and now the woman hates him. Ten minutes later she loves him again, then hates him, then loves him, etc. etc. No wonder few people in the film world ever took marriage seriously. On screen,it was just one big joke.
Anyway, the story is pretty interesting even if it is more than a bit too dated. The film might be noted more for having two very young actors in here than anything else, guys who went on to because famous on television in the 1950s: Paul Drake and Jackie Gleason. Drake was Perry Mason's assistant on hat hit TV show and Gleason, of course, went on to huge TV fame with "The Honeymooners" and other shows. Here, he is billed as Jackie C. C Gleason.
"Lady Gangster" is only a little over an hour which is fine and the DVD transfer was surprisingly good. This was part of a 4-movie disc called "Mobster Movies," put out by Platinum. I have two of these discs so there are eight films I can watch, movies that, as far as I can tell, were not available on VHS. The other movie I watched on one of the other discs did not have the good picture quality this one had, so they probably vary from film-to-film.
But, despite the drawbacks, these 1930s films are fun to watch because they are fast-moving, short and entertaining.
I had a lot of fun watching this crime quickie from Warner Brothers studios. Lasting a rapidly paced 62 minutes, the film definitely entertains if your into the genre. Faye Emerson plays a would be actress who gets caught up with a gang of bank robbers and takes the rap for a $40,000 heist the gang pulled off. She ends up in jail and what follows is as many double crosses, prison spats, car chases and shootouts as you can possibly cram into 62 minutes. The film is directed with a nice flair for action by Robert Florey under the pseudonym of Florian Roberts. Good support for Emerson from a cast that includes Julie Bishop, Frank Wilcox, Ruth Ford(cute as a damn button) and a young Jackie Gleason. I must have really enjoyed this one as I couldn't believe how fast it flew by.
It's a peppy flick and in some ways better than the original 1933 movie titled Ladies They Talk About that starred Barbara Stanwyck.Fortunately, the Stanwyck movie was pre-Hays code so there is some snappy dialog and not so veiled references to prostitution that couldn't be filmed in Lady Gangster. The opening scene obviously shot in a real bank gives the film a realistic gritty feel that doesn't come off when a scene like this is shot on a set. Jackie Gleason in a small supporting role as one of Emerson's fellow bank robbers, provides a few glimpses of that "Poor Soul" face that he made famous years later on his TV show. Also, catching a very young dark-haired William Hopper (later of Perry Mason fame as Paul Drake)was also a pleasant surprise.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
All the elements were here for an intriguing and gritty gangster/prison
drama, but once Dot Burton (Faye Emerson) wound up at the penitentiary,
the film started a lot to resemble a high school sorority league. All
smiles and chatty, Dot and her new jailbird friend Myrtle (Julie
Bishop) wind up scheming about how she can make the best of her
sentence, until the time comes to claim the forty thousand dollars she
scammed from her bumbling partners. I have to give the film makers
credit for dressing up mobster Carey Wells (Roland Drew) in drag, that
was both clever and corny at the same time. I'd love to know how many
takes were necessary to film the visitation scene when Dot's 'sister'
comes to see her in prison.
The relationship between Dot Burton and Ken Phillips (Frank Wilcox) didn't quite work for me either, especially from her side. I mean seriously, what did she see in this guy to spark a romantic angle? Especially since she knew him as an adult when she was still a kid. The plot would have worked without going for this stretch.
The surprise for me in the story was one of Jackie Gleason's very early screen appearances when he was still using the middle initial 'C'. Unfortunately he didn't have a whole lot to do as the gang's getaway driver. If you get the chance, try to catch him in the Bogart film "All Through The Night" where in a similar role he gets to weigh in on World War II military strategy and how the Allies could win.
As I sit here writing this, the thought occurred to me that as a Warner Brothers film, this could just as easily have been an East Side Kids story, with all the female leads replaced by Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, et al. Throw in Ann Sheridan for the Ken Phillips character and you would have had a much livelier story. Still, at just a couple of minutes over an hour, "Lady Gangster" is an interesting little diversion, but don't go in expecting to see a real lady gangster.
Was the concept of a female criminal so odd at the time? What about
Bonnie Parker? This is a gangster story with the sexes reversed, in any
case. The criminal who goes to the slammer is a woman. The prison is
nothing compared to the one in "Caged." Julie Bishop, who's very good,
wears a rather glamorous uniform.
The movie trots right along, though. It has an excellent cast. Of course, it's fun to see the young Jackie Gleason as a bank robber. He looks kind of naive and cuddly.
Faye Emerson was an excellent actress. She adorned many a B-picture. She wasn't a great beauty: Maybe that's why she never became a major star of movies. She was versatile -- sweet, wisecracking, or evil. One thing that always comes across in her performances: intelligence.
Dorothy Burton helps with a bank robbery and ends up in the slammer for
it, while her radio presenter friend tries to help her get off. Faye
Emerson plays Dorothy as well as more famous actresses would and is
supported by a pretty good cast which includes a young Jackie Gleason
and DeWolf Hopper (son of Hedda).
'Lady Gangster' is pretty formulaic, with an ending which stretches credibility, but its production values are fairly high, which always makes a film worth a look. Dorothy's conviction relies on some misunderstandings and a dog which doesn't belong - but we wouldn't want to begrudge her the scenes with the catty inmate and strong matron, or the scene where she's visited by her sister!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For a B-Movie lasting only 62 minutes this picture was surprisingly entertaining. Faye Emerson stars as a failed actress named "Dorothy Burton" who is almost broke and needs money. So she agrees to help 3 criminals rob a bank. The problem is that she gets caught. Even so, she remains loyal to her companions and refuses to tell the district attorney "Lewis Sinton" (Herbert Rawlinson) anything. Now, rather than reveal what happens next and risk spoiling the film for those who haven't seen it, I will just say that Faye Emerson's performance was simply superb. Not only was she beautiful but she also had an intangible and unique quality about her that was absolutely delightful. Be that as it may, in my opinion this film didn't last nearly as long as I would have liked and because of these time constraints there were some scenes that could have been played out a bit more for a better effect. In any case, if a person enjoys movies of this type from this particular era I think they may be pleasantly surprised by this movie. Slightly above average.
The "B" films from major studios usually look far more glossy and professional than those turned out from Poverty Row, even when the subject matter is virtually identical. This is not to say that they are necessarily more entertaining. A fair case in point is this cleaned-up version of a gritty Barbara Stanwyck melodrama. It looks slick and it runs smooth, but although competently acted, it doesn't hold a candle to the more earthy original. Mind you, there are compensations. It's always good to see Faye Emerson in a lead role, and she receives great support from Julie Bishop, Dorothy Vaughan, Virginia Brissac and Vera Lewis. But it's Dorothy Adams, in a meaty role for once, who actually steals the acting honors. By contrast, the male players contribute considerably less to the movie's fair-enough success. Roland Drew makes an attempt at the chief villain, while Frank Wilcox takes aim at the hero. Both fall short. Jackie Gleason in a straight role here as one of the gangsters might have had a chance had his role not been so disappointingly small. Ever reliable Charles Wilson gets the nod instead.
I think the difference between good and bad movies is about the characters. Do they behave properly, given the world created for them. I never bought into the motives of the young woman in this film. She is too pretty and too confident to be desperate enough to do what she does. Nevertheless, she ends up in prison with a group of characters, including a classic snitch and her deaf cohort. People are looking out for her. People are after her. She has the money that was stolen. Talk about your stupid criminals. It's so full of unbelievable events, including one of the bank robbers showing up in the jail in drag. There's also an off again, on again, thing between the main character and a man who turned her in. It just never gels. Not to mention the goofy prison setting and lack of security. Not much to bother with.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Lady Gangster" qualifies as a lively little World War II era B-picture
about crime and punishment in America. The prevalent themes in "Lady
Gangster" are women versus society, women versus men, and women versus
other women. "Danger Signal" director Robert Florey and "Busses Roar"
scenarist Anthony Coldeway have contrived a serviceable thriller based
on the Dorothy Mackaye and Carlton Miles play "Gangstress, or Women In
Prison." The attention to detail is above average. Florey stages a
dandy little fistfight between the good guy and the criminals near the
climax. Florey and Coldeway had to toe the line with the Production
Code Administration in regard to their depiction of the heroine as an
accomplice to bank robbers. Consequently, they make her somebody with
whom we can sympathize. They provide her with a back story as a failed
actress who turned to crime only as a last resort to survive. Moreover,
they establish that she is not a career criminal.
"Lady Gangster" opens with Dorothy Burton (Faye Emerson of "Hotel Berlin") calling the cops and making a bogus complaint about a man with a knife. While the cops are responding to this call, Dot and three mobsters pull up to the Central Trust and Savings Bank before opening time at 10 AM. Dot emerges from the car with a small pet dog in her arms and convinces reluctant bank guard Jordan (Ken Christy of "Burma Convoy") to let her inside before regular hours. Dot lies to him that she has to make a deposit before her train leaves. While Dot sidetracks gullible Jordan, Carey (Roland Drew of "Manpower") and Stew (William Phillips of "Fort Yuma") slip inside with guns drawn and hold up the bank. Dot spots a cop outside hassling getaway car driver Wilson (Jackie C. Gleason of "Skidoo"), and she faints in Jordan's arms. Carey and Stew scramble for the getaway car and Wilson careens away. Initially, the police detain Dot as a witness. Later, Dot arouses the suspicions of a detective when she calls her dog by a name entirely different from the one on her pet's collar. She winds up in custody.
Dot's arrest incites the wrath of the Commodore Broadcasting Company. CBC radio commentator Kenneth Phillips (Fred Wilcox of "Notorious") takes the advice of his second-in-command (William Hopper of TV's "Perry Mason") to editorialize against District Attorney Lewis Sinton (Herbert Rawlinson of "Framed") because he arrested Dot since she could not accurately identify her dog. Meanwhile, on the advice of his second-in-command, Sinton phones Phillips and assures him that he is "willing and anxious to cooperate in every way" with him as well as let him question the Burton girl, all this despite the unflattering portrait that Phillips painted of him on the air as a crafty politician. Phillips persuades Sinton to release Dot into his custody.
On the pretext of getting her belongings, Dot visits Ma Silsby (Vera Lewis of "The Suspect") and learns that Carey refuses to give her a dime of her cut in the hold-up. Wilson doesn't think that Carey is treating Dot fairly. Ma alerts the gang that the authorities are nosing around outside. The guys stash the briefcase of dough under the front of a fireplace and lam out. Dot removes it and has Ma hide it in a safe place. She tears a dollar bill in two and tells Ma to trust only somebody with the other half of the dollar. Later, she informs Kenneth that she took advantage of his influence and she admits her part in the crime to Sinton. However, she refuses to identify her accomplices and disclose the whereabouts of the loot.
Twenty-one minutes into "Lady Gangster" our heroine enters prison. The warden, Mrs. Stoner (Virginia Brissac of "Jesse James"), explains the difference between an American prison and the Nazi variety. Says Stoner, "So the quicker you realize that this neither a country club nor a concentration camp, the better. It's up to the women themselves how they're treated. If you behave yourself, we'll meet you more than halfway, but if you want to be tough, we can be tough with you. Now, is that clear?" Dot meets Myrtle (Julie Bishop of "Northern Pursuit") and they become pals. Carey dresses up in drag and poses as Dot's sister to visit her. Dot refuses unequivocally to divulge the whereabouts of the forty grand.
Commenting about the luxurious prison facilities, Myrtle observes patriotically, "I'd play ball with anybody but Hitler to get out of this hole." Meanwhile, Dot runs afoul of inmates Lucy Fenton (Ruth Ford of "Wilson") and Deaf Annie (Dorothy Adams of "Ninotchka"). Deaf Annie reads lips. Dot confides in Myrtle that she has hidden the forty grand safely. Deaf Annie relays this news to Lucy. Before Phillips visits Mrs. Stoner to get her approval for Dot's parole, evil Lucy reveals to Stoner that Dot has the money stashed away. Stoner squashes the parole hearing after Lucy's revelation. Lucy turns around and lies to Dot that Ken wanted to trick her into revealing the location of the money in exchange for parole. Lucy completely fools Dot who gets a letter to Wilson about Ken and the money. Dot learns the truth from Mrs. Stoner who thanks her for giving her the reward money for the forty grand. Dot slugs Stoner, dons her apparel, and escapes from prison to save Phillips.
Clocking in at 62 concise minutes, "Lady Gangster" is a neat little item that shows how democracy worked during World War II on the home front. Incidentally, "Lady Gangster" is a remake of the 1933 Barbara Stanwyck flick "Ladies They Talk About."
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