Wednesday, August 21, 2013

LADY GANGSTER (1942)

I've been saying it for years: by and large, the most entertaining B-movies were made by B-studios. That goes for double for anything crime-related. The grit and edginess necessary for the nasty atmosphere accompanying the stories came naturally to PRC, Monogram and the rest. Criminals tend to be lowlifes, anyway. Check out some real mugshots online sometime -- not a one comes within a mile of looking like Faye Emerson, the star of Warner Bros.' Lady Gangster.

At least they have the title character's name right: Dot Burton. That doesn't sound like a girl you'd introduce to mom, unless she was Ma Barker. Dot's been sent up the river after organizing a bank robbery, then hiding the money. The remaining members of her gang go underground. Thanks to the double-crossing of two other prison inmates,
"Me -- a lady gangster? Surely you jest!"
Dot is denied the parole arranged by her childhood friend Ken Phillips, the owner of a radio station. Convinced that Ken was actually behind the denial, Dot arranges to have him killed by her gang. When she learns that Ken had nothing to do with it, she escapes prison to save his life. Ken, in turn, arranges to have her released into his custody, so he can hire her as one of his station's announcers.

How to win parole and influence people.
That last sentence doesn't play as ridiculous as it sounds -- OK, maybe it does -- when you consider that Dot turned to crime only when her acting career didn't pan out, a move duplicated decades later by Lindsay Lohan. That Dot earned parole after making her escape by cracking the warden on the skull with a lamp makes for a very forgiving prison system indeed. (Read about Money Madness to get the real lowdown on what happens to woman who was actually innocent of committing a crime.)

"We're with the band."
Dot's prison is really just a second-rate hotel. Sure, the rooms leave something to be desired -- like, oh, toilets and privacy -- but the dames get to hang out in a rec room where they listen to the radio, dance, knit and iron. My wife would find this perfectly acceptable way to spend her day. Except the ironing part. And unlike their male counterparts, their uniforms could get them into any hipster bar in Red Hook.


Lucy & Annie: nope, they're not gruntled at all.
Most of the inmates have standards, like the one who says, "I'd play ball with anyone but Hitler to get out of this hole." But there's always a bad apple or two, and here it's Lucy, a disgruntled stoolie, and Annie, a disgruntled deaf-mute. When Stew, one of Dot's cohorts, comes by on visiting day, Annie lipreads their conversation to discover that they were talking about what they were going to do with the stolen loot. 

Somebody should have thrown the writer
in prison.
This scene plays utterly ridiculous right down the line. Not only does Annie look like a Gilda Radner character, she'd need a telescope to successfully read their lips. Cranking up the Absurd-O-Meter a notch, Stew is disguised as a woman -- and nobody notices! This scene, by the way, seems to be played completely straight. No wonder why director Robert Florey changed his name to Florian Roberts on Lady Gangster's credits.



Three gunmen are no match for a
radio station owner with his back to them.
Equally outrageous is the climactic fist fight. Somehow, radio exec Ken Phillips (busy character actor Frank Wilcox), who doesn't appear to have lifted anything heavier than a cigarette lighter in his life, successfully takes on Dot's three menacing henchmen, even knocking them through stairway railings before being momentarily stopped by a bullet to the arm. And instead of hailing the nearest ambulance, he rides along with the cops -- in the front seat! -- as they chase the gang. If that's not enough, at the climax he appears to become the love object of Dot. This would be tough enough to swallow, but when Dot's played by the glamorous Faye Emerson, you fairly choke on the concept.

Eyebrows by Kiwi Shoe Polish.
Although only an hour long, I nearly turned off Lady Gangster a few minutes into it. As I alluded to earlier, B-movies from the majors are a little too glossy for my taste. The dialogue tends not be as gritty nor the actors as interesting. (Only RKO Radio really knew how to get its hands dirty.) But two cast members kept me watching, and that was only because of their later TV work. One was DeWolf Hopper as Ken's assistant. Fifteen years later, 20 pounds lighter, hair 100 shades grayer and using the name William Hopper, he began a long run as Raymond Burr's sidekick Paul Drake on Perry Mason.

And away we go (to rob a bank)!
Then there's Dot's milk-drinking getaway driver, Wilson, the only one of the gang who really cares for her. He's played by (as his name reads in the credits) Jackie C. Gleason. Only 26 years old, he's already coming into focus as an actor. The side of the mouth delivery, the gruff but sympathetic characterization, even the way he holds his cigarette between his fingers and thumb -- it's all there, just waiting for a different medium to transform him into one of the major show business icons of his time. It was an irony that would probably be lost on no one involved in the making of Lady Gangster, least of all Gleason himself.

Lady Gangster is one of those movies that should have made Warner Bros. think twice before cracking wise about studios like PRC. It takes more than bigger bucks, a decent score and a pretty face to put over a crime picture. A lower budget often allows for a more noirish atmosphere. A score that sounds like it was slapped on the soundtrack whether it was appropriate or not increases the already dreamlike quality of the production. And although Faye Emerson allows herself to go tough by greasing up her hair and laying off the mascara, B-movie queen Ann Savage could act the part better than any Oscar-winner. While many once-forgotten Poverty Row releases look better than ever today, Lady Gangster remains what it was meant to be: just another way to kill an hour with women in prison. 

Now that I think of it, that actually sounds pretty good. 

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