Friday, August 2, 2013

SUCKER MONEY (1933)

When my wife and discuss the great movie producers of the past -- wait, let me correct that. When I wish my wife and I would discuss the great movie producers of the past, the name Willis Kent would never come up. Although most of his releases were westerns, he's known today for his low-budget melodramas about the "social issues" of the day. Something of a Darryl Zanuck of "adults only" exploitation pictures, Kent appeared to have gotten the idea for his movies from the less polite newspapers of the day. Cocaine addiction (The Pace that Kills), marijuana (The Road to Ruin), abortion (Race Suicide), prostitution (The Wages of Sin) -- you get the idea. Controversial subject + outlandish title = boffo box office.


 
Kent's Sucker Money, released by Invincible Pictures (which went out of business three years later), sets its mood immediately. Following the sound of a gong, a bizarrely-dressed person of indeterminate sexual origin pulls back a curtain in a psychic's parlor to introduce the opening credits. (To paraphrase Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, the gaudier the credits, the cheaper the movie.) In case audiences didn't know what they were in for, the capitalization-challenged subtitle reads:  



 an expose of the 
PSYCHIC RACKET 
a True Life Photoplay 
    
Yeah, if "True Life" means "Utterly Bogus." But I'm not looking for realism with movies like this  -- I mean, that's what I'm trying to escape on a daily, nay, hourly basis. And when I'm craving 60 minutes of strange entertainment with at least one good actor -- in this case, Mischa Auer -- a picture like Sucker Money does the trick.

A group of grifters led by Swami Yomurda ("Yo murder" -- get it?!) is infiltrated by actor-turned-cub reporter Jimmy Reeves. Yomurda and his cohorts (I think that's a hip-hop band my daughter listens to) are currently trying to fleece businessman John Walton. Walton's daughter, Clare, falls in love with Jimmy, whose real identity is soon found out. While Reeves is subsequently held captive, Yomurda kidnaps and hypnotizes Clare and holds her for ransom. You don't need to be a psychic to know happiness will eventually prevail. 

You think this is a crime -- you should see the
price of a theater ticket these days.
This Yomurda guy isn't as smart as he thinks he is. Instead of hiring a henchman in the usual ways -- which, in old movies, tends to be waterfront dives -- he takes out a classified ad in Reeves' newspaper looking for a "character man adept at makeup." (Strangely, he also asks for a child impersonator, a subplot never explored, but ideal for a Willis Kent production in itself.) Reeves' editor is suspicious by the ad's promise of "No traveling," but a real actor would immediately smell a rat at the other comment in the ad, "Good pay." But they're not kidding about that. Yomurda offers Reeves $75 a week -- the equivalent of $1,339 today. If that's the kind of dough you can make as a phony-baloney table-tapper, you can cut me in. I'll save my scruples for when I can afford them. 

Yomurda giving Clare the ol' "you are
getting sleepy" routine, which never worked
for me when I was dating.
And Yomurda's crew really is raking it in. They've got enough people to start their own stock company version of Henry V. Their business is more wired than an Apple store, with secret buzzers, light boards, dimmers, dry ice and trapdoors. They even create phony materializations during seances by secretly filming their suckers around town from a truck. (Talk about psychic -- this was 80 years before Google Streets!) It probably never occurred to audiences in 1933 that these people must have looked like a damn circus parade going from town to town with all this gear. Inconspicuous they're not.

"You haven't lived 'til you've seen
my crystal balls."
Yomurda makes sure everything looks spiritual, even if there are conflicts of a sort. A statue of Buddha graces the "materialization" screen, yet the visits from the dead are said to be provided by Vishnu. Make up your mind, swami! The earthly go-between for here and the afterlife is Princess Karami -- described as "a former hooch dancer" -- whom Yomurda has hypnotized to do his bidding... and whom he plans to replace with the equally-spellbound Clare. Yomurda is no Ricardo Cortez, so this hypnosis thing must be his only way to score with even hooch-dancers. (The name of the actress playing Princes Karami is Mona Lisa. She doesn't smile demurely once in Sucker Money, so I don't see the connection.)

Although an indie production, Sucker Money was shot at Republic Studios, kind of the M-G-M of Poverty Row, so it probably looks a cut above Willis Kent's more outre releases. Still, you
Efficiency at work: six people crammed into
a two-shot.
can't help wonder why it took two people, Dorothy Davenport and Melville Shyer, to direct this thing. As with other low budget indies of its time, long takes are interrupted by jarring edits. A high angle shot of a corpse in a basement is the closest thing to an interesting framing device. And while nobody blows their lines, I can't help but feel that 95% of what's on screen is a first take. Taking it a step further, off-screen actors are never properly miked, often giving it the look of a filmed rehearsal. While all this would take most people out of the story, it makes me feel that I'm actually there, watching how a movie with a budget probably hovering in the low five figures, actually got made. (Co-director Davenport was the widow of silent screen star Wallace Reid, whose 1923 death due to morphine addiction made headlines. Davenport spent the next ten years writing, directing or starring in low-budget "warning" pictures, often under the name Mrs. Wallace Reid. Nothing like cashing in on a tragedy.)

Gunned down by cops at the film's
climax, Auer pops his eyes one last time.
Swami Yomurda must have been pretty popular with audiences, since character actor Mischa Auer originated the role -- or at least the name -- in Sinister Hands the year before. Although Russian-born, Auer managed to make his way around several onscreen nationalities, never associating with the word "subtle" over his 40-year career. In his early days, he specialized in pop-eyed madmen in thrillers like The Monster Walks, then branched out as pop-eyed goofballs in comedies. If you look carefully, there are times in Sucker Money when, in profile, Auer resembles a degenerate James Mason. That's a plus, by the way.

Just call her Bullseye Busch.
Auer's Sucker Money co-star, Mae Busch -- whose dipso character specializes in "the grandmother gag" during seances -- had the opposite career. Having started out in dramas during the '20s (Chaplin called her "the greatest actress of the screen"), she eventually became Laurel & Hardy's go-to actress whenever they needed a hooker, gun moll or harridan wife. Busch might have had some off-screen practice for their slapstick shenanigans. Rumor has it that when comedienne Mabel Normand caught fiance Mack Sennett in bed with Busch, the latter bashed her over the head with a vase. Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!

Earl McCarthy, as Jimmy Reeves, is the leading man type typical of '30s Poverty Row: young, wavy hair, prettier than the women, possessing the masculinity of a mint parfait. He actually appears more comfortable in scenes with the older Mae Busch than with his supposed leading lady Phyllis Barrington. (Busch responds to his mock-flirting ways with, "Don't get gay with me, fresh guy!" Um...) It's not surprising that his character used to be an actor, since he doesn't look like anything but. With his limited emotional range, it's doubtful McCarthy would have made it to the majors. It didn't matter; before the year was out, he was dead of a heart attack at age 26. Maybe if he'd spent more time infiltrating doctors instead of sham soothsayers...

Willis Kent's final drama, Confessions of a Vice Baron, was released in 1940. His CV goes blank until 1950. Then, over the next eight years his output was limited to stag movies featuring strippers with names like Justa Dream, Satalyte and Patti Waggin. (What, no Moaner Lisa?)  These movies, like many of his '30s shockers, would run in urban grindhouses under different titles for years afterward, making a mint for him and his distributors. Had a psychic told Kent that his movies would one day be widely available
to everyone everywhere online for free, he'd have felt like the sucker.


                                              **************

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