Thursday, December 5, 2013

THE WOMAN CONDEMNED (1934)

Another masterwork from the oeuvre of director Mrs. Wallace Reid (of Sucker Money fame), The Woman Condemned is a mystery in that it's impossible to figure out not only the story but how anyone involved kept a straight face while making it. Lacking Mrs. Reid's usual "controversial" subject matter, The Woman Condemned settles instead for a rickety murder melodrama that the B-unit at Warner Bros. thrived on -- only the Warners crew knew what they were doing. And yet it wouldn't have been half as entertaining as what Mrs. Reid and her fellow cineastes churned out. Sometimes talent isn't all it's cracked up to be.
 


Guilty for murdering music
in the first degree.
Radio singer Jane Merrick has just finished warbling a forgettable tune for a studio audience resembling a particularly unforgiving jury. This is her final performance for a while; as the unctuous announcer intones to her fans, "I know you join me in wishing her the best vacation ever." This sap must be a graduate of the Diane Sawyer School of Inappropriate Emoting. 

"I'm in The Woman
Condemned
while my
kid does Eugene
O'Neil. Go figure."
But just where Jane's vacationing is a mystery she's keeping from Jim Wallace, the man who doubles as the station manager and her boyfriend. (Call her the Caucasian Julie Chen.) Jim, by the way, is played by Jason Robards, the father of Jason Robards, Jr., despite looking and sounding more like TCM's ubiquitous host Robert Osborne. That's only the beginning of the confusion The Woman Condemned giddily offers.
Time passes, although the way Mrs. Wallace Reid handles things, you don't know if it's a day or three years. After not hearing a word from Jane since she hit the road, Jim drops by her apartment. Getting the "I don't know nothin'" routine from Sally the maid, Jim leaves, only to see Jane staring down from her bedroom. Jane does the only thing anyone would do if they were hiding: close the drapes five seconds too late. Jim, in return, does the only thing someone would do if he knew his fiance was at home: hire a detective to find her. These two maroons were made for each other.

"Simon says put your hands on your hip."
Later that evening (or maybe a week later -- like I said, Mrs. Wallace Reid doesn't have a high regard for time frames) the police chase a mysterious figure away from Jane's fire escape. Five minutes later, a woman named Barbara Hammond is caught on the same fire escape by a cop with a bad Irish accent. Dragged into night court, Barbara is saved only by Jerry Beall, a reporter who claims to be her fiance, just to get her off the hook and in the hay. The judge, a sucker for lovebirds, marries them on the spot. Surely there must be easier ways to pick up women in L.A. 

After a night out on the town, Barbara is smitten with the creep she's suddenly married to. (It took my wife at least a week following our marriage.) However, Barbara needs to leave a while, but promises to return to her life of Mrs. Jerry Beall in a few days. This movie has more women pulling disappearing acts than a Las Vegas lounge show.

"Thank goodness two people can't see
 me peeking through the shades from
five feet away."
Not having learned her lesson the first time, Barbara once again winds up on Jane's fire escape just in time to see Jane in her living room with Dapper Dan, a gigolo so oily he rivals the Exxon Valdez. (Fans of O Brother Where Art Thou may recall Dapper Dan as the brand of hair cream favored by George Clooney.) Jane is apparently in love with Dapper Dan enough to finance his craps game despite his seeming indifference toward her.  A moment after Dapper Dan leaves, Jane is fatally shot. Barbara, pistol in hand, is arrested for the murder. While waiting for the police to arrive, a neighbor keeps Barbara at gunpoint, telling his wife, "I'll keep an eye on this woman," hitting that last word like an insult. For some reason, characters in these old B-movies are utterly contemptuous of women attempting anything other than housework or stenography. How dare these dames do a man's job like murder!



"Did you hear the one about the
electric chair? It'll kill ya!"
Leave it to Jerry Beall, ace reporter, to do the snooping that cops are paid for. After an inappropriately jokey prison visit with Barbara ("I warn you: I'm not going to be made a widower without a struggle." Real funny guy.), Jerry gets into Jane's apartment and finds a note pad with a phone number belonging to a certain Dr. Wagner. Dropping by Wagner's sanatorium (in these old B-movies, they're always sanatoriums because the word "clinic" isn't ominous enough), Jerry can't get past the front door. Luckily for him, Dr. Wagner is the kind of sawbones who performs surgery in the on the first floor with the shades wide open for all to see. And what Jerry sees here looks an awful like the alleged late Jane Merrick getting brain surgery -- or, this being L.A., possibly a face lift with a shot of botox. Dr. Wagner and his assistant have no idea they're being watched until Sally (Jane's maid) casually drops by the o.r. to say hi. (I hope this kind of thing doesn't go on during surgeries anymore). Sally screams upon noticing Jerry, as would anyone hoping to see a good actor playing his role instead. And, reacting with the same genius possessed by Jane, Dr. Wagner closes the shade after he knows he's been seen. 

Now, say you witnessed a mysteriously-missing radio singer going under the scalpel of what appeared to be a psycho doctor -- what would you do? Of course! Call her boyfriend, wait twenty minutes for him to arrive, then decide that it might be a good idea to call the cops. Shades pulled too late, waiting to call the cops -- these people are sloooooow to move.  So slow that they're held captive by Dr. Wagner, who toy with the idea of slicing open their skulls while they're awake. (This guy is clearly an out-of-network provider.) Fortunately, Sally recognizes Jim as Jane's boyfriend. In no time, Dr. Wagner becomes best pals with the two guys he was ready to lobotomize a moment earlier. Wagner explains that it was really Jane's twin sister Joan who was shot, and that Jane herself was only undergoing surgery to remove a birthmark. Oh. I see.


If you didn't know she was getting
the third-degree, you'd have
thought it was a shampoo
commercial.
But wait! Where does that leave Barbara Hammond, the woman condemned? She's undergoing the third degree down at headquarters, while Dapper Dan watches impassively until the room goes dark. A moment later, the lights go on -- and Jane appears where Barbara once stood. A gunshot rings out; Jane drops to the floor. Taking a page from Los Angeles Police manual How to Get a Confession Out of a Suspect by the Most Preposterous Ways Imaginable, Dapper Dan barks in his thick-as-shell steak Argentinian accent, "I told you I'd get you! You thought I had forgiven you, hanh? But I waited five years to pay you off! Five long years in that pen you sent me to!"  A cops slaps the cuffs on him; Jane, unharmed, gets to her feet. Barbara reveals herself as the detective investigating the Merrick shooting, allowing them to make with the honeymoon. Jane agrees to marry Jim now that her pesky birthmark is gone. And the audience is left to make sense of the previous 61 minutes.

Sudden death and murder. OK...
The Woman Condemned was released by Progressive Pictures, "Progressive" meaning the moving images were created by a camera and not cave drawings illuminated by fire. Boasting all the hallmarks of a Mrs. Wallace Reid effort -- woozy theme music, stilted delivery, awkward transitions, mediocre sound, a budget that wouldn't cover the cost of a kitchen makeover -- The Woman Condemned doesn't even attempt to convey even the most rudimentary police procedures that were in place by 1934. Ballistics tests, taking fingerprints, studying clues. The closest a cop comes to examining the corpse is muttering, "Murder, hunh?" There's a promotion just waiting for that flatfoot.

But, as with similar low-budget movies of its time, there are a few interesting location shots, including an all-too brief nighttime car chase through downtown Los Angeles, complete with storefront Christmas decorations. Jerry and Barbara's studio-bound first date is intercut with an authentic (albeit second-rate) nightclub performance featuring glamor girls whose entire act seems to consist of wearing oversize feathers. Historically, these are the most interesting scenes in The Woman Condemned. Artistically, too. 


The doctor will see you now.
As the creepy Dr. Wagner, the always-terrific Mischa Auer is The Woman Condemned's only familiar -- and compelling -- actor. Filming him from Jim's point of view as he (Auer) approaches threateningly with a scalpel is Mrs. Wallace Reid's one inspired moment. For reasons unexplained, Auer's name is spelled "Aver" in the credits. I initially thought they were going for that fancy-shmancy old-school Greek typography. But considering the quality of the rest of the movie, the designer was probably drunk.

Is this the face that launched 25
years of Three Stooges shorts?


Claudia Dell, who plays Barbara Hammond, deserves a mention for reasons having nothing to do with The Woman Condemned. For one thing, she co-starred in Yellow Cargo, another movie discussed on this site. More importantly, Ms. Dell is said to be one of the three women who modeled for the original Columbia Pictures logo. You can bet she got mighty sick of jokers asking, "Hey Claudia, who ya carryin' that torch for, haw haw!"


"Have you heard my husband was
a junkie?"
As those who remembered reading about Sucker Money will attest (very few, I would guess), Mrs. Wallace Reid -- nee Dorothy Davenport -- was the only woman who capitalized on her husband's drug overdose by taking his name professionally. If nothing else, this definitely set her apart from the rest of the crowd even more than being one of the few female directors of her time. Somebody ought to try it now. While I'm not generally a fan of remakes, I would pay good money to see a movie with the following credits:

                      THE CONDEMNED WOMAN
                                   Starring
                           JENNIFER ANISTON 
                                 Directed by 
                             MRS. BRAD PITT 

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

One of Mrs. Wallace Reid's other movies, Sucker Money, is discussed here.
Claudia Dell's Yellow Cargo is discussed here.

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