Thursday, July 24, 2014

POSTAL INSPECTOR (1936)

The 1935-1936 movie season marked something of an apex with Hollywood's hagiographies of federal investigators. Warners' G-Men and Grand National's Tough Guy (which chronicled the "adventures" of an Weights-and-Measures inspector), both starred James Cagney. Universal got into the act with Postal Inspector, but settled for Ricardo Cortez in the lead role of Bill Davis.

Probably realizing that there's nothing inherently exciting about a guy who's primary job is listening to saps who've been suckered out of their money by mail-order scams, Postal Inspector's producers padded out the movie's screentime by throwing in three songs (one of which is performed three times), a romantic subplot involving the postal inspector's brother and a nightclub singer, and newsreel footage of a Midwest flood, and endless speeches about how important it is listening to saps who've been suckered out of their money by bogus mail-order scams.  A voice-over impersonation of President Roosevelt gets into the act as well, reminding us how important it is listening to saps who... Well, you know. And the damn thing still runs only 56 minutes!


Ricardo Cortez looks for a loophole in his
contract to get out of this movie.
With everything but postal drama taking charge, the story proper doesn't really kick in until about the 30-minute mark. Bill Davis' brother Charlie, another fed, is in charge of delivering worn-out currency to the Treasury Department for eventual destruction. His girlfriend, nightclub thrush Connie Larrimore, innocently spills the beans to her boss, Gregory Benez, who steals Charlie's $3,000,000 shipment. If the producers had been honest, they'd have called this movie Treasury Guy with the The Big-Mouth Girlfriend. 

To jazz things up further, a flood of Biblical proportions threatens to destroy the city. (That's where the newsreel footage comes in.) Super Inspector Bill Davis risks his life by flying to a neighboring town to help move the contents of a post office to the second floor of another building, just so people can continue receiving junkmail. Thanks, Bill. The flood, however, offers the unique chance to watch a climactic motorboat chase in the middle of downtown, which looks as weird as it sounds.

"So, you re-used a one-cent stamp, hunh?
It's curtains for you!"
Ricardo Cortez, as usual, is better than the material he's given here, probably having choked on lines like "A postage stamp is the best insurance in the world" during the first read-through. He must have suffered some unfortunate deja vu as well, when warning Connie Larrimore, "You're in this, too, up to your neck" -- a line almost identical to one he recited as Sam Spade in the original version of The Maltese Falcon four years earlier. It's quite a comedown from ace private eye to mailman cop.

Lugosi gives the day's special:
blood pudding.
Most fans of obscure movies know Postal Inspector only because of fourth-billed Bela Lugosi as Benez. It's a nothing role for a guy who, five years earlier, was Universal's biggest draw in Dracula. Still, it's a treat to see Bela in a non-horror role for a change, even if he doesn't strike one as a nightclub owner. Never explained, however, is why a guy with a Spanish surname has a Hungarian accent.

Never explained, either, is why the songs featured in Postal Inspector survived the final cut. Connie Larrimore (Patricia Ellis) sings the pseudo-rhumba "Hot Towel" while taking a shower:

When you're through with your shower,
Do you shiver? Do you quiver?
Well, you're wrong.
When you're through with your shower,
You should treat it, you should heat it
With a song!

If only she met her fate before the musical numbers.
What is this, a first-grade glee club? (The best part of the number is the maid -- who else but Hattie McDaniel? -- using bottles of bathbeads as makeshift maracas.) Nothing, however, beats the song with quite possibly the worst title in music history, "Let's Have Bluebirds on All Our Wallpaper":

Let's have bluebirds on all our wallpaper
Decorating our dreams.
Shy little rosebuds on the chinaware,
Murmurs of love from the Frigidaire...

Either someone at Universal thought this was going to be a big hit or he lost a bet, for this song is performed three times -- twice accompanied by an obnoxious kid playing a harmonica. The incompetent hack responsible for such atrocious lyrics? Frank Loesser, who would go onto write Guys and Dolls and the Pulitzer Prize-winning How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Forget about Robert Johnson; I think Loesser met the devil at the crossroads of 44th and Broadway. There's no other way to explain that kind of improvement.

It's tempting to speculate just what the guys who ran Universal really thought of nonsense like Postal Inspector. They didn't have to make this for financial reasons; unlike Warners, M-G-M and Paramount, they didn't own a chain of movie theatres that needed a constant supply of product. If they wanted to jump on the federal agent bandwagon, why not the Secret Service? Surely there's some real drama involved in protecting the president, rather than... well, listening to saps who've been suckered out of their money by mail-order scams -- or by ridiculous movies like Postal Inspector.

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