One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. See more »
Armstrong at His Best in a Forgotten Little Gem
Over the years, Robert Armstrong attained a kind of semi-iconic status due to his starring role in a great film, KING KONG (pretty much reprising that role in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG), but he is rarely thought of as a starring actor, as against more of a supporting player (especially since his second-most-seen role in a famous film is as the ill-fated brother of the heroine in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME). But in his silent-to-talking crossover period, he starred in any number of films, mostly comedies, and mostly as a rough-and-ready (and not too bright) leading or semi-leading man. It is the kind of role he plays here, but I must say that of the over 100 films I have with him, this is the best, and certainly the biggest, role I have ever seen him in. The whole film revolves around him, and this in a good-looking B film with a plethora of other terrific actors. It's the kind of role an actor like Victor McLaglen or even Clark Gable (back then) or Anthony Quinn or Ernest Borgnine (in more modern times) would have excelled in, and probably in an A production to boot. Anyway, Armstrong plays a recently-paroled minor criminal (we are never told what he did to get into jail to begin with) who, along with two lovable cronies (James Gleason and Warren Hymer), attempts to go back into the boxing business, fails, and ends up as a physical trainer for a rich industrialist (Frank Morgan) and some of his wealthy friends. Overhearing much of these people's plans to more or less manipulate the market, he invests his own dough and becomes reasonably well off, making it possible for him to advance his younger brother's career as a broker. Things go awry when peripheral events induce Morgan to exact a penalty on his trainer, resulting in his return to near destitution and providing the impetus for the rest of the story as Armstrong reveals all at the behest of a newspaper publisher and then ends up testifying before a U.S. Senate committee regarding all of it. (None of this is in any way a 'spoiler' as everything is pretty much telegraphed to the audience well ahead of the reality setting in.) By that time, there have been other story lines introduced, along with one particularly memorable character (portrayed by a pre-Charlie Chan Sidney Toler) and even a murder. None of that is important to this review. What is important is that we are given the chance to see several famous character actors playing against type, and they do so superbly. Foremost is lovable Frank Morgan, who is anything but lovable in his lead-industrialist role, and very convincing. And Irving Pichel, of the voice-of-doom reputation, comes over well as the solidly honest, if somewhat overly ambitious publisher. Then there is Berton Churchill, who almost always played authority figures of a slightly 'bent' persuasion, here shown as a very sympathetic prison warden who bends over backwards to get Armstrong his parole. Wasted here is Moscow Art Theater veteran Olga Baclanova as Armstrong's floozy girlfriend, but she's fun when we can understand her, even though we keep expecting her to run off with a dwarf (that's for another review). And Constance Cummings is fine as Morgan's daughter, but gives no indications here that she will one day receive a CBE from the Queen. Still, the absolute gem of the casting is Sidney Toler, whose impending arrival on the scene is discussed in tones not inappropriate to the introduction of Josef Mengele into the action, and when he arrives he more than fulfills this promise. Toler is a 'fixer', maybe a hit-man himself, but definitely one who can arrange such things, and his three-or-four-minute scene with the industrialists is in many ways the highlight of the film. This is the 59-year-old Toler still showing vestiges of the younger leading stage actor he once was, very handsome in a mature sort of way, and by far the single classiest actor in the film; a far cry from Charlie Chan, indeed. Armstrong starts out a bit hammy, perhaps (it really IS that kind of role), but eases into the ensuing drama beautifully, and this is the kind of performance that, in an A production with a better screenplay (it has the usual B-film fatality of inadequate exposition at almost all times, so that we more than once find characters conversant with each other, if not downright in love with each other, whom we have no reason to expect have even as yet met!) would surely be better remembered 80 years later. A small price to pay, though, for the film is very 'alive', with a kind of forward momentum missing in many A productions. Also, although Armstrong and Gleason partnered in many early films (Armstrong had acted with Gleason's theatrical company), the addition of Warren Hymer to their ranks made for a perfect trio of somewhat dicey figures who might have done well in further escapades. But this one is enough. A delightful semi-romp, and a great example of why actors should often be cast against type (think Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab!).
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