' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: A Slight Case Of Murder (1938)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: A Slight Case Of Murder (1938)

Mary Marco (Jane Bryan) has just been introduced to the upstanding father of her daughter’s fiancé. For the entire film she, like her husband Remy (Edward G. Robinson) and their smattering of right-hand men, have been speaking in those thick New York accents so indicative of tough guy playwright Damon Runyon on whose work this film, “A Slight Case Of Murder”, was based. She calls cops “flatfoots” and men giving her a hard time “mugs”. But now Mary wants to impress, she wants to come across as the politely mannered socialite she is not, so she assumes a fake hoity-toity English-esque accent apparently in the hope of making the upstanding father of her daughter’s fiancé think she has ties to the queen. Never mind that she continually slips out of it mid-sentence, the point is that she is desperate to gussy herself up as something she is not.


Edward G. Robinson, for good or for bad, is generally remembered as a wise-cracking tough guy. He broke out as the title character of 1931’s “Little Ceasar”, the rise and fall of a small time gangster. I think of him most fondly as the dastardly Johnny Rocco, holding Bogey and Bacall and a “Key Largo” hotel hostage in the midst of a hurricane. He was so tailor-made for these roles that, for much of his career, he was more or less doomed to being typecast in them. He would, eventually, to a degree, track down other parts to play, but always the stigma of “Little Ceasar” remained. And while it might merely be that the passage of time – 75 years worth – makes it look this way, “A Slight Case Of Murder” sort of evokes that casting battle at the core of Robinson.

His Remy Marco, incessantly referring to himself in the third person, is dapper, shifty, tough-as-nails, and a roaring success on account of bootlegging operation during Prohibition. But as “A Slight Case Of Murder” opens, Prohibition is ending, and regular beer is re-appearing on the market. Therefore Marco decides to go straight, running a legit brewery. Alas, his product is no better than swill, his profits nosedive, and after four years of being an honest businessman he is in debt for half a million to the bank. They want it now or the brewery is theirs. Thus, Marco retreats to his summer home upstate in Saratoga with his wife and daughter, Nora (Ruth Donnelly), who has just become engaged to a Saratoga state trooper.

On top of that, Marco has made his yearly pilgrimage to the orphanage where he grew up (run by Margaret Hamilton which means that for a few brief scenes The Wicked Witch Of The West & Edward G. Robinson share the same screen which is just entire liquor crates of awesome) to take one of its inhabitants under his wing. On top of that four mobsters are waiting at the summer home to ambush them.


Clearly showing its stage roots, “A Slight Case Of Murder”, upon getting its set-up out of the way, almost entirely takes place in the expansive summer home of the Marcos. It is a wondrous farce, nimbly balancing its varying situations and misunderstandings, its plethora of characters going up the stairs and down the stairs and in and out of doors, its comedy and deaths and debts. And at the center of it all is Robinson, commanding without overwhelming the picture and drowning out his many fine co-stars. Consider the interactions between he and the orphan, the brilliantly named Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom (Bobby Jordan). This has all the makings of hijinks, a protégé causing trouble for his wannabe mentor.

And while Douglas is a troublemaker, well, there is that bootlegging part of Marco that can’t help but look at this kid with grand affection. He doesn’t say “you’re a lot like me” but you can tell that he thinks it. The funniest line in the whole film is Robinson, genuinely, looking at a supposedly sleeping Douglas and saying “You can almost see the little halo over his little head.” The very fact that Douglas is more devil than angel is exactly why Marco thinks he’s so angelic.

Douglas will factor mightily into the gloriously staged finale as the bankers and the authorities and the fiancé and the father and the mobsters and, of course, Remy Marco himself all come up against each other in one way or another. He has gone legitimate post-Prohibition Repeal only to find that legitimate has left him on the verge of foreclosure. So, he decides he will revert to being un-legitimate. But then he learns that perhaps he failed post-Repeal simply because his beer tasted like Hamm’s after it has sat out on a summer New York City sidewalk too long, so maybe he could stay legitimate.

The end, cleverly, kind of bridges these two gaps and allows Marco to nestle in the middle ground, even if we can still tell that in his legitimate heart lurks a lawless, cracking wise nature.

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