A hallmark of my success here at Black Gate has been to get other writers, with actual talent, to write for my column. I accomplish that feat again today as fellow Black Gater Steven H Silver takes a look at a classic film and gives it a hardboiled review. You may not immediately guess what film he’s looking at, although I’d bet you’ve heard of it before. Take it away, Steven!
I’m going to look at one of the stranger “Gat” films. With action taking place in a variety of places, ranging from a state room on an ocean liner to a swanky long island party to a rousing conclusion in a barn.
Rockliffe Fellows plays “Big Joe” Helton, an older mob boss who is returned from Europe aboard an ocean liner with his daughter, Mary, played by Ruth Hall. Also on board the ship is Alky Briggs, played by Harry Woods, Briggs is accompanied by his wife, Lucille, portrayed by Thelma Todd, right at the midpoint of her career. Oddly enough, aside from these women, both of these men seem to be traveling without any members of their gangs, although they both are able to rectify that oversight.
We’re first introduced to Briggs in his cabin, where his wife, Lucille is complaining that he has been ignoring her on the voyage. Briggs makes it clear that he isn’t making a play for any other woman, rather his purpose for being on the ship is because he has determined that being alone on the ocean is the perfect time to attempt to muscle in on Helton’s territory. Here is a huge difference between Lucille’s language and Briggs. The writers have given Thelma Todd natural dialogue and she delivers it well. Briggs’ lines are written almost as a parody of a movie gangster, with no recognition that he and Lucille are in an actual relationship and Woods delivers them in a such a stereotypical manner that the only conclusion a viewer can have is that he’s decided to play tough-guy Briggs as a satire.
As Alky is about to storm out of their argument, a tailor’s assistant enters the room with one of Lucille’s dresses. With the admonition that she should complain to the tailor, Briggs leaves. The screenwriters now make the rather odd decision to stay with Lucille rather than show what Briggs is up to. Lucille does, in fact, commiserate with the tailor, who life Alky, seems to be in a completely different conversation than she is. However, he is happy to stick around and flirt with her rather than return to his duties. The two begin to tango when Alky returns and orders Lucille from the room. After Briggs threatens to “lay [the tailor] out pretty,” the man begins to jabber away. The coolness of his nerve impresses Alky who decides to offer them a job. When one of the tailor’s colleagues enters the room, Briggs hands each of them a gat and orders them to accompany him to see Joe Helton.
Of note in this scene, while Alky and Lucille clearly have an unhappy marriage, there are indications that it goes beyond verbal sparring. Todd’s looks and motions indicate that Briggs is likely to be physically abusive towards her, although the screenwriters did not include any lines or actions to make this explicit.
While Alky and Lucille had a nice two room suite on the ship, it was relatively plain compared to Joe Helton stateroom. When we first see Joe, he’s dressed in a robe while finishing a meal. A waiter removes his tray and Briggs tips him handsomely before sitting down with the London edition of the Daily Sketch, which has devoted two columns to Helton’s return to the United States, referring to him as a Millionaire Racketeer and noting that his 18 year old daughter, Mary, has just completed finishing school and they are returning to open a new mansion.
Mary enters the room and begins to berate her father for not having dressed, but Joe is having none of it. He’s a big wig now and plans on taking it easy for the rest of his life. They are interrupted by Alky Briggs, who has lost his two ersatz goons. When Briggs starts to tell Helton that he’s concerned about business, Helton sends Mary from the room. Briggs’ glances and comments as Mary leaves can only be taken as a threat. Once she’s gone, Briggs tells Joe that he wants Joe’s backing for his own gang, including a signed document to that effect. Helton refuses, telling Briggs that he isn’t taking sides and Alky will have to fight it out with Butch. As Helton tears up the note Briggs had handed him, Briggs pulls a gun on Helton, but two passersby attack Alky and bluff him into leaving. Helton hires them as bodyguards and goes for a walk on deck.
After leaving Helton’s stateroom, Briggs reconnected with the tailor and his partner, re-arming them and giving them instructions to shoot Helton when he leaves his room. They lose their nerve and when Briggs begins to confront them, Lucille appears and continues her argument with Briggs from their room as the bodyguards take the opportunity to leave the two to their domestic squabble.
Helton is relaxing in a desk chair, alone, when the tailor happens by. Rather than shoot him, as he was ordered to, the tailor offers his own services to Helton, who refuses them.
Meanwhile, the tailor’s partner has had several encounters with Mary and the two begin a budding romance, which they continue after the ship docks in New York.
In New York, Briggs I seen talking to his gang of toughs. He plans on infiltrating Mary Helton’s coming out party and assigned his men to attend as musicians. Although it would seem that Briggs is some sort of underling to Helton, is also appears Helton wouldn’t recognize the men who work directly for Briggs. One of them asks Briggs about the four bodyguards from the ship, all of whom seem to be working for Helton now, but Briggs assures his men that he has all four eating out of his hand and they’ll come through when the time is right.
At the party, Helton’s toughs are providing security while Mary continues her shipboard romance. Briggs’s men keep an eye on her while providing the music for the soiree which is a strange mix of formal dress and costume party. They are waiting for the go-ahead from Briggs. After Mary is introduced to society by Big Joe, Briggs reconnects with the tailor on the patio, sharing the plan. His men will kidnap Mary and take her to the old barn. Because he doesn’t give the tailor instructions about what he is to do, there is literally no reason for Briggs to share this information.
As soon as Briggs leaves the tailor, Lucille shows up at the party and reconnects with the tailor. It isn’t made clear if she knows Alky is there and it seems likely that he is unaware of her presence. Why she’s there is never explained, but she almost immediately begins flirting with the tailor again. When Briggs returns, she runs off, Cinderella style.
The action takes a break for a musical interlude that include piano and harp solos as well as an operatic aria. It ends when the butler informs Big Joe that Mary has, in fact, been captured (you would think Briggs’s goons would have been busy playing music as part of their cover). Helton and the toughs he has providing party security head out to find additional reinforcements, but the four body guards from the ship head straight to the old barn, beating Big Joe’s men there and rescuing Mary from Alky Briggs.
The film has plenty of action, but the logic is short. Lucille moves in and out of the film for her scenes with Alky and the tailor, but never really has any sort of closure. Mary’s budding romance has a few cute moments, but the audience is never really invested in it. Briggs demonstrates himself as inept, both in personal relationships and in the way he runs his gang, indicating the Big Joe is right not to support him, although Helton seems successful enough that he would support just about anyone over Briggs.
Bob here again. Did you guess the movie? I didn’t include any pics to give it away. It’s the 1931 Marx Brothers classic, Monkey Business! The Marxes inverted the gangster tropes common at the time and made an excellent comedy out of them. Steven and I both think the Marxes were brilliant, and Monkey Business is further proof of that.
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His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI.