Part of a series by David Cairns on forgotten pre-Code films.
"Crime must not pay" is one of the most debilitating rules the Hays Code imposed on Hollywood. It's relatively easy for a filmmaker to work around crazy bans on words ("pregnant"), body parts (gone, all those extreme-longshot buttocks) or gestures (Frank McHugh raises a finger in Parachute Jumper), but when a philosophical ideal is given the weight of narrative law, cinema is forced back into the nursery. The filmmakers operating under this draconian blue pencil developed devious skills to bypass rulings and imply rather than say the unsayable, and it arguably helped their craft, but at the same time, certain kinds of stories just become impossible to tell honestly.
And certain kinds of fun were ruled out too, like much of what happens in Sing and Like It, directed by the lightly likable William A. Seiter, who clocked up well over a hundred films, from 1915 all the way to television, including among them the Laurel-Hardy Sons of the Desert (1933) and the Astaire-Rogers Roberta (1935). But this one might be his best.
The plot is predicated upon a Runyonesque conceit, though the dialogue hinges on slang, wisecracks and sharp characterization rather than that weird "poetry of the streets" Bard-of-Broadway thing Runyon did.
(My theory about Runyon is that he must have listened to mobsters and thugs testifying in court, trying to sound sophisticated: so his characters have that weird Mr. Spock thing of being unable to use contractions in their speech, but they can't help dropping colorful slang into every clause.)
So. Gangster Nat Pendleton is out safecracking with the boys when he hears an amateur singer, Zasu Pitts, murdering a mawkish song about mother love. The thug is indescribably moved, and already having had the idea of theatrical involvement planted in his noggin by his ex-showgirl lover Pert Kelton, he resolves to put Pitts on Broadway. By force if necessary.
Woody Allen got plenty of value out of violently connecting the contrasting worlds of organized crime and the stage (maybe they're not so contrasting?) in Bullets over Broadway, and the same kind of entertainment value obtains here. It's not clear who provided the staggering dialogue ("Crawlin' with diamonds and not a bruise on you," is how Pendleton sums up his girl's happy lifestyle), since of the two screenwriters involved, neither has a track record for this kind of thing. Original author Aben Kandel can be credited for setting the sub-Runyon tone, though, with his story "So You Won't Sing, Huh?" The resulting film is gleefully unsympathetic to all concerned, without alienating the viewer with an excess of brutality: part of the trick is to make all the characters obnoxious enough to deserve their woes, and to make the woes sufficiently mild, really.
Chief schmuck-in-residence is the sublime Edward Everett Horton, a maniacal Broadway producer forced at gunpoint to stage the worst theatrical revue since records began. A brief intro establishing him as a petty tyrant is sufficient justification for the movie to demean and terrify him for the rest of the running time. This sadism extends to multiple renditions of Zasu's Big Number, to which Horton (and we the audience) are forced to listen. His best moment is on the big night, when her singing compels him to heft the fire axe with obvious homicidal intent, before passing it to a stage hand with the words "Hide this where I can never find it." That sly actor manages a nostalgic look in the direction of the departing axe, full of wistful mourning: depend on Horton, he's not going to leave any comedy on the table.
Pendleton, Kelton and all the rest (Ned Sparks! John Qualen!) are archetypally marvelous, and even manage to make the film's more antediluvian moments palatable. Domestic violence jokes are pretty hard to take, as a general rule, but consider this one: Pert Kelton, jealous of Zasu's approaching stardom, arranges for her abduction so she can go on in her stead. Pendleton finds out, blacks her eye, and forces her to reveal the location of the safe house. But then they get there, Ms. Pitts has been taken elsewhere, re-kidnapped. Pendleton prepares a second eye-blacking, and Seiter wipes to the next scene with a wipe shaped like a Batman comics explosion—
Now Kelton is wearing sunglasses. "Take those shades off," barks Pendleton. She does, revealing panda-like eyes. "I said 'Take those shades off!'" says Pendleton, who wasn't looking. "I did," growls Kelton.
Funny. But terrible. But funny! But terrible! You can repeat this conflicted-response-cycle infinitely, but a sick laugh will probably be punched from your diaphragm at some point in the seconds it takes to process the dreadful taste involved.
Ultimately, we are all to blame, as the movie makes clear: we deserve to have to listen to Zasu sing a half-d0zen times (a skilled but somewhat one-note comedian, she doesn't vary her delivery of the song at all). The show is presented, the head critic is bullied into applauding the song and laughing at the cheesy gags written by the mob's resident "wit," the rest of the critical community go along with the senior scribe's judgement, and the New York audience applauds along, sure it's doing the smart thing.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.