This film has an amazing cast. Humphrey Bogart demonstrates his flare for comedy as 'Gloves' (whose given name is Alfred!), and is supported by actors like Frank McHugh (as newlywed Barney), William Demarest (as right-hand man Sunshine), and Jackie Gleason (as Starchy). His opposition is just as impressive. Peter Lorre as Pepi, our slimy villain was of particular interest. He is an actor who is always fascinating to watch; he is not a disappointment here. The wonderful Conrad Veidt is featured as Hall Ebbing, the ultimate Nazi; and Judith Anderson appears as Ebbing's comrade - she is just as menacing as she was in Rebecca. Add Kaaren Verne as love interest Leda Hamilton and Phil Silvers (as a waiter in the restaurant), and you have a powerhouse of actors. It's really it is the acting that make this film so enjoyable. It has a good script, but coming from the mouths of these folks, the dialogue shimmers.
The film was released on December 2nd, 1941 - just 5 days before the United States would enter World War II. Many of the studios tried to avoid any mention of the difficulties in Europe. Certainly, this was an economic issue (insulting the Nazi party would assure that the studio's films would not be shown in Germany). But censorship was an issue as well. The Hays office, which governed film standards under the Production Code, was very clear that films which "would arouse very bad feeling in Germany" were to be avoided (The New Yorker. "Hitler in Hollywood"). However, Warner Brothers had other ideas. As this article from the American Film Institute discusses, Warner Brothers release of Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939 (based on an FBI case in New York) was the first explicitly anti-Nazi film made in America. It was produced in the face of numerous domestic and international threats, and reversed the policy of the Hays office.
This film follows in that anti-Nazi vein, and features three actors who had a vested interest in showing the dangers of the Nazi party. Conrad Veidt, whose wife was a Jew, left Nazi Germany for the United Kingdom in 1933, relocating the U.S. around 1940. Peter Lorre was in a similar situation. Though lauded by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbel for his work in the film M, Lorre and his wife (actress Celia Lovsky) fled to the United States in 1933. Kaaren Verne left Germany in 1938, also to get away from the Nazis (Verne and Lorre would marry four years after this film, after divorcing their respective spouses). Veidt, who donated huge sums of money to the British war effort, especially seemed to relish the chance to make the Nazis look bad. He is a marvelous actor, and it is a shame that his death of a heart attack in 1943 precluded his return to meatier roles.
The advertisements for the film make sure to emphasize that Bogart's 'Gloves' is a gangster. Take a look at the poster above. "The underworld's top trigger-guy..." That's 'Gloves'. Except that the film clearly tries to make him less a gangster and more a businessman. Sure, he orders all the local restaurants to only purchase cheesecake from Papa Miller (a cheesecake protection racket!), and he has a gun. But he is a nice guy who loves his mother. The script really wants to de-emphasize the shadiness of 'Gloves' line of work, so that the film can have a happy ending (the Code would not allow a real gangster to survive the ending, no matter how noble he was). But it's amusing that Warner Brothers is really trying to have their cheesecake and eat it too!
This film was yet another role that Bogart got because George Raft wasn't interested. (Raft also refused to do The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra). Olivia de Havilland was at one point listed for the role of Leda. This TCM article discusses how Gleason and Silver got into the film. Though no characters were in the original script for the actors, Jack Warner told Vincent Sherman to find them parts. So he did!
We end our discussion for this week with a trailer featuring our remarkable character actors and our star: