Thursday, March 26, 2015

Rita's on Broadway

We see a suicide note.  Charles Engle (John Qualen) has decided to end his life after his wife runs off with another man, taking with her $3,000 Engle embezzled from his employer.  His boss, Mr. Hopper (George Watts), tells him he has until 6am to retrieve the money and return it. So, Charles goes out to jump in the river, but the police by the waterfront scare him into away from the pier and into The Pigeon Club.  In his ennui, Charles throws what money he has around, raising a number of eyebrows, including those of an unusual trio.  Bill O'Brien (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), in some senses the narrator of the film, is a con man who hopes to make a bit of money off this new mark.   Nina Barona (Rita Hayworth), is a would-be performer looking for someone to cast her in a stage play, or provide a few bucks til she finds a producer.  Gene Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell) is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who has just had a play fail miserably, and his girlfriend leave him; he would like to find an angel for his next play, and he thinks Charles is the answer.  So begins Angels Over Broadway (1940).

Angels Over Broadway shows great promise as it opens; it is witty and interesting.  Even the double meaning of the title - the Broadway "angel" (or financier) being sought by all three of our characters, framed in comparison to the angelic deed that the three agree to perform in order to save Charles' life - shows imagination.  By the end, however, the plot begins to implode, and we felt that the writers just didn't know how to end it.  Some of the plots just seem to stop (Gene Gibbons, for example), and the ending given to Nina and Bill has an artificial feel to it.  It's too bad, really, because there are some great characters that showed a lot of promise.
We particularly enjoyed Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s small time con man.  He's properly smarmy, but is also attractive. Fairbanks is always a dynamic actor, and he tries hard to make his character realistic.  But, there are problems even a talented actor can't overcome.  For example, though he and Nina bicker, and he denies an attraction, he seems protective of her.  But there is little chemistry between him and Rita Hayworth, and her character is really a riddle. Hayworth doesn't get to do very much, and her character's actions are contradictory.  It doesn't feel like Nina has an awakening; the character does a complete about-face in her attitudes and actions, and its not clear why.  But she is not given a lot to work with - the screenplay is much more interested in Fairbanks and in the always wonderful Thomas Mitchell.

Also given short shrift is John Qualen, a great character actor with a sizeable part in screen time, but no real opportunity for character development.  Qualen gives the appearance of sleepwalking through the film, and while in other films he is often portrayed as an everyman, he is rarely weak in his portrayals.  Here, he is not so much nebbishy as he is a non-entity.  Qualen had a lengthy career, working in films and television from 1931 to 1974. Many of you will remember him as Vera Miles father in The Searchers or as the expectant father in Whipsaw.  His career started on Broadway; he went to Hollywood to recreate his stage role in the screen version of Street Scene and became a favorite of director John Ford.  Qualen appeared in Ford's films over a thirty year period.  John Qualen died in 1987 (aged 87) having been married to his wife since 1924.
Ben Hecht was actually nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Angels Over Broadway (it lost to The Great McGinty), and it was well received critically.  Audiences, however, did not warm up to the film.  This TCM article goes into more depth on the film and on Rita Hayworth.

Having recently seen the film Raffles, we were amused when Gene steals a brooch, and his ex-girl friend announces "You're no Raffles".  All in all, we were sorry that we didn't enjoy Angels Over Broadway more.  It showed such promise!  It might be worth a look, just for the beginning of the film, and to see Fairbanks in top form.  

We'll leave you with a scene from early in the picture, as Bill begins his flirtation with Nina: