Lila Thorne (Ida Lupino) has just become engaged to Fred Leonard (Lee Bowman); Fred is eager for Lila to meet his mother, Hattie (Fay Bainter). So off Lila goes to Maclin City, where she tries to get in Hattie's good graces - not an easy task. Turns out, Hattie's already chased away at least one of Fred's girlfriends. In the midst of this, Hattie discovers that the local dry cleaner, Mr. Zambrogio (Henry Armetta) has been forced to raise his prices - a protection racket is bleeding him for large amounts of money. Incensed when she discovers the mayor will do nothing about about it, Hattie decides to hire her own mob to deal with the gangsters. This week, we'll discuss The Lady and the Mob (1939) and its star.
As part of the What a Character! blogathon, we're focusing our attention on the wonderful character actress Fay Bainter
It's not often that Ms. Bainter gets to lead a film, but when she does, it's always a pleasure. She takes an okay script and an average part, and gives the audience a decidedly better experience. Sure, this film is a B movie, but in Ms. Bainter's hands, you really don't care - she's that good. She's funny and wry - even when she is being tyrannical towards Ida Lupino, you are amused by her. And when she decides that it is up to her to solve the crime problem in Maclin City because the authorities won't, watch out! She's a force to be reckoned with. Ms. Bainter was not the first choice for the role - the studio originally wanted Edna May Oliver (AFI catalog) - interesting choices that would have given two very distinct performances.
Fay Bainter started her stage career on the West Coast, working in traveling companies. By 1912, however, she'd come to Broadway - between 1912 and 1949, she appeared in 26 plays including Dodsworth (1934) (as Fran - the part would go to Ruth Chatterton on screen), She Stoops to Conquer (1928), and The Way of the World (1931). She started working in films in 1934. In 1938 she won a Supporting Actress Oscar (for her role as Bette Davis' aunt in Jezebel), and was nominated that same year for Best Actress (for White Banners), the first of only 9 people who have been given two nominations in the same year. She was also nominated for her role in The Children's Hour (1961). She segued into television in 1949, and worked in both mediums until her retirement in 1965. Her husband of 43 years died had died in 1964 (they had one son); Ms. Bainter died in 1968, at the age of 74.
Ida Lupino is very good in what is an extremely small part (Wendy Barrie was the first choice for the part). Ms. Lupino was still, at this point in her career, relatively unknown and relegated to secondary roles. But in December of 1939 (The Lady and the Mob was released in April), Ms. Lupino would finally get noticed, when she appears as the Cockney prostitute in The Light That Failed (TCM article). Ms. Lupino gives Lila gumption, which she needs when faced with the whirlwind that is Hattie. If there is a problem with the character, it is that one can't imagine Lila staying with a bore like Fred.
Lee Bowman has very little to do, and his character is a bit of a dolt. He's obviously dominated by his mother - when Lila says "I hope you realize I'm not marrying your mother," Fred's response is "That's what you think". Mr. Bowman isn't present for over half of the movie, and when he does appear, he's pushed aside by Lila and Hattie. They have bigger fish to fry, and he is not part of the solution. Part of the fun of the film is watching the two women bond over Hattie's preoccupation with the crime wave.
The supporting characters are lots of fun, with Henry Armetta as a stereotyped Italian dry-cleaner; Warren Hymer (Frankie O'Fallon) stands out as the chief of Hattie's mob, but they are all amusing; their interplay with Ms. Bainter is excellent. George Meeker (playing George Watson) is the head gangster on the other side of the fence, and makes a nice contrast to Mr. Hymer.
The film had several working titles: Mrs. Leonard Misbehaves , Old Mrs. Leonard and the Machine Guns and Old Mrs. Leonard and Her Machine Guns
This post is part of the What a Character! blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen. Please visit the other posts to learn about a variety of amazing character actors.