Larceny, Inc. (1942) is airing on TCM tonight at 6:15 EST. I gave the star-studded gangster comedy another look the night before, and will do my best to tell you about it without spoiling it for you. What I plan to do here is run down the fabulous cast and the characters they're playing as well as the basic storyline. I'll be sure to give you fair warning before I get to the story itself.
Gangster-comedy? Before Larceny, Inc. came to the screen the story, written by S.J. Perelman and wife, Laura Perelman, ran on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre for 22 performances under it's original title "The Night Before Christmas." And sure enough, if you leave the room at a certain point, you may very well return to find yourself watching a Christmas picture, complete with crowds of carolers, Edward G. Robinson dressed as Santa Claus with a cigar sticking out of his white-bearded mug, and a story of redemption, which we've slowly been building to without all of the obvious tip-offs.
The story is classic and has been recycled numerous times. I gave the DVD commentary a listen last night while doing some other things at my desk, and while I found Haden Guest and Dana Polan's conclusions overwhelmingly over thought and a tad pretentious for a film completely absent of either of those qualities itself, they did touch upon a few points that I found myself thinking during my own viewing of Larceny, Inc.
First, by way of comparisons to other film figures, one or both of the pair--and any further reference I make to them will be as a single entity--hit upon the same two as came to my mind, mentioning one at the start of the commentary and the other at the end. First, Broderick Crawford's Jug was compared to Lenny from Of Mice and Men by way of his sheer dimwitedness as well as his absolute loyalty to his George, in this case Edward G. Robinson's "Pressure" (otherwise known a J. Chalmers Maxwell). Apparently this comp didn't take any great genius to spot however, as the reviewers mentioned it was stressed in the Warner's Notes.
Another similarity, from much less serious source, springs to mind through the inclusion of Edward Brophy's Weepy as the third member of our core group, and that is The Three Stooges. In this scenario Robinson's Pressure would be their leader, their Moe, Crawford's Jug would obviously be Curly, not too bright and subject to any physical violence/comedy, while Brophy's Weepy was the same type of middleman as Larry, allowed to express himself often with enough reason behind his thoughts and actions to get Pressure to buy in, but subject to the same ridicule as Jug when his ideas didn't pan out. If you're already familiar with Larceny, Inc., think of the scene where they strike oil.
Lloyd Bacon directed Larceny, Inc. for Warner Brothers and was subject to the usual crew of familiar Warner faces, with the exception of Crawford who was on loan-out from Universal. The most interesting bit of history I found mentioned by the reviewers was that Bacon previously had access to Edward G. Robinson in two of his other gangster themed comedies which preceded Larceny, Inc., A Slight Case of Murder (1938) and Brother Orchid (1940), grouping these three films together into a loose trilogy of sorts.
Returning to the cast, we have Robinson, who is an A lead; Crawford on loan from Universal as I'd mentioned; Brophy, a character actor who's appearing in just about everything on the lot at this point (I did a brief birthday bio write-up about Brophy back on February 27); they are joined by A-level actress Jane Wyman, looking as beautiful as I've ever seen her here as shown in the image above, as Denny, who honestly could have used some extra camera time; Denny's love-interest, Jeff Randolph, a pushy salesman of both Hotchkiss luggage and himself, played by Jack Carson; the heel, Leo, played by Anthony Quinn and shown in the still image above Wyman with both Robinson and Crawford; and then a host of faces such as the rat Smitty played by Joe Downing; elderly Harry Davenport as Homer Bigelow who the boys buy the luggage shop from; Grant Mitchell as the banker, even Fred Kelsey shows up at Mitchell's side; and, most notably, a tiny role played by baby faced 26-year-old Jackie Gleason, who's facial contortions are already reminding us in retrospect of some of his great characters to come.
Now, if you've yet to see Larceny, Inc. as of yet, this may be where you want to leave off for now--catch it on TCM tonight at 6:15 pm EST. Still, I'm not going to give it all away, so if you're feeling daring please do read on.
Pressure (Robinson) and Jug (Crawford) are released from prison just as soon as we establish Robinson as the smooth-talking boss and Crawford as his lovable sidekick. We've also met Leo (Quinn) in the yard, and have had the seed planted that he'll be trouble later. Leo has told the boys about an easy bank job that he'll be looking to pull after busting out. Pressure opts out.
After Pressure smooth-talks his way into the warden's suit, we take to the streets where we immediately meet up with Denny (Wyman). She's more or less thrust into this scene just to show her face at this point and quickly departs leaving Pressure and Jug to run into Weepy (Brophy).
The boys plan on going straight, or more accurately that is Pressure's plan for them, but after a try at a bank loan fails, Pressure decides they'll have to get their money from the bank in a different way. Right across the construction riddled street is one of two luggage shops. The construction has killed business and Harry Davenport is ready to sell his luggage business once the idea is put to him. The boy's come up with the G needed to purchase the shop by one of their old schemes, having Jug jaywalk his way into a slick enough looking moving vehicle. With the luggage shop now under their control, the idea is to tunnel through the floor up into the floor of the neighboring bank, emptying the vault once they reach it. Coincidentally, the bank at the center of all of this action is the same one that Leo's plans revolve around.
Besides it's perfect location, the luggage shop is chosen under the assumption that it is dead, killed off by both the construction and the rival nearby shop. Still traffic does come in and out of the store, and one of the first visitors is Hotchkiss salesman Jeff Randolph (Carson), who lays his sales rap on Weepy. Weepy shows no interest at all, but when Randolph tells him that payment isn't needed for three months he orders a little of everything just to get Randolph to leave. Somewhere in between that first visit of Randolph's and the Hotchkiss delivery actually arriving early, Pressure kills two birds with one stone by pawning Denny off on Randolph.
Despite any assumed romantic inclinations towards our main characters, and Crawford's Jug does have a bit of a crush on Denny, Wyman's Denny is single and available, though not quite as available as Randolph's quick pitch marriage proposal. In Larceny, Inc. lines relating to back story are dropped quick, so keep your ears open. A throwaway line here informs us that Pressure is a like a father to Denny, because her real father, now deceased, used to be a tight partner in crime with Pressure. Denny is very much her own person, and while I didn't get the feeling she was overwhelmed with Pressure's welfare, he is definitely her project of the moment--she wants Edward G. to go straight.
Little does Pressure know that his pairing off of Denny with slick-talking Randolph could pose the biggest threat to his planned heist. Without explaining why Pressure can't know about it, Denny twists Randolph around her little finger and the pair embark on one of the greatest sales and PR campaigns you could imagine, with the result of our dormant little luggage shop being overrun with business, and our lifelong criminals slowly coming to realize the pride of entrepreneurship.
Of course there are bumps on that path, some of them leading to some of the best comedy in the movie, such as Pressure's gift-wrapping of a suitcase intended for a customer's departing mother-in-law. And even filled with the pride of earning that American dollar, the boys aren't above a little scam, as shown when a contest is held including a ten dollar bill inside a random piece of luggage--Jug is the winner. Speaking of ten dollar luggage, I don't quite know why, if this is a reference to something out of my grasp or not, but if you ask any of the boys how much any particular piece of luggage costs the answer is always $9.75. Perhaps it's as simple as repetition, but the line, "$9.75," is good for a laugh throughout. Despite this one price fits all strategy, at one point after some serious salesmanship, Denny counts the til and they've profited over $500, so they've at least managed to back into some profits.
Along the way, despite all the chaos coming from inside their luggage shop, the other merchants in town fall in love with Pressure. He slick talks, even threatens, his way into getting the construction completed, which goes a long way with the other merchants. His ideas, always presented boastfully as if he's been in business his entire life, work for them, and as a result, they love him.
The luggage shop rises precipitously in value once the bank decides it's got to have it. Grant Mitchell as the banker even unveils the bank's floor plans to the boys on top of a stack of luggage that's actually filling in the hole that Jug has been digging throughout the picture. Through all of Pressure's dishonestly and scheming, it's becoming quite clear that he's not going to be able to avoid the opportunity to be rewarded through both his perceived good works and Denny's outside manipulation of events.
Or so we think until Leo catches wind of what Pressure's up to and breaks out of prison.
I'm going to leave this right there, like I said at the start, I don't want to ruin this if you haven't seen it yet. You'd think a 67 year old film would be immune to spoilers, but in the case of Larceny, Inc. we have a largely unknown comedy classic, so that's not the case.
Like many of my Warner favorites, Larceny, Inc. packs a lot into a brief running time, in this case a more standard 95 minutes, but still the action progresses at an impressive clip, words are never wasted. The overall script is as slick-talking as Pressure himself, the snappy dialogue likely the result of this being a stage adaptation. As I'd mentioned any backstory, and there is quite a bit, is brought out through throw away lines, that if you miss them you miss the story.
I fear that in attempting to give you a basic outline of the story I've overlooked some of the fantastic humor in Larceny, Inc. I'll leave you with what was my favorite bit of dialogue, which is a little out there for 1942. This occurred upstairs inside the luggage shop soon after Pressure and the boys moved in. A female fellow merchant from the neighborhood, after some flirting with Pressure says, "I wish you'd drop in and look over my lingerie some time," in reference to her shop's stock, to which Robinson's Pressure immediately flips back, "Well, you drop in some time and look over my trunks."
Don't get me wrong, Larceny, Inc. isn't loaded with witty double entendre such as that above, but for the most part the laughs aren't too dated here and they come at a pretty rapid pace.
A limited number of fans on IMDb rate Larceny, Inc. a 7.4/10--despite this being opinion culled from a number of viewers well under 1,000, I think they've got it just about right. Highly recommended, fun!
Once again, Larceny, Inc. airs at 6:15 PM Eastern time tonight on TCM. If you miss it, I highly recommend you pick up the DVD, either on it's own, or as part of the Warner Gangsters Collection Vol. 4.
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