Brief impressions follow for each of four movies that I watched earlier this week.
- King for a Night (1933)
- Big Hearted Herbert (1934) and Father Is a Prince (1940)
- Confessions of Boston Blackie (1934)
King for a Night (1933)
A Universal rarity that I picked-up for more pre-Code Helen Twelvetrees but it really turned out to be a Chester Morris movie.
Morris plays Bud Williams, pugnacious son of a minister (Grant Mitchell), who given that background really is a good kid at heart, but is often overcome by a quick temper and quicker fists. Twelvetrees is not Bud’s love interest, but his kid sister who winds up following big brother to New York to pursue her own wild side as a showgirl. Alice White is the love interest, Evelyn, a showgirl herself, who helps Lillian (Twelvetrees) land work for Walter Douglas (John Miljan), one of those shady Depression-era businessmen with a finger in every sour pie, including the boxing racket that Bud wishes to conquer in the ring.
They play mostly for laughs over the first hour or so, then try to raise the tension by having Lillian’s hometown boyfriend, Dick (Frank Albertson), show up in the city with hopes of dragging her back home. Country meets city, but city doesn’t play fair and Miljan’s heavy quickly puts Twelvetrees in her place by threatening to ruin brother Bud in the fight game if she doesn't stick by him and forget Dick. Miljan’s murder leads to Bud’s in-ring arrest moments after capturing the boxing championship. The Morris character winds up more king of a moment than ruler for even the entire night of the title.
King for a Night is pretty average stuff until its final scenes.
That’s when veteran character actor Grant Mitchell pays his visit to Morris on death row. Mitchell’s minister had suffered a stroke as the radio broadcast of his son's championship victory and subsequent arrest concluded, so he’s a bit shaky when he arrives. I was surprised to find myself choking up some as he had his final conversation with his son inside the small jail cell. It was a genuinely touching father-son moment, even if the circumstances were a bit exceptional. Mitchell is mostly responsible for the emotion, but the breaking point comes when Morris jauntily brags about what a trooper his dad is.
King for a Night closes on this emotional high note, leaving me with overall fonder feelings than expected for what was otherwise a pretty messy jumble involving, granted, a bunch of actors that I almost always like.
Father Is a Prince (1940)
This is a good one to touch upon next because it’s the only time I’ve ever seen Grant Mitchell, our minister up above, in a starring role. To make a modern comparison, Father Is a Prince feels like a failed sitcom pilot leaving me to wonder if perhaps this little B might have been Warner Bros. attempt to jab back at MGM’s Hardy series. If so, it seemed doomed to failure by casting Mitchell as an unlikable and meanspirited head of an average family, pretty much the polar opposite to Judge Hardy. Oh, they do allow Mitchell’s John Bower redeem himself at the end, but not until he’s driven his wife (Nana Bryant) to a nervous breakdown that’s so serious they have to operate!
To backtrack a moment, Father Is a Prince is based on a 1932 play by Sophie Kerr and Anna Steese Richardson, which made it's Broadway premiere New Year's Day, 1933. That play, Big Hearted Herbert, was first made into a movie by Warner Bros. in 1934.
Big Hearted Herbert (1934)
As of this writing Big Hearted Herbert rates a 6.5 with IMDb users; Father Is a Prince scores a 6.4. Now granted each rating is based upon fewer than one hundred votes apiece, but side-by-side it’s hard not to think that the earlier movie is better by a factor of ten.
Guy Kibbee plays Herbert Kalness, an uneducated and uncouth, yet highly successful businessman, who’s the head of a family that includes Aline MacMahon as his wife, Elizabeth, and Patricia Ellis as his daughter, Alice. There are also two sons and Helen Lowell as housekeeper, Martha.
Herbert is facing a tax audit at the office, just as the character does in the later film, though here we can believe that the I.R.S. causes him to be a bit more tightly wound than usual. He still explodes inappropriately when his family surprises him with dinner guests and news of his daughter’s engagement, but despite his terrible behavior the night unfolds in a way where you can at least understand Herbert’s anger. After Herbert embarrasses his entire family they take revenge on him the following evening by playing up his idea of being “just plain folks” when Herbert brings his best customer home to dinner.
Guy Kibbee and Aline MacMahon are both impressive here, each responsible for an incredible number of lines, Kibbee up front and MacMahon towards the end, which they both rattle off at breakneck pace. Kibbee’s small-town husband would pair well with his small-town businessman in Warner's ultimately disappointing adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, originally released just a couple of months after Big Hearted Herbert and also co-starring Aline MacMahon as his wife.
A little more on Big Hearted Herbert to be incorporated as we come back around to:
Father Is a Prince (1940)
This plays as a far less sophisticated telling of the same story. Grant Mitchell is a manufacturer of carpet sweepers in Father Is a Prince, interesting on the surface in pointing out how old-fashioned his John Bower is. But the point has too much attention drawn to it by making the father of his future son-in-law a vacuum cleaner manufacturer, leaving Bowers to rail at his wife: “You meet up with vacuum cleaners and all of a sudden carpet sweepers ain’t good enough for you anymore.” What could have been a subtle character trait is now a heavy-handed and unnecessary comparison between the two men.
Mitchell’s character is also being investigated by the I.R.S., but unlike Kibbee’s Herbert, the carpet sweep man’s audit seems to be just the next item on an overflowing and endless list of life's annoyances. He hates wasting electricity. He hates education. Well, Kibbee hates college too, but he backs up his distaste with reasons that even if not valid are concrete. Mitchell just doesn't like it. He also hates kissing his wife goodbye when he leaves for work in the morning. So does Kibbee, but then again, maybe not: They both comment on what a silly custom it is, but Kibbee is cute in commenting upon it being a “darn silly habit.” Mitchell gives the idea he’d rather have a bowl of prunes than give his wife a peck on the cheek.
In Big Hearted Herbert the Aline MacMahon character gets her revenge on husband Herbert by putting one over on him in a way that tosses all of his words and ideas back at him, shaming Herbert in front of a business client. She leads a family uprising. Now it might not have been the most creative solution (I think Lucy used it once on Ricky too), but it beats making the husband so low that his wife collapses over the stress he’s caused her and takes such a turn that she needs a life-saving operation by specialist surgeon. Yup, that’s what brings Grant Mitchell around in Father Is a Prince. After awhile he begins to resemble Ebenezer Scrooge with his wife, played by Nana Bryant, taking on the role of abused Bob Cratchit.
Father Is a Prince played recently on TCM as part of a recent mini-marathon of George Reeves movies, back to back with a bigger clunker featuring Reeves in a larger role, Always a Bride (1940). In Prince Reeves plays the too-handsome, too-charming young man engaged to Mitchell’s daughter, Connie (Jan Clayton). He doesn’t make much of an impression beyond his looks and actually has a lot more to do in the lesser movie, which was also directed by Noel Smith.
While Mitchell is no doubt supposed to be funny as the tightwad head of household, I doubt anybody intended this to play as over-the-top hilarious as it did for me.
Audiences could laugh at Guy Kibbee in Big Hearted Herbert because they could recognize friends, neighbors and even themselves in Herbert. Nobody would want to see themselves in Grant Mitchell’s character. He is the everyman pushed to the breaking point; He is you the moment your temper snaps, but Mitchell keeps right on burning for close to an hour.
Everything bugs Mitchell's John Bower and he lets everybody know it. Bower does not have a single redeeming moment in Father Is a Prince up until the moment when his antics almost kill his wife. I was actually upset that he turned over a new leaf just before the movie ended because the human version of Bower that emerged kills the character that had kept me in stitches up until that time.
Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941)
Well, why not report on another one with Chester Morris too? Morris was still a star at the time of King for a Night, just a few years off of his lone Academy Award nomination for his work in Alibi (1929). By the time of Meet Boston Blackie (1941) the now 40-year-old actor was being cast in B level productions, not unlike other Columbia series leads of the 1940s, such as Richard Dix, Warner Baxter and Warren William. Confessions of Boston Blackie was the second entry starring Morris, who wound up playing the part fourteen times through the end of the decade.
George E. Stone, who had a small part as Morris’ small-time fight promoter in King for a Night, plays Blackie’s sidekick, The Runt, for the first of a dozen times in this one. Other regulars include the returning Richard Lane as Blackie adversary Inspector Farraday, Walter Sande as Farraday’s dimwitted sidekick Detective Matthews, and the delightful Lloyd Corrigan debuting as Blackie’s wealthy friend, Arthur Manleder.
This entry revolves around a valuable statue placed at auction by Dianne Parrish, played by Harriet Hilliard, herself of later Ozzie and Harriet fame. The crooks running the auction house have actually made a duplicate hollow statue that they try to auction off, but Miss Parrish catches on and before the hammer can fall shots are fired across the auction floor, one of crooks is dead and Farraday suspects Blackie, never mind that he was firing his gun at one of the criminals to try to prevent the murder of Miss Parrish.
Blackie’s pal Arthur winds up in possession of the hollowed out statue, unaware that it contains a corpse inside that can prove Blackie's innocence. Blackie and the Runt chase the bad guys, Farraday and the cops chase Blackie and the bad guys chase the statue to try and recover the incriminating body. Blackie gets off on the wrong foot with Miss Parrish, but she comes around and winds up more involved after a visit from Mona, a hard-boiled ex of Blackie’s played by Joan Woodbury.
Starting off with some gags involving an ice cream vendor and leading to some genuinely funny asides from Corrigan’s Arthur Manleder, Confessions of Boston Blackie builds to some intense fisticuffs and exchange of gunfire inside a pretty wild secret underground studio where the forgery had been originally forged.
An enjoyable action-packed entry from director Edward Dmytryk with just enough of the trademark Boston Blackie humor to make for a feel-good hour plus of entertainment. More action than mystery.
For more about Confessions of Boston Blackie see this post at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings. Laura describes the entry as "movie comfort food," which sounds about right. Laura has also blogged about several additional Boston Blackie series entries.
Of the four movies discussed on this page only Big Hearted Herbert has had an official home video release. It is available from Warner Archive as a double-feature with The Merry Frinks (1934). Three of these four movies play occasionally on TCM while your best bet for King for a Night is probably gray-market video.