Friday, May 18, 2012

104. WHIRLPOOL (1934)

When Buck Rankin's Carnival rolls into Danville in the year of 19 hundred and 10, Buck (Jack Holt) doesn't know that his carefree grifting days are numbered. He falls in love with local girl Helen (Lila Lee), insists on marrying her even after she initially refuses knowing that Buck's kind of spirit has to live free, and is later arrested and found guilty of manslaughter after intervening with his unlucky fists in an outburst of violence from cheated customers. Sentenced to twenty years in prison, he learns eight months later that Helen is with child, he advises her to seek a divorce, but she intends to wait for him. Unwilling to have her waste her life and condemn their child to a life of poverty, he selflessly (and cleverly) feigns his own death by stealing some of the warden's stationery and informing Helen by letter that he died while attempting an escape in the whirlpooling waters over the wall of the state penitentiary. In 1929, Buck is parolled and picked up by his faithful hypochrondriac sidekick Mac (Allen Jenkins), who drives him away from the prison as Buck informs him of his new, bigger way of looking at things. ("I've got idears, Mac... We're going places!") A year later, Buck is driving his own car, and a few years after that, in 1934, he's a big important man being driven through the streets of Los Angeles -- now known as Duke Sheldon, "connected" owner of the Paradise Club. He's due to offer a crucial alibi at the trial of a New York mob boss, which attracts the interest of young reporter Sandra Morrison (Jean Arthur), daughter of the judge hearing the case, but as soon as Sandy lays eyes on Duke, she recognizes her biological father. He's happy to be found, but to keep the secret of his second life from his remarried "widow," he must disappoint some very dangerous people...

This winning Columbia drama was directed by Roy William Neill, best-remembered for directing and producing most of Universal's Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone, but also responsible for such top-notch terror pictures as BLACK MOON, THE BLACK ROOM and the first of the "versus" pictures, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. Scripted by Ethel Hill (THE LITTLE PRINCESS) and graduating script girl Dorothy Howell, from a story by Howard Emmett Rogers (presumably too busy adapting TARZAN AND HIS MATE to do the job himself), WHIRLPOOL sounds awfully scatterbrained when reduced to a synopsis -- as the DVD notes acknowledge, it starts out as a carnival picture (DP Benjamin Kline, who sho James Whale's JOURNEY'S END, wins us over right away with a terrific crane/dolly shot), then becomes a love story, a prison yarn, a crime picture, a newspaper drama, only to turn into a sentimental story of family reunion. However, Neill's masterful eye for detail ensures that the mind never wanders or is tempted to condescend; there is always something, or someone fun, popping up to keep this hopped-up buggy turning corners with one leg out. Largely forgotten leading man Jack Holt has the same mix of brashness and tenderness that Robert Armstrong throws around in KING KONG, and his chemistry with the silk-voiced Arthur nearly tips over from the paternal to the romantic at times, which adds to the confusion for her fiancé Bob (Donald Cook), a young guy who rattles off his newspaper office dialogue so fast, you'd think the place was going to explode at any second. The montages illustrating the shared activities that estranged father and daughter cram into their few days together are almost hilariously eventful. (The film's uses of montage are quite interesting in themselves; stock footage from Lewis Milestone's ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is incorporated, along with much newsreel material, into the time passing outside Buck's prison cell.) But the film also offers something deeper, under its forward-leaning bluster and twinkle, that assures us that Buck/Duke is really a decent person despite the path he's followed, and it builds to a finale that reminds us (and members of the press) that it's sometimes the nobler thing to do to keep a secret. I liked this one a lot.

Viewed via Sony/TCM's DVD, available only as part of THE JEAN ARTHUR DRAMA COLLECTION box set.

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