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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Robinson's Roaring Back!

Eddie Doing What He Does Best in Illegal (1955)

A rare-by-1955 animal for Warners --- a totally in-house production just as in yore, with star alumnus Edward G. Robinson doing dynamo duty as if Little Caesar had just happened. Do I recommend Illegal? Crawl if you must to see it. Or more conveniently, watch the HD stream at Warner Instant or a DVD (combo-available with RKO's The Big Steal). Having checked out WB's '55 output, I find much was independent-produced and merely distributed by the Brothers: Land Of The Pharaohs, Mister Roberts, New York Confidential, Blood Alley, The Court Martial Of Billy Mitchell, others. The company was otherwise plunged deep into TV and churning series with vigor unknown since B's from the 30's. Illegal has that sort of energy, being straight-ahead retell of The Mouthpiece, a 1932 monument pillaged for story bumps and characterization since it was new in '32. Variety was catty in reviewing Illegal, "old-fashioned" the term they'd bandy (also "rather dated and well-used"). Weren't they aware it was a remake?

Illegal was like a testimonial for Eddie before his backlog avalanched to television, that to come within a year. Far be it to imagine anyone at Warners trafficking in sentiment, but could Robinson have been handed this for freeze-out he'd known since apply of HUAC screws? He'd been maligned as a Red, kept out of class pics, a hardship then, but palatable in hindsight for fun and unpretentious work he'd do instead: A Bullet For Joey, Vice Squad, Black Tuesday, etc. Chances are Warner's largesse was more profit motivated: their previous year reissue of Little Caesar (with Public Enemy) had been a hit, so why not Eddie in something new? Illegal EGR is forceful after fashion of toughies bearing Warner shield when he was one of their top hands. After this and Hell On Frisco Bay, the actor would slow to character work more age-appropriate. Illegal is valedictory for days when the little giant would slug guys to make a point (his attorney for the offense delivers as many knuckle sandwiches as speeches in Illegal's courtroom). Here is one that makes lawyering almost look like fun (I said almost). What Eddie does with rules of evidence and procedure is sheer joy to watch.

Everyone knew he was an art collector, so an inside joke has mouthpiece Robinson dropping in on crime boss Albert Dekker's H.Q. where he observes masterpieces hung on walls. Eddie I.D.'s each admiringly, gag being they were all loaned from the actor's personal collection, value of six canvasses totaling $213,500 (now it would be millions). Also ensconced in Dekker's pad is Jayne Mansfield --- a (calendar) art object in her own right. This was touted at the time as Jayne's screen debut, done concurrently Pete Kelly's Blues actually US-released first. Anyway, she was a big noise around the Burbank lot, being tested even for Rebel Without A Cause placement with James Dean. In fact, Illegal played many a house as support feature to Rebel, as well as tandem dates with blood relation I Died A Thousand Times, it too being remade from an old Warners property (High Sierra).

Illegal had its Broadway premiere in old-time vaudeville company at the Palace Theatre (one-time temple of variety), where a whopping eight acts preceded the feature. There was the Gaudsmith Brothers in "comedy antics with their uncooperative dogs," a harmonica virtuoso, "the Negro terp (dance) team" Billy and Ann, plus hoop juggling "which by now can be regarded as a classic exhibition of the art" (Variety). A first three days clocked $19K for the Palace, so who said vaudeville was dead? Edward G. Robinson would memoir-declare that his self-esteem fell by the hour during this "B picture phase of my career," trouble with his wife (she wanted a divorce) and son (he was getting one) an ongoing stress. But Illegal wasn't necessarily a "B," negative cost being $634K, about the same as being spent on the Randolph Scott westerns at WB. Illegal drew $535K in domestic rentals, $642K foreign. There was nice profit, $248K, a clear sign that Robinson in the right vehicle was still bankable. His fans would soon get the dollop when everything Eddie earlier did cascaded onto late shows via sale of the pre-49 Warner library to AAP.


Blogger Tom said...

Adding to the inside joke of the moment in which Eddie G. looks over his own paintings on display in Albert Dekker's office is Robinson's dialogue in the scene in which he says that he always had to settle for reproductions.

Yes, Illegal is a good little effort, with Robinson in excellent form.

But where, oh where, from that same year, 1955, is Hell on Frisco Bay? Isn't this the only one of Alan Ladd's Jaguar Productions released through Warners that hasn't surfaced in the past few years? It seems to me that most, if not all, the others have appeared on TCM.

Yet, Frisco Bay remains exaperatingly still missing in action, a good little gangster throwback, with Eddie G. in great form as a gang leader with a streak of sadism.

The film is noteworthy as one of the few Ladd action vehicles in which he had a major male co-star (even if that co-star's career was in trouble).

Aside from Robinson's performance, the film further benefits from the opportunity to see Fay Wray playing a former film star, as well as a touching performance from Paul Stewart, as an underling of Robinson, whose nervous facial tics are mercilessly derided at times with satanic glee by his hoodlum boss.

It's been years since I last saw Hell on Frisco Bay, once a TV staple. Would anyone know if there's the chance that this film will see the light of day again some time soon?

11:45 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

ILLEGAL shows in TCM October 10. Thanks for the tip!

12:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson recalls some of Edward G. Robinson's later work:

Robinson later parodied both his onscreen and offscreen personas in a Disney movie, of all places: "Never a Dull Moment", 1968. A very sitcom-ish vehicle for Dick Van Dyke, Robinson plays an art-loving "retired" mobster who plots to steal a massive masterpiece, own it for the remainder of his life, then will it back to the museum.

Read somewhere he was originally cast in the Maurice Evans part in "Planet of the Apes." He did tests and the producers were very happy, but he apologetically bowed out. The makeup was causing claustrophobia.

4:39 PM  
Blogger kenneth Von Gunden said...

Good story on "Eddie" and his '50s output for Warners. Warner Bros. was indeed deep into TV production, using their old scripts to save money. I remember a SUGARFOOT episode that had the good lawman talking his badman friend into going to the gallows begging and crying, the better to disillusion the local boys who looked up to him. This is, of course, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, with the hangman's noose replacing the electric chair.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Brother Herbert said...

@ Donald Benson

EGR was indeed originally cast as Dr. Zaius in PLANET OF THE APES. Here is a test scene with Charlton Heston and EGR in full ape makeup:

11:39 AM  

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