Last week, TCM rolled out their latest made-for-cable documentary, Public Enemies: The Golden Age of Gangster Film—and while I had every intention of sitting down and watching it I forgot that I usually make a date with Keith and Rachel at that time, so I passed it up. I knew, of course, that the doc was included in the Warner Brothers Gangsters Collection: Volume 4 box set and that I’d get around to seeing it eventually; yesterday, my friendly neighborhood postal person left it on my doorstep so I’ll probably sit down with it later in the week.
But after the documentary’s showing, the classic movies channel ran some of the “gangster greats”—three films that are also part of the new collection:
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938) – The titled medico (played by Edward G. Robinson) is doing research into the criminal mind…and what better way to get hands-on experience than by joining a gang of thugs led by Humphrey Bogart? A lot of people say the bloom is off the rose that is Clitterhouse, but I don’t think I can tire of any movie with Bogie and Eddie G.; plus Claire Trevor adds fine support as the love interest (in the Clitterhouse trailer, they play up the fact that she was co-starring with Robinson in radio’s Big Town at the time), in addition to Allen Jenkins (who gets his mug on the DVD’s cover!), Donald Crisp, John Litel (Surprise! He’s a lawyer in this one), Thurston Hall, ‘Slapsie’ Maxie Rosenbloom and Ward Bond.
Invisible Stripes (1939) – I had forgotten how entertaining this one was (I have a DVD-R copy from the last time I videotaped it but haven’t watched it since): George Raft and Bogart star as a pair of parolees—Bogie goes back to the rackets once sprung but Raft has difficulty adjusting to life on the outside (it’s hard out there for an ex-con)…particularly in the matter of keeping his “kid brudder” (William Holden) from drifting into a life of crime as well. In the intro to this, Robert Osborne mentioned that Raft had no love for Bogie (and you can see it in the film) and that Bogart never did figure out the reason for Raft’s animosity; I think Raft was just an essobee that didn’t get along with anybody, period (the behind-the-scenes fireworks on Manpower  with Eddie G. would seem to bear this out). Lee Patrick, by the way, plays Bogie’s moll—two years before she played Effie to his Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941).
Larceny, Inc. (1942) – Another overlooked treat (and probably the best of the bunch): Robinson, Broderick Crawford (playing one of filmdom’s truly dumb sidekicks) and Edward Brophy are a trio of con artists who buy a leather goods store in order to be able to tunnel into the bank vault next door—but discover to their surprise that their “front” is actually turning a profit. This film, based on the stage play by Laura and S.J. Perelman, can’t completely divorce itself from its stage origins but it’s a fitfully funny farce, and spotlights an engaging and eclectic supporting cast in Jane Wyman, Jack Carson (Jane and Jack are the love interests), Anthony Quinn, Harry Davenport, John Qualen, Barbara Jo (Vera Vague) Allen, Grant Mitchell…and an uncredited Jackie Gleason as a nosy soda jerk. (Oh, and Arthur Q. Bryan is the guy who punches Santa Claus’ lights out.)
My esteemed blogging colleague Rick Brooks at Cultureshark remarks that when Clitterhouse makes its DVD debut you know Warner Home Entertainment “is getting into the second-tier of its gangster pictures now.” But this is not meant to disparage these fine releases (choc-a-bloc with vintage shorts and cartoons as entertaining extra goodies); he further notes “[T}hey could take 5 absolute stinkers from the 30s and 40s, call it ‘Warner Absolute Crap Collection,’ and if they packaged it like these sets, it would still look damn good at Costco.” You got a witness, Brother Rick.