Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Last Gangster

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea 

The Last Stranger (MGM, 1937) – Director: Edward Ludwig. Starring: Edward G. Robinson, James Stewart, Rose Stradner, Lionel Stander, John Carradine, Alan Baxter, & Douglas Scott.

All I can say is that it must be a matter of timing, because I don't know how I managed to miss this film all these years for it contains not only one of Eddie G’s best performances as the snarling Joe Krosac, but also a standout performance by Lionel Stander as his disloyal henchman Curly.

Krosac is meant to evoke memories of Al Capone within the audience, except he’s from somewhere in Eastern Europe. He’s the boss of the gang and he lives the boss’s life of being high on the hog. He makes a return from his Eastern European homeland with a wife, Talya (Stradner), to learn that during his absence, his rivals, the Kile Brothers, are dispatched in a hail of bullets. But the Feds are not quite done. They manage to indict Joe on tax evasion, convict him, and ship him off to Alcatraz, all a la Capone.

Meanwhile, Talya is pregnant and gives birth to Joe Jr. Krosac is ecstatic, for here is a scion to leave his “family business” to; a son to follow in his footsteps. She goes to San Francisco with the baby to visit Joe, but is immediately besieged by the press, who set her up in an embarrassing photo shoot. When she goes to the paper to protest she wins the sympathy of reporter Paul North (Stewart), who, rather inexplicably, falls in love with her. As time passes, the more English she learns the more she learns about her husband. The upshot of all this is her telling him in a jailhouse visit that she is not only leaving him, but she’s taking his son with her to boot. When Joe begins to snarl with the “no one does this to me” type of argument, she responds with the “don’t even look for us,” warning. For Joe Krosac this is indeed the last straw – up until now he’s been nothing but a model prisoner; not even retaliating at first when fellow con John Carradine, at the behest of those survivors in the gang Joe tried to wipe out, tries to spur him into violence. Eventually he succeeds, allowing the producers to show off the special effects the prison has for jailhouse riots, and landing Joe for a stretch in solitary. 

The change in Krosac from a doting, loving husband and father to a snarling, vicious tiger is astounding; and it’s done clearly within the confines of acting. At no time is Robinson guilty of mugging or chewing the scenery, which makes his transformation even more terrifying. He goes completely berserk, telling her she’s nothing; that the only thing that matters to him is his son, and because of that, she’ll never get away; he’ll find her and get his son back. It’s a great scene, actually getting us to dispose of any bit of sympathy we may have had for Krosac and see him for what he really is. There is a problem in a film such as this that an actor as well known and loved as Edward G. Robinson will gain the sympathy and love of the audience no matter what he does. It becomes a hurdle the actor must overcome in order to bring any semblance of credibility to his character. Robinson clears that hurdle with room to spare without looking ludicrous in the least. And the audience, having seen enough of Joe, gets the point and knows he’s telling the truth – he will make good on his threat the first chance he gets. But she leaves, divorces him and marries North, for by now their relationship has blossomed into a full-blown romance. They move to the East Coast to get away from Joe. But, eventually, Krosac is paroled, and we know his order of business. He’s met outside the prison by loyal henchman Curly, who has come to San Francisco personally in order to bring him back home as the gang’s leader.

Taken aback by the flattery, he comes along, but realizes too late that he has walked into a trap: Curly and the boys want the couple of million he has stashed away. To get him to talk, they kidnap Junior (Scott) and begin to torture him in front of Krosac. Junior, of course, has no memory whatsoever of Krosac. He only knows North as his father, so he has no idea of who Krosac is and why he’s even there. Krosac breaks down and reveals the location. The gang then drives him and Junior to an undisclosed location and releases them. Junior, thanks to his Boy Scout training, manages to guide the two of them back to his home. Krosac at this point still thinks he’s the kid’s father; but after seeing Junior in close contact with his family, Krosac relents and leaves, only to run into Acey Kile (Baxter), the last surviving sibling of the gang he thought he put out of commission. Kile forces Krosac into a nearby alley and tells him that after he kills Krosac he’ll go to the papers and blab all about Krosac’s kid living in town. This is too much for Krosac: he and Kile wrestle for the gun and both are shot, giving Robinson the opening for a great death scene. As he dies, he’s clutching a medal Junior had given him earlier, a school medal for “outstanding achievement.”

Even though Robinson was sharing the screen with Stewart, whom the studio was grooming for leading roles, this is clearly Eddie G.’s picture. It was a film he didn’t want to make. When he left Warner Brothers it was with the thought of never again having to play a gangster in mind. But Robinson was in the midst of remodeling his house and money was running low. So economics triumphed over art, to the benefit of the audiences that flocked to see the film.

Stewart at this time was content to stay in a supporting role and learn from a master like Robinson. Though his performance is solid, he suffers from questionable plot machinations concerning his character, such as the sudden whirlwind romance with a woman he just met and one who has a newborn to boot. Plus, having a limp character also handicapped him. We find ourselves not rooting so much for Stewart and Stradner as much as we are rooting against Robinson tracking them down. Stewart also handicapped himself by wearing a mustache that only made him appear somewhat ridiculous. He later said in interviews that he learned his lesson from this and didn’t sport a mustache again until 1971’s Fools’ Parade.

Stradner was an Austrian actress who had stared in nine films in Germany. But following the Anschluss in Austria, she came to America and was signed by MGM, making her American debut as Talya. Ironically, fellow Austrian Luise Rainer was originally slated to play the part, but she backed out shortly before filming was to begin. Norma Shearer’s star was on the decline and she was appearing in fewer pictures. Stradner was expected to pick up that slack as she was considered something of a Shearer look-a-like. Unfortunately, Stradner’s performances were flat; she simply lacked Norma’s pizzazz. After another flat performance as Ralph Bellamy’s wife in Charles Vidor’s psychological thriller, Blind Alley, she married writer/producer/director Joseph Mankiewicz and left the screen to raise a family. Her only other film appearance was a small role as a Mother Superior in The Keys to the Kingdom, for which her husband wrote the screenplay. But Rose was a delicate flower indeed, never fully adjusting to the role of hausfrau. She took to the bottle and developed a mixture of depression spurred on by the bitterness of having left the screen. This in turn made the Mankiewicz household a continuous battlefield. It was said that the famed birthday party scene in All About Eve where a plastered and vitriolic Margo Channing (Bette Davis) tells the guests to “fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night” was inspired by Mankiewicz’s home life. In 1958, Rose took her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills.

If anyone could be said to be in a position to steal the picture, it’s Stander in his role as disloyal henchman Curly. The only reason he didn’t run away with the film was that his screen time was short. Stander manages to inject two more dimensions into what is essentially a one-dimensional role. If he had been given more screen time, Robinson would have a real battle on his hands rather than a fictional one.

The less said about Scott, who played Junior, the better. Compared to him, Freddie Barthlomew is Russell Crowe. He comes off with an amazingly flat performance as somewhat of a prissy kid, even though he’s supposed to in the Boy Scouts. He’s not the worst of the child actors from the late ‘30s (that singular honor belongs to Donnie Dunagan in Son of Frankenstein), but his record on continual one-note performances would kill his film career as he reached adulthood. His last credited role was a minor one in the 1942 Universal Studios Gloria Jean/Donald O’Connor musical Get Hep to Love, directed by B-stalwart Charles Barton.

Finally, although Edward Ludwig is the director of note, William Wellman is also mentioned in the credits. He had been signed as a director for MGM and had made a few movies when he and fellow director Woody Van Dyke were called into the magisterial office of Louis B. Mayer. Mayer called for them because he had something on his mind: Wellman and Van Dyke were noted on the lot for bringing in a film not only on budget, but frequently with days left to spare on the schedule. Mayer told the two that he wanted to shame his other directors into making pictures with the same speed, competency and savings of money as they do. Both Wellman and Van Dyke told Mayer that they would not act as his stooges and left Mayer’s office straight into Mayer’s doghouse. As a consequence, Wellman was simply paid week after week without any assignment. Frustrated, Wellman finally called Eddie Mannix, the studio’s number two man, with an idea: Wellman would write scripts, and if Mannix liked them, then he would buy them from Wellman. Mannix agreed and Wellman, along with young contract writer Robert Carson, wrote the script for The Last Gangster. Wellman and Carson also wrote the screenplay for A Star is Born, but Mayer wouldn’t let him direct it. So he took it to David O. Selznick, who happily agreed to let Wellman sit in the director’s chair. His partnership with Carson also resulted in a joint contribution to the script for Nothing Sacred.

I often wonder about the results if Wellman had been allowed to direct the film, being that he wrote the scenario. Ludwig was a competent, although rather unimaginative, director who simply filmed what was before him and made sure his actors hit all their spots. But Wellman was something of an auteur; his films often had personal touches on them, and I believe he would have changed certain aspects of The Last Gangster as he went along; perhaps even enough to get Robinson an Oscar nomination. Certainly, Robinson’s character would have stayed intense after he’s released from prison, and perhaps Stradner wouldn’t have hit so many flat notes.

The Last Gangster, despite several plodding moments and some awkward plot machinations, moves with the speed of a cheetah. (I was going to say gazelle, but this allusion makes Steve Herte happy.) Robinson takes a role he wasn’t enthusiastic about playing and mustering his professionalism and pride, turns in one of the best and most acclaimed performances of his career. Grade: A-

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