By Ed Garea
Leave It to the Irish (Monogram, 1944) – Director: William Beaudine. Writers: Eddie Davis, Tim Ryan (s/p). Cast: James Dunn, Wanda McKay, Jack La Rue, Dick Purcell, Arthur Loft, Barbara Woodell, Vince Barnett, Joseph DeVillard, Olaf Hytten, Eddie Allen, Dick Scott, & Ted Stanhope. B&W, 71 minutes.
For hardened cinephiles, the term “Monogram comedy” is one of the best-known oxymorons. Monogram Studios specialized in noir dramas, bad horror films, and wretched East Side Kids “comedies.” Leave It to the Irish is yet another Monogram comedy where laughs are missing, being replaced with a load of comical situations that fail to pan out. Many will blame the director, William “One-Shot” Beaudine for the movie’s failures, but as I see it, he could only work with what he was given – and he wasn’t given very much.
Our film stars the estimable James Dunn as private investigator Terry Moran. Terry is such a success at his job that he’s forced to pawn his gun so he can afford to take his girl, Nora O’Brien (McKay), to dinner. When the movie opens we see Nora and bartender Barney Baker (Barnett) playing with what seems to be a rubber crab that moves on its own with a flick of the finger. This is obviously intended to telegraph the fact that we’re in for a comedy. But instead of a night out with Nora, Terry is hired by Mrs. James Hamilton (Woodell) to investigate the recent death of her husband. The police have ruled it a suicide, but she suspects murder, and flashes a few bills in Terry’s face to get him to agree. When she receives a note directing her to go to the Black Swan Club for information about her husband’s death, Terry agrees to meet her there. Before he leaves Barney’s place after making his apologies to Nora, he borrows Barney’s pistol, as his is in hock.
When Terry arrives at the club, Gus (Devillard), the headwaiter, takes him in to see Rockwell (LaRue), the club’s owner. When Terry enters Rockwell’s office, their conversation as to why he’s there ends up with Terry’s gun being confiscated by Rockwell’s henchmen and Terry worked over. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hamilton is handed a note from Nick, one of the waiters, asking her to meet him at a fleabag hotel. When Terry and Mrs. Hamilton arrive at the hotel room, they open the door to find Nick lying dead on the floor. As Terry bends over him, an unknown assailant slugs him over the head while Mrs. Hamilton flees the scene.
When he comes to he finds himself in the company of the police and Chief O’Brien (Loft), who just happens to be Nora’s father. The Chief, who doesn’t approve of his daughter dating a failed private eye, wants to arrest Terry because the gun used to kill Nick was traced to him. But Nora convinces Dad that Terry is innocent. Terry and Nora go to Mrs. Hamilton’s home, but the butler (Hytten) informs them that she has left town and hands Terry a note from Mrs. Hamilton asking him to drop the case.
Terry then figures that Hamilton’s warehouse might contain the vital clues to crack the case and he takes Nora there to check it out. Once inside, they discover an invoice for a large quantity of liquor to be delivered to Hamilton, but upon a search, they discover the boxes are not filled with liquor bottles, but with stolen furs. Terry returns to the Black Swan Club for a showdown with Rockwell. Upon entering his office, Terry finds Rockwell shot dead with a handkerchief belonging to Mrs. Hamilton clutched in his hand.
Meanwhile, Nora returns to the Hamilton house, where she runs into Gus. He locks her in a room with Mrs. Hamilton. When Chief O’Brien and his men arrive to free them, they discover that Terry, with Barney’s help, has captured Gus and his gang. Terry explains to O’Brien that Rockwell and Hamilton were partners in a stolen fur racket. Rockwell suspected that Hamilton was trying to double-cross him so he killed his partner. But the real double-crosser was Gus, who arranged for Nick to hand the note to Mrs. Hamilton in order to expose Rockwell. Rockwell caught on to the scheme and killed the waiter in the hotel. Realizing that Rockwell had figured everything out, Gus killed him and planted Mrs. Hamilton’s handkerchief in his hand to throw the suspicion on her.
It’s a rather thin plot, and the numerous red herrings thrown at the viewer fail to distract our attention from the fact that Gus was behind it all. We pretty much figured that out in that first scene at the club. Because Jack LaRue played many a gangster, the natural tendency would be to suspect him. LaRue functioned in much the same manner as Bela Lugosi in these types of comedy-mysteries. The comedy bits thrown in along the way are pleasant, but not very funny, and the fault for this mess can be laid at the feet of screenwriters Davis and Ryan. It almost seems as if Monogram has to make a picture for its distributors and rushed this one out. Beaudine, for his part, keeps things moving along quickly, and the film actually seems shorter than its 71 minute running time.
FACES IN THE CROWD
Star James Dunn had quite a checkered career. He began with sharp notices for his supporting roles in the Shirley Temple films, Baby Take a Bow, Stand Up and Cheer, and Bright Eyes (all 1934). He was usually cast as the boy next door or the nice guy, but while he became a leading man, his true talents lay in supporting parts. Fox tired of his diminishing box office returns and let him go in 1935, whereupon Warner Bros. picked him up and starred him in a series of B-programmers. His best was The Payoff (1935), playing a sports columnist who loses his unfaithful wife to a hood he’s been trying to nail for fixing games.
In the late ‘30s, his drinking caught up with him and he became unemployable anywhere else except Poverty Row. Working for Republic, PRC and Monogram allowed Dunn to get his life back together while earning a regular paycheck, and he recovered to the point where Fox cast him as the idealistic, but luckless, father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the very next year after making Leave It to the Irish. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the Elia Kazan movie. But success didn’t last too long, and Dunn soon went back to the bottle. After 1950, he would make but one more movie before his death in 1967, working exclusively in television. He is one of the few actors to have two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his movies and the other for his work in television.
Wanda McKay (born Dorothy Quackenbush) studied modeling in New York City and went on to grace the cover on many national magazines. Her likeness also appeared in Chesterfield ads on billboards across the country. In 1938, she won the “Miss America Aviation” crown in Birmingham, Alabama, which in turn led to being hired as a hostess/model for TWA. It was from there that Paramount signed her to a contract. She appeared in quite a few films for the studio in supporting or unbilled roles. Eventually she got lost in the shuffle and Paramount released her in 1941.
After doing The Royal Mounted Patrol for Columbia (1941), McKay signed on at PRC and split her time between there and Monogram. In the ‘50s, she turned to television, appearing in a series of oaters. Her last job was an unbilled role as a telephone operator in MGM’s Dean Martin vehicle Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957). In 1977, she married for the first time to Hoagy Carmichael (his second); a marriage that lasted until his death from a heart attack on 1981. McKay died in 1996 from cancer.