>> Sunday, June 15, 2008
USA/B&W-89m./Dir: J. Walter Rubin/Wr: Wells Root/Cast: Chester Morris (Jeff Crane), Jean Arthur (Maria Theresa O’Reilly), Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Josiah Glass), Joseph Calleia (Sonny Black), Arthur Housman (Drunk)
MGM tried its hand at Warner Brothers-style gangster action with Public Hero #1; and while not on the level of the Cagney/Bogart classics, the resulting film is a fast, diverting crime flick. Chester “Boston Blackie” Morris stars as Jeff Crane, an undercover federal agent, who is placed in prison to befriend and bust out mobster Sonny Black (Joseph Calleia). The feds hope that Black will lead Crane to the rest of his gang, but the plan hits a hitch when the mobster is wounded in the jailbreak. In order to keep the gangster alive long enough to lead the feds to his hideout, Crane tracks down an alcoholic mob doctor (Lionel Barrymore), but traversing flooded roads and keeping the soused sawbones sober may be too large a job for any one man. To complicate matters further, Crane falls for a smart-talking cutie (Jean Arthur) that he meets while trying to transport the drunken doctor. Of course, she turns out to be the gangster’s sister.
Public Hero #1 is not the type of film that any actor would put towards the top of his or her résumé. It starts as a hardboiled prison drama, turns into an undercover FBI thriller, flirts with romantic comedy and booze humor at its center, before touching down for a rat-a-tat action climax. In other words, the movie is a total mess. Still, it works, due almost entirely to its above-average cast. Chester Morris, a grade-“A” over-actor, does a good job keeping things moving during the film’s few slow patches; but it is really the work of Arthur and Barrymore that elevate the movie above “B” status. Jean Arthur brings a screwball breeziness to her line readings that enliven every bit of dialogue she’s given. Best of all, Lionel Barrymore has a ball staggering, slurring, and hamming his way through every scene.
In no way is Public Hero #1 an essential “Booze Movie,” but soused cinema enthusiasts will find plenty to like in Barrymore’s Dr. Josiah Glass and the schizophrenic little gangster flick that he inhabits.
Drinks Consumed--Whiskey, brandy, and applejack
Intoxicating Effects--Staggering, slurred speech, sneaking sips, public disturbance, harmonizing, and drunk driving
Potent Quotables--DOC GLASS: I’m on a case.
MARIA: And two bottles to go.
DRUNK: Better wait until it stops raining. The bridge is under three feet of water.
DOC GLASS: Water! Water ruins everything. Now, if that bridge was under three feet of whiskey…
Video Availability--Never released on video
Similarly Sauced Cinema--Director Rubin produced a near-identical remake of Public Hero #1 in 1941. The new version, The Get-Away, starred Robert Sterling as the hero, Donna Reed as the girl, and Charles Winninger as the alky doctor.