Sunday, April 19, 2015

Say-Zoo Goes Noir

I'm starting to think I may have too much time on my hands...

My latest jaunt down Poverty Row took me through the hallowed gates of Monogram Pictures to this genial little number from 1942, and I'm sure it was just the thing for wartime audiences looking for a little (all right - at times, very little) amusement from the lower half of their double bill.  The trademark ditherings of dear Miss ZaSu Pitts, as you might expect, are the sole justification for the mild shenanigans that transpire, but that said, the picture is kind of fun and the star gets some solid support, at least from her female colleagues.

As too often seems to be the case at Monogram, the men are almost confusingly interchangeable, all of them slightly dumpy schmoes in sharp suits who mostly either mumble their lines or, at moments of great tension, Declaim....Them....Portentiously.  By contrast, Gwen Kenyon as a spirited nightclub singer comes off very well, and she even gets what is by Monogram standards a fairly deluxe nightclub number.  "I Can't Get You Out of My Mind," by the not exactly Rodgers and Hart duo of Harry Tobias and Edward Kay, might not really be a long-lost addition to the Great American Songbook, but it's pleasant enough.  Elizabeth Russell, familiar to B audience from her appearances in many Val Lewton horror pictures, is almost unnervingly intense in her few scenes as an ancillary moll; there's a brief telephone scene (in which she rats out on poor ZaSu) in which she's positively chilling.  I first noticed Russell when I recently saw the very odd RKO programmer The Seventh Victim, in which she plays a tragic neurasthenic boarding house resident; she has an extremely distinctive look - beautiful from some angles, almost cadaverous from others.

The script, such as it is, gets lots of mileage from contrasting the snappy patter and fast living of the Big City with the small-town innocence of Pitts as Aunt Emma, a lady in search of her long-lost lover's son (who's taking after Dad as a boxer) who ends up impersonating the notorious lady gangster Ma Parker.  On the way, she goes to a prize fight, winds up in a nightclub (Monogram's idea of which includes about a dozen of the most bored extras you'll ever see on film), has cocktails, meets mobsters, fires a pistol, and winds up taking her boxer back home to Smalltown USA to cure him of his dissolute ways.  It's fun to see ZaSu trying on a little mild gang patois and doing an almost creditable "hard-berled" attitude.

As I see more of them, I'm ever more struck with how these cheap little pictures, with their brief running times (Aunt Emma goes by in all of 62 minutes) and almost comic economies (Emma and her two spinster sisters apparently suffer from the well-known wartime shortage of dressing gowns, as one that ZaSu sports in the opening scene turns up later on her termagent sister), resemble sketches for the more polished products of bigger studios.  More accurately, I suppose, they're like pencil-sketch copies after better done oil paintings; what is detailed in the original is just indicated, made generic; the crowd at a sold-out boxing match is reduced to a couple of passing extras in front of a ticket booth, or a busy city desk at a daily newspaper becomes a single actor in closeup on the telephone.  The occasional standing set (like the nightclub) opens things up a little, but most of the action takes place in claustrophobic spaces, flatly lit and neutrally furnished.  Characters are similarly reduced and, at least here, casually dismissed; a pair of tough guys who briefly menace ZaSu are moments later dispatched with a couple of offstage shots in a way that feels cold-blooded (and must be the only thing about the film that could, per the poster above, render it "not suitable for general exhibition." Certainly there's nothing even vaguely risqué about the average Zasu Pitts feature).

So's Your Aunt Emma would seem to have its fans.  Long in the public domain, it has multiple iterations on YouTube; from what I can tell, they all seem about equally murky.  Still, there are worse ways to pass an hour, and Emma's very mild comeuppance on her awful sisters at the fadeout almost make one wish the whole thing had been at that level.  Enjoy...


  1. I suspect I've enjoyed your review more than I would the actual movie, so I might pass.

    1. I love me some ZaSu, but unless you're a Monogram-maniac, I cant deny that this flick's appeal is pretty limited...

  2. I make it my mission to never miss a Warren Hymer flick.