Tuesday, May 24, 2011

DVD Review: A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

(Released: 2006 by Warner Home Video)
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Edward G. Robinson:They been drinkin’ my beer for YEARS, ain’t they? …And they LIKED IT!”

Allen Jenkins:They HAD ta like it!”

PROHIBITION IS OVER!!! Gangster and beer bootlegger Remy Marko (Robinson) decides to “go legit”! Marko has great pride in his Prohibition-spawned product, and decides to go into the above-board brewery business.

However, the rules of the game have changed…

Though he profited greatly from it, Marko never actually had a taste for drinking beer – and, ironically, never sampled his product. When compared with the newly-returned legal competition, his beer was simply dreadful by comparison. The speak-easys had no choice but to take it and like it, given both the “Law of the Land” and Marko’s strong-armed… um, “sales force”. But now that the playing field is wide-open, Marko’s personal “three-stooges” (superbly played by Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, and Harold Huber) are not about to enlighten The Boss on the shortcomings of his brew.

Plowing heedlessly ahead, Marko names his brand “Gold Velvet Beer” – putting his picture on the bottles and cans – and transforms his organization into a full-scale brewing operation. He also decides to take his rightful place in high society.

As expected, “Gold Velvet Beer” becomes both a disaster and a joke – and the bank is ready to foreclose on the brewery. (Consider, for a moment, the irony of the VILLAIN – or, at least, “former gangster” being the victim of foreclosure!)

Undaunted, Marko marches on… wishing to adopt a poor orphan and throwing a society bash at a big rented house in Saratoga Springs. Comedic complications ensue as:

• The orphan, “Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom”, is a streetwise tough-kid, not unlike a young Cagney or Robinson.

• Five disgruntled former associates of Marko commit a huge robbery, and stash the cash (and themselves) in Marko’s Saratoga house – planning a big murderous surprise for their former associate.

• One of the five turns on the others, shoots them dead, and hides out in the house with the dough, as Marko, his family, and his “stooges turned servants” arrive.

• To Marko’s chagrin, he learns his daughter Mary is engaged to Dick Whitewood, a wealthy young member of high strata, who has just become a rather inept New York State Trooper.

• The party goes on, the bodies, the cash and the killer are upstairs, the tough-kid noses around and creates mayhem, Dick represents the law (as best he can), Dick’s father is in a rather delicate state (he’s given to fainting), the bodies are moved around by Marko’s stooges, Marko realizes both the quality of his product and the precarious state of his finances – and the bank is waiting to foreclose!

All this makes for a great resolution to the picture – which will surely bring broad smiles, if not outright laughs!

Edward G. Robinson is superb at playing his stereotypical gangster roles for laughs, and Allen Jenkins (as the featured stooge – and best known to my generation as the voice of “Officer Dibble” on the Hanna-Barbera animated series TOP CAT) is a sheer delight!

Oh, and the theme song to Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” is heard as a piano solo at Marko’s party at about 53:43 of the film!

A Slight Case of Murder” is based on a play by Damon Runyon.

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.


Nothing to criticize here. This set meets my requirements for a movie DVD. Good to great picture quality, no known cuts or element replacement issues, a trailer, commentary track, and “making-of” or background featurette. Well done, all around.


The lack of CONS speaks well for this package.

The Film: Both Warner Bros. and Edward G. Robinson are to be commended for making such a well-crafted comedy from one of its prime genres, and starring one of said genre’s biggest names. Comedy films don’t often resonate with me. They are usually too sentimentally sappy… or just outright, annoyingly dumb. The premises of contemporary comedy films, being just too annoyingly dumb for words! “A Slight Case of Murder”, however, is “just right”! It is funny and clever, without being sappy or annoyingly dumb.

The Cast:

• Edward G. Robinson as “Remy Marko”.

• Allen Jenkins as “Mike”.

• Edward Brophy as “Lefty”.

• Harold Huber as “Gip”.

• Ruth Donnelly as “Nora Marko”.

• Jane Bryan as “Mary Marko”.

• Bobby Jordan as “Douglas Fairbanks Rosenbloom”.

• Willard Parker as “Dick Whitewood”.

• Paul Harvey (not THAT “Paul Harvey”) as “Mr. Whitewood”.

• Joe Downing as “Innocence” (Ironically, the murderer!).

• Margaret Hamilton (Pre “Wizard of Oz”) as “Mrs. Cagle of the Orphanage”.

Extra Features:

Warner Night at the Movies. Once again, we are treated to the outstanding “Warner Night at the Movies”.

Warner expertly recreates the movie-going experience of the day as a viewing option for “A Slight Case of Murder”. The film may be viewed as part of the entire program, on its own, or the viewer may pick and choose among the included items. Uncharacteristically for this series, there are certain faults to be found with individual elements therein.

The program consists of:

A theatrical trailer for “Dawn Patrol”: Starring Errol Flynn.

Newsreel: (Runs 01:51) Focuses on a kidnapped boy from New Rochelle, NY. His father appeals to the nation via this newsreel. In my own opinion, this is a very odd choice of newsreel to use as a DVD feature, nearly 70 years after the fact (in 2006) – especially as it uses the boy’s real name and likeness. Also, we never learn the resolution of the incident. At the very least, some additional text on the outcome should have been added. And, I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to be a member of that family, who might purchase this DVD, and be utterly surprised by its inclusion in what is basically a comedy package. Seeing Roosevelt, Churchill, and even Hitler in such features is one thing, and this is entirely another. If I could award this Newsreel a special “CON” (isolated from the rest of the package), I would.

“Declaration of Independence”: (Runs 17:34) A historical documentary that turns to drama (almost melodrama) on the meeting of the Continental Congress. Caesar Rodney of Delaware, who casts the deciding vote to adopt the Declaration of Independence in 1776, must overcome being held at gunpoint by his father-in-law to be (…imagine the holidays in THAT household!), being accosted along the trails, subversion and treachery by British loyalists, and the old standard “Race Against Time” to cast his vote in time for the birth of our nation! I was half expecting Rodney to run afoul of an “Acme Patriot Trap” before it was all over!

Oddly, for this generally superior series of features, the picture quality of “Declaration of Independence” deteriorates badly as the film progresses – and at 09:07 thru 09:19 may very well be the worst image condition I have ever seen on a non-public domain DVD or videotape! There is so much wear, damage, and distortion that it actually looks as if it’s SNOWING indoors! This is followed by two quick CUTS in the film! With a considerable number of 1938 Warner short subjects to choose from, one wonders why a different short, with a more acceptable print quality, wasn’t chosen for this package.

“The Night Watchman”: (Runs 07:09) A Merrie Melodies cartoon, in color, directed by Charles M. (Chuck) Jones , about a young “watch-cat” (voiced by Bernice Hanson) who takes over the nightly guarding of a well-stocked kitchen for his sick father. Immediately, he runs into a mean pack of gangster-type rats, who abuse him, raid the food, and generally whoop it up… until he finds his inner-courage, and gives them all a beating. Far from what a Warner Bros. cartoon SHOULD be, though it is an extraordinary print for a cartoon of its age!

Considering that 1938 saw the release of “Porky’s Hare Hunt”, the cartoon that MAY have introduced the “Proto-Bugs Bunny” to an unsuspecting world (not to mention 13 other Porky Pig cartoons, including the classic “Porky in Wackyland”, and a handful of Daffy Ducks), WHY would Warner have picked THIS one for the set?

The film itself: Edward G. Robinson goes straight… and finds it was much simpler to be a gangster. A deceptively simple premise – flawlessly executed to great results!

Other Extra Features Include:

Theatrical Trailer for “A Slight Case of Murder”: (Runs 04:00) Opens with a phone conversation between newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger and Edward G. Robinson, in which Robinson says: “Ya know, I’ve been waiting to get into an honest-to-goodness comedy for a heck of a long time! My wife has seen me die in pictures so often; she was beginning to feel like a celluloid widow!”

The on-screen text hype continues: “It’s Damon Runyon’s hilarious tale of a big-time racketeer who wanted to jump from the Police Blotter to the Social Register”!

Commentary Track by Film Historian Robert Sklar: Sklar’s commentary runs for the entire 01:25:06 of the film.

• Sklar gives us background on Damon Runyon and his stage play, upon which the film is based. A play that ran for only 69 performances.

• Warner Bros. purchased the rights to the play for $50, 000.00 in mid-1930s dollars! …Imagine what they might have paid if it had run longer!

• In 1938, Warner Bros. released 52 films! That’s one per week! My observation: Perhaps that’s why they paid such a premium for concepts!

• Edward G. Robinson relished the role of Remy Marko, and played it to the hilt.

• “A Slight Case of Murder” was part of a revitalization of Robinson’s career, which also included “Bullets or Ballots”. The key to this was putting a different spin on his earlier fame as more of a hardcore gangster. New success came in the forms of playing a cop posing as a gangster, or playing the gangster for laughs.

• Reviewers were pleased that Edward G. Robinson actually came to the end of a film without being shot!

• The orphanage scene with Margaret (future “Wicked Witch of the West”) Hamilton was a late addition to the film – done after principal photography was completed.

• Allen Jenkins was a Warner Bros. contract player who appeared in 10 films in 1937 and 9 films in 1938.

• Bobby Jordan (the streetwise orphan) would become one of the Dead-End Kids, and appear in “Angels with Dirty Faces” with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, and Humphrey Bogart.

• Part of the picture’s fun is to watch Allen Jenkins (as Marko’s former goon, turned household servant) in his battle of both wits and physical comedy with Bobby Jordan’s crafty street urchin. It presages his latter set-tos as “Officer Dibble” with Top Cat!

• Ronald Reagan actually tested for the role of “Dick Whitewood”, the inept rookie state trooper. I can’t help but wonder if HE had been paired in this picture with Edward G. Robinson that it might have become more of a classic.

• “Social Class”, and all that it entails, was a popular subject for comedies of the era. I’d say the success of The Three Stooges supports that statement.

“Prohibition Opens the Floodgates”: (Runs 17:59).

This 2006 feature looks at the age of Prohibition and the gangsters who lived it.

• As depicted in “A Slight Case of Murder”, Prohibition led to the production – and public acceptance – of much “bad booze”. So much so that sickness and even death was a possibility.

• Prohibition was also a popular cinematic subject, that created a “body of truth” the movies could dip into.

• Film historian Richard Jewell observes: “[Prohibition] turned the gangster from a criminal to Mister Robin Hood”, and the perception that bootleggers “…performed a service that was, yes, illegal – but was right”.

• Edward G. Robinson LOVED this film. He looked back on it as one of his best experiences of the ‘30s.

Participants include: Talia Shire, Nicholas Pileggi, Irwin Winkler, authors Richard Jewell, Anthony Slide, Lincoln D. Hurst, and Eric Lax, USC Professor Dr. Drew Casper, and others.

The feature is liberally sprinkled with non-labeled clips from “The Roaring Twenties”, “The Public Enemy”, “Little Caesar”, “The Petrified Forest”, “Angels with Dirty Faces”, “Bullets or Ballots”, “G-Men”, and of course “A Slight Case of Murder”, among other films. It’s both cool and a little scary that, thanks to DVD immersion, I can now recognize all of these clips on sight!


A Slight Case of Murder” takes the Warner Bros. Gangster genre and turns it on its ear!

Watch “Little Caesar” become “Little Teaser” – with great supporting actors all around, led by Allen Jenkins! But, like everything he’s in, this film belongs to Edward G. Robinson – who shows surprising comedic talents, as he revisits old ground in a brand new way!

The Extra Features, despite some dubious choices for “Warner Night at the Movies” when compared to similar packages, are everything they should be for a set such as this.

A Slight Case of Murder” is highly recommended for fans of Edward G. Robinson and the Warner Bros. Gangster films in general, non-gangster fans who are just looking for a good time, 1930s film enthusiasts – and people who like their comedies sans the sappy and annoyingly dumb.

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