(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!”
However, the rules of the game have changed…
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.
• 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!
“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.
The lack of CONS speaks well for this package.
• 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”.
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!
Other Extra Features Include:
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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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”.
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!