Your RDA of Irony

Eugene and John Dillinger at the Movies

July 22, 1934:  John Dillinger Picks the Wrong Movie

John Dillinger thought that he looked like Clark Gable…and who was going to tell him otherwise?  So the notorious bankrobber was eager to see his twin’s latest film “Manhattan Melodrama.”  Gable portrayed a suave, charming racketeer; he apparently saw his resemblance to John Dillinger.  The film tells the story of Blackie Gallagher and Jim Wade, devoted friends since boyhood; one grows up to a lawyer and the other a criminal.  If you can’t tell the professions apart, a lawyer might have better diction.  The gangster Blackie even kills to protect his friend, and then Jim has to prosecute Blackie.  But Blackie doesn’t mind going to “the chair” if it helps his friend become governor.  And Blackie and Jim are in love with the same woman; but since she is Myrna Loy that is the one plausible part of the plot.

So, imagine seeing this film, then stepping out of the Biograph Theater and into a FBI shooting range.  Wouldn’t it have been more merciful to have shot him before he saw the film?  Better yet, the Feds could have taken him to a better movie.  If the condemned get last meals, why not last films?

What else was playing in 1934?  The best film of the year was “It Happened One Night”, a delightful comedy starring that Dillinger lookalike as well as Claudette Colbert.  The usually wholesome Miss Colbert could also be seen luring men and kingdoms to destruction in “Cleopatra.”  (It would be comparative to Sandra Bullock as the Temptress of the Nile.)  If Dillinger preferred to leave life with a song and a dance, he would want to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “The Gay Divorcee.”  However, J. Edgar Hoover might have been touchy about that title.

Now, if Dillinger wanted to catch up on his reading, he could have gotten a little vicarious culture with “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.”  Fredric March, as Robert Browning, courts and rescues Norma Shearer (Miss Elizabeth Barrett) from her bullying and vaguely incestuous father Charles Laughton.  Mr. March was very cultured in 1934; he also was a Renaissance artist, lecher and gossip in “The Affairs of Cellini.”  (Cuckolding Frank Morgan wouldn’t be difficult–but it never seems right.)

But one film might have saved Dillinger’s life:  “Of Human Bondage.”  Seated in the theater, and withering in terror before the shrill, demented monster on the screen, the FBI agents would have realized that Dillinger wasn’t half as dangerous as Bette Davis.  They probably would have let him go with just a warning.

  1. Leah says:

    Did I ever tell you that Max Chaffetz (husband of my mother’s first cousin, grandfather of the Utah congressman) was with that FBI detail, ID’d Dillinger as he sat in the theatre and then confirmed through fingerprints of the corpse that they got the right guy? Apparently this is all in a display if you visit FBI HQ in Washington.

    I disagree with you about Colbert. I’m an admirer of Sandra Bullock, and it’s true that Colbert was more convincing as someone with good motives than with bad, but she was very glamorous (Midnight, Palm Beach Story), and considering she began her career in silent she stayed a viable star for quite a while. Bullock can be a good comedienne and perhaps she hasn’t been given the chance to swap witty repartee (Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges not having written her screenplays), but Colbert was fine as Cleo.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      I liked William Warren as Caesar, and DeMille was delightfully Antisemitic in his casting of Herod: Joseph Schildkraut. If the original Hordos did not have that purring Yiddish accent, he certainly was as sly as Mr. Schildkraut’s character. Mankiewicz’s extravaganza did not include Herod. Martin Landau had to play a Roman.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Nina did. Would you like me to make that correct, or would you prefer the readers to suspect that you were hiding a longlost twin?

      • Leah says:

        Is there a way I can edit my own comment? If so, please tell me how and I’m happy to do it. Otherwise, please make those changes for me. Typos distress me.

        Don’t forget Liz. She had converted for Mike Todd. I’m sitting here trying to think of what other times DeMille ever cast Jewish actors. All I can think of off the top of my head are Hedy Lamarr doing the funky chicken as Delilah, and Eddie Robinson in the 10 Commandments. Paulette Goddard in Reap the Wild Wind. There must have been others here and there– maybe Carmel Myers? Anyway, I think Schildkraut brought a certain liveliness to anything he was in. I see in IMDB that DeMille had him play Judas Iscariot– nice! I may have read it too fast, but it seems Schildkraut also played Gaylord Ravenal in the original production of Showboat; astounding.

        • Eugene Finerman says:

          Joseph Schildkraut played a Judas jealous of losing Mary Magdalene to Jesus. You know DeMille loved triangles, even if he had to add them to the Bible. And Rudolf Schildkraut, father of Joseph and a major star of the Yiddish theater, played the High Priest.

          Joseph did play Gaylord Ravenal. He was cast in a silent film that was revised to accommodate a sound track. Obviously with his accent, that Showboat must have sailed the Danube.

  2. Hal Gordon says:

    “You’re a bit too superior for me, my fine young friend.” As Bette said–and said.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      And to quote John Mills, “Working with Bette Davis was the frightening experience of my life. And I was in the War.”

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