Irish-American Crime Films: Irish Luck (1939)

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in "Irish Luck."

Frankie Darro and his Irish mother in “Irish Luck.”

Irish Luck (11939)

Written by: Mary McCarthy (screenplay), Charles M. Brown (story)
Directed by: Howard Bretherton
Starring:  Frankie Darro, Dick Purcell, Mantan Moreland
Summary: Frankie Darro produced a comic turn as a bellhop breaking a bond theft ring; the first film to pair him with African-American comic Mantan Moreland, but far from the last.

As this project progresses, there will probably be more reviews of films that star Frankie Darro, as “Irish Luck” does. The athletic, diminutive actor isn’t well remembered today, but he was a legitimate star in his day, albeit typically of juvenile films and b-movies. He even was responsible for one of the best-loved performances in film, even if it was uncredited and unrecognized at its time: He was the man wearing the Robbie the Robot suit in “Forbidden Planet,” which makes him to a previous generation what Kenny Baker, the man in the R2D2 suit, is to ours.

Darro has already come up a few times in these reviews: He played the young Cagney (sort of) in “The Public Enemy” and played a juvenile delinquent is Cagney’s “Mayor of Hell.” Although I can’t tell whether Darro actually had Irish blood or not (his real name was Johnson), he played an awful lot of Irish youth — here’s a brief list of character he played: Barnie Finn, Tad Dennison, Mickey Grogan, Billy Ryan, and “Orphan” McGuire. He even provided the voice of Lampwick in Disney’s “Pinocchio,” the only redheaded character in the film, and his casting is likely based on his long career of playing Irish delinquents.

But if Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.” The film is a bit of a nothing, telling of a bellboy named Buzzy O’Brien who can’t help but stumble into mysteries in his hotel. But it’s an entertaining nothing, helped by pairing Darro with African-American actor Mantan Moreland. I’m a fan of Moreland, and even visited his grave when I lived in LA, and his reputation deserves reexamination. He’s notorious for playing bug-eyed, frightened African-Americans, which became something of a noxious cliche in Hollywood. But Moreland’s bug-eyedness was natural, and his comic skills impeccable and understated. He never plays his character’s fear as an exaggerated burlesque, but instead as a perpetually fretfulness.

If Darro could often put himself forth with a budding criminal’s swagger, he was also a skilled comic actor, on display in “Irish Luck.”
Darro and Moreland would go on to star in a series of films together, and they were a good pair, with Moreland acting as a sort of weary commenter on Darro’s boundless enthusiasm. In fact, in this film Darro is almost nothing but enthusiasm. Dressed in a bellhop outfit that would look right at home at the Grand Budapest Hotel, he’s determined to be a boy detective, and his hotel, which is the center of a bond-theft ring, given him ample opportunity.

The title, “Irish Luck,” is deliberate. Darro has an Irish mother in this, and, moreover, when he meets a female suspect in this, he decides she must be innocent, as her name is Monahan. Now, my name at birth was Monaghan, so I sympathize, but I also have to admit this is an odd plot point. After all, at the start of the movie he manages to capture a pair of bond robbers, and while they are unnamed, they are played by Pat Gleason and Gene O’Donnoll, so it’s not as though Irish criminals are unheard of, even in this film’s universe.

But the kid has an instinct that Monahan is okay, and, in general, his instincts are right on the money — there’s some suggestion that he literally inherited his genius for deduction from his deceased father, who was a policeman. His father’s former partner, player by Dick Purcell (who himself would make a terrifically entertaining film with Moreland called “King of the Zombies”), is nonplussed at Darro’s boy detective ambitions. But if there is one thing Darro demonstrated in films, it was that he tended to get swept up in things, and once swept was unstoppable.

If only the same could have been said of his career. He did a stint in the military during World War II and contracted malaria. Reportedly, he suffered long-term effects, which he attempted to manage with alcohol. Although he managed to make regular, often small appearance on film and television, he was broke for much of his adult life and struggled with alcohol. This was probably exacerbated when he opened a bar on Santa Monica Boulevard called “Try Later” and named after the response he typically got when he contacted Central Casting.

I worked as background talent for Central Casting several years ago, and I know how frustrating those calls are to this day. Boundless energy and enthusiasm doesn’t stand a chance against the drudgery of making tens or even hundreds of calls per day, hoping a job has opened up and that you’re right for it. It’s just murder, and it’s a murder that even a former boy detective couldn’t solve.

Irish-American Horror and Fantasy Movies: Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003)

"Back 2 the Hood": The leprechaun ends on a high note.

“Back 2 the Hood”: The leprechaun ends on a high note.

Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood (2003)

Written by: Steven Ayromlooi
Directed by: Steven Ayromlooi
Starring: Warwick Davis, Tangi Miller, Laz Alonso
Summary: The last of the Warwick Davis “Leprechaun” film is at once the most menacing and the silliest.

“Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood”  was the last of the Warwick Davis “Leprechaun” movies, although apparently he still pitches sequels, including one taking place on a pirate ship that I think is a terrific idea. “Back 2 tha Hood” is also one of the worst reviewed in the series, with Entertainment Weekly notoriously, and nastily, writing “if a movie could spark a race riot, this is it.”

I don’t share that sentiment. This is not the best in the series, but it’s far from the worst, and in its own way ends the series on a high note — quite literally, given the abundance of pot jokes. The film even gives its titular leprechaun a backstory, presented in entertaining animation during the opening credits. In it, leprechauns were guardians of an ancient kings gold, hunting down and punishing all those who stole from their liege, and all but one returned to the earth upon the king’s death. This is literally more motivation than the leprechaun was given in five earlier films, and it also sets the story in place: One cannot simply return the gold, because revenge is also part of the monster’s mission. And so anyone who touches the gold dies.

The film, as its title suggests, is once again set in South Central Los Angeles, which was reportedly not the original intention. Instead, it was meant to be a more typical teen flick, perhaps set in a resort town on spring break, which sounds dreadful to me. Instead, this film has been effectively rewritten for the hood, although with some elements that seem left over from the earlier conceptions. The two female leads, as an example, are struggling to get into college, which is a storyline you don’t see often enough in exploitation films set in the black community.

Once again, the film boasts an appealing cast, with Tangi Miller and Sherrie Jackson as the college-bound teens and Laz Alonso and Page Kennedy as a weed dealer and pot smoker, respectively. Alonso has run into trouble with some local hoods who see his pot dealing as infringing on their turf, and all run into trouble when they find the leprechaun’s gold.

A pothead is impaled on his bong, and his bongwater turns red.
This is the only film to reimagine the look of the leprechaun, and opts for a more menacing appearance than the Victorian-styled green top hat and swallow-tailed version of the earlier film. Here he wears a black top hat and a funereal black coat, looking more like a tiny undertaker than a traditional leprechaun, and it’s a good look — unworldly and menacing. Additionally, although this film manages to be fairly discreet with its violence, with much of it happening offscreen, it also has a sense of ghastly spectacle. A pothead is impaled on his bong, as an example, and his bongwater turns red. This is, at times, a leprechaun with a genuine sense of malice.

Although that’s a bit at odds with the film’s genuinely loopy sensibilities. Preciously films had tried at comedy but often failed at it, while this film offers a series of sequences that play as skilled setups and punchlines. As an example, there is a scene were the leprechaun is menacing the movie’s head hood, which is interrupted by a cell phone call from the hood’s girlfriend. He insists on taking it, and sweet talks his girlfriend while the leprechaun waits patiently. Later, the leprechaun will intercept a call from the same girlfriend and likewise attempt to sweet-talk her, describing himself in ways that are at once lacivious, a bit pathetic, and awful. The film offers a lot of callbacks to scenes from earlier in the film that seemed like one-off jokes, but turn out to be important to the plot: Contaminated pot, car hydraulics, and a police officers leg among them.

The story has a slightly scattered quality, perhaps owing to the fact that it was rewritten in such bold strokes, and perhaps simply because everybody in the movie seems high, including the leprechaun, who smokes copious amounts of marihuana. Despite this, the film is enormously watchable — perhaps the only one in the series I would enjoy watching again. If earlier films felt like they were accidentally borrowing from folklore, this one feels like it is borrowing from EC Comics, with its mix of low comedy, sly irony, and garish bloodletting.  And, come to think of it, EC Comics often felt lifted from urban legends and campfire tales, which are the American equivalents of traditional folklore.

So “Back 2 tha Hood” may not be award-winning filmmaking, but, among the entire series, it captures the genuine thrill of reading an especially nasty comic very late at night. I’m not sure why others critics disliked it so much, although critics of EC Comics disliked them so much they dragged the creators before a Congressional hearing, claiming the contributed to juvenile delinquency and leading to an industry-wide ban on horror and crime comics. If you’ve ever watched these hearings, they seem to be made up of angry, pinch-faced men lobbing unfounded accusations in response to a vague fear that our children were going bad.

I think the problem with the critics back then, and the critics of this film, comes down to something very simple. I think they didn’t know how to have fun.

Irish-American Crime Films: Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Michael Keaton as Johnny Kelly AKA Johnny Dangerously.

Michael Keaton as Johnny Kelly AKA Johnny Dangerously.

Johnny Dangerously (1984)

Written by: Harry Colomby, Jeff Harris, Bernie Kukoff, Norman Steinberg
Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Michael Keaton, Marilu Henner, Joe Piscopo
Summary: A genially surreal sendup of 1930’s gangster films buoyed by the easygoing anarchy of star Michael Keaton

1984 feels like a weird year to release a spoof early mobster movies. For one thing, it was a bit hard to see them. The video revolution was just getting underway, and it would be years before the studios raided their vaults to release most of their genre films. Film noir had a cult following, but that cult tended toward the moody, shadow-lit films of the 40s and 50s and not for the melodramatic gangster operas of the 20s and 30s. I remember the first time I saw 1931’s “Little Caesar,” still regarded as one of the classic of the genre: It was 1986 at a special screening at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and it screened for one night.

But, for whatever reason, a gang of screenwriters (there are four listed), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” director Amy Heckerling, and Michael Keaton, then in his second lead role, decided to spoof the genre with “Johnny Dangerously”; moreover, they decided to particularly satirize the films of James Cagney. This was tow years after “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” which built an entire new movie out of scenes from earlier crime films, tying it together with funnyman Steve Martin playing a PI, but that drew from 40s crime films and today seems more like a strange experimental film than a comedy. Johnny Dangerous often feels like a purer form of homage, sending up conventions of a film genre that nobody remembered anymore.

The whole of it is done in the rat-a-tat, million-jokes-per-minute, throw-it-all-in-and-see-what-works style that “Airplane” had successfully translated to the screen, but borrowed from Mad Magazine. And, in fact, if “Johnny Dangerously” feels like anything, it feels like a Mad Magazine film satire — it’s breezy and cartoonish, filled with little slangy asides, and delights in silly names (Danny Vermin) and strange sounds (one of the film’s best running gags is an Italian gangster whose torrential foul mouth spews nothing but mispronounced curse words: You lousy cork-soakers. You have violated my farging rights.) Especially in he early scenes, the film is shot with a breathtaking verve: characters literally run from place to place, and one women, when summoned, leaps off her second floor window and slides down a pole to get to the ground floor. News reporters tend to rush whatever telephone booth is nearby, literally flinging whoever is in it over their shoulders like Russian tumblers. Johnny Dangerously can’t cross a street without machine guns emerging from every imaginable nook and crevasse to open fire on him.

The film is positively daffy, and Heckerling’s direction has been compared to Frank Tashlin, a Warner Brothers cartoonist who moved on to live-action films but continued to treat them like Bugs Bunny shorts. There doesn’t seem to be one sense of humor driving the film, but dozens, all squeezing in jokes wherever possible with barely any awareness that there is another joke going on at nearly the same moment. Star Keaton rides the thing with an easy charm and a wild grin — he had proven, and would prove again, that anarchic comedy was his metier, and he settles into this film like it’s where he belongs.

The story is simple, if the details are lunatic. Johnny Kelly is the son of an Irish immigrant women in New York’s slums, and turns to crime to pay for her poor health. He pays his brother’s way through law school, only to see his brother join the DA’s office and promise to bring him down. Other gangsters frame Johnny and attempt to kill his brother, leading to a spectacular death-row escape and a shootout in a movie theater that is playing Cagney’s “The Roaring Twenties.” The bones of the film are solid; this could be any of the dozen actual crime films from the era.

This is not a mother from a Cagney movie. It’s a cutout in the shape of a mother, designed to showcase whatever joke, however unlikely or silly, that the writers want to place on it.
But then Heckingly and company start to pile the jokes on. The mother, played by Maureen Stapleton, has an endless series of health crises, each less likely but more expensive than the predecessor. In the meanwhile, she does laundry, and her entire apartment is piled high with it, including an entire room filled with shirts that need ironing. She carries a vibrator in her purse and winkingly tells her daughter-in-law that she swings both ways. This is not a mother from a Cagney movie. It’s a cutout in the shape of a mother, designed to showcase whatever joke, however unlikely or silly, that the writers want to place on it. Every character is like this; the whole film is like this. But, because the film still hews to such a straightforward plot, it somehow manages to be chaotic without becoming completely lost.

Watching the film again recently, I think it holds up a lot better than many of the comedies of the era. It probably benefits from the fact that it was parodying a much older film genre, and certainly benefits from having Heckerling as a director, but a lot of 80s comedies traded in a sort of casual mockery that seems dated now, but, more than that, just seems mean, as though the primary targets of humor in the era where women (and their sexuality), gay people, and people of color. There is very little of that in the film, but instead we get a mounting collection of gently surreal humor coupled with a cartoonish slapstick sensibility. The film is mostly cast with television actors, which was a trick sometimes used to keep costs down, but makes the film strangely comforting. We’ve seen these people on television for years, and so the film has the feel of old friends getting together and goofing around.

I suspect this will be  bit of a disappointment to those who want their comedy with bared teeth and red claw, and I suspect a truly vicious satire could be made from the same source material, instead of this collection of genial absurdity. The films that inspired these were tough and mean, filled with vicious psychopaths and sometimes shockingly cynical, and these elements are ignored in “Johnny Dangerously,” which, like it’s lead actor, has a frantic charm but no real menace.

But still, it’s hard to fault a film for being what it wanted to be instead of what you wanted it to be. The meaner film can still be made, if someone wants to tackle it. Now might be a better time anyway, as the old gangster films are much more available, and there have been a recent spate of similar films to remind audiences of what these sort of crime films are like, and why they are so thrilling. Call it “Johnny Murderously”; I’ll go see it.

Irish-American Film: Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

He is that Yankee Doodle Boy: James Cagney as George M. Cohan.

He is that Yankee Doodle Boy: James Cagney as George M. Cohan.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Written by: Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston
Summary: James Cagney is typically electric, this time playing Broadway impresario George M. Cohan instead of a hoodlum; the film gloriously duplicates scenes from Cohan’s plays and embraces the man’s essential corniness.

There are two stories about Broadway impresario George M. Cohan’s response to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the 1942 biopic of his life. I don’t know which is true. Perhaps both are; both make sense. The first is that Cohan, surprised by the liberties taken with his biography, said “It was a good movie. Who was it about?”

In the second, Cohan is awed by the actor that he helped to select to play him, Jimmy Cagney, and declared “My God, what an act to follow!” Cagney wasn’t the first choice for the role — that was Fred Astaire, and Astaire wouldn’t have been a bad choice. He shared with Cohan long features and a sort of Broadway foppishness. But history has not remembered Cohan for having Astaire’s fussy elegance or wry sense of humor. It remembers Cohan for bombast.

Cagney was an inspired casting choice, and not just because he was an exceptionally skilled song-and-dance-man whose wild tap skills had rarely gotten a showcase, nor because Cagney was the definitive Irish New Yorker of the screen at the time. It’s also because Cagney’s bulldog persona, which most often found its screen expression in gangster roles, works just as well in a story about theater. His version of Cohan is cocky, brassy, and no-nonsense, although Cagney trades in his usual hair-trigger temper for an unexpected wistfulness. You get the sense that if any Hell’s Kitchen hoodlum had learned to dance and to respond to life’s frustrations and insults with a serene, devil-may-care smile, they all might have owned Broadway.

Cagney especially favors unexpected physical contact in this film, such as a secret kiss to the top of the hat of a producer who accepts his work.
The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, who was perhaps the best jobbing director in Hollywood, a living rebuke to the auteur theory of filmmaking. Curtiz managed at once to be exceptionally skilled as a filmmaker and almost totally anonymous, never superimposing his own authorial vision on the film he was making. As a result, Curtiz was equally comfortable — and skilled — at lensing pirate films, noir, and musicals. What other director might boast “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Casablanca,” and “White Christmas” on their resume, and who else would handle all three so deftly?

So, as he always did, Curtiz mostly got out of the way of the story, providing occasional director flourishes only when it serves the need of the story, such as a brilliant montage sequence in which a camera glides along Broadway, from theater to theater, each playing a Cohan production, each representing the passage of time. Curtiz also got out of the way of Cagney, who always liked to add comic flourishes to his performance, and they abound here — Cagney especially favors unexpected physical contact in this film, such as a secret kiss to the top of the hat of a producer who accepts his work, and a series of small jabs to his producing partner’s chest and nose that Cohan makes when he has had an idea. Cagney owns this movie, not just because he mimics Cohan performance style so well, including his speak-singing and his stiff-legged tapping that explodes into near gymnastics. Cagney also owns the movie because he seems to be having so much fun with it, as though the greatest prank a man might enjoy is to become the toast of Broadway.

It is in the musical numbers that director Curtiz’s combination of anonymity and supercompetence shows itself best, as the various scenes from Cohan plays are, reportedly, exceptionally accurate reproductions of the original performances. Curtiz’s camera moves around the stage unobtrusively, letting stage theatrics do the heavy lifting, and indulging in the overblown, artificial pleasures of early Broadway. Cohan’s stage was crowded with actors (and sometimes horses), and they would pile onto massive moving sets, including boats and trains, where they would sing his signature songs, which rank among history’s greatest earworms. His stage productions were overblown and absurd, indulging in such broadly sentimental values as patriotism and mother-love, and if Cohan were just a purveyor of pablum, a dishonorable dealer in cheap theatrics and emotion, they would be unbearable. But there never seemed to be any dishonesty in Cohan’s writing — he really seemed to view these subjects as important and worth theatrical exploration, as though the whole world had waited for an extended musical number, performed by hundreds of showpeople, about how grand the American flag is.

As it turned out, he was right, and it’s still rather stunning to see. The film, like Cohan, is often hokey, especially in its framing device, in which Cohan is summoned to the White House and finds himself spilling his life story to the President. But this scene culminates in Cagney, as Cohan, launching into an impromptu, joyous tap dance down the White House steps, and suddenly its no longer an awkward framing device, but an opportunity to express real, spontaneous joy.

Cohan knew, and Cagney knew, that there is nothing more theatrical, and all the tools of theater should be put in the service of explosive displays of real human sentiment.