The twin attractions of Erle C. Kenton’s GUILTY AS HELL (great pre-code title) are not really leading men Victor McLaglen (a side of mutton dotted with sharp little teeth in permanent death-rictus) and Edmund Lowe (jocular ex-matinee idol going to seed, and fast), it’s [1] the outrageous bad taste, which is at times genuinely foul, reminding us that the liberty of the pre-code era could be used in both good and bad ways, and [2] Kenton’s ridiculously pugnacious camerawork, which delights in thrusting faces and fingers into the lens in giant macro-close-up, or gliding through walls and between scenes as if the whole film were taking place on a series of closely-crammed sets. Which it is.

Movie begins with an elaborately staged murder, with Claire Dodd miscast as the corpse. Kenton pulls out all the stops like a ’30s American Argento ~

Fast-talking reporter Lowe explodes into the cop shop, where flatfoots sit around idly, listening to the radio. “Say, how much would you guys charge to haunt a house?” Then he exchanges wisecracks, insults, and out-and-out abuse with detective McLaglen. The partnership is much like McLaglen and Oakie in MURDER AT THE VANITIES: brassy, vulgar and stoopid. And yet they love each other.

Called to the murder scene, the police and press set out competing as to how outrageously they can disrespect the dead, insult the witnesses and pillage the crime scene. One cop raids the refrigerator, while Lowe pockets the photographs of the victim. Then he taps cigarette ash on the corpse. McLaglen tosses a scrunched-up gum wrapper at the corpse. “Bullseye.” Great character actress Elizabeth Patterson quite rightly expresses horror at these outrages, and we’re meant to be amused.

The movie never quite recovers from making its stars so hateful in the first minutes of the story, but things pick up when the putative good guys have to save an innocent man from death row (Richard Arlen, who always seems to be an innocent man on death row). They’re kind of obliged, y’see, since they put him there. The resulting confrontations see Kenton rehearsing for the 3D movie he’d never make ~

People sit up or step forward into leering, porous close-up, then jab their stubby digits in our eyes, giving the focus-puller repetitive strain injury. Fun stuff, if cartoony.

Result: Arlen the perpetual patsy is freed, the real killer snuffs it, and Lowe sits on his corpse. The End.

9 Responses to “Fatheads”

  1. That last section of accusations and resolution was fun to watch although I wonder if moviegoers then didn’t dive under their seats, especially at McLaglen coming at them. The Lowe/McLaglen team’s coarseness is amped up even as they’re civilians – it’s like they never left the Marines (they really are still Quirt and Flagg in a lot of ways, although can you imagine telling anyone you’re watching this with, “Lowe is the suave one of the pair” with a straight face?) At least Kenton had the sense to make his next coarse team (Gleason and Armstrong) more comic. I enjoyed it myself, after many efficiently directed, straightforward ’30s films, I liked the idea of being jabbed in the eye.

  2. First Tarzan…then Jane…then Boy. Does that make Cheetah the last official Tarzan survivor?

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Lowe was in a “lavender marriage” with the delightful Lilyan Tashman.

    McLaglen and Lowe buddy flicks were made over the course of 3 decades! (The last one was 1941).

  4. No more Boy. No more Tarzan. No more Jane. Now, only Cheeta remains to tell his tale (in a bestselling autobiography). Although it’s generally suspected that he’s NOT the original chimp…

    I wouldn’t have guessed that about Lowe. Or Tashman.

    I really like Kenton’s zaniness. Search for Beauty is nutzoid, Island of Lost Souls is genuinely terrific, and I even like House of Dracula, although he’s less exuberant by then. I have From Hell to Hollywood lined up ready to go next.

  5. Ah, Johnny Sheffield. One of my earliest childhood crushes, and I certainly envied the way he got to play with Johann Peter Weißmüller.

  6. Weissmuller’s grandson is a successful comic book artist… but I forget who.

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