(director/producer: Fritz Lang; screenwriters: story by Norman Krasna/Virginia van Upp; cinematographer: Charles B. Lang; editor: Paul Weatherwax; music: Kurt Weill; cast: Sylvia Sidney (Helen Dennis), George Raft (Joe Dennis), Barton Maclane (Mickey), Harry Carey (Mr. Morris), Vera Gordon (Mrs. Levine), Roscoe Karns (Cuffy), George Stone (Patsy), Warren Hymer (Gimpy), Robert Cummings (Jim); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; Paramount; 1938)

“Far better than initially thought.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Fritz Lang’s only attempt at straight comedy comes off as being Runyonesque, though its more serious aim was to be a Brechtian moral lesson play. It also mixes in romance, drama, musical routines and a crime story. Lang dismissed it as a misfire. Even if that were true, which I don’t believe is so unless you unfairly compare it to the acclaimed director’s superb film noirs, the film is still marvelous because of the way it treats in such a realistic way its lead romantic couple. The film fascinates in the way it carries out a “romantic duel” between a couple who have very different points of view and spend much of the film locked in a struggle over them until they can see the light and change. Veteran screenwriter Virginia van Upp, who has based her script on the story by Norman Krasna, has turned in a first-rate mature script that’s a healthy mixture of soap opera and drama. The film’s weakness was that it was so strangely conceived and such a mess in how to view it, that it failed to cohesively hold together stylistically as a whole.

George Raft and Sylvia Sidney are a pair of ex-cons trying to recover from their past mistakes while employed in a big Los Angeles department store, where they have been hired by a kind-hearted liberal boss Harry Carey whose policy is to give those who served their time a second chance. Some 50 of his 2,500 employees are ex-cons out on parole.

Sidney knows about Raft’s prison record, but he is unaware that she also has a record. Falling instantly in love they marry secretly on an impulse, which goes against their parole terms since parolees are not allowed to wed and therefore the marriage is not legal. When Raft accidentally learns the truth he feels betrayed and their relationship is threatened. In a fit of disgust, Raft relapses to his old ways and organizes a gang of his ex-con friends to rob Carey’ store. Sidney is guilt-ridden that she let her man down and tries her best to convince the gang members why crime doesn’t pay, that they are making a big mistake and will only wind up in jail again. Imitating a teacher, she goes to chalk and blackboard to teach them a lesson.

The film is noted for the opening number, “You Can’t Get Something For Nothing,” which was composed by Kurt Weill. He composed two other songs, one of them “The Right Guy for Me” was also notable.

The opening montage shows the wide variety of items that can be bought in a modern consumer driven society. They are arranged into abstract visual patterns stacked up in piles and arranged into repeating rectangular grids. The grids resemble the imaginary “buildings” artist Kazimir Malevich sculpted out of 3D white rectangular solids and make for interesting background viewing.

This film might have been so ill-received by film critics because it is out of step with Lang’s previous darker mysterious films of more depth. But this light-hearted curio is likable and its droll humor and the charming leads all work to its advantage, and with the passing of time appears to be far better than initially thought.

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