Friday, January 8, 2010

★½ WITHIN THE LAW (1939)

Bayard Veiller wrote the original play "Within the Law" which opened on Broadway in 1912 and had 541 performances. The cast included Jane Cowl and Brandon Hurst (Silver the Butler from White Zombie). There was a Broadway revival in 1928 which included Claudette Colbert (Three Came Home). Within the Law was first adapted for the screen in Austailia by J.C. Williamson Ltd. and directed by Monte Luke in 1916. Vitagraph Company of America released a version directed by William P.S. Earle, starring Alice Joyce in 1917 which was remade by First National Pictures in 1923, directed by Frank Lloyd and starring Norma Talmadge. MGM made the film in 1930 under the title Paid directed by Sam Wood with Joan Crawford playing the title role of Mary Turner.
Beating a dead horse beyond glue MGM made this fifth and final version under the original title Within the Law with director Gustav Machatý in 1939. I have yet to see any of the previous versions but I plan on tracking them down just to figure out how in the hell early audiences achieved a willful suspension of disbelief with such an absurd crime melodrama.
Store clerk Mary Turner (Ruth Hussey) is framed by one of her co-workers for stealing jewels, sentenced to three years in prison she vows revenge on her boss Mr. Gidler. In the pokie, she starts reading law books to figure out a scheme to bring down Gidler without facing any new jail time. During her three years behind bars, Mary befriends fellow inmate Agnes, a gangster's moll, who introduces Mary to gangster boss Joe Garson when they are released from prison. Mary soon becomes the mastermind of the gang by using her legal loopholes to scam Gidler's department store.
Up to this point, the far flung plot is actually pretty interesting but the logic condom really pops once Mary goes after Mr. Gilder's playboy son Richard. After faking interest in buying an airplane (yeah, really), she marries the love struck sap with the intention of writing a scandalous magazine article and selling it for big bucks. Mr. Gidler will be exposed for unjustly sending her to prison and her masterplan will be complete. Why this half-baked soap opera logic couldn't possibly fail! Like poop falling from the sky, you can feel your teeth clenching as the con and mark fall in love with no plausible motivation.

Everything is neatly wrapped up in the last 10 minutes. A stoolie for the coppers sets Mary's gang up when they attempt to rob one of Mr. Gidler's Rembrandt paintings! They're conveniently killed or sent down the river. Gang boss Joe, in love with Mary, takes the heat for a murder wrap being pinned on the unlikely lovers. Richard hires a detective who gains a confession from the real jewel thief after three years and no clues, Mary learns that it's not nice to hate, Dad forgives daughter in law, and hoodlum whore Agnes gets a respectable job as a counter clerk. Cue the sweeping love score and credits.
The brief prison sequences are well staged and the early "showing the ropes" scenes between hardened floozie Agnes and distraught Mary provide some yuks. Some of the exchanges between a hard boiled cop and Mary's gang who now have "the power of law books" are amusing, but the films minor charms quickly dissipate before the last act. Within the Lawthrows in some really lame digs at Gone With the Wind and Myrna Loy, painful comic relief from a thug trying to portray a butler and unaware racist humour that really make for 65 painful minutes. Skip this version and watch the equally preposterous yet much sexier Parole Girl (1932). ShareThis

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