Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Edward G. Robinson (mis)handles your luggage

When I began watching Larceny, Inc. (1945) I knew only two things: 1. that it was a crime film starring Edward G. Robinson and 2. it was released by Warner Bros. I then figured it was a hard boiled, fast moving gangster picture that Warner was known for in the 1930s. But minutes into the film, when Edward G. Robinson and his slow witted buddy played by Broderick Crawford are playing baseball at Sing Sing prison, did I realize this was a comedy. Physical gags, rapid fire dialogue that Robinson delivers at an eloquent fever pitch put this film alongside the stylings of a Marx Brothers or Abbott and Costello movie. Robinson plays Pressure Maxwell, a fast talking and manipulative con and Crawford is Jug, his none too bright partner. On the street, they run into old friend Weepy (Edward Brophy) and together decide to raise some money to start up a dog track. But when they are turned down for a bank loan, Robinson decides to purchase a luggage store from it's kindly old owner (Harry Davenport) in order to be able to drill underground to the adjacent bank next door. But what the three didn't count on was the boom in the luggage business which constantly interrupts their criminal activity in the cellar. A mutual friend, an attractive and whip smart lady named Denny (the very fetching Jane Wyman) soon catches onto their plan and is disheartened to see her friends relapse into crime. To make matters worse, the bank managers enter the store to request that they buy the store from Robinson so they can tear down the cellar wall to expand the bank!

Robinson delivers an energetic and appealing performance as the scheming but still somehow likable con man who is the constant victim of obstacles and bombardment of customers, owners of nearby stores, and a relentless luggage company rep (Jack Carson) who keeps coming into the store wanting dump more inventory onto Robinson. He also develops an immediate attraction for Wyman.

The three would-be bank thieves come across as a sort of variation on the Three Stooges, with Robinson as a well spoken Moe. Even Edward Brophy's voice and behavior resembles Curly Howard's.

The comedy in this film is fast paced and constantly funny. In one memorable moment, Robinson angrily deals with a customer he doesn't want in his store. The man wants the suitcase he purchased gift wrapped and so Robinson crudely and quickly wraps it in brown wrapping paper. "Don't you have any Christmas wrapping?" the customer replies. Robinson then simply adds more brown paper.

The plot thickens when a vicious old prison mate (excellently played by Anthony Quinn) learns of the planned bank heist and flees prison to force himself into the deal. All accumulating into more comic chaos and even unexpected suspense as the film's denouncement takes place on Christmas Eve.

According to imdb.com, Robinson played this role to soften his tough guy image from his earlier gangster pictures like Little Caesar (1930) He still retains an authority but it is offset by his comic foils, making him a perfect straight man here.

Larceny, Inc. was based on a stage play The Night Before Christmas by S.J. Perleman. The film has since been loosely remade by Woody Allen as Small Time Crooks (2000) which substituted the luggage store for a restaurant that sold cookies.

Larceny, Inc. is available via Warner Bros. Home Video's Gangster Collection on DVD. It's highly recommended.

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