Whoever’s in charge of organizing the Warner Archives made-on-demand DVD-R’s has been making intelligent decisions lately in combining titles for double features and sets. Remakes and near-remakes are being packaged together, as are miscellaneous minor titles featuring the same stars. It makes sense that if someone is interested in one of the pictures, they’d be interested in the other, thus increasing the attraction of the package.
One perfectly sensible combo is Walter Pidgeon Double Feature, pairing Society Lawyer and Stronger Than Desire. In some ways, they’re the same movie. Both are MGM products from 1939. Both star Pidgeon before he became a box-office star as a stolid leading man to Greer Garson. In both movies, he plays an upper-class Manhattan lawyer. In both movies, his leading lady is Virginia Bruce, one of those pretty troupers who plugged away in minor items of the ‘30s and ‘40s without making much dent in the public memory. (Check her out in The Invisible Woman and as Kim Novak’s mom in Strangers When We Meet.)
The first title is a fast-moving, easy-going mystery in which Pidgeon defends a friend accused of killing his ex-girlfriend on the balcony of a ritzy party. Everyone heard the shot and rushed outside to find the sap holding the gun. This movie has not one but two Italian stereotype gangsters, one evil and one lovable. The evil one is scarred and scowling Eduardo Ciannelli. He’s up to no good, which makes the whole story not too brain-busting as a mystery.
Walter Pidgeon Double Feature
Walter Pidgeon, Virginia Bruce
US DVD: 18 Jan 2011
The teddy bear is round and beaming Leo Carillo, who’s grateful to Pidgeon’s character for getting him off a murder rap and constantly calls him “Sweethearts”. “The more you insult me, the more I like it!” he chortles. More people probably know Carillo today as a California state park activist (he was an active conservationist), but in his time he was known as a comic actor in Mexican and Italian roles (and sometimes French, or Greek, or whatever), most widely seen as the sidekick of the Cisco Kid in movies and on TV.
There’s a nicely adult undertone to the sequence where Bruce stays overnight in Pidgeon’s swanky pad and they feel confused over the need to explain or not explain her presence when Pidgeon’s old girlfriend shows up. There’s a mixing of motives that works well. By the way, the ex-girlfriend is a more likeable character than in the pre-Code gem Penthouse (1933), of which this is a remake. That film, with Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy, had franker references to what she expected to happen overnight. That kind of talk might have been too much for the remake, but Bruce’s calm acceptance and lack of remark is also quietly effective. (Penthouse is also available from Warner Archives.)
The ending implies that Pigeon and Bruce are going to get married and go to Europe with his comic British manservant, and viewers who walk in on Stronger Than Desire may think they’ve discovered the sequel, except that everyone has different names and the actor who plays the innocent schmuck in the first film (Lee Bowman) is the oily victim in the second.
The new film is a remake of another Myrna Loy film, Evelyn Prentice (1934) with William Powell. (It can be found in the DVD box Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection.) That’s more of a woman’s film focusing on the dilemma of a wife who shoots her blackmailer while her lawyer-hubby ends up defending another woman accused of the crime. As a Powell/Loy film, it’s clearly minor, but that hardly prevents it from being enjoyable nonsense.
It’s still enjoyable in the remake. The first, soap-opera half of the story emphasizes all the ladies’ chic hats and the snazzy decor of the house furnished with servants, and the last half is the suspense of the criminal case, which has such fine scenes as the questioning of a witness who swears she’d recognize the mystery lady again, and of course the impossible courtroom wrap-up. They’re all still wearing crazy hats.
So although it makes sense for these Pidgeon remakes of Loy films to be paired, it would also make sense to pair the two Loy originals, or to pair each original with its remake, or maybe all four films together. Since they’re all available, one can stage a Loy/Pidgeon remake lollapalooza in one’s living room. Or one can spend one’s time on better movies, because these remakes are, after all, forgettable trifles.