Watching 1939: Slightly Honorable (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

slightly honorable1939 film: 
Slightly Honorable (1939)

Release date: 
Dec. 22, 1939

Cast: 
Pat O’Brien, Edward Arnold, Broderick Crawford, Ruth Terry, Claire Dodd, Alan Dinehart, Eve Arden, Phyllis Brooks, Douglass Dumbrille, Bernard Nedell, Douglas Fowley, Evelyn Keyes, Willie Best, Janet Beecher

Studio: 
United Artists

Director: 
Tay Garnett

Plot:
Lawyer John Webb (O’Brien) works to clear his name when his ex-girlfriend (Brooks) is killed.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Pat O’Brien was in five films released in 1939.
– Broderick Crawford was in eight films released in 1939.
– Edward Arnold was in five films released in 1939.
– Ruth Terry was in four films released in 1939.
– Claire Dodd was in two films released in 1939.
– Phyllis Brooks was in three films released in 1939.
– Evelyn Keyes was in six films released in 1939.
– Janet Beecher was in six films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Based on the book “Send Another Coffin” by F.G. Presnell.
• Produced by Walter Wanger and Tay Garnett
• Working titles included “Cities for Sale” and “Ladies Know Too Much.”

slightly honorable

Ruth Terry and Pat O’Brien

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
I don’t really know where to start with this film. This is the second Walter Wanger/Tay Garnett film (with a Werner Janssen score) released in 1939 that I’ve watched that is just … all over the place.

– The film begins with a joke: We see a peaceful, quiet uninhabited tropical island. But we are told “But that’s 8,000 miles from where we are!”

– We are then transported to the city, where we see a corrupt political ring who spend city funds poorly and make bad roads.

– Alma Brehmer (Dodd) is a former flame of lawyer John Webb (O’Brien) is dating corrupt politician Vincent Cushing (Arnold) and is murdered.

– John is accused of Alma’s murder, and he tries to solve the murder to claim himself. Meanwhile, young singer Ann Seymour (Terry) is following after him.

It’s a weaving web of nonsense that keeps going in unexpected directions … but not in a good way (sort of like the Wanger/Garnett production of Eternally Yours).

This is most likely because producer Walter Wanger edited the film while director Tay Garnett was down with the flu – something that ended Wanger and Ganett’s partnership.

“My pal, Ken Englund, sweated out a very funny script with a fresh, flippant, sophisticated approach to the standard murder mystery. Actually, Ken’s treatment was several years ahead of its time,” Garnett wrote in his autobiography, “Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights.”

The film originally was originally titled “Send Another Coffin,” and under Wanger’s editing job was renamed “Slightly Honorable.”

Upon seeing the final print, Garnett said:
“What we saw was a badly mutilated, un-funny comedy. It had been cut with a jigsaw and reassembled with a Mixmaster. It was AWFUL. One hundred and fifty prints had been made and were en route to theatres; one hundred and fifty catastrophes bearing my name as director.”

And again, like in Eternally Yours, the audience is plagued with having to listen to another terrible Werner Janssen score. A film score can make or break a film. And Janssen’s scores completely alter a story in a bad way. For example, during a murder line-up and investigation as police are checking the shoes of the suspects for blood, we hear comedic, muted trumpets and a tuba playing a dopey, plodding tune. It feels comedic, but I’m not sure if it was supposed to be?

While the whole story is convoluted, there are a few highlights. Pat O’Brien, who generally plays a fairly meat-and-potatoes character, plays a suave lawyer, complete with a mustache and a swanky apartment. It was fun to see O’Brien play a debonair lawyer, which was unusual for him.
The ending also has a fairly large twist that I didn’t expect.

But what could have been a fun comedy, murder falls flat.

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