Watching 1939: The Lady and the Mob (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.

lady and the mob21939 film:
Lady and the Mob (1939)

Release date:
April 3, 1939

Cast:
Fay Bainter, Ida Lupino, Lee Bowman, Henry Armetta, Warren Hymer, Harold Huber, Forbes Murray, Joe Sawyer, Tom Dugan, Joe Caits, Jim Toney, Tommy Mack, Brandon Tynan, George Meeker

Studio:
Columbia Pictures

Director:
Benjamin Stoloff

Plot:
Lila Thorne (Lupion) and Fred Leonard (Bowman) are engaged to be married. While Fred finishes business in town, Lila travels to meet Fred’s mother, Hattie Leonard (Bainter). Hattie is eccentric and particular. When Hattie realizes her laundry bill has raised a few dollars, she finds that her laundryman Zambrogio (Armetta) is paying the mob for protection. Hattie takes matters into her own hands to break up the gang by creating her own mob.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Fay Bainter was in four films released in 1939.
– Ida Lupino was in four films released in 1939.
– Lee Bowman was in eight films released in 1939.
– Henry Armetta was in eight films released in 1939.
– Warren Hymer was in seven films released in 1939.
– Harold Huber was in nine films released in 1939.
– Joe Sawyer was in 12 films released in 1939.
– Tommy Mack was in four films released in 1939.
– Tom Dugan was in 17 films released in 1939.
– Joe Caits was in five films released in 1939.
– Jim Toney was in two films released in 1939.

lady and the mob

Other trivia:
• Based on the short story “Old Mrs. Leonard and the Machine Guns” by Price Day and George Bradshaw published in the Sunday News on June 13, 1937.
• Working titles included “Mrs. Leonard Misbehaves,” “Old Mrs. Leonard the Machine Guns” and “Old Mrs. Leonard and Her Machine Guns.”
• Edna Mae Oliver was considered for the lead role of Mrs. Leonard.
• Wendy Barrie was considered for the role of Lila.
• The Production Code Administration objected to the film, because it showed machine guns in the hands of criminals and like they are rewarded for lives of crime. The story was adjusted to have the criminals working with the police.

lady and the mob

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
A movie of mismatched characters somehow always brings a good time. This time, it’s an elderly woman organizing gangster to help her run the mob out of town.

In THE LADY AND THE MOB (1939), Lila Thorne (Lupino) and Fred Leonard (Bowman) are engaged. It’s time for Lila to meet Fred’s mother, which she has to do alone while Fred ties up business in town. Fred’s mother is wealthy and eccentric Hattie Leonard (Bainter), who has been known to drive away other girlfriends. While Lila and Hattie are getting acquainted, Hattie realizes her laundry bill is a few dollars higher. When she confronts the dry cleaner, he shares that he had to raise prices to cover his “protection” fees to the mob. Infuriated, Hattie decides she will put an end to the mob that is terrorizing local business owners. Taking matters into her own hands, Hattie forms her own team of gangsters with the help of Lila.

At age 45, Bainter plays a character roughly 35 to 40 years older than her actual age. The film was released a few months after Bainter won her Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting role in JEZEBEL (and a nomination for Best Actress for WHITE BANNERS). Bainter’s comedic and hilarious role of Hattie Leonard couldn’t be more different than her hardened character in JEZEBEL. Bainter is an actress I’m always happy to see in a film for that very reason — she’s always wonderful and the range of different characters she plays are astounding.

Ida Lupino is now remembered for being both an excellent actress and a pioneer in women directors. But in 1939, she had concerns about her career — especially after this film, according to her biographers. Nevertheless, Lupino does a great job with a thankless, window dressing role. And while this film role wasn’t fulfilling for Lupino, the end of 1939 proved fruitful when she was in the film THE LIGHT THAT FAILED (1939). After that, Lupino landed a contract with Warner Bros. and soon was in films like THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940) and HIGH SIERRA (1941).

On the surface, this film is a light comedy and overall is very funny. I loved when Hattie Leonard demonstrated the bullet proof car or taught Lila how to walk in a sexy manner. I also loved the scene where Hattie and her gangsters are trying to get an opposing gangster to talk. No violent methods work, but when Hattie pulls out the caster oil, he sang like a canary (movies today are really lacking in castor oil jokes!).

However, midway through THE LADY AND THE MOB, Hattie gives a speech to bolster everyone into keeping up the fight against the mobsters. She compares their situation to what is happening overseas with Nazism. In the monologue, Hattie compares the mob to having a dictator like Germany. While many studio heads wanted to stay neutral in 1939, this film slips in this message. I thought it was very interesting.

The only low note? Probably Lee Bowman, who also is window dressing. The gangsters are all hilarious, especially Warren Hymer, who I love to see in films.

Overall, this is a fun comedy that I would recommend for a good time. I adore Fay Bainter, and it also showed that Ida Lupino had greater films to come after this.

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com. You can also find me on Letterboxd.

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