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Sunday, January 24, 2021

'Dubious' Crime Double Bill

A pleasant surprise surfaced for me this weekend - the Harvard Film Archive offered free virtual screenings of some rarities for members. The first offering consisted of, according to the HFA, a 'dubious double bill': an episode of a 1950s TV series Gang Busters followed by the feature, Sweater Girl, a wartime Paramount B picture, perhaps best known today, if at all, for the debut of the beloved Jule Styne & Frank Loesser standard "I Don't Want to Walk Without You." These films were digitized directly from prints in the HFA's collection. The TV episode can be seen in an inferior version on YouTube, but Sweater Girl doesn't appear to be available on DVD or streaming *anywhere,* so to remember these I'm turning to my recently neglected blog.

The Red Dress Case (1955)
Tom Neal and Ann Savage, the infamous duo from the cult noir classic Detour, get a do-over about 10 years later in this episode of the Gang Busters TV franchise. Unfortunately for them, again it didn't turn out so well. In this story based on 'true events' and set in San Francisco, Juanita (Savage) starts out a bit more demure in this one - she is introduced being entranced by a 'red dress' on a dress shop mannequin while out shopping with two gentleman friends. 

Juanita shares her admiration for the red dress with the saleslady

It's then revealed her boyfriend Crain (Neal) is just being released from San Quentin. After a joyful reunion, Juanita shows herself as the true brains of the crime gang, and wants to pull off a few heists, twisting the arms of her compatriots to those ends. 
Juanita and Crain's happy reunion will be short-lived

Their second effort is, you guessed it, robbing the dress shop so Juanita can have her desired dress as she 'wants to look pretty.' She gets her dress, but a security guard loses his life. Shortly, the police close in and after a few twists, the gang is broken up for good. At the end, the episode's host, whose identity I cannot determine, gives a preview of upcoming episodes and solemnly informs the audience about a real unsolved case, asking for help from the audience track down an Alcatraz escapee, Ralph Roe (who was never found). 
This crime business is serious!
I loved seeing this duo again, although the material and production values did not suit their talents. Sadly, Tom Neal had more run-ins with the law than the characters he played, and his career was on the skids here. His hard living showed in his face. He died in 1972 at age 58 only seven months after being released from jail (charge was murder). 
Tom Neal as Crain
It was also fun seeing Ann Savage who resembled much more a mid-century leading lady here than in Detour. Yet, according to IMDb, this episode was her last film credit until the 1980s. But she had a valedictory - I highly recommend her final film My Winnipeg, an odd but fascinating Guy Maddin offering from 2007.

Sweater Girl (1942)

Paramount's B unit gave comedian Eddie Bracken a leading role, in which he used his goofy boy-next-door looks and self-effacing manner to good use in this slight but entertaining campus comedy/musical/murder mystery(!). A remake of the 1935 film College Scandal, it was based on a story by Beulah Marie Dix and was directed by William Clemens. According to, the original title was Sing a Song of Homicide. I can't imagine why they changed that!

Playing alongside Bracken are lesser-known musical stars of the era: June Preisser as the cute co-ed infatuated with Bracken, Betty Jane Rhodes as possible femme fatale, and crooner Johnny Johnston in a small but critical role. No sign of the original "Sweater Girl" Lana Turner here; the film name is the name of the fictional musical revue show that the characters are rehearsing on campus through the proceedings.

What is rather odd and macabre is that during the usual mid-century campus antics and romances, there are two young men from among the ranks that lose their lives to an unknown serial killer. In fact, Johnston's character is dispatched while he is singing a song he wrote for the musical with the whole gang listening through a phone line. Here he is right before the brutal attack: 
Johnny Johnston sings
And his rendition of the song "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," the first time it was heard by the public, was absolutely lovely. I looked for a video clip of him singing it but to no avail. It was later sung as part of the musical revue by Betty Jane Rhodes. Here is audio of her enchanting rendition: 

Rhodes also had a fun song "I said no" - which is exactly about what you might think!

But no time to worry about murders- there is romance in the air! Bracken and Preisser have a series of scenes where they are trying to negotiate their relationship before they become amateur sleuths, slinking around a dark house where the killer may or may not be found. Ultimately the killer and unsuspected motive are revealed, and the show can go on! At the end, there is the required piece of wartime propaganda. 
A little slapstick enlivens a budding relationship
(Bracken & Priesser)
I particularly appreciated the relatively straight and somber performance of silent film star Nils Asther as Betty Jane's stepfather - he reminded the audience that there may actually be some awful stuff going on on campus(!). 
Betty Jane Rhodes and Nils Asther

So grateful to the Harvard Film Archive for making these films available to us this year.