Another Shamedown already? Kidding, it’s all good. If anyone is just joining us and wants to know what the heck a Shamedown is, please click here. And now, on with our show…
It’s with a little bit of trepidation that I posted my Shamedown list this year, because I put a lot of Poverty Row movies on it, and upon thinking about it afterwards I had to wonder if I was dooming myself to at least one turkey review a month. It’s really easy to peg Poverty Row as cheap public domain movies most people have never heard of and few actively seek out; they tend to just show up in one’s recommended list, usually on Amazon Prime because that seems to be the repository for movies that would otherwise be homeless (Looking at you, Llamageddon). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s some weird stuff out there.
Seeing as two out of three of my last Shamedowns have been thousand word groans, mediocre or bad reviews may be par for the course for this year’s Shame List. However, even Poverty Row deserves a fair shake, and one movie that can easily make that case is 1937’s Bank Alarm. I’ll hold my thoughts until the end.
The movie opens with some flashes about a notorious bank robber who’s been murdered in a Los Angeles prison by a man posing as his lawyer. The police are baffled, Police Inspector Macy’s (William L. Thorne) frustrated, the mayor is none too pleased and haunting the inspector’s phone line, and now Alan O’Connor (Conrad Nagel) a detective from the Department of Justice is on the case. Well, he and his co-worker and girlfriend, Bobbie Reynolds (Eleanor Hunt) are on the case. The two of them don’t have a minute to waste, but first they have to pick up Alan’s sister, Kay (Wilma Francis) at the airport.
Kay arrives starry-eyed because she’s met a nice gentleman, Jerry Turner (Frank Milan) who’s looking to be a screenwriter in Hollywood. He’s remarkably savvy about LA for someone who’s just gotten there, because he gets Kay, Alan, Bobbie, and himself into the swanky Club Karlotti for dinner. Apparently Jerry found out about it from a friend back home.
Jerry excuses himself to make a phone call, but what he’s really doing is checking in with his boss, Joe Karlotti (Wheeler Oakman) in a back room of the club. Karlotti’s tired of small-time bank jobs and wants to expand his crime ring. He wants Jerry and one of his henchmen to head up to Lone City, Nevada, where a forty-thousand dollar payout is set to be given to the citizens. Jerry and the henchman get picked up as vagrants and while the sheriff sleeps they sneak out of their jail cell and take the money, stuffing the giant wads of cash in the jail mattresses. How they’ll get it out of the jail is something we never find out.
The sheriff is suspicious when he sees Jerry and the henchman washing up in the morning and cocks an eyebrow when they rave about the comfortable mattresses. The sheriff pushes on the mattresses, notices they’re kinda lumpy, and vows to get new ones, but he’s not suspicious about the lumps in the slightest. He lets Jerry and the henchman off with a warning and gives them a dollar apiece.
Alan and Bobbie are hot on their trail, though, because Jerry and the henchman are a little too confident for their own good. They leave behind a Club Karlotti matchbook at a motor court, as well as an address, and Alan finds out the serial numbers of the bills stolen. Then it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but Jerry’s a little hard to pin down. Even the car he’s been driving was stolen.
Next there are flurries of bank robberies. While Alan is busy interviewing anyone who can provide information about the case, Bobbie and a candid cameraman friend of hers and Alan’s, Bulb (Vince Barnett), pose as journalists and head out to a local farm that might have some answers. And…they find them, in the form of a Club Karlotti flyer.
Then a bank clerk, Overman (Wilson Benge) and Inspector Macy get shot, and it all takes a turn for the worse. Alan and Bobbie suspect the serial numbers on the stolen bills have been changed, and Alan starts hatching a plan. Not going to ruin anything, but there’s a rabbit hole to plunge into and the trip down is sure to be pretty exciting.
Okay. This is a fun movie. It moves pretty quickly and the acting is competent. The dynamic between Bobbie and Alan kinda reads like Nick and Nora Charles sans the ever-present martini, or like Mr. and Mrs. North except that Alan and Bobbie aren’t married. Plus, Alan and Bobbie’s humor isn’t as rat-a-tat punchy and mostly consists of good-natured ribbing.
Bank Alarm, which was originally titled Marked Money, is a product of tiny indie studio Grand National Pictures and was one of four films starring Conrad Nagel and Eleanor Hunt as Alan O’Connor and Bobbie Reynolds. They’re referred to interchangeably as the G-Men Series or the Federal Agent Series, but either title works. Pretty much. I’m partial to Federal Agent, though, because there isn’t a tommy gun in sight.
Sure, the movie could be better. It’s a little bit predictable. The character development is slight. They could have filled out the mystery a bit more and upped the tension. Bulb has no reason to be in the movie except for comic relief, but in a film that only lasts roughly an hour, there isn’t time for the mood to go too far south. It would have been interesting to see where this series would have gone, but Bank Alarm was the last installment.
The reason for this is Grand National wasn’t long for the world. When Bank Alarm was made it was riding high, having signed James Cagney when Cagney temporarily ditched Warner Bros. and made the successful musical Something To Sing About. However, the studio’s finances took a tumble and never recovered, simply because it was hard to generate enough capital. Grand National folded in 1939 and its lot was taken over by the equally tiny and equally short-lived PRC Films.
While the quality of Poverty Row films was a bit spotty and indie films had loads of trouble competing with movies made by the bigger studios, Bank Alarm is a nice surprise and won’t hurt a bit. I’m feeling a little more hopeful about the rest of the movies on my Shame List.
The William Holden Blogathon is coming up on Saturday. Thanks for reading, all…
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Slide, Anthony. The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry. New York: Taylor and Francis Publishing, 1998.