Angels Over Broadway (1940)
Based on the title alone and the casting of the undeniably photogenic Rita Hayworth, I had myself convinced to give this musical from Columbia Pictures a shot. Turned out it was anything but a musical and rather a character study of a quartet of four down on their luck losers looking for a spark to raise them up from the depths of despair.
Taking on the lead role as well as an associate producer credit is Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Here he stars as a two bit hustler looking for an easy mark to con and line his pockets with enough cash to make his way from day to day. He’s introduced to the viewers standing in the rain with a voice over narration approaching a Noir feel before the film cuts to our second featured performer and a surprise to me, John Qualen. I say this mainly because the opening credits fail to mention this John Ford favorite when in fact it’s his role that is the central driving force behind the night ahead for all the participants.
Qualen has been caught embezzling $3000 from his employer and has until the morning to come up with the money or face the legal ramifications. With his classic long faced sourpuss, Qualen has opted for suicide and heads out into the rain with his suicide note tucked inside his jacket. With no real destination he finds himself meandering into a nightclub and checking said coat at the front door. Because he’s spotted handing out the cash he has in hand with no need for change, he’s thought to be a big spender and is treated to a front line table and more importantly, Fairbanks believes Qualen to be his next mark.
Time for Rita to enter our story and she’s a dance hall girl looking for a job and though the script won’t come out and say it, I suspect she’s s prostitute looking to ply her trade with poor lonely looking Qualen. Not wanting to miss his mark, Fairbanks joins the two of them at the table. Finishing the quartet and playing an alcoholic once again is Thomas Mitchell. He’s a failed playwright who has seen better days and through a mix up at the nightclubs coat check is given Qualen’s where he promptly discovers the suicide note. Shown to the coat owner’s table, he sets out to discover why a man would kill himself and better still, to help Qualen come up with $3000 by morning and not only save a man from taking his own life but give some meaning to his own as well. Rita gladly joins in while Fairbanks plays along always wary and always looking out for number one hoping to score some money for himself as opposed to the self respect the others are searching for.
No point in going any further with plot details as I’ll let you discover for yourself where this night will take our quartet of small timers. I will say that the film is rather stage bound and dragged along for the first half but really picked up steam down the stretch keeping me hooked as to the final outcome and if indeed Qualen will get his money and the others their self respect.
The film is directed by Ben Hecht who is also the credited writer and producer. You’ll also see a credit stating Lee Garmes as the co-director. Not something that is commonly seen on film. Mitchell’s casting as a drunk would seem to be an obvious choice having just won an Oscar for his role as the inebriated passenger on board John Ford’s Stagecoach and would play a similar role in the now classic It’s a Wonderful Life.
When young and vibrant Rita Hayworth says she has a “slave costume with the chains.” I’ll admit I sat right up in my chair. Not something I really expected to hear in a 1940 feature film at the height of the code era. This comment was made in regards to her getting a job in the nightclub and her on stage act. Either way, it’s bound to conjure up some interesting images of The Love Goddess for audiences then and now.
So while nowhere near what I expected, I liked the cast involved and in the end enjoyed this black and white feature film more than I thought I would by the half way point and I loved the final scene. Should you be a fan of Rita who really delivers a superior performance here, Doug and the Ford favorites, Mitchell and Qualen, give it a go. Looking for a copy? It’s out on DVD through Columbia home video.