Saturday, September 27, 2014

Pre-Code vs Post-Code: "Picture Snatcher" and "Escape From Crime"

If you removed the atmosphere of breezy amorality from the 1933 film "Picture Snatcher," you wouldn't have much of a movie.

And, sure enough, the 1942 film "Escape From Crime" isn't much of a movie.

Both films are based on an original story by Danny Ahearn, but "Picture Snatcher" has that cheerful pre-code let's-see-what-we-can-get-away-with spirit, personified by our hero, Danny Keene, played by James Cagney. "Picture Snatcher" is a pretty typical pre-code Cagney picture, and to me that's not bad at all -- it has spice, irreverence and a bit of a nasty
streak, and it feels no need whatsoever to apologize for itself.

The bare bones of Ahearn's story -- paroled convict gets a job as a rough-and-tumble newspaper photographer -- is the same in both films, but "Escape From Crime" removes all the tasty vices on display in "Picture Snatcher," and the result is flavorless and forgettable.

Here Danny is played, glum and guilt-ridden, by Richard Travis. In fact, Danny, also known as Red, is so surly that Jackie Gleason, in a brief bit as the world's most hilarious convict, can't even get him to crack a smile:



(You have just seen Gleason's entire performance. He doesn't show up again.)

Post-code Danny is cranky because he hasn't heard from his wife Molly (Julie Bishop) in a long while. Yes, this Danny is married, unlike pre-code Danny. And he has a baby daughter. So when post-code Danny gets a parole from Stock Footage Penitentiary, he's on the street with not one, but three, mouths to feed. When Danny gets sprung he heads right to see Molly, and whatever disagreement they were having instantly disappears. So why give Danny an attitude at the beginning? It's not the last time that this movie won't make a lot of sense.

In "Picture Snatcher," things also begin with Danny's release from prison, but it's a much jollier affair. Danny's old gang comes to pick him up, and they brought along a couple of women to make Danny welcome. Then Danny indulges himself with a perfumed bath and coolly announces to his buddies that he's dropping out of the crime game. He ends his speech by taking the money that was owed him as part of the job he went up the river for and then strolls out. In other words, Boom.



Post-code Danny, meanwhile, is a painfully straight arrow, and he's broke. But he spent his time in stir taking mugshots, so he's learned about photography, and he appeals to newspaper editor Cornell (Frank Wilcox) for a job. Cornell is as much of a stick-in-the-mud as Danny -- Cornell's pre-code equivalent, editor "Mac" MacLean (Ralph Bellamy), is shacking up with one of the reporters (Alice White) and drinks bourbon on the job. Cornell just sits at his desk and gives the impression that his suspenders are too tight.

Anyway, post-code Danny gets turned away jobless, and as he leaves the office two things happen -- one is that he meets his old nemesis, flatfoot Biff "Biff" Malone, who sent him up; and the other is that he witnesses and photographs a bank robbery.



Compare that to the other Danny's first job, a pre-code situation if ever there was one -- a firefighter is holed up in his own burned-out apartment. His crew was called to a fire there, and the firefighter discovered his dead wife in bed with another man. Danny's job is to get an old photo of the firefighter and his wife, so he poses as an insurance man sent to survey the damage.



That incident illustrates some of the nastiness in "Picture Snatcher" -- we actually root for Cagney to take the poor guy's wedding picture.

Just as post-code Danny has Biff the cop on his tail, pre-code Danny has Det. Lt. Nolan (Robert Emmett O'Connor, who else?). To complicate matters, Danny has fallen for Nolan's daughter (Patricia Ellis), a pretty journalism student. To further complicate matters, editor Mac's squeeze has also fallen for Danny. Post-code Danny doesn't have time for the ladies -- he's got a wife and kid to take care of!

But the story's one big plot element makes it into both movies -- to save his job, Danny is forced to take an illegal photo of someone in the electric chair. When the rival reporters find out, they (and the cops) chase Danny back to the paper. Just watch how Cagney and Travis each handle the scene:






Something else to watch in those clips -- the sets. "Picture Snatcher" actually looks like it was shot in New York City, while "Escape From Crime" is pretty clearly stuck on the Warner back lot. We're supposed to be in Manhattan, but the bank holdup that Danny witnesses is at the "Doreville State Bank." Doesn't sound very cosmopolitan to me. And he and his wife are supposed to live on East 65th Street, but their house looks a bungalow, and you're about as likely to see a bungalow on the Upper East Side of New York City as you are a taxi-driving octopus.

The performances are also miles apart -- at one point, Travis walks into the family home with a "Sure and it's your husband, Mrs. O'Hara!" No. Do not attempt an Irish brogue, Richard Travis. Just don't. You are no James Cagney. You're no Jeanne Cagney, for that matter.

"Escape From Crime" does give us plenty of gunplay, and why not? Violence is fine in a post-code movie; sex, not so much. But the movie's real failing is that, unlike "Picture Snatcher," the makers forget a simple fact -- a great journalist can, and maybe even should, have a slightly larcenous side.

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