Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Allotment Wives (Monogram, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked last night was Allotment Wives, second in the trio of films with which Kay Francis concluded her movie career at Monogram in 1945-46 (the first one was Divorce, which I screened for Charles early on in our relationship and which was a pretty good soap opera, all things considered, though as I wrote about it at the time, “I found it amusing that the credits included acknowledgments for ‘Miss Francis’ Gowns’ (an intriguing throwback to La Francis’ days at Warners, when one of her films was advertised as, ‘See Kay Francis in 36 Beautiful Gowns!’) and ‘Miss Francis’ Hats,’ but no one ’fessed up to creating Miss Francis’ awful hairstyle.” Allotment Wives had the same writer (Sidney Sutherland, though this time he was teamed up with Harvey Gates, who wrote quite a few of the Bela Lugosi Monograms and was hailed by Tom Weaver as the worst writer Lugosi ever had to deal with until Ed Wood) and director (the almost terminally dull William Nigh), and was supposedly co-produced by Jeffrey Bernerd and Kay Francis — though from what I’ve read Francis’ production title was just nominal and Bernerd and Trem Carr (then head of Monogram, obviously an executive producer but billed as “executive director”!) really made the decisions.

Allotment Wives was a movie that was topical for the period, since it was released on November 8, 1945 — just after the end of World War II — and it opens with stock footage and documentary narration about the Office of Dependency Benefits (ODB). This was a part of America’s war effort that set up what was essentially a special, and more immediate, form of Social Security for U.S. servicemembers: they could contribute a portion of their salary for the support of their wives and children (if any) and the government would more than match it. The aggressive character of this organization and the way it saw its mission was exemplified in the film in a sign on the wall of the ODB office that reads, “Get ’Em PAID!”

The narrator goes on to explain that any pot of money that large and relatively easy to access is going to attract crooks, and then we see the office of Brigadier General H. N. Gilbert (Jonathan Hale), who’s called in former newspaper writer turned commissioned officer Major Pete Martin (Paul Kelly, second-billed) to go after a gang that has recruited young women to marry servicemembers, sign up for their dependency allotments and then collect handsomely from the ODB — including survivors’ benefits should the poor schnooks get killed in the war — as well as in lesser respects from selling the wedding gifts and such. Martin, reluctant at first, is convinced to join the effort when he learns that his own best friend in the service married such a woman (many of whom are married to three or four men at a time, under false names, and are constantly trolling for new servicemen they can put on the hook) before he shipped out, returned home after the war, found that their marriage was a sham and killed himself.

Martin gets sent to San Francisco, where the gang is supposedly headquartered, and is re-hired by the newspaper he used to work for as a cover for his investigations. He meets up with socialite Sheila Seymour (Kay Francis) and starts to date her, albeit in a decorous Production Code way, though we know that she’s the secret criminal mastermind of the allotment-graft conspiracy he’s looking to bust. Had Sutherland and Gates been willing to stop there, they would have had the potential for a moderately interesting thriller with a Maltese Falcon-style ending as Martin chooses duty over sex and turns her in; instead they filled out the dramatis personae with such oddball characters as a daughter, Connie (Teala Loring, who’s actually quite good in the role) whom Stella is insistent that she go to boarding school but who instead drops out and tries to live mom’s sort of high life; Gladys Smith (Gertrude Michael), an old friend from Stella’s poor days growing up who recognizes her as “Edna” and tries either to muscle in on the allotment racket or take it over; Spike Malone (Bernard Nedell), her confederate and the sort of portly middle-aged man with a pencil-thin moustache Monogram’s casting directors always liked for their villains; Whitey Colton (Otto Kruger at his most unctuous), Stella’s partner in crime; and others who fill this poor movie up with subplots too numerous to mention and make it virtually unfollowable.

At the same time William Nigh turns in one of his usual dull, plodding directorial jobs that leaches out any thrills from this supposed thriller. One commentator on compared this film to Mildred Pierce but actually found it better — which is ridiculous; the antagonism between Kay Francis and her on-screen daughter recalls Mildred Pierce, as does her rise from hard-scrabble origins and her shame over that fact (and the fact that Joan Crawford and Kay Francis were both considered over-the-hill when they made these films), but overall there’s no context between Warners’ half-soap opera, half-film noir and Monogram’s dull, plodding melodrama which is so far from being film noir the best you could describe it as is with the French equivalent to “film off-white.”

Allotment Wives is the sort of frustrating bad movie that could have been good; with a tighter script that solved the biggest loose end of the film as it stands — what were the allotment crooks going to do with all the servicemen who married their girls and then did survive the war, at least some of whom would no doubt go to the police instead of conveniently knocking themselves off — a better director and a stronger supporting cast, this could have been a coolly entertaining exploitation thriller instead of just a yawn. At the same time it’s interesting not only for the films it rips off but the others it anticipates, including Orson Welles’ Confidential Report (the criminal boss trying to shield his — or, in this case, her — daughter from knowledge of her criminal past) and even The Grifters (when the daughter seems to want to be included in on mommy’s racket instead of recoiling from horror at the thought of it).