Monday, March 2, 2009

Movies: Central Park and Me and My Gal

If you want to make a movie that will really captivate your audience, you need nothing less than: a beautiful girl, a group of thugs planning to steal a pile of money, a cowboy, a lion escaped from the zoo, a nearly-blind policeman, a Great Depression, a gala dinner party, and a criminally insane zookeeper on the loose. Put all those things together in Central Park, and you’ve got a sure thing! Joan Blondell is so hungry that she’s stealing hot dogs when the vendor isn’t looking, but so sweet that she shares them with the down-and-out cowboy who winks at her in the park. Just when they’ve made plans to meet later, she gets picked up, somewhat unwillingly, by a couple of cops who want to pay her $100 for some undercover detective work—dressing up as the most beautiful girl on 5th Avenue. This outfit comes with a golden key to the proceeds of a gala dinner that the rich will be holding that night in Central Park—a benefit to feed the jobless. The cops say they’re worried about a group of crooks planting their own girl and absconding with the cash—little does she realize that these cops are those crooks, and that she’s the plant.

Luckily for her, the cowboy figures it out. Unluckily for him, the thugs figure out that he’s figured them out, and they tie him up in their hideout. Unfortunately for them, he’s a cowboy. He unties himself and uses the rope as a lasso to disarm his guard. He makes it to the gala just in time—for the havoc. All the while this plot was developing, there was another one underway: a good-natured, old policeman, a week away from retirement and losing his vision is at the Central Park zoo, playing with the tiger cubs, when the escaped insane zookeeper, who tried to feed one of the other zookeepers to the lion a year ago, who talked to the big cats as if they were humans, comes and locks him in the tigers’ shed. Then, he corners his old victim, and feeds him to the lion again (not that the victim doesn’t somewhat deserve it; he’s ornery and verbally abusive to the cats). The madman laughs while the lion roars and toys with its victim. When the policeman finally breaks free and the other zookeepers arrive on the scene, the madman escapes—and so does the lion (in their semi-inept rescue of its victim, they let the creature loose).

The big cat goes straight to where the action is—the gala dinner, leaping into the kitchen where it sees a black cook handling a giant side of meat. The cooks (all very black in very white uniforms) run out of the kitchen and into the ballroom, where the partygoers try to push them back where they belong. But then the lion bounds into the ballroom, and total mayhem ensues, with people jumping out the windows and men picking up chairs in lame defense. Meanwhile, the thugs have the cash and are off and running in their escape vehicle. The cowboy steals a convertible and chases them; the car chase moves to a foot chase after the vehicles are wrecked. Gunshots kill the kindly policeman, but the cowboy gets his hands on the money—just in time to be discovered by the police and suspected of being a thug himself. Meanwhile, the lion is caught as well. The cowboy and the girl both go to jail, but somehow manage to talk their way out, roundabout the time we hear an announcement that the madman has been arrested as well. So all’s well that ends well, even though our heroes are as poor as they were when we met them that afternoon. What a day’s work, and all in an hour!

Me and My Gal is a movie I’ve seen before—probably during the New York City Noir festival—but without realizing it, since I missed the beginning the first time. It’s a lengthy, anecdotal beginning for what’s basically a mad-cap love story about good cop versus bad gangster (the two men are in love with a pair of sisters, if the gangster can be said to be in love—he’s likely just using the girl since she works at the bank he’s planning to rob). Before any of the action gets off the ground, the film meanders along the waterfront, where the cop (Spencer Tracy) saves a dog (its owner can’t afford to feed it so is about to intentionally drown it) and a drunk (who’s actually made it into the water and has to be pulled out). The drunk comes back later in one of my favorite comic scenes of all time—he’s slapped a diner with a huge fish, and he, the diner, and another diner are calmly arguing over just what type of fish it is. The cop gets in on the argument before settling it and returning to his usual habit at the restaurant: flirting with the cash register girl (the sister of the gangster’s girl and the cop’s love interest).

The film’s other genius moment is the thoughts-out-loud sequence while the cop and the cash-register girl are on their first date—unchaperoned, at the cash-girl’s apartment. They’re canoodling on the couch over a box of chocolates when the cop presses his luck and turns out the lights, trying for a kiss (and more, if he can get it). We hear their thoughts—something to the effect of “A girl doesn’t know how far to let a guy go,” and “A guy doesn’t know how far he’s supposed to try to go,” back and forth a bit, until they both get a little frustrated and the evening ends in a spat. Later, they re├źnact the conversation aloud, and decide that a kiss is okay, if it’s sweet and tender, resolving their differences (not that there were any to begin with) and eventually deciding to get married. That’s where the film ends, though I’ve skipped the bank heist, the gangster in the attic room, the paralyzed father-in-law who discloses that hideout by blinking his eyes in Morse code, and the ensuing roof-top chase scene that culminates in one dead gangster and one promoted cop. All that’s just gravy to an already madcap mating story.

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