Angels Over Broadway (1940)
I started off with two of Rita Hayworth’s most legendary performances (Gilda and The Lady From Shanghai) and for final three days of her July Five tribute we’ll be looking at a few of her lesser known films. Released six years before Hayworth “put the blame on Mame,” Angels Over Broadway is a Frankenstein’s monster in its various influences; at times it’s a crime caper with noir influences, while other moments play out like a redemptive love story featuring a cadre of tortured souls just trying to make a buck. Screenwriter Ben Hecht pulls double duty as both screenwriter and director – one of only seven films he’d helm with the aid of Lee Garmes – to create a film with some gorgeous shots and a somewhat generic story.
Charles Engle (John Qualen) is preparing to kill himself after embezzling $3,000 of his boss’s money. Playwright Gene Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell) hears of Engle’s plight and tries to talk him out of it. Through a series of errors, a swindler (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), believing Engle has money, ends up helping him with the aid of a beautiful opportunist (Hayworth).
Taking place over one night, and clocking in at a scant hour and eighteen minutes, Angels Over Broadway tells a minor tale of redemption and friendship, taking a negative opening and leaving the audience questioning how things will be made right by the end. Hecht plays with a lot of expectations here. Our introduction to Engle reveals a mysterious woman who’s seduced the man towards embezzling. Knowing Hayworth’s in the cast, your mind immediately thinks she’s the culprit. (Considering audiences would have seen Gilda by then, this probably stemmed from my knowledge about the actress’s career path.)
Who’s the main character is also questionable. Fairbanks, Jr. receives top billing, as well as the big send-off in the end, but his storyline doesn’t have the momentum of Engle’s. Engle has a serious conflict requiring a solid result. He must collect the money. Failure to do so means either jail or his suicide. Bill O’Brien’s (Fairbanks, Jr.) aims spring off of that central conflict. He spies Engle and believes, falsely, that he’s a sucker on the make. Bill wants to get Engle into a high-stakes poker game as a means of having the man lose all his money. By the end, he’s put Engle in the game all right, but as a means of letting the man win back the money he lost. Regardless, you’re still interested in Engle’s success, and it helps that John Qualen’s mild-mannered demeanor bonds you to him, unlike Fairbanks who’s rather soulless. None of the characters achieve particular depth in their roles, but every word out of O’Brien’s mouth is an insult, particularly when talking to Hayworth’s Nina.
Speaking of Hayworth, her Nina Barona has a clear influence on the future Norma Jean Baker. Hayworth evokes a breathy, lisping vocal cadence that immediately had me believing she was emulating Monroe, only to realize that Marilyn didn’t hit screens until nearly a decade later. Also similar to our infamous blonde bombshell, Nina is a somewhat ditsy opportunist, throwing herself at any man able to give her a leg up. She has the tendency to fade into the background, gasping when she finally musters up the strength to sock O’Brien for his umpteenth insult, but Hecht drops a few bon mots her way, giving Nina a subtler depth than the men.
We’re not privy to much regarding Nina’s past, but her vaguely upbeat “I never anyone who wanted to die, except myself” implies a life of sorrow we can only speculate at. Engle’s reasons for dying are selfish, misguided and utterly his fault. What could make Nina want to die and persevere? “We’re all nickels and dimes,” she tells O’Brien later; they’re all cast-offs hoping for just a smidge of kindness in the world before being thrown into life’s cash register.
While not the greatest film in anyone’s career – Hecht and Hayworth went on to a lot better – there’s an engaging story. It’s nice seeing Hayworth and Thomas Mitchell reunited after working together on Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Speaking of Mitchell, he’s amazing as the drunken playwright. Begging his wife to take him back creates a human character where everyone else seems motivated by greed. There’s also some beautifully noirish cinematography at the end.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
Neither fish nor fowl, it’s difficult to relate to this work due to its lack of a clear genre label. However, it’s absorbing all right. Being a fan of Fairbanks Senior, I find his son to be vacuous, especially in this twerp character. Hayworth is a lovely cipher, but Mitchell is really quite brilliant. Qualen (name source for the drug, Quaalude?) is just too cringe for my taste. Hecht (German for pike, the fish) is, to me, a poor man’s Damon Runyon. All in all, 76 well-spent minutes.