Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Joan Woodbury - Gangs, Inc.

Gangs, Inc." (1941) provides a wonderful showcase for the queen of "B" pictures, Joan Woodbury. I've written about Woodbury before, but this is the first film I've run across where she really carries the picture.

Make no mistake: like the majority of files cranked out in the 1930's and 1940's, "Gangs, Inc." was never meant to be great art. It was just another commonplace entertainment that the studio hoped would turn a profit -- and to ensure success, the budget was kept as low as possible.

That's not to detract from the film. Producer, Maurice King does such a good job telling his story that one hardly notices the limited number of sets, sparing use of extras, and the supplemental use (but not overuse) of stock footage.

I have to admit when the film started, I thought I knew where it was going, but it played against expectations enough to keep me engaged to the end. Ten-year-old Rita Adams witnesses her criminal father's death after he turns states' evidence. Is the movie about a child running from the murderers who want to silence her? Nope.

Rita ends up in an orphanage, where she becomes friends with Bob Elliot, who builds model airplanes, and Mickey Roman who wants to make dough the easy way. Fast forward 10 years, and the adult Rita Adams (played by Joan Woodbury) is working in a factory; Bob Elliot's in aviation, and Mickey Roman's a gangster (of course). So is the story about Bob and Mickey fighting over Rita? Nope.

Rita's roommate, Donna Andrews (Linda Ware) is an aspiring singer, who Mickey thinks is swell. So is there a romance between the singer and the mobster? Nope, just friends.

But all of those story elements are important to the plot.

Rita is involved with an alcoholic playboy. While they're on a date, he drives while drunk and runs down a pedestrian. His family's lawyer (through the playboy) convinces Rita to take the blame to avoid scandal. Despite assurances that she'll only get probation, she's sentenced to a year in jail -- during which time, the playboy, who was never serious about the relationship, dumps her.

It's a hardened Rita that comes out of the slammer. Especially after Mickey produces evidence he stole from the lawyer's office that Rita was intended to take the fall all along. Rita sets off on a secret life of crime, and when Mickey moves to the big city, Rita and Donna relocate as well -- Donna, because Mickey's found her a job as a nightclub singer, and Rita, because the father of her ex-boyfriend (who died in a car wreck), is heading the Reform Party against the city's racketeers.

Rita takes charge. She makes a deal with the racketeers, and through blackmail pulls DeWitt into the newly-formed crime syndicate that runs the city through politics (the original title for the film, "Paper Bullets," refers to the use of ballots as weapons). In the meantime, Bob Elliot renews their relationship (unaware of her double life), and eventually Bob and Rita marry.

But all is not well. While Donna doesn't fall in love with Mickey, she does with his associate, Jimmy Kelly (Alan Ladd) who is actually an undercover cop. When the lid blows off, Rita's once again standing before a judge, along with the rest of the syndicate.

The film gives Joan Woodbury an opportunity to show a lot of range. Here she is early in story portraying a typical working girl.

After a stint in the big house, Rita turns to crime. She disguises herself for her robberies, posing as a different kind of working girl. Woodbury gets to play two different characters here.

The now hard-as-nails Rita meets with the racketeers....

...then after forging a deal, visits the man who ruined her life.

But there's another side to Rita, and Woodbury does an admirable job portraying it. In this scene, she reconnects with childhood sweetheart Bob Elliot.

The two are married right when trouble hits. Watch the domestic Rita take the blow, and then the hard-boiled Rita take over to end scene.

"Gangs, Inc." isn't a great film, but one that was definitely better than it had to be for the market. And one that I enjoyed watching. Now playing at (for free) at!

- Ralph

Day 52 of the WJMA Podwatch

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