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Classic Hollywood: Angel On My Shoulder

posted by Mel on 5/09/01

God bless classic filmfare.

In a current moviescape dominated by sub-par conveyor belt crap, brainless cookie cutter pop celluloid and rehashed concepts, it's a refreshing shot in the neck to know that we can always, at the very least, fall back on our rich retro-Hollywood history in times of need. As much as I lust for the simple principles and refreshing kitsch of bad eighties fare and its soothing effect on a sick brain, there's never been anything quite like the Golden Era of Silver Screen. When studios roared, and a face was worth more than any box office receipts. Before the Industry was built on the shoulders of starfuckers, they were carried on the backs of bonafide starmakers; a hayseed could become a legend in the time it took the dailies to burn on film. It was a level playing field. And though it's been gone, dead and buried for more than half a century, the dilluted legacy and concept of overnight success trudges on in the minds of every community theater yokel off the bus and media slut eager to build a human property.

The general bravado from my generation in regarding classic movies is that they're somehow too naive' a media to be taken seriously--that since they were the product of a more innocent America, there's nothing to be learned from them. It's simple bullshit, really: we've been so heavily bludgeoned since birth with the New Pace of Entertainment that subtlety doesn't even register on our radar anymore. We tune out at the threat of something that doesn't come complete with CGI dismemberment, dismiss it as primative. We're high on our own modern trip. No shame in that. But in terms of brutal honesty, there was more sexual scandal, utter nonsense and raging egomania on and off the camera in one major studio production of Old Hollywood than in a year's worth of modern flicks.

Old Hollywood wasn't some toothless entity churning out Capra-brand belly warmers to a gutless public; it was a raging, uncontrolled entity that erected false idols. The movies it made were no different. A far fucking cry from the Donna Reed disillusion that instantly seems to pop up at the mere mention of the words 'black and white'. Just because there was no rating system didn't mean that those behind the lens tied their own hands: cold-blooded murder, blatant innuendo, hard-boiled dialogue and the casual beating of the gentle sex were splattered all over the screen. Though eventual pressure from the Hayes Office may have changed the flavor for a few decades, there's nothing quite like a bite of film noir at its best. After all, there's a major reason why screenplay deities like Syd Field point a firm finger back in time when their students clamor for inspiration. After all, you don't know the value of the ammunition in your clip until you're spitting blanks.

In today's rambling monolectic, we'll be landing out sights on Archie Mayo's comedrama classic "Angel On My Shoulder". Mayo was a solid director of the time; though he never lensed a superpowered studio production in his thirty-year career, his work was always able and profitable. Mayo's contract was under the umbrella of the monolithic RKO Pictures label, and had come down to the wire in 1946. "Angel" would have a dual significance, as it was both the last picture that Mayo ever helmed, and also signalled a pseudo-retirement for its leading man, the incomparable Paul Muni.

A Hungarian import who'd worked Yiddish vaudeville since he could form words, Muni was frequently hailed as a national treasure during the heyday of his career. He had a look that was cut from leather and cast iron: sawlipped, sulky, with a menacing smoker's growl and an easy grasp of seedy gangster lingo. Although Muni's bread and butter was playing the heavy, he'd also flexed considerable range over the twenty films he had stuffed under his belt--his contemporaries were so impressed that they nominated him for Oscars on five separate occasions, with Paul finally clinching the golden boy for his title role in "The Story of Louis Pasteur". By '46, Muni was leaning heavily into a retirement kick. His eyesight was failing--combined with an increased demand for his abilities on Broadway, Muni was prepared to make his final bow in Hollywoodland. Although two returns to the big screen would follow after "Angel", Muni ripped into the title role with his teeth and fingernails as if it would be his last, carrying an otherwise mediocre script into fireball territory.

And yes, "Angel On My Shoulder" would be a phenomenal ball of sap if not for the strength of the involved parties in the major roles. Penned by Harry Segall, (An unspectacular scribe whose story was later bastardized for a 1980's remake starring Peter Strauss and Richard Kiley) the story is a fluffy rampage about criminal kingpin Eddie Kagle, a tough-talking hotshot from St. Louis who winds up dead at the hands of his syndicate lieutenant and takes the D-Train to Hell. Refusing to settle into damnation peaceably, Kagle raises the ire and the interest of the devil himself (Surreptious era superstar Claude Rains, possibly the best interpretation of Satan as a weary dealmaker in the history of cinema) when he trashes the head demon's office and roughs up a dozen of his best agents. Blinded by a bitter quest for revenge against the mug who plugged him, Kagle agrees to play ball with Lucifer in a plot to besmirch the name of a judge who's putting a dent in the evil action topside: if Kagle turns the public against this Judge Parker, he can ride shotgun in the do-gooder's body until he's exacted his vengeance. Before you can groan "Movie of the Week", Kagle is botching his side of the deal at every turn, eventually culminating with a personal revelation about a life wasted in crime. All the practical pitstops are nailed along the way--Eddie hooks up with Judge Parker's dame, tells off Evil Incarnate and does the right thing en route to an ambiguously happy ending. Screen goes blue, story's run.

So, you ask.. why the hell would someone as decidedly imbalanced and nihilistic as myself find so much to love about something so cut and dried? Doesn't that basically contradict the entire opening monologue of this article?

Not at all. "Angel On My Shoulder" is a good film made memorable by the intangible genius working its mojo in the pole position--Muni has that indescribable It in spades, and has no problem carrying every scene off the page and into his own translation. Eddie Kagle is just a mug who finds his way in anyone else's interpretation; as portrayed by Muni, he's a seething, kinetic bastard who doesn't care about anything but exacting bloody revenge for his untimely death. It's a performance for the ages, and one of the rare instances where every snippet of dialogue is priceless. For instance:

Eddie and Satan are making their ascension to Earth--Kagle still refuses to accept that he's dead, and has no idea who his newfound partner really is.

Eddie: How long you been down here?
Satan: Since time in memorium.
Eddie: The way you talk, you musta had a good education.
Satan: A most liberal one.
Eddie: I only went to third grade.
Satan: I went through the whole gamut of learning, I know everything.
Eddie: Stuck on yourself, eh? What's your name?
Satan:Well, I have a number of aliases. I have a long record under the name of Mephistopholes.
Eddie: Greek, hunh?
Satan: Well, there are some who claim I'm more of one nation than another, but that's not true, Eddie. I'm of all nations. I play no favorites.
Eddie: You look like a con man. Look, Mephipopolus-
Satan: Call me Nick.
Eddie: You married?
Satan: Millions of women have adored me.
Eddie: Quite a guy with the ladies, eh?
Satan: It's a fascinating world.
Eddie: Look, mug.. playing around with dames is dynamite.
Satan: But delightful dynamite, Eddie! Live fully while you may, and reckon not the cost. Deny yourself nothing! Flame and blaze like a torch and toss the fire about you! I'll make the most of what we get, may spend, before we, too into the dust descend..
Eddie: You're talkin' screwy.

And so on, and so on. A lot of "Angel"s transcendance from the scripted material comes from the great synergy between Muni and Rains. Nick's sufferage is fine stuff, and Rains makes the transition between the urbane side of evil and growing irritation with his thwarted efforts without breaking a sweat or dropping a line. Eddie's constant beligerence and cluelessness in the face of the Prince of Darkness makes the latter payoff fifty million times less hackneyed than it would have otherwise been; when Kagle later sees the light and smugly informs the devil that "He's met a real smooth operator what tells the truth", it's had an expert buildup. There's no cherubs flinging about here or heavenly trumpets blaring, just a mug seeing his own fallacy for the first time. Muni piles it on thick as cement shoes throughout the brunt of the movie, but as with any actor with an expert grip on a role, knows when to use a lighter brushstroke.

While "Angel" isn't the greatest film ever dipped in the gloss of classic Tinseltown, it still shames the brunt of shit that the studios will flush on us all over the course of the year. A solid story given extra nitro by hams in their element and an ending that avoids getting sodden down with sentimentality, resulting in a satisfying snack of an afternoon flick. "Angel On My Shoulder" may not affirm or change your life for the better, but it's damn rocksteady entertainment--and at a standard asking price of about four bucks at any online superstore, you could do much worse.
Just don't mention the word 'chair' around Eddie.

-Mel

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