“A Slight Case of Murder” (1938)
by A.J. Hakari
Tough guys can make for the most unexpected comedians. Now I’m not talking about when an action star emasculates himself by pairing up with kids (The Rock, Vin Diesel, Jackie Chan — I’m looking at all of you). I’m thinking of the skill with which classic silver screen thug James Cagney played Bottom in 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or how Mark Wahlberg found his true calling as a master of deadpan delivery. No stranger to tommy guns and racketeering himself, Edward G. Robinson made his bid for laughs with 1938’s A Slight Case of Murder and made out like a bandit (no pun intended). It’s as sharp and consistently funny as any of that era’s comedy greats, a farce made for the stage that’s been perfectly crafted to take off on film.
We begin as Prohibition comes to an end, taking with it a life of crime for bootlegger Remy Marko (Robinson). The gangster is bound to make an honest man of himself and parlay his ill-gotten gains into a legitimate brewery…which is hard when your product is the nastiest stuff this side of Billy Beer. Within a few years, Marko is just about sunk, inspiring him to rethink his game plan at his summer home — where every form of shenanigans under the sun chooses to erupt. Marko has his hands full as it is, with his daughter (Jane Bryan) getting engaged to a cop and hosting a troublesome orphan, but unbeknownst to him, some former associates have holed up at his joint following a big stick-up. His home now encroached upon by in-laws and crooks alike, Marko needs some quick thinking and a lot of bluster to cool all the craziness and go legit for good.
A Slight Case of Murder began as a Broadway show, and if its character roster of Damon Runyonesque wiseguys sounds familiar, then you won’t be surprised to learn that Mr. Guys and Dolls himself helped write it. Just about every mob-based caricature is out in full force, not to mention the same variety of snowballing hijinks that slamming door comedies have relied upon for eons. But what’s sort of remarkable about A Slight Case of Murder is how it doesn’t feel stagebound, how cleverly it sidesteps having the actors recite their lines on a single set and with the bare minimum of camera movement. Director Lloyd Bacon (42nd Street) never confines the action to wherever Robinson’s at, covering his events from all angles and showing us just how well he’s keeping the plot’s various plates spinning. Corpses, drunken guests, and that slingshot-wielding orphan hit all the right cues, bringing with them hearty laughs and suspense over how Marko will sweet-talk his way out of this fine mess.
Bacon turned what could have easily been an overcrowded mess into a well-oiled comedy of errors, although A Slight Case of Murder still wouldn’t work as well without its note-perfect cast. Every actor plays the right shade of broad, goofy as hell but just short of feeling like they’re projecting for an audience that’s not there. Robinson easily owns the place, playing one of film’s most endearing, well-intentioned blowhards. You sympathize with Remy’s efforts to go straight, you understand when his frustrations tempt him to switch back, and despite his every boast and bad decision, you know the dude’s wily enough to make out alright. The supporting cast is equally as on the ball, with character actors like Edward Brophy and Allen Jenkins filling the ranks of Marko’s entourage, as well as a terrific turn from Ruth Donnelly as Marko’s prim wife, who hasn’t completely forgotten her gun moll days.
Plain and simple, A Slight Case of Murder is a real treat. Age may have made the plot’s turns and gags easier to spot coming, but the tone of the humor is so dead-on and conveyed with such enthusiasm by the cast, letting the laughs carry you away is a breeze. A Slight Case of Murder is too fun to pass up, a comedy whose freshness will no doubt dwarf whatever monstrosity Friedberg and Seltzer are plotting to crap out next.