Amateur Crook (1937)

vt Crooked but Dumb; vt Jewel Thief

US / 59 minutes / bw / Victory Dir & Pr: Sam Katzman Scr: Basil Dickey Cine: Bill Hyer Cast: Herman Brix (i.e., Bruce Bennett), Joan Barclay, Monte Blue, Jack Mulhall, Fuzzy Knight, Vivien Oakland, Jimmy Aubrey, Henry Rocquemore, Edward Earle, Forrest Taylor, Fern Emmett, Sam Adams, Charles Williams.

Collateral loans agent Jan Jaffin (Mulhall) and his nefarious crony Crone (Blue) plan to bilk explorer Jerry Cummings (Taylor), currently in Mexico, of a $50,000 diamond he left as security with Crone for a $10,000 fixed-term loan. Cummings’s daughter Betsy (Barclay), having suspected Crone, has recently, under the name Mary Layton, taken a job as Jaffin’s secretary. Learning the details of the pair’s scheme, she filches the rock and goes on the lam, running into the block of bachelor apartments run by amorous widow Mrs. Flint (Oakland). Opening a door at random, she finds herself in the studio of unsuccessful painter Jimmy Baxter (Brix).

Minutes before, in fending off Mrs. Flint’s offer to pose for him, Jimmy has unconvincingly explained that he prefers to use as model the dummy currently splayed across his couch, wrapped in a diaphanous scarf and other frills. Now, as Crone and a bumbling cop (Adams) arrive seeking the fugitive Betsy, Jimmy persuades her to dress as the dummy, which latter they hide in the couch. Thanks to Mrs. Flint’s conviction that this is the dummy she saw moments earlier, the ruse works. Unfortunately, Mrs. Flint then rumbles the trick. The pair escape, but not before Betsy has secreted the diamond inside the dummy.

Amateur Crook - Betsy's unusually convincing as an artist's dummy

Betsy (Joan Barclay) is unusually convincing as an artist’s dummy.

They return that night in hopes of retrieving it, only to find that Mrs. Flint has sold all Jimmy’s belongings to junk-store owner Ben Armand (Aubrey). They arrive at Armand’s store moments before Crone and Jaffin do, there’s a fight during which much of Armand’s stock is destroyed, they escape in the crooks’ car with the dummy, hide out at Cummings’s house, are found there by the crooks and the latter’s tame thug Mort (uncredited) . . .

For the first 45 minutes or so this more or less fulfills its task of being a comedy thriller, albeit a clumsily performed one in which every dime not spent on the budget is clearly visible on the screen. It also has odd chronology problems; for example, for Mrs. Flint to fetch the cop from the bottom of a single flight of stairs is forced to take several minutes, so that Betsy can undertake a complete change of clothing. Again, there’s a curious error when the broadcast APB quite clearly states that Betsy is four feet four inches tall; this might explain the cops’ seeming ineptitude in catching the pair—they were looking for a hobbit.

But then Jimmy and Betsy decide to hand themselves in at the county jail operated by Judge Ephraim (Rocquemore) and Deputy Jonas (Earle), and the “thriller” part of this comedy thriller is simply abandoned. Thereafter we’re forced to endure some extraordinarily leaden, seemingly interminable attempts at humor as Ephraim, Jonas, Ephraim’s wife Sarah (Emmett) and a wannabe detective, the garage attendant Jape (Knight), muddle around pointlessly. Obviously the plausibility of the plot has never been of much concern to the moviemakers; for the last fifteen minutes or so, however, there isn’t the remotest attempt to make us believe what we’re seeing. We even have Ephraim wedding the young couple: “I’ll splice you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” Seldom have closing credits been so eagerly anticipated.

Brix, born Harold Herman Brix, achieved his fame as a shot-putter, holding the world record for a while and winning the silver medal at the 1928 Olympics. He got into the movies thanks to a friendship with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and would have played Tarzan had he not injured his shoulder filming another movie; his place had to be taken by a different world-class athlete, swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, and the rest is history. Brix did, however, land the role in the serial movie The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935) and its sequel (in fact, a concoction of extra footage shot during the making of the original), Tarzan and the Green Goddess (1938). Although he played other parts, he felt he was being stereotyped as an action hero and changed his screen name to Bruce Bennett, the name under which he became far better known to movie lovers. He appeared, rarely in frontline roles, in a whole slew of noirs and borderline noirs, among them The LONE WOLF KEEPS A DATE (1941), DANGER SIGNAL (1945), MILDRED PIERCE (1945), The MAN I LOVE (1946), DARK PASSAGE (1947), NORA PRENTISS (1947), SMART GIRLS DON’T TALK (1948), The TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), The HOUSE ACROSS THE STREET (1949), UNDERTOW (1949), WITHOUT HONOR (1949), MYSTERY STREET (1950), SHAKEDOWN (1950) and SUDDEN FEAR (1952). He lived to be 100.

His costar here, Joan Barclay, was born Mary Elizabeth Greear and was originally billed in movies as Geraine Greear. Her first movie, The Gaucho (1927), made when she was just 13, was actually silent. After a string of bit parts, mostly uncredited, she changed her name to Joan Barclay for the Western Feud of the West (1936). During the rest of the 1930s she was successful in a B-movie fashion, making several movies a year, often Westerns, but thereafter her fortunes declined again, most of her many remaining appearances being in minor roles, often uncredited. Watching Amateur Crook, it’s easy to see why she made ripples but never waves: she has a charming screen presence but no great acting ability to back it up.

On Amateur Crook

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