US / 58 minutes / bw / Goldsmith Dir: William J. Cowan (i.e., William J. Cowen) Pr: Ken Goldsmith, George E. Kann Scr: Mary E. McCarthy Cine: Gilbert Warrenton Cast: Lucile Gleason, Skeets Gallagher, Lona Andre, Warren Hymer, Barbara Weeks, Laura Treadwell, Ruth Clifford, Eddie Phillips, Jason Robards Sr., Erin La Bissoniere, Franklin Parker, Baby Waring, Richard Elliott, Julie Kingdon, Joyce Coad, Florence Wix, George Guhl, Henry Hall, James T. Mack.
It wasn’t all that often that 1930s crime dramas got the balance between drama and humor right—usually you wish they’d just skipped the cringeworthy humor and had a shorter movie—but sometimes they managed to integrate the two elements perfectly. Some of the lines here are laugh-out-loud funny; elsewhere there are moments of genuine, non-bathetic (well, only a bit bathetic) poignancy; and there’s a likeable, entirely admirable heroine to bind everything together.
Augusta Winthrop (Gleason) is a middle-aged cop with a big heart: she’s a universal aunt. A principal duty of hers is to attend the dancehouse run by Tom Brady (Elliott) to make sure none of the dancers are getting so frisky as to commit public indecency, and also of course to check that none of the taxi dancers are offering more than dances. There are flies in her ointment, not least that Mrs. Eleanor Worthington (Treadwell), the self-appointed President of the Girls’ Protective League, has a habit of calling by on the lookout for “outrages.” Ironically, another problem for Augusta is that Eleanor’s nephew, Anthony Desmond (Gallagher), arrives at the club most nights in a skunklike state—a condition in which his hands become . . . venturesome. As one of the taxi dancers remarks of his latest performance on the dancefloor, “That guy ought to be a chiropractor.”
Tonight Augusta has been helping Sailor John (Hymer) write a love letter to his sweetheart, coping with Eleanor, and booting out Barry (uncredited), a scumbag goon of local crimelord Big Bill Lewis (Robards).
Augusta (Lucile Gleason) advises Sailor John (Warren Hymer) on how to treat his wimmin.
A young and clearly depressed woman, Peggy (Andre), arrives to tell her taxi-dancer friend Kate (Clifford) that she’s going away; Kate suspects that “away” means to the grave and, as Augusta discovers, she’s right. Augusta stops Peggy in the act of swallowing poison and takes her home
Augusta: “All right, get that [weeping] out of your system and then you can tell me his name.”
Peggy: “How did you know?”
Peggy (Lona Andre), moments before her suicide attempt
As a sideline, Augusta is giving lodgings in her apartment to three “fallen women” who’re on parole: Norma (Kingdon), Gladys (La Bissoniere) and the marvelously airheaded Evelyn (Coad). None of these three actresses had much of a movie career, which is surprising in that they all three have a definite and distinct screen presence. Coad was a survivor from the silents, and it’s tempting to think that her role here was gently poking fun at the difficulties some actors had in making the transition to sound.
Mary Sloan (Barbara) presents Augusta (Lucile Gleason) with a dilemma.
Fitting Peggy into the apartment as well is a bit of a squeeze. It’s even more of a squeeze when, later that night, Mary Sloan (Weeks) arrives with her baby (Waring). She’s the ex-moll of Big Bill and, now going straight because she doesn’t want to raise her child in a criminal family, is on the run from him with some canceled checks that could surely put him behind bars. She begs Augusta to look after the baby and of course Augusta agrees. However, when Big Bill manipulates the cops into trying to arrest Mary in her room at the Hotel Bancroft, Mary flees back to Augusta’s apartment and pleads for sanctuary. The apartment’s now really filled to bursting.
Big Bill Lewis (Jason Robards) concocting plan to fix both Mary and Augusta.
Big Bill’s next trick is to bamboozle the cops and Eleanor Worthington into extracting Mary from the apartment and into his hands. When her corpse is discovered the next day, Eleanor realizes how stupid she’s been, and thenceforth she devotes herself to aiding Augusta. Listening through the door to Augusta pretending to Eleanor that she too often does stupid things, Norma remarks: “Will you just listen to Augusta lying like a gentleman?”
Even though the Chief of Police (Hall) is sympathetic to her, Augusta is suspended and must hand in her badge for sheltering a fugitive; he does, however, give her five days to try to bring Big Bill to book. This scene is startlingly affecting for a cheapie filler of this type: “I’ve had that [badge] . . . quite a long time, you know.” Gleason may never have attained more than character roles outside B-movie quickies like this, but she very much knew her art as an actor.
Bossy Mrs. Eleanor Worthington (Laura Treadwell) does her best to shop Augusta.
It’s affecting too, but at the same time very funny when Augusta’s three parolees go behind Augusta’s back to the Chief of Police to plead her cause. As the airhead Evelyn explains, “And if we don’t know a straight cop from a crooked one, who does?”
By now Anthony and Peggy are a recognized item—he’s sobered up for the first time in years—and he too is only too willing help Augusta nail Big Bill, which of course she does. All’s well that ends well.
Anthony (Skeets Gallagher). and his aunt, Mrs. Eleanor Worthington (Laura Treadwell), are at last reconciled.
Gleason married the actor James Gleason in 1905, when she was still a teenager. They remained married until her untimely death from a heart attack, at age just 59, in 1947. She’s completely splendid here, playing a part that’s arguably a decade or so above her real age. (Husband James most recently appeared on this site in another 1934 movie, Search for Beauty.) I’ve made a note to try to catch more of her movies.
There’s a tiny part in Woman Unafraid, as Eleanor’s snooty-yet-lascivious sidekick Mrs. Fletcher, for one of the doyennes of character acting, Florence Wix.
It’s very obvious Woman Unafraid was made on a restricted budget: there are only limited sets, and almost no outdoor shooting. Yet Gleason, with some marvelous backup from, among others, her three parolees, makes something really rather special of it. And they’re helped, too, by McCarthy’s screenplay. A final taster
Gladys: “Oh, gee, Peggy, don’t stay mad at Anthony. He didn’t mean to get drunk last night. Neither did I. I only had about one little drink.”
Norma: “One drink. Yeah, from the cork to the bottom of the bottle.”
On Amazon.com (which somehow manages never to pay me anything for these links): Woman Unafraid.
On Jimbo Berkey’s site (which never pays me anything either but, as they’re offering free streaming and download of public domain movies, this seems reasonable): Woman Unafraid.