US / 67 minutes / bw / Chesterfield, First Division Dir: Charles Lamont Pr: George R. Batcheller Scr: Ewart Adamson Cine: M.A. Andersen Cast: Shirley Grey, Sidney Blackmer, Noel Madison, Mathew Betz, Torben Meyer, May Beatty, Frank LaRue, Ida Darling, Robert Adair, Edward Martindel, John Dilson, Don Brodie, Lew Davis.
In New York, expert counterfeiter Gilda Gillespie (Grey) reads a line in a book that causes her to rethink her life: “It takes a tough guy to go straight.” She decides to give up her criminal career and get a—gasp!—job. But, when she goes to offer her resignation to the debonair artist-manqué head of the gang she belongs to, Hal Brewster (Madison), he goads her into doing One Last Job: robbing the safe of gem-collector Chester Madison (Martindel), a task that has defeated the ingenuity of Brewster’s henchmen, even though he counts among them genius cracksman Harry Sims (Davis).
Hal Brewster (Noel Madison) wheedles with Gilda (Shirley Grey).
Gilda gets the gems using a clever scam involving Madison’s butler, Matthews (Adair), rather than any safecracking. However, to Brewster’s fury, she sends the stolen jewels back to Madison and, with her constant companion Auntie (Beatty), skips town for California.
There’s badinage between Aunty (May Beatty) and Gilda (Shirley Grey).
Once there, she goes job-hunting, armed with her meticulously forged—of course!—references. As a result of a lucky accident, she gets a job, under the nom de guerre Mary Brown, with the Citizens’ National Bank, where she soon impresses manager Bill Rhodes (Blackmer) with her expertise on counterfeiting—she spots a dud note at a distance—and with her skills as an artist. It’s not long before the two are making eyes at each other. “Mary,” because of her past, is reluctant to commit herself, but Bill realizes it’s serious—as does his dear old mom (Darling). And he idealizes “Mary” in a manner that rings quite oddly in modern ears:
Mrs. Rhodes: “You don’t know anything about her.”
Bill: “No . . . but I’d say she’d never been dominated. In fact, it’s amusing to see how she tries to control her naturally imperious manner.”
Mrs. Rhodes: “Maybe she’s a princess in disguise.”
Bill: “Yeah, maybe she is.”
Gilda (Shirley Grey) impresses Bill (Sidney Blackmer) with her expertise in counterfeiting.
Unfortunately, Brewster’s henchman Smokey (Betz) manages to locate Gilda and cables the information back to his boss in NYC. Soon the gang’s in California, wondering how best to exploit the fact that “Miss Raffles” is emplaced in a bank. Also here from the East, although for reasons that go completely unexplained, is Detective Burke (LaRue), the cop who had her under surveillance in NYC. He challenges her but, on being told she’s Mary Brown and not Gilda Gillespie at all, backs off, believing himself mistaken.
Detective Burke (Frank LaRue) on surveillance duty outside Gilda’s apartment. “Well, women have got no business bein’ crooks.”
A more serious threat to “Mary Brown’s” subterfuge comes at a party thrown by Bill and his mother. One of the guests is master-engraver Señor Zarabella (Meyer) who, while “Mary” is off in another room having an exploratory canoodle with Bill, regales the company with the tale of how, years ago in NYC, he took on a student called Madigan. She proved to be a quite brilliant etcher, but suddenly she abandoned her studies with him. The next time he saw her was when a gang abducted him and attempted to force him to help their counterfeiting efforts. Tonight, when “Mary” appears in the room he’s stunned to recognize her as “Madigan,” but covers up for her.
One of Gilda’s paintings that Bill so admires.
It emerges, in the aftermath of this scare, that the reason Gilda became a criminal in the first place was because her father, another master-engraver, Duncan Gillespie, was falsely convicted on a counterfeiting charge. He was finally proven innocent and released, but died very soon afterward. “I cried out for revenge. Blind unreasoning revenge. And look what it’s made me. An outcast.”
As you’d expect, Gilda rejects the gang’s advances, the gang goes ahead with the heist anyway, Gilda aids the cops and rescues Bill, and so on—all quite predictable but neatly done.
Brewster ((Noel Madison, right) and Smokey (Mathew Betz) as the gang count the loot.
What’s not so predictable is that the movie has a sort of Pre-Code sensibility even though it was released the year after the Hays Code began to be strictly enforced. On discovering that “Mary” is a skilled artist, Bill asks if she’s ever done any etchings, and it’s pretty clear what line of thought we’re supposed to follow—clear, too, that the couple are following it likewise. Just to make sure we know what’s going on, Bill tells her: “I pride myself on having one of the finest collections of etchings in the West.” There’s more mileage gained from “etchings” references.
Early in the movie, while Burke is standing watch outside the apartment where Gilda and Auntie lodge, we’re treated—as is he—to the silhouette of Gilda undressing behind the blinds. It’s obvious he’s enjoying this particular piece of “surveillance.” Again, racy stuff for an immediate Post-Code movie.
And there’s a line of Auntie’s that I had to play several times to convince myself my ears hadn’t deceived me. Auntie’s role in various scams is to act the part, monocle and all, of a posh Boston matron—a role somewhat undermined by her addiction to the obviously scurrilous Ballyhoo magazine. (Gilda complains at one point that Auntie hasn’t so much as looked at the copy of Ladies’ Home Journal she bought her.) As part of her persona, Auntie’s been working for years on a weaving project. Here’s the relevant bit of dialogue
Gilda: “You finish your hook rug.”
Auntie: “I’d rather finish a hooker’s scotch.”
Gilda: “Auntie, I’m shocked.”
May Beatty does a very enjoyable turn as Auntie—and seemingly was enjoying it herself. Ida Darling, as Bill’s ultra-respectable mother, offers an interesting counterpoint to the old crook. The women are physically rather similar, and it’s easy to see how the two actresses could have swapped roles. This was presumably deliberate: one of the subtexts of the movie—if it’s not absurdly pretentious to talk about a cheapie old B-movie like this having a subtext—is that we’re made who we are by circumstance, as witness Gilda’s having become a crook because of the suffering inflicted upon her innocent father. Were it not for circumstance, we seem to be being told, Mrs. Rhodes would have made a success as a scamster while Auntie would have made a perfectly fine job of being a banker’s mother.
Noel Madison is quite interesting as Hal Brewster, too. The gangster is portrayed as a pseudo-intellectual, a man who fancies himself as an artist even though, to judge by the single painting of his that we see and the comments of his henchmen, it’s a hope placed in vain. It’s the kind of part that, a couple of decades later, might have gone to Herbert Lom, with whom Madison shares a slight resemblance. The best of the support cast is arguably Torben Meyer as the rather sweet engraver Zarabella; he’s completely credible in the guise of the elderly artist who remembers his student with great affection despite her misdeeds.
Zarabella (Torben MeyerTorben Meyer, left) reminisces about the student he lost.
But the movie belongs to Shirley Grey (born Agnes Zetterstrand), to the point that her supposed co-star, Blackmer, sort of drops into the perceptual background whenever the two are onscreen together. She’s not an actress I’d been much aware of before watching this movie (although she has a support role in The Girl in 419 , covered elsewhere on this site), and I was interested why this should be so. Apparently her movie career started relatively late—she was approaching 30—and lasted just five years, from 1930 to 1935. At that point it seems her contract with Goldwyn wasn’t renewed, and she dropped out of acting altogether.
Heroine Shirley Grey.
There have been other movies with the same title, none of which appear to have anything to do with this one, although the The Girl who Came Back (1918) dir Robert G. Vignola, with Ethel Clayton, Elliott Dexter and Theodore Roberts, does seem to share some plot points: A burgling daughter decides to go straight but her father, also a burglar, begs her to do One Last Job, which is stealing a string of pearls. I haven’t seen the movie (I’m going by the brief IMDB summary), so I don’t know how much further the similarities might extend.
The Girl who Came Back is by no means a classic (you don’t get classics from Chesterfield) and I’d hesitate even to say that it’s good—there’s that matter of Burke’s unexplained presence in California, for example—but it’s certainly very enjoyable to watch