Tarnished Angel (1938)

US / 67 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: Leslie Goodwins Pr: B.P. Fineman Scr: Saul Elkins, Jo Pagano Story: Saul Elkins Cine: Nicholas Musuraca Cast: Sally Eilers, Lee Bowman, Ann Miller, Alma Kruger, Paul Guilfoyle, Jonathan Hale, Jack Arnold (i.e., Vinton Hayworth), Cecil Kellaway, Janet Dempsey, Hamilton MacFadden, Robert Gleckler, Earle Hodgins SIC, Barry Macollum, Tommy Mack, Byron Foulger.

A crime movie that’s superficially quite lighthearted but that has far more serious undercurrents concerning the exploitative nature of fake evangelical revivalism: While the movie doesn’t come right out and say that all religious revivalists and their faith-healing brethren are frauds who’re in it for nothing more than whatever they can gouge out of—mainly poor—people who’re too naive to know any better, the implication’s there. That its practitioners regard it as a business rather than a crusade is made plain by the introduction of a character called Twisty Joe Mason (Mack). He’s described as “the greatest cripple artist in the country,” which implies there are plenty of others: Faking crippledom for “faith healers” is clearly a viable profession.

Sally Eilers as Carol/Sister Connie

Likewise, the consequences of screwing money out of people who can’t afford it—here exemplified by a hospital for sick children—aren’t spelled out but are fairly clear, as is the equivalency between mobsters and revivalists/faith-healers. (As you’ll have guessed, while I’m not certain what circle of Hell is reserved for these evangelical mercenaries and their phony faith-healing, my personal hope is that the Lake of Fire’s involved.)

For a stomach-churning if inevitably rather dated exposé of the industry, try James Randi’s book The Faith Healers (1987).

Checkers (Gleckler), owner of the Tally-Ho Club on Broadway, uses the place as a front for fencing stolen goods. He’s just bought a stolen string of pearls from thief Dandy Bennett (Arnold) when one of his hostesses, Carol Vinson (Eilers), brings him the news that celebrated cop Lieutenant Edward Cramer (Hale) is just about to lead a raid of the place.

Ann Miller as Vi

Carol—whose main job is to deploy undelivered sexual promises in order to help fleece stain male customers out of their money at the gambling tables—uses one of those customers, society pillar Reggie Roland (Kellaway), as part of a cunning ruse to enable Checkers to escape.

Busted down to sergeant after this gaffe, Cramer works to make sure Carol never gets another job in this town. She and her roommate, chanteuse/hoofer Vi McMaster (Miller), plus Vi’s boyfriend Eddie Fox (Guilfoyle, in top form), move to another town, and another . . . but, wherever they go, Cramer’s there to queer their pitch.

Paul Guilfoyle as Eddie

Lee Bowman as Paul

But then one night, in quest of a free cup of coffee and doughnut, they witness a revivalist (Hodgins) at work and, as Carol watches the collection plate go round, she has an idea . . .

Thus is born Girl Revivalist Sister Connie.

At first business is slow for the trio—especially when you consider the cost of renting a camel to demonstrate what won’t go through the eye of a needle—but then Sister Connie hires a stooge, Jerry (Macollum), to play the part of a cripple and introduces “faith healing” to the act.

Jonathan Hale as Cramer

Jack Arnold as Dandy Bennett

Business booms, but Cramer is still on their trail. In order to assuage him, they have to give a sizeable chunk of their income to the children’s hospital founded and maintained by rich widow Mrs. Harry Stockton (Kruger). Desperate for money, Sister Connie invites Dandy Bennett back into their lives . . .

There’s a good deal of story still to go, but what’s noticeable is that I haven’t thought to mention the movie’s male romantic lead, Lee Bowman’s amiable Paul Montgomery, who loves Carol/Connie dearly but who’s rejected by her as a wimp until the inevitable final clinch. There’s nothing wrong with Bowman’s performance—he plays the amiable chump perfectly well—it’s just that the romance between Paul and Carol/Connie is completely peripheral to the plot. Omitting the romance would have cut the running time by a few minutes but otherwise would have affected the proceedings not at all.

Alma Kruger as Mrs Stockton

And that final clinch I mentioned? I misspoke. It’s symptomatic of how unimportant Paul has been to matters that his embrace of his gal is only the penultimate clinch: the real final one goes—and quite rightly—to two different cast members.

Early on, though, Bowman as Paul does share a few good exchanges of dialogue with Eilers’s Carol, mainly as she’s putting him down gently . . . or not so gently:

Carol: “You know, Paul, [your father] has a lot of qualities that you could use.”
Paul: “Such as?”
Carol: “Money.”

Cecil Kellaway as Reggie Roland, seemingly not too unhappy to be fleeced by Sally Eilers’s Carol

Tarnished Angel opens with Vi performing a song at the Tally-Ho, a song that’s a cut above what you expect in B-features of this vintage: “It’s the Doctor’s Orders,” with music by Samuel Fain and lyrics by Lew Brown. I speculate that in earlier versions of the script Vi and Carol were a single character—i.e., that Carol was a stage performer rather than a hostess—because, according to the AFI, one of its working titles was Sing, Sister (another was Miracle Racket), which would make a lot more sense were Carol a singer.

The AFI adds that “Costumes worn by Eilers resemble those worn by evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who was a widely known religious figure at the time.”

Tarnished Angel is short and snappy, and, even though some of the events of its final stages are more than a tad implausible (one of the characters does a complete volte-face), is overall very satisfying.

4 thoughts on “Tarnished Angel (1938)

  1. Sounds fun. Does this movie have any connection with the Douglas Sirk film ‘The Tarnished Angels’ (1957) starring Rock Hudson? I’m guessing not, but you never know!

    • No relation at all, alas . . . except that, had you told me the 1938 movie was based (loosely) on a Faulkner novel, I’d probably have believed you. It has something of that feel.

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