A Slight Case of Murder (1938)

“I was much better when I was illegitimate.”

A Slight Case of Murder is a very funny and affectionate treatment of post-prohibition gangster life. When prohibition is repealed, bootlegger and gang boss Remy Marco (Edward G. Robinson) decides to go ‘legit’ and open a brewery. Unfortunately, what Marco fails to realize is that his rotgut beer–dubbed Goldvelvet–may have sold during prohibition, but once alcohol becomes legal and customers have choices, sales plummet.

After an opening sequence covering Marco’s decision to go ‘legit’, the film picks up several years later. Marco is now leading the honest life of a brewery owner, but he’s struggling with mounting debts and a failing business. Unfortunately, Marco isn’t much of an honest businessman, and he’s shocked when he learns that the bank is about to call in an outstanding half a million-dollar loan.

Most of the film takes place in Marco’s large home in the country. Marco’s daughter Mary (Jane Bryan) has just returned from a posh European finishing school as Marco can no longer pay the bills. Marco, his wife Nora (Ruth Donnelly) and daughter travel to the country home–along with a delinquent from Marco’s “alma mater”–the city orphanage. It’s Marco’s tradition to take an orphan to his home for the summer, and this year, he has requested the worst one of the bunch so that he can reform the lad.

Also converging on Marco’s home is Mary’s new fiance, Dick Whitewood (Willard Parker), his snobby, blueblood father (Paul Harvey), and a gang hotfoot from an armored car robbery. All these forces combine to make a very funny, entertaining film, and if you’re a fan of Edward G. Robinson, you’ll find A Slight Case of Murder delightful. Most of the fun comes from the way in which the film, directed by Lloyd Bacon, depicts the criminal element attempting to go straight. Marco’s former gang members are now all part of his entourage and this works with varying degrees of success. Marco’s wife–a former gang moll–shifts back and forth between accents as she slips in and out of her roles as society wife and tough broad. Meanwhile, there’s Marco, who was a successful bootlegger, and now finds himself outmaneuvered by predatory bank officials. Some of the very funniest scenes occur when Mr. Whitewood goes to meet the Marco family. Whitewood’s priceless reactions to his soon-to be new in-laws reflect shock and horror.

The DVD print looks good, and there are no problems with it. Extras include: vintage newsreel, the short feature Declaration of Independence, the classic cartoon The Night Watchman, original trailers, commentary by film historian Robert Sklar, and a featurette: Prohibition Opens the Floodgates.

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Filed under Comedy, Gangster

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