December 30, 2014
Paul Muni snarled to prominence as the amoral gangster kingpin Scarface (1932), and followed it up with an expose of the prison system, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933). He had already received an Oscar nomination for his debut performance in The Valiant (1929), so by 1934 he was a star, and a serious-minded one. Born to a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire, he came up through the Yiddish theater, made it to Broadway, and eventually earned unprecedented freedom in choosing the parts he wanted to play in Hollywood. So when histories of Muni’s career are written, few mention his little newspaper comedy from 1934, Hi, Nellie. A standard Warner Brothers quickie, it packs in screwball, romance, mystery and gangster movies into one 75 minute package. Muni clearly revels in trying out comedy, channeling his wiry energy into the clipped, slangy dialogue of a Hecht/MacArthur knockoff. And the rest of the cast is up to his challenge, with acidic performances from Glenda Farrell and Ned Sparks. Hi, Nellie is now available on DVD as part of the Warner Archive’s Forbidden Hollywood Volume 8 set of pre-codes (also including Blonde Crazy, Strangers May Kiss, and Dark Hazard).
“Either a comedy, something light and frivolous, or the story of a Slovak coal miner.” This was reportedly Muni’s response to Jack Warner about what he would like to make after the multi-generational drama The World Changes (1933). Muni was fascinated by the coal miner’s fight for unionization and better work conditions. While acting in a touring company of Counsellor At Law, Muni stopped off in a Pennsylvania mining town to interview the local workers. All of this research would turn into Black Fury (1935). But first, he did something “light and frivolous”.
Hi, Nellie was based on a story by Roy Chanslor, and turned into a script by Abem Finkel and Sidney Sutherland. Finkel was Muni’s brother-in-law, and the scion of a legendary Yiddish theater family. Abem’s father Moishe was a producer in Hungary as well as the States. Great Yiddish star Jacob Adler described Moishe in his memoir: “A tragic figure in our history, Finkel. One of the first pioneers, an excellent artist, a good director, for many years a power in our theater world, until in 1904 he put an end to his career and life with a bullet in his brain.” After Moishe’s second wife, Emma Thomashefsky, left him, he shot her, her lover, and then himself. Emma was partially paralyzed but lived until 1929. Muni’s employment of Abem was not just for nostalgia’s sake. Abem had a long career as a scenarist at WB, with an Oscar nomination for Sergeant York (1941), and credits on Jezebel (1938), Black Legion (1937) and many more.
With Abem along, Muni carried the Yiddish theater with him, and must have seen some analogues to Yiddish comedy in Chanslor story. Muni plays Samuel Bradshaw (nicknamed “Brad”), the tough-talking managing editor of the New York Times Star. The head of the governor’s investigating committee, Frank J. Canfield, has gone missing, along with $60 Million of a prominent bank’s reserves. All the tabloids connect the two stories, that Canfield absconded with the cash, but Brad refuses to publicly indict him on scant evidence. The paper’s owner J.L. Graham (Burton Churchill) is enraged, and demotes Brad down to the paper’s romance column, where he has to take on the pseudonym Nellie Nelson. The current”Heartthrobs” columnist, Brad’s ex-beau Gerry Krale (Glenda Farrell), is thrilled to get back on the city beat.Brad has to endure rounds of “Hi Nellie!” each trip through the office, sinking him into an alcohol-fueled depression – until a break in the Canfield case gets his journalistic juices flowing again. The basic plot was remade several times by Warner Brothers, as Love is On the Air (1937), You Can’t Escape Forever (1942), and The House Across the Street (1949).
Hi, Nellie was Muni’s third straight collaboration with Mervyn LeRoy (after I Was a Fugitive on a Chain Gang and The World Changes), one of WB’s most bankable directors. LeRoy topped Variety’s list of top box office directors of 1933, during which he directed Gold Diggers of 1933 and four more profitable movies. While never a distinctive artist, LeRoy was a reliable craftsman, and ably orchestrates the chaos of the Times Star’s newsroom. He establishes the geography of the office in a high-angle crane shot that scans the anthill industriousness of the constantly moving reporters/editors/newsboys. The majority of the film then uses waist-up medium shots to focus on gesture and dialogue. Muni, with a streak of gray in his hair to indicate the stresses of the job, seems to have studied the speed chatter of Lee Tracy in preparing for this role, all of his wiry strength transferred from his muscles to his words. Brad is an arrogant taskmaster who also happens to be good at his job, so when his power is taken from him, his whole self-image collapses. He ends up in a dive bar apologizing to his whiskey. But with Gerry’s admonitions ringing in his head to stop being a coward (she endured the Heartthrobs gig for much longer, and didn’t crumble), the plot shifts again into investigative mode, and Brad sets his sights on a local gangster.
The film breezes by because of the energy of the performances. Brad and Gerry have a complicated, flirtations relationship that involves a past fling and professional jealousy. Glenda Farrell had experience playing a tough-talking reporter gal from her time in the Torchy Blane series, and her self-confidence emanates off the screen. LeRoy noticed this too, and grants her one of the few tracking shots in the film, pulling back through the office as she is harassed for a date by a mousy reporter (she, as ever, declines). The other unsung hero of the film is Ned Sparks, who has a Droopy Dog face and a voice like a muted trumpet. His deadpan nasal delivery anchors the film as it revs through the too-pat coincidences of the mystery plot. His slow-motion lope and sourpuss sarcasm brings everything back to earth.
Even though it’s rather unknown today, Hi, Nellie was well-received at the time. Photoplay lauded its “trip hammer action”, while Motion Picture Daily wrote, “It moves rapidly. It is flavored with the sauce of front page life and salted with humor.” The impressively named Frederic F. Van de Water at The New Movie Magazine ranked it as “outstanding”, and praised LeRoy for having “taken the trouble to learn how a newspaper office looks and sounds.” I’m throwing my lot in with the esteemed Mr. Van de Water. Hi, Nellie is a brisk entertainment, and one which shows off the commitment and range of Paul Muni, who I never expected could have been so funny.