Angels Over Broadway (1940) with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

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Among the list of films which perhaps don’t get the attention they deserve is 1940’s Angels Over Broadway, a title which plays a few ways over the course of a compact 78 minute running time.   The film, which was written and directed by Ben Hecht, marked his return to independence.

The film takes place over the course of a single evening and sports an eclectic and interesting cast. Getting top billing is Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is small-time con man Bill O’Brien, who apparently slinks around bars and nightclubs looking for his next score. A very young Rita Hayworth is showgirl / singer Nina Barona. Thomas Mitchell is playwright (and resident drunk) Gene Gibbons. Last, but perhaps not least, is John Qualen as Charles Engle (one of the plays on Angel in the title). Engle has embezzled a few thousand dollars from his boss and only has until dawn to repay the debt. Knowing he’s unable to repay it, he’s decided to have a final night on the town before killing himself.

1940 Angels Over Broadway Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell and Douglas Fairbanks JrThese four all randomly meet in the same club on the same night. O’Brien feels out Engle and somehow deduces that he’d be a good mark for a high stakes poker game he knows about. Before he can get too far however Gibbons squeezes him out, thinking he’s got the perfect answer to fixing Engle’s problem. Spying an old flame, Gibbons approaches her and takes a high-end piece of jewelry he’d gifted her. Before he gets too far though she bursts his bubble and lets him know it’s mere costume jewelry.

Gibbons, a once great playwright who has just written another in an apparently long string of recent flops, takes it in stride- slurring his way into another drink. As the four newfound friends huddle around the cocktail table, they come up with a seemingly noble plan; to take and coach Engle through the poker game, enabling him to regain the money he owes. As a finder’s fee of sorts they will give O’Brien anything over and above Engle’s debt.

1940 Angels Over Broadway John QualenThey get Engle to the game, but Gibbons passes out in the room he’s been sequestered in with O’Brien and Nina. When he comes to his memory of both his newfound friends and their plan has vanished, and he leaves to return to his wife. Engle finds himself unable to carry off his role in the plan, and leaves his winnings on the table, tipping off the hoods that O’Brien has set them up.

As he hears them coming down the hallway, O’Brien turns to make a run for it, but Nina convinces him to stand up and face them. This changes O’Brien’s perspective – most every comment he’s made to Nina throughout the picture to this point is either condescending, mean-spirited or both- and they fall in love.

Hecht tries to play a lot with our heartstrings here, but except for Gibbons, the characters aren’t really fleshed out. He too, perhaps, seems to be the only one who has- and is- trying to make something of himself without taking advantage of others.

1940 Angels Over Broadway Rita Hayworth and Douglas Fairbanks JrThough most make the assumption that Engle is the angel in the title, he is only one, with Nina and O’Brien being the other two. Though at some level you could include Gibbons in this group as well, he is by far the recipient of the works of the angels. Engle’s misfortunes are purely of his own making and O’Brien clearly dances on the wrong side of the law, making it challenging to feel too much sympathy for them. Sadly Nina’s character seems fleshed out the weakest of the lot and though she has a few snappy lines and Hayworth does an admirably sensitive and naïve portrayal (as the character needs) she remains a nonentity.

Though Angels Over Broadway is a good and highly enjoyable film, it isn’t without flaws. It seems to not really know what it wants to be. With its heavy use of shadow and light is it trying to be noir? There are slight hints throughout and of course the final coupling of Nina and O’Brien that lead one to believe that perhaps it’s a romance? But again the presence of con-men and illicit poker games makes one think it could be a crime drama.

1940 Angels Over Broadway Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Rita HayworthIt would have been nice to see Rita Hayworth given a bit more to do here than just be a sponge for Fairbanks’ barbs and look nice. Though she creates great empathy with the audience in her polite silence, outside of her climactic scene toward the end with Fairbanks Nina is a relatively flat experience to watch.

Fairbanks too seems perhaps a bit out of his element, being known more for his adventure films at the time Angels Over Broadway was made. Though of course a flaw in the plot, it is hard to imagine any experienced con seeing Engle as a good mark. Though he gets top billing Fairbanks doesn’t feel like a lead in this one.

John Qualen as Engle is either horribly miscast or in the perfect role. He’s almost annoyingly mousy and uninteresting and though that is exactly what the character calls for perhaps it is a bit too much.

1940 Angels Over Broadway Thomas MitchellWhich leaves us with the estimable Thomas Mitchell, an actor known for perhaps two things. First is his role in Gone with the Wind and the other is his penchant for playing the drunk and obstinate (which to some degree overlaps with GWTW.) Though he played a similar character in 1939’s Stagecoach and won an Academy Award for it, it is hard not to say that his portrayal here is even better.

For those who are fans of either Ben Hecht or Thomas Mitchell, Angels Over Broadway should definitely be in your strike zone!

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