Sun 24 Apr 2016
CRACKERJACK. General Film Distributors, UK, 1938. Released in the US as The Man with 100 Faces. Tom Walls, Lili Palmer, Noel Madison, Leon M. Lion, Edmond Breon. Screenplay A.R. Rawlinson; adaptation by Basil Mason Based on the novel by W. B. N. Ferguson Directed by Albert de Courville.
Crackerjack is a fast-paced British comedy mystery replete with a mysterious monocled gentleman thief (the Crackerjack of the title: “Don’t think because I wear this eyeglass I won’t drop you,” he warns a roomful of criminals he holds at gunpoint), a beautiful Baroness who used to be a spy, and a dancing and singing troupe of airborne hold up-men, complete with two musical numbers. I honestly can’t think what more you could want from a thirties British film.
The film opens as Sculpie (Noel Madison) and his gang pull a daring daylight robbery of a millionaire diamond merchant on a plane. On board the plane is monocled Jack Drake (Tom Walls), a droll type who calmly decks a Scotland Yard man to save him from Sculpie. When Sculpie and his pals drop the passengers off though and take off with the plane they soon find they have an empty case, no swag, and someone else has the diamonds.
The someone else is Crackerjack, Jack Drake, who has turned Robin Hood to finance his charitable work when his own fortune dwindled from too many good deeds. He even writes a bestselling book about himself that sets London on its ear, but when the hospital he financed needs money and his bank draft overages press it is time for Crackerjack to strike again, this time in London where his one time inamorata, Baroness Von Halz (Lili Palmer), is visiting and would like nothing more than to see the man who left her waiting in Berlin (not knowing he and his secretary barely escaped the police), but for whom she still has feelings.
Crackerjack strikes again at an elegant ball (“Today I endow an crib, tomorrow I crack one.”), and again Sculpie and gang hit the same target and come up short, this time killing a man; something Crackerjack won’t tolerate. Meanwhile Baroness Von Halz old friend Golding (Leon M. Lion) tells her he lost a family heirloom to Crackerjack at the ball and asks her aid as a one time German spy in contacting Crackerjack. If he can catch him in the act, maybe he can persuade him to return the heirloom.
Little does the Baroness know that Golding is the fence for Sculpie’s gang and the trap is a deadly one or that her beloved Jack Drake is Crackerjack. She sets up the meeting with Crackerjack who remains hidden and arranges for him to steal some papers she claims she is being blackmailed with.
Drake knows it is a setup (“I’ll do anything for you,” he tells the Baroness, “but drop my ‘aitches.”), but he can’t resist heisting all the goodies the gang stole and betraying them to the friendly policeman he saved on the plane, who having recovered most of the loot from the theft of the ball and captured the murderers could care less if Crackerjack gets away.
Walls, seems an odd choice for hero, and it is more than a bit difficult to imagine that the young and lovely Palmer is head over heels in love with him. For one thing he is middle aged, balding, has a huge beak of a nose, no chin, jowls, and a silly ass upper class English twit manner better suited to Bertie Wooster than Simon Templar — in fact he wouldn’t be a terrible Peter Wimsey — but the film is so good-natured, short, fast paced, and often clever you quickly warm to its hero, or at least don’t mind him too much.
I know nothing sbout Walls, but assume he was a popular stage or music hall star, since the film seems designed to exploit his persona. Palmer, on the other hand, is young and beautiful, and the scenes with her show her off to great advantage, even if she hasn’t a lot to do but look decorative. Noel Madison was usually cast as American gangsters in British films and plays a variation of that here in a Jack LaRue, Marc Lawrence, Joseph Calleia key.
Droll, rapid-paced, relatively clever sub-Saintly stuff with a minor league gentleman thief in the Raffles/Lupin/Baron vein, Crackerjack is an attractive, sprightly, witty, little distraction that leaves a much better taste behind than you might expect it to when it starts. It also helps there is no moralizing or preaching here. It isn’t giving anything away to say the hero gets the girl and the swag and flies away with both, nose firmly thumbed to propriety, Hollywood’s Code, and any and all dull moralists watching.
Considering that it came as a total surprise that I stumbled upon quite by accident, having never heard of the film or the book it is based on I could not be more pleased with the result.