36 HOURS TO KILL. 20th Century Fox, 1936. Brian Donlevy, Gloria Stuart, Douglas Fowley, Isabel Jewell, Warren Hymer, Stepin Fetchit, James Burke. Based on a story by W. R. Burnett. Directed by Eugene Forde. Released commercially on DVD.

Anne Marvis (Gloria Stuart): So this is Albuquerque?

Frank Evers (Brian Donlevy) There’s no Indians.

Anne: They’re all working for the WPA.

Frank: What a relief.

   Get it?

   That’s the wise cracking speed of the humor in this not quite a mystery comedy, that still manages to pack quite a bit of screwball into the tale of a Public Enemy on the run and a blooming romance on a train from Los Angeles to Topeka that accompanies his journey.

   Alvin Karpis has just met his rendezvous with J. Edgar Hoover, the headlines proclaim, while Duke Benson (Douglas Fowley) sweats out hiding in the suburbs of LA with his moll/wife Jeanie (Isabel Jewell) while flunky Hazy (Warren Hymer) makes house calls to deliver the news.

   This time he brings a newspaper from home, Topeka, with him and Duke spies in the paper that a mysterious lottery winner who signed himself Little Boy Blue has won $150,000, and Duke is Little Boy Blue, the winning ticket in his wallet. Just one problem: How will he ever cash it in with the Feds everywhere looking for him?

   Duke comes up with a plan. Jeanie will fly to Topeka since it is dangerous for them to travel with each other, and after arranging with his old gang for a place to hide out once there, Duke will book tickets on the train, Hazy getting on board first, and Duke making a daring transfer from a moving car in the dark as the train is still moving slow. Then Duke will hideout in his compartment for the rest of the trip.

   Complicating things at the train station is reporter Frank Evers, who is hounding a man he claims is a famous scientist he has to get a story on so desperately he buys a ticket to come along, a little girl traveling by herself who takes a shine to Hazy, and boarding at the first stop, Anne Mavis, an attractive blonde fleeing process server James Burke until she can cross over into Arizona.

   When Duke has to leave his compartment for annoying porter Stepin Fetchit to make his bed Anne, hiding from the process server, climbs in Duke’s unoccupied bed, and in true screwball style mistaken for Duke’s wife by the process server, but not by Evers who has already cozied up to Duke.

   Later still Jeanie, when her plane is forced down by a storm, will join the train finding Anne’s gloves in Duke’s compartment and jumping to conclusions so Anne has to pretend to be Frank’s wife to appease Jeannie’s insane jealousy, not really all that insane considering Duke’s proclivities and designs on Anne and how handy Jeanie is with a knife.

   And when they reach Topeka and Duke realizes the Feds are hot on his trail when the porter finds a microphone in his compartment (“Dat one of them new telephones, Mr.?”) things get really complex when he kidnaps Anne and takes her to the phony sanitarium run by his former gang and Frank has to rescue her by posing as the agent from the Insurance Agent paying the lottery ticket off to Duke’s lawyer (Charles Lane).

   Mostly the movie crackles, It speeds along, pauses for laughs, develops just enough character to keep you interested, and relies on the considerable skills of Donlevy, Stuart, Fowley, Hymer, and Jewell to keep things sparking as nothing and no one is exactly who they seem to be and complications arise. Almost every main character has a revelation to make that isn’t exactly what you expect, though one of them is pretty obvious no mater how hard I try to avoid giving it away.

   It might not seem Black Mask material, but you can imagine it i5n Dime Detective or Detective Fiction Weekly. It’s the kind of story you can imagine Richard Sale, Robert Reeves, John K. Butler, or Dwight Babcock might have written.

   Admittedly there is the always nagging problem in films of this era of the role Stepin Fetchit plays, mostly comedic relief as he infuriates Duke, but also fairly important to the plot in that his clumsiness is set up so he finds the microphone that tips Duke off he is being followed.

   Hymer’s Hazy is an odd character too, very much as if a Damon Runyon character had wandered into a Warner’s Gangster flick, his scenes with the little girl quite effecting, and his pride in having made a prune whip for the captive Anne even sweet.

   The ending as you might expect is slam bang, with guns blazing, but who gets shot by whom and why may surprise you.

   Plus I am a sucker for stories like this on a train, and if the finale isn’t on the train, the trip itself is a delight, and the cast fine companions for any journey. This is little gem I only saw for the first time recently, and never heard about, but will no doubt watch again.