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No Orchids for Miss Blandish (DVD Review)

3 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$19.99 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Jack La Rue, Linden Travers.

I was in elementary school (fifth grade, pretty sure) when I first heard that this notably lurid underworld melodrama was one of the all-time misconceived howlers — a British attempt to re-create the American gangster movie (and even after seeing it, I’m still a little fuzzy on just where its setting actually is). It was a movie that apparently didn’t do much for the already established career of one of its main actors: Linden Travers. From the name, I had always assumed Travers must have played one of the hoods who keep tripping over each other in the story, when in fact she is the actress who plays Miss Blandish (and the real life sister of Born Free male lead Bill Travers).

Well, yesterday’s camp classic can occasionally become today’s “expressive” cinema, and Orchids just played the recent Turner Classic Movie film festival in L.A. as a warm-up to VCI’s handsome-looking DVD. It’s misshapen, no classic and certainly over the top (though no more so than I recall Robert Aldrich’s very different 1971 The Grissom Gang remake as being), but its violence isn’t ineffective even by modern standards and some of its sexual suggestiveness rocks.

Travers’ Blandish is what vintage gangster pics used to call “a society dame,” and her expensive jewelry is bait to a bunch of crooks whose strings are frequently pulled by a nightclub matriarch called “Ma” (Lilli Molnar) — a kind of Ma Barker type without the hillbilly dimension Shelley Winters brought to Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (and Barker brought to real life). There are a lot of male characters here, and sometimes it’s tough to figure out which ones are working for Ma and which ones are rivals. But everyone is sniffing the rocks Miss Blandish wears around her neck.

One of these is a son of Ma Grisson named Slim — with the elegant “S.G.” bathrobe to prove it. Slim is played by American actor Jack La Rue, who looks just enough like Humphrey Bogart that it probably influenced his casting — though producer Richard Gordon notes on a long bonus section interview that George Raft and others turned down the part. For one thing, Slim surprises by turning smitten toward Miss B in a Bogie-vulnerable kind of way after she’s kidnapped and then finds that she likes the arrangement because sudden sexual liberation clashes with the dullness and regimentation of her previous life (daddy’s deep pockets notwithstanding).

This is interesting because Miss B has previously witnessed her lounge lizard of a boy friend getting viciously beaten to death by one of the most sadistic flunkies I’ve ever seen in a movie 60-plus years old. When people get pummeled here, they stay that way: a bartender gets slammed in the upper face with the force of a second-deck home run shot, and much later we see him again   wearing three facial bandages and an eye-patch.

On the sexual front, there’s a slightly obscured fireplace scene here where it looks to me as if Slim is putting his hand inside whatever it is Miss B is wearing. And later, one character goes up to a woman in silky pajamas and yanks the belt holding up her bottoms all the way through their loops, leaving her there to conduct a conversation while holding up her pants. This is pretty wild for 1948, when, of course, you never saw anyone doing this to June Allyson.

Of course, the movie didn’t get to America until 1951 — severely cut and with an eventual title change to Black Dice after absorbing treatment by British critics that was almost as violent as anything in the story. Gordon, who offers recollections in each of two DVD bonus features (one of them with co-star Richard Nielson), recalls sneaking the print into the United States through a New Orleans port to avoid customs agents in New York. Already facing a tough challenge finding distribution, he heard, via a press release that he did not write or see, that the film’s new title would be … The Snatch.  You have to believe that some sort of great fly-on-the-wall conversation ensued.


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