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Fog Over Frisco (DVD Review)

28 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD, $14.95 Download
Not rated.
Stars Bette Davis, Donald Woods, Hugh Herbert, Lyle Talbot, Margaret Lindsay.

Society types and the lowlifes they attract (the press included) are perpetually zipping around in this 68-minute stallion of a movie that my old NYU film prof William K. Everson liked to show to his classes as an example of how whodunits and screen melodramas in general should move.

We see someone on the phone trying to reach a party for someone else, imploring the person at the other end to hurry. A newspaper editor rips the front page apart near press time because there’s a new scandal to exploit. A good stepsister scurries around the family mansion in a silky, mighty fine p.j. number while trying to figure out what happened to a bad stepsister. Cars zoom down hilly city streets 34 years pre-Bullitt, with motorboats and seaplanes doing their own thing for fuel consumption. This is not a movie where people just walk down the street and takes in the scenery. For one thing, they probably couldn’t see it half the time because the title doesn’t lie.

Frisco was filmed you-know-where at the beginning of 1934, and the location work — Warner wisely sent a crew up the coast — will give geography buffs a kick. When it was released in early June, studio contract player Davis was just about to become a star via July’s Of Human Bondage, made on a loan-out to RKO and the eventual source of the actress’s first Oscar nomination. But Davis rates at least a star entrance here in this immediate predecessor: In a crooked nightspot where tabloid photographers stalk their prey, we spot her behind balloons that are popped one by one to reveal her.

Davis’s banker father repeatedly says she’s no good and a product of “bad blood” (that would mean her mother). So as if to prove it, her character is involved with three men, one of them being a chump who works at the bank. She’s become a player in a stolen securities racket involving both this boy friend and an older exec at the bank who’s in dad’s aggressively WASP-ish circle– as well as the crooked club owner. The step-sis (Margaret Lindsay, of the filmy duds) tries to defend Davis, but she’s blind to reality. Then again, this family’s bad seed probably needs a friend when the old man threatens to commit her into an asylum and talks about how she should be shot.

The director is William Dieterle, who later did several movies I like, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Charles Laughton version), The Devil and Daniel Webster, Love Letters, Portrait of Jennie, The Accused (Loretta Young version) plus several more nifty quickies from this early period at Warner, including 1932’s Jewel Robbery and its forward-looking cannabis subplot.

If there’s any way for Dieterle to shave three or four seconds off a scene or transition, we can practically hear him cracking his knuckles as a prelude to doing it. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Davis is less of a factor in the second half-hour hour than she is in the first, which would suck the life out of most movies. Her presence is missed, to be sure, but this is when very aggressive plotting and the chases take over.

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