US (1951) Dir. Irving Cummings
Coincidences are a bane of our lives, when they cause trouble and not good fortune. You may think you are on cloud nine as the result of something good happening whilst at the same time fate is dealing a bad hand to someone else. Trying to explain your innocence in the wake of the circumstantial evidence is never going to be easy.
Meek bank teller Johnny Dalton (Frank Sinatra) is hoping to marry his girlfriend, fellow teller Mildred “Mibs” Goodhue (Jane Russell) but they can’t live on their meagre salaries. Johnny asks his boss J. L. McKissack (Harry Hayden) for a raise but is refused. At lunch, waiter Emile (Groucho Marx) jokingly suggests Johnny robs the bank but when he says he couldn’t even for love, Mibs walking out on Johnny, calling him weak.
On his way back to the bank, Johnny saves a man (Nestor Paiva) from being beaten by two thugs, and he wants to reward Johnny. The man gives Johnny a $1000 bill then coerces him to put on the horses. An hour later, Johnny has won $60,000 with $20,000 outstanding, but he returns to the bank to find $75,000 has gone missing and with his newfound wealth, Johnny is the prime suspect.
Well, this is embarrassing – I consider myself a big fan of Groucho Marx yet I didn’t even know this film existed until I found it by accident on BBC iPlayer. The fact it was such an obscure title probably meant it wasn’t much cop but it was only 77-minutes so why not? As it transpires, the feeling was the same in 1951 as both cinemagoers and critics like gave this a wide berth and a big thumbs down.
Double Dynamite was originally made in 1948 after Jane Russell had made a name for herself via her impressive bust on the posters of The Outlaw, but didn’t get a release until RKO picked it up in 1951. It was originally entitled The Pasadena Story then It’s Only Money – the title of one of two songs in the film – before RKO owner and producer Howard Hughes decided he should pay tribute to Russell’s famous assets, hence the final title.
Not that the title made any sense to the story, nor in fact do we get to see these fabled bosoms at any point in the film despite a heavily obscured shower scene. You may also notice that despite his star being in the ascendant, Sinatra was demoted from top name to third billing behind Russell and Groucho because Hughes didn’t like Old Blue Eyes. I wonder if that came back to bite him in the bum!
I doubt Sinatra or anyone else bothered to look back on this in their later days as this is quite an anaemic effort which doesn’t seem too interested in making the most of its juicy premise. Written by Melville Shavelson and based on a story by Leo Rosten, it tries to be a screwball comedy and a vehicle for Groucho to do his thing, whilst appeasing Sinatra fans with the aforementioned two ditties.
Things start off well enough with Johnny being denied his raise whilst setting up the love triangle involving Mibs and the bank owner’s idler son Bob Pulsifer Jr. (Don McQuire), waiting in the wings to sweep Mibs off her feet with his wealth. She may be besotted with Johnny and can’t wait to marry him even if they are poor, which makes her sudden turn after Emile’s teasing extraordinary and baffling.
From here, Mibs writes Johnny off and jumps straight into Bob’s smarmy hands but after a few bevvies, she gets emotional and realises Johnny isn’t so bad after all, but she has also decide he is a liar about how he got his money. Which is another thing – the man Johnny saved was a crook named “Hot Horse” Harris, running a corrupt gambling scam in the back of a shirt shop, making thousands from a few phone calls.
Having been rejected by Mibs and aware of the missing money from the bank, Johnny confides in Emile who helps him hide the money though even Emile doesn’t believe the story of the horses. When Johnny goes back to the shop with Emile, it is a genuine shirt shop run by women; this is quite amusing a Johnny tries to assert they should be men and horses instead.
Long story short, after trying to hide the money, Emile volunteers to deposit the money in a bank whilst the scandal dies down. Posing as a millionaire Emile. J. Keck, he chooses Johnny’s bank to his dismay. The scene where Emile demands to see McKissack then calls bank owner R. B. Pulsifer Sr. (Howard Freeman) in person about the bank’s present solvency, is as close to classic Groucho as we get but still far from his glory days.
And this really sums up the problem with this film – there are three very capable of performers that nobody seems to know what to do with. Director Irving Cummings was returning from a four year illness when he made this and it would end up being his final film, passing away in 1959. One can almost see Cummings giving up as the film goes on, just as the script does.
Biased I may be but Groucho Marx is the best thing here, lame material notwithstanding, whilst anyone seeing Russell and indeed Sinatra for the first time in this film may wonder what all the fuss is about. Sinatra’s role could have been filled by anybody at the time, bringing only a modicum of personality to Johnny, whilst Russell can’t seem to decide if Mibs is an average girl next door or a needy, stuck up cow.
Really, the only conclusion I can proffer regarding Double Dynamite is that it exists, it isn’t bad but isn’t great either, and should have been so much better given its legendry cast and promising plot.