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Angel on My Shoulder

Angel on My Shoulder(1946)

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teaser Angel on My Shoulder (1946)

At first glance you might think this is another variation on such celestial fantasies as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, but Angel on My Shoulder (1946) is really the flip side of the same story. Here's the set-up: a murdered gangster named Eddie Kagle (Paul Muni) winds up in Hades, not Heaven, and gets offered a rare chance by the Devil (Claude Rains) to come back to earth and reside in the body of a saintly judge. Revenge is the motivating force in Eddie's decision to return but, once he accomplishes his mission, he doesn't intend to pay the Devil his due.

Paul Muni was an unlikely choice for the lead because of his association with such serious dramatic roles as Scarface and I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang but clearly, as this film demonstrates, he could have had a career as a world-class farceur. As proof, we submit the scenes involving Eddie's transition from a vulgar thug to a refined and respected pillar of the community.

Offscreen, the laughs were few and far between. Archie Mayo, the director, and Muni didn't always see eye to eye on how the story should be played, arguing constantly and creating enormous tension on the set. Another unfortunate situation developed when a grip fell to his death from a scaffold toward the end of production. Now that we've painted such a bright and sunny picture of what was happening behind-the-scenes on Angel on My Shoulder, would you believe that this is really a delightful and underrated comedy?

Director: Archie Mayo
Producer: Charles R. Rogers
Screenplay: Harry Segall, Roland Kibbee
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Paul Muni (Eddie Kagle/Judge Parker), Claude Rains (Nick/The Devil), Anne Baxter (Barbara Foster), Erskine Sanford (Minister), Onslow Stevens (Dr. Matt Higgins).
BW-102m.

by Jeff Stafford

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teaser Angel on My Shoulder (1946)

In 1941, a Columbia fantasy film called Here Comes Mr. Jordan became a smash hit with audiences and critics. Based on an Oscar®-winning story by Harry Segall, it was about a boxer who dies "by mistake" and is given another chance at life by an angel played by Claude Rains. A few years after this picture, Segall crafted a companion story entitled Me and Satan, about a murdered gangster named Eddie Kagle who goes to hell, only to strike a deal with the Devil to return to Earth; Kagle wants revenge for his own death, while the Devil wants him to take over the body of a decent judge and make him bad, so that more souls will come the Devil's way. Much to the Devil's frustration, Kagle inadvertently turns the judge into a hero and starts to reform himself in the process. United Artists producer Charles Rogers liked this story and got Rains to agree to play the Devil; for the gangster, Rogers approached Paul Muni.

Muni had catapulted to stardom playing a gangster in Scarface (1932) but was known to never want to play such a character again. He turned down the offer to play one here, telling his agent, "Fantasy hardly ever works." Rogers, however, wouldn't give up. He hired screenwriter Roland Kibbee to collaborate with Segall on a new draft, with the slightly different title Me and Mr. Satan. Though the script now had more depth and nuance, again Muni said no. After another rewrite and another new title, Angel on My Shoulder, Muni agreed to do the picture. By most accounts, the actor came to the conclusion that he needed to boost his lagging film career with what seemed like a commercial hit. His wife, Bella, seemed to think so, and she wielded great influence. It's also likely that Muni was keen on the opportunity to slightly caricature his gangster character, as the new script called for him to do. It may still have been a gangster, but it was written with a much lighter touch than the deadly serious Scarface.

For a picture that ultimately was not a commercial hit - it came and went quickly in theatres in 1946 - Angel on My Shoulder had plenty of behind-the-scenes drama. Muni, Rains, co-star Anne Baxter and director Archie Mayo all came down with the flu, delaying production for a total of four weeks. Assistant director Jack Sullivan died suddenly during production and had to be replaced. And at the film's wrap party, hosted by Muni, a studio electrician died after falling off a catwalk. It turned out the man hadn't even worked on the film, but the resulting publicity and investigation proved too much for Muni. As biographer Jerome Lawrence later wrote, "Muni, who rarely attended parties and practically never played host, swore he would never go near a party again - his own or anybody else's."

The main source of drama was on the set, between Muni and Archie Mayo, who was definitely not an "actor's director." Though the two men had previously collaborated on Bordertown (1935), that did not quell their conflicts on Angel. Anne Baxter later recounted: "I think [Muni] was trying to recapture Scarface. His career was in a downward slide and he wanted the film to be more than it was. Archie Mayo was not a director in depth, which of course was an approach completely in contrast to Muni, who had to know the meaning behind every syllable. The two were in constant conflict, which made for a very unhappy set...Mayo was primarily a canner. Do the take, do the cover shot, reverse angle, close-up, get it in the can. It was like a Big Boy hamburger directing a fine gourmet Wiener schnitzel."

Baxter was drawn to this project solely because it meant a chance to work with Muni, and she plays very well opposite him. On a personal level, though, Baxter found Muni to be "a very lonely man. A boy-child really. And Bella was Mama. I found Muni fascinating [and] attractive...but he was essentially 'sous-cloche' - a spirit enclosed under glass."

Angel on My Shoulder received mixed reviews and was compared unfavorably to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Variety was effusive, praising the film's "zip" and extolling the performances of Muni, Rains and Baxter, but The New York Times' Bosley Crowther was more typical, calling the film "repetitious" and "full of hokum... The story is so imitative - and is repeated so dutifully - that it's hard to feel any more towards it than a mildly nostalgic regard." Crowther added, "Mr. Rains gives a drab and depressing imitation of his memorable Mr. Jordan role."

Muni was so despondent over Angel's weak box-office that he left the movie business for quite some time. It would be another six years until he made another picture, the unsuccessful Italian production Stranger on the Prowl (1952), directed by Joseph Losey, and another seven years after that until he made another American film, The Last Angry Man (1959) - his final film, for which he received his sixth and final Oscar® nomination. In between these productions, he concentrated primarily on theater work.

Angel on My Shoulder is notable for its striking depiction of hell, an unusual sight in the movies. A February 1946 New York Times article said that producer Charles Rogers had his PR department put out a call for help in ideas for designing hell. This resulted in art director Bernard Herzbrun receiving a mountain of letters, "some with sketches, informing him how Hades should be presented in the picture."

The article continued: "It is not unusual for such publicity blurbs to bring hundreds of letters from movie fans of the 'I was there' type, but in this case the suggestions set some kind of a precedent. Mr. Herzbrun finally settled for an adaptation of Dore's illustrations from Dante's 'Inferno' and Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' plus a suggestion of the Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico, with all the victims of the film's fiery torture chamber to be draped, of course, to conform to the tenets of the industry's purity code."

Producer: Charles R. Rogers
Director: Archie Mayo
Screenplay: Harry Segall, Roland Kibbee; Harry Segall (story)
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Asa Clark
Cast: Paul Muni (Eddie Kagle/Judge Frederick Parker), Anne Baxter (Barbara Foster), Claude Rains (Nick), Onslow Stevens (Dr. Matt Higgins), George Cleveland (Albert), Erskine Sanford (Minister), Marion Martin (Mrs. Bentley), Hardie Albright (Smiley Williams), James Flavin (Bellamy), James Dundee (Gangster).
BW-101m. Closed Captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold

Sources:

Michael Druxman, Paul Muni: His Life and Films

Jerome Lawrence, Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni

James Robert Parish, Tough Guys

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