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In A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Edward G. Robinson plays a beer baron who has made a fine living as a bootlegger. The problem is, his beer tastes awful, and he was only able to sell the stuff because it was illegal. (He wouldn't know this because he's never tasted it.) With the repeal of Prohibition, his sales plummet, but he is determined to save his business and enter high society legitimately. Comic chaos ensues, with a houseful of corpses figuring prominently along the way. ("The things you can do with four corpses" turn out to be even funnier than the things you can do with one.)
In 1938, of course, Robinson's persona was still that of tough gangster - his Little Caesar (1931) had not only spawned many knockoffs (starring Robinson and others), it had become THE prototype for gangster portrayals. Robinson had started to become typecast, but A Slight Case of Murder added a new twist to the public's perception of him - that of comedy actor. The beauty of the movie was that while Robinson spoofed his own image, he still provided enough seriousness to make him believable in the role. As one review put it, "gangsters can be made to appear comical as well as tough." And so could Edward G. Robinson.
Robinson had done another gangster spoof with a similar plot a few years earlier, The Little Giant (1933), but this one was so much funnier that it remained one of the most satisfying light roles of his career. In his memoir, Robinson stated simply, "I had absolutely no fault to find with the script because it was beautifully constructed and very funny." That script was based on a Damon Runyon/Howard Lindsay play which had flopped on Broadway. As a movie, however, it worked beautifully, no doubt due largely to Robinson's spoofing abilities. (A 1952 remake entitled Stop, You're Killing Me starred Broderick Crawford.)
Audiences and critics loved it. "One of the funniest and most satisfying farces [to] come out of Hollywood in some time," said the New York Herald-Tribune. Variety called it "a mirthful and hilarious whimsy. Takes the one-time big gangster audience for a box-office ride in reverse gear. Lloyd Bacon directs with a fine sense of humor and a swift pace."
Indeed, much credit also obviously went to that solid craftsman Lloyd Bacon, one of the most prolific and reliable directors of the era. Bacon had started as an actor, playing Chaplin's foil in many short comedies, and he started directing shorts in 1921 for Mack Sennett. Working with Sennett allowed Bacon to hone his sense of timing, something that shows in his later features, especially the comedies like this one. Bacon brought his breezy style and superb pace to everything he made, in all genres, but he remained best known for musicals and comedies. He would work with Robinson twice more, on Brother Orchid (1940) and Larceny, Inc. (1942).
Some cast notes: John Litel, who plays Post, was the type of dependable character actor that sadly doesn't exist anymore. He appeared in almost 200 films from 1929-1966, and A Slight Case of Murder was one of 13 films he made in 1938 alone! Leading lady Jane Bryan appeared in 18 films during her four-year Hollywood career, including the classics Each Dawn I Die (1939) and The Old Maid (1939). She retired from the screen in 1940 to marry the president of Rexall Drugs and is currently 85 years old.
Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Earl W. Baldwin, Joseph Schrank, Howard Lindsay (play), Damon Runyon (play)
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Film Editing: James Gibbon
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: M.K. Jerome
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Remy Marco), Jane Bryan (Mary Marco), Allen Jenkins (Mike), Ruth Donnelly (Nora Marco), Willard Parker (Dick Whitewood), John Litel (Post).
by Jeremy Arnold