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The taglines for Slightly Honorable (1939) screamed "It's Gay! It's Goose-pimply! It's Grand! It's Ga-Ga!" and "You've Never Met Such People!" The tagline should have read: "It's Unusual!" From the beginning, Slightly Honorable is a strange blend of drama and comedy that moves along at a breakneck pace. A shot of a placid beach with a palm tree opens the film, with the words, "Eight thousands miles to the southward lies a tiny island paradise - far from the greed, the graft, and the corruption that harass our modern civilization." Another title card comes up that says in bold letters, "...But that's 8000 Miles Away!" The scene changes to a funeral procession, with the pallbearers including corrupt politician Vincent Cushing (Edward Arnold in another of his villainous roles) and crusading lawyers John Webb (Pat O'Brien) and Russ Sampson (a young Broderick Crawford). The rivalry between Webb and Cushing heats up when socialite Alma Brehmer (Claire Dodd) is murdered and Cushing tries to pin the murder on Webb. To clear his name, Webb has to find the killer. Complicating things is a daffy, eighteen-year-old nightclub singer who talks a mile a minute and has an alarming tendency to take her clothes off at the drop of a hat (Ruth Terry). Also in the cast are Eve Arden, as Webb's secretary, Phyllis Brooks as Cushing's daughter, and the always under-used Willie Best as an elevator operator.
Slightly Honorable was another film in the partnership of producer Walter Wanger and director Tay Garnett through Walter Wanger Productions, shot on the Universal Studios lot and released through United Artists. Unfortunately, the film destroyed that partnership due to Wanger's editing. Garnett wrote in his autobiography Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, that the final print bore very little resemblance to the film he shot. "My pal, Ken Englund, sweated out a very funny script with a fresh, flippant, sophisticated approach to the standard murder mystery. Actually, Ken's treatment was several years ahead of its time [...] Our cast for Coffin was made to order for that sort of lighthearted homicide; Eve Arden, Pat O'Brien, Broderick Crawford (he was habit-forming) and Alan Dinehart. Everything seemed to click; we finished well ahead of schedule and budget - which should have warned me. With a feeling of 'Well done', I humored myself and went to bed with a ten-Kleenex case of flu. Wanger agreed to finish off the final odds and ends of the picture while I decided whether to live or go the easy way. Possibly Walter made his promise to me in a daze, because he was getting ready to elope with Joan Bennett, a situation likely to upset any man's equilibrium. "
Garnett, accompanied by his wife, Helga, Pat O'Brien, and Broderick Crawford, travelled to San Francisco to premiere Slightly Honorable in a theater owned by a man Garnett both liked and respected. However, when the owner met them in the theater lobby, Garnett knew something was wrong. "'You dirty double-crossing s.o.b.,' [the theater owner] said, touching all bases. 'I bought this picture as Send Another Coffin. What in hell was the idea of changing the title to Slightly Honorable? That won't sell matinee ticket No. 1.' I stood there with my chin resting on my second shirt button. 'I don't know what you're talking about,' was all I could say, remembering that several years earlier there had been a Broadway play, followed by a successful film entitled Strictly Dishonorable . It had been a comedy-drama light years removed from our sophisticated whodunnit. The theater owner showed us to the cheap seats, growling, 'You'll know what I'm talking about after you've taken a look at your own private disaster.' What we saw was a badly mutilated, un-funny comedy. It had been cut with a jigsaw and reassembled with a Mixmaster. It was AWFUL. One hundred and fifty prints had been made and were en route to theatres; one hundred and fifty catastrophes bearing my name as director."
Garnett, with a fever of 103, rode back to Los Angeles and let Wanger have it with both barrels. "I was sick; I was furious. I should have ordered Helga to bind and gag me for two weeks, at which time I could have handled the situation sensibly. As it was, I telephoned Walter and outlined my feelings in detail, beginning, 'Look here, you sneaky, double-crossing sonavabitch...' From there on, the conversation became personal. I realized exactly how bad Slightly Honorable must be when the officer at United Artists' gate (the man who had been parking my car) asked me for identification one morning. It was many years before Wanger and I agreed to settle for a draw."
The hatchet job Wanger had done was obvious to the critics, like Bosley Crowther of The New York Times who wrote, "To Loew's State has come one of the season's more confused whodunnits, Slightly Honorable by name, and on the evidence no one seems to have been more mystified than the author or the director. [...] Somewhere behind the murders and impromptu mayhem there is the congested tale of rivalry between Pat O'Brien, as a not too scrupulous attorney, and Edward Arnold, as a big-time crook, over matters both political and romantic. But though the plot thickens, it never congeals. Nor are the actors helpful. With the exception of outspoken Mr. Arnold, most of those in the cast deliver the lines as if they were private asides."
Producer: Tay Garnett
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Ken Englund, John Hunter Lay, Robert Tallman, based on the novel Send Another Coffin by F.G. Presnell
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Editing: Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen
Music: Werner Janssen
Cast: Pat O'Brien (John Webb), Edward Arnold (Vincent Cushing), Broderick Crawford (Russ Sampson), Ruth Terry (Nightclub singer), Alan Dinehart (District Attorney Joyce), Claire Dodd (Alma Brehmer), Eve Arden (Miss Ater).
BW-95m. Closed Captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Crowther, Bosley "'Slightly Honorable,' With Pat O'Brien and Edward Arnold, at Loew's State" The New York Times 17 May 40
Garnett, Tay and Balling, Fredda Dudley Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights
The Internet Movie Database
Reid, John Howard, Film Noir, Detective, and Mystery Movies on DVD: A Guide to the Best in Suspense