The Hoodlum Saint (1946, Norman Taurog)

The Hoodlum Saint is a surprisingly long ninety-four minutes, though since it takes place over eleven years (at least), I suppose some plodding is to be expected. There’s plenty not to be expected about Hoodlum Saint, starting with the time period. It begins in 1919, with a fifty-four-year-old William Powell returning from the Great War to discover, well, son, if it was up to me….

He was a newspaperman, which for a bit seems like Saint is going to be a newspaper picture. It’s not.

Once he doesn’t get his job back—an uncredited Will Wright plays the editor, establishing Saint’s going to reunite Powell with a half dozen (at least) MGM or Thin Man costars—but once he doesn’t get his job back, we find out Powell’s friends with the local hoods. The film starts in Baltimore. James Gleason, Rags Ragland, Frank McHugh, and Slim Summerville play the hoods. Gleason’s the boss and has something of a story arc (directly related to the title, no less), while the rest are just comic relief. McHugh disappears for a large portion of the second act… then Ragland disappears for a large part of the third act. They’re all fine. Nothing wrong with Saint is any of the actors’ faults.

So then it seems like it’s going to be some kind of crime picture; Powell heads with the hoods down to the local Catholic Church, where he tells off the priest; he’s in it for number one now. Only then it’s this strange business comedy where Powell enlists the hoods’ help in… getting him into a wedding party so he can hobnob with the wealthy and beg a job off one.

Except before he can meet a rich guy, he meets Esther Williams. He’s crashing the party and kisses her to throw off suspicion. Williams is twenty-five. Not in the movie; they never discuss the pronounced age difference, but Powell’s at least supposed to be in his thirties, possibly forties, given how they old age make-up him by the end. It’s so obvious you think they’re going to comment on it.

They never comment on it. It’s also not going to be a romantic comedy about coworkers—Williams works at the paper where Powell gets a job after meeting her. He’s really just interested in it so he can go off and become a millionaire in New York City. That ambition works out for Powell, except the hoods all come along because Baltimore’s no fun without him (bailing them out of jail); Williams stays. Their relationship is so chaste at this point, it’s not even for sure she’s the romantic interest.

In New York City, Powell catches the eye of the even more inappropriately aged Angela Lansbury; she’s a club singer. Lansbury’s twenty-one. I guess she also ages a decade throughout, though she disappears for long stretches because Powell’s love interests aren’t crucial to the main plot. The main plot—at what must be halfway through the movie because Powell’s already a wealthy businessman—involves St. Dismas, the Good Thief from the crucifixion, who is, you guessed it, the hoodlum’s Saint. Powell wants to prank Gleason instead of just bailing him out, so he has the other hoods pretend they’ve been converted, then Lansbury’s going to bail him out with the name Dismas.

Gleason will become a changed man over the next few years, dedicating himself to charity work.

And then the stock market. Because by 1929, double millionaire Powell convinces all the working stiffs to play the stock market. Also, he’s given up on Williams, who couldn’t wait forever for him.

So, the stock market crash will cause Powell severe emotional distress, and it’s going to get him into the third act, where Hoodlum Saint becomes an “atheist sees the light” movie. With Hays Code constraints.

It’s a very, very weird movie. And never anywhere near as good as it ought to be with the cast. While Powell and Williams can banter, both comedically and dramatically, director Taurog’s shockingly bad at directing their scenes. Hoodlum Saint ought to be easy studio fodder; instead, it’s clunky and meandering. The parts are too thin, but the acting’s universally solid. Powell, Williams, Gleason, Lansbury. The script—from James Hill and Frank Wead—does them no favors.

Terrible, silly music from Nathaniel Shilkret (like slide whistle sounds) does a lot of damage, but Ray June’s photography is good. Unfortunately, Ferris Webster’s editing is not, but it appears to be more lack of good footage from Taurog.

Hoodlum Saint is a tedious movie with an excellent cast reduced to middling performances thanks to the script and direction.


One Comment

  1. Michaela

    Yeah, The Hoodlum Saint is definitely not great. I enjoy the performances (did William Powell ever give a bad one?) and I love seeing Esther in dramatic mode, but the movie just isn’t up to snuff and it’s disappointing that MGM used its failure to justify never giving Esther another drama as if she were the reason it didn’t get off the ground.

    Thanks for contributing to my blogathon!

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