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Luli Deste

 

 

THUNDER IN THE CITY

Columbia, 1937.  Directed by Marion Gering.  Camera:  Alfred Gilks.  With Edward G. Robinson, Luli Deste, Nigel Bruce, Constance Collier, Ralph Richardson, Arthur Wontner, Nancy Burne, Annie Esmond, Cyril Raymond, Elizabeth Inglis, James Carew, Everley Gregg, Donald Calthrop, Billy Bray, Elliott Nugent.

Edward G Robinson is remembered for playing snarling gangsters and other tough guys, but in real life he was a very cultured man, a collector of art and antiques. (Robinson acquired a Van Gogh before that artist was well-known.)  Thunder in the City is a low-budget film that Robinson made in England, playing a fairly normal person for once.  I wanted to like this movie, as it brought back memories for me of the one occasion when I met Robinson (in London, when he was buying antiques in the Portobello Road).  Sadly, despite the presence of an excellent cast and a good performance by Robinson, this film is not very entertaining.

Despite its low budget, Thunder in the City opens with an extremely impressive montage by Ned Mann, and offers several other impressive montages throughout the movie.  Those montages are the best things in this film.  The single biggest problem is that Thunder in the City (with its overly dramatic title) can't seem to figure out what sort of movie it wants to be.  This material has the general pacing and feel of a comedy, but it isn't funny, and it's not quite engaging enough to be a drama.  A previous IMDB poster has compared this movie to Beat the Devil.  Sorry, but Thunder in the City hasn't got one percent of the wit of that film.

Robinson takes centre stage as Dan Armstrong, a high-pressure publicity agent in charge of the New York campaign for a motorcar called the Straight 8.  (He doesn't seem to be bothered that the car has an illegible logo.)  When the ad campaign fizzles, Armstrong's bosses pressure him into resigning because they haven't the bottle to sack him outright.  One of Armstrong's bosses tells him that he could learn from the example of the English, who were so efficient in acquiring Suez.  (No comment.)  This prompts Armstrong to recall his prankster grandfather, an Englishman who fled to America in disgrace after he stole a mummy out of the British Museum and smuggled it into the front bench in the House of Lords.  Now, Armstrong conveniently recalls that he still has relatives in England, and even though he's never met them he assumes they'll be delighted if he pops round for a visit.  (Frankly, Edward G Robinson doesn't look as if his ancestors came from the sceptered isle.)

Armstrong's relations are the Duke and Duchess of Glenarvon, lounging about in Challoner Hall, which has been the family home for 20 generations.  They've got titles and bloodlines but no money. (This is the most plausible part of the movie.) When they learn that Armstrong is coming to visit, they assume he's wealthy and that he plans to buy Challoner Hall.  Young relative Dolly eagerly hopes that she'll be able to land a rich husband.  (Dolly is played by Elizabeth Inglis, who would soon land a very rich husband indeed; in real life, she married the president of NBC television and became the mother of Sigourney Weaver.)

When Armstrong shows up on their doorstep, we get the usual hackneyed Our American Cousin situations, contrasting a brash Yank with some buttoned-up British bluebloods.  When the Glenarvons inquire into the fate of Armstrong's grandfather, Robinson has the only funny line in this movie:  "It was his ambition to be an inmate in every state in the Union.  But he died before he got to South Dakota."

Armstrong has a "meet cute" scene with Lady Patricia: nice work by her stunt double here, as Lady Pat falls off her horse.  Lady Patricia is supposed to be an English blueblood, but she's played by untalented Austrian actress Luli Deste with an accent full of wienerschnitzel.  There's a line of dialogue to explain that Lady Pat has spent a lot of time in Vienna.  Luli Deste's scenes are so painful to watch (and listen to) that she ruins the few merits this film possesses.  The movie would have made more sense if Elizabeth Inglis and Luli Deste had swapped roles during rehearsal.

Learning that the Glenarvons' investments are all tied up in Rhodesian mines, Armstrong whips up a publicity campaign for a 'miracle metal' called Magnalite (it might as well be McGuffinite) that these mines allegedly produce.  Soon, he has a veritable South Seas Bubble on his hands, as English working-class folk (with bad Cockney accents) queue up to invest their savings in this sure-fire deal.  (When you see Sid, tell him not to bother.)

Speaking of bad accents, the English actors who play Americans in this film (mostly in the early scenes) aren't very believable.  Veteran film composer Miklos Rozsa has never impressed me, yet here he surpasses himself by bringing in every possible musical cliche.  When Robinson arrives in England, the soundtrack plays "Land of Hope and Glory".  When he visits a funfair, the soundtrack plays 'The Loveliest Time of the Year'...the same waltz music that shows up in almost every movie featuring a scene at the circus or carnival.  The ending of the film manages to be very sudden and extremely muddled.

There are good things in Thunder in the City, but they're few and far between.  Nigel Bruce gives a good performance as the Duke of Glenarvon; I wish I could say as much for the annoying Constance Collier as his wife.  I've savoured Ralph Richardson's distinctive performances elsewhere, but here he merely takes up space.  Fans of Edward G Robinson who want to see this movie should be forewarned that Robinson does nothing here that he didn't do much more skilfully in almost any of his Hollywood films. I'll rate Thunder in the City only 3 out of 10, mostly for those delicious montages—which belong in a better movie—and for that one impressive stunt-doubling when Lady Patricia comes a cropper.

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F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre