Ben Hecht was one of the most successful screenwriters working in Hollywood in the 1930s, and on some films his talents also extended to producing and directing. Angels Over Broadway was one such film, co-produced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr and co-directed by Lee Garmes in 1940. At the time, many critics were offended by the film’s honest portrayal of the seamy underbelly of the Broadway fantasy, but it is this gritty realism that allows Angels Over Broadway to stand up to modern viewing much better than many of its more sugar-coated contemporaries.
The film is also of interest because it stars a young Rita Hayworth in an early role, before she became a screen siren. Her touching portrayal of a good-time girl who forgoes gold-digging to help a suicidal stranger instead was hailed for the innocent heart she reveals under the showgirl exterior. Douglas Fairbanks Jr, already a rising action star, won new fans for his dramatic acting in Angels Over Broadway, playing a shady con artist with a conscience who also joins the redemption project.
Embezzlement, Despair and Misdirected Cons
Fairbanks plays Bill O’Brien, a con man spending a rainy evening in a Broadway nightclub, looking for a rich mark to deliver to a crooked poker game run by gangsters, in return for a commission from the crooks. He thinks he’s found his target when he sees Charles Engle tipping extravagantly. But Engle is actually a salaried employee who has been found out after embezzling $3,000 from his company. He has written a suicide note, and is on a last spree before killing himself.
Engle is played by John Qualen, an often under-rated actor who played several great put-upon characters in films like The Grapes of Wrath and The Devil and Daniel Webster. Showgirl Nina, played by Hayworth, mistakes him for the club owner and flirts with him, in the hopes that he will hire her as a dancer. With Nina’s help, O’Brien manages to talk Engle into the rigged card game.
Enter the Playwright
Meanwhile, washed-up alcoholic playwright Gene Gibbons enters the picture. Once a Pulitzer-winning dramatist, he is in the club drowning his sorrows after his latest play has joined his recent string of flops. Through a coat mix-up, he finds Engle’s suicide note and convinces O’Brien and Nina to instead help Engle win the crooked game, so that he can return the money to his employers and call off his suicide.
Gibbons is played by Thomas Mitchell, most famous for playing Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With The Wind. His performance was another one singled out for praise among reviewers who did enjoy Angels Over Broadway, and he is in fine ranting style as he wades through Hecht’s drunken dialogue.
Happy Endings All Round
Despite the dramatic theme and sinister plot, Angels Over Broadway finishes on an upbeat, happy ending. Engle gets the money to clear his name, Gibbons wakes up sober and determined to reform his life, and Nina and O’Brien finally realise the mutual attraction they have for each other, and embrace.
Apart from its positive denouement, Angels Over Broadway is worth a watch to see Rita Hayworth as a simple girl-next-door, rather than a femme fatale. Her quirky Brooklyn delivery is thought by many to have inspired Marilyn Monroe’s breathy vocal style, used whenever she had to play an unsophisticated character with a heart of gold.