King of the Roaring Twenties, 1961. 6/10

The ’20s, like the ’50s and ’60s, have gotten plenty of popular attention. The signature for the Roaring ’20s, unlike the suburban conformity and counterculture of the latter decades, is organized crime. So, here’s a bit of historical fiction, based on ’20s gangster Arnold Rothstein (David Janssen), most infamous as the fixer of the 1919 World Series.

Sharing screen time are Arnold’s wife Carolyn (Diane Foster), ‘Big Tim’ O’Brien (Jack Carson), Lenny (Robert Ellenstein), Madge (Diana Dors), Detective Phil Butler (Dan O’Herlihy), Jim Kelly (Mickey Shaughnessy), and even Mickey Rooney, as Johnny Burke.

Right off, Arnold gets a $250k payoff from a tobacco merchant. Then, a flashback: young Arnold is picked up for gambling by Butler; it’s clear that the cop is on the take, but Arnold is already fixed on the wrong side of the law. Johnny is the bad influence, running crap games and such. So, the two street urchins start scheming…Quickly, though, back to the present; the guys (now young adults), go to see O’Brien about protection. “What do you punks got [to protect]?” He inquires.

Well, a betting ring. O’Brien, in cahoots with Butler, gets the “punks” shut down. No big deal, as Arnold is soon trading stocks. Perhaps not legally. Slyly, Arnold offers to run a bail-bond deal if Butler will tip him off about upcoming raids. Oh, well, no dice.

Arnold gets introduced to Carolyn at a club; he’s a bit nervy, and creepy as well. Nonetheless, she soon falls for him. Things look even better when O’Brien figures that ‘Arnie’ makes the perfect partner for his new swanky club. That’s two big steps that happen rather miraculously. The only problem for Arnold is that O’Brien insists he dump Burke. The new partner is Butler’s pal, Jim Kelly; that apparently squares another angle for Arnold.

Johnny isn’t exactly cool with that. Turns out Jim’s best skill is drinking. Butler comes calling on the lout. Interestingly, the cop tells Kelly that Arnold is skimming off the top, and favoring friends at the table. Boldly, Kelly decides to take $40k from the safe. Soon enough, Arnold gets the details of this betrayal.

Next thing up: he confronts Jim about the stolen money. “I wouldn’t go in on a hotdog stand with you!” burbles Jim. Arnold plays his best card–officially Jim dissolves the partnership–the cunning result is that drunk-aholic Jim actually just made Arnold $80k.

Taking Carolyn home, it’s obvious that the romance has ramped up. Madge tries to talk her out of marrying Arnold, but she ain’t listening “I’m going to marry him just the same.” Now Arnold brings Carolyn to meet the folks. They seek approval. Dad has reservations, he even expects her to convert; she won’t. Her display of faith nonetheless impresses dad.

At the track, Arnold’s up to some scam with the horses. He wants multiple bettors to put money down (he fronts the money) so he can exceed the limit on a 30-1 horse. The horse is trailered in behind a big Pierce-Arrow sedan. Unfortunately, since they’re speeding, the cops give chase.

Thanks to Arnold’s influence (more magic dust), he gets escorted in by the very same cops. Well, it all works out–their horse wins. [I admit, my earlier explanation doesn’t get us out of the gate. I have no idea how the deal works. Possibly the long odds were on a lousy horse that isn’t really running, so they trucked-in another horse that’s more like a 3 to 1 shoe-in than the nominal 30 to 1.]

A “situation” comes up. That is, a raid–thanks to Kelly’s retaliation, abetted by Butler. Now, O’Brien abandons the club. Anyway, another deal is in the works–Butler and Arnie are the new partners. On the face of it, nothing’s really changed. What’s going on at home? Carolyn is a bit unhappy about Arnie running off every night to fix this or that.

In an alley, Johnny gets talked down to by Butler–and then roughed up. Arnie feels guilty about it; but he doesn’t want Johnny going to journalist Bill Baird (Regis Toomey) with a dirty-cop expose. Arnie meets up with Bill at the club. Looks like Butler is running the story anyway. Butler can “beat the rap” if he gets to Johnny; honorably, Arnie’s protecting his old pal.

Johnny shows up at Arnie’s–he doesn’t want to testify–just get outa town. Strangely, Arnie wants him to go to the grand jury. This is probably the best scene yet, with real pathos “you want me to beg?” pleads Johnny, asking for a few Gs. Well, Arnie coughs up some loose bills, but that’s it. Johnny takes off. But on the street he’s vulnerable.

Uh-oh, lurking in a Packard touring car are some thugs; Johnny’s shot to bits. Arnie wants attorney Tom Fowler (Keenan Wynn) to give up the mastermind behind the gunmen. He makes Tom an offer he can’t refuse. Butler is convicted, and sentenced to death (yet another deux ex machina). Carolyn has a fitting comment “how can you [Arnie] gloat so over a man’s death?”

Then she drops the hammer: she’s going to leave him. (Also hammered in is that Madge’s prophecy about Arnie neglecting her comes true). He’s taken aback, but sort of gets it, “If you leave me, I’ve got nothing.” Now, O’Brien takes him to task for raking over all the speakeasys and casinos by letting Baird blow the whistle (not to mention that both Burke and Butler are collateral damage).

Now Tom is getting disbarred for his part in fingering Butler. Arnie’s persona non grata all over town. He can’t even get served in a bar, or a table at a restaurant. Finally, he finds the still-friendly Lenny. Pretty good quip at a convivial poker game–Arnie says that he fixed the San Francisco earthquake as well as the 1919 Series. He’s winning at the game, but the music starts stirring up. It looks like he has an incredible hand–a royal flush.

He never gets to play it, however. A gun blasts him from under the table. He manages to stagger down the stairs; and he makes it to the hospital. At least Lenny wasn’t the betrayer, he’s still concerned for his old friend. Even Carolyn comes to see him. He’s gonna die. The last scene shows the cops going over the fatal murder site. More dramatic music–indeed he left his cards on the table.

‘King’ isn’t very well regarded (earning only a 5.8 on IMdB). It’s not really bad; just not so good, either. The money grubbing get-rich-quick ethos, with its accompanying ill-gotten gains, is well-portrayed. I’ve no idea how correct the story is to Rothstein’s actual life–that isn’t so important to me. Strictly as a crime drama, however, there’s a couple of problems: so-so performances (Mickey Rooney’s excepted), and an overly-drawn out plot.

Actually, if it’s a 007 type of slick, suave protagonist we want, Janssen fills the bill. Maybe that persona’s not far off the mark; never mind the fact that the real Arnold Rothstein was flamboyant, not reserved. Still, given the number of fortuitous events that we see, Janssen’s smooth demeanor gives the plot a one-dimensional streak of determinism. It’s left for Rooney to supply the emotional content for both of them.

Even harder to fathom is Carolyn’s character. In the vernacular of the day, Arnie comes off as a complete heel; why would she melt just because he sends her flowers and takes her to Delmonico’s? Sure, she’ll be on easy street as opposed to a tough life as a showgirl, but she doesn’t show any misgivings about Arnie. Until–as we’re suitably forewarned–she has had enough of him.

Amongst the supporting cast, only Jim really stands out. I had a heck of a time telling Bill from Henry from Tom, for example. Other than Johnny’s last scene with Arnie, and Arnie and Carolyn’s meet-the-folks scene, there’s very little here that isn’t just fill-in-the-blanks melodrama. I would’ve traded twenty minutes of meetings and arguments for just one more scene with dramatic tension.

This is pretty decent entertainment, and captures the era quite well. No question Farmermouse dug all the vintage cars, especially the Pierce-Arrow; they did a great job getting together so many authentic, and apparently unrestored vehicles (that were already 35-40 years old by 1961). We give this Roaring-’20s-fest 6 police motorcycles. 6/10.

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