Jul 23, 2019

On DVD: Judith Anderson is Lady Scarface (1941)

Lady Scarface (1941) is entertaining, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of its title and star. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, I went into this crime thriller expecting Judith Anderson to dominate the action as the titular criminal. This was not the case, and it was hard not to pine for what could have been.

A year after her career-defining performance as Ms. Danvers in Rebecca (1941), Judith Anderson is suitably tough and commanding as lady gang leader Slade. Every time she appears, there’s that electrical anticipation of things getting a little more operatic. She doesn’t have enough screen time to build her character though. You spend most of the running time wondering when she’s coming back.

I also couldn’t help wishing that this film had been made in the pre-code era with Anderson still in the lead. As a less glamorous version of the kind of gangster character Joan Blondell played in Blondie Johnson (1933), she would have been dynamite. As it is, she only appeared in Blood Money (1933) during that era and didn’t really break into the movies until Rebecca, after which she alternated between film, television, and the stage for the rest of her career.

Most of the action revolves around a police lieutenant (Dennis O’Keefe) and newspaper reporter (Frances Neal) who are investigating Slade’s crimes. The plot full of mistaken identity, scams, and scheming is reminiscent of Wanted! Jane Turner (1936), a mildly entertaining thriller, but that film had a bit more sizzle between its leads Lee Tracy and Gloria Stuart. O’Keefe and Neal are cute enough together, though they might have been more engaging if, again, I weren’t constantly wondering when Anderson was coming back.

Overall this is an engaging film that moves along nicely, but it’s impossible to ignore that it doesn’t live up to its potential as a vehicle for Anderson.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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