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February on Fire: Arson, Inc. (1949)

In the throes of winter, we lean closer to the hearth with this month's fire theme.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: The poster bills this as a “sensational expose of the firebug racket”, and while that may be up for debate, what isn’t is that Arson Inc. is the story of a fire fighter (Robert Lowery) in Los Angeles that is promoted to the arson detail, investigating a fire in a fur store that the man that he replaced was killed digging into. Something seems suspicious, naturally, so Joe and his girlfriend, Jane (he met her babysitting for the suspected arsonist, by the way, no big deal. Also, she’s Anne Gwynne) start being followed by Pete Purdy (Ed Brophy) on the orders of insurance agent Fred Fender, whom is involved in an insurance scheme to burn buildings in order to cash in on the insurance claims for the contents.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: The claimants also fraudulently report that the contents of the warehouse was mink when in reality the furs were from a variety of sources including rabbit which is far less valuable.

RB: Joe Martin is no dope though, so it’s easy for him to pick up on the fact that Purdy is trailing him and befriend Pete into thinking that Joe is fed up with the life of a fire fighter and looking to cash in on some ill-gotten goods. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that everything comes to a head as you’d expect and good wills out, also as you’d expect.

If this seems a little pat for a plot description, there’s likely a reason for it. This isn’t exactly a prestige picture, nor is it one that you’re likely to remember for long after you’ve seen it. If, like us, you’re itching to tune into this one, it’s probably because of the fun and familiar cast of character actors.

SG: The movie is framed by an officer looking directly into the camera and explaining arson and the story about to unfold. I found this to be unnecessary and off-putting. Are we to be treated to a propaganda film about the bravery of the police and fire departments? Is this a documentary? Luckily once the actual movie gets started, it is entertaining, fast paced and doesn't pull its punches. We are even treated to a goofy antiquated car-chase where the film is sped up for effect and someone inevitably goes over a cliff to their death. Great fun.

Arson Inc. was retitled as Firebug Squad, then back again. This title seems a bit more mature and straightforward.

Movie buffs like us will appreciate a brief scene early on outside of a movie theater where posters for other titles directed by William Berke are on display.

Also were fireman uniforms a thing? Like a police uniform worn while not fighting fires? I've never heard of such a thing.

RB: Lippert Pictures was an independent company owned by Robert Lippert, a theater chain owner that was tired of paying exorbitant rental fees to big studios and decided that he could make movies just as good, and a whole lot cheaper. He likely succeeded in the latter, but not necessarily the former.

Lippert movies are great fun if you like B’s and character actors. This one includes a host of good ones. Robert Lowery had just completed the film that he’s likely most known for today, Columbia’s Batman and Robin serial. Lowery’s career wasn’t exactly on the way up, or on the way down at this point. It just kind of…was. He was a contract player at Fox in the late 30’s and early 40’s before winding up freelancing at Monogram, Pine Thomas and a bunch of other studios, either starring in the bottom of the barrel films or having small parts in larger budget features (sometimes uncredited). It’s a shame, because he’s really pretty good and likable but is just one of those actors that could never catch a break. Those are the ones Lippert liked best.

SG: Lowery was handsome upon third glance in the traditional sense, but I found his personality to be indistinct, which is why I suspect he never found success.

RB: Another is Lowery’s costar, Anne Gwynne, who has gained some fame among monster kids for her roles in a few of the lesser Universal horror films and, like Lowery also had an appearance in a serial (Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe). Gwynne was beautiful, and I do tend to have an affinity for the kinds of films that she was featured in, so it’s difficult for me to say why her career wound up where it did by 1949. Perusing her IMDB page is basically like going through a list of movies that I like or would like to see.

SG: Gwynne is also unremarkable but sufficient in her role. I found Marcia Mae Jones to be more memorable. Her cherubic large eyes and round face contrast nicely with the bad girl she plays, a gangster's moll and a snitch. She plays drunkenness in the accepted exaggerated manner of the day. Jones was a child actress I remember well from her roles in Shirley Temple movies Heidi and The Little Princess. Unfortunately, she did not have a happy life. In her adult years she experienced extreme nerves while auditioning, endured a bad marriage, and eventually turned to alcohol for escape. After a failed suicide attempt she got the help she needed to overcome her addiction and trauma from her childhood in show business.

RB: And then there’s Byron Foulger, a man of such great magnitude that mere credits couldn’t handle the power of his thespianism. While he was often uncredited, in all seriousness, Foulger is really good in this film as the furrier suspected of torching his own warehouse. Slimy, but also kind of cowardly, in a turn from many of his roles, which seem to often be hotel clerks and bellboys…maybe high school principals. You get the picture, and there are hundreds and hundreds of roles where he pops up. It always makes me smile when he appears, especially uncredited.

SG: Motion Picture Daily said, “Despite the inevitably violent nature of much of its proceedings, Arson, Inc. is so intelligently handled that it overrides its title… Performances by the principals, including straight feminine lead Anne Gwynne, are universally good, but it is comic character actor Brophy who comes into his own with this film.”

Brophy was my favorite part of this movie. He's a bad guy, but I couldn't help but like him right from the start. He has a sense of humor, which shows he hasn't been completely hardened by the life he lives or the people he associates with. His booming voice and corpulent body make him impossible to miss. I can't prove it, but the scene with him drunk in the car seemed improvised; Gwynne seemed startled by his behavior.

Maude Eburn also makes an impression as the meddling grandmother to Gwynne's character. She is mostly used for comic effect and closes the show with a bang.

RB: As said, this isn’t the kind of movie that you watch for a cinematic experience. But if you want to spend an hour with a bunch of competent character actors, you could certainly do a lot worse. Three stars.

SG: I was thinking about my rating because my instinct was 3 stars, and that felt wrong after rating Hell's Hinges lower. But this is a solid, entertaining movie. It didn't break barriers or influence anyone to make a masterpiece later on. It didn't intend to, but it does the job it set out to do, to entertain. Three stars.

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That wonderful community of character actors is what makes Golden Age pictures, especially Bs, so special. Fun fact: One of my favorite Bs, BUY ME THAT TOWN, also features Brophy and a firebug (played by Warren Hymer). I've never seen this picture but will certainly seek it out.

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