Wednesday, December 6, 2023

One Mile from Heaven (Allan Dwan, 1937)


About as eventfully varied as any 67-minute movie you’ll ever see, Allan Dwan’s One Mile from Heaven has Claire Trevor as Tex, a reporter who takes an unplanned trip to Harlem and then starts fixating on Sunny, the Shirley Temple-lookalike daughter of Flora, a Black mother (Fredi Washington). Tex instigates a juvenile court proceeding to investigate Sunny’s parentage, and the newspaper coverage of the case triggers a long-dormant history involving a convict father and a now well-connected mother who believed her child to be dead. The film is a fascinating melange of the progressive and patronizing: to take just a couple of examples, the Black community exhibits a distinct lack of rancour toward Tex’s meddling, accepting her actions mainly as the natural excesses of a newspaper woman and downplaying the obvious element of race-based prurience; the narrative ultimately works its way to a sort of proposed co-parenting arrangement, but one in which Flora will plainly only be marginalized over time, given the vast disparity in economic power and social connection. The film generally views Black culture in terms of prettified otherness: the depiction of Harlem, with its teeming streets and hoards of kids running outside to watch the dancing neighbourhood policeman (Bill Robinson), seems to place it as close to toytown as to heaven (Washington’s inherent dignity and gravity make her a general exception to such trivialization). Still, Dwan avoids the worst potential pitfalls, and at times appears to be grasping for something genuinely and idealistically radical; Robinson’s dance numbers are valuable on their own terms, and if it’s hard to see his persona as that of a beat cop, it's notable that he’s not merely a comic relief, but is treated as a credible and considerate moderating presence. On top of all that, the film includes strands of screwball comedy (mainly involving Tex continually getting the best of rival reporters) and of gangster melodrama, all melded together with no-nonsense efficiency and know-how.

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