The Hoodlum Saint
The Hoodlum Saint (1946) is about as far from Esther Williams‘ usual movies as you can get. It’s a costume drama set in the 1920s, not a contemporary musical comedy, and it was filmed in black and white, not glorious Technicolor. Strong religious themes replace the light comedy and romance of a typical Williams vehicle, and finally, there are no swimming scenes at all! Though some publicity materials did feature Williams in a bathing suit. Why not?
The film was reportedly based on Dempster McMurphy, a Chicago businessman in the 1920s and ’30s who started a Saint Dismas charity. MGM had been planning to make this movie since 1943, but the project stalled until 1945 when William Powell and Williams were cast. Angela Lansbury, who had already been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), filled out the love triangle. MGM assigned Norman Taurog to direct, and filming began at the end of June 1945 and continued until September 25.
Fun fact: Williams had just finished shooting Easy to Wed (1946) when she worked on The Hoodlum Saint. Easy to Wed was a remake of one of William Powell’s films, Libeled Lady (1936), and I wonder if they ever discussed the movies!
To the film! We open in 1919 in Baltimore as soldiers return home from WWI. Among them is Major Terry O’Neill (William Powell), who hopes to return to his life as a newspaper reporter. But his paper isn’t hiring, and neither is anyone else. Terry isn’t alone in this dismal situation: all around him are unemployed veterans desperate for jobs (a timely commentary when the film was released in 1946). You can watch the opening scene here.
Terry’s situation gets more dire when he uses his savings to bail out three of his hoodlum friends. That’s Fishface (Rags Ragland), Snarp (James Gleason), and Three Finger (Frank McHugh, who also worked with Powell in I Love You Again (1940)). Terry ran around with this vaguely criminal crew before the war, and they find him as soon as he returns to Baltimore.
After spending his last dollars on his friends, Terry visits a parish house looking for work, but all the priest can offer is shelter and a meal. Terry can’t bring himself to accept charity, so instead he rushes off to crash a society wedding. He doesn’t just want to party; he hopes to weasel a job out of one of the rich men in attendance.
A guard at the wedding becomes suspicious when he sees Terry arrive, so the bold Major kisses the first woman he sees to convince the guard he belongs there. The lucky (?) lady is Kay Morrison (Esther Williams). Once he releases her from the smooch, she smacks him across the face.
Fun fact: Williams didn’t hold back when she slapped Powell because the director insisted there was no way to fake it. But it was a little too real—gossip columnist Louella Parsons wrote that Williams’ “haymaker” “cracked Bill Powell’s teeth and left him groggy when she socked him,” but Esther remembered it differently.
She says in her autobiography that when she smacked Powell with her swimmer’s strength, one side of his face collapsed and she thought he was having a stroke. But Powell just gave her a lopsided smile while the makeup crew rushed onto the set. Unbeknownst to Williams, Powell performed with the 1940s version of an instant face lift: a network of rubber bands lifting and tightening his face. When she hit him, she broke some of the bands and that side of his face fell to its normal position.
Kay forgives Terry for the kiss when she hears why he crashed the wedding, and she introduces him to her uncle, a newspaper publisher. You can watch the scene here.
By the time he leaves the wedding, Terry has a job as a reporter on Joe Lorrison’s paper. Kay works there, too, writing a society column. The new colleagues quickly become pals and their relationship grows into something more. Terry even forgives Kay for signing him up for a dance marathon.
But Terry isn’t content with his job. After months of writing negative columns about East Coast Commodities and its founder, Lewis Malbery, Terry quits the paper and goes to New York to get a job with said company. It’s a bold play, but Terry hopes that Malbery will be intrigued enough to hire him, and might even value such a strong critic’s perspective.
And he’s right! Malbery hires Terry to help him run the company, and soon Terry rises through the ranks.
Meanwhile, Terry tries to forget about Kay and instead turns his attention to a sultry singer at his favorite cafe. Dusty (Angela Lansbury) adores him, but she senses that he isn’t quite over a previous love. Fun fact: although Angela Lansbury would often sing in her career on screen and on stage, her songs in this movie were dubbed by Doreen Tryden.
As Terry becomes a tycoon and romances Dusty, he still has to deal with his three ne’er do well pals. They followed him from Baltimore, and once Terry started raking in the big bucks he bought them a pool hall, hoping that they would stop asking for money if they had their own business. But the plan hasn’t worked, and Terry is tired of repeatedly rescuing his permanently down-on-their-luck friends.
And then there’s Kay. After yet another big promotion, Terry realizes that all of his money and power can’t make him happy, so he rushes back to Baltimore to propose to Kay. But his timing stinks: he shows up on the morning of her wedding to another man. Though her outfit says “elevator operator” more than “bride.”
Kay still seems to love Terry, but she’s also very tired of waiting for him, so she goes through with the wedding. Terry returns to New York pretty bummed out. But Dusty is there with open arms. You can watch the scene here.
Adding to Terry’s troubles is the news that Snarp is in jail yet again. Fish Face and Three Fingers come to Terry’s office to ask for bail money, but Terry refuses. He has finally had it with these hoodlums. But instead of leaving Snarp to find his own way out of jail, Terry comes up with a plan. He visits Snarp and tells him the story of Saint Dismas, the “Hoodlum Saint,” also known as the “Penitent Thief” or the “Good Thief,” who was crucified with Jesus but repented just before he died. Terry suggests that Snarp pray to Saint Dismas for help because the Hoodlum Saint specializes in reformed criminals.
Snarp is skeptical, but he does as Terry advises, and the next morning he is released. He doesn’t realize that Terry secretly paid his bail, and instead praises Saint Dismas for a miracle.
Terry’s Saint Dismas plan works beautifully and soon all of his criminal friends believe in the Hoodlum Saint. They even start a charity in the saint’s name to help struggling families. Meanwhile, Terry laughs at their gullibility as he counts his money in his penthouse.
A few years later, a now-widowed Kay comes to New York to see Terry. At first her visit goes great. She is proud of his rise at East Coast Commodities, where he is now “Executive Vice President,” and he is delighted to see her.
Terry even takes her to the Hoodlum Saint charity, and Kay is very impressed.
Afterwards, Kay meets Dusty, but she doesn’t get flustered during the confrontation. Another bold move, Terry.
And Kay loves Terry’s penthouse apartment with its gorgeous city views.
But as they talk that night, Terry admits that he doesn’t believe in Saint Dismas, and only told his friends about the saint as a gag. Kay is disgusted, and only becomes more upset when she realizes that all Terry cares about is making money. So she runs back to Baltimore.
Then Dusty falls out with Terry, too, because she knows that he will always love Kay more than he loves her. So he’s lost both women. And then the stock market crashes! It’s 1929, and Terry’s company, along with his personal fortune, crumbles. He’s having a rough time.
Terry loses his apartment and all the trappings of his fancy life. Fortunately, he is able to find a job as a reporter. And although Terry still doesn’t believe in Saint Dismas, he can’t quite let the idea go, so he writes a series of articles about the saint and the charity his friends started, which causes donations to skyrocket.
Then he falls ill and recuperates at a Catholic retreat. Get it? Even though he tries to outrun Saint Dismas and the Church, he can’t escape!
Eventually, Kay shows up at the retreat with bad news: Dusty has taken over the Saint Dismas charity and intends to run away with all of the money. She’s even managed to convince a few of Terry’s old friends to help her. Apparently, she was more upset about her unrequited love for Terry than she let on.
Terry rushes back to New York to stop the fraud. Along the way, he undergoes a Saint Dismas “conversion” of his own, complete with prayers, a shrine, and surging music. Terry’s newfound faith convinces Dusty and the others to rerun the stolen money.
All is well! The charity is saved, Terry recovers from his illness, and he and Kay finally commit to each other. Happy endings all around!
But it almost wasn’t. In fact, in the original cut, Terry died! His death came about fifteen minutes before the movie ended, but preview audiences hated it. So MGM summoned the stars back for about ten days of reshoots in the fall of 1945. The new version features a very much alive and healthy Terry making plans for the future with Kay.
MGM hoped the new ending would improve the movie, but the reshoots weren’t enough. After filming from mid-June to mid-September, 1945, it premiered at the end of June 1946 and flopped.
A review in the Oakland Tribune was scathing, beginning with its headline “‘Hoodlum Saint’ Should be Left to Gather Dust.” The reviewer found it offensive in its religious themes, and called the whole thing “very painful:” “William Powell gives a dramatic stock performance, Esther Williams is indifferent as the heroine, Angela Lansbury does nothing of importance with a good role,” and the hoodlums are “simply incredible” (in a bad way.) “Yet as bad as the acting is, it is artistry itself in comparison with the writing…and the direction…”
Other reviews were also negative, but not quite as harsh. John L. Scott at The Los Angeles Times wrote that the movie was a “strange jumble of high finance, religion and romance,” and though it’s “well mounted and features some good actors…the material they handle is not top drawer by any means.” The New York Times concluded that “Metro obviously set out with a worthy and unusual theme. But a tediously involved plot, unwieldy dialogue, pat situations and flat characterizations add up to a somewhat jumbled and tepid drama.”
Variety echoed this assessment. Although the “technical credits are of the usual high Metro standard,” “unfoldment is never exciting. There’s no feeling of struggle in the development of the plot.” The names above the title are a draw, but the paper predicted “okay but not sock returns.”
Williams wasn’t surprised at the movie’s poor reception. She didn’t have much confidence in the film from the beginning, mostly because Taurog and other personnel involved on the project got so distracted in their efforts to make a serious, important film that they “lost sight of the need to make a movie that people would pay money to see.”
She also wrote that many of the love scenes between Kay and Terry were cut because audiences didn’t like the May-December romance (Williams and Powell both celebrated birthdays during filming: she turned 24 and he turned 53), which only added to the movie’s confusing plot.
Although today the movie is known as a legendary flop in Esther Williams’ filmography, contemporary reviews were mostly positive about her performance, and instead blamed the script for the film’s problems. Basically, it may not be a great movie, but it’s not all her fault.
Variety’s review noted Esther’s atypical role: “Film gives Esther Williams fans a chance to see their favorite in something other than a musical…” and she “thoroughly pleases as the girl who loves but spurns Powell…” The New York Times review was positive, too: “Esther Williams, as attractive in clothes as she is in bathing suits, is beautiful as the lady Powell ultimately wins, while Angela Lansbury, as the other woman in his life, is equally fetching and sings two dated ballads well.”
Still, MGM seemed to think it made a mistake by deviating from its “Esther Williams” formula. They wouldn’t mess with it again, and her next film, Fiesta (1947) was even more colorful and escapist than her previous musicals.