Back in the pre-TV days when the major Hollywood studios were allowed to own chains of theatres across the country to show the films they made and profit from both sides of the business, they had to keep those houses booked and so churned out a steady stream of "programmers" to fill their screens between the major "prestige" releases. Running between 60 and 90 minutes (the equivalent of TV shows today), these films were more than training grounds for later star performer and directors, they frequently provided quality work for studio people between "A List" projects. The quality varied with the studio, but RKO-Radio was one of the best and PANAMA LADY is much better than some suggest. Any fan of Lucille Ball's work should mark it as a "must see." It will strongly remind them of her better known dramatic work for director John Farrow in her next film the same year, FIVE CAME BACK.
A product of an era when the words of a screenplay mattered more than the explosions and silly chase scenes, PANAMA LADY (an RKO-Radio release now available mainly in a good print on a long out-of-print 1983 VHS release - #7001 - of a 1955 "C&C Movies for Television" print), was an above average reputed remake of an earlier pre-code/proto-Noir film about a girl caught up in the "white slave" (prostitution) trade. RKO, facing the prudish Production Code and a rising star in Lucille Ball (STAGE DOOR, ROOM SERVICE and a couple of her "Anabel" films behind her and TOO MANY GIRLS, DU BARRY WAS A LADY and BEST FOOT FORWARD still in front of her) expunged most of the references to sex in favor of timely (WWII was raging in China and would start in Europe in four months although the U.S. would hold on to its neutrality for another two and a half years) gun running and jealousy subplots and got solid dramatic performances from Lucy and her co-stars (especially Allan Lane as the good boyfriend and Donald Briggs as the bad).
Taken seriously, the 65 minute spring 1939 (May 12) release offers a lot of solid fun. The attempt at twists in the resolution of the South American plot and the O'Henry-esquire finale do come across as a little strained, but the production getting there is generally first rate after the stock footage of New York landmarks in the opening "framing" scene.
Had first tier screenwriter Michael Kanin (Garson's older brother, one film away from his Oscar winning WOMAN OF THE YEAR screenplay) worked a little harder on the last five or six minutes, the film might be far better remembered today - or was he done in by second time director Jack Hively (already having edited THE AFFAIRS OF ANABEL with Lucy and one of the SAINT films he would go on to direct) pushing too hard to finish on time and under budget? A decade later, over at Universal International, Hively was also director for one of their rare Broadway musical transfers, ARE YOU WITH IT - one of his last full Hollywood directing credits. It's one of Donald O'Connor's best performances, but also suffers from production and editing indignities which may have left a lot of good material on the cutting room floor.
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