#491: City That Never Sleeps, Or the Saga of Little Stubby

June 17th, 2015

Narrated by the city of Chicago itself, 1953′s “City That Never Sleeps” is the story of a love triangle between a cop, a night club dancer and the guy who pretends to be a robot in the club’s storefront window.

And it just gets weirder from there.

On Monday, I wrote about Odd Obsession, a niche/classics/cult video store located along Milwaukee Avenue in Bucktown.

While I was there, I rented the two most terrible-looking Chicago-related noir films I could find: 1955’s “Chicago Syndicate” and 1953’s “City That Never Sleeps,” a phrase that apparently meant Chicago before that “Start spreadin’ the news” song turned it a nickname for New York.

“I am the city, hub and heart of America,” the narration by Chicago (Texan actor Chill Wills, the voice of Francis the Talking Mule) begins.

To get enough money to leave his wife and keep his mistress Sally “Angel Face” Connors away from The Mechanical Man, Officer Johnny Kelly accepts a $5,000 bribe from a crime boss attorney to catch a magician-turned-gangster in the commission of a crime and take the gangster to Indiana, where there’s a warrant for his arrest.

When $5,000 isn’t enough to force Johnny into doing legitimate police work, the crime boss attorney threatens to expose the burgeoning criminal career of Johnny’s brother “Little Stubby.”

Taking to the streets of Chicago with the city of Chicago, which took human form for the night to pretend to be a wise police sergeant, Johnny pretends to drive an old squad car while dispatch spews fictional addresses like “50th and Dearborn” and the intersection of “Superior and Huron streets, east of Hudson Avenue.”

The clear lack of knowledge of Chicago — belied by such clever tricks as actors saying things like “the Bears” and “Lake Shore Drive” slightly louder than the rest of the sentence — is made more confusing by the fact at least part of the film was shot here, with key scenes filmed at the Wrigley Building and the lobby of the Marquette Building.

That inability to understand how much of anything works is one of the few consistent elements of the film, as evidenced by the following lines:

“I feel like I’m in a cement mixer being slowly chopped and pounded to death.” (Johnny)

“Chicago’s the big melting pot and I got melted but good.” (Angel Face)

“That’s the way a man is when he’s made of sawdust.” (The Mechanical Man, also known as Greg)

Also, everyone pronounced “hood” as if it rhymed with “dude.”

Johnny and Chicago’s adventures in Chicago stay refreshingly nonsensical. Johnny delivers a baby in an alley, his third baby that month, he spits with contempt for… society or something. They break up a rigged dice game that never appears in the plot again.

And as Johnny’s character arc takes him from incompetent corrupt cop to incompetent honest cop, the plot heads toward a climax that hinges on the magician-gangster and Little Stubby disagreeing on whether The Mechanical Man is real.

If you ever wanted to see…

  • The handyman from “Newhart” shrug off a bullet wound
  • The D.A. from “Perry Mason” put a rabbit in a top hat, cover it with a cloth and then whip a gun out of the hat to rob a guy
  • An off-screen strip show paired with audio of tap dancing
  • The most poorly timed confession of love in cinematic history
  • Little Stubby

… then you should dive headlong toward Odd Obsession and rent “City That Never Sleeps.”

“For everywhere, every minute of every hour in this melting pot of every race, creed, color and religion in humanity,” the Texas-drenched voice of Francis the Talking City of Chicago says in the end narration, “People are working and laughing and dying and some, like Johnny Kelly, are being born again… in the City That Never Sleeps!”

Read about Chicago films from Chaplin to Batman

Read Monday’s story about Odd Obsession

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