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Saturday, January 05, 2013

Metro Goes Gangstering --- Part Two

MGM's fill of the heavens with stars would accelerate upon arrival of sound. It needed to. Some of what they developed prior to speech had died or was (wickets-wise) dying, respectively #1 profit name Lon Chaney (as of 8/26/30) and career-wise deceased John Gilbert. By 1930 holiday season and shooting of The Secret Six, there was increasing promise of a Chaney substitute in Wallace Beery, a been-around forever character man and much-used heavy who'd lately burst out of The Big House and consolidated major standing with Min and Bill, a first, but hopefully not last, teaming with Metro's other surprise star to rise in 1930, Marie Dressler. It was indeed a new day for players with a voice to match distinctive appearance. Beery used his to suit himself, regard for written dialogue down a list of priorities and certainly below his uncanny way of making lines sound dreamed up as of the moment's speaking.

Beery was nothing if not natural at his playing. You could have put him to Italian neo-realism after the next war and made it click. Break up lines, stumble through ones he'd make up going along ... these habits a bane to fellow actors that supported Wally well, that being after all what counted. Add to this a truculent personality and know partly why Beery stood at most personally disliked among Metro's heap, a sentiment confined within factory walls as a paying public was nuts for him and would stay so right up till Beery's passing in 1949. His unbroken profit-getting over two decades was a record to surpass all those who'd not invite him to their Christmas and croquet parties. Beery continued brute taking of brass rings with The Secret Six, 1930 truly being the actor's banner year. His persona wasn't really new or unique, George Bancroft plying similar trade at Paramount, Victor McLaglen similarly so for Fox, but neither kept top-rung status like Beery, or had continual company support like Metro's.

Nibbling 'round edges of The Secret Six were personalities up and coming, each set upon making impression and heading high gear toward star placement. Pretty they all were, but better still was truly distinct quality two had: Jean Harlow and Clark Gable being these, while less blessed John Mack Brown gets dealt out virtually on-screen, a competition between he and Gable one can observe today as decision-making Metro execs did in 1930-31. What did CG have that JmB lacked? Partly luck no doubt. That was always what Gable attributed to his rise, but then he was exceedingly modest re what smiling fate had bestowed. Brown was given a push, had a lilting drawl, and previously starred as Billy The Kid, but here was cruel reality of a contestant more magnetic acting right alongside him, and Gable was clear winning the contest. How aware were both that futures were determined upon such competing wheels?

Also in the race was Jean Harlow, getting a start at Metro and surely conscious that this was make-or-break for her as well. Reviews for prior work had tactlessly noted she was no actress, but Metro brass knew that wasn't the point. What Harlow put across was a face and especially incandescent hair that must have served nitrate stock to glow effect --- was this a truest source of her light that we can no longer appreciate for loss of the intense, but too flammable, stock? Harlow didn't rouse resentment among women either ... they liked her in spite of the sex sell. Was there a public's sense of how it annoyed her as well? Beginner JH relied on Gable to relate and share her doubts. That would make their working together more congenial, both here and in pics to come, and one can imagine his sincere grief when she passed so young (1937). If only Gable had lived long enough, or been interviewed seriously enough, to reflect on co-workers he'd bested (like Brown) or who'd gone long before him (like Harlow).

Beery was principal beneficiary of Secret Six gifts. He'd follow his gunning beast here with a tender turn as dad to Jackie Cooper in triumph that was The Champ. It seemed luck smiled on Beery even more than Gable. They'd team for a service show (Hell Divers) later in The Secret Six's release year that would consolidate Gable's stardom and further Beery's. Wally was a profitable man to go beside, unless you were Ted Healy. To that persistent legend I'll not expand --- it would take a book --- or at least a longer post than Greenbriar has stamina to pen, so I'll merely put the question to perhaps knowing readers here ... Did Beery off Healy as tragic result of barroom rage? If so, he took out one of my favorite comic acerbics, and that I'm hard pressed to forgive, even as I like Beery otherwise. To Wally's endurance, add this --- he was maybe best equipped to ride out a transition to Code enforcing, being prior associated with safe and family driven product like the Dressler hook-ups (Marjorie Main being merely substituted for her after Dressler died) and surrogate pop to Metro moppets not even born when PCA hooks sunk in. What luck had Beery? I aver the best of anyone that ever worked for MGM.

The Secret Six sold well (worldwide rentals of $994K against negative costs of $494K for profit of $148K), but trade crix wouldn't blow kisses. Variety was especially nasty --- you'd think they were reviewing His Glorious Night again: "... too rough, crude, and familiar for even a gangster story" said the damning notice, which accused Metro too of borrowing Secret Six ingredients from other and better gang pics. Fit best for "roughneck trade" (so what was wrong with that?), Variety branded it "bad ... in every way" with exception of humor Beery "cannot help but inject into it." Where was cause for trade turning on crime subjects? Maybe by 4/31 and release of The Secret Six, there was saturation reached, but The Public Enemy from Warners came out around then, and got generally better notices. Could be Variety was anticipating a deluge and wanted to stanch the flow. Too much gangsterism wouldn't be good for overall biz, particularly in light of well-known censor problems in territories far-flung. Like horror films opening parallel, outlawry on screen was a virus that could prove fatal. Certainly it was shows like The Secret Six that would make best argument for imposition of a strictly applied Code to police an industry seemingly predisposed toward excess.



Anonymous Kevin K. said...

I should rewatch "Secret Six" again. My only memory was that it was more adult and hard-hitting than I was expecting, Beery in particular.

Having watched "Treasure Island" recently, I was struck by Beery's performance as Long John Silver. He made zero attempt at a British accent. In fact, he sounded like he just got off the #4 express train from Brooklyn. My wife, who actually read the book, didn't remember Long John Silver being quite the way Beery portrayed him, but I suppose that wasn't the point. He captured the storybook feeling associated with pirates in general. I get why he was popular. People love a big lug who's hard on the outside, soft inside.

As for his involvement in Ted Healey's death, you know where I stand on that. You probably know the story about Shemp Howard. A friend asked him if Beery was indeed one of the perps. As the friend relayed it years later, Shemp just went pale and said nothing.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, is The Good Old Soak (1937) available anywhere? That is the only movie I'm aware of in which both Beery and Healy appear. I don't know how much credence to give to the rumor you mention. Best wishes, Mark H.

8:43 PM  

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