Richard Dix Pioneers The Dual-Identity Hero
This Public Defender (1931) a Dark Knight Arrived Early
The title makes it appear that Richard Dix is playing, well, a public defender, as in courtrooms, but there's nary a scene set there, as what Dix really does is vigilante work on behalf of ones wrongfully accused, his heavy hand dropped on slippery bank officers (a mission Depressioners could readily endorse). I imagined how Dick could don a mask and cape and pretty much become Batman, but how ludicrous would a costumed hero look to reality-based 30's with grown-ups making and watching movies? Dix's Alfred the butler equivalent is shared by Paul Hurst and glory be, Boris Karloff, who gets to talk and act vaguely sinister. Being RKO in a slow patch, Public Defender kind of drags, but its idea is sound, and much better could have been made of it. Dix is more a silly goose than we're accustomed to, but that's largely a dissolute disguise to disarm his opponents. Vigilante themes always tread lightly in US films, there being apprehension of viewers adopting such policy for themselves. "Taking the law into your own hands" remains largely no-no, despite a Code's otherwise collapse. The theme was hot potatoes in 1931 largely as result of a well-known Chicago case where local businessmen established their own cabel to combat runaway vice, this having been dramatized by MGM earlier in the year with The Secret Six. RKO took advantage of a burner still hot and sold Public Defender in terms of "Drama Lifted Boldly From Headlines Of Today's Newspapers." Their pic, however, never gets violent beyond scuffles and a dead man left by one of the heavies, Dix's character little more than occasional distraction to villainy and ultimate helpmate to police, reassurance for a status-quo and would-be censors.