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Friday, January 24, 2014

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.

7 Comments:

Blogger Robert Fiore said...

This is nothing to do with the subject of this post, it's just a question that popped into my mind that you would be able to answer. What was the last regular commercial Hollywood film that was in black and white? We are in a period where essentially every commercial movie is made in color unless it's an artistic statement or an affectation or an evocation of period or an old time movie spoof. What was the last American commercial black and white movie released before basically everything was in color?

10:41 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I saw this on TCM a few years back and was astounded by the very strong proto-Batman feel of the thing. I can't help wondering if Bob Kane didn't see this and store it away till it morphed into the comic book superhero.

1:32 AM  
Blogger aldi said...

" ......... how ludicrous would a costumed hero look to reality-based 30's with grown-ups making and watching movies?"

Truer words were never spoken. The gradual infantilization of Hollywood would provide material for an engrossing, if depressing, book. I've always liked Richard Dix since first encountering him in Cimmaron. His acting style is unspologetically of his era but that's much of his charm for me.

2:05 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's a good question, Robert, to which I have no definitive answer. About all I could do is guess and probably be wrong. I do remember going to see "The Last Picture Show" and thinking this might be the last B/W mainstream movie we'd see, but then came "Paper Moon," and later on "The Elephant Man," and then "Schindler's List," and so on and on ...

And to Rick ... another proto-Batman for me is the first (and best) reel of "The Bat Whispers," which looks like Batman comic panels brought to life, and years before any were drawn.

Aidi, I am so with you about Richard Dix, and consider his performance in "Cimarron" one of the most dynamic of the early sound era. Dix is always welcome in Greenbriar's screening cave.

6:25 AM  
Blogger reprobates said...

Bob Kane admitted that THE BAT WHISPERS was one of his inspirations for the Batman comic, and yes, you can indeed see the artistic similarities between the film and the strip.

Infantilization of Hollywood? Scratch the word Hollywood and put in America, who do you think is the audience for all those super-hero movies? I'd love to see everything run by grown-ups again.


RICHARD M ROBERTS

8:26 AM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

The Last Picture Show I would say is well within the time where essentially everything is in color. I was just hoping it was something you knew right offhand. Doing my own work, looking at IMDB top 100s, I think it might be In Cold Blood in 1967. That might be the last big hit studio movie where a movie being in black and white was a normal thing. There's Night of the Living Dead in 1968, but that's a special case and of course isn't a major studio movie. By 1965 and 1966 it's still sort of normal , but it's down to a trickle.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Kingsley Candler said...

My vote would be for YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)which would certainly not have worked its magic had it been shot in color(especially color by Deluxe, which oddly enough was the lab film stock choice of hundreds of 16mm "airline" prints, and those that survive are now all faded to some low degree of magenta or pink).

12:42 AM  

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