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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Metro Gone Gangstering --- Part One

Gangsters were an early 30's scourge that lots favored wiping out no matter what it took ... but to what measure should society go? Movies came close to advocating a vigilante system as badge-wearers took increasingly direct route to rid cities of vice, like Walter Huston's team machine-gunning a club full of crime element in Beast Of The City. MGM was keenest on addressing the problem head on, even to point of law enforcers donning masks to conceal identities and remove all inhibition toward cleaned streets. Secret societies, backed by police action, were fact-based from headlines and a natural, The Secret Six zeroing on necessity for drastic action via gunpaly aplenty and stars established or on a rise. The latter is what we note today, but 1931 patronage did not overlook Metro's wider suggestion. Might a young Bob Kane (age fifteen) have seen The Secret Six and developed from there a notion of Batman, with that character's secret-ID'edication to law and order?

For all of public alarm over mayhem in news, there was concern too about Hollywood exploiting gangsterism and effect that might have on youth. Outlaws were, after all, a can-do subculture with novel means of combating Depression a population's balance was mired in. Did crime actually pay, no matter final reel extermination of asphalt-bred vermin? Much local gentry worried that kids might think so and emulate glamour figures toting guns. Even loutish Wallace Beery in The Secret Six gets money and social success for going heeled. Whatever their careful tread, Metro faced a censor force rising surely as vigilantism endorsed by movies the company made.

The sword cut both ways, one territory staying hands-off as another slashed away. Politics and hypocrisy, handmaidens always, played their parts. In Chicago, where Metro held sway thanks to influence of two Hearst dailies, there was d├ętente with local censors. As decision to ban was left in the end to mayor offices, it helped to have press solidly in a distributor's corner, so orders from above let MGM product through netting that would snag rival firms and their often not-as-raw sex and crime stuff. Insiders knew a fix was in and that Metro would have its Chicago way, but what of east coastal Philadelphia and its less safe harbor? That city cut The Secret Six to ribbons as deftly as it would Warners' The Public Enemy, from which thirty minutes was excised, the replacement a crude set of explanatory titles that put locals in an uproar. Show these complete or not at all, said enraged patronage. Word of mouth recipients got the message and stayed away, a black eye to distribs who'd miss fullest potential of Philly's market.

So what, if any, of The Secret Six might we be missing? Metro tinkered with it from filming's inception as others would upon release and after. Who knows what version surviving elements reflect. Agreement to enforce a Production Code was really effort to forestall local vandalism of prints. A steaming potato like The Secret Six was dogged constantly by watch groups and second guessers, this beyond its theme bleeding into pics the competition was fielding. Variety reported in November '30 of Secret Six overlap with content of Warners' just-released Little Caesar, sending Metro scribes back to drawing boards: Similarity of both crime stories is said to be so pronounced that Metro may scrap most of what has already been shot on "Six." With the majors averaging a feature release per week, it was inevitable that one's merchandise would trip over another's, especially where hot topics like organized banditry were concerned.

Toward getting fresh approach, MGM sent ace screenwriter Frances Marion to Chicago to scout for narrative meat. Appropriate then, that she should find a strongest of that in stockyards from whence comes vice lord Wallace Beery, whose intro scene has the brute man smashing a just offscreen steer's skull with a sledge hammer. Marion knew shortest distance to a story's point, for which she was rewarded at rates of $3K per week, said to be a highest rate "in the world" for scenarists. FM also caught Windy City gust of business leaders fed up with rampant crime who'd begun their own crusades, "in cooperation with local authorities," to stamp out local violence, this reported in The Saturday Evening Post among other outlets. And what more appropriate place to set a crime saga than Chicago? Certainly there was realism daily confirmed by headlines, and a public eager to go behind these and see how big-city chiseling worked.

What lent conviction most was fact that a real-life "Secret Six" operated before, during, and after production of the movie based on its exploits, although the nature of said (and well-maintained) secrecy made it necessary for Metro creators to guess at details of said group's operation. The Six had been set up to combat Al Capone's organization after the shooting of a job superintendent at a construction site, this the result of frustrated effort to establish a union closed-shop. A suddenly awakened business community would not stand for gangsters encroaching on orderly trade, and so fronted their under-wraps counter-group with serious dollars amassed from participants. Finally there was enough cash to bring Capone down, plus an incorruptible private force dedicated to doing what a compromised (by inefficiency, lack of funds, and outright corruption) Chicago could not. Individual members of the "Secret Six" never stepped forward to claim credit, but their efforts would begin the unraveling of Al Capone and crime's machinery.

Part Two of The Secret Six HERE.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The model for Bob Kane's "THE BATMAN" was Douglas Fairbanks's film, THE MARK OF ZORRO.

Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered after having taken their son to see it.

They dumped this origin for the current BATMAN films which is a shame as it was brilliantly thought out. What they replaced it with is muddled thinking all too typical of film making.

1:19 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

But Kane still might have been influenced by "The Secret Six," as he would have been very young, five or so, when "The Mark Of Zorro" came out (although the Waynes taking Bruce to see "Zorro" does time out well for the year an adult Bruce would have first donned the mask).

I'm just speculating as to possibility of Kane at age fifteen or so seeing "The Secret Six" with its disguised crime-fighters and maybe getting the germ of an idea, or at least images he'd remember, when time came to create Batman.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Just a few years before this movie was made the Ku Klux Klan was a formidable national entity. It peddled itself as a force for patriotic law and order -- likewise with masks, and with alarming political pull until exposure of horrific crimes and corruption triggered a gradual decline in the mid-20's.

With the crimes of the Klan still recent headlines, you'd think moviegoers - and the studios -- would be a little leery of secret vigilante societies as heroes instead of good old G-men and brave citizens.

3:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer notes the "Operator 13" banner and comments on Ted Healy:

I found that still you published over the legend, "Monkeyshines on the Set of Operator 13," very amusing. In it, Marian Davies, Gary Cooper, and the others are all looking at microphones with expressions of concern, while one person, a certain Ted Healy, is glaring at the camera.

Healy, of course, had come to Hollywood with his vaudville act, "Ted Healy and His Stooges," which eventually broke up, Healy going one way as a solo, and Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Jerry Howard going another as the Three Stooges. Wherever you found him, whether in Dancing Lady, Mad Love, or Hollywood Hotel, the Healy character was an incredibly sour misanthrope who seemed to be in the film simply to provide a diversion from whatever else was going on. Given the stories of his abrasiveness, it was only taken from life. When my son was younger, he got a kick out of watching San Francisco just from the realization that, evidently, Ted Healy thought that he was the star of the show and that everyone was waiting for his act, not Gable or Jeannette MacDonald. There might be some important dialog being exchanged between the ostensible stars, but there would be Healy in the background, doing some bit of business. Any connection between the movie and the arc of his performance was entirely a coincidence.

It is that undisguised self-centeredness--he doesn't even pretend to be concerned about what the others are doing--that is so refreshing.


1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Masked vigilantes weren't exactly anything new when this came out, since they were common in fiction such as Zorro or Robin Hood. Fictional vigilante heroes like the Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger were also popular in the 1930s.

The vigilante aspect in this one is interesting because it depicts an impotent police force in the wake of a powerful criminal syndicate. After the production code takes effect, depictions of civilians taking the law into their own hands without the aid of law enforcement was very rare in contemporary settings (though was allowed in Westerns and other historic adaptations like "Barbary Coast").

The Secret Six is also interesting in that the Wallace Beery character is not someone of a criminal background, but rather a product of the Depression that gets swept up in the power and easy money that organized crime provided in contrast to his blue-collar job. He's also rather sympathetic in this role as well for a while.

5:13 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

I've often wondered if THE PUBLIC DEFENDER (1931) didn't have an influence on Batman's creation. In that movie Richard Dix plays a millionaire who poses as "The Reckoner" to bring bad guys to justice. The one time I saw it (on TCM) it instantly brought to mind the Caped Crusader.

By the way, one of Dix's helpers is played by Boris Karloff.

9:43 PM  

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