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Monday, March 05, 2018

Head-On Precode Showdown With Crime

Beast Of The City (1932) Calls For Drastic Measures

Under head of movies giving us what real life won't, here is 30's receipt of swift law and order for a public then drowned in rampant crime. Due process be damned was Beast Of The City's clarion call, Walter Huston and enforcer team straight-lining into teeth of Jean Hersholt's lice mob that Beast-set Chicago had enough of but had not nerve to deal with so decisively. Noted in 1932 and since that this was more frontier justice than we'd permit in a 20th century, Beast Of The City asked why not to calls for vice being stamped out, and never mind how. Here was a movie that met the mood of its time, as did others of like mind: This Day and Age, Gabriel Over The White House, more that are minor enough to escape notice because no one shows them. It was time we celebrate those who enforce rules, said Metro in opening text crawl, which must have got Beast Of The City by local censors that might otherwise have banned it. Chicago surprisingly let Beast pass despite mentions of local landmarks that clearly put action there. Receipts, in fact, were soft for the burgh. Maybe Chicago, like other places, had snoot-ful of "gang-rule" topics (Variety's term) by early 1932 when Beast Of The City tried riding the cycle to whatever dollars more could be had.

Hersholt and gang are a patch-quilt of ethnicity, protected by "shyster" Tully Marshall, his profession understood to frustrate the law rather than uphold it. How many during the early 30's entered legal practice specifically to become mouthpieces for the Mob? Honest lawyers during precode were scarce as feathers on a frog. PCA enforcement would clean that up along with a lot of other things, part of its job to reduce slams on any profession Americans might pursue, including, be it ever so precode crooked, that of attorney. Beast Of The City makes it a given that all of that occupation are rotten to cores, and a best reason why killers and bootleggers go free. Bad cops are, on the contrary, and in every way, an exception to departmental norm. It takes panting siren of a Jean Harlow to corrupt one of them. Bad acts beyond ones of a single rotted apple are unthinkable. Officers cheerily give lives to back chief Walter Huston's play, even where plain suicide seems to be his goal. Beast Of The City pumps rawest energy into what would otherwise come off silly. W.R. Burnett wrote the story, him behind Little Caesar and Scarface. Dialogue is of keepsake quality. Wallace Ford tells a would-be bedmate, "I left my youth in the Capitals of Europe," a line I'd use if anyone could begin to make current sense of it.

Walter Huston was a marvel at outraged decency. He could also turn on a dime and do villainy. Some would say he achieves both for Beast Of The City, depending on approval or not for strong-arm policing. Huston was past romance age, or looked it, maybe acted it, enough to disqualify himself except as character lead. To that extent then, Beast Of The City is owned by plain-folk in earnest combat with an underworld briefly down, but never out. Whatever sacrifice is made, and there are plenty here, will not stem the tide for long. Did Chicagoans meekly accept living in one of the most dangerous spots in the country? I would guess so, considering they still do today. I had to remind myself that Prohibition was still the law in 1932. You'd not figure it from watching Beast Of The City, booze being wide open served at every club table. Hollywood had always made the Volstead Act seem like a joke. Would that have remained so had Code enforcement come prior to repeal? Here was a law so unpopular that everyone made sport of it, but wait, MGM did The Wet Parade in 1932 as well, that a searing indictment of alcohol as free-flowing contraband, and co-starring Walter Huston in the bargain.

MGM didn't like splatter effect of making gang pics, but had to because mass appeal was their market and these were marketable. Same was case with as distasteful horror films, which Metro floated via Freaks and Mask Of Fu Manchu in 1932, but sort of made messes of thanks to post-shoot jitters and censor concern. Give it to Leo though --- when they did outrage, they poured it on, Beast Of The City speaking loud to someone's notion of societal mop-up, as in the only good criminals are dead ones. Maybe it's well that Jean Harlow was along to soften ad appeal, hers a sole blossom in the slaughterhouse. Violence was tricky in so-called free wheeling Precode days. All the local censor had to do was chop it down, and fair number of them did, result a denuded product often incoherent and never satisfactory. Who knows if now-circulating Beast Of The City is complete? I sensed at least one dialogue snip in the WB Archives DVD. There may have been hot or cold versions cut to permissiveness of whatever house booked Beast Of The City. Prints were as flexible as bookers who supplied them, MGM the "Friendly Company" after all. Warner's disc, by the way, however intact it is, looks OK, but this title could use a High-Def scrubbing, which I assume it will eventually get, provided half-decent elements survive.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Just in from Dan Mercer:

"Honest lawyers during precode were as scarce as feathers on a frog."

A delightful turn of phrase, but perhaps Stephen Ashe, the character played by Lionel Barrymore in "A Free Soul," was an example of such a person. He represented criminals such as the Ace Wilfong--Clark Gable in a star-marking performance--but he never confused their need for legal representation--or his for money--as a justification of what they did or who they were. He tried to keep a line between them and the social order he valued or the people he loved. When the gangster asks to marry his daughter, he angrily rebukes him as a mongrel trifling with his betters.

Inevitably, however, Ash has been compromised by his associations. He was obstructing the law even as he has served its system, and there is a price to be paid. When his daughter's fiancé guns down Wilfong to save her, he provides the defense, even though his health has also been compromised by the liquor he has been using, in effect, to anesthetize the moral revulsion he felt at what he was doing. After a final speech before the jury that is as much confession as a reasoned argument, he collapses and dies.

There is a relationship between the Captain Jim Fitzpatrick of Walter Huston and a Stephen Ashe, and between many of the precode films made during the early days of the Great Depression. The country was in utter misery then with factories closed, millions out of work, farms foreclosed, breadlines, the economic system in shambles, and crime rampant. The suggestion is made that we'd somehow lost our way, forgot our values, and become compromised in the process. We were only reaping now what we'd sowed. How then to regain what we'd lost? How to expiate our sins?

The endings of "A Free Soul" or "Beast of the City" are almost apocalyptic. "The wages of sin are death," and only if they are finally paid can there be any possibility of restoration and renewal. So Stephen Ashe gives his final speech, even then feeling his heart in its agony giving way, so Jim Fitzpatrick and his men go to their deaths almost with relief, at last doing the job that had been too long forestalled. And for those in the audience watching these spectacles, undoubtedly they felt a certain catharsis, relieving them from their own sense of hopelessness and despair. The mean streets, however, still waited for them after the show was over.

7:27 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Ha! I cheer on all those early 30's epics that allow my boys Wallace Ford and Regis Toomey to loll in the arms of glamour types like Harlowe or Loretta Young!!!

9:16 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

E-mail from Griff:

Dan, that was a brilliant observation.

-- Griff

12:02 PM  
Blogger William Lund said...

My friend Dan loved these pre-code gangster pictures set in the windy city. I think one of the attractions for my friend was the fact that his Dad was a jazz musician who bands' home base was in a speakeasy in Chicago. When his Dad decided to "pack it in" and return to Minnesota to a more normal life, the club owner, whom he was good friends with, walked with him several blocks and saw him off on the train that night. The next morning as the train stopped in St.Paul (on the way to Duluth)my friend's father picked up a Chicago paper whose headlined screamed "Chicago Club Owner Dies in Hail of Bullets" (outside of the train station). It dawned on my friend's Dad that the mob had followed them to the train station waiting for them to separate. Nice to know the mob had a code of ethics not to involve innocent people...

9:23 AM  
Blogger Matthew Clark said...

You mention MGM's two attempts at the "distasteful" horror genre during the pre-code period. I think that the studio did achieve a couple of successful horror/thriller moments in their first two pre-code Tarzan films, with their danger filled treks through the jungles, filled with savage natives, and attacks by wild beasts. In the first movie, the surviving cast are thrown into a pit filled with expressionistic shadows, and a killer gorilla. In the second, the humans are besieged by Leo the lion and his family. A large set piece of the characters making their way across a nightmare landscape was filmed for the third, Tarzan Escapes, but was cut from the released film, most likely due to the now firmly in place code.

2:03 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

The climax shocked the heck out of me when I saw it on TCM. In fact, as much as I liked the movie, it's the only part I remember. I guess it was Metro's way of outdoing Warners' gangster pictures.

8:31 PM  

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