Happy Birthday, Jean Harlow: THE BEAST OF THE CITY (MGM 1932)

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In honor of Jean Harlow’s birthday (born March 3, 1911), TCM ran a Harlow marathon today. Since I was at work, I recorded a few of them. I couldn’t wait to get home and view THE BEAST OF THE CITY for three reasons: 1) Harlow, of course, 2) it’s a Pre-Code film I’ve never seen, and 3) it was directed by Charles Brabin, who gave us the devilishly decadent THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. I’d heard a lot about this movie and its violent ending, and though not nearly as gruesome as today’s films, it’s vigilante justice packs a punch that must’ve been pretty shocking in 1932.

The movie starts off with a forward from President Hoover (that’s Herbert, kids, not J. Edgar) decrying the glorification of gangsters in films, and saying we should be glorifying the police instead. We then get into the story, as we find Captain Jim Fitzgerald (aka “Fighting Fitz”) on the scene of a quadruple murder, where the Dopey gang members are found hung, clutching nickles in their dead fists. This is the calling card of the city’s top mobster, Sam Belmonte, who controls all the rackets. Fitz has Belmonte and his top torpedo Chollo picked up, but once again they’re released on a writ of habeas  corpus. The cops can never pin anything on the well-connected Belmonte, and public outcry from citizens and the newspapers demand a shakeup in the department. Fighting Fitz is part of the shakeup, and he gets transferred to a quieter precinct.

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Fitz’s younger brother Ed, a vice cop, hasn’t quite made his mark on the force. Ed’s an easygoing type, until he meets Belmonte’s moll, the platinum blonde Daisy Stevens, in a lineup. Daisy seduces the young cop (“I know what every young girl oughta know”), plying him with booze and sex. Daisy thinks Ed’s her new meal ticket, one she can use to her advantage. She persuades Ed to do some dirty work for Belmonte, and he winds up on the gangster’s payroll.

Meanwhile, Fitz gets a visit from old pals Tom and Mac, who chide him about his new gig. Just then, a call comes in about a bank robbery, and the three take off in hot pursuit. Fitz shoots one down, taking a slug himself in the process, and they capture the second. He’s hailed as a hero, and named the new Police Chief. He immediately gets to work cracking down on crime, raiding the local speakeasies and rounding up a mass of reprobates into a huge cell. Fitz gives the underworld an earful (“Take away your guns and your hop and you’re nothing but  bunch of dirty, yellow maggots”), and puts them on notice that things are going to change.

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Ed, drinking hard and living it up with Daisy, asks for a promotion, but Fitz denies him until he proves his worth. Fitz gives Ed an assignment to guard a shipment of money being sent by a bank. Daisy, ever the schemer, tells him she’s going to leave town with a rich boyfriend unless he can come up with some dough. She uses her wiles to get Ed to set up a heist, and has Chollo hire some boys to do the job. What Ed doesn’t realize is Fitz has Tom and Mac stake out the scene, and they stumble onto the fake robbery. The men chase the truck down, bullets flying, and a little girl ends up dead, as does Mac.

The two robbers are brought into Fitz’s office, and while Tom I.D.’s them, Ed says he can’t remember due to the conk on the head he received. The crooks put the finger on Ed, causing Fitz to almost choke his brother out. A trial ensues, and Belmonte hires a grandstanding mouthpiece to defend the trio. He gets them off in a travesty of justice, and remorseful Ed begs Fitz for forgiveness. Fitz develops a plan for revenge, and rounds up Tom and about a dozen od his best men. They have Ed burst in to Belmonte’s celebration party. Belmonte welcomes him, but Ed greets the boss with a smack in the face. He tells the gang he’s going to spill his guts to the papers. Fitz and his men come in and ask Belmonte if he wants to go quietly. The gangster refuses, as Fitz had guessed, and the cops brutally gun down the entire mob. The two brothers die as well, joining hands in a last gesture of solidarity, their work complete.

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Jean Harlow had been in movies about four years, notably in Howard Hughes’ aviation drama HELL’S ANGELS, before making THE BEAST OF THE CITY. The role of Daisy opened some eyes at MGM, and led to her being cast in RED DUST with Clark Gable, and from there a string of classic hits (DINNER AT EIGHT, RECKLESS, CHINA SEAS, RIFFRAFF, LIBELED LADY) until her untimely death from uremic poisoning in 1937 at age 26. Harlow was Hollywood’s original blonde bombshell, and Daisy was a showcase part for her. Whether she’s giving a cop the raspberry, dancing seductively for Ed in her apartment, or cooing lines like “Ya drink beer to make ya cool, and it just makes ya hot”,  Jean Harlow lets everyone know she’s not just another pretty face, but a talented actress.

I’ll go over the rest of the cast briefly, as I know I’m getting a bit long-winded here for an 86 minute movie. Walter Huston stars as Fitz, the no-nonsense crimefighter, a role far removed from his other 1932 starrer, KONGO . Dependable Wallace Ford plays brother Ed. The mild-mannered Dr. Christian, Jean Hersholt, sinks his teeth into the villainous Belmonte, and J. Carrol Naish is good as his slimy second-in-command. The Familiar Face Brigade is represented by actors Ed Brophy, George Chandler, Dorothy Granger, Arthur Hoyt, Robert Emmett O’Connor, and Nat Pendleton. And Fitz’s son is none other than little Mickey Rooney, who steals just about every scene he’s in.

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THE BEAST OF THE CITY isn’t quite in the same class as SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY (both of which also featured Harlow in smaller roles), but it’s still entertaining, if a bit creaky in spots. There’s plenty of cool Pre-Code moments to be on the lookout for, and that ending of vigilante justice makes one wonder just who the true BEAST OF THE CITY was, Belmonte or Fitz. It’s a great chance to watch Jean Harlow sizzle in an early role, one that grabbed Hollywood’s attention and brought her to stardom, and for that, film fans can all be grateful.

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