Pre Code Confidential #25: The Stars Are Out for a Delicious DINNER AT EIGHT (MGM 1933)

After the success of 1932’s all-star GRAND HOTEL, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer kept his sharp eyes peeled for a follow-up vehicle. The answer came with DINNER AT EIGHT, based on the witty Broadway smash written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Mayer assigned his newest producer (and son-in-law) David O. Selznick, fresh from making hits at RKO, who in turn handed the director’s reigns to another MGM newcomer, George Cukor. Both would have long, prosperous careers there and elsewhere. Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz adapted the play to the screen for the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”, and those stars truly shine in this film (in the interest of fairness, the stars will be presented to you alphabetically):

John Barrymore as Larry Renault 

The Great Profile plays aging, alcoholic former silent star Larry Renault in a role that surely hit close to home. Barrymore’s star was certainly on the decline at this juncture of his career, yet he gives a magnificently poignant performance as an actor who doesn’t know (or doesn’t want to believe) he’s washed up. His ‘final solution’ scene is heartbreaking and will haunt you long after the final reel.

Lionel Barrymore as Oliver Jordan

Though Lionel’s part of the financially and physically ailing shipping magnate Jordan isn’t as flashy as brother John’s, he’s the film’s moral center, trying desperately to keep a stiff upper lip for his wife Millicent’s big social bash while suffering inside. Lionel’s been accused of sometimes overacting, but he definitely underplays it here. In fact, I’ve never seen him give a bad performance!

Wallace Beery as Dan Packard

Beery , on the other hand, frequently sliced the ham thick onscreen, and as the crude Packard, he mugs it up with the best of them. Whether berating Jordan’s offices (“Say, who put up this building – Peter Stuyvesant?”) or battling with his peroxide blonde wife Kitty (and we’ll get to HER later), Beery brings an overbearing, obnoxious presence to this dinner… just the way the part was written, and he’s a perfect fit!

Billie Burke as Millicent Jordan

Dithering Millicent is oblivious to everything going on around her except her precious dinner party, and nobody could’ve done justice to the role the way Burke does. The character would have been unsympathetic in lesser hands, but the veteran actress makes one feel sorry for her onscreen plight. Offscreen, Miss Burke’s real-life husband, Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, died before the film was competed, making her performance even more amazing, considering what she was going through.

Marie Dressler as Carlotta Vance

Out of all the cast of pros, Marie Dressler unquestionably steals the film as the down-on-her-luck former stage star Vance. Dressler is an absolute delight as the once celebrated Carlotta, now “flat as a mill pond, I haven’t got a sou”. She also gets off the best lines (“If there’s one thing I know, it’s men. I ought to, it’s been my life’s work”), including that now-classic final exchange with Kitty Packard, which features one of the greatest double-takes in movie history!

Jean Harlow as Kitty Packard

While John Barrymore was on his way down, Jean Harlow’s star was shooting skyward, and DINNER AT EIGHT is the film that put her over the moon. Vulgar Kitty makes her husband, the rough-hewn Dan, look like an English Lord, and she’s a total scream as the social climbing sexpot. Her battles with Beery are more than just acting – the two despised each other, despite MGM costarring them in three films together. Jean sparkles and shines as she bickers with Beery, and their dialog together is priceless. Of course, the final scene, where Kitty tells Carlotta, “I was reading a book the other day”, will live forever in the annals of great movie moments!

Madge Evans as Paula Jordan

She may not have been as big a name as the others, but Madge Evans, who made her film debut as a child way back in 1914, holds her own as the spoiled teenage daughter Paula Jordan, who’s having a clandestine torrid affair with Barrymore’s much older Larry Renault (the two appeared together on Broadway in 1917, when Madge was eight!). Evans played in several Pre-Codes, including THE GREEKS HAD A WORD FOR THEM, HALLEUJAH I’M A BUM, THE MAYOR OF HELL , and BEAUTY FOR SALE, as well as another all-star film, 1935’s DAVID COPPERFIELD, before retiring in 1939 after marrying playwright Sidney Kingsfield.

Edmund Lowe as Dr. Wayne Talbot 

Paula Jordan’s not the only one fooling around in this picture, as Kitty Packard has taken up with her married physician Dr. Wayne Talbot, played by he-man Edmund Lowe , another veteran of the silent screen. Lowe was still a name in 1933, and though his part is secondary to all the commotion going on, he gives a dynamic performance as the philandering husband of Karen Morley – who’s part is even smaller!

Lee Tracy as Max Kane

Who else for the role of Renault’s fast-taking agent Max Kane than Hollywood’s fastest talker, Lee Tracy ! Tracy’s more subdued than usual as the agent desperately trying to get his has-been client a part in a play, but when he finally breaks down and tells Renault the truth, he lets him have it with both barrels, triggering the despondent actor’s tragic suicide.

There are other stars in minor roles, like Jean Hersholt’s producer Jo Stengel, Louise Closser Hale and Grant Withers as Millicent’s last-minute guests, and character actress Hilda Vaughn as Kitty’s avaricious maid Tina, and all get brief chances to shine. DINNER AT EIGHT is movie magic from start to finish, with enough going on to fill a dozen films! Those who have never seen it are missing not only one of the best Pre-Codes, but simply one of the best movies ever made, with a once-in-a-lifetime cast at their peak!

And now for that Famous Final Scene:

More in the “Pre-Code Confidential” Series:

LADY KILLER – KONGO – MAKE ME A STAR – THE MASK OF FU MANCHU – HOLLYWOOD PARTY – THE SECRET SIX – PLAY-GIRL – BABY FACE – BLONDE CRAZY – CLEOPATRA – THE MALTESE FALCON – DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE – FLESH – THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH – THE MAYOR OF HELL – RED DUST – BED OF ROSES – FIVE STAR FINAL – SHANGHAI EXPRESS – SAFE IN HELL – DIPLOMANIACS – GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE – BLONDE VENUS – THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE

Hollywood Souffle: WIFE VS SECRETARY (MGM 1936)

Gable’s back and Harlow’s got him , but so does Myrna Loy , with Jimmy Stewart along for the ride in WIFE VS SECRETARY. MGM boasted it had “more stars than there are in Heaven”, and this film is the very definition of “star vehicle”, a harmless soufflé of comedy, drama, and romance all wrapped up in a neat little package by veteran studio director Clarence Brown.

Publicity still for ‘Wife vs Secretary’

The plot’s as thin as Gable’s moustache: He’s a hard-driven publisher, and Loy’s his trusting, faithful wife. Harlow plays his loyal secretary and trusted aide-de-camp. She’s also quite beautiful (obviously, since she’s Jean Harlow!) and Gable’s mother tells Myrna she should get rid of her. Myrna laughs it off, but the seed of doubt has been planted. Jimmy plays Jean’s fiancé, who’s not too happy about being constantly cast aside by Jean’s work demands (and who can blame him; she’s Jean Harlow!). Gable’s secret business plans cause a series of misunderstandings that culminate in Jean dumping Jimmy and Myrna seeking a divorce before order is restored and everyone is back together.

“The King”

This is all just an excuse for MGM to show off its “star power”, and Clark Gable has it in spades. There’s a reason he was called “The King of Hollywood”; he was the biggest male box office attraction at the time of making WIFE VS SECRETARY, and could do no wrong far as the public was concerned. Mostly during this period he just played “Clark Gable”, the man’s man who all the ladies loved. Here, he’s no different, just a big, fun-loving lug, and that was more than enough for filmgoers, who made the film one of MGM’s biggest hits of the year.

Two Hollywood Queens: Harlow & Loy

Jean Harlow began toning down her ‘Platinum Blonde’ sexpot image in WIFE VS SECRETARY, all the way to toning down her hair color a notch. She’s still beautiful as ever (after all, she’s STILL Jean Harlow!), only now we find her as a “nice girl” rather than her former boisterous blonde self. Myrna Loy is radiant as Gable’s wife, and proves once again both her dramatic and comedic skills are sharp as a tack. Why this woman never won an Oscar is a mystery to me! Jimmy Stewart’s little more than a fourth wheel in this, his fourth feature film. Jimmy was just getting started (he’s billed sixth) and wouldn’t hit his stride for a few more years, but he holds his own with Gable, Harlow, and Loy. Others in the cast include May Robson (as Gable’s mom), George Barbier, Tom Dugan, Gloria Holden (the future DRACULA’S DAUGHTER), and John Qualen .

‘Hey, uh, don’t… d-don’t forget… I’m in this picture too, ya know!”

The screenplay by Norman Krasna, John Lee Mahin, and Alice Duer Miller is a frothy confection that gets bogged down a bit later in the film by some soap opera melodramatics, but all in all it serves it’s purpose – to get our stars on the big screen and let them do their stuff. WIFE VS SECRETARY isn’t a great film, but it’s a good one, and the quartet of Gable, Harlow, Loy, and Stewart make it worth your time.

Four Star Fun: LIBELED LADY (MGM 1936)

Jean Harlow ! Spencer Tracy ! William Powell ! Myrna Loy ! Four top stars at the top of their game shining bright in LIBELED LADY, a screwball comedy directed by Jack Conway with that trademark MGM gloss. Despite the zany improbability of the script by Maurine Watkins, Howard Emmett Rogers, and George Oppenheimer, the crackling, witty dialog gives all four stars (and supporting actor Walter Connolly) plenty of good material.

Here’s the plot: rich heiress Connie Allenbury (Loy) is suing the New York Evening Star for printing a story about her being a husband stealer. Her price: five million! Editor Warren Haggerty (Tracy), after once again blowing off his nuptials to long-time flame Gladys Benton (Harlow), recruits ex-reporter and frenemy Bill Chandler (Powell) in a crazy scheme involving marrying him off to Gladys (and is she pissed!), hop an ocean liner to London, and return with Connie, using his “charms” to set her up on an alienation of affections rap. Bill angles his way in with the Allenburys by pretending to be a fishing expert (even though he’s no outdoorsman) and getting in Dad Allenbury’s (Connolly) good graces. Things go haywire from there as Bill and Connie fall for each other for real, then Gladys falls for Bill for real, and Warren tries to straighten the whole mess out without losing his newspaper!

Powell and Loy were riding high at the time due to the success of THE THIN MAN, and MGM wanted to keep them in the spotlight. The pair are always a joy to watch working together, and seeing the dandy Powell try to master trout fishing is a comic highlight. Powell also works well with Harlow, whom he was dating at the time, and she’s great in her role as the pawn in boyfriend Tracy’s plan. Tracy gets to show off his comedy chops too, and more than holds his own. A great bit comes when Tracy, after learning Powell and Loy have gotten hitched, tells them Harlow is wife #1, to which Jean replies “That’s arson!”.

Director Conway was a jack-of-all-genres, making everything from comedies to drama to actioners to Tarzan flicks with equal aplomb. Among his many credits are THE UNHOLY THREE , RED HEADED WOMAN, VIVA VILLA!, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, BOOM TOWN, THE HUCKSTERS, and DESIRE ME. Familiar Faces abound, including Billy Benedict (as Tracy’s office boy), E.E. Clive, George Chandler, Charley Grapewin, Selmer Jackson, Hattie McDaniel, and Cora Witherspoon. LIBELED LADY was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but lost to another Powell/Loy vehicle, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. It’s fast and funny and the kind of movie they don’t make anymore, but should. Then again, who could possibly fill the shoes of Jean Harlow, Spencer Tracy, William Powell, and Myrna Loy?

Pre Code Confidential #16: Gable & Harlow in RED DUST (MGM 1932)

(Hello, all! I haven’t been able to do much posting this week due to a severe bout of sciatica. I’m starting to feel better, and have watched tons of films while recuperating… stay tuned!)

  

Rising young MGM stars Clark Gable (31) and Jean Harlow (21) were red-hot in 1932, and the studio teamed them for the first time in the steamy romance RED DUST. Actually, Gable and Harlow had acted together in the previous year’s gangster epic THE SECRET SIX, but as part of the ensemble. RED DUST marked their first pairing as a screen team, and the duo make the film burn as hot as the sweltering jungle setting!

He-man Gable plays he-man Denny Carson, owner of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (now known as Vietnam). Denny’s a no-nonsense, tough taskmaster, as hard on his foremen as he is on the coolies. Into this manly milieu steps Vantine (Harlow), a platinum blonde Saigon hooker who travelled by supply boat looking for a place to lay low for a while. Denny’s originally against the idea, but Vantine’s playfulness soon cracks his macho armor, and the two become more than just friends.

Vantine’s about to leave on the return trip (Denny tells her, “Goodbye kid, nice having ya!”), when new engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his refined bride Barbara (Mary Astor ) come ashore. The happy hooker notices that certain look on Denny’s face when he spots Babs, and gets jealous, hoping to rekindle things with Denny down the road. Gary has developed “fever” (malaria?), and reluctant Denny helps nurse him back to health, hoping to score points with beautiful Barbara.

Guess who drops back in – it’s Vantine, after the old scow gets disabled chugging down the swamp. Denny warns her not to interfere as he sends Gary and his men out on a month-long surveying mission, making sure Barbara stays behind. Monsoon season is about to arrive, but there’s also a storm brewing  between Denny, Barbara, and Vantine…

RED DUST has the justly famous scene with a nude Harlow bathing in a rain barrel, a sequence where she’s flirty, flippant, and a whole lot of fun as Gable tries to keep her from Astor’s prying eyes. Gable and Harlow have such great chemistry together, calling each other ‘Fred’ and ‘Lily’, and their sex appeal is still heating up viewers 80+ years later. The suggestive dialogue is hot as ever, and that final scene where Harlow’s reading Gable a children’s story while he’s recuperating from a gunshot wound (“Hippity-hop, hippity-hop”, she coos while Gable tries to get frisky) is a Pre-Code classic. It’s easy to see why RED DUST put them both in the upper echelons of MGM stardom.

Stereotyped but wonderful Willie Fung

There’s chemistry and sexual tension too between Gable and costar Mary Astor. The film gave an added boost to her career as well, and Astor went on to become one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. Gene Raymond, as the cuckolded husband, was known primarily as a song-and-dance man, but here the only song-and-dance he gets is from Gable! Familiar Faces slogging through the brutal swamp include Donald Crisp, Forrester Harvey, and Tully Marshall. Comic relief of a sort is supplied by Willie Fung, a Chinese actor relegated to stereotyped servant roles. Some may view Fung’s movie parts as being racist (and they were – times were different), but Mr. Fung managed to make quite a good living in Hollywood, appearing in 138 films, from 1922’s HURRICANE’S GAL to 1944’s THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN. Though many times he went uncredited, movie buffs all know it’s Willie whenever he pops up!

John Lee Mahin delivers a rugged script, and director Victor Fleming was an MGM workhorse whose credits include THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, and tons of classic films you’ve all seen. RED DUST was a sizzling success, raking in over a million dollars in the midst of the Depression Era, and made both Gable and Harlow forces to be reckoned with in Hollywood. 21 years later, John Ford directed a remake, MOGAMBO, with a now 52-year-old Gable reprising his leading role, and co-starring Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (Jean Harlow having died tragically of kidney disease at age 26). The story scorched the box office once again, but as much I love Ford, I prefer the original, where Clark Gable and Jean Harlow simultaneously seduced us all, and soared their way into the Hollywood stratosphere.

More ‘Pre-Code Confidential’!!:

1. James Cagney in LADY KILLER

2. Walter Huston in KONGO

3. Joan Blondell in MAKE ME A STAR

4. Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU

5. The All-Star HOLLYWOOD PARTY

6. Gable & Harlow in THE SECRET SIX

7. Loretta Young in PLAY-GIRL

8. Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE

9. Cagney & Blondell in BLONDE CRAZY

10. Claudette Colbert in DeMille’s CLEOPATRA

11. 1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON

12. Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE

13. Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH

14. Lee Tracy & Lupe Velez in THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH

15. Cagney (again!) in THE MAYOR OF HELL

 

Still Great Entertainment: Gable & Harlow in CHINA SEAS (MGM 1935)

Back in the 1970’s, Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5 ran a weekend late-nite movie series called “The Great Entertainment”. For 18 years, host Frank Avruch did Robert Osbourne-like introductions to the station’s library of MGM films, way before the advent of cable. This is where I first saw and fell in love with many of the classic movies and stars of the 30’s and 40’s. When TCM recently aired CHINA SEAS, I hadn’t seen the film in decades, and knew I had to DVR it. It had made an impression on me, and while rewatching I was not disappointed; it’s still a rousing piece of entertainment!

Clark Gable is rugged sea captain Alan Gaskill, carrying a quarter million British pounds worth of gold as cargo aboard his liner heading from Hong Kong to Singapore. Jean Harlow plays ‘China Doll’ Portland, Gaskill’s in-port squeeze who comes along against his wishes. Gaskill’s former flame, refined Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), shows up, and the skipper gives China Doll the big freeze. While Gaskill tries to rekindle that old flame, Dolly takes up with wild animal importer Jamesy McArdle ( Wallace Beery ), who unbeknownst to all is in league with a gang of Malay pirates out to hijack all that loot!

This was Gable & Harlow’s fourth go-round together, and the no-nonsense he-man was the perfect foil for the brassy platinum blonde. Their Jules Furthman/Kevin James McGuiness-penned banter sparkles, with Harlow making the most out of her by-now-familiar floozy with a heart of gold persona. Beery, who appeared with the two in 1931’s THE SECRET SIX , had honed his loveable rogue role down to a science, and the three stars all shine brightly in this romp.

The diverse passenger list is a Familiar Face lover’s dream, with Lewis Stone a disgraced third officer who redeems himself in grand fashion, humorist Robert Benchley  a tipsy American novelist who spends the movie inebriated, stiff-upper-lip C. Aubrey Smith  the fleet’s owner, Akim Tamiroff a shady jewel thief embroiled with passengers Edward Brophy and Lillian Bond, Hattie McDaniel Harlow’s wisecracking traveling companion, and Ivan Lebedeff the chief pirate. Dudley Diggs, Willie Fung, Forrester Harvey, William Henry, and Donald Meek are also onboard for the ride.

For a film made in 1935, there sure are a lot of Pre-Code elements here. There’s no doubt Harlow’s China Doll is less than virginal, and the violence is fairly graphic for the era. The scene during a raging typhoon features extras getting run over by a runaway steamroller, and Gable suffers through the agonizing torture of the dreaded ‘Malay Boot’ at the sadistic hands of the pirates. Executive producer Irving Thalberg had been planning CHINA SEAS for over five years, and it seems some of those Pre-Code elements sailed right past the Hayes Office!

Director Tay Garnett was the ideal choice to helm CHINA SEAS, striking the right balance of masculine action with his deft comic touch. Garnett’s career stretched back to the days of Mack Sennett, and among his filmography you’ll find gems like SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT, SEVEN SINNERS, MY FAVORITE SPY, BATAAN, THE CROSS OF LORRAINE, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT. He dove right into episodic TV in the 50’s and 60’s, and capped off his career with a pair of family friendly made-in-Alaska flicks, CHALLENGE TO BE FREE and TIMBER TRAMPS. Garnett’s movies are well worth looking into.

CHINA SEAS is a rollicking adventure with a cast of professionals at their peak, headlined by the red-hot screen team of Gable & Harlow. I’ve been hearing a lot recently about how millennials don’t really get into older, black and white movies, but I think this film will turn anyone into a classic film buff. It’s “Great Entertainment”, indeed!

Pre Code Confidential #6: Jean Harlow in THE SECRET SIX (MGM 1931)

six1

(Once again, your Cracked Rear Viewer is taking part in the TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon, hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film  .  Just like last year, I’ll be posting on two stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Jean Harlow (8/7) and Boris Karloff (8/26).)

jean1

Before she became The Platinum Blonde Bombshell of 1930’s Hollywood, Jean Harlow played a pivotal role in early gangster films. She was James Cagney’s second moll in the essential THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and a slutty seductress in THE BEAST OF THE CITY. In THE SECRET SIX, Jean plays a temptress who turns on the mob in a wild Pre-Code film that represents another milestone for Miss Harlow: it’s her first of six with costar Clark Gable.

THE SECRET SIX [US 1931] WALLACE BEERY, JOHNNY MACK BROWN, JEAN HARLOW

Wallace Beery plays Slaughterhouse Scorpio, who rises from the stockyards to the top of the gangster heap. He accomplishes this by brute force, bribery, and rubbing out his rivals. Slaughterhouse is as thirsty for power as his customers are for bootleg booze, and he’ll go to any lengths to get it, including using sexy Ann Courtland (Harlow) to seduce reporter Hank ( Johnny Mack Brown ).

six3

Hank’s fellow reporter Carl (a moustacheless Clark Gable) is also hot for Ann, but he’s too smart to fall for Slaughterhouse’s games. Carl becomes a double agent working for The Secret Six, a mysterious group of public officials determined to take Slaughterhouse down. When Hank goes searching for Slaughterhouse’s gun, instrument of many a murder, Ann warns him that the gangster is after him. She helps him escape, but the reporter is gunned down in a subway car.

Slaughterhouse is arrested and taken to trial. His aide Metz, whom everyone thought was mute, breaks down and confesses. Ann testifies, but the rigged jury finds Slaughterhouse not guilty in a gross miscarriage of justice! Carl and Ann are about to be taken for  ride, but The Secret Six swing into action with warrants for Slaughterhouse and his mob for tax evasion, arson, murder, and deportation. There’s a violent shootout and a twist ending before Slaughterhouse is finally captured and executed by the state.

six4

This movie’s loads of fun for gangster film devotees, with its blazing machine guns, colorful slang, and seeing stars in early roles. Beery excels as the rough and tumble, braggadocios Slaughterhouse in a part tailor-made for his talents. Good old Judge Hardy Lewis Stone is on the wrong side of the law here as lawyer Newt Newton, the brains behind the brawn,. Ralph Bellamy makes his screen debut as gangster Johnny Franks, one of Slaughterhouse’s early victims, and it’s a hoot to watch Bellamy play a hoodlum! Marjorie Rambeau shines as the floozy Peaches, and John Miljan, Theodore Von Eltz, and Murry Kinnell all add to the excitement. Even Johnny Mack Brown, more known as a cowboy hero, is good his role as the doomed Hank.

six5

20-year-old Jean Harlow stands out as Anne, adding a depth of emotion to her scenes, especially her time on the witness stand. Starting out as a typical bad girl, Harlow’s change of heart during the proceedings let her show off her acting chops, and this film led to both her and Gable receiving contracts with MGM and a successful string of hits lasting until her unfortunate death in 1937. Jean Harlow’s three contributions to the gangster genre weren’t large, but were important in getting her noticed after critics excoriated her in Howard Hughes’ 1930 HELL’S ANGELS.

Unlike many early talkies, THE SECRET SIX is fast-paced and energetic, thanks to director George Hill, with a dynamite script from his then-wife Frances Marion. The cast of pros, including young Jean Harlow, bring the tale to rip-roaring life. THE SECRET SIX hasn’t received the attention and accolades of THE PUBLIC ENEMY, LITTLE CAESAR, or SCARFACE, but it’s just as exciting as those classics, and contains one of the genre’s best casts. For a wild screen ride, and a look at Jean Harlow becoming an accomplished actress, pick Six- THE SECRET SIX!

 

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

beastof1

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.

beastof5

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.

beastof2

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.

beastof3

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.

Harlow

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.