Wednesday, April 1, 2009

“Beware the hunters who stalk their prey through city jungles!”

My television-watching schedule last night freed up around 9:30pm (I had another go-round at I Married a Monster From Outer Space [1958], a science-fiction outing of which I still have difficulty understanding the cult appeal) and so I took the other film I recently purchased from The Warner Archive out for a spin—the 1932 crime drama The Beast of the City. Made by M-G-M as sort of a scolding to those films “glorifying” gangsters (The Public Enemy, Scarface, Little Caesar), it nevertheless benefits from the Pre-Code subject matter by winking at the audience as if to say: “These films are a consummate disgrace! But they sure clean up at the box office, don’t they?”

“Fighting” Jim Fitzgerald (Walter Huston) is a dedicated police captain who’s consistently stymied by the fact that he’s unable to pin anything on notorious racketeer Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt, in a most inhumanitarian performance) to bring his empire of crime to a screeching halt. Fitz wants his superiors to stop coddling rats like Belmonte and throw the book at them, but the Chief of Police (Emmett Corrigan) responds to Fitz’s requests by transferring him to a precinct (shades of The Racket) that’s as quiet, in Jim’s appraisal, “as an old lady’s home.” By capturing a pair of bank robbers in his bailiwick, Fitz makes headlines and the mayor capitulates to a organization demanding “reform” by appointing Jim the new police chief…and he makes good on his promise to clean up the unnamed metropolis by cracking down on the city’s criminal element time and time again until he gets results.

Fitz’s brother Ed (Wallace Ford) is also a member of the police force, a lackadaisical detective whose predilection for wine, women and song has left him a bit strapped financially—but with his brother now in charge, he figures it will be a cinch to get a promotion through the ranks in record time. Fitz, determined not to show any sort of favoritism, tells his brother it’s no-go until he’s demonstrated that he deserves one. So bitter Ed, who’s hooked up with gangster moll Mildred Beaumont (Jean Harlow), agrees to let Belmonte’s right-hand man Pietro Cholo (J. Carrol Naish) in on some information regarding a transfer of cash and negotiable items he’s supervising for a company in town, and Cholo hires a pair of goons to clobber Ed and drive away the truck in which the cash (stored in filing cabinets) has been placed. Unfortunately for Ed, “Fighting Fitz” has asked a pair of his detectives (Warner Richmond, Sandy Roth) to keep an eye on his brother—so when the goons are captured fleeing the scene he learns that Ed was in on the deal. The three men are put on trial for several charges (arson and the killing of a little girl and a policeman) but beat the rap thanks to the unethical tactics of an attorney (Tully Marshall) hired by Belmonte. Wracked with guilt over the outcome, Ed begs Jim for one last chance…culminating in an incredibly violent ending to the film.

I’d be lying to you if I didn’t reveal that what originally drew me to this picture when I first viewed it long ago was the presence of Ms. Harlow—who admittedly has a small part but even then knew how to make the most of her limited screen time. Though her “romance” with Ford is one of the weak spots of Beast, she undoubtedly makes an impression in one of her early scenes, where she’s one of several women pulled in for a police lineup:

DETECTIVE: What’s your name?
MILDRED: Mildred Beaumont…
DETECTIVE: They called you Daisy Stevens back in
St. Louis, didn’t they?
MILDRED: They did…
DETECTIVE: Remember those six months you did for a pretty little extortion job?
DETECTIVE: Where were ya picked up?
MILDRED: Celli’s…
DETECTIVE: Whaddya do for a living?
MILDRED: Stenographer…
DETECTIVE: Working now?
DETECTIVE: Well, whaddya do for a living when you’re not working…?
MILDRED: Look for work…

Beast is a great deal more than just an early Harlow vehicle; it’s a hard-hitting melodrama with Huston playing sort of a proto-Harry Callahan, a man dedicated to cleaning the “crawling yellow maggots” off the city streets regardless of whether he’s violated 57 varieties of civil liberties or not. But Huston’s Fitz has been given a few human characteristics, noticeable in the scenes that show him with his family—wife (Dorothy Peterson), twin daughters (Betty Mae and Beverly Crane) and son…played by an amazingly un-obnoxious Mickey Rooney. Beast has its lighter moments as well, particularly a funny running gag in which Fitz’s police pal “Mac” McCowsky is constantly berating a reporter (George Chandler) because the newshound’s paper is incapable of spelling his name correctly. (This joke takes a tragic turn when McCowsky, dying from gunshot wounds sustained in capturing Belmonte’s goons, asks his friend for one last request: “Will you see that they spell the name right? Will ya…maybe the old lady would like…to save the clippin’s…”)

The Beast of the City wraps up its eighty-seven minute running time with one of the most memorable endings in cinematic crime—I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it but I will say it brings new meaning to “blaze of glory.” Directed by Charles Brabin and written by W.R. Burnett, John Lee Mahin and an uncredited Ben Hecht, it certainly can stand alongside the best of any gangster melodrama of its day (though I will admit it’s sort of jarring to see the man that would later become Dr. Christian as a crime lord) and it was most assuredly a sweet purchase from the Archive. The IMDb mentions an in-joke in the film—a photograph of Clark Gable that sits on a dresser in the parlor of Harlow’s apartment (the two had, of course, been seen in Red Dust that same year). But I noticed that they didn’t venture into Jean’s boudoir…where another framed photo sits on another dresser—a woman I’m almost positive is Norma Shearer.

1 comment:

rockfish said...

I'm still disheartened by this whole 'archives' thing; I certainly think that in the long run it will end up killing the mass production market, along with nearly all the multi-features that have become a big part of dvd production. Sure, we'll have access to more films, but they will be delivered in a slap-dash way, with little enhancements and extras (which may only burn a small portion of us, admittedly)... The price mark is way too high and thus will knock a lot of classic collectors out of the hobby. You can see that Warners, with half an interest, could have created some solid Clark Gable/Joan crawford sets. Now, it'll be up to the specialty houses whose access to the goods is limited by the likes of Warners et al.
It was bound to happen but I'm not going to embrace it yet. I feel that while you'll see the rare, hardly seen films, but the true gems will be given the bums rush.
I further my disgruntledness at