Saturday, April 10, 2010

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #53 (Walter Huston edition)

Tuesday was a great movie-watching day on what my pal Rick Brooks calls The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ because TCM rolled out a number of rarities to salute birthday boy Walter Huston. I find that the more Huston films I watch from the 1930s—American Madness (1932), The Beast of the City (1932), Gabriel Over the White House (1933), etc.—the more I come to appreciate what a fine actor he was. (He would ultimately receive his due in 1949, when he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his one-of-a-kind performance in son John’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre [1948].) Though I wish I had waited for Beast to come on again before buying a copy from the Warner Archive, I was able to record and save three genuine gems featuring this amazing actor…and as always, there may be spoilers ahead.

The Criminal Code (1931) – “It was my first really important part,” observes Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff), as he catches “himself” in a clip from this film on a hotel television in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968)…and that’s the truth, Ruth—many have credited his performance as the sinister prison trustee/butler with helping pave the way for his greatest role, that of the Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Karloff’s turn as the murderous Ned Galloway (whom he’d also played on stage) and Howard Hawks’ direction are the two reasons why you should make it a point to catch Code, since the film is admittedly sluggish and creaky in parts. Huston plays a crusading D.A. who puts away a poor sap (Phillips Holmes) for ten years (said sap killed a guy in a restaurant in a clear case of self-defense, only his ineffectual lawyer doesn’t say so) and when he’s appointed the warden of the prison (after losing a gubernatorial race) their paths cross again; Holmes has gone stir crazy after six years of working in the “jute mill” so Huston gives him a job as his driver. Complications arise when Holmes witnesses the murder of a prison stoolie; the prisoner’s code demands he remain quiet but Huston badgers him with “the criminal code.” Fortunately, Karloff decides he can’t let his pal take the rap and so he comes clean with a shootout at the end. Oh, and I should point out that Holmes falls in love with Huston’s daughter (Constance Cummings) along the way in one of the most unconvincing romances ever on celluloid. Andy “Hiya Buck!” Devine plays one of the prisoners (though he’s uncredited)—which left me wondering just what it was he could have done to warrant incarceration.

The Ruling Voice (1931) – One of the things I love about Walter Huston is that even when he plays a bad guy he does so with such grace and panache that it’s really difficult to dislike his character…and The Ruling Voice is a first-rate example of this. Huston is Jack Bannister, the head of a crime syndicate called “The System”; said syndicate shakes down various enterprises for protection…which leads to a rise in the price of groceries, building materials, etc. and general unrest among the general public. Bannister is ruthless and cold-blooded in all his dealings (though not without his own charm) except one: he dearly loves his daughter Gloria (Loretta Young) and would do anything for her; when she discovers the nature of his business and is repulsed by his line of work he makes plans to quit…but it’s not as easy as all that. There’s a first-rate cast in this little sleeper, particularly Dudley Digges as Abner Snead—Bannister’s right-hand man who sometimes seems to be the real boss—and Doris Kenyon as a widow whom Bannister befriends. There are a few unintentional laughs in this film as Bannister’s daughter’s fiancé is named “Dick Cheney” (and is played by Dracula’s David Manners) but for most of the film’s hour-and-twelve minutes running time it’s a taut little actioner directed by Rowland V. Lee. (This movie used to be listed in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide but has since disappeared from its pages—what’s up with that?)

The Star Witness (1931) – Huston’s back in D.A. mode as he attempts to convince a family—headed up by patriarch Grant Mitchell—to testify against a notorious hood (Ralph Ince) and put the smackdown on the gangster’s reign of terror. The problem is, Mitchell got quite a working over from Ince’s boys and he’s a bit gun shy—but when son George Ernest is kidnapped by the gang, it’s up to foxy Grandpa Charles “Chic” Sale to not only rescue the boy but blow the whistle on Ince’s organization. This gutsy little thriller was directed by William Wellman, and is one of my favorites of his films; the familiar plot of criminals being able to intimidate witnesses even though it’s necessary for “honest citizens” to blow the lid off their respective rackets has been done to death but “Wild Bill” is able to infuse Witness with some interesting and offbeat touches. Our Gang member Dickie Moore is in this one as Mitchell’s youngest son and Nat Pendleton plays—wait for it—a thug (he’s also in The Ruling Voice [1931] in pretty much the same role, though uncredited) in Ince’s employ. (Typecast again!)

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