The year 1933, available to sample into March during Film Forum’s appealing 66-film program, was Hollywood’s last risqué hurrah before the Production Code put its stranglehold on film output for decades to come.
Political corruption, killings, predator bosses, vigilante solutions, and oodles of undies still featured prominently on American screens. Prison dramas had also been a thriving film sub-genre ever since Frances Marion won an Oscar for writing MGM’s The Big House two years before. Michael Curtiz’s 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, shown this Tuesday, is a powerful film, and Spencer Tracy’s breakthrough performance as convict Tommy Connors cannot be ignored, but reformer warden Lewis E. Lawes, on whose book the movie was based, weighed on the production in such a way that today the picture feels generic and sanctimonious, as does Arthur Byron, the fine actor who plays him. The ending especially feels like a tidy wrap-up, a replay of the opening, noting all the years being served in Sing Sing. A pre-release Variety review (Oct 28, 1932) described a much more sardonic ending, with Connors’s electrocution broadcast blow-by-blow all over the land, concluding with bandleader and radio star Ted Lewis asking, “Is Everybody Happy?”—a line familiar to every American home in 1933, but also echoing the gallows humor of the men seen earlier on death row.
But nothing beats Universal for abrupt endings, a Carl Laemmle Jr. specialty. In 1932, when his novel Laughter in Hell hit the bookstores, Jim Tully was no longer the intellectual roustabout once embraced by Hollywood. The ex-“hobo writer” lived in a nine-room mansion, and his closest experience with jails was confined to his reporting and his frequent efforts to keep his rapist son out of stir. But Universal didn’t care: After the sensation of Mervyn LeRoy’s 1932 I Am a Fugitive on a Chain Gang (which remains fresh and shocking even today), Laemmle Jr. wanted to enter the chain-gang fray, pronto. Edward Cahn directed Laughter in Hell, a rare curio about grave-digging convicts kept in cages on wheels. One of the cons reads Schopenhauer. Pat O’Brien is affecting as the murderous cuckold railroad engineer who ends up there, his lethargy equal to Cahn’s matter-of-fact approach to often gruesome material. Cahn shows the black convicts moaning “Leaning” all the way to the rope.
A year earlier, Rowland Brown had used blacks and folk songs to better effect in his seminal Hell’s Highway. Blood Money, which rounds up the Forum triple bill, is superb pre-Code example of Brown’s underhanded style that today feels the most modern of the lot: George Bancroft is a bail bondsman, living off crime and the corrupt judicial system. While it introduces monocled lesbians and rich klepto-nympho thrill-seekers, Hell’s Highway is neither violent or leering. Judith Anderson, in her first screen role, is a good foil for Bancroft, but goody-two-shoes Frances Dee will surprise many as the uptown Miss Bitch. Blood Money is a gangster film about the middleman. The pace is leisurely and the tone pleasantly cynical, making us wish Brown had made more movies. (As a writer-director, he only managed four.) Only the eight-ball gag at the end is corny, but that was Darryl Zanuck’s addition.