Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: DAY OF RECKONING (1933)

For some reason Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer borrowed Richard Dix from RKO to star in this Charles Brabin film. Dix was Radio's top male star of the Pre-Code era but that's not saying much. He had little more than size going for him, with neither the common-man appeal of older lummoxes like Wallace Beery or Victor McLaglen nor the virile charisma of a Clark Gable or Gary Cooper. He made the transition from silents to talkies easily enough but wasn't really that good with dialogue. Still, he had starred in Cimarron, and that meant something to people. It didn't mean he was a true leading man, regardless of what RKO claimed, and Day of Reckoning seems to acknowledge this by leaving the Dix character alone at the end after everything seemed to point toward a romance between John Day, the well-meaning petty embezzler who spends two years in jail, and the Day family maid (Una Merkel) who acts more like a mother to his children (including little Spanky McFarland) than does Day's actual wife (Madge Evans). Mrs. Day's extravagant ways forced John into crime, while Mamie the maid selflessly carries on after John's conviction leaves the household without income. Mamie has a suitor, but it's Stuart Erwin for crying out loud, so you assume the poor milkman for all his modest decency won't stand a chance against Dix. A romance between John and Mamie seems inevitable once Dorothy Day takes a secretarial job with John's friend George Hollis (Conway Tearle), who starts an affair with her. This liaison enrages Kate the head secretary (Isabel Jewell), George's former favorite and lover. The story takes an unexpected sharp turn when Kate confronts the new couple at George's place and shoots Dorothy to death. George goes to jail for killing Kate and ends up in the same cell block as John Day. This, then, is the Day of Reckoning....

In prison, John has befriended a likable counterfeiter (Raymond Hatton) and another con who cracks from worrying over his wife's fidelity. We see this latter loser taken to the mental ward after getting a letter confirming his worst fears. All his histrionics foreshadow Day's reaction to the circumstances of his wife's demise. Dix tries to go over the top when the moment comes but he was always more beef than ham and goes about his suffering too self-consciously to be convincing. Once John figures out how to get at George Dix is on safer ground, able to rely on brute force. Like Dix, Brabin rises to the occasion. The county jail is a high-rise, and John finds George taking a sun bath on the roof. Brabin films their fight on a high-rise roof as if he'd studied at the feet of Harold Lloyd. The action is persuasively perilous, though if the fight was staged Lloyd style the danger to actors or stuntmen wasn't that great. The authenticity gives the film an energy it otherwise lacks, but Brabin follows it with a terrible process shot of Dix and Erwin riding through the countryside in a horse-drawn carriage, the background shifting from left to right to represent the shaking that neither actor can pantomime. They're on their way to a decisive meeting with Mamie the maid, who's taking care of John's kids on a farm. Jerry the milkman is anxious because he's thinking like we in the audience: Mamie loves those kids so much that she probably should marry John and be their mother for real. And doesn't John need a wife as well as a mother for his little children? Apparently not. Mamie, the true heroine of the film, picks Stuart Erwin over Richard Dix. But it looks like she'll still be raising those kids for John Day, yet in the end it's John -- the hero, the protagonist -- who ends up looking superfluous. So maybe Metro had to borrow Dix from Radio because none of their own male stars would take such a thankless role. Still, the fact that the hero doesn't get any girl at the end of the picture is one thing that makes Day of Reckoning stand out as an unorthodox picture even for the Pre-Code era.

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