Here's a Warner Bros. gangster film from 1931 -- the year of The Public Enemy and a year after Little Caesar -- that most fans of the studio and its signature genre probably haven't heard of. That's most likely because Rowland V. Lee's film -- he directed and co-wrote it -- doesn't really feel like a Warner Bros. gangster film. That's not just because it's technically a First National release. Consider the two I mentioned, the founding films of the category. Both follow the rise of a gangster from lowly beginnings. That had to be a big part of their provocative appeal in Depression days. It was easy to identify with Rico or Tom Powers while nodding solemnly with everyone else when they got their comeuppances. By comparison, it's hard to identify with Jack Bannister (Walter Huston). Not only does he start the film on top of the criminal world, but it's hard to identify with the man who gives you a higher grocery bill in those same Depression days. Why does your milk and produce cost more when you can least afford the increase? Because Bannister runs a protection racket on the wholesalers and truckers who bring the stuff to your store. Buck him and your drivers will start going off overpasses, as illustrated in a nifty model shot. Why fight, anyway, even if Bannister increases his take, when you can pass the cost on to the consumer? If Ruling Voice is innovative at all, it may be in its portrayal of gangsterism as a kind of big business. Bannister meets with a board of directors (including an unbilled Charles [Ming] Middleton and Nat Pendleton) in an imposing office and treats his occupation like it's all a big game. He enjoys power and is ruthless in pursuit of it, but he's not a cruel man -- and that will prove his undoing.
Bannister is master of every contingency. When concerned citizens form a secret committee to investigate and destroy him, he somehow immediately identifies one of the members and induces the hapless man to spy on the committee for him. This arrangement is thwarted only by the poor man's suicide, the gunshot heard by Bannister played back on a homemade record. Dealing with his own daughter (Loretta Young) isn't so easy. He's kept his sordid business secret from her while she gets a posh European education on his hard-earned dime. She comes home intending to marry Dick Cheney -- don't worry! It's only David Manners -- but concerned about whether her father lives up to the Cheney's social expectations. Quizzed about his occupation, he spills everything, feeling he owes her the truth. Needless to say, she walks out on him, wanting nothing to do with his money and determined to make an honest living on her own. Her education comes in handy as she lands a position as a French tutor, but it turns out that Dad had arranged for a socialite friend who owes him a favor despite a lingering grudge (Doris Kenyon) to hire her. Meanwhile, he has to decide what to do with a defeated enemy. The man is confined in a steel cell and can only hear Bannister's voice -- the Ruling Voice of the man he's never seen. He vows revenge for his ruin, and his son's collateral death, but Bannister inexplicably lets him go. Feeling guilty for ruining his daughter's social chances, he contemplates quitting the business, but his board won't let him go. A milk company backed by the secret committee is bucking the racket, and they need Bannister to lead them in all-out war. This he does, reluctantly but ruthlessly, but the committee proves it can be just as ruthless. Through the socialite, they threaten to kidnap Bannister's daughter to force his surrender. In turn, he threatens to kidnap the socialite's small son -- or worse. Again, the younger Bannister forces the issue, browbeating Dad into capitulating. Now he's no good to the board anymore, but none of them have the stones to take him down. They have a patsy, however -- a man who could be triggered to kill at the sound of a certain voice....
Hokey, isn't it? Movie reviewers at the time already recognized Ruling Voice as an old-fashioned story. After seeing something more closely resembling reality in recent Warners pictures, they rebelled against Lee's melodrama. "None of the characters seems very real," The Film Daily decided, "and the players have difficulty in overcoming this handicap." That sounds like the film I saw. Huston is fatally pleasant and bland as the head racketeer, lacking completely the hunger of Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Of his co-stars, only Dudley Digges really impresses with a performance suited to the material as a cynical, scheming underling who encourages Bannister's worst instincts but ultimately shows him no real loyalty. The rest are cardboard. The film promptly sunk into the memory hole of cinematic history, only to be salvaged by TCM and the Warner Archive. The Ruling Voice illustrates an unintended consequence of unexpected success. Warner Bros. had so completely revolutionized gangster pictures by October 1931 that they had guaranteed that one of their own pictures would be instantly obsolete.
Also salvaged was the original trailer, available as usual from TCM.com.