Saturday, November 2, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE BEAST OF THE CITY (1932)

Ominous opening credits over a sinister image symbolic of the title are followed by an upbeat patriotic march as a written prologue by the President of the United States scrolls up the screen. It was supposedly at Herbert Hoover's instigation that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan production company initiated The Beast of the City. Hoover (no relation to his crimefighting employee J. Edgar) was one of the first to express alarm at the supposed glorification of gangsters in movies. In a movie meant to glorify the police, the President expressed his belief that gangsterdom could be routed if public opinion got behind the cops. At the creative end, the first strange decision was to get an original story from W. R. Burnett. He was the author of Little Caesar and would go on to write High Sierra and The Asphalt Jungle. These works give an idea of where Burnett's sympathies really sat. But if the movie of Little Caesar glorified Edward G. Robinson, presumably The Beast of the City, as scripted by John Lee Mahin (and an uncredited Ben Hecht), would glorify Walter Huston's policeman hero. If so, the writers had, to say the least, an interesting idea of glory.

Charles Brabin's direction is unusually modern, at least early on. The picture opens with (for the time) a realistic observation of police techniques. Brabin's camera pans across a dispatch office, catching a lot of overlapping dialogue and sound effects. It takes several minutes for a plot to get started but Brabin keeps things interesting until then. When the cops finally find evidence of a gang murder, the camera follows Huston's ambitious police captain as he makes his way through Sam Belmonte's nightclub to the lair of Belmonte himself (Jean Hersholt is a strangely Germanic Italian) to bring the gang chief in for questioning. At headquarters, Huston wants to give Hersholt the third degree but is held back by superiors until it's too late and the lawyers arrive to spring their client. Huston is a family man; we see him at breakfast, attended by a son (Mickey Rooney) and twin daughters who make terrible pancakes. The weak link in the family chain and the police force alike is Huston's brother and brother officer (Wallace Ford). If the object of this picture was to glorify the police, no one told Ford, who plays his part in full loser mode. Possibly owing his position to nepotism, Ford hopes for advancement as his brother rises through the ranks, yet falls into the clutches of a vamp. From the advertising, you might think that Jean Harlow had the title role in this picture; it's certainly her most outright evil role. As one of Hersholt's molls, she seduces Ford and gets him to collaborate in crime, disgracing Huston's family.

Harlow supported the release of Beast in person in select cities

Let's get to the glorification. They must have wondered about the glorification angle at the studio until someone had the idea of a blaze of glory. Here's the set-up: Hersholt gets acquitted of murder because Ford is too much of a loser to testify about what he knows. Ashamed, he tries to make it up to his brother by tipping Huston off that the Belmonte gang is celebrating their court triumph at Hersholt's nightclub. I don't know what Ford had in mind, or thought that Huston had in mind, but our hero has had enough of criminals getting away with murder and so on. He leaves his life insurance policy out for his wife to see in the morning and gathers a picked team of similarly sick-and-tired cops outside the nightclub. Inside, the gang (with Harlow) revels, mocking an effigy of the Huston character set up in uniform as the guest of dishonor. Ford appears to tell Hersholt off once and for all. Just as he's about to get his ass kicked, Huston and his men appear. As for what follows, actions speak louder than words, so I'll show you the clip. David Inman uploaded it to YouTube.

For pure volume of violence only the battle scenes in All Quiet on the Western Front top this, and I don't think it would be equaled until The Wild Bunch, which is what this sequence reminded me of the most, from the mocking revelry of the villains to the ensuing war of annihilation. Supposedly, the brass at M-G-M realized that their little armageddon had fallen short of the glorification goal, and as you've seen they promoted it as a Jean Harlow picture. In a way, however, they hadn't failed. The Beast of the City works as a counterpart of the seminal gangster films, adopting an equally hard-boiled attitude (including lots of Pre-Code references to "hop"), only from the police point of view. The apocalyptic imagination at work must have faithfully represented a widespread frustration at the waxing power of organized crime and the apparent inadequacy of established means of dealing with it. Beast is a preview of the quasi-"fascist" films of the following year or so -- including Walter Huston as a possessed President in Gabriel Over the White House -- that imagine extraordinary, extralegal measures against unprecedented criminality. Those films are an essential if not pretty part of Pre-Code cinema, while The Beast of the City, if not the pro-police propaganda President Hoover envisioned, is a respectably intense crime drama in its own right.

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jervaise brooke hamster said...
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