US / 83 minutes / bw / George Hill–Cosmopolitan, MGM Dir & Pr: George Hill Scr: Frances Marion Cine: Harold Wenstrom Cast: Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, John Mack Brown, Jean Harlow, Marjorie Rambeau, Paul Hurst, Clark Gable, Ralph Bellamy, John Miljan, DeWitt Jennings, Murray Kinnell, Fletcher Norton, Louis Natheaux, Frank McGlynn, Theodore von Eltz, Oscar Rudolph.
It’s the Prohibition era in the city of Centro. Meat worker Louis/Louie “Slaughterhouse” Scorpio (Beery) is tempted by his friends Johnny Franks (Bellamy) and Nick “The Gouger” Mizoski (Hurst) to join them in a minor crime for bootlegger and shyster Richard “Newt” Newton (Stone). Soon Scorpio is a regular fixture in the gang. When an attempt to start muscling in on the turf of bootlegger Smiling Joe Colimo (Miljan) turns into a gunfight between Newton’s men and a bunch of Colimo’s thugs, led by Eddie (Natheaux), Franks unwittingly shoots dead Colimo’s baby-faced kid brother Ivan (Rudolph) and, when Colimo comes seeking revenge, blames Scorpio. Colimo’s goons go after Scorpio, but he’s not seriously injured and, intuiting that Franks set him up, murders him. Newton, seeing promise in Scorpio’s brutality and stupidity, gets him acquitted of the crime and sets him up as a front man.
Reporters Hank Rogers (John Mack Brown, right) & Carl Luckner (Clark Gable) phone in stories of Franks’s death.
Scorpio manages to have The Gouger elected mayor of Centro, then has his henchman “Dummy” Metz (Kinnell)—so nicknamed because he’s a mute—murder Colimo and a couple of his sidekicks using Scorpio’s very own rod; Scorpio does, however, recruit Colimo’s enforcer Eddie to his cause.
Jean Harlow as the floozy-with-a-heart-of-gold Anne Courtland.
All this while two rival journalists, Carl Luckner (Gable) and Hank Rogers (Brown), have been circling Scorpio’s mob. Scorpio has persuaded floozy Anne Courtland (Harlow) into using her feminine wiles to persuade Hank to go easy on Scorpio. When Hank discovers the truth of her “love” from Carl, Scorpio’s tactic backfires, and Hank is out for his blood. Carl, by contrast, seems to be softer on Scorpio by either inclination or bribery; in fact, he’s working with ex-Police Chief Donlin (Jennings) and a clandestine group of social pillars—the Secret Six—to bring not just Scorpio but all of the area’s bootleggers and hoodlums to justice.
When Scorpio has his thugs murder Hank—who’s uncovered that the gun used in the murder of Johnny Franks was the same as the one that killed Joe Colimo—this is too much for Anne, who in fact had fallen in love with Hank. She goes to the DA (von Eltz); further, the cops manage to sweat it out of Dummy Metz that he’s not a mute at all and, to save his own skin, is likewise prepared to testify against Scorpio.
“Dummy” Metz (Murray Kinnell) ain’t so dumb after all.
At the trial, Newton, defending Scorpio, manages to trash the testimony of both Metz—who proves to have a record as long as both your arms, under names including not just Metz but Fink and Hagen—and then Anne, whose acceptance of $100,000 in gifts plus the rent on a swank apartment hardly matches her attempted honest-girl persona. Even so, Scorpio’s guilt is palpable . . . but Newton has bribed the jurors, who to the fury of the judge (McGlynn) deliver a Not Guilty verdict.
Lewis Stone as shyster/bootlegger Richard “Newt” Newton.
It’s time for the Secret Six to step in, obtaining a spectrum of different warrants against Scorpio for everything from grand larceny to tax evasion (shades of Al Capone!). In the ensuing raid, which soon degenerates into a massive shootemup, Scorpio, believing Newton is planning to betray him, shoots the shyster dead, then flees to throw himself on the mercies of ageing floozy Peaches (Rambeau). She, however, has never forgiven him for killing her lover Johnny Franks and, cackling with glee, locks him in a closet and invites in the cops . . .
This has all the punch and pace of a Warner Bros. gangster movie—except that it happens to have been released by MGM. Hill’s direction can’t be faulted, and there are some excellent performances, notably from Stone as the scheming shyster with the occasional tendency to sample his gang’s produce not wisely but too well. Although Bellamy’s character is bumped off in the first reel, his rendition of the outwardly charming yet completely heartless Johnny Franks is well-nigh haunting, as in a neat little sequence after he has set Scorpio up to be murdered. Scorpio doesn’t drink (“Make mine milk—not skimmed,” he announces in tough-guy fashion at a speakeasy). Colimo and his men having departed in search of Scorpio, Franks notices Scorpio’s untouched bottle of milk. Slowly, a half-smile on his face, he moves with deep meaning as he picks the bottle up and drops it in the waste basket.
Although Gable had made quite a few movies by this stage, almost all of his parts had been minor ones, often uncredited. He therefore appears well down the cast list here, but in fact his role is central; he emerges as the type of dashing young justice-seeking journalist who was a staple figure in lots of 1930s crime movies and, with the clothing more rumpled and the drinking habit a bit more of a problem, would also serve staunchly in many a classic-era film noir. His character, Carl, doesn’t develop into the romantic lead to complement Harlow’s glamour, as one might expect; but street cries during the brief closing credits suggest he became so after the movie’s close.
Beery, unfortunately, can’t resist tossing in the occasional hammy double-take, and overall is the movie’s weakness; he is no Broderick Crawford in the vaguely comparable ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949). Luckily everything else (except Rambeau’s performance, which smacks of silent-movie histrionics, only you’ve got to listen to it too) is working so well that it hardly matters. Indeed, it’s possible to read the movie as if the ex-slaughterhouse man is, in his own mind’s eye, not so much being a gangster as a slaughterhouse man watching himself playing a gangster role, as if unable quite to believe his rapid ascent through the criminal hierarchy.
On Amazon.com: The Secret Six