vt The Noose
US / 80 minutes / bw / Astor, Paramount Dir: Edwin L. Marin Pr: Richard A. Rowland Scr: George O’Neil, Ben Ryan Story: The Noose (1926 play) by H.H. Van Loan and Willard Mack Cine: Ira Morgan Cast: Sir Guy Standing, Frances Drake, Tom Brown, Janet Beecher, Robert Gleckler, Helen Lowell, Paul Hurst, Charles C. Wilson, Charles Richman, Tom Jackson, Charles Judels, Robert Elliott.
This movie is a remake of the silent The Noose (1928) dir John Francis Dillon, with Richard Barthelmess (who received an Oscar nomination for his role), Thelma Todd, Montagu Love and Robert E. O’Connor. Both movies were based on the play The Noose (1926), which was of especial significance in that its Broadway director and co-author Willard Mack took a gamble on casting a young chorus girl called Ruby Stevens in the role of romantic lead. Ruby Stevens soon adopted a new professional name: Barbara Stanwyck.
Orphan Nickie Elkins (Brown) and chanteuse Mary Reyburn (Drake), who both work at the niterie Club Gordon, are very much in love; Nickie hopes to be an airline pilot one day and thereby able to keep Mary in the manner she deserves. A chance encounter at an airport introduces him to Stella Bancroft (Beecher), the wife of the state governor, and the two immediately take a liking to each other—he regarding her as a “swell lady” while clearly sparking off the maternal instinct in her.
Nickie (Tom Brown) and Mary (Frances Drake), very much in love.
Meanwhile, recently elected Governor John Bancroft (Standing)—Stella’s husband—has been telling the press that all his pre-election talk of cleaning up the state and ousting the racketeers has not been just so much hot air: he really intends to come through on his promises. The reporters, as they leave, are disconcerted to recognize Buck Gordon (Gleckler), the dirtiest crook in the state, waiting to meet with the Governor. At that meeting, Bancroft reiterates his intent to drive people like Gordon out of the state or behind bars or both. Gordon, however, makes it plain that he has some kind of ace up his sleeve that will make the Governor kowtow to him. When Gordon later runs into Stella and it’s obvious the pair know and loathe each other, it’s pretty obvious that the ace involves her.
Buck Gordon (Robert Gleckler) threatens Governor Bancroft.
Back at Club Gordon, Gordon’s sentimental sidekick Sport Conley (Hurst) admires the photo that’s appeared in the press of Nickie with the Governor’s wife: “Any time I’ve got a picture in the paper there’s been a cop on both sides of me.” He tells Nickie and Mary they should get out from under Gordon’s malignant thumb—should cut and run to somewhere they can be happy together. They promise to think about it.
Stella (Janet Beecher) and her husband, Governor John Bancroft (Sir Guy Standing).
Even as they talk, an agent of Governor Bancroft, Powell (Elliott), is exposing that Club Gordon is merely the front for a gambling racket: Gordon’s gang is using the old delayed-reporting trick (after the race has finished they fake the broadcast from the track) to rig the odds against the punters.
That night Gordon decides that a jockey called Chadburn (uncredited), who was told to lose a race but accidentally won it, should be murdered on the morrow; he should be taken up in Nickie’s plane by Nickie and Gordon’s goon Doyle (Jackson), ostensibly to be taken to the next race meeting but in fact to be thrown out of the plane en route. Doyle clearly looks forward to the murder; Nickie wants no part of it, and decides simply to ignore orders. When the planned departure time comes and goes, Gordon summons Nickie and spells out a few home truths. “I’m going to use you for the rest of my life to get what I want.”
Gordon’s thug Doyle (Tom Jackson).
The reason? He’s Nickie’s father. Once upon a time Gordon was married to Stella, and they had a son. After the marriage fell apart, Gordon stole the two-year-old Nickie from her because he couldn’t think of any way to hurt Stella more. (“I didn’t want you then. I didn’t have any use for you except to torment her.”) He threw Nickie into an orphanage and then engineered that he spend time in reform school, all to toughen him up for a life of crime. Now he plans to use Nickie as his secret weapon to bring Governor Bancroft to heel—surely Bancroft won’t allow his wife’s name to be dragged through the mud.
Moments later shots ring out. Conley and Mary rush to Gordon’s office, where they find Nickie, Gordon’s gun in hand, standing over Gordon’s corpse and saying, “I had to kill him.”
Because Nickie pleads guilty but refuses to explain why he “had to” do it, he books himself a fast track to the gallows. Everyone involved except the rat-faced judge (uncredited) is extraordinarily uneasy about the sentence—even the prison warden (Wilson) charged with overseeing the execution. Most especially upset are the womenfolk within the Governor’s mansion, Stella because she liked Nickie on sight and because he’s “almost exactly” the same age as her son would have been, and the older Mrs. Bancroft (Lowell), the Governor’s mother, because she thinks the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” principle is absolute poppycock and that the only reason things like executions happen is that men are stupid. (No dissent here.)
Stella (Janet Beecher) confronts the convicted Nickie (Tom Brown), still unaware that he’s her son.
It’s hardly a spoiler to note that, in the end, Nickie does indeed cheat the gallows; the reason that he does so is enormously contrived, but it works well enough in context. By that time we’ve had our heartstrings well and truly wrung—and not in any faked way, thanks mainly to an impressive ensemble performance by the cast, from Wilson as the prison warden and Hurst as Conley to Beecher and Lowell as the two Mrs. Bancrofts. Drake leads this effort with a quite impassioned performance, culminating in her breaking down while trying to perform, on the eve of the scheduled hanging, her signature song, the one that has become special to her and Nickie: “Some Day We’ll Meet Again” (by Con Conrad and Herb Magidson).
Nickie (Tom Brown) bids Mary (Frances Drake) what the lovers assume will be their last farewell.
Drake was born Frances Dean in NYC in 1912; her family’s fortune was wiped out by the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and so she took to the stage. By 1934 she was in Hollywood under contract to Paramount, her first role there being in the George Raft vehicle Bolero (1934). Extraordinarily attractive in a bluestocking sort of way—this exaggerated properness is exploited in the opening minutes of I’d Give My Life as the plummy-voiced Mary priggishly teases Nickie about his uncouth grammar—she might have seen her screen career go far further than it did had she not married in 1939 a British aristocrat, the Honorable Cecil Howard, who disapproved of it. Inexplicably, she stayed married to this prig until his death in 1985. A couple of other movies that she made had borderline noirish interest: The LONE WOLF IN PARIS (1938) and MIDNIGHT TAXI (1937).
Tom Brown started off as a child model before becoming an actor in protonoirs like the excellent Richard Dix chaingang movie HELL’S HIGHWAY (1932), The FAMOUS FERGUSON CASE (1932) and The MAN WHO CRIED WOLF (1937). His greatest noir achievement was probably his role in The PAY OFF (1942), although his portrayal of a pugilist in the 1949 boxing noir RINGSIDE shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s probably best remembered as Smilin’ Jack Martin in the war/adventure serial The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack (1943), but it’s arguable that I’d Give My Life represents his finest screen outing. Brown served with distinction in WWII (he received a Croix de Guerre and a Bronze Star) and later in the Korean War.
Helen Lowell delivers a feisty performance as Governor Bancroft’s mother.
Although it’s far too full of implausibilities to be regarded as anything more than a minor movie, and despite a really quite nasty and utterly gratuitous racist “joke” (presumably stuck in there to gratify the inbred-white market; shorter cuts omit this debasing moment), I’d Give My Life is a very creditable piece, largely because of its cast—the contributions of Brown, Drake, Hurst, Beecher and in a different way Lowell border on exceptional. It’s also, because it keeps its subtext well under wraps, quite an effective polemic against the death penalty, or at least the mindless application thereof. Copies can be found on YouTube and on Jimbo Berkey’s site.
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