X Marks the Spot (1931)

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Not that you’ve seen this plot before, but a journo has to prove his innocence of . . . murder!!
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US / 69 minutes / bw / Tiffany Dir: Erle C. Kenton Pr: Sam Bischoff Scr: Warren Duff, Gordon Kahn Cine: Gilbert Warrenton Cast: Lew Cody, Sally Blane, Wallace Ford, Mary Nolan, Fred Kohler, Charles Middleton, Virginia Lee Corbin, Joyce Coad, Richard Tucker, Clarence Muse, Helen Parrish.

X Marks the Spot 1931 - 0 opener

Back in September 1923, while working on the Bradford Blade, smartass ambulance-chasing reporter Ted Lloyd (Ford) followed a story about a child having been knocked over in the street to discover that the child in question was his kid sister Gloria (Parrish). At the hospital he learned from the surgeon (uncredited) that Gloria would almost certainly never walk again unless Ted could somehow raise $5,000 to send her to a specialist in Germany, Dr Müller.

Ted tried to borrow the money from his editor and great friend, the Blade’s George Howard (Cody), but George simply didn’t have it: he could lend Ted a few hundred at most. Ted’s best friend, Harry B. Miles (Middleton), the local DA, responded similarly.

X Marks the Spot 1931 - 1 Ted argues with editor George

Ted (Wallace Ford) argues with editor George (Lew Cody).

In desperation, Ted turned to the local crime kingpin, Edward P. Riggs (Kohler), and offered to sell him all the dirt on his pal DA Miles if he’d lend Ted the $5,000. Riggs responded furiously, socking Ted on the jaw and telling him a cold truth about ethics, even as practiced among hoods:

Riggs: “Now listen, brother. I’ve needed money just as bad as you do, but I never squealed on a pal in my life. Remember that, kid. And, as for the district attorney, I’ve got him right in my vest pocket.”

Suddenly having sympathy, Riggs fished $5,000 in cash out of his safe and gave it to Ted, not as the loan Ted had requested but as an outright gift. Ted told him he’d never forget this . . .

Eight years later, and George and Ted are both working at the crappy tabloid the New York Daily Gazette, George as the City Editor and Ted as the gossip columnist. One day Ted picks up from his chorus-girl friend Hortense (Corbin) the story that one of the others on the chorus line, Vivyan Parker (Nolan), has gained herself a sugar daddy who’s fixed her up with a swanky Park Avenue apartment, a chauffeur-driven Rolls, and much more besides.

Ted: “Thanks, Hortense. I’m going to do something very, very nice to you.”
Hortense: “What?”
Ted: “I’ll run a picture of you in the paper.”
Hortense; “Aw, they always run my pictures.”
Ted: “I’ll run one with your clothes on.”

X Marks the Spot 1931 - 3 Vivyan climbs into her ill-gotten Rolls

Vivyan (Mary Nolan) climbs into her ill-gotten Rolls.

Ted puts the story in his column, and the next thing the Gazette knows is that Vivyan is suing it for $500,000 in libel damages. George sends Ted late at night to Vivyan’s apartment to try to get from her a signed release form for the story, and Ted inveigles his way into her presence by bribing the apartment block’s servant Eustace Brown (Muse). Eustace is black and so, in time-honored Hollywood tradition, is portrayed throughout as a child-minded, easily corruptible subhuman rather than as being more like one of the illiterate inbred rednecks in the audience who thought this was funny.

Good for Vivyan: even though Ted threatens to expose her rich lover, E.T. Vaughan, she gives him a strong clue as to what he can do with his release form and throws him out.

Next day Vivyan is found strangled in her apartment and Ted, as the last person to see her—and, as Eustace testifies, to have loudly argued with her—is the prime suspect. Released on bail, he sets out to try to find who’s the real killer, and discovers it was his old benefactor Riggs. Torn apart by the ethical dilemma, Ted immediately agrees to raise money to help Riggs escape and, if necessary, to face the ultimate penalty rather than betray the man who, eight years ago, gave back Gloria (now played by Coad) her life.

X Marks the Spot 1931 - 4 Gloria overhears big bro Ted speaking with Riggs

Gloria (Joyce Coad) overhears big brother Ted speaking with Riggs.

But, despite Ted’s efforts, the cops, led by Detective Kirby (Tucker, I think), track Riggs down. There are courtroom scenes, a final shootout, and all the usual stuff you expect from movies of this kind.

X Marks the Spot 1931 - 5 Riggs cusses out Ted as a dirty sneaking rat

Riggs (Fred Kohler), not without justification, cusses out Ted as a dirty sneaking rat.

Some of that stuff, alas, includes not just the racial stereotyping of Eustace but some semitic stereotyping: a middleman who helps Ted in his search for the killer, Sol Mintz (uncredited), is a sort of cartoon Jew.

Even so, this is quite an interesting piece. The figure of the investigative reporter getting mixed up in organized crime and solving a murder is hardly an original one in Hollywood, both before and since, but the fact that Ted genuinely does have an ethical problem to solve is more unusual. This point of interest is actually helped by the fact that the version of the clichéd “smartass reporter” character offered to us by Ford is a particularly irritating one: that such an apparently shallow figure should start having to dig into his own resources in order to behave like a normal human being is far more gripping than if he’d been a moral paradigm.

X Marks the Spot 1931 - 6 Riggs in court cottons sidekick Pegleg (uncred) has smuggled him a gun

Riggs (Fred Kohler), in court, cottons on to the fact that sidekick Pegleg is either pleased to see him or has smuggled him a gun.

Blane is appropriately glamorous as Ted’s secretary and sweetheart Sue—she doesn’t have a very great deal to do. In fact, she doesn’t really figure in the plot except as an extra.

X Marks the Spot 1931 - 2 Sue anticipates her next kiss from Ted

Sue (Sally Blane) anticipates her next kiss from Ted.

Parrish, playing the injured kid sister here, would a decade or so later play the romantic lead in the unrelated X MARKS THE SPOT (1942); you’ll find more about her in my entry on this site for Mystery of the 13th Guest (1943). Middleton, with his bit part here as the best-friend DA whom Ted is all too willing to sell down the river, is better known as Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon (1936), Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).

X Marks the Spot 1931 - 7 The final shootout

The final shootout.

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You can find X Marks the Spot on Jimbo Berkey’s site here. As far as I can work out, this is about as good as you’ll get for image quality—not great, as you can deduce from the screengrabs above. You can’t exactly see this movie as a frontrunner for Criterion restoration, but here’s hoping that someone releases a better version.

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6 thoughts on “X Marks the Spot (1931)

  1. Thanks for the link to the movie as I’m quite curious, despite the stereotypes, which as I get older I seem to have less and less tolerance for (isn;t that the opposite of what is supposed to happen as you get older? I’ll let you know …) – thanks John.

    • The Pre-Code aspect of this seemingly politically incorrect themed NYC Newspaper vs Gangster film is in totally 1931 flavor of the time & it is rare as all get out ! I SHOULD KNOW as I just had my only 16mm print of it transferred so that ALPHA VIDEO (www.oldies.com) can now sell it internationally on DVD for $5.98 ! It has a Gangster in it with a heart of gold but still murders chorus gals! It’s from poverty Row Tiffany Studios (who also produced the ultra rare early talkie series “THE VOICE OF HOLLYWOOD”) with which I have also compiled my Mint Visual original 16mm prints transferred so that Alpha video could also sell the only in any format compilation of as many of the one reelers from that lost tho historical important series I amassed! THIS DVD lists FROM THE COLLECTION OF JOHN K CARPENTER on the back of the DVD case’s wraparound art cover!

  2. Another I don’t know of, but the pre-code period has always been one of my favorites. Suburb review and a wake up call for those who think they have this era covered.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sam. This one I think is of interest because, unlike so many B-features, it does try to probe a genuine ethical quandary, and within the limits of budget doesn’t make too bad a job of it.

      Unlike the movie about which I’ll be posting on Wednesday . . . 🙂

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