Painted Faces (1929)

A courtroom drama—think 12 Angry Men but with a circus clown as holdout juror!

US / 70 minutes / bw / Tiffany–Stahl Dir: Albert Rogell Scr: Frederic Hatton, Fanny Hatton Story: Frances Hyland Cine: Jackson Rose Cast: Joe E. Brown, Helen Foster, Barton Hepburn, Dorothy Gulliver, Lester Cole, Richard Tucker, Purnell Pratt, Mabel Julian Scott, Allan Cavan, Jack Richardson.

Painted Faces - 0 opener

Not Henry Fonda.

As the stage manager (Richardson) welcomes the various new acts backstage at a vaudeville theater, it’s plain there’s an ongoing “situation” between the conjurer The Great Roderick (not seen) and a freshly arrived pair of hoofers, Bobby Barton (Hepburn) and Lola Barnes (Gulliver). Although Bobby and Lola coyly insist on separate dressing rooms, they are clearly an item . . . and, equally clearly, The Great Roderick is the fly in the ointment of their love. As Bobby tells Lola, uncaring of the flapping ears around them,

“We won’t play on the bill if that rat is here, making a play for you the way he has for two months now. . . . If he puts his hands on you again I’ll get him if it’s the last thing I do!”

So, when a shot rings out one night during a performance and The Great Roderick is discovered dead on his dressing-room floor, Bobby standing in the doorway with the murder weapon in his hand, fingers of suspicion can point in only one direction.

Painted Faces - 1 Bobby tells Lola how he hates The Great Roderick

Bobby (Barton Hepburn) tells Lola (Dorothy Gulliver) how he hates The Great Roderick.

We, as audience, know immediately, just from the setup, that if there’s anyone innocent on the premises it’s going to be Bobby, because that’s the way movies work, but even Lola clearly suspects him. Her reactions to the death indicate both (a) Bobby was likely quite right to suspect shenanigans and (b) Dorothy Gulliver couldn’t act; director Rogell thereafter wisely limited the demands upon her thespian abilities to looking earnestly supportive in court.

Painted Faces - 3 While Lola is supportive in court, Bobby is too intense for his own good

While Lola (Dorothy Gulliver) remains steadfast in court, Bobby (Barton Hepburn) is perhaps too intense for his own good.

For court is where we next find ourselves, with the DA (Tucker) summing up the overwhelming circumstantial evidence as to Bobby’s guilt. The jury retires, and it’s pretty obvious what their verdict’s going to be.

Painted Faces - 2 The DA grandstands while painting Bobby as irrefutably guilty

The DA (Richard Tucker) grandstands while painting Bobby as irrefutably guilty.

The movie then enters a phase that seems strongly to prefigure the classic noirish courtroom drama 12 ANGRY MEN (1957). Eleven of the jurors’ ballots read “Guilty” while the twelfth demurs. That twelfth ballot was cast by the juror Herman (Brown), a foreigner with a thick Mittel-European accent (someone refers to him as a Dutchman, but that seems a non-literal term) who’s better known to the outside world as Beppo the Clown. Beppo’s just certain that Bobby’s innocent, and that all the circumstantial evidence in the world won’t convince him otherwise.

(Round about here, it crossed my mind that it was a pleasant relief that for once, in a Hollywood movie of this era, it was a white man whose speech mannerisms were being ridiculed by the rest of the cast. This happy thought lasted, alas, only as long as it took to get to the much later scene in the Chinese restaurant . . .)

Cue attempts by other members of the jury to intimidate Herman, verbally and even borderline physically, and his obduracy in the face of all their threats and cajolings. Unlike the case with 12 Angry Men, Herman doesn’t succeed in winning over the other jurors one by one—in fact, he presents no logical arguments in support of his opinion, just irrelevancies such as the fact that it’s Christmas. Come to that, the other jurors don’t present any logical arguments either; when a woman (Scott) whines that he’s tormenting her thweet widdle innothent children, who’re going to have a lousy Christmas because she hasn’t yet bought their presents, or even the tree, Herman quite rightly retorts:

“I’m sorry about your kiddies, but I can’t vote to hang a boy just because you haven’t done your Christmas shopping.”

Painted Faces - 4 Herman is such a timid person, yet holds the other jurors hostage until they see things his way

Herman (Joe E. Brown) seems such a timid person, despite his public persona, and yet he holds the other jurors hostage until they see things his way.

Other jurors just want the boredom of their confinement to end but, says Herman, “A boy’s life is worth more than our time.”

Finally he does a deal with the foreman of the jury (Pratt). Herman will tell them all a true story. If, at the end of it, they still want to find Bobby guilty, he’ll go along with them.

And so we go into a whopper of a flashback. After his stage partner died, Beppo the Clown raised the partner’s orphaned daughter Nancy (Foster). As Nancy neared the age of 18, her “Daddy Beppy” began to realize that his emotions toward the girl were no longer entirely paternal. She, of course, assumed he was a fossil; besides, she soon fell under the spell of a singer attached to the circus, Wally (Cole), not to mention his sensuous ukulele-playing. (This may be the only movie in history in which the ukulele is regarded as a seductive instrument.)

Painted Faces - 5 Our first introduction to the sweet-faced Nancy

Our first introduction to the sweet-faced Nancy (Helen Foster).

Of course, it all ended in tragedy. Wally finally got his wicked way with Nancy, she (or so it’s hinted) suffered the predictable biological consequence, and her beau blithely dumped her—so far as he was concerned, she was just another in a long string of conquests. She was found dead in the river with a suicide note in her hand . . .

When Herman/Beppo gets to the end of this tale, the jurors are rapt: there’s nary a dry eye in the room. But, as the foreman sadly points out, however affecting Herman’s tragedy might have been, it has absolutely zero relevance to the current case.

As per a sewer during a rainstorm, for much of the latter part of the movie my heart was slowly filling with a world-weary dread. Surely the movie’s makers would not be so crass as to introduce this plot twist in the finale, combined with this other one? Either of the two alone would be enough to have grown men weeping into their hastily poured bourbons. But combine the two and . . . well, oh jeez, where did I put that bourbon?

Once those plot twists are out of the way, there’s in fact a further ploy twist the moviemakers could have introduced—a jolly good one, even though I say it myself. However, just at the moment when I thought they were going to do so, they didn’t.

The movie contains quite a few mentions of circumstantial evidence. There’s not any actual discussion of its pitfalls; just a constant restating of the assertion that it has them. This must have been a bit confusing for Helen Foster, who here plays the part of the flighty Nancy, because in this same year, 1929, she was one of the stars of a movie called Circumstantial Evidence, alongside Cornelius Keefe and Alice Lake. This latter is a movie I should probably watch, should I ever find it; it seems unrelated to Charles Lamont’s CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE (1935), noteworthy as a precursor of Fritz Lang’s classic BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956).

Foster, perhaps best known for her starring roles in both the 1928 silent version and the 1934 talkie remake of the exploitationer The Road to Ruin, is the major casting success of Painted Faces. She captures her part perfectly. We can see precisely why Herman/Beppo regards her as the sweet young innocent whom he’s adored as a surrogate daughter, and yet we also see her as a minx who has him twisted around her little finger and enjoys the ease with which she can manipulate him.

Painted Faces - In the Chinese restaurant, Herman is goosebery to Wally and the far younger Nancy

In the Chinese restaurant, Herman (Joe E. Brown) is gooseberry to Wally (Lester Cole) and the far younger Nancy (Helen Foster).

In trying to assess Joe E. Brown’s performance as Herman/Beppo, we first have to negotiate the hurdle of his phony Dutch(?) accent. It’s a reasonable assumption that his character was given the accent as a device to emphasize outsiderness, to enhance his vulnerability and to create the dichotomy that this seeming goon, a figure of fun as he stumbles over colloquialisms and sentence construction, is a man of deep passions and one who has seriously lived, unlike (it seems) any of the other jurors. The device works quite well to achieve those aims, but it comes at the cost of, too often, a near-crippling disruption of the movie’s pacing. Painted Faces has pacing difficulties anyway, with a couple of insignificant sequences bumped out far beyond their worth, so, when the ponderous slowness of Herman’s speech patterns is chucked into the mix, the effect is pretty calamitous.

Yet in other respects Brown’s contributions to the movie are quite impeccable. His screen career had started just a couple of years earlier; before that he’d been a professional circus and vaudeville performer (and also, as I’ve just learned, a professional baseball player). Not only could he perform all his own stunts in the movie, he was able to bring a sense of complete conviction to its circus and gymnastic displays: when we see him in the ring, he’s not an actor giving us a rendition of a clown but an actual professional circus clown doing what he knows how to do. Yes, some of the physical gags are corny, but that’s what circus clowns’ physical gags are supposed to be; and we laugh aloud because Brown delivers them superbly.

Painted Faces - closer And it's Christmas - see, there's Santa!

 And it’s Christmas — see, there’s Santa!

Aside from Pratt (who plays the foreman) and Scott (one of the jurors), the actors playing the jurors aren’t credited—a strange move in that some of them have a fair amount of screen time. According to TCM, the actors playing the women on the jury, aside from Scott, were Alma Bennett, Florence Midgley and May Wallace; those playing the men were Howard Truesdell, Baldy Belmont, Jerry Drew, Walter Jerry, Russ Dudley and Clinton Lyle.

Painted Faces is by no means a must-see movie, but it’s an interesting item for reasons other than just its being a fairly early entry in Brown’s filmography—and, come to that, a fairly early talkie. On those occasions where everything’s working together as it should, Painted Faces tells its tale quite well. Here’s arguably the most important line in the movie (and you’ll have to watch it to find out why), delivered by Purnell Pratt in his role as foreman of the jury:

“When we came in here, we were all sworn on oath not to reveal by word or deed anything that happened in this room. Is that right? Will we all remember to keep that promise?”’


This is a contribution to the “Crimes of the Century” meme at the Past Offences blog; the year being focused on for June 2016 is 1929.

It’s also a last-minute contribution to the “Order in the Court” blogathon being run by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch and Second Sight Cinema (click pic below). By odd coincidence, the movie about which I’ll be posting on Wednesday, the 1929 original of the famous 1940 Bette Davis vehicle The Letter, is also in large measure a courtroom drama.


15 thoughts on “Painted Faces (1929)

  1. Pingback: ORDER IN THE COURT! NOW… | CineMaven's ESSAYS from the COUCH

  2. I’m with a previous commenter – why isn’t this film more well known?

    I have a soft spot for Joe E. Brown so I’m keen to see this for his unusual character. I like the thought of this character’s strange accent and his worldliness. (And who knew he was a baseball player!)

    Thanks for yet another introduction to an intriguing film!

    • why isn’t this film more well known?

      One reason (and I’m just guessing) could be if there are no decent surviving prints. It’s probably not an important enough movie for anyone to think to go to the expense of a restoration job. It’s in the public domain, so . . .

      • Ah well, yes this makes sense. Happily, you are doing your part to make a lot of these lesser-known films (to me) more well known. I suppose we could call you a Classic Film Noir Activitist.

  3. You’ve pulled me in, hook, line and sinker John! Love TWELVE ANGRY MEN and the subject in general. This is the first time I’ve heard of it to be honest! Great stuff here!

    • This is one of those I really think you’d have a ball if you saw it, Sam. It’s obviously not a patch on 12 Angry Men, even though the comparison’s perfectly valid, yet it’s one of those movies when, once you’ve seen it, you realize that a small (quite tiny, in fact) gap in your cinematic knowledge has just been filled in. That’s certainly the way I felt: oh, look, another little piece of the jigsaw.

  4. Pingback: ‘Where are you hanging out now?’ The #1929book results | Past Offences: Classic crime, thrillers and mystery book reviews

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