Shadow of the Law (1930)

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Can William Powell really be the hardened criminal he seems?
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US / 70 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Louis Gasnier Scr: Max Marcin, John Farrow Story: The Quarry (1913) by John A. Moroso Cine: Charles Lang Cast: William Powell, Marion Shilling, Natalie Moorhead, Regis Toomey, Paul Hurst, George Irving, Frederick Burt, James Durkin, Richard Tucker, Walter James, Oscar Smith, Harry Strang.

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After a night on the town—seemingly their first date—young engineer Jim Montgomery (Powell) brings home his somewhat hatchet-faced upstairs neighbor at the swanky Franklin Apartments on NYC’s 72nd Street, Ethel George (Moorhead), and inveigles his way into her apartment on the pretext of “a last cigarette” (“or cigar,” he suggests in a Pre-Code manner).

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Jim and Ethel come across Ethel’s lover Lew (Richard Tucker).

Alas, waiting therein is her brutish lover, Lew Durkin (Tucker), a Chicago millionaire. Jim backs off, asking the elevator boy (Smith), “Why didn’t you tip me off?”

Elevator boy: “I tried to catch your eye, but your eye was caught already.”

Later that night, as Lew starts violently indicating his displeasure concerning her extracurricular canoodling, Ethel flees in panic to Jim’s apartment. Lew bursts in behind her and, in a scuffle with Jim, falls from the window to his death.

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Jim (William Powell) realizes his predicament.

By the time the cops arrive, Ethel has hastily packed and scarpered, having told Jim she can’t afford the scandal and exposure that the incident’s bound to generate. Without her testimony, Jim is promptly arrested by Detective Lt. Mike Kearney (Burt) and put away for life.

In jail, Jim shares a cell with a professional criminal, Pete (Hurst), and the two become improbable friends. Indeed, when the Warden (Durkin) promotes Jim to be in charge of the machine shop and offers him special privileges if he’ll worm out of Pete the details of some heist or other, Jim not only doesn’t comply but warns Pete about what’s happening. By way of gratitude, Pete gives Jim a suit he’s been making so that, should he escape, he’ll be able to dump his prison gear and fade into the background.

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Jim’s cellmate and soon bosom pal Pete (Paul Hurst).

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The warden (James Durkin) makes Jim an offer.

So far, this has all been pretty much as you’d expect from a B-movie—except, obviously, for the casting. But the escape-and-chase sequence, through clever direction, cinematography and pacing, genuinely ratchets up the level of suspense. It’s the kind of staging that most B-movies didn’t even try for.

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A couple of years later, Jim has reinvented himself as John Nelson and built a successful career, being now manager of the textile mill owned by Colonel Wentworth (Irving) in Suffolk, North Carolina; furthermore, Jim/John is engaged to Wentworth’s pretty daughter Enid (Shilling), even though she looks to be about half his age (and in reality Shilling was about half Powell’s age).

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Jim John’s charming young fiancee Enid (Marion Shilling).

One day there arrives at his office a “Mr. Jones”—who is of course our friend Pete, released at last and keen to renew the old friendship. Overjoyed to see him, Jim/John pleads with him to take a wad of $5,000 to NYC to offer Ethel—who’s been located by private detectives Jim/John has hired—as a bribe to keep her silence. Now going by the name of Ethel Barry, she promptly shops Pete to the cops and heads for Suffolk, North Carolina, en route picking up local lad Tom Owens (Toomey). She makes her intentions plain:

Ethel: “And I couldn’t get here fast enough.”
Jim/John: “I appreciate that.”
Ethel: “And don’t think it was five thousand dollars that brought me here, either.”
Jim/John: “No?”
Ethel: “No. It was fifty thousand.”

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Jim/John (William Powell) scowls as he recognizes Ethel . . .

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. . . but Ethel (Natalie Moorhead) is unabashed.

Jim/John has been doing his best to keep Enid and her father out of all this, to the point that Enid is beginning to wonder if their engagement’s falling apart:

Enid: “I was wondering why you dislike me so much.”
Jim/John: “Dislike you?”
Enid: “What else can I think, the way you’re always avoiding me?”
Jim/John: “I didn’t know I was.”
Enid: “Then you’re the only one. Even Father makes fun of me. He says I’m like the Northwest Mounties—out to get my man.”

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Enid (Marion Shilling), dancing with Tom (Regis Toomey), knows there’s something awry but she doesn’t know what.

But then Kearney arrives, pointing out to Jim/John that fingerprint evidence alone will be enough to prove that John Nelson is really the fugitive Jim Montgomery. And so, as they go through the factory, Jim/John plunges his hands into some whirring machinery . . .

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Lieutenant Kearney (Frederick Burt) is determined that one day he’ll track Jim down.

With a cast like this, it’s surprising that Shadow of the Law is relatively obscure; there’s even a bit part for the redoubtable Harry Strang as the prison barber. William Powell’s career had yet fully to hit its stride—The THIN MAN (1934) was a few years away yet—but by the time of Shadow of the Law’s release he was well stuck into the popular series of PHILO VANCE movies begun with The Benson Murder Case (1930). Natalie Moorhead is probably best remembered, alas, as the actress who wasn’t Agnes Moorehead, which is very unfair to her; she was in her day a fairly prominent actress, and for good reason. (There’s a Natalie Moorhead blogathon planned, but in my customary way I’ve lost the details . . . er, filed them carefully away somewhere. If you have them, please let me know in the comments.) Regis Toomey has very little to do here.

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Tom Owens (Regis Toomey) is unsure why Ethel (Natalie Moorhead) picked him up on the train en route to Suffolk.

Marion Shilling, perhaps because of her loveliness (although from the evidence here she was a perfectly competent actor), was one of those who started her career with fairly prominent roles, including the one she has here, but soon slid down cast lists until eventually she was playing mainly in Poverty Row oaters; we encountered her here most recently in Inside Information (1934). By the time she was in her mid-twenties her career was over. The following year, in 1937, she married and lived happily (we assume) ever after—or at least for the next 60+ years, until her husband died. She herself died in 2004 at the grand old age of 93.

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Jim/John (William Powell) and Enid (Marion Shilling) talk of their love.

Paul Hurst, who committed suicide in 1953 having been diagnosed with cancer the previous year, is probably most remembered for his innumerable appearances as the dimwit sidekick at whose antics we’re supposed to (and often in fact do) laugh aloud; try him as Ricardo Cortez’s butler in Bad Company (1931), for example—in fact, just type “Paul Hurst” (with quotes) into the Frisk the Suspect box at the right here for a selection of his roles. I think this is the first time I’ve seen him play a straight part, albeit as a character whose application letter to MENSA may well go unanswered, and he’s by no means bad in it. He had well over three hundred screen roles, perhaps most famously in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943; okay, so I was wrong about not having seen him in a straight role before) and Angel and the Badman (1947). He also directed over fifty movies and had screenplay credits for half a dozen. Some dimwit.

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7 thoughts on “Shadow of the Law (1930)

  1. Edith: “I was wondering why you dislike me so much.”
    Jim/John: “Dislike you?”
    Edith: “What else can I think, the way you’re always avoiding me?”
    Jim/John: “I didn’t know I was.”
    Edith: “Then you’re the only one. Even Father makes fun of me. He says I’m like the Northwest Mounties—out to get my man.”

    Should this be Enid or is there a third lady whose name begins with “E” somewhere in the plot?

  2. I always thought I had a good grasp of the pre-code era through festivals and an extra-keen interest and love for the period, but here is another example that I haven’t taken in a good number. This 70 minute feature stars William Powell, who as you note became a household name after the THIN MAN films, but surely his work here is significant as well. Another excellent and captivating piece here!

  3. I admit I always think of Agnes Moorehead whenever I see Natalie Moorhead’s name. My problem is that I’m not very familiar with Natalie’s work, and this film sounds like one to rectify that. Plus, William Powell!

    Also, you’ve given me a new appreciation for Paul Hurst’s career. I had no idea he was so busy behind the camera.

    • I hadn’t realized that Hurst was such a bright spark either until, watching this movie, I thought it might be interesting to check out his filmography . . . and then discovered his biography. A remarkable guy.

  4. I recently saw this and a few other of William Powell’s movies before The Thin Man. He was such a great actor. His pre-code work was amazing. Especially with Kay Francis. Marion Schilling said she was very nervous to work with him, but found him extremely thoughtful and one of the kindest human beings she ever met.

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