Memo to MGM: Tread Loudly in Gangster-land

Chester Morris (left) watches for prison guards while ____ searches for smuggled guns.

Chester Morris (left) watches for prison guards while Joseph Calleia searches for smuggled guns.

Crime was big business in the 1930s.

Okay, crime is always big business but during the early 1930s, movie audiences couldn’t get enough of sneering criminals. Perhaps it was an emotional purging – it was the Depression after all.

Warner Bros. were the Kings of the Gangster Pictures, and they certainly knew how it was done. A good gangster picture is more than blasting guns and squealing tires. It’s tense and mean in character and plot.

It’s only natural that other studios would want to make gangster pictures. Even MGM dabbled in the genre – 1935’s Public Hero #1 being one example.

MGM was Hollywood’s premier studio, home of lavish musicals, Andy Hardy movies, and epics about southern belles in green curtain dresses. But gangsters?

Don’t get us wrong. It’s not that MGM shouldn’t – or couldn’t – make a good gangster picture. It’s just there were times that MGM couldn’t help itself from being so…MGM-ish.

Let’s look at Public Hero #1 to show you what we mean.

THE TITLE
The phrase “Public Enemy No. 1″ became popular in the 1930s. It was famously used in reference to Al Capone and John Dillinger, among others. In 1931, Warner Bros. released The Public Enemy, a film about an ambitious Chicago gangster. (The film was criticized for glamorizing crime.) In response, MGM released Public Hero #1 in 1935.

Memo to MGM: The title is almost a parody of itself; it makes us think we’re in for a Preston Sturges treat. A gangster picture must be soaked in Attitude, especially its title.

THE OPENING
Public Hero starts with promise. The main character (Chester Morris) in prison, and he’s always griping about something, e.g. “You ain’t got enough screws in this joint to keep my mouth shut!”

Good stuff, right? Watch as Morris starts a food fight in the prison cafeteria, befriends the kingpin of a vicious gang, and beaks off at the prison warden.

Memo to MGM: The prison warden is Lewis Stone? He’s too soft for this gig. Someone’s likely to plug him when he ain’t looking.

THE LOVE INTEREST
After escaping from prison, Morris meets Jean Arthur, who is funny and smart alec-y like she always is. The scenes of Arthur and Morris falling in love are charming and amusing; you start wishing the movie was about the romance instead.

Memo to MGM: If you’re in the middle of a gritty gangster picture, you can’t suddenly morph into a Capra-esque comedy. We feel like we’re watching two different movies and it’s distracting. Instead of getting a 2-for-1 deal, we feel like we’re watching two half movies.

Wait a minute. Are we in a Frank Capra movie? Image: sdkjf

“Hang on – how’d we end up in a Frank Capra picture?” Image: Tout le Cine

LIONEL BARRYMORE
Barrymore gets top billing, but he’s not in the film as much as he could be. He plays a doctor whose only clients are gang members. His character is almost always drunk, and Barrymore skillfully steers between comedy and pathos. In one telling scene, Barrymore muses about the gang. He tells Morris he’s saved 17 gang members; “all but three are alive.” He wonders about the point of it all.

We wonder if this is why he drinks.

Memo to MGM: Listen, you mugs. This is LIONEL BARRYMORE. Here’s your big chance to show us the not-so-obvious victims of gang warfare, and why we need so-called Public Heroes. Instead, the action sneaks past Barrymore so it can get back to shooting lousy coppers.

However.

Even though we’ve been a bit rough on this movie, we do recommend it. The story is interesting with unexpected twists, and the acting is superb. The most outstanding feature is the cinematography, with really unique and dynamic camerawork.

Memo to Self: If you want a gangster movie with MGM sentimentality, check out Public Enemy #1. For all its flaws, it’s worth it.

Public Hero #1: Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Chester Morris. Directed by J. Walter Ruben. Written by Wells Root. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1935, B&W, 91 mins.

This post is part of the MGM BLOGATHON hosted by the lovely & talented Silver Scenes. Click HERE to see the other posts.

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18 comments

  1. Nicely done! LB coulda learnt lots from the likes a you mugs!

    This was such fun to read on yet ANOTHER movie I’ve never seen. I’m gonna go check if it’s on Warner Archive instant!

    Aurora

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  2. Wonderful and witty post. You really hit the nail on the head with this one. They got the swanky nightclub scenes in their gangster films right, but the molls always looked like ladies (unlike those Warner Brothers dames) and the men just looked too comfortable in a tux. And somewhere, there was always a chandelier….

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  3. “Public Hero #1″ does zig-zag back and forth, but the cast is game and you can’t help wanting to see how it will all turn out. I had it on a few months back and it held the hubby’s attention. He’s never said anything, but it looks like he’s got a thing for Jean Arthur.

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  4. Ruth, I must admit I never heard of Public Hero #1, but now I’m kinda interested I’ll keep an eye out for this movie! :-D

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  5. Haha! Great post, and so spot on with the MGM steeped in sentimentality idea. Whilst I generally advocate playing to your strengths, I’m kinda glad MGM stepped outside their self-created box and made this. It’s not the best gangster film I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly not the worst (although the fact that it was an over saturated market in the 30s means there’s more turkeys to chose from, but I’ll overlook that!)

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    1. You’re right – it’s not the best gangster film made, but it’s far from the worst. I adored the “romantic comedy” scenes with Jean Arthur… yet I loved the tense all-business gangster scenes. I just wish there were two full-length movies instead of one.

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  6. Nice memos, Miss Selznick! :)
    I liked this movie a lot, and Lionel Barrymore is superb. I think it has attractions for all kinds of public, and I can only complain that Jean and Morris come to an understanding too fast in the end. I was expecting at least a small argument in the train!
    Kisses!

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  7. Great post! 1930s movies were often about the co-mingling of different, wildly divergent genres. It’s one of the hallmarks of the era, and I usually don’t mind it. Sometimes it was done better than other times, though. Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore were always the best.

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  8. I love how you wrote memos to MGM for this post, Ruth! Since I am normally not that attracted to gangster movies, I think I might like this one since it has a bit of romance in it. I see why you think it should be 2 different movies, though. I am intrigued and will be on the lookout for it.

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    1. This is a film that’s worth checking out because the performances are so good. Even though the film seems a bit double-minded, the actors are able to switch from one storyline to the other with ease.

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