Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Road to Ruin (Willis Kent Productions, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Road to Ruin turned out to be a surprisingly good movie by the meager standards of the exploitation genre — well above such 1930’s camp classics as Reefer Madness, Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell, Sex Madness, Cocaine Fiends and the like. The direction was co-credited to Mrs. Wallace Reid (Dorothy Davenport) and Melville Shyer, and though there was no screenwriting credit the two co-directors were probably responsible for the script as well, especially since Mrs. Reid — who got her exploitation-film cred by being the widow of the first of so many movie figures to die a drug-related death— had written a version of the same story, under the same title, for a 1928 silent film produced and co-written by Willis Kent (who produced this one as well) and directed by Norton S. Parker. Variety complained that the 1934 version was considerably milder than the “hotly sexed” silent, though another trade paper, The Exhibitor, called this one “a vast improvement over its silent brother” and said it “lends itself to commercial exploitation.”

Willis Kent produced non-exploitation films as well (including the 1932 mystery Sinister Hands, which isn’t an especially great film but does have Mischa Auer in a rare — and quite well played — non-comic role) and he wasn’t trucking around with a projector and a print the way really sleazy exploitation entrepreneurs like Dwain Esper (who liberally filled out his film Narcotic with clips from the silent version of The Road to Ruin) and Kroger Babb did, and where his film scores far above the exploitation brethren is in its quality of production. The directors and their cinematographer, James Diamond, clearly had an eye for composition and lighting — especially in the exteriors (notably a scene in which the protagonists take a boat ride and the dappled sunlight seen through the trees and reflected on the water recall those in the Sternberg An American Tragedy) — and they had a cast that, with one rather obvious exception (Paul Page as Ralph Bennett, the man who completes the heroine’s ruination, who delivers his lines in a first-day-of-drama-school monotone and has utterly no expression at all, though that may have been the directors’ idea to make him seem more sinister), is quite competent.

Helen Foster, who’d starred in the silent Road to Ruin as well, gets above-the-title billing as Ann Dixon, whose clueless parents (Richard Tucker and Virginia True Boardman) watch helplessly as she sinks from good little schoolgirl — we know she’s good because her classmates seek her out for help on their homework — to wanton passenger on the titular road to ruin, and she’s effective within the limits of the didactic script — while Nell O’Day as her friend Eve, who gives her the first shove onto That Road, is even better: she’s a striking screen personality and her platinum-blonde hair makes me wonder why a major studio didn’t snap her up and try to make her a competitor to Jean Harlow. (At the same time, a story about a girl named Ann — as close to “Adam” as they could get in a woman’s name — being led into temptation by a woman named Eve is an indication of how obvious this film’s symbolism really is.)

Ann gets tempted down the Road to Ruin when Eve pulls up in a car driven by her boyfriend Tommy (Glen Boles), who has the hots for Ann; and Tommy’s friend Ed, who’s interested in Eve and is hoping to pair Tommy with Ann so he can have Eve for himself. Gradually Ann and Tommy do develop a relationship, and Tommy takes Eve on that boat ride and then takes her to a wooded glade, where it’s not clear whether he actually has sex with her or not — first they’re making out, then there’s a cut and when the scene resumes they’re both standing up and she’s readjusting her clothes while he’s apologizing to her, but it’s kept ambiguous whether he actually got into her pants or she successfully fought off his attempts to do so.

They then turn up at a lodge that’s a sort of nightclub (though the film was released in 1934, the dates shown in written documents as part of the movie indicate the time frame as mid-1933 and evidently Prohibition is still in effect, since the customers at the nightclub are shown bringing in their liquor in flasks and our four wanton high-school kids are able to get in without being carded) with a wretched but somewhat appealing jazz band whose lead instruments are xylophone, violin and subtone clarinet. (They’re probably the best band Willis Kent’s budget could afford, but their mediocrity adds to the dramatic verisimilitude; one doesn’t get the impression, as one does in major-studio productions of the period, that we’re hearing a much better band than this sort of establishment could afford — though when the characters switch on radios and we hear the same musicians, it does jar because by 1934 radio stations were getting top-flight talent to play on-air.) Tommy and Ed get incapacitatedly drunk and two older seducers, Ralph (Paul Page) and Brad, see their opportunity and move in on Ann and Eve, respectively.

Things come to a climax at a party which is raided by the police after the participants go swimming in a pool in their underwear — in one example of the relative subtlety of this film compared to other exploitation numbers, the people who call are a middle-aged couple who live next door; the wife is determined to call the police and shut the party down, but the husband is unwilling to make the call because he’s having too much fun watching the scantily-clad young girls — and Ann and Eve find themselves confronted by a social worker (a butch woman wearing a severely tailored suit and a necktie, which was probably “read” by 1934 audiences — at least those sexually savvy enough to be watching a movie like this!) who insists that they’ll be released as soon as they’re “examined” (“Examined!” they respond in horror) but their parents will have to be told what they’ve been up to.

The medical examinations reveal that Eve has syphilis — she’s sent off for treatment (the standard treatment of the day would have been Dr. Ehrlich’s arsenic compound, salvarsan) and within a month or so she’s declared cured — but Ann, though she’s been spared any STD’s, has met an even worse fate: Ralph has knocked her up. She expects him to marry her — the fool! — but he explains that he’s already married, and he arranges for her to have an illegal abortion; when we hear the abortionist subtly slurring a few of his words, we’re all too aware what fate is in store for her, but it duly happens. Ralph at this point decides to turn Ann out as a “party girl” — in the virtual-prostitute sense that phrase usually meant in the early 1930’s — but that never quite happens (the American Film Institute Catalog plot synopsis says it does but the sequence was probably cut from this print) and instead she’s overcome by the infection that incompetent quack stuck her with, she sees a legitimate doctor but too late to do anything, and there’s a surprisingly moving death scene in which her parents are with her and try to take the blame for her fate, but she nobly refuses to blame her impending demise on anyone but herself and then expires.

The Road to Ruin is a surprisingly good film for the genre, but it’s still an awfully limited genre. As well shot and staged as it is, the titular road to ruin looks like an unbelievably decorous one. With one exception — a mysterious “brew” Ralph offers Ann just before he has sex with her for the first time — the characters don’t do any substances stronger than tobacco and alcohol (and Charles and I had a lot of fun trying to guess what the “brew” was, with him thinking it was a “Spanish fly”-style aphrodisiac and me thinking at first it was laudanum — opium dissolved in alcohol — or maybe absinthe; it certainly wasn’t a modern-style date-rape drug since Ralph was shown taking it himself, and there wasn’t the obligatory scene of him slipping something into her drink but not his own common to movie date-rape scenes then and now) — and the film really doesn’t have much of a sense of pace: Ann lumbers along on the road to ruination so slowly she’d be in no danger of being arrested for speeding.

It impresses more because the competition was so awful than because it’s all that great itself; the filmmakers try to show their story with humanity and understanding but their didactic purpose (or, rather, the didactic purpose they had to pay lip service to in order to get their film made and shown at all) defeats them — and while the participants on this film’s road to ruin at least seem to be having more fun than their confreres in such films as Reefer Madness, it’s still one of those movies whose main efficacy in deterring “sin” (or at least what its makers defined as such) is to make the demi-monde seem so boring it hardly seems worth the trouble!