by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I picked out a DVD of a 1932 independent “B” called Officer 13, produced by M. H. Hoffman for his Allied Pictures company and directed by George Melford, who actually made two genuinely great movies: The Sheik, with Rudolph Valentino, in 1921 and the Spanish-language version of Dracula in 1930 (where his visual sense and flair for atmospherics surpassed Tod Browning’s work in the English version). Alas, this was a pretty straight by-the-numbers romantic melodrama, written by Frances Hyland from an “original” story by Paul Edwards and photographed without any flair or atmospherics whatsoever by Harry Neumann and Tom Galligan.
The best part of the film is actually the first reel and a half or so; the cameras track motorcycle cops Tom Burke (Monte Blue) and Sandy Malone (Charles Delaney) as they go on about their business on the real streets of L.A. as they existed in 1932. The city looks refreshingly undeveloped and surprisingly small town-ish as the two cops encounter an Italian fruit vendor (he convinces them not to ticket him because he’s rushing to the hospital to be with his wife, who’s just given birth to triplets) and several other characters, and are inveigled by Malone’s son Buddy (Mickey Rooney, still using the name “Mickey McGuire” — his real one was Joe Yule, Jr. — and, as I joked at one point in the film when his performance seemed oddly restrained, “He hadn’t yet learned to overact”) and his friend Sammy (Jackie Searle) to take them to school after lunch.
Then the plot rears its ugly and almost superfluous head: Malone encounters a speeding car with two people in it, a man and a woman, and gives chase. We cut to the speeders — and the woman implores the man to slow down, pull over and accept a ticket, while he insists he can outrun the cop and lose him. Burke follows Malone with the other motorcycle — oddly, he uses his siren while Malone does not — and eventually the woman pulls the car keys out of the ignition, it stops, but the car’s driver deliberately rams Malone’s cycle, sending it off the road into a patch of California desert and causing Malone to fall and get an injury that doesn’t seem all that dangerous when we watch it, but which we later find out (predictably) is fatal.
It turns out that the woman was Doris Dane (Lila Lee), daughter of a respected judge (Lloyd Ingraham), and her companion was a notorious gambler, Jack Blake (Robert Ellis), whom she was running off with to get married despite her dad’s understandable objections. At first she agrees to lie for him and say that the accident was caused by the cop’s motorcycle hitting a rock — and between her perjury and a $5,000 bribe arranged by Blake and Trixi DuBray (Seena Owen), the owner of the secret, illegal casino where he gambles (though the insert was too blurry to let us see whom she was bribing, or why), the coroner’s inquest rules the death an accident. Burke, of course, is convinced Malone was murdered — especially since Malone himself told him so in the hospital just before he expired — and in a gesture eerily premonitory of the ending of Dirty Harry he takes off his badge and hands it to his police chief (Joseph Girard), saying that he’s now going to seek his revenge against Burke and do so as a private citizen, unconstrained by the legal restrictions on a cop. The chief agrees to help him under-the-table and agrees to stake him to the money he needs to make a good impression at the secret casino — including a tuxedo for him to wear there — and eventually the casino is raided, Trixi is arrested, Burke dies of a fall out of a window while he was trying to flee, and Burke and Doris end up together.
Officer 13 was a workmanlike story with potential to be at least a good (if not great) film, but it needed noir-type atmospherics (the flat, even-toned photography clashes uneasily with the moral dilemmas faced by the characters, especially Burke) and even more than that it needed naturalistic acting and line delivery. Though this was made in 1932 it had the stagy feel of an early talkie from 1929, with the actors speaking v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully avoiding saying their lines until the actors ahead of them had finished their cues. The only actors who actually speak with any degree of realism are the kids, Rooney and Searle; and Frances Rich as Joan Thorpe, Doris’s friend and confidante, who puts Lila Lee to shame in naturalism and general acting skills in each of their scenes together.
It’s surprising that people who had major, or at least semi-major, careers in the silent era — Monte Blue co-starred with Raquel Torres in the beautiful South Pacific pastoral White Shadows in the South Seas; Lila Lee (like her director here) worked with Valentino (as the nice girl in the 1922 Blood and Sand); and Seena Owen worked with Gloria Swanson and Erich von Stroheim in the ill-fated 1928 production Queen Kelly — came up with such a dull movie; but then this sort of thing was typical of producers like M. H. Hoffman, who basically just ground them out as quickly as possible with no tolerance even for the kinds of experiments other low-budget producers allowed their directors. Not surprisingly, the box for the DVD we got this on (from a company called Alpha Video with an American-flag logo) made it seem a good deal more exciting than it turned out to be (“REVENGE! CORRUPTION! MURDER!!”) — but, despite the predictable plot and mostly atrocious acting, it’s still fun for the glimpses of L.A. city life in 1932, vouchsafed to us only because the producer didn’t have enough money to rent space at a studio with a backlot!