Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Ruling Voice (Warners as “First National,” 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Ruling Voice, a genuinely quirky 1931 gangster movie from Warner Bros. in “First National” drag that TCM showed early last month as part of a day-long tribute to Walter Huston. Based on a story by Rowland V. Lee (who also directed) and his brother Donald W. Lee, and scripted by Byron Morgan, The Ruling Voice goes against “type” from the get-go in casting Walter Huston as the gangland boss, not the incorruptible prosecutor going after the rackets that he played in The Beast of the City, Star Witness and other films of the period. His name is Jack Bannister, and he was a building contractor who was ruined by resisting the demands of gangsters for “protection” money — so he decided that if he couldn’t beat them, he’d take over the rackets himself with Snead (Dudley Digges in an unusually kempt performance from him — he’s nattily dressed in a snug-fitting suit instead of casual white clothes and he’s clean-shaven instead of sporting a couple of days’ worth of beard) as his right-hand man.

The film’s title comes from the metal isolation room he puts underlings in when he wants to relay orders without being seen — he locks his minions in this room and then opens a slot, where all that can be seen are his eyes, though he makes no attempt to disguise his voice, either naturally or electronically (a plot point that will become significant later). Once he realized that he was making his living in a dishonest way she would be ashamed of if she ever found out, Bannister sent his daughter Gloria (Loretta Young) away for a decade to be educated in France. Now she’s returning with a boyfriend, Dick Cheney (David Manners) — and yes, it was weird given its modern-day associations to be hearing the name “Dick Cheney” in a 1931 movie, especially attached to a character we were clearly supposed to like! — the son of a well-known and formerly well-heeled banking family which lost its entire fortune in the Depression. The film opens with a powerful montage sequence showing the intense harm the racket Bannister runs, which he calls “The System,” is doing to ordinary people as merchants and retailers bid up the price of food to cover their “protection” payments and still have a fair shot at a profit, and in typically economical Warners fashion the montage makes the point effectively and juxtaposes newspaper headlines and images showing people going without food and grocers reluctantly hiking their prices while the rackets fatten themselves and their participants, down to running off the road two trucks belonging to grocer Joe Palermo (Hector Sarno) because he made the “mistake” of buying produce from a dealer, Ed Bailey (Willard Robertson), who’d been blacklisted by Bannister and his “System.”

Next we meet Bannister and from the get-go we like him — until we realize what he’s up to — and by casting a courtly actor like Huston, best known for sympathetic roles (this was, after all, only a year after he’d played Lincoln!), as the racket boss the film takes on a very different tone from what it would have been with Edward G, Robinson bullying and snarling his way through the part. The film is at least in part the story of how Bannister is torn between loyalty to “The System” and the lavish life it’s funded for him, and loyalty to his daughter and genuinely caring what she thinks of him. Indeed, rather than try to lie to her, on their first meeting in 10 years he tells her exactly what sort of business he’s in and how it works — and it’s not clear what reaction he was hoping for, but the one he gets is her total rejection of him. She virtuously hands back the bracelet he’s just bought for her and says she no longer intends to take any money from him but will get a job and make her own way in the world. She also tells Dick Cheney she can’t marry him, leaving him befuddled as to why — obviously she’s scared that her father’s secret will taint him as well. We see Bannister in both modes, soft-hearted when it comes to his daughter and tough-minded when it comes to his business and any threats to it, including a Secret Six-like group of businesspeople headed by Consolidated Milk Company CEO Andrew Gregory (Gilbert Emery) out to destroy him and put his “System” out of business. Bannister learns about this group and recruits one of its members, Dexter Burroughs (John Halliday), to be his inside man and report who else is in the organization and just how they plan to destroy him and “The System.” He gives Burroughs a special phone number to call connected to a Dictaphone on which he can record his messages containing the secret information, but instead of either going through with the deal (Bannister had evidence of a stock manipulation involving Burroughs and his former company and used it to blackmail him) or refusing, he commits suicide while on the phone and the gunshot noise registers on the recording.

Having destroyed Bailey’s business, Bannister thinks he can be used as a pawn and summons him to the secret room — only Bailey memorizes what Bannister’s voice sounds like and starts carrying a gun, intending to shoot the owner of that voice should he ever hear it again. Gregory decides not to pay Bannister any more protection money and this starts an all-out war between “The System” and Consolidated that results in drying up the entire milk supply of the unnamed city where all this is taking place. While all this is going on, Bannister has secretly arranged for his daughter Gloria to get a job as French tutor to the young son (Douglas Scott) of Mrs. Stanton (Doris Kenyon), a contractor who took over her late husband’s business and has also been struggling under the demands of the System for “protection” money — Gloria, of course, has no idea either that her dad got her this job or that he paid off Mrs. Stanton’s previous butler and installed an agent of his own in the job — and it all comes to a climax when Gloria realizes everything and tries to get her dad to stop the milk war. Dad unexpectedly agrees but then runs into resistance from his board of directors (yes, he has one, just like a legal corporation!) — and he threatens to expose their racket and turn himself in to the police, with all the evidence needed to convict the lot of them, if they continue the war.

Bailey, delivering a message from Snead, comes to Bannister’s home and, recognizing Bannister’s voice and blaming Bannister for the previous death of his son, decides to extract his revenge not by killing Bannister himself but by doing in his daughter — only they both reach for the gun (Maurine Watkins, call your plagiarism attorney!) and Bannister is killed, the evidence reaches the D.A., the rackets are broken and Gloria and Dick Cheney are bound for a low-budget but happy life together. The Ruling Voice doesn’t contain enough of the situation that gives it its title (Warners shot it under the even more awkward working title Upper Underworld) but otherwise it’s a quite good movie: like William A. Wellman, Rowland V. Lee was several cuts above the usual directorial hacks that ground these things out at Warners, and the script contains some pretty clichéd situations but also varies and “spins” the clichés enough that we really don’t know from scene quite where this movie is going — and it’s well acted by a genuinely conflicted Walter Huston, a luminous Loretta Young and a solid Dudley Digges (with the appropriately named David Manners having little to do, as usual, except to provide a sense of decency and dignity to the sordid goings-on around him) and photographed by Sol Polito in his best proto-noir style. It’s the sort of nice little gem that got made under the studio system when the personnel on any given film cared enough about what they were doing to give it an extra measure of quality and interest.