by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was The Pay-Off, a 1930 production from RKO noteworthy for the involvement of Lowell Sherman as both actor and director — he was known for both but this is the first time I’ve ever seen him both act and direct in the same movie — and the plot was familiar to us because we’d seen the 1939 remake, Law of the Underworld, which for once seemed better than the original. The story is perched uneasily between comedy and drama: a young couple, Tommy (William Janney) and Annabelle (Marian Nixon), spend an evening necking in Central Park, fall asleep in each other’s arms and are awakened by an officious cop who tells them it’s “almost morning” (it’s 12:30 a.m.) and they must move along or he’ll arrest them. Tommy tells Annabelle that he’s carrying $230 in cash (in the remake from nine years later his bankroll was down to $136 — were the 1930’s really that deflationary?), which will give them just enough money to get married on. They’re overheard by a robber, Rocky (Hugh Trevor), who holds them up and steals the money, leaving us to wonder, “Where’s that officious cop when they need him?”
Somehow — the script by Jane Murfin, adapted from a 1926 short story called “The Lost Game” by John Hymer and Samuel Shipman and a 1927 play called Crime they based on it, doesn’t explain how — the two young and rather stupid lovebirds trace Rocky to the home of Gene Fenmore (Lowell Sherman), gang boss of the unnamed city (though pretty clearly New York — the opening scene takes place in the same elaborate set of Central Park through which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did a dance on roller skates in Shall We Dance seven years later and the stock-footage montages of city scenes are clearly of New York locations) where all this is taking place, and wearing silly white handkerchief masks over their faces they hold up Rocky and Gene to steal back the $230. Only one of the gangsters turns out the lights in the room and when the lights come up again the gangsters have subdued the young lovers and Rocky has stolen the money back — whereupon Gene lifts it from Rocky’s pockets and gives it back to Tommy, but tells him that he can have Tommy and Annabelle arrested.
Gene insists that Tommy and Annabelle move in with him and give up their regular jobs — it’s more clear from this version than it was in the remake that his motive is that he’s after Annabelle himself and hopes that proximity will enable him to seduce her. Gene is a gentlemanly gangster (they abounded in films in the late 1920’s but were largely replaced by the snarling, almost bestial ones Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney played in their movies for Warners) who prides himself on the meticulous planning he has engaged in so that when his gang commits the robberies he’s planned for them, they can do so without bloodshed, since it’s a point of honor with him not to kill anyone. It’s also a point of honor with him only to rob people who are themselves corrupt, and his latest target is a jeweler named Colman — only he’s so distracted by Annabelle’s dubious charms that he’s holding off on giving the go-code for the Colman robbery.
Rocky decides to stick up Colman’s store without Gene’s go-ahead — he’s been angling to push Gene out of the gang and win over the gang’s other members by making them resent Gene for never taking part in the actual robberies himself, for operating an expensive nightclub called the Club Royal and for hob-nobbing with the rich (which Gene insists he needs to do to identify suitable targets for their crimes) — and he enlists Tommy and Annabelle to act as decoys. They’re to go into Colman’s store and ask to see engagement and wedding rings, and then the rest of the gang will burst in, guns drawn, and stick up the place. The idea is that Tommy and Annabelle are so naïve they don’t know that they’re helping facilitate a crime — a plot twist all too believable given the horrible way their characters are drawn, with their simple-minded gestures and annoying voices — and when the robbery occurs Rocky shoots and kills Colman, the gang members flee in time but Tommy and Annabelle are caught and grilled by the district attorney (Alan Roscoe). The D.A. is anxious to put Gene away for the robbery, and gets more than he bargained for when Rocky returns to Gene’s apartment after the Colman job, they get into an argument, they both reach for the gun, Sherman’s camera discreetly cuts away and when it returns to the scene Rocky has been shot dead by Gene, who claims to have done it in self-defense.
The gangsters agree to try Gene privately for Rocky’s murder — and Rocky pleads self-defense and also points out that under his leadership they’ve avoided murder charges (until now) and only one gang member has been successfully prosecuted for anything — and Gene escapes the vengeance of his fellow gangsters — and of Dot (Helene Millard), the slinky, dark-haired woman who was Gene’s girlfriend until she dumped him and took up with Rocky, only to get arrested by the police. In a final far-far-better-thing-I-do twist, Gene agrees to confess to Rocky’s murder (setting himself up for near-certain execution) if the D.A. will make sure to let the two kids off the hook and not prosecute them at all. The Pay-Off is an O.K. movie but, like a lot of crime films from the 1930’s, one can’t help but wish it could have been made at Warners, with faster-paced direction (the line delivery is relatively naturalistic but the film still suffers from the sluggishness endemic to early sound films) and the all-star cast for this sort of thing that Warners could have deployed, including James Cagney as Gene and Humphrey Bogart as Rocky. Law of the Underworld is a better movie in almost every way, from a more charismatic actor, Chester Morris, as Gene — Morris had real charisma while Sherman had all the charisma of a tailor’s dummy and seems almost impassive in some of his scenes — as well as two less annoying juveniles (the always charming Anne Shirley played Annabelle in the remake) and a Secret Six-derived subplot in which the D.A. is actually a special prosecutor recruiting the city’s leading businesspeople to join together against the gangs — and getting a cold shoulder from Gene, whom he thinks is just a nightclub owner and doesn’t realize actually is the big gang boss he’s after.
There are some odd diversions in The Pay-Off, especially a brief scene of a tango dance at the nightclub — it’s supposed to represent the club’s floor show and director Sherman (or was it Lynn Shores, who got credit as “pictorial director” — split credits like that were fairly common in the early sound era and usually meant that one person, the “dialogue director,” directed the actors while the other, the “pictorial director,” placed the cameras; on some of John Ford’s earliest talkies he was just the “pictorial director” and quite naturally he was upset at the demotion) takes his camera into the flies and shoots the dancers from above — and the basic story is a good one even though Gene’s noble-gangster character is literally too good to be true — but though it’s an engaging film it’s also a somewhat disappointing one, especially by comparison to the lighter-toned remake. When Charles and I watched Law of the Underworld I wrote, “I’d like to see the earlier version (assuming it exists) even though Lowell Sherman was never one of my favorites either as actor or director; it might have had more of a social context and better tapped into the doomed romanticism that’s apparently the point of the story but really doesn’t shine through the way it’s told in Law of the Underworld.”
Actually it doesn’t in The Pay-Off, either; just as the role of Gene cries out for James Cagney and gets Lowell Sherman, the directorial assignment cries out for Josef von Sternberg (who made his bones on movies like this at Paramount in the late 1920’s) and gets Sherman, a mediocre filmmaker whose best-known directorial credits, She Done Him Wrong and Morning Glory, are watchable today only because of the strong-willed female leads (Mae West and Katharine Hepburn, respectively) who triumphed over his almost nonexistent guidance (and incidentally Morning Glory established Hepburn’s reputation for winning her Academy Awards for the wrong movies; she got the statuette for that one even though the movies she made just before and just after it, Christopher Strong and Little Women, were finer films with superior directors — Dorothy Arzner and George Cukor, respectively — who got more subtle and finely honed performances out of her).