by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Bill Cracks Down, a 1937 melodrama with comic overtones from the early days of Republic, produced by William Berke, directed by William Nigh (the best film I’ve ever seen of his, not that that’s saying much for it) from a script by Darrell and Stuart McGowan that opens with quite a lot of stock footage of a steel mill in operation — we were watching one of Republic’s 54-minute TV edits of one of their old features, though since the original was only seven minutes longer we weren’t missing much and it was clear one of the reasons we were getting so much stock footage (probably from industrial promotion films) was just to pad the damned thing out to mini-feature length — before we learn that the name of the mill is the Reardon Iron and Steel Company (20 years before Ayn Rand made one of the protagonists of Atlas Shrugged a steel-company owner named “Hank Rearden” who invents an entirely new blue metal of his own with literally impossible properties of strength and durability — that’s Rand for you; the power of capitalist entrepreneurship is so great it transcends the laws of physics!) and its owner, William Reardon, Sr. (Pierre Watkin), whose great joy is ditching his front-office responsibilities and going into furnaces to prove he can still out-shovel the proletarians, is dying of heart trouble.
He’s concerned about what will happen to his company when he finally croaks and his scapegrace son, William Reardon, Jr. (Ranny Weeks, identified in the American Film Institute Catalog as an “orchestra leader and radio star” making his film debut here), comes back to take it over as his inheritance, so he writes a will stipulating that Reardon, Jr. won’t inherit the company at all unless he works for one year under the supervision of Sr.’s foreman and best friend, “Tons” Walker (Grant Withers, top-billed and less annoying than usual — three years later Nigh would actually get a heart-felt performance out of him in the fourth of the Mr. Wong movies, The Fatal Hour, as a cop bereft by the death of his partner in the line of duty). Susan Bailey (Beatrice Roberts), Walker’s secretary and fiancée (well, his girlfriend, anyway), lands Jr. a job as a file clerk in the office, but Walker catches him and insists on putting him at the coal furnaces in order to make a “steel man” out of him.
The provisions of Sr.’s will provide that for the year Jr. is on probation, Walker will take his place and live in the Reardon mansion — and also have access to the services of Sr.’s imperious butler, Jarvis (Edgar Norton) — and Jr. plots his revenge by moving into the boardinghouse run by Susan’s father so he can be close to her and can seduce her away from Walker — which he does, but only temporarily, as ultimately his previous fiancée Elaine Witworth (Judith Allen) and her gold-digging mother (Georgia Caine) swoop into town. Under her mom’s instructions, Elaine sets her cap for Walker thinking he’s the one with the Reardon fortune, but ultimately it all gets settled out when Walker collapses on the shop floor following a fight with Jr. and Jr. atones for all his previous screw-ups by descending on a giant pulley and pulling Walker to safety just in time before a flow of molten steel passes over where he was lying. Eventually Walker gets Susan, Jr. gets Elaine, Walker deeds the mill to Jr. and Jr. deeds half of it back to Walker with the intent that they’re going to run it as partners. There’s also a song, “You Grow Sweeter Ev’ry Day,” by Sam H. Stept, Ned Washington and Sidney Miller (Stept was seemingly Republic’s go-to guy for songs just then; he wrote one great song, “My First Impression of You,” which Billie Holiday recorded, and some others, including “That’s My Weakness Now,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and his score for the 1936 Republic musical Sitting on the Moon, that were at least engaging, but this one isn’t; it sounds too much like a Nelson Eddy reject), which Jr. uses (in Ranny Weeks’ typical radio-crooner voice) to try to seduce Susan.
Bill Cracks Down isn’t much of a movie — it’s the sort of thing where the plot is running on such well-grooved clichés you’re at least a reel or two ahead of the movie throughout (though there is a bit of suspense towards the end as to just which guy will end up with which girl) — but it’s fun, it’s fast (a rarity for William Nigh, whose specialty sometimes seemed to be making a one-hour movie seem to be twice as long), and the actors are at least personable — Grant Withers is less overbearing than usual even though I can’t watch him without thinking that the smartest thing Loretta Young ever did in her life was have their marriage annulled, Ranny Weeks is properly milquetoast for the character he’s playing (one who ran off from his responsibilities to the Reardon mill and fortune to paint in Paris — and paint cheesy calendar-style nudes, at that), and Beatrice Roberts is personable enough one doesn’t really want her to end up stuck with either of these guys! There are also a few felicitious touches in the script, notably one in which Sr.’s lawyer is reading the will — and interjections that sound like the attorney is making them up are actually in the text, so well did Sr. know exactly how Jr. would react to the news of his (near-)disinheritance, and some good supporting performances as well as a typically repulsive comic-relief sidekick for Jr., Eddy “Porky” Plunkett (William Newell), who starts out annoying but at least gets less so as the film progresses.