Monday, August 22, 2011

Behind Stone Walls (Action/Mayfair, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was an hour-long indie from the Action studio in 1932, released through Mayfair (actually I think Action went out of business while the film was still in release and Mayfair picked it up for the rest of its theatrical run), called Behind Stone Walls (though we wouldn’t have known that from the download we were watching, one of those times in which whoever uploaded it cut off the opening credits except for a teeny glimpse of the cast list). From the title you’d expect a tough, fast-paced, thrilling, action-packed prison drama — instead, though it’s a crime story, only about a minute or two of the movie takes place in prison (and that scene is in a prison library!) and for the most part it’s a melodrama.

John Clay (Robert Elliott) is the district attorney in a carefully unnamed city in a carefully unnamed state, and is in line to run for governor, when his family gets him into trouble big-time: his wife Esther (Priscilla Dean) is the mistress of playboy Jack Keene (Robert Ellis), who has a wife of his own but is cheating on her with Esther and cheating on Esther with an actress — only Esther still has a key to his apartment, and she lets herself in, confronts him, pulls out his telephone when he tries to call his new girlfriend to tell her not to come since he’s still trying to get rid of his old one, and finally Esther walks to a drawer, opens it, pulls out a gun (one presumes she knew it was there from previous visits) and kills him. Just then Clay’s son Bob (Eddie Nugent) comes over — we know, though he does not, that Esther isn’t his biological mother, who died in childbirth, but someone his dad married six months later in the belief that his son needed a mother — and he tries to rearrange the scene of the crime so it looks like Jack killed himself, but before he can do that he’s witnessed by Keene’s butler Leo Draggett (George Chesboro) and ultimately arrested by the police.

Refusing to give a defense out of the belief that he’s protecting his mother, Bob ends up being prosecuted by his own father and sentenced to life imprisonment — only Draggett, who knows who the real killer is, blackmails Esther with the threat of exposing the love letters she wrote to Keene. She buys back the letters and is in the process of burning them when John shows up and interrupts her; he grabs the letters she hadn’t had the chance to burn, reads them and has a jealous hissy-fit on the spot. She takes out a gun and threatens him, they both reach for it (Maurine Watkins, you’re keeping your plagiarism attorney awfully busy!) and ultimately she gets shot and this time it’s John who gets prosecuted for murder and his son represents him, giving the closing argument and winning his acquittal. The film ends with the two Clays out of politics and attorneys in private practice with each other.

Outrageously melodramatic, and crudely shot by the usually interesting director Frank Strayer from a script by George B. Seitz (usually a director himself) that isn’t based on a stage play but certainly seems like it from the way long sequences are staged in a single room set, this film is nonetheless a melodrama of hallucinatory power, a sort of dream of movie ur-clichés that packs a real punch, from the opening scene (a group of people with too much money and too little sense at a cocktail party mulling over business opportunities created by the Depression — this could be, and probably is, happening now!) to the climax. It’s a fascinating tale of how screwed up a family can get — even a family headed by people with real integrity — and also a cautionary note about the pitfalls of extramarital relationships I’m sure Charles appreciated for just that reason!