Friday, October 14, 2011

The Penal Code (Freuler/Monarch, 1932)

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

The film was The Penal Code, an download I’d burned to the same DVD as Captured in Chinatown, expecting Captured in Chinatown to be a cheesy wanna-be “exotic” melodrama and The Penal Code an exciting gangster film — only the quality turned out to be the reverse: Captured in Chinatown turned out to be a workmanlike, atmospheric thriller with well-staged action sequences and The Penal Code a dreary bore. The film began with a foreword — cut off by framing problems with the download, which also cut off the opening credits — which was apparently (at least according to the American Film Institute Catalog — their reviewers didn’t get to see the film but they researched the contemporary reviews and found the attribution in Variety) the work of Edward J. Mulrooney, then New York’s police commissioner, to the effect that crime doesn’t pay and the story we were about to see would illustrate that the youth of 1932 need “more sympathetic direction to keep them off the streets.”

Exactly how the story of The Penal Code was supposed to demonstrate that crime does not pay is something of a mystery, since it begins with an interminable scene set in a small town in which Mrs. Sarah Palmer (Virginia True Boardman) announces she has just received a letter from her son Robert (Regis Toomey, top-billed) who’s taking a trip around the world and is currently in Brisbane, Australia. Mrs. Palmer shares the letter with Robert’s girlfriend Marguerite “Margie” Shannon (Helene Cohan), who works at the local bank and is fending off the advances of bank executive James Forrester (Robert Ellis) out of loyalty to Robert, who’s expected home soon. Given the title of the film, it’s not surprising that we then have a jump cut which reveals that Robert really isn’t in Australia; he’s in prison but has made arrangements with an agency to forward his letters overseas and mail them there to make his mother and girlfriend believe he’s out of the country rather than in stir.

If this plot gimmick sounds familiar, it should; writer Maurine Watkins (Chicago) had used it two years earlier in the 1930 film Up the River, which John Ford directed and producer William Fox called a “comedy-drama,” and while it’s a flawed movie it’s several orders of magnitude superior to The Penal Code. In Up the River we were clearly told what had happened to put our young (ambiguous) hero in prison — on the eve of his scheduled departure for China, he had got into a fight, someone had been killed and he had been charged with, and convicted of, manslaughter — whereas in The Penal Code, scripted by Edward T. Lowe and F. Hugh Herbert (both of whom were later associated with much better movies) and directed by George Melford (whose superb atmospherics in the three other films of his I’ve seen — the Valentino vehicles The Sheik and Moran of the ‘Lady Letty’ and the Spanish-language version of the 1930 Dracula — hardly prepared me for the mind-numbing boredom of this film; he sneaks in a few cool camera angles but virtually all the actors speak in that mind-numbingly slow first-day-of-drama-school monotone that was de rigueur in the early days of the talkies but was pretty passé  by 1932), we have no idea just what landed Robert in prison, though Bender (Pat O’Malley), the cop who arrested him, tells the prison warden (John Ince) that his only real “crime” was hanging out with gangsters and the warden agrees and holds high hopes for Robert’s success on the outside once his sentence runs out and he’s released.

Once that happens, Robert returns to his small town, regains his old bank job and starts dating Margie again — only he’s still determined to keep her and his mother from finding out he’s an ex-con. There’s an ambiguous scene that suggests the people running the international mail agency are blackmailing their clients, reading the letters and using the information in them to figure out who’s an ex-con trying to hide that status from their loved ones, but that gets dropped in a hurry; instead it’s Forrester who turns out to know about Robert’s status, and he decides to pay off a particularly obnoxious creditor (we presume it’s an illegal debt, possibly gambling, but once again we’re never told that) by embezzling from the bank and framing Robert for the crime — only Robert figures it out and holds a gun on him, Forrester reaches for it, they struggle for it and, no, Forrester doesn’t die, but the cops, having found that Forrester himself has a record, figure it out too and arrive at the bank to arrest Forrester and exonerate Robert.

 The Penal Code has the makings of a decent movie but they’re done in by the implacable slowness with which Melford directs it — when the prison scenes at the beginning seemed deadly dull, at first I thought Melford was pulling the stunt Howard Hawks did in The Criminal Code, making the sequences boring on purpose to depict the drudgery of prison life; but then the script has the prisoners attempt an escape (which Robert virtuously refuses to participate in) and that isn’t any more exciting than the rest of the prison scenes! (The prison itself looks surprisingly solid for a 1932 indie on a tiny budget, and I suspect producer John R. Freuler — the man who 16 years earlier had been the studio head at Mutual and signed Charlie Chaplin to a contract for 12 films that remain among Chaplin’s best — arranged to shoot at a real one rather than building a set: either that or he rented a prison set and studio time from a major company that had made prison movies of their own.) It doesn’t help that we have Up the River to compare this with — or that in Up the River the young man desperately trying to conceal his convict status from his family was played by Humphrey Bogart (surprisingly well, in a role which gave him a more complex, well-rounded character than virtually anything else he played until High Sierra 10 years later) whereas in The Penal Code it’s Regis Toomey, who comes off better than most of the cast simply because his line readings are mediocre instead of downright awful.

 The Penal Code is bad in ways that seem pretty much unique to early-1930’s indies: dull performances, little camera movement, flat, grey lighting even in scenes that would seem to demand atmosphere, lousy sound (in the silent era an independent director on a shoestring budget could, with enough command of lighting and other skills, make a movie that on sheer visual grounds could compete with major-studio product; once sound came in, the hissy, distorted recording of the cheap sound systems available to independent producers versus the far crisper, clearer sound of the major studios drew a wedge between Hollywood’s haves and its have-nots, and it would take the development of portable tape recorders and small, flexible cameras in the 1950’s and 1960’s to make high-quality independent filmmaking possible again) and an overall feeling that the people involved in the film on both sides of the camera really didn’t care whether it was any good, as long as the company they were working for paid them their salaries out of their flat fees for distributing it.