Thursday, April 5, 2012

Graft (Universal, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie that was part of an eight-film order I just got from Sinister Cinema: Graft, a minor (54-minute) 1931 release from Universal that I was interested in because it figured prominently, in a way, in the career of one of its supporting players, Boris Karloff. It was during a lunch break from the shooting of Graft that James Whale, slated to direct Universal’s upcoming film Frankenstein, saw Karloff in the studio commissary. Whale looked at Karloff’s height and the rather boxy shape of his head and decided then and there to test him for the part of the monster in Frankenstein — and years later Karloff recalled being a bit insulted by the request (“I had on a very good straight makeup and my best suit — and he wanted to test me for a monster!”), but he was smart enough to agree to shoot the test, he got the part and it made him a star. Graft has had virtually no reputation other than its role as professional “matchmaker” between Karloff and the director who would helm his star-making vehicle, but on its own it turned out to be a surprisingly good movie even though there’s nothing really special. It’s basically the old story about the young aspiring newspaperman, Dustin “Dusty” Hotchkiss (Regis Toomey), who’s desperate for that Big Story that will convince the paper’s city editor, E. T. Scudder (Willard Robertson), to give him a raise and a steady series of good assignments. Meanwhile there’s an election campaign coming up and the city’s political boss, M. H. Thomas (William B. Davidson), wants to make sure his candidate wins so his company can continue to get graft from paving contracts and playground construction (well, there had to be some plot element to justify this film’s title!).

Dusty’s paper, the News, is tacitly supporting the reform ticket led by mayoral candidate Robert Hall (George Irving), but they can’t get any serious dirt on Thomas or the paving contracts. Instead Scudder sends Dusty out to request an interview with Thomas and tells him to be sure to tell Thomas’s secretary that he wants to ask about the paving contracts — and, as Scudder knew he would, Dusty gets thrown out of Thomas’s office, but not before he’s seen Thomas’s discarded mistress, Pearl Vaughan (Dorothy Revier), walk out in a huff and mutter dark threats about exposing Thomas to the authorities to get her revenge for his having dumped her. Rather than do what any halfway sensible reporter would and follow her, Dusty goes into Thomas’s office, gets thrown out and returns to the paper’s office. Meanwhile, Pearl goes to the office of District Attorney Harrison (Richard Tucker) — whose first name keeps changing from “Martin” to “Carter” and back again (it’s “Carter” on the cast list in the opening credits, “Martin” when Pearl shows up to his office and his name is painted on his door, “Carter” when he’s killed later on and the newspapers announce his murder, “Martin” when he’s discussed in the paper’s office later and “Carter” again on the “a good cast is worth repeating” list in the closing credits) — and Harrison agrees to take her evidence at his home that night, then tells Hall’s daughter Constance (Sue Carol, who later dropped out of acting and became both the manager and the wife of Alan Ladd) to come to his place after Pearl leaves so she can learn the case he has against Thomas and her dad can use it in the last two days of the campaign.

Only Pearl never gets to Harrison’s home because she’s kidnapped by “Terry” (Boris Karloff — and yes, for some reason his character name is in quotation marks in the credits), Thomas’s hired thug, who stashes her off somewhere and then goes to Harrison’s house and shoots him through the window — leaving Constance, who was in Harrison’s living room talking to him when he was shot, to take the fall. The News reports the story as if Constance were the killer and the police arrest her, then let her go when both they and Dusty realize the fatal shot was fired from outside, but she fears that the scandal has destroyed her dad’s campaign and she naturally hates Dusty over it. He climbs onto the fender of her car and starts an argument that convinces her that he really wants to catch Harrison’s actual killer — and he has a leg up on the police in that he actually ran into “Terry” that night and, though he didn’t see enough of him to describe him to the police, he’s sure he could recognize him if he saw him again. Dusty and Constance then join forces to look for the killer, and in the meantime “Terry” has taken Pearl to a yacht, where they confront him, he and Dusty fight, and in the end they take custody of “Terry” and bring both him and Pearl to the News office, where the story is published, Robert Hall presumably wins the mayoralty, Thomas and “Terry” get arrested and Dusty and Constance pair off. Graft was pretty obviously inspired by the success of The Front Page — also a story about courageous newspaper people exposing political corruption — which was filmed the same year as Graft but had been a hit on Broadway three years earlier and had inspired plenty of films about heroic newspapermen exposing local graft.

The screenwriter is Barry Berranger — who got an interesting triple-threat credit for “story,” “continuity” and “dialogue” (usually in the early days of the talkies those jobs went to three different people) — and whose work I’m familiar with otherwise only from the serial The Return of Chandu, an unusually well-constructed and literate serial that gets most of its thrills from suspense rather than action and gave its star, Bela Lugosi, a rare chance to play a romantic lead (at which he was absolutely brilliant!). I wonder if the business of having the final action scene take place on a yacht is a Schreiber trademark, if only because The Return of Chandu also set a particularly important action scene on a yacht. The director is Christy Cabanne, last and least of D. W. Griffith’s four assistants on The Birth of a Nation; all four of them became directors themselves, but the other three (Erich von Stroheim, Tod Browning and Raoul Walsh) all had much more illustrious careers than Cabanne, and all were much better filmmakers as well; as with a lot of Cabanne’s films, there’s nothing wrong with his direction of Graft but there’s nothing particularly right with it either. His angles are almost all standard shot-reverse shot stuff and for a film that’s supposed to be a thriller, it’s awfully slow-paced despite its brief running time. It also doesn’t help that the leads are weak — Regis Toomey is obviously trying to channel Lee Tracy in his portrayal of the energetic, annoyingly obnoxious reporter, and Sue Carol is nice-looking and delivers a competent but uninspired performance — though the second leads more than make up for it: though Graft isn’t a horror film, Karloff is superbly menacing in his role, and Revier burns up the screen in the role of the discarded mistress.

If Berranger had rewritten his script to focus more on the supporting characters and give the best actors in it, Karloff and Revier, more screen time, Graft would be an even better movie than the workmanlike modest entertainment it is — but it’s still a nice little movie that plays out in predictable but engaging ways. Incidentally, for some reason the extant print credits the production not to Universal but to something called “Whirlwind Films,” though the copyright notice still says Universal on it, and the Whirlwind Films logo we see is a giant screen-filling pinwheel. Graft has been written off by a lot of Karloff fans because reference books like Clive Hirschhorn’s The Universal Story didn’t credit him, though on the screen he’s billed fourth (the same position as in some of his major films from 1931, including The Criminal Code, Five Star Final and Frankenstein) and while he doesn’t have much time on screen, he’s a strong enough actor that he makes every second count (as does Revier, who’d had a B-list career in the silent era and fell pretty quickly when sound came in, though quite obviously not due to anything wrong with the tone or timbre of her voice!).