Monday, October 29, 2012

The World Accuses (Chesterfield, 1934)

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

The film was The World Accuses, a 1934 Chesterfield production (which usually meant a superior product to your average independent film of the time, with a better cast, a stronger story and more advanced direction) which judging from the title and the synopsis on (from whence we downloaded it) I had expected to be a gangster movie. Instead it’s a soap opera, though a refreshingly unsentimental one for the time: it begins in 1929, when former nightclub entertainer Lola Allen is living in a lavish apartment with her well-to-do husband John Weymouth (Paul Fix). Unfortunately, all the couple’s bills are being paid by Weymouth’s bitchy mother Lucille (Sarah Edwards, who judging from her performance here would have been excellent casting as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz), who never lets a moment pass in Lola’s presence without telling her how much she hates her, how she resents her for marrying her son, and how she’s going to present her son with an ultimatum: divorce Lola or be cut off from his entire inheritance. Lola gives her husband an ultimatum of her own — either cut off relations with his mother or divorce her — and she and John go out to a nightclub, where Lola runs into some of her former friends and for the first time in months feels truly alive. Unfortunately, one of the old friends she runs into is bookie “Checkers” Fraley (Harold Huber), who was obviously one of Lola’s exes and is hoping to get her on the rebound after John dumps her for his mother’s money. “Checkers” and John have one of those absurd movie fights in which John is accidentally killed, and “Checkers” is arrested and ultimately convicted (presumably of manslaughter) — but the trial we see next is one in family court, masterminded by Lucille Weymouth, in which she manages to get Lola declared an unfit parent and win custody of John’s and Lola’s son Tommy.

Five years pass, long enough for Tommy to grow up from being a baby to being played by Dickie Moore, and he’s clearly miserable in Lucille’s huge house but Lucille has managed to succeed in one particular: she’s got him to forget about his mother. Meanwhile, Lola has settled into a job at a nursery — the kind that takes care of children, not the kind that raises plants — after she collapsed at the sight of so many children (the direction by Charles Lamont, relatively straightforward through the rest of the film, gives us a stirring montage sequence here that made Charles joke, “They’ve gone all Soviet Union on us!”), and not surprisingly writer Charles Belden can’t help but milk the irony that Lola, who was earlier declared unfit by a court to raise her own child, here is proving such a “natural” at taking care of a whole bunch of other people’s children that the nursery’s owner, Mrs. Warren (Mary Carr), appoints Lola to head it when she leaves town to visit her own (grown) children preparatory to retirement. While running the nursery Lola finds herself attracted to Hugh Collins (Russell Hopton), a radio announcer and commentator Lola meets because he’s keeping his own daughter Pat (Cora Sue Collins, who has curls in her hair but a refreshingly straightforward and un-Shirley Temple-like manner, a real surprise for a girl actress in the 1930’s!) at the nursery, but the attraction ends up on hold because on one of Hugh’s shows, right after he’s promoted Lola’s nursery as a great place to trust with your kids, he rehashes the Weymouth case and says that Lola “got what she deserved.” Then who should turn up at the nursery but “Checkers,” having just broken out of prison; he blackmails Lola into letting him stay in the nursery’s attic by saying if she doesn’t let him, he’ll reveal who she really is. Meanwhile, Lucille Weymouth (ya remember Lucille Weymouth?) has lost her fortune, not to the Depression (as one might have suspected) but through embezzlement by her crooked attorney; the shock sends her into a sanitarium and leaves her near death, and Barney Barrett (Bryant Washburn), her new (and presumably honest) lawyer, offers to take her grandson Tommy into his own home — only before that can happen he needs a place to park the kid, and you’ll never guess where … oh yes, you will, at least if you’ve seen more than about 12 movies in your life.

Tommy and Pat become what would now be called BFF’s (indeed, they seem to be headed towards one of those weird sorts of psychologically, though not biologically, incestuous relationships like the one between Victor and Elizabeth in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein), and the mutual attraction between the kids seems to be bringing the parents together even though Lola has no idea Tommy is actually her son (remember the last time she saw the kid, he was just a baby!). The crisis occurs when Tommy and Pat decide to explore the attic and come across “Checkers,” who holds them hostage at gunpoint; the kids manage to flee but their lives are imperiled because they’re hanging on to the nursery’s deeply sloping roof for dear life. Lola thinks she has talked “Checkers” into surrendering when “Checkers” hears a police siren and thinks he’s been tricked; eventually he goes out onto the roof to chase Tommy and Pat, but a police sniper manages to pick him off without hurting the kids. Lola learns at last that Tommy is her son, and Barrett says he’ll release Tommy to her custody. Needless to say, Hugh changes his mind about Lola and her morals, and there’s a charming ending scene with Tommy and Pat in twin beds in the children’s room sagely commenting on the union of their parents. The World Accuses is a rather ballsy title for so obviously a “women’s picture,” but within the limits of the form it’s a good story, effectively directed and acted and with surprisingly little sentimentality for a 1934 film in which two of the key protagonists are children — but perhaps it was still early enough in Shirley Temple’s run as the number one star of the 1930’s for her example to shape how all movie children were depicted.