Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Day of Reckoning (MGM, 1933)

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

The film was Day of Reckoning, a really quirky 1933 film from MGM, directed by Charles Brabin (who had a troubled career at the biggest Hollywood dream factory because his taste ran more towards nightmares; his career never really recovered from being fired from the silent Ben-Hur but he made such quirky and dark movies as The Beast of the City, The Mask of Fu Manchu and this one) from a script by Zelda Sears and Eve Greene whose synopsis on the Turner Classic Movies Web site — “A man’s nagging wife drives him to crime” — is accurate but hardly indicates the bizarre tale we’re about to see. From the description I imagined what we’d be seeing was a tale of a seemingly normal suburban marriage in which the wife’s incessant demands for luxury items and the money to buy them would slowly but surely drive her husband to ever more desperate measures to get money, ultimately leading him to crime. The way Sears and Green structured their script, though, all that has already happened before the movie begins: John Day (Richard Dix) is having a birthday party at his home, and he briefly questions his wife Dorothy (Madge Evans) as to whether they can afford the elaborate dress she got for the occasion and the piano she recently ordered, but then decides to let things slide. At the party, their faithful maid Mamie (Una Merkel — TCM showed this on Monday, December 10 as part of a birthday tribute to her) wakes John and Dorothy’s kids (a three-year-old son and an infant daughter — the daughter isn’t listed in the credits but the son, Johnny, is played by Spanky McFarland of the Our Gang, a.k.a. Little Rascals, comedies Hal Roach was then producing for MGM release) so they can see dad blow out the candles on his cake (he doesn’t quite get them all).

The party is interrupted by two people who look like gangsters but are actually cops, and John follows them into the kitchen where they tell him they’re there to arrest him for embezzling from the building and loan company he works for. Family friend George Hollins (Conway Tearle) offers to help by hiring John an attorney, O’Farrell (Samuel S. Hinds), but we’ve already seen Hollins flirting with Dorothy and so we’re suspicious of his motives from the start. Our suspicions are, of course, proved right: O’Farrell promises John that if he pleads guilty he can get probation as a first offender, but the judge sentences John to two years in county jail and a later scene between O’Farrell and Hollins reveals that the lawyer deliberately threw the case at Hollins’ order so, with John out of the way, Hollins can cruise and ultimately seduce Dorothy. The film then cuts back and forth between John’s stint in jail — there’ve been some recent scandalous reports that conditions in county jails are sometimes worse than those in state prisons, and that’s certainly true here: in one chilling scene, the prisoners are served barely edible hash scooped out of a slops bucket, and of course John refuses to eat the swill — and one of his fellow prisoners eagerly grabs his uneaten food — and Dorothy’s life. Since she’s in need of money and has to go to work, Hollins offers her a job as part of his secretarial pool even though she only types with two fingers and makes a mess of every piece of work she’s assigned to do — which only attracts the ire of Hollins’ head secretary, Kate Lovett (Isabel Jewell, who turns in the movie’s best performance even though her part is surprisingly short). Kate, it turns out, is not only Hollins’ head secretary but also the former mistress he’s dumping in his lust for Dorothy, and Kate’s all too well aware of it; when she gives Hollins the her-or-me ultimatum Hollins fires her. Meanwhile, at the prison one of John’s fellow inmates, Slim (James Bell), has a nervous breakdown when he gets a dear-John letter from his wife, who had promised to wait for him so they could open a shop together when he got released, but in the meantime she’s fallen for another man and wants a divorce.

Partly because Dorothy is no longer visiting him on every visiting day, as she was before, and partly from Slim’s experience, John is becoming more and more convinced that Dorothy is seeing someone else — though he doesn’t put two and two together enough to realize who. Meanwhile, Kate Lovett, jealous over being dumped and fired by Hollins, follows him to Dorothy’s house, catches her and Hollins at just the moment when she’s finally about to yield to his advances, and shoots and kills Dorothy. The police can’t decide whether Hollins or Kate committed the murder, so they arrest both of them and put Hollins in the same jail as John — who learns of these events when his convict friend Harry (Paul Hurst) slips him the newspaper covering the affair, saying, “You’ll find out about it anyway.” John catches Hollins in the hallway of the jail and beats him so badly he needs hospitalization. Hart (Raymond Hatton), another inmate friend of John’s, warns Hollins not to “squeal” on who attacked him. John pretends to be sick so he can be put in the ward near Hollins, and one day when Hollins has been allowed to sunbathe on the roof of the jail because his doctor has said it would be good for him, John attacks him and the two have a fight that leaves them both hanging off the roof — though ultimately it’s Hart, not John, who pushes Hollins off the roof and then rescues John. Eventually John is released after his sentence ends and Mamie, who took John’s kids to the country and the dairy farm she ran with her parents so the state couldn’t grab them and put them in foster care, takes John in, gets her folks to give him a job and a place to live in, and finally accepts the marriage proposal of her parents’ milkman, Jerry (Stuart Erwin, in a surprisingly low-keyed part for him — or is it that it’s just so short that his whining doesn’t get as oppressive as it did in some of his longer roles?).

Day of Reckoning is a rag-bag of movie clichés, but it’s one of those films in which the clichés are deployed sufficiently inventively that there’s real uncertainty as to how it’s going to work out, and Brabin’s direction is mostly straightforward but occasionally gets stylish. The best part of the film is the murder sequence — we see a black-gloved hand parting the shrubs in front of the Day home’s window and its owner as a shadowy figure entering, and after the shooting Brabin jump-cuts to two Black inmates at the jail, a singer-dancer and a one-man band backing him, doing a peppy amateur dance number for the other inmates’ entertainment. According to the American Film Institute Catalog, MGM originally wanted Richard Barthelmess to play John, but he wanted too much money for the role — a good thing, because Dix is a much better actor and puts far more authority and emotion into the part — and the Hollywood Reporter announced that Genevieve Tobin was going to be in the film, but she wasn’t. (My guess is that she was probably being considered for the role played by Isabel Jewell.) Day of Reckoning was the only film Richard Dix made at MGM, and in overall theme and style it seems much more like something Warners would have made — and because of Brabin’s dark sensibility and Dix’s authority it worked a lot better than most of MGM’s attempts to poach on Warners’ territory.