Thursday, February 21, 2013

I’d Give My Life (Paramount, 1936; reissued by Astor)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was a flawed but oddly compelling drama from Paramount in 1936, I’d Give My Life, produced by Richard Rowland (who owned the rights personally and co-produced with the studio rather than selling them) and directed by Edwin L. Marin, based on a 1926 stage play called The Noose by H. H. Van Loan and Willard Mack. Rowland had previously filmed it at First National in 1928 (just before Warner Bros. absorbed that company) with Richard Barthelmess and Montagu Love as the male leads, and Barbara Stanwyck had used its climactic scene — the central character’s girlfriend pleading with the state governor to give him a last-minute reprieve from his scheduled execution; or, failing that, at least to give her his body so she can give him a proper disposition — for a screen test at Paramount to determine if she should be hired to repeat the role she’d played on stage in the musical Burlesque. The “suits” at Paramount decided not to hire her for that part — instead they changed the title to The Dance of Life and gave the part to Nancy Carroll because she’d made films before and therefore had a movie “name” — but Frank Capra saw the test and hired her to star in Ladies of Leisure at Columbia, a blockbuster hit which put Stanwyck on the “A”-list overnight. I’d Give My Life has a weirdly assorted cast list — the top-billed actor is Sir Guy Standing as John Bancroft, the governor of the state where the film takes place, and most of the other cast members are either solid character actors or people with virtually no latter-day reputations at all. At the start we see a young man named Nickie Elkins (Tom Brown, actually a personable presence with an acting style somewhere between Chester Morris and James Cagney) flying his own plane with his girlfriend, singer Mary Reyburn (Frances Drake), at his side. They buzz a commercial airliner (with the TWA initials on its fuselage — it’s always a surprise to see an actual brand name of anything in a 1930’s movie!) carrying the wife of the governor Stella (Janet Beecher) and the governor’s mother (Helen Lowell), and with press photographers waiting to greet the governor’s family Nickie gets his picture taken with them after he retrieves Stella’s hat (it’s blown away in the backwash from a plane’s propeller) and returns it to her.

Then the film cuts to the governor’s office, where he’s meeting with the media to tell them that he’s going to keep all the promises he made in his recent campaign to clean up the state and get rid of its criminal syndicates. Afterwards we see Buck Gordon (a marvelously slimy performance by Robert Glecker) breeze past the governor’s secretary and crash his office without an appointment, and the reporters assume that because Gordon is the biggest crook in the state, all Governor Bancroft’s promises to clean things up are so much hogwash. Once they’re alone together, the governor tells Gordon to his face that he’s going to put him out of business, and Gordon darkly warns that if he tries it, it’ll be the governor who’ll sorry. We’re left in suspense as to just what Gordon thinks he has on Governor Bancroft that will derail his good-government crusade, and then the scene shifts to the Club Gordon, the flagship of Gordon’s enterprises, an above-board nightclub with a secret “members only” back room that’s really a betting parlor — only instead of running a to-live-outside-the-law-you-must-be-honest bookie joint Gordon has the clocks in his back room set far enough behind so he can take bets on races that have already happened, and have his staff talk down the horses that actually finished in the money and get the suckers to bet on the also-rans. (One of the episodes of the 1950’s TV show Racket Squad used the same gimmick, though with home recording having developed far beyond what it had been in the 1930’s the bad guys in that one actually recorded the radio broadcasts of the real races and played them for the suckers on tape-delay.) Mary sings at the Club Gordon — though she seems to know only one song, “Someday We’ll Meet Again” by Con Conrad and Herb Magidson (two otherwise infinitesimally-known songwriters who racked up the first Academy Award for Best Song in 1934 for “The Continental” from the Astaire-Rogers musical The Gay Divorcée) — and though Nickie seems at first to be just an innocent and naïve young man, it turns out he’s an enforcer for Gordon’s mob and has been ever since Gordon plucked him out of reform school and hired him.

Nickie has no idea what his life was like before reform school — he’s been told he was an orphan living alone when he got into trouble — until the big reveal happens: in order to keep Nickie in line after Gordon has ordered him to kill someone (he was supposed to take a jockey who’d won a race Gordon had ordered him to throw up in his plane and push him out in mid-air) and Nickie, whatever he’s done before, draws the line at murder, Gordon tells Nickie that he’s actually Nickie’s biological father — and his mom is Stella Bancroft, the seemingly ultra-respectable wife of the governor. What Gordon has been holding in reserve to break Governor Bancroft if his anti-rackets campaign got too close is the revelation that the governor’s wife had a child before her marriage — and that Gordon himself is the father. Only Gordon and Nickie have one of those infamous they-both-reached-for-the-gun scenes, and it ends with Gordon dead and Nickie arrested for murder. He pleads guilty and is sentenced to death (at least in the modern era, it seems odd that his attorney, who looks reasonably competent, couldn’t plea-bargain his sentence down to life in prison), and while everyone from the trial judge to his own attorney to the prosecutor to the governor insists that the only way he can get leniency is if he explains why he killed Gordon, he’s determined to die at the gallows rather than give away his secret. After Mary pleads with the governor to spare the life of her boyfriend, whom she’s still convinced is innocent, he says the law must take its course and Nickie must die on schedule. Then, the morning Nickie is supposed to die, the governor finds that the hotline phone with which he communicates with the prison has been moved, and when he calls the warden he finds that someone has already called in a reprieve on his behalf — and even though he didn’t authorize it, the law is that once a reprieve has been ordered the state has to wait at least 30 days to reschedule the execution. The governor summons Nickie to his office and Nickie reluctantly gives Stella a letter he had written her, revealing the secret, that was only supposed to be opened after he was executed. In a last-ditch attempt to keep what’s left of Gordon’s enterprises open, the crook who took over the nightclub (ya remember the nightclub?) after Gordon’s murder calls the governor and reveals Nickie’s identity, but the movie ends with everyone the wiser, forgiveness reigning and the governor promising not only to cancel Nickie’s execution but to lobby his pardon board for a full pardon for him.

I’d Give My Life is a frustrating movie because the central premise is compelling and riveting — one could readily imagine it being remade today with only a modicum of tweaking and updating — and despite the no-name cast, the acting is generally credible and sometimes more than that. The young leads are especially powerful; one wonders why on the basis of this performance Paramount didn’t give Tom Brown a buildup as their Cagney, and though Frances Drake almost certainly never saw Barbara Stanwyck’s test scene from this story, her performance is surprisingly Stanwyckesque — the tremulous voice, seemingly on the verge of breaking into emotional hysteria without quite going over; the similarly controlled movements, about ready to explode but not quite doing so — while her singing voice is hauntingly similar to Connee Boswell’s even though the song she’s stuck with is surprisingly undistinguished. (There’s an oddly deceptive credit in that Con Conrad and Herb Magidson are credited with “songs,” but in fact there’s only one song in the film.) The problem with the movie is the stagy script by George O’Neil, with “additional dialogue” by Ben Ryan — even if you didn’t know from the credits that this was based on a play, you could guess it; and while the actors speak normally and don’t … adopt … the maddening … pause-ridden … style of … acting common in the earliest talkies, in other respects this really seems more like a film from 1929 than 1936. Edwin L. Marin was a maddeningly uneven director — his best films, A Study in Scarlet and A Christmas Carol, both had their inspiration in major British authors’ works and had Reginald Owen as their star — here he occasionally creates a genuinely chilling and atmospheric image (notably when Mary is obliged to sing That Song in the nightclub on the eve of Nickie’s execution, and she throws the music away — and Marin and cinematographer Ira Morgan shoot her through the bars on her music stand, evoking the prison bars that are enclosing her boyfriend; five years later John Huston would use a similar shot to end The Maltese Falcon), but for the most part his direction is plodding and undistinguished. A story that could have used the full film noir treatment (granted that 1936 was a little early for noir, but William Wellman, Charles Vidor and Fritz Lang had all made U.S. films that basically qualified) doesn’t get it; instead we get scene after scene of flatly lit, stagily composed tableaux and little more than standard shot-reverse shot editing — and we can’t help but wish this could have been made at Warners, with the real James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck in the leads and Michael Curtiz directing!