Pre-Code Profile: BROADWAY THRU A KEYHOLE (1933)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…


Broadway Thru A Keyhole (1933)

A gangster helps a young dancer rise to stardom only to have her fall for another man. Starring Constance Cummings, Paul Kelly, Russ Columbo, Blossom Seeley, Gregory Ratoff, Texas Guinan, Abe Lyman and his Band, Hugh O’Connell, Hobart Cavanaugh, Frances Williams, Eddie Foy, Jr., C. Henry Gordon, and Helen Jerome Eddy. Written by C. Graham Baker and Gene Towne. Story by Walter Winchell. Directed by Lowell Sherman. Produced by 20th Century Pictures. Distributed by United Artists.

“Frank Rocci (Kelly), a familiar but feared patron of Broadway establishments, is the president of a protection racket that demands one dollar per coop from poultry companies for assurance that ‘accidents’ do not occur. When a childhood neighbor from the Bronx, Esther Whelan (Eddy), visits and tells him that her mother has died and her sister Joan (Cummings) needs a job, Rocci arranges with Tex Kaley (Guinan), owner and hostess of the Klub Kaley, and the perfectionistic, but easily intimidated, impresario Max Mefoofski (Ratoff) to put Joan in the chorus. After Rocci gives Joan the eye during her first number, he invites her to his apartment, but when she speaks innocently of their childhood and says she feels she can trust him, Rocci curbs his salacious inclinations and takes her home. Rocci then buys the club and demands that Max star Joan in his new revue. After Walter Winchell’s column links Joan and Rocci, Esther, greatly upset, confronts her sister, but she stands up for Rocci.

“Joan is a success, and Rocci sets her up in a Park Avenue apartment. As he talks about marriage and implies that he will ask her once he is able to get out of the racket, gunshots from a rival shatter the window and mirror. For her protection, Rocci sends Joan to Miami with Sybil Smith (Seeley), the girl friend of Rocci’s lieutenant, Chuck Haskins (O’Connell). At a dinner show, radio croooner and bandleader Clark Brian (Columbo) invites Joan to sing with him. Although Joan discovers that Clark is a chronic hypochondriac and he admits he is a coward, during the next couple of weeks they grow fond of each other. After the funeral of the rival responsible for the gunshots in Joan’s apartment, Rocci reconciles with his main rival, Tim Crowley (Gordon). When Rocci calls Joan to tell her she can return, she says she wants to stay a little longer. Just then, a telegram arrives from one of Rocci’s pals in Miami, stating that he saw Joan with Clark. Rocci immediately orders Joan to take the next plane.

“When she returns to New York, Rocci asks Joan about Clark, but because she is afraid to hurt Rocci, she says that Clark means nothing to her. Clark follows and visits Joan at the club. She warns him about Rocci, but when he says that he will not be afraid if she loves him, she acknowledges her love. Rocci confronts Clark, who says that he wants to marry Joan and that he is willing to die for her if necessary. After some hesitation, Rocci tells him to be good to her and leaves. When Joan is hijacked after the wedding, a battered Clark accuses Rocci. Crowley, who engineered the kidnapping, tells Rocci that he had Joan taken to a hotel room to please him. Rocci then goes there, and Crowley tips off the police, who shoot Rocci in the corridor. At the hospital, Rocci gives his blessing to Joan and Clark. Comforted by Winchell’s column, which exonerates him with regard to Joan’s kidnapping, and by the news that Crowley has been shot, Rocci wistfully looks out over the lights of Broadway.” (This summary is courtesy of TCM.)

From a story by Walter Winchell (the famed gossip columnist whose voice narrates the picture’s open and close) and allegedly based on the real-life love triangle between Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler, and mobster Johnny “Irish” Costello, Broadway Thru A Keyhole apparently depicted enough truth to inspire a brawl with the Jolsons, Winchell, and producer Hal Wallis at a Friday night boxing match in July 1933. Understanding the history upon which this “fictional” story is otherwise predicated adds another layer of curiosity to a film that is loaded with fascinating trivia. In fact, this was only the second release from the newly created 20th Century Pictures, which was led by Darryl Zanuck, who’d split from Warners Brothers (home of Jolson and Keeler) earlier in the year. Broadway Thru A Keyhole maintains that “gritty” Warners vibe — with an urban sensibility only reinforced by the film’s blending of both the gangster and musical genres. To that point, I tend to regard Broadway Thru A Keyhole as a companion of sorts to Warners’ 42nd Street (covered here), which, interestingly, starred Keeler, and also sought to provide a “behind-the-curtain” or thru a keyhole, if you will, look at the Broadway scene. Here, though, the sense of veritas is greater, for not only was the audience (of the time) aware of the implications of this narrative, but the film is also more obviously a representation of Prohibition era New York — populated with personalities who embodied this unique time and place.

If you’ve glanced at the cast list above, you’ll notice all kinds of familiar names; Frances Williams has a number (while she and Cummings wear top hat and tails), Eddie Foy, Jr. duets with the leading lady; Abe Lyman and his orchestra provide the accompaniment (to Mack Gordon and Harry Revel’s charming score — it’s not 42nd Street, or even close to it, but it’s hummable and atmospheric); Lucille Ball gets a one-line bit part; and Ann Sothern is an apparently uncredited showgirl (who, we believe, had a musical number that was excised before release). In the main cast, radio crooner Russ Columbo plays… a radio crooner — the Jolson part, depicted here as a rather weak “hypochondriac” with far less personality than Paul Kelly as the hood (but perhaps that’s a function of their performances, too). And, most excitingly for fans of this era, Texas Guinan appears as a thinly veiled version of herself, “Texas Keely.” Guinan, a famous night club hostess, had presided over El Fay and allegedly helped Costello, who was backing Keeler (á la Rocci of Joan in Keyhole), get his chorine booted up to headliner. Her inclusion in this film — the only surviving talkie in which she has a role — not only legitimizes the narrative Winchell is offering with a wink, but also reinforces the whole thesis of the “thru a keyhole” premise, for Guinan, with her “hello suckers,” is an honest-to-goodness ambassador for this truthful world now cinematized. (Sadly, she’d die a week after this film’s release.) It’s more than just a treat to see her — it’s one of the reasons Keyhole is a success.

Okay, but not everything is praiseworthy here; while the particulars of the story, the cameos, and the supporting cast reflect the film’s premise and offer historical fascination for today’s Pre-Code enthusiasts, the central love story is, textually and physically, not as exciting without the true-life context. Columbo isn’t good for much more than a number or two, Kelly (in his second film after a two-year stint in Sam Quinten for the manslaughter of his lover’s husband) is only interesting because of the tension supplied from his own personal baggage, and the center of the triangle, Constance Cummings, is a dull focal point. Cummings, a leading lady of the Pre-Code era who can count several great films in her body of work, is never a picture’s main attraction. (Remember her in Night After Night? No, you don’t. Because Mae West made her film debut and stole the whole picture from Cummings and George Raft.) Here, Cummings maintains her patrician aura, but lacks the goofy, warm, and half-performed naïveté that made her real-life counterpart so beguiling. Furthermore, she’s not as musically exciting as any of the supporting players, and as a result, we’re not as invested in her scenes. And since she’s at the center of the picture’s centripetal drama, her shortcomings become the picture’s shortcomings. Thus, unlike 42nd Street, Broadway Thru A Keyhole can’t claim a classic, gripping plot — even though it was reportedly inspired by one…

Nevertheless, all the surrounding minutia is enough to make this a film worth seeing. In fact, it’s filled to the brim with Pre-Code charm. Aside from all the era-specific personalities and the quintessential gangster angle, there are some delectable one-liners here, many coming from the ex-hoofer girlfriend of Rocci’s lieutenant, Sybil Smith, who acts as Joan’s chaperone and is played by real-life vaudevillian legend Blossom Seeley — an enticing performer whose presence also bolsters the film’s curiosity value. (She only made three talkies. This was her second; Blood Money was her last.) Her character is a walking, talking collection of wisecracks and innuendos — a staple of the era… Now, being a lover of Pre-Codes means embracing some of the clichés with which the genre is associated — and while I love a good yarn about a chorine and a hood, it’s sometimes hard to breach this clinical cultural appreciation with which I approach these films to actually laugh-out-loud. But, I can say that in Broadway Thru A Keyhole, and with Seeley in particular, I am brought to laughter several times; nothing is terribly surprising, but it’s such an affable, amusing distillation of the times that I can recommend it highly. Yes, it’s dramatically weak at the centers, but there’s so much on the fringes worth noting. So, if you ever find this on TV, sit down, peep through the keyhole, and enjoy a bunch of stars in a story ripped from the headlines… with the names changed (to protect the guilty).



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