Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our series on the Pre-Code films of Clark Gable, the first male star to get a spotlight here on That’s Entertainment! Over this past year, we’ve actually covered a handful of Pre-Code Gable films during our examinations of the works of some of his frequent leading ladies. This blog has already featured: A Free Soul (1931) with Norma Shearer, Possessed (1931) with Joan Crawford, Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow and Mary Astor, Hold Your Man (1933) with Jean Harlow, Night Flight (1933) with Myrna Loy and Helen Hayes, Dancing Lady (1933) with Joan Crawford, It Happened One Night (1934) with Claudette Colbert, and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) with Myrna Loy. We’ve also covered two of Gable’s Post-Code films with Joan Crawford: Forsaking All Others (1934) and Love On The Run (1936). Last week we covered Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). Today…
The Secret Six (1931)
A secret society funds the investigation of a bootlegging gang. Starring Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, John Mack Brown, Jean Harlow, Marjorie Rambeau, Paul Hurst, Clark Gable, and Ralph Bellamy. Story by Francis Marion. Directed by George Hill.
Though this film features both our current star, Mr. Gable (I mean, Clark), and one of our past stars, Miss Jean Harlow, this seminal gangster flick would best belong in a series of posts on the work of Wallace Beery, who is the complicated protagonist of this picture. (Oh, these antiheroic gangsters!) Now, I’ll be honest with you: I have nothing against Beery, but he’s never captured my fancy like a Gable or a Harlow. He’s been in a lot of good movies, yes, but I’ve never popped in a film BECAUSE of him. Maybe I’ll one day cultivate more of an appreciation for his work, which, from what I’ve seen, is always at least functional. Regardless, this is a good film for fans of Mr. Beery, and a good place to start for those who aren’t.
“During the Prohibition era, Louis Scorpio, a stockyard worker in the small town of Centro, is recruited by bootleggers Nick Mizoski and Johnny Franks. Nick, also known as The Gouger, and Johnny entice Scorpio with promises of easy profits, and then give him a tour of their distillery. After Newton, the bootleggers’ boss, divides the gang’s most recent profits, he informs his men that he plans to muscle in on bootlegger Joe Colimo’s territory as their next job. When Colimo learns that Johnny and his henchmen are trying to force a bartender working in his territory to buy his liquor from them, he sends Eddie, one of his gunmen, to take care of the matter. A shootout ensues, which results in the killing of Colimo’s brother, whom he was trying keep out of the mob. Johnny and Scorpio flee to Newton’s, and when Colimo comes looking for his brother’s killer, Scorpio is set up to take the rap for the murder. The Colimo mob shoots but only slightly wounds Scorpio, who soon realizes that he was set up, and returns to Newton’s to take revenge on Johnny. Scorpio shoots Johnny and considers shooting Newton, but the police burst in and he escapes. Peaches, a Newton moll, becomes hysterical when she sees Johnny dead. Meanwhile, reporters Carl and Hank arrive on the scene and compete for the murder story while also vying for the attentions of Anne Courtland, another Newton moll. Anne is later hired by Scorpio to keep the reporters off the gangsters’ trail. Once Scorpio gains a position of power in the bootlegging racket, he orchestrates Mizoski’s Centro mayoral election victory.
“Soon after the new chief of police takes office, he promises to avenge his son’s murder by running the hoodlums out of town, and Mizoski fires him from the force. After Colimo is killed, Scorpio sets his sights on the big city. In response to the arrival of Scorpio’s gang, a special police force is created, which calls itself the “Secret Six,” comprised of six masked men representing the “greatest force of law and order in the U.S.” The force commissions Carl to gather evidence against Scorpio and the mob, but he is instructed to wait until all the gangsters are in town before making any arrests. When Anne discovers a plot to kill Hank, she runs onto a subway car to warn him, but is too late. As soon as she tells Hank that she loves him, the lights on the train go out and a shot kills him. Later, Scorpio is jailed, and Metz, one of the distillery lackeys thought to be a deaf-mute, cracks under police pressure and gives the needed testimony to convict Scorpio. At Scorpio’s trial, Anne testifies that she heard Scorpio threaten to kill Hank. Scorpio, however, bribes the jury and buys his not guilty verdict, which the judge angrily calls a miscarriage of justice. Following Scorpio’s trial, police close in on him, and a shootout at Frank’s Steak House ensues. Scorpio kills Newton for his money and then seeks refuge at Peaches’, but she double-crosses him and turns him over to the police. Scorpio and his men are soon imprisoned and condemned to death row.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
This is sort of an average storyline for a gangster flick — except it’s actually busier and more dense than you’d expect. The plot trucks along pretty quickly, and though some moments are naturally more engrossing than others, it has a nice, even trajectory. The bad guy protagonist wins for the majority of the film, and that’s always delicious to watch. Being an MGM film, there’s more polish than we’d find in the gangster films of other studios, but I wasn’t too terribly distracted. However, while other films of the genre — like The Public Enemy (1931), which I covered back in October — has a distinct style, this picture has less distinguished direction. Now, you all know that I put the story above everything else, but given the narrative here, I would have liked more visually satisfying bits to complement the action.
Meanwhile, the entire cast is great. Beery is very strong, and everyone has a sort seediness about them — perfect for a gangster flick. Marjorie Rambeau makes for a memorable moll, and Jean Harlow, playing another tart, gives a surprisingly nuanced performance for this point in her career. Also, and surprisingly, Gable, is NOT playing the bad guy in a gangster picture. He’s one of the good ones — a reporter smitten with Miss Harlow. Though Crawford holds the record of most pictures with Clark, Harlow comes in at a close second, and while Crawford and Gable seem evenly matched in a sexualized and capitalistic sort of way (working their way from the bottom to the top), Gable and Harlow have an ease that, in addition to being realistic, is snappy, warm, and refreshingly uncomplicated. In this, the first of six films Gable would make with Harlow, their unique chemistry begins its spark of development. And that’s a treat to watch.
This is a well-plotted, if busy, gangster film, and I recommend it to all film fans who like the genre. Beery gives a good performance, and though the King’s role is relatively small, it’s worth it to see him in his first picture with Harlow. So, this film isn’t highly recommended, but it is recommended. DVR it, and watch it on a rainy day!
Come back next Friday for another Gable film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!