RKO's Almost Breakout Star
RKO's Almost Breakout Star
By Ed Garea
Don’t Turn ‘em Loose (RKO, 1936) - Director: Ben Stoloff. Writers: Thomas Walsh (story), Harry Segall & Ferdinand Reyher (s/p). Cast: Lewis Stone, James Gleason, Bruce Cabot, Louise Latimer, Betty Grable, Grace Bradley, Nella Walker, Gordon Jones, & Addison Randall. B&W, 65 minutes.
By 1936, most of the themes for gangster films had been worked and reworked seemingly to death. Looking for new ground to tread, RKO’s Don’t Turn ‘em Loose takes a look at the parole system and the corruption and incompetence within.
The film boasts a good, solid cast, with Lewis Stone receiving top billing, backed by the capable James Gleason and Bruce Cabot. Stone plays a school superintendent, but his appointment to the parole board will remind viewers of his popular role as Judge Hardy. Nella Walker, as his wife, has a strong resemblance to Fay Holder, who plays Mrs. Hardy in the MGM series, and I would think her casting was intentional if this film were released in 1939. Stone’s character also shows the same penchant for making speeches and moral bon mots that he would later hone to a fine point in the Hardy Family series.
Gleason is his usual dependable self, again playing a cop. But it is Cabot who drives this film. 1936 was his best year since playing John Driscoll in 1933’s King Kong. He was just coming off an excellent performance as Magua in The Last of the Mohicans, and if a little more care had been exercised with this film, it would have been a breakout performance. Cabot’s the heel of the film, a totally unrepentant type called Bat Williams. When the film opens we see him before the New York State parole board with his wife and baby in attendance to bolster his case and show his repentance. He is granted parole over the objections of Detective Daniels (Gleason) and vows to stay on the straight and narrow. Minutes later, as he enters his lawyer’s car for the ride back to town, we learn that the “wife” was an actor and the “baby” borrowed for the day. Bat reunites with his gang and his moll, Grace Forbes (Bradley). He immediately begins planning the next heist, a payroll job at the Escow Creamery. The robbery goes off, but in the process Bat kills the payroll clerk.
Upon their return to the hideout, Bat takes his leave, refusing to tell the gang where he’s going. It turns out he’s headed for Barlow, New York, where he is known under his real name of Robert Webster. His family has no idea of what he really does; they are under the belief that he is a globetrotting engineer whose most recent port of call is in Brazil. Even his childhood sweetheart, Letty Graves (Latimer), has no idea of his real life. His father John Webster (Stone) is a respected school superintendent, and his mother Helen (Walker), is the typical Hollywood homemaker. Robert has come home for the wedding of sister Mildred (Grable). While the family is celebrating Robert’s return, John receives a phone call from the governor, who asks him if he would be willing to serve on the parole board. Afterward, John tells the family about it, with Robert advising against it.
Later, Bat breaks into a local jewelry store to steal a present for Grace. In the process, he kills a guard in cold blood. Before he returns to the city, however, Daniels tracks down Grace and secures her cooperation by threatening to tell Bat all about her affair with gang member Al (Randall) while Bat was in stir. This leads to a nice little scene where Bat comes back to the apartment to fetch her. She wants to go out and see a movie. He tells her to dress nicely, and she replies by telling him that she’ll wear her special red dress. (Shades of Dillinger!)
Daniels springs the trap as they leave the theater, with Bat giving Grace a knowing look as he’s led off. A few scenes later, Bat has hatched a plan for escape by hiding in the back of a truck delivering lumber to the prison in a scene that has to be seen for its sheer preposterousness. As Grace returns to her apartment that night, she discovers she’s not alone. Bat is waiting with his friends, Smith and Wesson. One shot later and Grace’s role in the film is over. Bat then returns to prison in the same manner he’s escaped, and despite the time he’s been away, no one at the jail seems to have noticed he was gone. Some prison this is.
Time passes and soon Bat is once again up for parole. Guess who’s sitting on the board? John Webster, who is willing to grant parole to everyone except Bat Williams, who he characterizes as an unrepentant career criminal to whom it would be a mistake to grant parole. Daniels, who is sitting in on the meeting, gives a “three cheers” type of response, while the parole board head, a slimy sort of character, responds that if John were only to meet and talk with Williams, he’d change his mind. And so Bat is brought in. This leads to one of the great double takes in film, as John sees his son standing before him. (If it was Curly Howard instead of Stone, he’s take one look at Bat and yell “Nyha-aa-aa-aa-aah!”) Obviously taken aback, John asks to speak alone with the prisoner.
What follows is another preposterous scene, as John begins to put two and two together to realize that his son has always been a no-goodnik, even from childhood when he broke into his sister’s piggy bank. Yes, John had overlooked it all, but now he realizes he can no longer overlook this. (Andy Hardy never did this to him.)
Bat counters with the argument that the soon-to-be-married Mildred would be absolutely devastated if the truth ever came out. It’s good enough of an argument for John, who agrees to Bat’s parole on the condition that he gets lost and never darkens the Webster family’s towels again. It’s a deal, and John calls for the board, telling them that after consulting with the prisoner, he has agreed to grant him parole. Daniels is devastated; he thought John would be different from the other namby-pambies and take a harder line instead of simply rubber-stamping these mugs for release.
Time passes, and the family gets ready for Mildred’s wedding. John is writing a letter of resignation to the parole board when he and the family receive a visit. Guess Who? Yes, it seems that Bat cannot resist dropping by to see his sister off. While he’s there, old girlfriend Letty lets slip the fact that her father, who owns a big, successful construction company, is preparing his huge payroll. This is a score too rich to resist, so Bat heads out to pay a visit to the old boy. Unbeknownst to him, his father has followed him, and the two have a confrontation. Suddenly, Detective Daniels, who has heard everything, breaks in to arrest Bat. They scuffle, and during the melee, Bat disarms Daniels. He tells Daniels to say goodbye before he pulls the trigger, but John, who has picked up Daniel’s revolver, shoots Bat before he can shoot Daniels. Daniels takes the gun from John and tells him to get the heck out of there. Having heard everything, he will see that the family is not embarrassed. In the next scene, Daniels is driving a mortally wounded Bat out of town. A telegram is received at the Webster’s home, informing John that everything has been taken care of and he no longer need worry.
What a film. One thing is for certain, it moves fast, not pausing long to linger upon its characters. And it all makes a kind of sense until the final scenes. The supporting cast is fine. Grable, in her limited role, is bubbly and cute. Latimer adds a nice touch as Bat’s old flame, and Bradley is solid as Bat’s moll, especially in her death scene. As mentioned before, Gleason is fine as Daniels, and Stone is more than capable playing John Webster. But the real star of the film is Cabot. He growls, sneers and stalks his way through the film, making the most of his part without resorting to overemoting.
If the studio had invested a little more money and preparation time to this picture, Cabot might have come out of it as RKO’s breakout star. But RKO was more interested in ”now” rather than taking a chance on “later.” Even its theme of corruption in a failing parole system is used only as background. RKO wasn’t about to launch a social campaign a la Warner Brothers, who by this time had also dropped its stance on social activism. Entertainment was in and advocacy was out.
Trivia: It was after the release of this film that RKO dropped young starlet Betty Grable from its roster, commenting that while she was cute, it wasn’t enough. She made a couple of films for Paramount before signing a contract with 20th Century Fox. She became a huge star in her first Fox film, Down Argentine Way (1940). She went on to become one of the studio’s most popular stars and her pinup during World War Two was posted in barracks all around the world.