Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
Two Seconds (WB, 1932) – Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Writers: Elliott Lester (play), Harvey F. Thew (adaptation and s/p). Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Vivienne Osborne, Guy Kibbee, Preston Foster, J. Carrol Naish, Frederick Burton, Harry Beresford, Dorothea Wolbert, Berton Churchill, William Janney, Edward McWade, Gladys Lloyd, & Adrienne Dore. B&W, 67 minutes.
Two Seconds is an ordinary film with an extraordinary performance by its star, a performance we wouldn’t expect in a mere programmer. But Edward G. Robinson gave a performance worthy of a bigger movie and it’s the main reason to tune in.
The film opens with a group of reporters sitting in to watch a prison execution getting a speech on how to behave from the warden (Churchill) as the condemned man, John Allen (Robinson), enters the chamber and is being prepared for the electrocution. Among those there is a young man witnessing his first execution, who asks the doctor how long it will take for the condemned man to die. The doctor replies that a powerful man such as Allen won’t die immediately; he’ll survive for two seconds. The warden speculates that during the time it takes to be electrocuted, two seconds, John Allen’s life will flash before his eyes.
As the camera focuses on the switch the movie cuts to a close up of Allen’s drill and an earlier time in his life as an ironworker earning $62.50 a week. This is more, he boasts, than most college professors earn. We are also introduced to his best friend, Bud Clark (Foster), who also happens to be his roommate.
Allen and Clark make for quite a mismatched pair. Clark is a free spirit who enjoys life and all that goes with it, namely women, playing the horses, and booze. Allen, on the other hand, is reluctant to join Clark in his frivolity; he sees himself as above all that, believing with a certain sense of naivety that he will meet an educated woman, one that, like him, will reach for the higher things in life, as he does.
Bud is engaged to Annie (an unbilled Dore), and they are continually search for a girl for John. The problem is that John isn’t interested in any of the blind dates they dig up, calling them “firewagons.” He reluctantly goes along with Clark one night to meet Annie and a new girl she’s bringing along for John, but when John gets a look at her from afar, he quickly ducks into a dance hall to escape what he sees as an ignominious fate.
In the dance hall he meets a world-weary, streetwise taxi dancer named Shirley Day (Osbourne). He dances with her and they hit it off. When he goes to the cashier to buy more tickets, another patron comes by and chooses Shirley for his next dance. She tries to get out by telling the would-be patron that she’s waiting for her date to return, but her boss, Tony (Naish), tells her to get moving. When he tries to make a move on her, John sees her struggling and socks the interloper in the eye, which causes Shirley to lose her job as Tony (who we later learn is more than a mere boss) fires her on the spot.
John takes Shirley to a soda fountain for refreshments and begins telling her about himself. She picks up quickly on the vibes John is sending and realizes he’s a naïve mark. He believes her when she tells him she’s the sole support of her parents living in Idaho. (In reality, they are residing in a nearby speakeasy.) Feigning interest in his quest to find an intelligent woman she tells him she’d love to attend some lectures at the public library with him. When John tells Bud about the new girl he’s met and how perfect she is, Bud smells a gold digger and tells John to steer clear of her. However, John continues to see her as they have a date to go to a lecture. Instead of going to the lecture, Shirley steers him to a nightclub, where she gets him drunk on “tea.” She then seeks out a justice of the peace and bribes him to marry them, with John so drunk that he can't even utter “I do.”
When she moves in with him at his apartment, she throws Bud out. Bud, who sees her for what she is, tries to wisen up John. Even though the reality of the situation has come down hard on him, John still continues to defend her, telling Bud, “What she’s done before we got married, that’s off, see? You and me ain’t been no lilies ourselves.”
It becomes clear that Shirley has no intention of honoring her marriage vow. She’s soon back at the dance hall in the afternoons, when John is working. Meanwhile, the tension that has been building between John and Bud comes to a head at work when Bud tries to set John straight on Shirley, telling him about the lies she’s been spinning, and informing him that she’s been spending her afternoons back at the dance hall with Tony. Furious, John lunges at Bud, who falls to his death in a scene that even today, leaves us unnerved.
Bud’s death crushes John, leaving him a nervous wreck and unable to work. Totally overcome by grief, he has quit his job. Shirley, now the breadwinner, begins to spend more and more time at the dance hall and lords it over her husband, who is in no condition to do anything about it as he sinks deeper and deeper into despair.
But a bet on the horse with Bud’s old bookie (played with his usual panache by Kibbee) pays off enough to shake John out of his stupor. When he learns that Shirley plans to tutor Bud’s old fiancée, Annie, in the dance hall trade, it finally moves him to action. Believing that Bud has guided his hand in choosing the horses, John goes to the hall and “squares things” by paying his wife and her pimp the money he owed her over the months. He then takes out a pistol he recently bought, and fatally shoots his wife.
At his subsequent murder trial, John goes from simply ranting wildly to presenting a weird rationale for his actions, proclaiming to the court, “You’re killing me at the wrong time. You should have killed me when I was taking his money. It ain’t fair to let a rat live and kill a man. It ain’t fair. It ain’t . . .” In other words, he should have been found guilty before, when he was at his nadir, and not when he has finally found personal justice. As he continues to move closer and closer to insanity, John grasps his head as if in pain, seemingly seeing his dead friend standing in front of him. “Bud, wait for me!”
The camera now cuts back to the thrown switch; two seconds have passed. Cut to a close-up of the young reporter’s face. We can see beads of sweat forming on his brow as he has just witnessed his first execution.
Though Two Seconds is a harrowing movie to watch, it isn’t especially a good movie. It takes its time getting started. For the first 20 or so minutes we’re treated to what almost seems like one prologue after another: the prison scene followed by scenes of Robinson and Foster establishing their characters by throwing street lingo back and forth. What works on stage doesn’t necessarily work in the movies. However, once Robinson meets Osbourne and she begins pouring “tea” into him, the film changes gears, and until the end of the movie Robinson completely dominates, giving us in the audience a performance for the ages.
This is Robinson’s film. Foster, reprising his role from the stage, and Osbourne both give solid, credible performances, but pale next to the star, who acts with such energy that one would think the studio doctor shot him up with methamphetamines. Though he comes dangerously close to crossing the line into the land of ham, he reins himself in and manages to come off as realistic; a man tormented to the edge of insanity by his guilt over killing his best friend and his mistake in falling for Shirley.
Mervyn LeRoy’s direction is ordinary, to say the least. Except for two memorable scenes, the film has a tendency to drag, especially during the beginning. But those great scenes help rescue the film from total mediocrity. First is the scene of Bud falling off the building to his death. As we see him from above flailing his arms helplessly as the emergency horn sounds, we look on horrified. It is quite a moving scene. The other scene is at John’s trial, where a single spotlight catches him in imitation perhaps of Fritz Lang’s M, as he goes forth, agonized and tortured in a monologue driven on by its own unique sense of logic. Robinson plays his descent into madness brilliantly, spewing forth his tangled ideas of revenge, justice, and punishment in a four-minute scene that few actors of his time had the skill to pull of without completely going over the top.
Another plus for the film is its grittiness. Set in the heart of the city, we are treated to the gaudy, lowbrow pursuits that pass themselves off as proletariat entertainment: the taxi dance palace, the bookie that seems to be an essential part of life, and the “nightclub” that serves Prohibition hootch, passing it off as “tea.” Art director Anton Grot deserves praise for his dark, almost expressionistic sets, including his design of the execution chamber. He would reach further heights in design in two later films, both in the horror genre: Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933).
LeRoy and cinematographer Sol Polito also collaborated on other striking scenes, such as the dance hall, which looks especially dark and tawdry, almost like a crime waiting to happen, and the arresting shot of Shirley in a white slip standing triumphantly over a drunken Robinson caught through the bars of the bed frame; a shot that stays with us long after the film ends.
Two Seconds cost $310,000 to make and grossed an estimated $822,000 worldwide, not bad for a mere programmer. Opening in New York at the Winter Garden on May 18, 1932, Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote, "It is a production that is minus any comedy relief, being glum and gruesome, but adroitly done, a film that compels attention and one that is ably cast . . . In spite of its drab tale, it calls for admiration, for it never falters."
That it never falters is due to Robinson alone, but Hall does have a point: it’s difficult to find a darker film.
The marketing of the film was somewhat bizarre, to say the least. The poster for the film claims that it’s “Edward G. Robinson in his first great love drama!” This might be true for, perhaps, the Addams Family, but not for the normal audience.
Gladys Lloyd, who had a small role and was billed simply as “woman” in the film, was married to star Edward G. Robinson at the time. They were married from January 21, 1927, to July 20, 1956, when they divorced. The couple had one son, Emmanuel (1933-74), who broke into acting as “Edward G. Robinson, Jr.” However, he had nowhere near the success his father did, working mainly in television. He died a little more than year after his father.
Vivienne Osbourne, who played Shirley Day, is best remembered to psychotronic and MST 3000 (“Mysties”) fans as the alcoholic mother in PRC’s inept morality tale, I Accuse My Parents (1944). Two years later, she appeared in her last film, Dragonwyck (20th Century Fox, 1946) as Vincent Price’s gluttonous first wife.
Shirley (to the waiter at the speakeasy): “Another cup of tea, and bring the bottle this time!”