Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Secret Six

Train Wreck Cinema

By Ed Garea

The Secret Six (MGM, 1931) – Director: George W. Hill. Writer: Frances Marion. Stars: Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Johnny Mack Brown, Jean Harlow, Marjorie Rambeau, Paul Hurst, Clark Gable, Ralph Bellamy, John Miljan, DeWitt Jennings, Murray Kinnell, Fletcher Norton, Louis Natheaux, Frank McGlynn Sr., & Theodore von Eltz. B&W, 83 minutes.

The Secret Six is an obscure film that is obscure for a very good reason: it stinks. It provides an excellent example of what happens when a studio attempts to copy the style of another, in this case, Warner Brothers. 

Warner Brothers films from the era feature snappy dialogue, good direction, great acting, and wonderful scenarios. On the other hand, The Secret Six, coming from a studio that epitomizes glamour, features terrible dialogue, unfocused direction, and wooden acting, along with an uninspired mise-en-scene

It was Jean Harlow’s first pairing with Clark Gable, and though the two manage to acquit themselves nicely throughout, the same can’t be said of their co-stars. Lewis Stone, as a dipso lawyer, seems as if he’s sleepwalking through the film, and Ralph Bellamy as a ruthless gangster makes Lew Ayres’ performance in Doorway to Hell seem realistic.

The film is centered around the rise of a gangster named Louis Scorpio (Beery) from slaughterhouse worker to the ruler of a criminal empire. Recruited by the suave Johnny Franks (Bellamy) as a strong-arm for a bootlegging gang led by the refined attorney, Richard Newton (Stone), his job is to help Johnny and his aide Nick “the Gouger” Mizoski (Hurst) expand Newton’s empire by horning into the neighboring territory of Joe Colimo (Miljan). 

When Colimo’s brother, Ivan (Rudolph), who Colimo wants to keep out of the business, is killed in a showdown with Newton’s boys, Franks tries to make amends by framing Scorpio and arranges to have the unknowing hitman wait at a site where Colimo’s boys can take their revenge. 

However, Colimo’s men miss their target, merely wounding Scorpio. Making his way back to gang headquarters, he easily figures out who’s behind his attempted rubout and shoot Franks in the back. As the film progresses, Scorpio moves up in the gang, becoming Newton’s partner, and the rackets, becoming the city’s top hood. He runs Nick for mayor, and when placed on trial, has Newton bribe the jury.

Following the trial, the police close in on Scorpio, and a shootout at Frank’s steak house, the gang’s headquarters, ensues. Newton cleans out the safe and attempts to flee, but Scorpio shots him and grabs the money. He tries to hide out at the apartment of Peaches, a gang moll who was in love with Johnny, and is bitter that Scorpio killed her paramour. She turns him over to the police and Scorpio is condemned to death row.

If Hill and Marion had kept the story to the rise and fall of Scorpio alone and added extra touches to the plot, the film might have turned out somewhat decently. But the film loses its way by adding a subplot concerning reporters Hank Rogers (Brown) and Carl Luckner (Gable) and their competition for the affections of gang employee Anne Cortland (Harlow), who Scorpio hires to distract them and keep them off his trail. The credit for this subplot is a bit confused. Some attribute it to Irving Thalberg, who saw the potential of Harlow and Gable while reviewing the rushes. Others attribute it to Marion, who expanded their characters with each new draft of the script. 

Beery is his usual slob character; in this case, a slaughterhouse worker recruited by Johnny Franks with the promise of easy profits from bootlegging. To give him something that will distinguish him, Marion has him as a teetotaler who drinks only milk. The milk bottle comes into play after Beery narrowly escapes the hit after Johnny framed him. When he returns, wounded, to the gang’s headquarters, he spots the milk bottle in the trash can and deduces it was Johnny who framed him. Bellamy seems to be the victim of the added subplot, as if there was no longer any room for his character given the introduction of three new faces. It might have proved interesting if his character were allowed to linger on. Johnny’s death leaves Newton and Scorpio in a rather uneasy partnership, with Newton’s patrician manner – trying to guide Scorpio into following a plan – clashing with Scorpio’s application of the laws of the jungle: strike quickly and leave no witnesses. But again the film leaves so many plot points unattended; the relationship between Newton and Scorpio could have produced a much better movie if it, too, didn’t fall victim to the subplot.

Just as we’re getting a handle on Scorpio and looking forward to see what happens, the plot spins off into the Gable-Harlow-Brown triangle and Scorpio’s trial. Too bad, for Beery is the dynamo that makes the film go. Unfortunately, his character seems to be pulled along by events rather than being the one behind the events.

As Scorpio gains power, he orchestrates Nick’s election as mayor. Nick’s first act is to fire the honest police chief, who had promised to get those that had killed his son. Again, we only get to gaze at the surface. Power also attracts reporters to Scorpio, in this case it's Rogers (Brown) and Luckner (Gable). Scorpio attempts to crudely buy them off by presenting them with gold cigarette cases containing a number of $1,000 bills. Neither reporter takes the bait. Using his employee, Anne, Scorpio keeps tabs on Brown and Luckner, but he doesn’t know that Brown and Anne have fallen in love. Luckner also loves Anne, but realizes Brown got there first. 

When Brown discovers that Anne has been setting him up all along, he’s dismayed. Scorpio learns that Brown plans an expose of his rackets and sends out of couple of the boys to whack him. Anne gets wind of it and tries to reach Hank, but in true melodramatic fashion, just as she’s about to tell him of the plot, the gangsters gun him down. She swears to avenge his death. 

Carl is also upset by Hank’s killing and we soon learn he is working with the deposed chief of police and a vigilante group of powerful bureaucrats called “The Secret Six” who have banded together to bring Scorpio down. Their plan? Nail him for income tax evasion, of course. This is the first – and last time – we see the Secret Six. They are wearing the sort of masks that the Lone Ranger wears, as if they were dressed for a cheesy masquerade party. It’s clear that are simply a plot device to hasten the downfall of Scorpio. They commission Carl to gather evidence against Scorpio and his mob, but also instruct him to wait until all the gangsters are in town before making any arrests.

Supposedly, the Secret Six are based on a real-life group of vigilantes that helped bring down Al Capone. However, as subsequent history of the Mob in Chicago shows, the “Outfit” (as it was called) managed not only to survive the vigilantes, but thrive as well, branching off into Las Vegas and Cuba.

The main problem with the film, in addition to the time expended on the subplot, is the casting of Beery as Scorpio. He comes off more folksy than threatening, and the opening scenes of his recruitment establish him as slow-witted muscle, the sort who couldn’t count the fingers of one hands and come up with the same number twice. Yet, we’re led to believe that within the space of 20 minutes he changes into a wily character able to take over the gang and the city as well. It just doesn’t play. Gable could have played that character with a lot more panache.

The most compelling reason to watch The Secret Six is to see the development of Gable and Harlow from supporting players to their later starring roles. It's interesting to watch them in Red Dust (made a year later) right after The Secret Six ends to marvel at their progress.

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