Thursday, September 27, 2018

King of the Underworld

The B-Hive

By Ed Garea

King of the Underworld (WB, 1939) – Director: Lewis Seiler. Writers: George Bricker & Vincent Sherman (s/p). W.R. Burnett (story). Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Kay Francis, James Stephenson, John Eldridge, Jessie Busley, Arthur Aylesworth, Raymond Brown, Harland Tucker, Ralph Remley, Charley Foy, Murray Alper, Joe Devlin, Elliott Sullivan, Alan Davis & John Harmon. B&W, 67 minutes.

1939 was a great year for Hollywood, but not if you happened to be either Kay Francis or Humphrey Bogart. 

Kay Francis was wooed away from Paramount and signed to a $200,000 a year contract by Warners when she was hot box office back in the early ‘30s. By 1938, with the rise of the younger and more dynamic Bette Davis, she had cooled off considerably and Jack Warner was trying to find ways to get her to break the contract. One such way was to star her in this dreck. Also cast as her Napoleon Bonaparte quoting criminal nemesis was Humphrey Bogart, who began his career at Warner Bros. on a high note with The Petrified Forest in 1935. Since then he’s been cast as the heavy in almost every studio picture since, with the nadir of his career being cast as a vampire of sorts in 1939’s The Return of Doctor X (read our essay on the film here).

King of the Underworld did nothing for either career, other than giving them a reason to depart the studio. Besides placing her in bad movies, the studio also made Francis help out with the screen tests of up-and-coming actors. The final indignity came when the film was released in January 1939. Bogart was given star billing with Francis’s name below his in decidedly smaller type. Bogart, who had befriended Francis during the shooting of the film in the summer of 1938, knew the studio wasn’t doing him any favors. He saw it for what it was, which caused him to further despise Jack Warner, if such a thing was possible. 

King of the Underworld was shot in 20 days. The story goes as follows: Niles and Carol Nelson (Eldridge and Francis) are married doctors. Struggling to establish a practice, they operate on a gunshot victim given up for dead by other doctors. Miraculously, they save him. The gunshot victim is a gangster in the empty of Joe Gurney (Bogart), who is delighted to have found such dedicated medics. So delighted in fact, that he shows up at their office and gives Niles $500 as a token of his appreciation. 

Niles explains there sudden fortune to Carol as a result of playing the ponies (Niles is an inveterate gambler). They decide to move uptown and Niles promises to stop playing the ponies. At first things are going well, though Niles keeps disappearing at time. Carol thinks he’s back to playing the ponies, but when he leaves one evening she trails him to a seedy section of town. She can’t find him, but does find his car and decides to wait there. As she does, the place is raided by the police and Niles, attending to one of Gurney’s men, is killed in the crossfire.

Carol is arrested as an accomplice and tried, but the result is a hung jury. Nevertheless she has three months to clear her name of lose her medical license. Carol decides the best way to do this is to trail Gurney and bring him to justice. She sets up her medical practice in a small town where she was informed Gurney has been frequently seen and in which two of Gurney's gangsters have been imprisoned. However, Gurney, a gangster with delusions of Napoleonic grandeur, breaks into the jail and frees his men.     

Wounded in the jailbreak, Gurney calls upon Carol and has her tend his wounds. Also wounded in the jailbreak is down-and-out English writer Bill Stevens (Stephenson), who had innocently accepted a ride from the notorious gangster. When the local medic, Doctor Sanders (Aylesworth) refuses to treat the alleged criminal, Carol extracts the bullet and befriends Bill, who is later taken prisoner by Gurney (he likes the fact that Bill can quote Napoleon) so that he can write the gangster's biography.        

When Gurney’s wound worsens, he sends for Carol. Returning back home she learns from the grocer that the doctor had relayed his suspicions about Carol to the sheriff, with there result that the sheriff and federal agents are coming to arrest her for her involvement with Gurney. 

Carol comes up with a plan to capture the mobster and his henchmen. Convincing Gurney and his men that they have an eye infection, Carol temporarily blinds the mobsters with adrenaline eye drops and calls for the federal agents to close in. After a blinded Gurney is mowed down in a gun battle Carol is exonerated and as the film ends we see her in domestic bliss with Bill, now a successful writer, and their son.


The screenplay was based on the novel, Dr. Socrates, by famed crime writer William Riley “W.R.” Burnett, and was released in 1935 under  the same title starring Paul Muni. Lewis Seiler was known as a company director, churning them out as written. He was nothing if not prolific, beginning his career in 1923 directing silent comedy shorts for Fox. By the time he retired in 1958 he had over 90 films and teleplays to his credit. His work on this movie was typical of his style. Seiler knows how to frame a scene and keep a story moving. The faults in the movie lie more with the hacked together script rather than and directorial fault.

The script, by George Bricker and Vincent Sherman, was unfinished by the time principal photography commenced, and even Francis and Bogart chipped in ideas and dialogue (accompanied, it was said, by famed writer and mutual friend Louis Bromfield) to help finish it. Sherman (later promoted to the director’s chair) visited the set daily to work out any unforeseen snags. This had an unsettling effect on Seiler, who had a preference for slow pacing and liked a finished script. He was said to have had little enthusiasm for the film and would show up to set and start blocking scenes without having read the part of the script that was to be shot on that day. Originally shot as Unlawful, the title was changed during post-production.

The acting is excellent, much better than it should be for this type of nonsense. Francis, who was once quoted as saying that she would mop the sound stage if that’s what it took to continue drawing her salary, gives her usual professional performance. Bogart, too, was professional, adding a little levity into a role he just couldn’t take seriously. James Stephenson, as Carol’s love interest, gives a solid performance with what little he has to work with, but it seems as though his character exists only for plot advancement.

Bogart did have a little fun when filming the trailer. After delivering the line, “I'm King of the Underworld and nobody is better than I am,” he jabbed his forefinger at the center of the lens and ad-libbed, “And that goes for you, too, Jack Warner!

In the final analysis, King of the Underworld is predictable, but fun, especially for Bogart and Francis fans.


Joe Gurney: (after Carol mends his gunshot wound) Well, can I take it or can I take it?
Dr. Carol Nelson: You can take it. Some people aren't sensitive to pain, especially moronic types.
Joe Gurney: Hey, did you hear that, Slick? I'm a moronic type.
Slick: Yeah? Hey, what's that?
Joe Gurney: I don't know. Some type of medical name, ain't it doc?

Bill Stevens: (discussing Gurney’s plans for a biography) What you want is a ghost writer.
Joe Gurney: Nah no mystery stuff, just plain facts.

1 comment:

  1. Anything Boggie is n I love, same goes for Kay Francis