By Ed Garea
Quick Millions (Fox, 1931) – Director: Rowland Brown. Writers: Rowland Brown (story & s/p), Courtney Perrett (story & s/p), Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur (s/p, uncredited), John Wray (add’l dialogue). Stars: Spencer Tracy, Marguerite Churchill, Sally Eilers, Bob Burns, John Wray, Werner Richmond, George Raft, John Swor, Leon Ames & Edgar Kennedy. B&W, 72 minutes.
Like so many other Fox pre-Code features, Quick Millions is rarely shown and not widely available on DVD. Once Little Caesar (1930) made the gangster a hot commodity, other studios were looking to cash in, and this effort from Fox is rather par for the course. It was the directing debut of Rowland Brown, a former newspaper reporter and contract writer for Fox. It is also the film debut of George Raft, who has a featured role in the picture.
Star Spencer Tracy is Daniel J. “Bugs” Raymond, a truck driver who just spent a little time in stir for fighting with a cop (Kennedy). Broke and with callous girlfriend Daisy De Lisle (Eilers) on the verge of leaving him, Bugs, who describes himself as a “guy with a one-ton brain who’s too nervous to steal and too lazy to work,” is looking for an angle to get rich.
He first goes to parking garage owners, seeking to sell protection for $75 a week. But one owner tells him there’s not enough business to warrant protection money, so Bugs vandalizes cars parked on the street and drums up the necessary business for the garages. Having been a truck driver Bugs realizes that truck drivers are the ones who make everything in the city run smoothly and without them everything stops cold. His next angle leads him to join forces with with Nails Markey (Richmond), who, with his father, owns 200 produce trucks. From 1925 until 1931, through intimidation, threats and murder, they organize all the trucks in the city.
Another angle has Bugs and Nails throwing a party for prominent citizens, during the course of which they arrange for thugs to hold up the guests. In so doing they collect enough evidence of wrongdoing among the guests to keep them from interfering with their racket.
Now that he has the goods on his potential enemies Bugs decides to muscle in on the most lucrative market in the city – that of construction. Bugs zeroes in on weak-willed real estate developer Kenneth Stone (Wray), and using sabotage and purchased inside information supplied by a board member, Bugs coerces Stone into paying him to supply trucks for the building of his new tower. When Stone realizes he stands to lose a quarter of a million dollars because the tower will not be completed on time, he accepts Bugs's offer to see that it is finished ahead of schedule if Bugs is appointed director of the firm.
Now established in legitimate business, the downfall of Bugs Raymond begins. And with any gangster it starts with a woman. Dissatisfied with Daisy because she isn’t cultured enough to meet his new standards, Bugs ships her off to Europe while he sets his sights on Stone’s sister, Dorothy (Churchill). She meets all his criteria: attractive, college-educated and a granddaughter of a former governor. In line with his new found social status, Bugs begins dissociating himself from his gang as he plays billiards and golf and goes to the opera with his bodyguard, Jimmy Kirk (Raft).
Nails, angered that Bugs has given him the high hat, decides to take over the gang, ordering attacks on the city’s food industry, contrary to Bugs’ previous orders. When a radio commentator speaks out against the crime wave, Nails sends Jimmy to silence the “loud speaker.” When the headlines connect Bugs with the killing he realizes Jimmy is a liability and arranges to have him killed.
After the dedication of the new tower, Stone and other intimidated businessmen tell the district attorney that they are through with graft and promise to back his crackdown on the racketeers. Bugs also has a setback on the personal front as Dorothy rejects him, preferring to stay engaged to her beau who is returning from Europe, after which they will be married.
The setbacks convince Bugs to return to his life as a hoodlum and he convinces Nails to help him in his latest angle: the kidnapping of Dorothy at her wedding. Bugs will have her at any cost. Daisy, who Nails has propositioned after Bugs threw her over, suspects he is plotting against Bugs, but keeps silent. On the way to the church, Nails shoots Bugs and tosses his top hat from the car window as it passes the church.
Quick Millions is not a film that is interested in exploring any of the social issues it inadvertently raises. Once Bugs leaves the cab of his truck we are no longer presented with the street level perspective which dominates the film until that point. Rather, the film is a fascinating, if flawed, portrayal of a gangster who leaves not only his fellow gang members behind, but also his fellow truckers to join the swells on the other side. In so doing he leaves behind what made him prosper and pays the ultimate price. Once Bugs establishes himself on the other side, there is very little attempt to provide insight into the society characters he now associates with, as Brown prefers to give a superficial account rather than delve for meaning.
The film’s attraction comes from the performance of Tracy. His Bugs is cool and calculating, not an angry street kid like Cagney in Public Enemy, a power-driven killer like Robinson in Little Caesar, or a psycho like Paul Muni in Scarface. Tracy’s Bugs is interested in achieving the American dream the quickest and easiest way possible, and ironically, once he does that he sets in motion the cause of his downfall.
The problems with Quick Millions lie in its direction. The film moves quickly – too quickly – in telling its story, using a vignette style to give us a picture of his rise from truck driver to mob boss, and of the reasons behind his downfall. It’s a fascinating story, focusing as it does on racketeering rather than bootlegging, but it’s told in superficial style by Brown, which makes it instantly forgettable once the film ends.
Unlike its contemporaries, gunplay is minimized, though we see the undercurrent of violence in scenes of the racketeers spraying water on cement, blowing up buildings and riddling milk cans with bullets. The murders in the film are handled in a rather stylized manner, almost like silent cinema, only with sound effects. Besides the murders, Brown utilizes a great lighting effect at the testimonial; as the robbers move in the lights go out and the scene is presented in darkness, which adds to its effect. Another excellent touch is the scene of Raft dancing to “Frankie and Johnnie.” Brown focuses on his dancing legs, then cuts to the next scene where we see Raft’s legs before committing the murder. But these scenes aren’t enough to overcome Brown’s uninspired direction and the film fails to capitalize on the momentum provided by these scenes.
Brown seems so intent on his vignette approach that he leaves several large plot holes in his wake. When Jimmy is killed at a gas station the killer is immediately arrested by police, but nothing more comes of it. And the scene of the intimidated businessmen joining with the DA just seems to come out of nowhere and is left swaying in the breeze, and there is no further development.
As for the acting, Tracy is superb. Even at this early stage he exhibits the underacting style that made him so effective and which contributed to his reputation among his fellow actors. Later, aspiring actors would crowed the set of a Tracy film hoping to pick up tips and strategy.
This was George Raft’s first film, and while he doesn’t handle the delivery of dialogue too well, he has already nailed the ferret-like persona he would later use to great effect in Scarface. Marguerite Churchill is fine as Dorothy, playing off Tracy to great effect. Sally Eilers, on the other hand, is badly underused. It would have been nice to see more of her character, especially in the final scene, where she realizes that Nails is going to bump off Bugs. It’s a scene of great potential, but all Brown does is cut away to Bugs and Nails in the limo.
In the final analysis Quick Millions disappoints. Anyone expecting another Little Caesar or Public Enemy will likely go away disappointed. But the film is a Must See because of Tracy’s performance in his first starring role and the fact that Fox pre-Codes are difficult to find.
The working title of this film was Sky Line.