There exists a body of Hollywood films made in 1932-33 — a narrow window just before and after Franklin Roosevelt's election — that reflected the deep despair of the American people confronted with corruption at all political levels, and their temptation to take matters into their own hands. This type of populist vigilante film never happened again.
In MGM's wonderful The Beast of the City (directed by Charles Brabin, from a W.R. Burnett script), Irish police captain Walter Huston had to shoot it out with the mob in a speakeasy kamikaze finale worthy of The Wild Bunch. Gregory La Cava's political fable Gabriel Over the White House showed a corrupt Washington being swept out by the big broom of the same Huston, a suddenly awakened president, but the film had fascist overtones betraying the fascination Mussolini exercised over Hollywood's weaker minds. Even an indie programmer like Charles E. Roberts' Corruption (with Preston Foster as a district attorney) reflected the same public sentiments: that no matter what the police or the press did, judges, mayors or DA's were in the pocket of the racketeers, and that something had to be done about it, even if that something was against the law.
Tonight's rare double bill at the Egyptian shows two sides of the same coin. Tay Garnett's entertaining pre-Code Okay, America! starts as comedy and abruptly pulls the rug out from under us. Lew Ayres plays ace newspaperman Larry Wayne, clearly based on Walter Winchell, notorious for exposing high society's extramarital peccadilloes in his columns. Shown at first as nothing but a smart-ass scandal monger, Wayne slowly surprises us when he is able to use his contacts with the mob to intervene in a kidnapping case. Edward Arnold is delightful as the supine, Dickens-addled head mobster, and the ending of the film is quite shocking. Playwright William Anthony McGuire wrote the cracking dialogue of this Universal gem.
Produced, like Okay, America!, by the unjustly reviled Carl Laemmle Jr. at Universal, Edward Cahn's Afraid to Talk is based on an early play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar. The film does not quite walk the talk of its original material, copping out with a happy ending. But as a political La Ronde (Merry-Go-Round was the original title), this is as hard-hitting as anything by early W.R. Burnett. When a bellhop witnesses a mob killing that could embarrass local politicos, smarmy assistant DA Louis Calhern has him railroaded for the murder. Eric Linden (the bellhop) may be a liability to any movie, but the rogue's gallery is impressive and effective: Besides Calhern, Arnold, Robert Warwick and Berton Churchill (as the mayor), all writhe in a craven, unholy alliance one rarely sees on-screen, even in Capra movies.
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NOIR CITY: OKAY, AMERICA! AND AFRAID TO TALK | Thurs., May 3, 7:30 p.m. | American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre | americancinematheque.com