T. alt.: Merry-Go-Round. Sog.: dalla pièce Merry-Go-Round di Albert Maltz e George Sklar. Scen.: Tom Reed. F.: Karl Freund. M.: Maurice Pivar. Scgf.: Charles D. Hall. Int.: Eric Linden (Ed Martin), Sidney Fox (Peggy Martin), Tully Marshall (Anderson), Louis Calhern (Wade), Edward Arnold (Jig Zelli), George Meeker (Lennie). Prod.: Carl Leammle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. 35mm. D.: 69′. Bn.
Where, as the critic Robert Warshow famously noted, the Warner Bros. gangster films presented their protagonists as tragic heroes, their generic equivalents at Universal present no trace of the romantic individualism of a Cagney or Robinson; instead, they are cogs in a cold machine of corruption, functioning without conscience, remorse or even much sense of personal volition. Based on Merry-Go-Round, a controversial, widely censored play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar, Edward L. Cahn’s film remains faithful to the structuring principle implied by the title, portraying a closed circle of venality that seems to include every major institution in the nameless city in which it is set. When a bellboy (Eric Linden) witnesses a gang chief (Edward Arnold) rubbing out a rival, he dutifully reports to the District Attorney (Tully Marshall) – who promptly frames the boy for the killing.
As an editor at Universal, Cahn made his reputation for his rapid re-editing of All Quiet on the Western Front, working in an editing suite set up on the train that was carrying the preview print from Los Angeles to New York. His assignment: to remove all traces of ZaSu Pitts, who had originally been cast as the hero’s mother but had to be replaced by Beryl Mercer when test audiences, accustomed to Pitts as a comedian, laughed when she appeared. Promoted to director, Cahn was soon working with Universal’s top stars (including Walter Huston in another portrait of civic corruption, the western Law and Order). Cahn’s mastery of tempo and counterpoint is quite evident here thought not unexpected; more surprising is his visual flair, which finds him revisiting some of the more abstract moments of German Expressionism with the cameraman Karl Freund.