Sog., Scen.: Rowland Brown, Courtenay Terrett. F.: Joseph H. August. M.: Harold Schuster. Scgf.: Duncan Cramer. Int.: Spencer Tracy (Daniel J. ‘Bugs’ Raymond), Marguerite Churchill (Dorothy Stone), John Wray (Kenneth Stone), Warner Richmond (‘Nails’ Markey), Sally Eilers (Daisy de Lisle), Bob Burns (‘Arkansas’ Smith), George Raft (Jimmy Kirk). Prod.: William Fox per Fox Film Corporation. DCP 4K. D.: 70’. Bn.
Robert Warshow’s classic 1948 essay The Gangster as Tragic Hero would have been much different if Warshow had had access to Fox Film’s extensive contributions to the genre, beginning with Raoul Walsh’s 1915 Regeneration. This remarkable feature from 1931 – one of only four directed by the temperamental Rowland Brown, a successful screenwriter (The Doorway to Hell) rumored to have underworld connections of his own – dismisses the romantic/tragic bent of the Warner Bros. gangster films in favor of a strikingly modern, non-judgmental perspective, portraying the rise of Danny Raymond (Spencer Tracy) from truck driver to mob boss in a series of blunt, staccato scenes. Stripped of psychology or sociological motivation, Brown’s gangsters become objects in motion, beyond morals or meanings.
As a director, Brown advances his plot largely through ellipses: a montage of license plates with changing dates serves to bridge seven years of Tracy’s rise from petty hoodlum to power broker. He takes his time over grace notes though – as when he cuts to an elegant, overhead shot to observe George Raft (here in his first movie appearance) performing a silky, vaguely sinister soft-shoe number. Brown’s gift for synecdoche pays off at the stunningly abrupt ending, when two lines of dialogue resolve the main character’s fate: “Don’t those society people have the big weddings?” “Yeah, but us hoodlums have the best funerals”. The film’s failure at the box office convinced Fox executives that their new star, Tracy, was turning out to be a poor investment; today his performance seems as clean and cold as ice water.
By courtesy of Park Circus.
Restored in 2019 in 4K by 20th Century Fox in collaboration with MoMA – The Museum of Modern Art at Cineric and Audio Mechanics laboratory from a nitrate composite print (and, for Quick Millions, from a composite duplicate safety fine grain master) held at MoMA.