Illicit (1931) Archie Mayo

“Illicit” was only Barbara Stanwyck’s fifth film and she was already a star. Having just appeared in Frank Capra’s “Ladies of Leisure” as a prostitute, or as they would call it, a ‘party girl’ for Columbia, Babs, who had arranged for non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia and Warner Brothers, starred in her next film  for Brothers Warner as a free thinking woman, a post feminist long before the term was even conceived.

Stanwyck is Anne Vincent and her lover, James Rennie, is wealthy Richard “Dick” Ives II. They have been happily living out of wedlock, going away together for weekends, enjoying life, but she refuses to marry Dick who wants to marry her. Anne explains her theories on marriage, how married couples become complacent, have kids and begin to take each other for granted leaving the fun and romance behind. Anne wants none of that. Eventually though pressure from friends and family force the couple to marry. Once married, egos get hurt, misunderstandings come out of the closet as well as former lovers. From Anne’s past comes Price Baines, played smoothly by Ricardo Cortez, who keeps popping up to complicate the situation. Late in the film Dick is about to run off with a former girlfriend (Natalie Moorhead) when the couple come to the realization they only want each other. Continue reading

Black Legion (1937) Archie Mayo

Only Warner Brothers, who ripped the stories from the day’s headlines, would have the guts to have put out a gutsy uncompromising perceptive film like “Black Legion.”  Released in 1937, the film traces the story of Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart), a machinist who gets passed over for a promotion in favor for a more qualified “foreigner,” Polish-American co-worker, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon).  Frank, prior to being passed over, was a swell guy, a good family man, liked by everyone at work for his eagerness to do a good job. That all changes after the studious Dombrowski is anointed with the Supervisor position Frank thought he had in the bag. After all, he had many years of service and he was a real American. 

Director Archie Mayo paints a brutally ugly picture of bigotry, cowardice and senseless brutality hiding behind a mob mentality of flag waving patriotism. The film’s screenplay, written by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, was based on a story by Robert Lord, who wrote a fictionalized version of the secret society known as the Black Legion, a group based in the nation’s heartland who modeled themselves on the Klu Klux Klan. Like the fictional organization in the film, the real Black Legion had a common purpose, keeping America pure for “real” Americans.  During their reign there were daily news reports of kidnappings, floggings, hangings, and were responsible for at least two murders, including the death of Workers Progress Administration organizer, Charles Poole. The Black Legion swore to fight against the Catholic Church, Judaism, Communism, “and all the ism’s our forefathers came to this country to avoid.” That is except for racism which they embraced. Continue reading

Doorway to Hell (1930) Archie Mayo

    In Doorway to Hell, Lew Ayres plays gang leader Louis Ricarno who organizes the mob in order to eliminate inter-gang warfare. After the organization is set up with Ricarno in charge, he decides he wants out of the rackets. Discontented gang members don’t like the idea and kidnap Ricarno’s young brother. The kidnapping goes bad when the boy is killed and Ricarno is drawn back in for revenge. The film is entertaining enough, however it is dated much more than other gangland films of its era. Lew Ayres comes off unconvincingly as a gangster, and most of the cast, with the exception of sixth billed James Cagney and Dorothy Mathews who  plays Ayres wife, and is Cagney’s lover, are still in the silent film mode of over acting. Cagney lights up the screen as Ayres right hand man, Mileaway, who takes over the boss’ position upon Ayres departure. Director Archie Mayo keeps most of the violence in long shot or off-screen. The gang warfare scenes right after Ricarno retires are almost comical.  Still the film is entertaining and worth watching from a historical perspective, and especially to watch the young Cagney tear up the screen and for the “shocking” scene in the taxi cab where Mathews removes her marriage ring while cozying up to Cagney.  What’s most interesting is how much Cagney’s charisma shines, just as it did in another early role in “Sinner’s Holiday.” His personality just about over powers everyone else on the screen.