Rowland Brown (born with the appealing first name of Chauncey), was an interesting, almost unique filmmaker of the early thirties, who made three films. In those days, when it was a matter of principle that directors should not write, nor writers direct, and that writers, in Preston Sturges' words, "should work in teams, like piano movers," Brown was an honest-to-God hyphenate, writing and directing three two-fisted pre-code thrillers, Quick Millions, Hell's Highway and Blood Money.
There was Chaplin, of course, a living exception to nearly every industrial practice of the age, but Brown's entire directing career occurred during the lull between City Lights and Modern Times. Brown wrote (albeit sometimes with collaborators) and directed, and his films have a strong sense of their maker's personality: tough, even brutish, with a hard-bitten and cynical sense of humor, and a frankness about human nature and sexual foibles, the kind of attitude that could only flourish in the years before the Production Code was imposed.
"I'm just a guy with a one-ton brain... who's too nervous to steal and too lazy to work. I do other people's thinking for them and make them like it. I realize that human beings have their weaknesses, and that all the man-made laws in the country were made to protect honest people. And how many people will admit that they're honest? Oh, racketeering is just getting what the other guy's got... in a nice way."
In Quick Millions, Spencer Tracy plays a savagely ambitious truck driver who takes over the union and uses it to extort protection money from the construction industry. A montage of spectacular destruction of building sites, akin to the gleeful mayhem of Scarface, shows the consequences that befall businesses who don't play ball with "Bugs." (Ah, the days when gangsters were actually called Bugs, Nails and Lefty!) But Bugs (played with zero ingratiation by an ebullient Tracy) wants to be respectable, which drives a wedge between him and his men. His pursuit of a high society dame loses him his moll (Sally Eillers, whom he slugs on the jaw), and as he prepares to wed the wealthy heiress, the hitmen close in for a swift, no-nonsense take-down followed by a startlingly abrupt "The End". Bugs's career has gone from rise to fall in just 72 minutes of screen time.
It's an impressive debut, finding time for a funny dance from henchman George Raft (Brown may be the only director of the thirties to be unable to shoot dance, but we'll forgive him) and amusing character bits. Brown favours the vignette, fading to black sometimes before a scene has even delivered a narrative point or punchline. It imparts a strange stop-start rhythm noticeably different from the standard flow of other films of the period. Quick Millions was made for Fox, but by the following year the director was at RKO, making Hell's Highway, a prison drama somewhat in the mold of I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang, released the same year. But unlike Paul Muni's innocent man wrongly convicted, Richard Dix in this movie is a professional bank robber who's guilty as hell. About to break out of a chain gang building a road for a ruthless contractor, Dix is forestalled by the arrival of his kid brother, Tom Brown. Sticking around to protect the kid, Dix finds himself compromised when his popularity with the other prisoners leads him to make a deal with the sadistic warden: a soft office job for the kid if Dix keeps the other convicts in line.
The rage against the prison system is sincere, and the scenes of violence hard-hitting. Brown finds even more room for character detail, with Charles "Emperor Ming" Middleton as the only prisoner who doesn't want his freedom, because he has three wives waiting for him on the outside. Sympathetic snapshots are offered of black prisoners, and there's even a deaf prisoner. The cook seems typed as a pre-code "sissy" caricature, and he's kind of a sycophant to the guards, but he's not presented as grotesque or unpleasant.
Brown's fragmented narrative this time allows us not just glimpses into a multitude of mini-melodramas, but also gives us The Natural History of a Shiv, as a spoon stolen at chow time is flattened and filed to a point, eventually to find its way into a guard's back...There's a terrifying inevitability to the weapon's methodical construction.
While Hell's Highway has a more upbeat ending than its more famous contemporary—and Warners had the right idea, since it's hard to demand social change when every movie ends with justice done—there's a lot of horrifying and authentic detail along the way. The sweatbox where prisoners are strapped upright by the throat has a medieval feeling, and during the climactic jailbreak there are powerful, tragic and strange scenes.
The kid brother crosses a field. A group of youngsters, deputized into a posse, appear on a hillcrest and take aim. Three of them lower their guns when they see the age of their target. The fourth fires. The kid just stands there, then slowly turns, revealing a bloodstained uniform, and asks with heartbreaking simplicity, "Whatcha do that for?" The shooter begins to cry, and all four hunters run away.
Just as haunting is the scene where hunters find another prisoner crouching in the bushes with his back to them. They call on him to surrender, but he doesn't react. They fire. Then man crosses himself, and looking up, says a prayer in sign language, before expiring.
Brown evidently had a particular kind of central character he liked: tough and ornery, but with some decency; also, a certain kind of performance. Spencer Tracy was stripped of sentimentality and encouraged to act big. The normally restrained Richard Dix does a lot of bellowing in Hell's Highway, but the intense focus of his performance stops him being hammy. In Brown's third film he worked with George Bancroft, normally a walking explosion, burly, florid, with a short fuse and a fat face. His work with Brown is amazingly subtle.
Above: Judith Anderson in Blood Money.
Blood Money plays like a more sophisticated remake of Quick Millions. Again there's a romance between a crook and a society dame. Bancroft is Bill Bailey, a corrupt bail bondsman, who falls hard for Frances Dee, causing him to walk out on longterm sweetheart Judith Anderson. It's quite startling to see a young-ish Mrs. Danvers, glamorously dressed and made-up, as a nightclub proprietor. She's even more frightening here than in her mannish matriarch roles.
The romance with Dee is fascinatingly twisted. He's attracted to her class, of course, and obviously hopes it'll rub off. But she likes his aura of sleaze and criminality, and is disappointed that he's acting the gentleman with her. She announces that "If I could find a man who would be my master and give me a good thrashing, I'd follow him around like a dog on a leash." Bancroft is too naive for this to even register: she's high-class, so she couldn't possibly mean it. Her frustrated masochism is something to behold, as he goes on courting her like a perfect gent, or a perfect chump. The punchline is a grotesque bit of un-PC sleaze, as she storms off and bumps into a model who's just fought her way out of the clutches of a lecherous artist. Dee swiftly gets the man's address and heads off in search of a good raping.
This gobsmacking, gleefully offensive stuff is carried throughout the film, which also features a woman who dresses in tuxedo and monocle, although a quickly inserted line asserts that this is just for amusement. One suspects that she's been included to make Judith Anderson look more feminine by comparison. In the end, the crooks end up reunited, better off than any other protagonists in a Brown film. One suspects that Brown really did like these hoodlums, and was a bit of a tough guy himself. According to legend, it's his slugging of producer Winfield Sheehan that led to the end of his directing career. Still, he continued as screenwriter, and in Angels with Dirty Faces he gave us a crime movie better remembered than his three as director.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.