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Tuesday, 23 January 2007

The Guilty Generation (1931) Rowland V Lee

Here's another 1931 play made into a film, this time one originally written by Jo Milward and J Kerby Hawkes, whoever they are, but really just a modern take on Romeo and Juliet. The leads are Leo Carrillo and Constance Cummings, but they really ought to count Robert Young and Boris Karloff who are just important to the story and whose careers went much further. Carrillo was distinguished outside the acting profession but ended up playing stereotypical Latino roles, especially Pancho in the long running TV series The Cisco Kid, and Cummings was better known as a stage actress whose films were mostly made in England.

Here Carrillo plays Mike Palmiero and Karloff plays Tony Ricca, both major gangsters who have decided to fight it out for the number one spot in a gang war. They're tough in traditional ways: Palmiero has to get everything he wants even he has to buy it, from people to newspapers and social standing, and Karloff is a little more forgiving with his son but just as tough. Carrillo starts off decent but wooden but gets progressively more scary as the film goes on; Karloff maybe tries a little hard but doesn't get a lot of screen time and carries his own menace, as you'd expect.

Their kids don't want anything to do with any of it, naturally, even though Palmiero is trying to turn his daughter into a socialite. Ricca's son has gone so far as to change his name to John Smith to get away from his heritage and become an respectable architect on his own merits. These are Constance Cummings and Robert Young and they're the Romeo and Juliet of the story. They meet, neither knowing who the other is, and naturally fall for each other, but you know how Romeo and Juliet ended up. This has a surprise ending but it's a real peach, one of the best I've seen from the early thirties.

I'm really starting to enjoy 1931, part of but still distinct from the precode era, and The Guilty Generation is old but not particularly creaky for its age. The performances are good, the story gripping, the direction solid and the tone dangerous, and I think it stands above some of the other gangster films of the year, the really notable ones that introduced people like James Cagney and Edward G Robinson. 1931 was the year of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, and certainly both of those future stars outdo Carrillo and Karloff, but for all their importance those films had a lot of flaws. I even prefer Cagney in The Doorway to Hell, a made a year earlier, where he plays second fiddle to Lew Ayres but steals the entire show from sixth on the credits, and I prefer this one too.

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