Saturday 16 June 2007

The Finger Points (1931) John Francis Dillon

One of the drawbacks of catching up with a particular actor's career is that it gets harder and harder to find a new film that has so far eluded me. When I started delving into cinematic history in 2004 I was surprised to find that I'd seen precisely zero Clark Gable movies, one of the biggest hints that I needed to delve in the first place. He was the king of Hollywood in the thirties, actually crowned such in a ceremony with Myrna Loy as the queen. Four years in and I now have 53 Clark Gable movies behind me, which is two out of every three. Of the 27 I have left to see, 11 of them are from his early silent days, 1926 and earlier, in his first attempt to crack Hollywood. So there's only 16 sound films yet to scratch off my list, and this is one of them.

He's fifth on the cast list, behind Fay Wray, Regis Toomey, Robert Elliott and the star, Richard Barthelmess, one of the most fascinating of the great precode actors and one who seems to be annoyingly hard to track down. The story is partly by John Monk Saunders, Fay Wray's husband at the time, who wrote Wings, the first Best Picture Oscar (Best Production in those days) and an Oscar for himself soon after for his work on The Dawn Patrol. He specialised in aviation stories but this one was a gangster tale, as was so common in the precode thirties, loosely based on the true story of Jake Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who was on Al Capone's payroll but who was about to spill it all to the cops.

Here the reporter is Breckenridge Lee, played by Barthelmess and known as Breck. He arrives in the big city with a glowing recommendation from the editor of the Savannah Constitution whose word is trusted by Wheeler, the man in charge of The Press, the biggest of the big city papers, with the tag of 'the world's best newspaper'. Wheeler puts him to work on the city desk, where he finds his feet working on a new press crusade against gang rule. He exposes the Sphinx Club, a new casino run by gangsters.

It's slow and clunky, in a completely different league to Gable's later work playing journalists and even when compared to other early press stories of the era like The Front Page. Barthelmess is fine, juggling mild manners and naivete with honesty and risk taking, firing the opening shots in the paper's gang fighting crusade and getting roughed up because of it. Soon the city gets to him and he changes, morphing into what he would never had expected on day one. Barthelmess is up to the task, though he underplays his toughness and cynicism. Unfortunately there's too much tame humour, too much office romance between Barthelmess and Fay Wray's character, Marcia Collins, and too little actual substance.

Gable is a hood, of course, Louis J Blanco by name. Officially he runs a novelty business but really he takes care of business wherever it needs taking care of. He figures out an angle to team up with Lee to shake down the club owners in return for immunity from press interference. It's when Gable gets involved, especially in scenes with Barthelmess, that the story comes to life. When they're not on screen, the whole thing slows down to a crawl. Much of that has to do with the lack of a soundtrack, most scenes being silent other than speech, but it would have played much better even if all they did to change it was to wind the film twice as fast.

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