Saturday 5 December 2009

Two Against the World (1936)

Director: William C McGann
Stars: Humphrey Bogart and Beverly Roberts
TCM's star of the month for Dec 2009 is Humphrey Bogart, to celebrate what would have been his 110th birthday on 25 Dec, at least according to Warner Brothers.
Broadcast on TCM under the title of One Fatal Hour, this 56 minute film is really a slightly cropped TV version of an already short 64 minute movie called Two Against the World, most interesting for being an early leading role for Humphrey Bogart. It's a First National picture at the time they were owned by Warner Brothers, so the sensational but topical human interest story fits very well and as you might expect from the rather severe editing to fit a television timeslot, it races along at breakneck speed.

It's set at the United Broadcasting Company, a radio station better known as WUBC New York, where there's a conflict between the owner, Bertram C Reynolds, and the man who runs it, Sherry Scott. Bogart is Scott, played very much in his down to earth and joyously sarcastic vein, though he does smile a lot more than he ever did in his heyday. He's a serious man, blissfully ignorant that his secretary, Alma Ross, is head over heels in love with him, or hard boiled enough just not to mention it. He's interested in shows of substance and culture for the station he runs, but Reynolds interprets the station's motto of 'the voice of the people' as a call for populism, dumbing things down as long as they keep their tone. Unfortunately he doesn't really have a clue about anything, especially tone.

Where this takes us is the opposite slant to the usual journalism story, one where the journalists aren't the heroes but the villains, Scott being the only one honest enough to hate himself for being involved in such a sleazy affair and the only one with enough integrity to get out of it, albeit not quickly enough. I should add here that the story is a version of Five Star Final, a play by Louis Weitzenkorn that was first filmed under that title in 1931 with Edward G Robinson and Boris Karloff. In that version it was a newspaper story, loosely based on the antics that the New York Evening Graphic had a habit of getting up to. That may have had the better names but surprisingly this one carries a harder punch, at least from what I remember of the original.

Reynolds has come up with a new idea, suggesting a drama based on a twenty year old murder case in which a woman called Gloria Pembroke murdered her husband. We don't know the details, other than that she was found to be completely justified in her actions but for some reason he feels it warrants a moral story, calling her 'a woman of sin' and agreeing on Sin Doesn't Pay as the title of the piece. Scott doesn't want to be involved but has no option but to go along with his employer if he wants to keep his job, which he does. Soon he'll realise how much he'll pay for that privilege.

Of course the real moral story is the one we watch, the one that involves all the utter chaos for the innocent people churned up with the resurrection of the Pembroke story. Gloria Pembroke herself is still around, now living under the name of Mrs Martha Carstairs, happy in her marriage and in leaving her experience in the courts far behind her. In fact her daughter Edith is about to be married to Malcolm Sims Jr, the son of a steel magnate, and neither of them have even heard of Gloria Pembroke. With UBC broadcasting her story, that isn't going to last. We see the mental torment this family goes through in as gruesome detail as could be provided, the story beginning uncomfortably enough with the man chosen to write the play and progressing as far as you can imagine it going.

I'd never heard of Harry Hayden before, though his long career of over two hundred movies ensures that I've seen him plenty of times. He's usually the self righteous and officious type, but I'd be surprised if he ever got as juicy a role as the one he gets here in one of fourteen films he made in his debut year of 1936 at the late age of 53. He's Dr Martin Leavenworth, a sleazy character who has a daily ten minute slot on UBC called Philosophy of Mankind, even though he's really someone to be warned against rather someone with warnings to heed. Scott knows who and what Leavenworth is, refusing to introduce her to his co-writer Cora Latimer because he doesn't want to be responsible, though he does warn her not to ride in a taxicab with him. It's commonplace to see muckraking journalists in the movies put their profession before any semblance of decency, but Leavenworth is up there with the most loathsome of them.

I'm intrigued as to what was in those missing eight minutes, mostly because I can't remember how Five Star Final played out. Certainly in The Fatal Hour we concentrate on the impact of this new radio play to the Carstairs and the Pembrokes, but it's clear that there are subplots that presumably got a little more fleshed out in Two Against the World. One is the standard one of the long suffering secretary who can't get her boss to notice her. This is handled well by Bogart and Beverly Roberts but only briefly and as frequent a subplot as this was back in the day their take on it deserved better attention. The other one is the conflict between Reynolds and Scott, which was already apparent before the Gloria Pembroke case was ever brought up. I wonder how much more background we're given in the full version. The only potential negative side to eight extra minutes is that they may slow down the pace, but the story is hard hitting enough to survive that. It's a timely story today and a very powerful one indeed for 1936. I wonder why it isn't better known.

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