Tuesday 26 January 2010

Two Seconds (1932)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Star: Edward G Robinson
Even in 1932 a mere year after Little Caesar, Edward G Robinson was trying to vary things. He may have played a lot of gangsters, but it's amazing how few of them contained anything that could remotely be regarded as glorification and it's just as amazing how often he didn't play gangsters too. Here he's John Allen on his way to the electric chair, so close to it that we don't even see him leave the cell. We just watch the college boy in the execution chamber explain that Prof Summers has him there so he can report back to his sociology class on the experience and ask how long it'll take the condemned man to die. The doctor explains that a powerful man like Allen won't die immediately. He'll survive for perhaps the two seconds that provides our title, but that will still be long enough for him to relive his whole life.

Sure enough, it provides the rest of our story in flashback. He's a rivetter working twenty five stories up in the air putting skyscrapers together and that's something that gives him a different perspective on life. He looks down at the world, at all the lawyers and fancy women and they look like nothing. He tells his flatmate and coworker Bud Clark that they're a 'crawling bunch of little flies' and he doesn't want anything to do with them. He's done pretty good at that so far too, Clark being the one with a girlfriend, though the pair of them keep trying to double date with him bringing along blind dates that look like the back end of fire trucks. That's Allen talking too, not me, but who am I to argue with Edward G Robinson?

It's ducking out of one of those blind dates that he finally meets a girl of his own. She's Shirley Day and she's a nickel a dance girl at the cheap dance place that he finds himself in. I utterly didn't recognise Vivienne Osborne in the part, even though I saw another of her roles only last week. She looks fine here if suitably cheap, but she's completely different from Vincent Price's glutton of a first wife in Dragonwyck twelve years later in what would be her last role. That difference suggests quite a talent, but she's far better here as she has a notable edge to her that's perfect for the precode era, delivering lines like, 'Since when did you begin to examine a dollar to see who its father was?' with panache, let alone, 'Another cup of tea, and bring the bottle this time!'

John and Shirley hit it off but promptly get kicked out of the place, because she gets stuck with someone else while he's getting more tickets, he gets fresh and so in comes John Allen to deck him. It helps that he's the first character she's ever met who doesn't spin a line on her, in fact he's so honest he's almost rude, social niceties obviously not being his thing. She's a nice girl too, dancing at night so she can earn money to study through the day, and she sets up dates with him at lectures at the public library. In fact she's such a nice girl and he's such a down to earth guy that we can only wonder how he's going to end up in the electric chair at the end of a mere 67 minute running time, especially given that we're almost halfway in already.

Well, needless to say, she has designs and so they don't end up at the library after all. She drags him to a nightclub instead and gets him drunk on bootleg liquor, drunk enough that she can drag him to the nearest justice of the peace to make a rather dishonest woman of her. He's so drunk that he still has a teacup stuck on his finger from the nightclub and she has to pay the JP ten bucks in place of the two words that he can't even fathom he's supposed to say. She has a convenient ring in her pocket ready to go and she's had it waiting for three weeks. Nice girl, my eye. Bud Clark may not be able to resist his bookie, who after all is played by the always engaging Guy Kibbee, and he may spend half his time trying to avoid his girlfriend but he's spot on when it comes to Shirley Day. She's after John's $62.50 per, more than college professors make.

This is a short and obscure precode but like many such creatures it's unjustly overlooked. It's a little melodramatic on occasion but it has a kick to it. Preston Foster is fine as Bud Clark, recreating his role from the original play by Elliott Lester, but while he gets a great cinematic death scene (25 floors up on a six inch girder really isn't a good place to have an argument), he's not a character we spend a lot of time watching. In fact his brightest moment is a James Cagney joke, Cagney being the other great gangster actor working for Warner Brothers at the time. With $38 in his pocket from a rare win on the horses, he chats up a couple of tomatoes in the street and tells one he'd like to sit opposite her and squirt grapefruit in her eye, like they do in the movies, an obvious tip of the hat to The Public Enemy.

Vivienne Osborne is spot on as Shirley Day, suggesting that I really ought to find more of her precodes. She started out as a silent actress in 1920, but took a long break between 1922 and 1931 when she racked up the usual volume of precodes, sixteen in three years. I believe I've only seen one, playing Warren William's ex-wife Maybelle in The Dark Horse, coincidentally another Guy Kibbee picture. Warner Brothers regulars were very regular in the precodes, but Kibbee was the focus of that one. By the way, she gets a Cagney joke too, pointing out to Robinson's character on their first meeting that he's a swell hoofer. Am I stretching to see this or did Cagney and Robinson do the sort of cross referencing jokes in the thirties that Stallone and Schwarzenegger did in the eighties. Maybe I've just been missing that from all the others I've seen.

Best of all is Robinson, hardly a surprise to anyone who's ever seen him act. He's good from moment one, possibly because he didn't know how not to be, but he gets better as the film goes on. I wasn't as impressed by the scenes where he's sick but after those he's magnetic. In particular, the final courtroom scene is simply blistering, as he explains to the judge why he deserves what he's getting but that they're burning him at the wrong time. The rationale for that pours out in a scene that's mostly one shot and it's masterful acting. I try not to wheel out the old chestnut that he unfairly never won an Oscar, but it seems harder to resist with every film, especially when he leaves it on such a high as this.

He made four films for director Mervyn LeRoy, three of them in a quick two year period in 1931 and 1932. Little Caesar, Five Star Final and Two Seconds are very different films but they're all great vehicles for him and he shines in every single one of them. Each could have brought him an Oscar nomination at least, this one being no exception. Fortunately he gets a lot more than two seconds to strut his stuff, though we do end with those real two seconds that matter, quietly and surreptitiously, with us watching the audience not John Allen in the chair. Even the precode era had limits, I guess.

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