1932 was the year Hollywood got past the Talkies. Capra’s AMERICAN MADNESS over @ Columbia; Von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI LILY @ Paramount; and this dynamite prison drama from Michael Curtiz @ Warner are all fully up to speed, even without background scores yet in the mix. Spencer Tracy & Bette Davis, in their only pairing, play wiseguy & moll who can only grab moments together during brief prison visits. Even so, the heat is palpable. The gimmick of the thing has prison warden Arthur Byron breaking down Tracy’s tough-guy attitude before eventually trusting him with a one-day pass when Davis gets critically injured. But things go wrong on the outside and Tracy knows if he honors his pass and returns to Sing Sing, he’s sure to get the chair. (It’s a Pre-Code pic so someone does in fact get away with a murder, but it ain’t Tracy.) Coming in at 77 minutes, Curtiz never lets you dwell on the plot contrivances and gets exceptional (and exceptionally modern) perfs out of his leads while offering textbook examples of action stuff that makes today’s directors look like mugs. Check out that fight between Tracy & Louis Calhern’s corrupt lawyer by Bette’s bedside. Tracy, never a whiz at these physical maneuvers, is completely believable and even seems to be doing all his own stunt work. Even better is a prison-break from earlier in the pic, led by Lyle Talbot in one of his first gigs*, which is brilliantly handled by Curtiz, lenser Barney McGill, and Warners’ fabulous design man Anton Grot who turns the bars, gates, stairs & cell blocks of his studio fabricated Sing Sing into fierce, dramatic abstract patterns.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Arthur Byron, who plays the prison warden, had just starred on B’way as the City Editor in FIVE STAR FINAL. But the 1931 film (squib directly below) gave the role to Edward G. Robinson . . . and thank goodness, he turned out to be just the spark plug that film needed.
READ ALL ABOUT IT: *The NEW YORKER published a smart remembrance of Lyle Talbot by his daughter Margaret in the Oct 1, 2012 issue. Here’s a link for NY’er subscribers: