Director Victor Fleming had yet to shed that musty early-Talkies’ rhythm when he started this prestige item for M-G-M, a historical pageant on the relative evils of alcohol and prohibition, from Upton Sinclair’s screed of a novel. (RED DUST/’32, Fleming’s next, shows him back up to speed.) Prohibition was still on the books, yet John Lee Mahin’s script allows for unexpected nuance detailing a cure that’s worse than the disease. Alas, Fleming’s stiff form in the two-reel prologue on the rapid alcoholic decline of genteel Southern family head Lewis Stone makes heavy-weather of the melodrama. Things pick up when we head North for the opening round of Prohibition with a terrifyingly violent turn from a dipsomaniac Walter Huston. (Very OLIVER TWIST/Bill Sykes.) Things pick up even more in the last act when Jimmy Durante (all ‘hot-cha-cha’ enthusiasm) shows up as a seasoned Prohibition Agent assigned to work with Huston’s straight-arrow son Robert Young. (The film covers about 15 years, yet the ‘youth’ generation of Dorothy Jordan, Neil Hamilton & a very good Bob Young, don’t age a day.) In many ways a frustrating pic, yet with a lot more than mere historic interest, it’s unusually rough & topical for controversy-shy M-G-M.
DOUBLE-BILL: Many a modern take on Prohibition (say, BOARDWALK EMPIRE/’10) could gain by a pairing with this antique. (Though not enough to help BE’s desultory/repetitive Season 4.)
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: M-G-M production head Irving Thalberg wasn’t producer of record (Hunt Stromberg got credit), but he’d still have been in charge. So, it’s a bit of a shock that two years later, with Upton Sinclair running for Governor of California on the EPIC platform, Thalberg shot ’man-on-the-street’ interviews for free Statewide distribution with faux ‘tramps’ pledging their votes to Sinclair and the socialist paradise he’d enact. Swift-Boating; circa 1934.