erik lundegaard


Monday July 01, 2024

Movie Review: Born Reckless (1930)


“Born Reckless” is not good but it is intriguing. It’s another of those movies made before genre plots became codified, so it kind of goes where it wants to go and never quite gets there. It starts out as a gangster flick, veers into immigrant family stuff, and then we’re off to war. Except the war buddies there are hardly buddies (they have two unmemorable scenes together) and the tragedy of war is undercut by all the hokum. I’m curious: Did they get Edmund Lowe of “What Price Glory?” fame because of the war stuff, or is the war stuff in there because of Edmund Lowe? Anyway it doesn’t work. His character, Louis Beretti, is also supposed to be an Italian gangster and he seems neither.

It’s one of the first talkies from John Ford, one of the greatest directors of all time, and it’s poorly directed. Certain scenes are just characters gathering to say their lines in semi-stilted fashion, like grade school kids in a play. And it turns on one of the most improbable plot devices in movie history:


At the same time, it anticipates one of the great gangster movies, “The Roaring Twenties,” which came along just nine years later. By then, whatever was clumsy about this one was smooth.

Highways and byways
“Reckless” opens with an attempted jewelry store robbery, led by Louis Beretti, and when it goes awry and they make their getaway, he slips into working man’s overalls to fool the cops. Wait, or is it to fool his immigrant parents in the apartment above, so they think he’s got a regular job? I never figured that one out. 

In the apartment, he checks out his sister’s boyfriend to see if he’s a right guy, and he is. For some reason he brings him before the boys so they can give him the once-over, too. Why he would care what gangsters think of a civilian, I have no idea, but it’s not a bad scene. One guy—the guy who’s interested in the sister for himself—calls the boyfriend “Four Eyes,” and boyfriend tries to fight him. Beretti holds him back with amused admiration. “He’s got a little rooster in him at that!” he declares.

Shortly thereafter, he and some of his gang are fingered as the would-be jewel thieves and called before a judge in his chambers, with a fast-talking reporter, Bill O’Brien (Lee Tracy), present. I like how, when Beretti claims to be a trucker, a cop asks to look at his hands and dismisses him as never having done a day’s work in his life. So Beretti does the same with the cop: “No calluses on that hand, either,” he says. 

The judge—on what evidence?—keeps talking about sending them “up the river” (anticipating the title of Ford’s next film), but when their pockets are emptied of everything including draft cards, the reporter has a better idea:

Let ’em go to war. Great story: gangs, gunmen, turned loose, given a chance to do their bit! Patriotism, see? Safe for democracy. You’re a Democrat, aren’t you? You are. The primaries are next month, aren’t they? They are. Cardigan for City Court Judge: A Real Patriot. Get me?

He gets him.

Here's an odd moment: As they’re being led away, the Judge calls out “Wait a minute!” and Beretti says, “I knew there was a catch in it somewhere.” A catch? Dude, I think the catch is you have to go fight in a world war.

The comedy gets broader at training camp. Sgt. Ward Bond, in only his sixth film, is trying to figure out where to place a row of civilians into this man’s army. The dialogue feels like bits, punchlines, but they’re so specific to the time they go over my head. A ballplayer is made a noncom? A CPA becomes a horseshoer?

Sgt.: How about you?
Man: Lightweight.
Sgt.: Thug, huh?
Man: No, iceman.
Sgt.: [Turns to subordinate] Garbage detail.

No idea. 

One of Louis’ men, unable to think up a lie, admits his true profession, a “boiglar,” and they get excited and drag him away. When he returns, he says to Louis, “Lookit what they gimme,” and holds up a bugle. That one I got.

In the same overlong scene, we’re introduced to Frank Sheldon (Frank Albertson, the future Sam Wainwright), who seems cocky for no reason, and then Frank’s sister, Joan (Catherine Dale Owen, second-billed), to whom Louis takes a shine. Uncle Jim arrives, clothed in dark suit and pomposity, speechify about these fine young boys who have come “from the highways and the byways,”* until he realizes “Somebody swiped my watch!”

* “Highways and byways” reminded me of the opening narration of “Shazam!,” the 1970s Saturday morning live-action superhero TV show, and it made me wonder how long that phrase has been around. Per, it goes back to London in the 1820s. Its usage has faded, though: from 38k in newspapers in the 1930s, to 20k in the 1960s, to 15k in the 1990s to 5k last decade. And yes, some of this is because newspapers are dying. But so is the phrase.

In France, the jokes get worse. The boys play baseball and the French think the ball is a grenade. Louis tries to trade sugar for wine but his attempt to form the shape of a wine bottle with his hands is misinterpreted. Frank does a bit about “crossed ‘spoys” that he thinks is clever but no one else seems to get—including me. Everyone sings “Mademoiselle from Armentieres,” and when they are called into battle, “The Caisson Song,” followed by generic battle footage and a ticker-tape in NYC. And over there is over.

In the judge’s chambers, Louis tosses the medals of one of his men who didn’t make it, Donnelly (Mike Donlin), onto the table, but the moment is undercut by the fact that we don’t really know Donnelly. At home, Louis’ papa says Louis won the war, while his sister, Rosa (Marguerite Churchill), is wearing mourning clothes for her husband, who was killed, not in the war, but in a payroll robbery. From the gangster who liked the sister? Do we ever find that out?

Right, Frank/Sam Wainwright died, too, so Louis visits and commiserate with the sister. He’s just about to make his intentions known when she introduces him to her fiancé, played by a young, thin Randolph Scott. So that’s that. But he tells her: If she ever needs anything, she should come to him.

Believe it or not, we’re just 40 minutes in. Now Louis is running a swanky nightclub with his gang of toughs, including Big Shot (Warren Hymer), who’s been squealed on. After some back and forth, they figure out it was, OMG, Ritzy Reilly! Who’s that? You know, the spiffy ladies man who was looking at the French painting in the “Four Eyes” scene. Huh. Was he the guy who called the boyfriend “Four Eyes”? Nah, he was just looking at the painting.

The movie keeps doing this: trying to make us care about characters that have five seconds of screentime.

Ritzy winds up bragging about turning rat and gets a slug in the back, while Big gets the shortest prison term ever. Shortly thereafter, Joan’s child is kidnapped … by Big! What’s Louis going to do? Side with his lifelong pal or a woman he barely knows? Latter, of course.

It’s not all awful. After Louis gets the kid back, he confronts Big at his tavern in the wee hours, and we get a nice shot of Louis’ shadow crossing the swing doors. But then they do that slow-talking thing of early talkies (cf., Harlow in “The Public Enemy”), which serves as last-minute exposition that anticipates the Rocky/Jerry relationship in “Angels with Dirty Faces”:

Louis: I remember when we was kids together. The time I got that slug in the shoulder.
Big: All the other kids run away.
Louis: Yeah. It was you who took me to the hospital.
Big: You used to be a good guy, Louis.
Louis: Yeah. It’s tough.

When both men suddenly shoot at each other, the camera is propelled back out the swing doors—another nice shot. We hear a body drop and Louis makes his slow way out, clutching his stomach. Lee Tracy’s reporter shows up again—he’s been hanging at the bar a lot—to let Louis know the kid is safe and with his mother again. So Louis dies in peace.

Kidding. Both bartender and reporter realize Louis has been shot and call an ambulance.

Kidding. The reporter says “He’ll be alright” based on zero evidence, and calls for a drink for both of them, adding, with a knowing wink, “Hey Joe: Louis’ bottle.” And that bad joke ends our very spotty film.

Big shots
You see the “Roaring Twenties” comparison, right? Guy returns from Great War, opens a nightclub, has a thing for a girl who doesn’t love him, and risks everything to help her out of a jam. Eddie Bartlett dies onscreen, though, and given a literary sendoff: “He used to be a big shot.” Louis simply stands there, gut shot, amid winking jokes.

A lot of the film seems done on the cheap and it probably was. Fox Studios was overextended when the stock market crashed in Oct. 1929, which ultimately led to its merger with 20th Century Pictures a few years later. So Ford probably didn't have much dough to work with. In his book “Searching for John Ford,” Joseph McBride says a bigger problem was Ford’s co-director Andrew Bennison, “whose dialogue scenes are so wooden and tedious they make the entire film seem comatose.” Back then, studios didn’t know if their silent directors would work well with talkies and often subbed in newbies, and that even happened to John Ford. Turns out he wouldn't do badly with talkies.

Posted at 12:56 PM on Monday July 01, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s