Sunday September 27, 2020

Movie Review: Mothers Cry (1930)


I watched “Mothers Cry” because of this Louella Parsons column, syndicated in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 8, 1930, and touting a “young film comer” chosen for the lead in the new Warner Bros. gangster picture “The Public Enemy.” Not James Cagney, of course: Edward Woods. Most film fans, or at least Cagney fans, know that Woods was tapped for the lead but the roles were switched early in production. What I didn’t know was that the publicity machine had already begun working on Woods. The column also made me wonder why Woods was cast as Tom Powers in the first place. This part:

Young Woods, who played the role of the first boy to die in the stage production of “The Last Mile,” and Danny, the bad boy in “Mother’s Cry,” is just getting his foothold in Hollywood.

Woods never really impresses in “Public Enemy.” Maybe because he’s the nicer one? He’s the guy who’s horrified when Tom kills Putty Nose in cold blood. That’s his role. So maybe, as the bad boy in “Mothers Cry,” I’d be able to see why Warners cast him as Tom Powers in the first place. That’s why I watched this.

And … nope. In “Mothers Cry,” Woods has a thin, reedy voice, is as pale and powdered as any silent film star, and overacts. There’s nothing in the performance that makes you think: lead role in tough-guy gangster movie.

But “Cry” does have interesting similarities with “Public Enemy.” As well as strong differences.

Shitty kid
“Public Enemy” is an early attempt at what became the Warner Bros. “social problem” film. In the nature/nurture argument, it takes both sides. Sure, Tom is a rotten kid, and his brother is upstanding; but look what happens to the brother: shell-shocked during the Great War, the sap. And maybe if it wasn’t for the Putty Noses of the world, Tom might’ve become a ding-ding on a streetcar. You never know. The social problem argument isn’t as strong as it would become in “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” and “Angels with Dirty Faces,” but it’s there.

In “Mothers Cry,” it’s non-existent. Danny’s a shitty kid who becomes a shitty adult who is executed for his shitty crimes. The end.

As you might gather from the title, it’s the story from the mother’s perspective and the whole thing is steeped in melodrama. Mary (Dorothy Peterson) marries Frank Williams, has four children with him, and is then widowed. She has to raise them on her own while working as a seamstress in a sweatshop. But she does it. And her kids grow up to be OK—mostly: 

  • Jenny (Evalyn Knapp), interested in homemaking, marries a boisterous, hard-working German, Karl Muller (Reinhold Pasch)
  • Beattie (Helen Chandler), an idealistic, artistic spirit, can’t decide on a discipline
  • Arthur (David Manners), good-natured, is interested in architecture
  • Danny (Woods) becomes a two-bit hood

The worst part of Danny isn’t his two-bit hoodiness; it’s that he’s bad at it. As an adult, we first see him downing a shot with a dame and bragging how about he’s going to collect from both ends of a shady deal. Except she’s working with the gang he’s trying to cheat, and they show up behind him. “Give him the works,” she tells the boys, then addresses Danny. “So, Mister Wise Guy, you’re gonna collect from both ends? Yes, you are.” This is both a common idiom back then—sarcastic agreement with previous statement—and chilling promise.

It’s delivered. Danny is dumped, beaten and bloody, on his family’s front porch—a scene prefiguring the ending of “Public Enemy.” The family scurries to help but Danny knows the mob will be back and flees.

“Three years pass,” as the intertitles say. Arthur has just been awarded a prize for architectural design, the family is celebrating, and Danny shows up full of false bravado and with a floozy for a wife. The two spend an evening making everyone uncomfortable before the cops show up and haul Danny to prison for a crime he committed elsewhere. I guess he thought he was safe at home? Another mistake. As is the floozy. “You gotta keep him for a son,” she tells Mrs. Williams, as she skips town, “but I don’t gotta keep him for a husband.” So Danny can’t even get girls right.

Beattie, the idealistic one, flees, too (Danny makes her feel bad), and winds up in Palm Beach, Florida, where she gets a job as the public stenographer for a fancy hotel. One guest, Mr. Hart, keeps calling for her … and we see where that’s going. After she returns home, heartbroken, there’s a good scene where she tells Arthur all. She’s crying, he sits her on his lap and says with a solicitous smile, “Now, tell me everything.” As she begins, the screen dissolves from top to bottom. Then for several seconds, it remains black—and silent. Maybe five seconds? Seems forever in film time. When it dissolves back—from bottom to top—Beattie has reached the end of her sordid tale, and Arthur, shocked, is now holding onto her as much for support as to be supportive. Great scene. Plus the top-to-bottom dissolve is something I’ve never seen before.

The day she returns, of course, is the same day Danny gets out of prison. Arthur is now a huge success and Danny looks to scam him, but instead finds Beattie crying with her old love letters from the married Mr. Hart. Danny sees his chance—blackmail!—and tries to steal the letters, but he can’t even do this. Beattie simply takes them back and runs upstairs. So he shoots her. Dead. Now he’s on death row, where his mother goes to see him the day he’s to be executed. By this point, he’s got one thing left to lose. It’s the thing Cagney pretended to lose in “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and Danny raises the issue immediately:

All them newspaper guys that thinks I’m gonna flap can go jump in the lake. Cause I ain’t gonna flap, see. Cause I ain’t afraid.

She nods. He nods. She says goodbye. He says goodbye. She’s slowly led out. Then he twists the bars, emotes, and grunts out a desperate “Mama!” This is Woods’ best bit of acting. There’s a real undercurrent of desperation here. She tries to go back to him but the guard won’t have it. He grunts it out again: “Mama!” Then he breaks down. And that’s the last we see of him.

The perils of Helen Chandler
“Mothers Cry” is based on a best-selling novel by Helen Grace Carlisle, was adapted by Lenore J. Coffee, a prolific Hollywood screenwriter whose work includes the original non-musical version of “Chicago,” and was directed by Hobart Henley, a silent film actor and director whose last credit is from 1934.

The point of it all, the mother’s cry, is that the mother does everything for her kids and loses them all. Danny kills Beattie and the state kills him. Jenny and Karl leave because of the floozy—I think. Arthur stays but Mom pushes him away. There’s a media frenzy about Danny and she doesn’t want him caught up in it. But we get a coda. She visits him in New York, where it’s implied he’s designed the Chrysler Building, which, at the time of the movie’s release, December 1930, was the tallest building in the world.

Something similar actually happened with the actors. The mother, Dorothy Peterson, kept going like the mother in the movie. This is her first screen credit and IMDb lists 103 more until her final role in a 1964 episode of “The Patty Duke Show.” But the movie careers of the kids barely make it out of the 1930s. David Manners went from playing Arthur to playing the romantic lead in a string of horror films (“Dracula,” “The Mummy,” “The Black Cat”), but he quickly tired of Hollywood, left for a ranch, and never returned; his last credit is from 1936. Evalyn Knapp played Cagney’s sister in his first movie, “Sinners’ Holiday,” caused his death in “Smart Money,” and recreated the role of Pauline in a remake of the hugely successful silent serial “The Perils of Pauline” in 1933. But that was her high point. Her career was over by 1943. 

Then there’s Helen Chandler. She’s great as Beattie, so lovely and fragile, you wonder why she didn’t become bigger. She was also in “Dracula,” and co-starred with Douglas Fairbanks in “The Lost Generation,” but her last movie credit is from 1938. What happened? This is her IMDb bio. It’s about the saddest I’ve read:

In 1937 Chandler left Hollywood to return to the stage, but a dependency on alcohol and sleeping pills haunted her subsequent career, and in 1940 she was committed to a sanitarium. Ten years later she was disfigured in a fire, apparently caused by smoking in bed. Helen Chandler died (following surgery for a bleeding ulcer) on April 30, 1965. Her body was cremated, and as no relative ever came forward to claim the remains, her ashes now repose in the vaultage section (off limits to visitors) of the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.

As for Woods? He did this, “Public Enemy,” and only 10 more movies, generally fourth- or fifth-billed, and was done by 1938. He went on to produce and direct in the theater (for Les Schubert), and did promotional work (for 20th Century Fox), before retiring to Salt Lake City in 1975. His death in 1989 didn’t even rate a mention in the newspaper. Any newspaper. The only obits I could find were the kind family and friends pay for. One was in The Salt Lake Tribune, the other in the Los Angeles Times. The Times obit contains several errors. It says Woods acted in a movie called “Saturday’s Child,” when they probably meant “Hot Saturday”; and it gets his big movie wrong. They call it “Public Enemy Number 1.”

As to my original question: Why was he cast as the lead in “Public Enemy” when, even playing a tough guy in “Mothers Cry,” he’s not exactly tough? It could be his look. Lew Ayres was cast as the gangster lead in “The Doorway to Hell” earlier in 1930, with Cagney as his right-hand man, and “Enemy” seemed to follow that pattern. But while researching the question, I came across this fun fact: At the time of the Louella Parsons column touting Woods as a “young film comer,” guess who Woods was engaged to? Louella Parsons’ daughter. And now I’m wondering if maybe this connection had something to do with the original casting. According to Cagney biographer John McCabe, Warners producer Darryl Zanuck appreciated Woods’ connection to the powerful Parsons, and that’s why he was initially reluctant to switch the roles. Indeed, when he did it, Parsons wasn’t happy. According to Samantha Barbas’ biography “The First Lady of Hollywood,” she wrote this in her column: 

“I happen to know the Cagney role was originally written for Eddie, but through the friendship of someone in the studio the big part was handed the other boy.”

Two things. While the writers—John Bright and Kubec Glasmon—had a preference for Cagney, the role of Tom Powers wasn’t written for anyone. But worse is the second part of her sentence. The nepotism she claims others engaged in is exactly what she’s guilty of. Hell, the “friends” she claims Cagney had at the studio were the writers. The second part of her sentence negates the first. 

I will say this about Woods’ performance in “Mothers Cry”: If the studios were truly interested in deglamorizing criminals—as they always claimed—this was the way to do it. Woods’ Danny isn’t anyone you’d want to be. He’s not cool, he’s not respected, and he’s only feared by his fragile sister. Going with Cagney, Warners chose a more realistic, energetic, and lucrative path. Yes, they did.

Woods before his big scene; and before the fall. 

Posted at 09:58 AM on Sunday September 27, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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