Saturday January 15, 2022
Movie Review: The Secret 6 (1931)
The requisite gangster poster of the era. Whither Harlow?
This was MGM’s foray into the world of gangster movies after the sudden success of “Little Caesar” and the adjacent anticipation of “The Public Enemy,” which was being made concurrently. (Filming Jan-Feb. 1931, release in April-May.)
It’s another Al Capone knockoff. Louis Scorpio (Wallace Beery) is nicknamed “Slaughterhouse” because of where he works and what he does. He’s in the Chicago stockyards and he’s good at killing things. That’s not a bad idea: translate the killing of one kind of meat (cattle) into another (human beings). But the filmmakers, including the husband-wife team of director George W. Hill and screenwriter Frances Marion, don’t do enough with it. And there are tons of missed opportunities.
Let’s just say it’s not exactly Warner Bros.
Like Georges Méliès
One day after work, Slaughterhouse meets his friend Johnny Franks (Ralph Bellamy, in his film debut) for dinner. Franks is a low-level gangster in the Centro district (read: Cicero); and while Scorpio is impressed with himself for his $35 weekly take, Johnny rolls out the $150 he made while hardly breaking a sweat. Plus he’s got Peaches (Marjorie Rambeau) hanging around making nice with him—and decidedly not with Scorpio, whom she refers to as a “missing link.”
At this point Scorpio is an affable, milk-drinking dude, with disheveled hair, a short tie and a rumpled suit. Then he spends a night with Johnny. It’s not a huge success. Johnny threatens Delano (Fletcher Norton) for selling bootleg liquor to rival gangster Joe Colimo (John Miljan) when the cops burst in. Our guys lam it and wind up at the law offices of Richard Newton (Lewis Stone, Andy Hardy’s dad), who’s drunk behind his desk, but who assures them everything is under control. Eventually we realize Newton isn’t consigliere; he’s the gangleader. It’s hard to tell because of poor filmmaking, but his his law office is above Frank’s Steakhouse, a gang hangout, which will matter later.
Again, hardly a successful night, but Slaughterhouse is hooked. So after a montage of generic booze-making and selling, we see him cleaned up, in bowler hat, trim moustache and three-piece suit. He’s still a milk drinker (that doesn’t change) but he’s no longer affable. He’s impatient, irritable, and butting heads with Johnny, who now sees him as his main rival. So when Newton’s plot to take over Colimo’s territory goes awry, resulting in the death of Colimo’s perpetually smiling kid brother, Slaughterhouse is set up. Instead they just wing him, and when he returns to Newton’s office he finds his milk bottle metaphorically dropped in the wastebasket. “Didn’t you … expect me back?” he asks, before plugging Johnny from behind.
Here’s how cheaply or on-the-fly this movie was made. After the plugging, and after Newton talks Slaughterhouse down, there’s suddenly a third man in the room: Delano. It’s almost like a magic act—like something from Georges Méliès. Not there. Poof! There. Either the filmmakers forgot they needed a fall guy and added him without reshoots, or they cut the scene where he arrives. Either way, it’s odd.
After that, Slaughterhouse is all-powerful. He taps a flunky gangster to be the next mayor of Centro, then makes inroads into Chicago. And that’s when we see our titular group.
Who are the Secret 6? They’re powerful Chicago businessmen who fight back against mugs like Slaughterhouse. How do they do it? They gather in rooms wearing masks like Robin the Boy Wonder. And? And that’s about it. To be honest, they reminded me of something out of a Republic movie serial—those ineffective businessmen gathering in the same room for 12 chapters. They don’t do anything—until, with eight minutes left, they suddenly get their act together and announce the following:
- The feds will charge Slaughterhouse and his gang with fraudulent income tax returns
- Also arson
- Also, they’ve got deportation warrants for half of them
- Also, Newton will be disbarred
Nick of time.
Here’s an odd chronological tidbit: According to AFI, the movie was filmed in January and February 1931, and according to Wiki, the arrest of Al Capone on income tax evasion charges occurred on March 13, 1931. So did they anticipate the arrest of Capone on income tax charges? Was it already being bandied about in the press?
Half of our titular heroes.
Throughout the film, we also follow two reporters who jaw good-naturedly with each other and come to regret giving Slaughterhouse so much copy: Hank Rogers (Johnny Mack Brown) and Carl Luckner (Clark Gable). Both men vie for the attentions of Anne Courtland (Jean Harlow), the girl who works the cash register at Frank’s Steakhouse.
This is apparently the movie that got Gable his MGM contract. AFI again:
According to a biography of Irving Thalberg, the producer initially cast Clark Gable in a small role, but as filming progressed new scenes were added to bolster his part. The result was a screen presence three times longer than that called for in the original script.
You get why, too. He just pops. He seems real, natural and sexy. Here he is talking to the new girl behind the cash register at Frank’s:
Carl: Hello honey, where did you come from?
Girl: The stork brought me.
Carl: Oh yeah? (pause, smile) Wish he’d bring me one.
Gable, lighting up the screen, about to play a Mills Two Bits Dewey Jackpot slot machine.
It’s the first screen pairing of Gable and Harlow, who would heat up the pre-code era, but it’s Hank who wins Anne. Then Hank runs into trouble with the gang and is shot dead on the subway—an apparent nod to the gangland shooting of Chicago Tribune reporter Jake Lingle in 1930.
For that, Slaughterhouse goes on trial, but it’s a fiasco and Newton gets him off. MGM was a real rah-rah America studio but at this point they don’t seem to have much faith in the judicial system. A year later, in “The Beast of the City,” the exact same thing happens—right down to the judge chastising the jury. There, the judge tells them their hearts are made of water. Here, he intones: “In all my experience on the bench, I have never seen a more outrageous miscarriage of justice! Your verdict must remain as a blot upon the courts of this state!” Then all of a sudden the people are fed up, they crowd the gangsters and talk of lynching, but the bad guys get away. Which is when the Secret 6 get their act together.
Like Chief Bromden
Pursed by the cops again, Newton tries to take off with the dough but Slaughterhouse kills him. Then he tries to hide out with Johnny’s old moll, Peaches, who locks him in a closet and laughs until the cops arrive. Another missed opportunity. Peaches kind of disappears after Johnny’s death. A scene where she becomes moll to the repugnant Slaughterhouse, and where you see her helplessness, would’ve made this scene pop.
I almost get the feeling “Secret 6” was re-released in the post-code era, and scenes were cut and lost forever. Take Murray Kinnell (Putty Nose from “The Public Enemy”) as Metz, a man who pretends to be deaf and dumb. When did Slaughterhouse figure out Metz could hear and talk? It’s just suddenly there—like Delano in Newton’s law office. We do get a great shot of Slaughterhouse, in prison, watching the cops sweat Metz, and then the door closing on him. It’s very final shot of “The Godfather.”
The Secret 6 really did exist, by the way—sans Robin masks, one assumes. They organized to take on Al Capone and were dubbed “Secret 6” by the press in homage to the group that bankrolled John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859. Now there’s another Secret 6: a DC Comics superhero group, begun in 1968 and still around. Does that speak to the age or what? 19th century: Let’s end slavery. 20th century: Let’s stop Capone. Today: Let’s play with superheroes while the world burns.
Sweating Metz, one of the movie's most effective scenes but an underutilized character—not to mention character actor.