The gritty 1930s crime dramas of Rowland Brown offer contemporary movie watchers something they won’t easily get elsewhere: an adult ability to look directly at an infinitely corrupt world without flinching.

Actor George Bancroft leans urgently over a desk in a scene from the film Blood Money, directed by Rowland Brown for 20th Century Fox. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

There’s a current Criterion Channel series called Rowland Brown’s 1930s Underworld that’s worth looking at in terms of what Criterion calls a three-film series of “brutal, anticapitalist crime dramas” by the relatively little-known screenwriter-director of Quick Millions, Hell’s Highway, and The Devil Is a Sissy. They’re described as “some of the grittiest, most subversive and straight-up shocking films of the pre-Code era,” reliant on Brown’s “insider’s view of the underworld.” It seems that he had a short film career because of his refusal to compromise with producers’ demands, leading to a fistfight with one — possibly Frank Davis, the producer of Brown’s last American directorial effort, The Devil Is a Sissy (though he went on as a screenwriter). He was fired and replaced by W. S. Van Dyke.

It seems that Brown was either a hothead, always spoiling for a fight, or was that one honest man Diogenes was hunting for. Either way, he had a sharply curtailed directing career.

Even in an era of colorful characters making it big in Hollywood, when gangsters loomed large as controlling forces in the entertainment industry (in addition to being socially popular), he stood out as a lurid figure. Brown was rumored to be an ex-prizefighter, an ex-bootlegger, an alcoholic, a friend to well-known gangsters, and a communist. He walked out on projects repeatedly, refusing to tolerate interference with his vision of cinematic art grounded in a harsh reality of which he claimed to have firsthand experience.

Made at RKO, Hell’s Highway (1932) echoes the definitive social-problem film of the same year that overshadowed it, Warner Brothers’ I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. The similarities were so striking that there were fears among RKO brass of a plagiarism suit, either from the Warners or from the author of the autobiographical expose, I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang! (1932) by Richard Elliott Burns.

Hell’s Highway is a beautifully shot drama about a hardened criminal (played by silent film star Richard Dix) serving time in a notoriously brutal rural Southern prison, whose worshipful younger brother (Tom Brown) gets sentenced to the same place. Brown’s handling of the infamous “sweatbox” form of punishment, with prisoners dying because they fall unconscious while hanging from a metal neck-iron that sometimes chokes them to death before they die of heat exhaustion, is particularly haunting.

The Devil Is a Sissy (1936) is an MGM production and bears the marks of the studio’s narrative control, larded as it is with bathos and sentimentality. It’s also the only one made after the Motion Picture Production Code of censorship, or “Hays Code,” was enforced, so it’s noticeably more timid about flouting established authority.

A tale of two classes represented by three boys, all played by child actors at various points in their top-star careers, it features Mickey Rooney as the rebellious lower-class boy struggling to get by and turning to casual crime to do it. His father is in prison for murder, on death row. Jackie Cooper plays his loyal pal who upholds the code of impoverished, streetwise kids, which is essentially “No snitching.”

Freddie Bartholomew plays the sheltered, aristocratic, upper-class boy, raised in England by his wealthy mother. Due to a post-divorce custody agreement, he’s living in America, with his down-at-heel, struggling architect father six months of the year. He comes to worship the two “juvenile delinquents” and longs to fit in with them. He’s ecstatic the day his father allows him to buy a pair of corduroy pants to wear, in imitation of his new friends.

But the rich boy is shown to be the one with the good morals, who finds many clever ways to avoid actually committing any crimes, even while seeming to help his pals. For example, the poor boys decide to commit burglary in order to get enough money for a gravestone for Mickey Rooney’s father, after the execution. Freddie Bartholomew aids and abets their burglary of a mansion, urging them to steal the expensive toys because, as kids themselves, they’ll be able to fence them easier. And you guessed it: the mansion belongs to his mother, and the toys are his toys, so it’s not really stealing at all.

Poster for the 1936 film The Devil Is a Sissy. (MGM via Wikimedia Commons)

Even though he gets them off the hook, the other boys are angry because he told the cops about what he’d done, which counts as “snitching.” So the rich kid gets pneumonia and almost dies, leading to a deathbed scene of reconciliation and a vow to be better boys because “the devil is a sissy” — the real proof of toughness in life is being good, not bad.

Then the rich kid recovers. In short, if Brown punched the producer for these plot developments, it’s no wonder.

Perhaps most characteristic of what Brown was trying to achieve is his first directorial effort, Quick Millions (1931), made at Fox. It seems noteworthy that Brown made each of these three films at different studios, suggesting how much of a hot potato he was to deal with in production, always tossed into a new situation with each film.

Quick Millions is a tough gangster film with the classic rise-and-fall structure and the built-in critique of capitalism that critic Robert Warshow described as definitive of the gangster film genre in his landmark essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero.” As in The Public Enemy (1931), Little Caesar (1931), and Scarface (1932), the hugely popular trio of films that most notably established the genre, Quick Millions tracks the ascent of tough truck driver Daniel “Bugs” Raymond as he realizes what a mug’s game it is doing all the work just to make the owners rich.

As Bugs, Spencer Tracy underplays as a smart roughneck whose first action in the film is to drive his truck deliberately into a fancy limousine after the driver mocks his rundown vehicle. Then he punches the cop who comes to deal with the property damage, because “a guy can’t let a cop insult him, can he?” It’s pretty refreshing.

Thereafter, Bugs’s climb to wealth arises from following out the logic of the system he’s been observing: “Y’know, since I been sittin’ in that truck, I got plenty of angles. . . . Say, did you ever stop to think what would happen to all those tomatoes and those radishes and those lettuce if us truck drivers should quit haulin’ em for a coupla days?”

Brown interestingly begins by demonstrating one path open to Bugs: union organizing. But because he’s got his gleaming eyes set on “quick millions,” mainly for himself, he bypasses that idea and opts for a related one that seems to be the easier way: crime.

He joins forces with a tough, corruptible pal in the trucking industry named Nails (Warner Richmond), in order to set up a crooked protection racket that threatens the same kind of work stoppage if owners don’t cooperate. This strategy of muscling in on the profits eventually allows him to control all the movement of the city’s trucks and drivers.

“It’s all a matter of business, y’know, organization,” he says, readily blending criminal, labor, and corporate lingo.

But it’s Bugs’s attempt to achieve “class,” that is, acceptance in high society on top of millions, that sets him up for ruin. He ditches his working-class girlfriend Daisy (Sally Eilers) to chase after Dorothy Stone (Marguerite Churchill), an elegant young woman of wealth, while horning his way into Dorothy’s brother’s construction business: “That’s the dream of every racketeer, boys, to have a legitimate racket.”

George Raft and Spencer Tracy in a scene from the 1931 film Quick Millions. (Wikimedia Commons)

Bugs can only get so far in high society without discovering the limits of his acceptance there. Plus, he feels forced into betraying his gangland pals, distancing himself from Nails and putting out a hit on his sidekick Jimmy Kirk. Kirk was played by George Raft when he was still trying to break into film after a successful career as a dancer. Brown recognized a promising performer in Raft’s dark good looks, tight-lipped line delivery, and slick dancer’s grace, as well as in his authentic “hoodlum” air. Raft’s easy familiarity with gang-owned nightclubs and gangster cronies — he was a boyhood pal of Bugsy Siegel’s, and for a short time his wheelman — made him a natural for gangster films. Playing the second male lead in Scarface made Raft a star the following year.

Quick Millions reaches its climactic point when Bugs’s gang members have had enough of their social-climbing boss. Bugs’s failure to persuade Dorothy to marry him makes him decide to fully revert to his “hoodlum” identity. He plans to crash her fancy formal wedding to someone else and abduct the bride. He makes a flinty final speech that’s characteristic of Brown’s agenda, which aligned with the agenda of the pre-Code gangster film, demonstrating the easily blurred lines between “legitimate” capitalistic enterprise and crime: “What difference does it make? Whether laws are made by a bunch of lawyers for other lawyers to break, or whether they’re made by hoodlums for other hoodlums?”

He and his gang are dressed in tuxes riding in a limousine to the wedding when Nails kills him. This finale has a typical Brown directorial quality, which only seems contradictory — a lurid flourish that plays flat and straight. Crowded into the limo with his gang, Bugs says to Nails, “Get your elbow out of my ribs,” and Nails says, “That ain’t my elbow.” As the window shade separating limo driver from passengers is drawn down, Bugsy looks sideways at Nails with a startled expression, and then we hear the gunshot.

It’s the last of the explosive moments in the film, which range from a bursting beer bottle right after Bugs figures out his moneymaking “angle” to the blowing up of property belonging to non-cooperative truck industry owners. The criminal enterprise is violent and noisy, but it’s fast, which is its strongest appeal.

Brown represents the lawful accumulation of capital as slower, steadier, and calling far less attention to itself — also the characteristics of high-society behavior at gatherings where Bugs is always perceived as a rude outsider trying to crash the gate. Both systems are brutal, but quiet; steady brutality raises less public protest.

The limousine ride brings Bugs full-circle: he was a truck driver bragging about how he’d be riding in a limousine one day himself when we first met him. The pre-Code gangster films favored this “tragic” symmetry, as Warshow argued. The gangster must be seen to fall exactly as far as he rose, and if possible be returned to the exact spot where he began. James Cagney’s gangster in Public Enemy, for example, is murdered and then delivered to the door of his poor mother’s house where he grew up and opted for a life of crime.

Warshow’s emphasis on “the fall” was not a means to depict crime in films as deservedly punished. That would presumably have made the censors happy with the pre-Code gangster film, which we know they weren’t. He claimed that the structure of the films was key to the audience’s dangerous identification with the figure of the gangster, because he enacted a version of their own lives and feared bad ends.

The gangster film represents “capitalism in a dark mirror,” Warshow argued. That includes the way we feel the necessity to rise, to separate ourselves from our families, communities, and the whole suffering working-class crowd, in pursuit of individual prosperity. The very process of doing this dooms us, because we lose all meaningful connections to others, and we wind up essentially alone and unprotected, the target of competitive rivals.

The gangster alone in a scene is almost always a gangster who’s the “top boss” about to be killed, or betrayed to the cops who then kill him, by his second-in-command charting the same destructive course that he is.

It’s a shame that this exciting era happened so long ago that many people can’t relate to these movies and won’t watch them. This is in spite of the sensational draw of the “pre-Code Film,” made before the 1934 censorship crackdown, when an often-startling frankness about sex, vice, violence, antiauthoritarian rage, and harsh left-leaning criticism of the government, cops, clergy, and court system prevailed. They can be wonderful to watch, and some have become famous for their raciness and bluntly realistic honesty, including such gems as The Divorcee (1930), Blonde Venus (1932), Three on a Match (1932), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Baby Face (1933), I’m No Angel (1933), and Gold Diggers of 1933.

But unfortunately, many pre-Code films aren’t so easily watchable. The more obscure ones aren’t often available to view, and they often suffer from the typical qualities of early sound films in the years 1927–1933, when the crudity of the new microphones and recording equipment kept the sound creaky, the camera relatively immobile, and the acting stiff and stagey. Often these films have very little music, so that long sequences play in weighty silence. Sections of Quick Millions suffer from these effects, though overall it moves at a snappy pace and features some inventive cinematography and a characteristically great performance by Spencer Tracy, who’s often able to make other actors of limited ability look better than they are.

But the main reason to watch Rowland Brown films — and Martin Scorsese particularly recommends one called Blood Money (1933), which isn’t part of the Criterion series — is to revel in a different kind of cinema, a road no longer taken. They’re characterized by liveliness, dark humor, irreverence for authority, savvy politics, and an adult ability to look directly at an infinitely corrupt world without flinching.

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