Murder and Menace: Guilty Hands (1931)

 

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An MGM Production, Director: W. S. Van Dyke with Lionel Barrymore, Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Costume Design: Rene Hubert

This early pre-Code film starts off with a bang and does not let up until it’s startling denouement. Initially the brisk pace, as is frequently the case for these early talking pictures, is dialogue driven. Lionel Barrymore perfectly plays the role of an attorney father who is compelled by his wry knowledge, familiarity with the moral complexities of justice and paternal love to commit the perfect crime to save his daughter.

The movie opens with a scene on a train in which several men are engaged in a philosophical debate as to whether murder can, in some circumstances be justified.  As a highly successful attorney, Richard Grant (Barrymore) has worked both sides of the law and knows the ins and outs of murder.  His claim that the perfect murder could be carried out with plausible justification by “a clever man…. so skillfully, so brilliantly, that he could get away with it” can hardly be disputed given his experience and expertise.  And thus we are tipped off that there is murder and menace in the air.

Barbara “Babs” Grant (Madge Evans) is introduced to us at the train station, where she awaits her father.  She is fresh and open-faced.  In lovely sweeping camerawork that follows her face and figure as she searches for and then greets her father warmly, rather surprisingly really given what is to follow, we are given our first glimpse of the sweetness of their relationship.

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Grant then enters the home of womanizing Gordon Rich (Alan Mowbray) who is interested in not only rewriting his will and paying off his previous conquests, but also in informing Grant that he has every intention of marrying his daughter. The dialogue between these two men ends with a firm “See you in hell!”, a declaration that becomes more chilling as the movie progresses.  Later it is revealed that the planned nuptials are to happen the following day.

Barbara is  viewed in the garden, speaking intimately with a young man.  Apparently she has previously given her love to Tommy (William Bakewell), now confused and pleading.  Throwing over this same age beau for the significantly older and to my mind smarmy Rich seems a bit of a stretch but who I am to question her heart; it is quickly apparent that she has indeed committed herself to marrying a man who simply will not do.  Just as her softly ruffled dress flutters in the wind, this young woman is easily swayed, and as delicate as the lilacs that surround her. Grant comes to speak to his daughter, first gently but then firmly, letting her know that they must meet privately.
Barrymore is wonderfully natural in the part of the warm yet startlingly confident and candid father. Moving from the garden to Grant’s bedroom, father and daughter engage in a remarkably intimate exchange. Babs rummages through the pockets of a jacket that is casually hooked on a bedpost. Finding little of interest to her she sits on the bed and comfortably smokes as her father ties his bow tie, even offering to help, although he scoffs at her offer of assistance. Smoking lends an adult aura to Babs, yet her innocence gives her the appearance of a child smoking candy cigarettes. She playfully lays back onto the bed. Her father asks her for a kiss, leaning over her and  kissing her as she remains in this seductive position, her eyes glancing upward and chin jaunty. The scene is accompanied by this exchange:

“Well how about giving the old man a little kiss?”  He asks rhetorically.

“Help yourself.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you sir”, she replies, once again the little girl.

Grant immediately but tenderly confronts his daughter regarding the news of her impending marriage to Rich, a connoisseur and deceiver of women.

“This man Rich is rotten clear though. Now look here Babs, I’m not going to mince words. Rich isn’t fit to marry any woman. He’ll just bring you shame and disaster…This man you want to marry is a beast about women. I mean that literally. He’s just an animal.”

Father and daughter speak frankly about sex. He instructs her that being with this man on her wedding night, even as his wife, will be a “horror and a shame”, something that she will never live down or be able to put aside in her own mind, something that she will have to live with forever. These are powerful, intimate words that portray a rare candidness.  Earlier he has revealed how much his daughter reminds him of his late wife. The warm affection and incestuous undertone in these exchanges heightens the dramatic tension between our two male protagonists. This paternal bond is not one that will be altered easily or lightly. Once he sees that she is intractable, Grant understands that he must act and has determined to find a solution on his own.

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A dazzling display of flowers sits prominently upon the table at a dinner party, surrounded by a sophisticatedly charming and cheerful array of folks, seen as the camera pans down the center, finally reaching the host, Rich.  Grant glares, glances at Tommy and back at Rich. The flowers are telling as Babs imminent deflowering and potential loss of innocence are foremost on his mind. It is at this table that we are first made aware of the young and beautiful Marjorie West (Kay Francis). Despite her youth Marjorie displays an air of worldliness, almost weariness and elegance.  The only woman dressed in black, the straps of her gown glimmer with rhinestones.  As Rich announces his marriage to Barbara, Marjorie’s startled reaction tells us everything we need to know about her relationship to this philanderer and user of women. In the large window that provides the backdrop to this tableau we see an ominous flash of lightning.

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Cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad frames shots that place characters, at times with their backs to us, and objects such as bouquets and lamps well into the foreground.  Scenes are layered with fore-, mid- and background neatly delineated.  This contrast moves this talking picture beyond the usual drawing room melodrama as Gerstad’s camera is an active participant in furthering the drama. Shadows and angles are utilized effectively to create menace and delineate character, with Barrymore’s stature never shown diminished, despite his morally murky decisions.

Furthering this aim of opening up a relatively static set are long lovely shots where the camera sweeps languidly around interior spaces. This is utilized most vividly just after the dinner party.  The lens sashays among lounging participants, lingering a moment and then moving on, settling first upon Marjorie, Grant, and then Tommy, each observing the affectionately engaged couple. This fluid camerawork not only creates a sense of space but also heightens the tension as a sidelong glance might between intimate acquaintances. Yet the participants remain lost in their own tormented thoughts. As the scene ends, Grant’s pain is palpable as he coaxes his daughter to the garden where “we will have a little love scene all by ourselves”.  He is not about to let her go so easily, not to this “animal “.

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Father and daughter stroll in the night air. Just prior to going off for the night they exchange two kisses with Grant encircling his daughter in his protective arm. He reassures her that everything is “going to be all right”. As she leaves for the night her voice trails off with a sweetly lilting “good night darling”, as she heads off to bed. Again the love between father and daughter is depicted as a strong bond, not easily broken by a cold-hearted adventurer. This central point must be well-established to lend credence to this narrative, with paternal devotion and protectiveness providing a solid motive for this man to proceed, despite his love of law. Based upon the opening scene, we already know that his love for justice is greater.

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Meanwhile, the case for action is strengthened as Rich explains to his long suffering yet strangely devoted lover Marjorie, in a private room with fireplace blazing, that in Barbara’s case “it has got to be marriage”, as there is no other way to have her.  However he sees his upcoming marriage as no impediment to continuing his arrangement with Marjorie.  The implication is clear: this man is a slave to his carnal desires.  He later can hardly restrain himself, seeking out Babs as she prepares to go to bed for the night, yet she firmly rebuffs him.  We see her close the door and pause. With Rich’s own motivations and his character (or lack thereof) defined, the path is well laid for the unfolding story.
I won’t give away the rest of this plot.  While it may seem pretty straightforward, this story, an original by playwright and screenwriter Bayard Veiller (playwright of Paid, 1930 and The Trial of Mary Dugan, 1929), takes many unexpected and interesting twists before coming to its dramatic, albeit somewhat far-fetched conclusion.  Although as you may have already guessed, a far-fetched conclusion is no deterrent to me in enjoying a movie, not with my love of over-the-top melodrama.

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As the movie progresses, we get a nice battle of wits and a tenacious emotional struggle between Kay Francis and Lionel Barrymore.  Francis more than holds her own against the veteran thespian and that in and of itself is exciting to see. While his enormous talent and experience lends considerable weight and finesse to his performance, her sincerity and ability to silently convey complex feelings beautifully matches his command of language and assured delivery.

In the very last moments of the film Francis is a breathtaking vision as a stream of emotions washes across her face. We see her fear, her anguish, her grief and her finely tuned sense of justice that understands that it has indeed prevailed. And she conveys all this with a minimum of dialogue during a time when dialogue was paramount in talking pictures. The essence of Francis’ enormous appeal is readily apparent in this,  one of her earlier films.

While Francis as usual wears her flowing gowns with grace and elegance, it is her skill as an actress that is most memorable.  This is not always the case with her movies, particularly as her career progressed. It is fabulous to see her in a role that respects her gifts as an actress.  While not entering the film until 15 minutes in, her performance and ability to match the artistry of Lionel Barrymore is remarkable and a pleasure to see.  In light of this raw talent her treatment by a vengeful Jack Warner (angered by a lawsuit she filed and subsequently withdrew) during the final year of her contract with the studio is even more incomprehensible and a loss to film-goers.

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This movie was so much more powerful than I expected it to be, particularly since Warner Archives hadn’t decided to make it available on DVD until the recent release of Volume 10 of their fabulous Forbidden Hollywood series. And while I’ve done considerable gushing here about Kay Francis the force of Barrymore’s performance cannot be underestimated.  He is perfect at every point.

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The quality of the solid pacing and firm direction, the artistic elements and especially the acting lift this film beyond a simple crime drama or lawyer picture, both so typical of the era.  This movie contains enough unpredictability and fabulous acting, despite its conventional murder-mystery moments, to be riveting.

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 Definitely recommended. 

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Notes and Extras

  • For an additional positive review with significant spoilers from the NYT, click here
  • At Pre-Code.Com, Danny also enjoyed the interplay between Kay and Lionel, going so far as to call it “fantastic”.
  • kayfrancisfilms.com also gives this film praise, giving considerable background information on the factors that led to its creation and the quality of the production. There are some fabulous stills and also a full plot synopsis  for those of you that find you can’t get enough!
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