If you compare a pair of M.G.M. gangster movies, George Hill’s “The Secret Six” (1932) and Charles Brabin’s “The Beast of the City” (also 1932) to their Warner Brothers counterparts, “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy,” interesting divergences occur. Both of the Warner films are rise-and-fall sagas, although Tom Powers (of “The Public Enemy”) is content to remain a soldier in his mob whereas Edward G. Robinson’s Rico of “Little Caesar” never stops until he reaches the pinnacle of underworld power–and thus has that much farther to fall. “The Secret Six” also charts the rise and fall of an underworld power, in this case, Wallace Beery’s Louis “Slaughterhouse” Scorpio who rises from a stockyards hand. (As “The Beast of the City” begins, Jean Hersholt’s Sam Belmonte is already at the peak of his power–as the film’s very title suggests–thus his becomes the tale of Belmonte’s undoing.)
Now the Warner films were criticized in their day for being soft on crime and treating their murderous protagonists with a hint of secret admiration. I suspect that Warner Brothers status as a proletarian studio had something to do with this. While they might not turn to crime themselves, their audiences thrilled at the sight of little guys taking matters into their own hands and grabbing for their share of the pie. On the other hand, M.G.M. was a middle class studio, making films for bank employees and small business owners who would not welcome a midnight visit from some Rico wanna-be. Thus Belmonte is depicted almost as a slug in human form–consider him the Depression-era’s answer to Jabba the Hutt. Scorpio, although initially appearing to be a typical Beery blustery softie, soon enough emerges as a deceitful and vain killer who tends to shoot people in the back–a far cry from Tom Powers’ in-your-face violence. Audience were not meant to like Belmonte or Scorpio unless they were in need of psychological counseling.
In the Warner films Rico and Tom fall because of flaws in their character. Over at M.G.M. Belmonte and Scorpio fall because they are pushed by outside-the-law forces of Law and Order. “The Secret Six” refers to a masked cabal of the city’s movers-and-shakers who have decided that Scorpio and this mob must go. Centro, the suburb that Scorpio runs as a fiefdom has decided echoes of Cicero–complete with a major who is controlled by Scorpio. “The Beast of the City” features Walter Huston as an ancestor of Dirty Harry Callahan–a cop so enraged by Belmonte’s seeming invincibility that he gathers a squad of trusted fellow officers and stages a climactic suicidal raid on Belmonte’s headquarters in which police and gangsters alike perish. The Chief-of-Police in “The Secret Six,” who has dedicated himself to Scorpio’s destruction also perishes in the climactic gun battle of that film–so it appears that Law and Order demands its sacrificial offerings. Of course in Warner’s “Little Caesar,” Thomas Jackson’s slow-talking Lt. Flaherty lives to gun Rico down, while a police presence was singularly lacking in “The Public Enemy.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the M.G.M. films is their utter contempt for the legal profession. Lewis Stone’s alcoholic lawyer is revealed as the true brains behind Beery’s empire of vice and Hersholt is protected by an unctuous shyster played with all stops out by Tully Marshall. Both perish–Stone shot in the back by his panicky protégé–Beery muses while awaiting execution that if Stone had lived he could have gotten him off–and Marshall in the wholesale climactic blood-letting at Belmonte’s, in which even Jean Harlow’s moll gets it. Think a black-and-white version of “The Wild Bunch.” So it seems to me that M.G.M.’s respectable audiences of middle-class burghers were a far more bloodthirsty lot than Warner’s factory workers and truck drivers. I guess that the M.G.M. audiences felt like they had more to lose.