Posted by Moira Finnie on January 20, 2010
My dictionary gives the definition of a cri de coeur (krēt kër′) as “a cry from the heart, an impassioned protest, complaint, etc.” If you really want to see that term translated onto film, the Warner Brothers movie, Two Seconds (1932) could fill the bill.
Crude, raw and disturbing, Two Seconds (1932) is being broadcast on TCM on Thursday, Jan. 21st, at 11:45am. First released in the middle of 1932, audiences flocked to see this financially successful but dramatically grim tale about the thoughts and memories that flash through the mind of a man just as he is about to die in the electric chair. Perhaps some of them felt as though they were walking the last mile too. After Americans had witnessed 13 million jobs evaporating into thin air since 1929, watching nationwide unemployment rise to 23.6 %, wouldn’t logic tell us that most people might want to go to the movies to escape a reality they could not control? Apparently not, especially when Warner Brothers had the good fortune to have several talented individuals involved in this film.
When Edward G. Robinson came to Hollywood at the behest of producer Hal Wallis of Warner Brothers, he was short man who was pushing forty, with a frog-like face that reportedly made even Bette Davis reluctant to kiss him when asked to play opposite him on screen. This was not a movie star, according to the familiar formulas that Hollywood is always brewing up, but he was a gifted actor, with years of stage work behind him. His previous experiences in films had discouraged him. When he played a “Factory Worker” 1916 in the silent Arms and the Woman Robinson thought that was the last time he would try that medium. Unaccustomed to the out of sequence shooting schedule involved in moviemaking, uncomfortable with conveying emotions only by expression and gesture, and, most of all, catching sight of himself in a film for the first time, he was appalled by the sight of a “gargoyle” on screen, and decided to avoid the movies. Despite this experience, after producer Hal Wallis persuaded him to come to Los Angeles to try movies again, the adaptaion of W.R. Burnett’s Little Caesar (1931) marked the beginning of a fruitful 18 month period, with Robinson collaborating on three movies in very rapid succession with director Mervyn LeRoy, whose technical facility, energy and cynicism enlivened Warner Brothers’ socially aware films of the period.Legendary directors such as John Huston had his Humphrey Bogart, John Ford had his John Wayne, and Victor Fleming had Clark Gable. For a little while, at least, Mervyn LeRoy had Edward G. Robinson, who played the role of a steel worker whose life is destroyed by his own frailty in a world of wolves who smell blood . LeRoy doesn’t get the respect that those other, more personal filmmakers have earned, in part because he could adapt his skills as a filmmaker so readily to a studio’s whims. He didn’t come to the movies with a burning desire to make movies, he came as the cousin of Famous Players-Lasky Corp., which evolved into Paramount Pictures, and he learned show biz from the ground up, literally.
LeRoy is a man best remembered today for producing The Wizard of Oz (1939) and big, romantic films such as Waterloo Bridge (1940), Random Harvest (1942), (evergreen favorites for some of us), a worthy biopic Madame Curie (1943) and spectacular crowd pleasers like Quo Vadis (1951). He was categorized, perhaps justly, by the influential film critic Andrew Sarris under a chapter heading of “Lightly Likable” as studio functionary whose work took on an increasingly glossy style in time, until Sarris described him as a man who had “converted his innate vulgarity into a personal style” in that critic’s auteur classic, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968.
When a young man on the make at Warner Brothers, however, LeRoy made some of my favorite films of the ’30s, among them the less well known proto-feminist Heat Lightning (1934) the cynical comedic take on the world of finance in High Pressure (1932) and the baptism of fire of a rube in Big City Blues (1932), each of which have an astringent edge to their different “torn from the headlines” stories, often set in the urban worlds where the studio’s vast audiences lived and struggled to survive. All of these stories deal with the aftermath of innocence being corrupted by the city’s pitiless capacity for grinding up a human life but none of them really rejects urban life–there is decadence in the world that the characters try to escape from, but the appeal of the bustling city and all the possibility it holds is never entirely rejected either. None of these films really offer a bucolic alternative either–in Heat Lightning, for instance, Aline MacMahon and her sister have turned their backs on the city, but they live in an even harsher desert. Eric Linden in Big City Blues scurries back to his dull hometown of Hoopersville, Tippicanoe County, Indiana after a brush with glamour, death, and dissipation in New York, but he leaves behind the sexually available, emotionally warm and worldly Joan Blondell.
In the films that LeRoy made with Robinson during this same period, there is an added energy and rage that outstrips any of his other Warner Brothers’ films, with the exception of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. That remarkable and far better known movie, also made in 1932, features Paul Muni at his best. Following the then startling breakthrough film, Little Caesar (1931) catapulting Robinson to stardom, the director and the actor must have developed some rapport, though in his memoir, the actor mainly Little Caesar for the themes that he detected in the gangster story. Warner Brothers may have recognized that the director and the actor might make a great deal of money for the studio, and encouraged their assignments to these subsequent films. (Btw, LeRoy made six films in 1932 alone at Warner Brothers, including the memorable Three on a Match and social justice classic, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Robinson made four films in that same year).
“Finally, I was given a version that made some difference, reading more or less like a Greek tragedy. It’s a man with a perverted mind, ambitions of a kind, who sets a goal more important than himself, that what makes him a highly moral character in his perverted way. He is a man who defies society, and in the end is mowed down by the gods and society, and doesn’t even know what happened.” The critical and popular success of Little Caesar led to the pair’s teaming up a few months later with a remarkably good film about journalism’s dark side, producing the excellent Five Star Final (1931) which has been broadcast on TCM several times. The riveting Two Seconds (1932) that followed was, in Robinson‘s view near the end of his life, simply “a mishmash memory” recalled for the presence of his first wife, Gladys Lloyd in the cast as an extra (called “Woman” in the credits). Filming of Two Seconds came for Robinson between two other demanding films that have had a bit more recognition than Two Seconds over the years, The Hatchet Man and Tiger Shark–both of which are also scheduled for broadcast on 1/21/10 at 9:00am and 6:15am EST respectively).
For LeRoy remembered this creative period of work beginning with Little Caesar as a time that, “I’d like to be able to say that I realized I was blazing a trail, setting a precedent, revolutionizing an industry… In all honesty…All I wanted to do was make a movie with some meat to it, some substance, where before all had been froth.” In preparing Two Seconds, the director kept his customary rapid pace as one scene flowed sharply into another. The actors were photographed by cinematographer Sol Polito from above or extremely close up, with the cheap sets, the tawdry circumstances, a final courtroom scene that was an echo of the previous year’s M (1931-Fritz Lang) and the flashback technique (which had been used in a similar fashion by Dr. Paul Fejos in the film The Last Moment in 1928) building the film to an expressionistic crescendo using relatively simple elements and dynamic acting to create a style that someday might be called film noir.
Two Seconds (1932) may be the least known of the pair’s three films from this period*. Based on a Broadway play by Elliot Lester, with a script by Harvey Thew (who was also credited for the screenplay of The Public Enemy), the expressionistic story of Two Seconds unfolds in the space of time between the throwing of the switch on the electric chair and the moment when Robinson’s character loses consciousness. I suspect that one reason it has not achieved greater fame among pre-code audiences who relish those films today may be due to the general humorlessness of the script, but Robinson’s acting in this fast paced 67 minute movie riveted my attention throughout the brief movie.
After a brief introduction when reporters, including a nervous and garrulous college student are instructed on how to behave during the execution during a pep talk delivered by–who else?–Berton Churchill as the warden, the condemned man enters the chamber and is prepared for his fate. Just as the camera focuses on the switch, the film cuts to a closeup of Robinson’s drill, to an earlier time when John Allen’s work as a steeplejack earned him $62.50 a week, “more”, he boasts proudly, “than most college professors.” Unlike his best friend and roommate, Bud Clark, played with considerable appeal by Preston Foster, who was recreating his role from the stage, Allen is reluctant to spend his time chasing floozies and drinking rotgut liquor. Robinson’s character has a certain starchy pride and some sense of his own worth, expressing a hope, in his naive way, that he hopes to meet an educated woman.
Strangely, when Allen is offered a chance to meet a woman on a date set up by Bud’s girlfriend, he rejects her, wandering away into a dime a dance hall, where one of the soiled doves, played by a gritty Vivienne Osborne, soon discovers that the working stiff believes her when she claims to be the sole support of her parents in Idaho (they are actually living in a nearby New York speakeasy). (Was he thinking he’d find an educated librarian type or a nice girl moonlighting to pay for college there?)
Osborne’s character is given less shading than any of the other roles, but the actress, who would go on to play a series of vamps and harridans, manages to suggest the desperation of women trying to scratch out a living in the increasingly desperate economic situation in America. There is a tacit understanding in Robinson’s initial sympathy for the woman that the choices in life may be much less for her. Unfortunately, recognizing an easy mark, Osborne’s Shirley gets Robinson drunk enough to marry her, a situation that he accepts when he sobers up.
Willing to accept her as his wife despite her past, Allen points out to his friend Bud that “What she’s done before we got married, that’s off, see? You and me ain’t been no lilies ourselves.” However, she has no intention of honoring any marriage vow. The woman causes a rift between the men as she moves into their apartment, overseeing her husband’s spiraling disintegration while she plies her “old trade” with her “manager” played by J. Carroll Naish.
When Bud tries to confront Allen about his wife’s character and extra-marital activities while both are working high above the city on a girder, tragedy results, accelerating the steeplejack’s unnerving descent into a jittering wreck, unable to work and incapable of controlling his wife, who is now the only breadwinner in the household, a fact that deepens Allen’s despair. The story has no where to go but down to an inevitable conclusion, but, Robinson’s portrait of his character’s plunge into a hell on earth is awe-inspiring. This is not a great movie, nor, perhaps Edward G. Robinson’s best performance, but it is a protean actor willingly in thrall to a character to a mesmerizing degree, using his considerable gifts to go beyond the story’s more formulaic bounds.
Btw, the marketing of Two Seconds on the poster at the top of this post claims that the movie was bringing audiences “Edward G. Robinson in his first great love drama!” could not be farther from the tone of this film. The only tenderness and love on display is that of the two friends played by Robinson and Foster. There is a hint that the closeness between the two men has a “cleanness”, as Robinson’s character describes it, that suggests a trace of a homoerotic attachment.
Eventually, a win on a horserace, with a bookie played with his customary genial dimness by Warner Brothers stock player Guy Kibbee, allows the rattled Allen to, as he puts it, “square things” by paying back the rent and money owed to his faithless wife and her pimp during that he has been languishing . Believing, in his miasma of despair, that his now dead friend, Bud, has guided his hand in choosing the winning pony, Robinson is energized by his intention to set the books right morally again, becoming a man again, even if his zeal for justice includes killing his wife and a subsequent murder trial. In an exceptional courtroom scene lasting over two minutes, Robinson is shot from above, as it were, the POV of justice. The long scene allows the actor to surge forth in a monologue that allows the actor to walk a tightrope of drama without a net. Agonized, and tortured by an insane logic, his character goes from ranting to a kind of twisted understanding of his responsibility for his demise and–just as you might think that Robinson is going too far–he draws us into his philosophical reasoning when he proclaims that “You’re killing me at the wrong time. You should have killed me when I was taking his money. It ain’t fair to let a rat live and kill a man. It ain’t fair. It ain’t. . . .”
You can see this entire scene below and draw your own conclusions. It may surprise you. For the first time in almost eighty years you can see it for yourself on DVD as well, which is available from the TCM Vault Collection through the Warner Archive beginning this week. After seeing this movie, remind yourself that Edward G. Robinson never won nor was he nominated for an Oscar for any of his exceptional individual performances, but only received an honorary Academy Award at the end of his life. Maybe Robinson’s character of John Allen in Two Seconds was right. Justice comes at the oddest times.
*Mervyn LeRoy and Edward G. Robinson worked together on only one other film, Unholy Partners (1941, amovie made at MGM about tabloid journalism set in 1919, but without the topical zest of Warner Brothers in the early ’30s.
LeRoy, Mervyn, Kleiner, Richard, Mervyn Le Roy: Take One, Hawthorn Books, 1974.
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