The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
In the 1932 gangster classic Scarface, actor Boris Karloff—just starting to make a marquee name for himself after starring as The Monster in Universal’s Frankenstein (1931)—has a small role as a rival mobster whose death at a bowling alley fulfills just one of that movie’s memorable methods to kill anyone who squares off against the titular racketeer, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni).
Karloff—and I say this as someone who has had a lifelong, torrid love affair with the actor’s work onscreen—isn’t particularly convincing as Tom Gaffney; despite his impressive cinematic resume playing villains and heavies, Boris was a little too genteel and cultured to persuade audiences he could be a tough mobster. It’s a testament to his talent that he’s able to overcome this limitation and not ruin the film. (It helps, too, that his role as Gaffney is a fleeting appearance.)
Boris confronts this same problem in The Guilty Generation (1931), the film released shortly before he became a sensation in Frankenstein. In Generation, he’s Tony Ricca, a NYC mob boss ostracized from his son Marco (Robert Young), who, after accepting his father’s money to attend school abroad, has become an architect and to further disassociate himself from the Family Ricca he’s changed his name to “John Smith”. (With a name like that, you know he had trouble renting a hotel room.) Not only is Tony dealing with an ungrateful son, but he’s engaged in a ferocious gang war with one-time partner (and now bitter rival) Mike Palmero (Leo Carrillo).
To escape the public outcry when two innocent children are killed as “collateral damage” in their gang war, Palmero relocates to the Sunshine State; while in Florida, he throws a swanky party in honor of his daughter Maria (Constance Cummings), whom he wants to break into high society (it’s a bit difficult for Maria, particularly when you consider who her pop is).
As a movie script would have it, John (Marco) also attends the shindig with his pal Don Morley (James Wilcox) and upon being introduced to Maria, falls head over heels in love. Marco beats a hasty retreat from the Palmero affair when Maria’s brother Joe (Leslie Fenton) gets a bit rambunctious (and starts waving a loaded gun around), but the next morning he returns to Casa del Palmero, revealing his true identity to his new lady love (the two of them were quite close in their childhood before the split between the families).
As you’ve probably deduced, The Guilty Generation is “Romeo and Juliet,” gangster-style. There is bloodshed in both families—Tony’s other son, Benedicto (Elliott Rothe) is gunned down, and Joe Palmero expires from fatal wounds suffered in an automobile accident. Marco and Maria manage to get hitched on the sly, but their honeymoon is fated to come to a quick end when a newspaper reporter (Phil Tead) tips Joe off as to John Smith’s true identity.
Karloff has a tremendous handicap to overcome in Generation: his character is Sicilian, and those immaculate British tones and slight lisp aren’t fooling anyone. Fortunately, his appearance in the movie is so minimal you don’t notice all that much. Robert Young, as his son, must deal with the same difficulty (it’s just hard to accept the TV WASP dad from Father Knows Best as an Italian) and to add insult to injury, he’s in the feature for most of its eighty-one-minute running time.
Young was on the cusp of silver screen stardom as a bland but dependable leading man (he had appeared in that same year’s The Black Camel and The Sin of Madelon Claudet) and while he could surprise moviegoers on occasion with first-rate turns in H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941) and They Won’t Believe Me (1947), Young seemed to fare better as the small screen’s perfect dad (and perfect general practitioner in Marcus Welby, M.D.).
As for the Family Palmero, actress Constance Cummings is a bit more persuasive in her Sicilian portrayal of Maria, but if you’ve seen Cummings in her “dual” role in Harold Lloyd’s Movie Crazy (1932) you know she’s got a bit of moxie on the ball when it comes to tackling parts out of her wheelhouse. Emma Dunn (Blessed Event, The Broken Lullaby) is also superb as Grandma Palmero (Mike’s ma), but the actor who really bowled me over was Leo Carrillo.
I’ve seen Leo in a lot of old movies; he was always a first-rate character actor, notably as a comic gangster in If You Could Only Cook (1935), but in my mind he’s indelibly the jovial sidekick Pancho to Duncan Renaldo’s Cisco Kid from the 1950-56 TV western series (and a few of the films in the Cisco movie franchise as well).
Ruth Warren (Doubting Thomas) steals more than a few scenes in the film as Palmero’s cynical publicist; the sequences where she plays cribbage with Maria’s bodyguard (Murray Kinnell) add a nice little bit of levity to the proceedings. If you look close, you’ll recognize Glenn Strange as one of Karloff’s bodyguards; Strange was one of several actors who took over as the Frankenstein monster after Boris said “No mas!” (Glenn plays The Monster in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, for example) so it’s nice to see the two of them sharing a scene in this early film.
Also sharing The Guilty Generation with Boris is director Rowland V. Lee, in the first of three collaborations between the two men: Lee would later direct Karloff in Tower of London and Son of Frankenstein, both released in 1939. Lee does everything right with the script by Jack Cunningham (adapted from a play by Jo Milward and J. Kirby Hawks), but while Generation isn’t a terrible film it is at times a static, talky one; one wishes they had injected a bit more energy and included some Warner Bros.-like action (the kind in Lee’s similar gangster flick The Ruling Voice, released by Warner’s that same year).
The Guilty Generation is one of three films featured on the TCM Vault release Karloff: Criminal Kind; also included are The Criminal Code (1931)—the Howard Hawks-directed prison movie that purportedly inspired Boris’ casting in Frankenstein—and Behind the Mask (1932), a painless time-passer initially promoted as a horror film but is anything but (it’s a crime mellerdrammer). What I found so striking about Guilty Generation was the print was positively immaculate, perhaps we need to root around in the “TCM Vault” for treasures like this more often.