For the crime buff, Warner Brothers is undoubtedly the most interesting of the major Hollywood studios. Right from the very start, the Brothers established a tradition of hard-hitting realism that left other studios for dead. Of course, it's problematic if the film-makers would have continued in this vein if their socially-conscious product hadn't also been extremely popular with audiences. No doubt titivating titles like Why Girls Leave Home helped. This 1921 account of the big city's corrupting influence was not only the studio's first feature film, but its first big success. The Warners followed with Parted Curtains, the first in a long succession of hard, grittily realistic movies about crime and criminals. Even their third offering, School Days, had nothing to do with the type of school the title brings to mind.
It's no accident therefore that down the track Warner Brothers became home to the screen's three greatest gangster icons: Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. All three made interesting "B" movies before their stars became firmly established. Robinson joined the super-star ranks with his Little Caesar (1930), Cagney leapt into fame in the title role of The Public Enemy (1931), whilst Bogart refined his definitive gangster in The Petrified Forest (1936).
Made immediately before Little Caesar, The Widow from Chicago already finds Robinson on familiar ground. Third billed, he plays a ruthless liquor lord, determined to kill off his rivals for control of the city. One of his victims is an undercover police detective. The cop's sister decides to avenge her brother by getting the goods on Robinson herself. She takes a job in his speakeasy. The plot then develops along familiar lines, although a few unexpectedly suspenseful (if unlikely) twists keep interest high right through to a thrillingly-staged action climax.
In the acting department, Robinson easily walks away with the movie. His characterization of the gangster is already fully developed, all his familiar mannerisms of speech and gesture firmly in place.
Unfortunately, the other principals, particularly pouting, mousey-voiced Alice White as the widow and relentlessly wooden Neil Hamilton as the good/bad hero, are a sorry lot. I picked comic Frank McHugh as the best of a poor bunch. His interpretation of this standard dumb stooge becomes not only disturbing but oddly sympathetic. At the climax when he neatly corners himself in a patrol wagon, you can't help feeling a bit sorry for him. Hes just a friendly, loyal but not overbright guy who's grown up and lived with the mob all his life. Society has never given him a chance.
Although obviously struggling with the demands of sound in many of the dialogue encounters, director Edward Cline really comes to life once the camera moves into the action spots. The climax rates as an absolute stunner, yet it's not way over the top as the similar finish to M-G-M's The Beast of the City where guns popped and cops dropped all over the place. Just one killer in the spotlight here, but what a spotlight! The equally convincing street scenes were doubtless all filmed on the studio's back lot, but they retain the gritty, mean feel of real streets filled with real slum-dwelling, Depression-era people.
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