Secret Six, The (DVD Review)26 Nov, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, John Mack Brown.
Clark Gable gets only seventh billing in this MGM bootlegging melodrama with an enticingly curious cast and equally no-slouch background credits — a movie that headlines Wallace Beery as a double-crossed lug who becomes a Prohibition powerhouse in town (for a while). Gable wasn’t yet a star but could have lived like one had the studio been paying him by the hour. In 1931, he rated nine screen appearances, including that memorably malevolent turn over at Warner Bros. in Night Nurse, which headlined Barbara Stanwyck in the title role.
Gable quickly got a rep as one who wouldn’t kowtow on screen to high-strung women (Now see here, Scarlett) and might even push them around. But here, he’s simply a big-city reporter in a friendly rivalry with a competitor for the affections of a “friend of the gang” played by Jean Harlow — who was coming off Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels and about five days away from making a second splash with James Cagney in The Public Enemy, which opened five days after Six’s own premiere.
John Mack Brown, of course, was the University of Alabama halfback with the honey-dipped drawl who eventually evolved into a B-Western hero — one who ended up at Monogram Pictures churning out quickies with titles like Six Gun Mesa (somewhat of a step down from having had the title MGM role in King Vidor’s Billy the Kid, not long before this picture).
Produced by William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures and a movie not exactly shy about promoting vigilantism, Six attempted to cap two immediately preceding prestige pictures from writer Frances Marion and director George Hill: the Beery vehicle The Big House, which had gotten an Oscar for best writing, and Min and Bill, an Oscar winner for, opposite Beery, Marie Dressler. (Not long after Six, Marion would win another Oscar for King Vidor’s The Champ, which earned Beery an Oscar tie with Fredric March’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde performance for best actor in what was probably the signature role of the former’s career). In other words, Six was a major league production — one that also employs the amusing casting of Lewis Stone as a low-key mob lawyer who’s a brain of the outfit. You can just see Stone as Judge Hardy in the Andy Hardy pictures saying to Mickey Rooney: “Son, before I ascended to the bench, I had some well-connected friends who set me up and enabled you to pluck the daisies of all the most comely young women in our small town.”
No relation to George Roy Hill of Butch/Sundance and The Sting, the senior filmmaker committed suicide in 1934 — possibly due to (per IMDb.com) the serious and perhaps permanent effects of an auto accident. You can see that Hill had a good eye in scenes where people are sneaking around and sleuthing interiors — and in one memorable shot where a hoard of mankind ascends upon an auto following a highly public courtroom verdict. With a few very notable decisions, Louis B. Mayer liked stylish directors about as much as he liked Sunset Boulevard, but here’s a case where he lost a true might-have-been (though, truth to tell, I haven’t seen Min and Bill since childhood). Certainly, Hill’s swan song Clear All Wires with Lee Tracy is something of an oddball find — one available itself as a Warner Archive release.
And by the way, the vigilante Six (rendered “6” on the DVD jacket, though I’ve never seen this designation anywhere else) are a hoot to see in the movie — vigilantes in eye masks that wouldn’t disguise anybody very much if someone had to identify them during a trial. What was going on here? Given MGM’s hit-squad-heavy Gabriel Over the White House in 1933, one has to sense that Metro wasn’t, or wouldn’t have been, too gun-shy about taking matters into its own hands should an external threat arrive. Which certainly fits into studio lore.