Public Defender, The (DVD Review)26 May, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Richard Dix, Shirley Grey.
Other than the fact that this one came out during the Hoover Administration (1931, to be precise) and shows it (though crucially, less so than expected), we could be talking about a movie from today, given the targeted heavies here and the methodology used to combat them. The title good-guy bills himself as “The Reckoner” and leaves a distinctive (literal) you’re-about-to-get-yours calling card for crooks he hopes will begin to quake in their boots waiting for his follow-through — in other words, a kind of superhero before his time. The villains are, in modern fashion, a moneymen board of directors — a trust, in fact, that needs a Teddy Roosevelt to bust it.
The Reckoner, though, isn’t a Teddy type but the kind of post-collegiate playboy who might be at home in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Or would be, if he weren’t played by Richard Dix, who was not only 37 when he made this movie but also one of those actors, like so many in the 1930s, who looked older than his years. Because the character is a playboy — or at least a party type whose means of support aren’t all that visible — no one takes him too seriously, which means the Reckoner is doing is reckoning in plain sight.
Making his directorial bow here was someone with a name that could have adorned an ad agency: J. Walter Ruben. A writer first but also one who went behind the camera 19 times before his death at 43, he did a lot of those movies that show up on Turner Classic Movies a lot but which I’ve never quite nudged myself to see. (I think I caught the Spencer Tracy-Jean Harlow Riffraff on TV sometime around 1960, but that’s it — though Ace of Aces, also with Dix, is folkloric in the Clark family annals for being the movie that got my 11-year-old father thrown out of a theater with a buddy in 1933 for having set off a stink bomb). From the evidence here, I’d like to see some of the other Ruben pics because for an early talkie, Defender is free of the overwrought acting that sometimes blemishes otherwise exemplary movies of the era, like, say, the same year’s Five Star Final, which, like Defender, has Boris Karloff in the supporting cast. There are some pretty fair shouting matches here between Dix and the foremost of his adversaries, and they definitely sound like genuine people in genuinely heated exchanges and not some stage actor laying to the third balcony.
The female lead is appealing: predominantly ‘B’ actress Shirley Grey, whose career fizzled out in mid-decade as part of a life that sounds, from her IMDb.com biography, as if it must have been sad. Her acting style is contemporary, and it’s puzzling to figure out why somebody other than predominantly poverty row studios couldn’t have tapped into her pleasing looks and personality (Grey plays the daughter of the trust’s treasurer, who becomes an unjust scapegoat for the shenanigans of his colleagues). Dix is appealing, too — though ironically, this was the year of the dreadful Oscar winner Cimarron, an Edna Ferber Western that somehow got the actor his only nomination for a very unbridled performance (he’s like ten pounds of pancake makeup on a dusty street). Truth is, though, Dix was good more often than not, and I harbor fond memories of Hell’s Highway, Val Lewton’s Ghost Ship and the "Whistler" series. And if we don’t make too much of a deal about it, Defender is something of a surprise and not all that far away from being in their class.