by Ruairí McCann
The Shakedown (1929) has just found its way to a Blu-ray release, via Eureka’s Masters of Cinema line and the boxset Early Universal Vol.1, where it’s presented in its silent version with a lively jazz score by Michael Gatt. This finely forged and unabashedly felt movie is no small example of the late silent era on its plinth, when it comes to form and depicting lived life as up-front, tough and an elaborate ruse.
Dave (James Murray) is a tall talker with a death wish, it seems, for while holding court at a dive, harping on about his agility and pugilist’s skills, he draws in Battling Roff (played by oxen-like Greco-American George Kotsonaros) from the bar. After a few feints and a little lost face, Dave dares Roff to fight him in the ring. Seemingly unbeknownst or unconcerned with the fact that he is the local heavyweight champ. Unsurprisingly, Dave loses…
…by design. Revealed in a expertly systematic way by director William Wyler, it has all been a show, based on an improvised scenario, a few planned gags and a clued-in cast with Dave in a key supporting role. The director of this street theatre slash match fixing racket, Roff’s crooked manager (Wheeler Oakman) had assigned Dave the role of fuse and knowing dupe. However, he doesn’t think his performance was up to scratch. He needs to work on his ‘act’, by building an honest profile and getting involved with some ‘human interest stuff’.
In the next Californian town, Dave quickly finds his goal, though it may be more than he can chew. He meets and falls for Marjorie (Barbara Kent), who mans the café near where Dave works as a roustabout. In the same scene, he encounters and rescues an orphaned scamp called Clem (Jack Hanlon), who he reluctantly takes under his wing as his de facto son. With these two relationships burgeoning and the next ‘fight’ on the horizon, Dave soon has to face himself and figure out who exactly he is: a fake or the real deal.
The heart of this fleet and fulsome film is the relationship between David and Clem, played wonderfully by Murray and Hanlon. The Bronx-born Murray, a distinctively subtle leading man on the screen and an unsettled personage off, was only a year out from his first leading role in King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), and yet soon after this performance his career would be on the downswing, culminating in his death in 1936. He drowned in the Hudson in what was probably an accidental fall, influenced by alcohol, on which he had a dependency that played a part in derailing his career. Here he plays the difficult role of a slightly clueless trickster, half aware that he’s living a lie, half in denial. He gives it a suitably complex rendition, reeling between broad displays of nervous enthusiasm and charm and micro-expressed anxiety.
He finds his complement in Hanlon as Clem. Hanlon, an experienced child actor, aged 12 at the time of production, was also near the end of his career—he would quit the movie business in 1932 and go on to live a long life ending in 2012. He fits the loveable street urchin bill and plays it note perfect, with his tousled, floppy blonde mop wiling above a freckle-smeared face. Full of beans, piss and vinegar, he clatters and shoots about like lightning. All the while delivering ‘seen it all’ wise cracks and muscle-contorting mugging usually swerved at Dave or some other punk.
When Dave and Clem, or Murray and Hanlon, are together, this playing around with and in-n-out of type generates a rich and protean symbiosis. There’s a ceaseless shifting of relations, between who’s the more mature one of the two and who needs guidance. Their scenes are charged by sublimated lines of dramaturgy, stemming from the multiple layers of fronting and outright fabrication that upholster both their personalities. It works on the surface level as well. Neither Wyler nor the duo are afraid to play to a screaming, but well-tuned, sentimental pitch and their relationship is marked by a string of broadly funny acts of macho brinkmanship and gags. The playful and naïve version of the cynical game that Dave is caught up in.
Barbara Kent is more than a little side-lined in favour of all this male bondage, but still she gives a fine performance and proffers Dave that final push toward salvation, his ballad ending in a contentment achieved through love and fisticuffs. It’s deeply moving to watch Murray as Dave, a wayward soul, find his backbone and self-worth through other people, and then externalise it all in a chopped-up but propulsive blaze of a boxing match.
This was the 36th directorial credit for a then 26-year-old William Wyler. Born in 1902 to a German-Swiss Jewish family and raised in the Alsace Region (now in France but then part of the German Empire), he left the afterlife of the old Holy Roman Empire for the States, travelling on the back of an invitation from Universal executive Carl Laemmle (they were cousins and Laemmle was nepotism-mad). After emigrating first to New York in 1921, where he odd-jobbed at the Universal office and did a stint in the National Guard, he made the move to Hollywood and the epicentre of the movie business in 1923. Once there he quickly scaled the assistant director ranks until in 1925 he began to get assignments as director on that bedrock of American screen art and hard-knock school for immigrant Europeans; one and two-reel westerns.
The Shakedown then is a beautiful combination. The work of a veteran, who had cut his teeth 35 times prior, and the work of a twenty-something artist still in a hot flush about the possibilities of his craft. Wyler’s eagerness to fill the screen with tricks and ideas and his skill in doing so is evident across the board. His movie is streaked and expanded with detailed, deep space compositions, allowing for intricate and expressive staging and a sense of a world that is real and populated—see the scenes capturing the streets of a small-town California or the funfair sequence, which ends with a ride on a ferris wheel where Wyler lets Dave and Marjorie go aerial and off-screen in order to get a good gander at the other punters.
Wyler and co. throw in a robust, non-boxing related action sequence with a modestly thrilling bit of stunt work, as Dave and Clem’s inauspicious introduction ends with Dave having to heave a knocked-out Clem out of the path of an oncoming train. And there’s plenty of great little moments too, such as the introduction of Dave’s doofus ‘coach’ Dugan (Harry Gribbon). The camera is placed at what would seem like an illogical position, a low angle shot from behind the chair where Dugan is slouched, so you can’t see him! Then suddenly up pops a naggin of whiskey which is quickly drained. Dugan’s comic unreliability is instantly established, in this presentation of a man so soused that it appears he has misplaced his human shell and so has been reduced to his naked essence, a hovering bottle of grog.
The movie’s tonal jerks and about-faces and its urban, working-class character are a far cry from the Wyler of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, that grand dean of the self-consciously seriously-minded screen-drama that is now his everlasting image. Like a number of critics, I find that bulk of his career to be a mixed bag. There’s an alternative in The Shakedown, as a resourceful, touching and delightful work that hews close to the grain.
EARLY UNIVERSAL VOL. 1 (Masters of Cinema) 2-Disc Blu-ray Edition
REGINALD DENNY | LAURA LA PLANTE | NEIL HAMILTON | DOROTHY GULLIVER | JAMES MURRAY | BARBARA KENT | JACK HANLON
1926-1929 | 204 MIN. | 1.33:1 OAR | USA | SILENT / COMEDY / CRIME / DRAMA | B&W
Certificate PG (TBC) | Director VARIOUS | Language ENGLISH | 13 SEPTEMBER 2021
Ruairí McCann is an Irish writer and musician, Belfast born and based but raised in Sligo. He sits on the board of the Spilt Milk Music & Arts Festival and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost, Screen Slate, Mubi Notebook and Sight & Sound. [Twitter]