While I am not a noir expert by any means, I do like to watch something from the seedy side of Hollywood on occasion. The Glass Key is a kind of pre-noir hybrid that boasts some impressive acting and manages to stay fairly faithful to its famous source material. (As much as the Motion Picture Production Code allowed, anyway. Or didn’t. It’s amazing how much the movie got away with.) Dashiell Hammett is my favorite hard-boiled writer and I am delighted to be reviewing one of the best adaptations of his work.
Glass keys, hearts, jaws…
One aspect of cinema history that sometimes gets overlooked is how heavily directors and actors are influenced by earlier films. Take The Glass Key, for example. Director Akira Kurosawa borrowed plot elements and an entire extended scene for his brilliant 1961 action-comedy Yojimbo. Then Sergio Leone lifted the entire story of Yojimbo for his 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, a film inspired its own host of imitators. (George Lucas also dipped into Yojimbo for the cantina scene of 1977’s Star Wars.)
In fact, connecting films to their respective influences will probably make me end up with a wall covered in stills and clippings connected with red string, like a mad conspiracy theorist. Best to move on to the review.
The Glass Key was the second pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, who made quite an impression as a hitman and his hostage in This Gun For Hire. This time, Ladd plays the best friend and enforcer of a corrupt city boss and Lake is the rich girl who tries to play them against each other. The Ladd/Lake screen team was a potent one. Neither one of them was a great actor but they could turn in very good performances in the right kind of film and there is no denying their chemistry. Physically, they are a perfect match: tiny, beautiful blonds.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. Hammett, you will recall, also wrote The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.
The Glass Key also has quite a few silent veterans in its cast. I have chosen to focus on Brian Donlevy (whose stint in the silents is all but ignored) and Spec O’Donnell, a former child actor and Mary Pickford co-star. We will be looking at their respective careers after the review.
The Glass Key usually ties with The Maltese Falcon for the title of Best Hammett Fiction. It’s a complicated tale of dirty politics, gangsters and murder. The film adaptation had the challenge of bringing these dark elements to the screen while still pleasing the censors. For the most part, it succeeds. The book is toned down considerably and the romance is made more mainstream-friendly but a surprising amount of the novel’s grime remains.
Here is the basic plot and hold onto your hats, kids, because even the basic plot is pretty twisty.
Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) is a local boss who throws his weight behind Senator Henry, who is running for governor. Madvig has fallen for the senator’s daughter, Janet (Veronica Lake), and intends to marry her. Janet plays along to get her dad elected but barely bothers to conceal her contempt.
Madvig’s best friend, confidant, right hand man and enforcer is Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), a taciturn semi-hood. Ed sees right through Janet but Madvig is too smitten to listen to his warning. This is causing problems as Madvig’s support of the reformer senator has put him at odds with Nick Varna, a gambling boss who is just big enough to make trouble.
Things get really sticky when Senator Henry’s son, Taylor, is found dead in the street. You see, Taylor had been seeing Opal Madvig (Bonita Granville, annoying as all getout in this role) on the sly and everyone thinks Madvig killed the young man to keep him away from his kid sister. To make matters even worse, Madvig clams up and won’t account for his movements that night.
Ed and Madvig have a falling out over the murder and Janet. Nick sees it as an opportunity to get back at Madvig. You see, the biggest newspaper in town is owned by a guy named Matthews, who is in hock up to his ears and guess who holds the IOU… Why, Nick, of course! The newspaper has been printing some very nasty stories about Madvig and they could be even nastier with Ed’s help.
Ed doesn’t cooperate so Nick has him kidnapped and engages an ogre by the name of Jeff (William Bendix) give him the works. The beating Ed receives is queasily realistic and is even more of a shock since the film had been rather Hollywood-glossy until this sequence. (William Bendix is said to have accidentally knocked Alan Ladd out cold at one point, much to his horror. Supposedly, the take remains in the final film.)
For the life of me I cannot think how this scene was approved. In any case, Ed escapes and then things really get vicious.
Ed, as it turns out, is the dirtiest player in the game. He destroys evidence, tampers with witnesses, wrecks marriages and (it is heavily implied) goads one of the villains into suicide. Late in the film, after plying his former torturer with liquor, Ed stands back and watches with amusement, perhaps even glee, as Jeff strangles Nick. These darker, noirish scenes are interspersed with more typical Hollywood scenes of Janet and Ed flirting, banter between Ed and Paul, a few scenes of comedy relief…
The Glass Key is sometimes described as noir, sometimes as proto-noir. I am in the proto-noir camp. While it definitely has noir elements (the brutal beatdown Ed endures, Jeff’s sadism, Ed’s sometimes amoral behavior, gangsters and dirty politics), it also has the classic Hollywood ending and a generally more cheery disposition than a true noir. Janet behaves somewhat like a femme fatale (playing the guys off one another, background scheming) but she ends up turning the corner and having a heart of gold, ready for romance with Ed.
Oh, and the 1935 George Raft version ain’t half bad. In fact, it is quite good. Directed by Frank Tuttle (who also directed This Gun For Hire) it has a grimier look overall, though it does not get quite as dark as the 1942 version. George Raft is my catnip so you won’t hear much complaining from me. Raft and Ladd are about even as Beaumont, though I liked Donlevy better than Edward Arnold as Madvig. Rosalind Keith blows Bonita Granville out of the water as Opal “Snip” Madvig but William Bendix is unbeatable as Jeff. The 1935 film is not too easy to track down but is well worth seeing. The biggest difference between these versions is who Ed ends up with. In the 1935 version, he is for Opal all the way.
The Glass Key is a real treat. While it is not the perfect Hammett adaptation, it is pretty darn good considering when it was made. William Bendix (in only his fourth film role) creates one of the most memorable villains of 40’s cinema. The film has finally received U.S. DVD release and certainly deserves a view.
Like many actors of his generation, the facts of Brian Donlevy’s early life are slippery. What is generally agreed upon is that he was born Waldo Bruce Donlevy in Portadown, Ireland (or, according to author, Gregory William Mank, in Cleveland, Ohio) in 1901. (According to Gunmen and Gangsters by Michael Schlossheimer, Donelevy’s date of birth has been listed as 1899 and 1903 as well. 1901 is most commonly reckoned to be the closest to the truth.) The Donlevy family either immigrated to America when little Waldo Bruce was a toddler or were already in the country when he was born.
Are we having fun yet?
Donlevy was said to have run away from home at the age of fifteen (or seventeen or thirteen, depending of which date of birth you believe) and joined General Pershing’s hunt for Pancho Villa as a bugler. This is the start of a long list of military exploits that could very well be true or could just be the work of breathless studio publicity. In any case, what we do know is that Donlevy decided that he wanted to be an actor, dropped the Waldo Bruce (and who can blame him?) and replaced it with the very Irish “Brian.”
Donlevy made a splash in the stage version of What Price Glory? and was doing quite well as a theatrical performer and male model. He tried his hand at Hollywood but he never managed to get beyond supporting parts in poverty row productions. One exception: He is reputed to play a party guest in the ill-advised 1924 Rudolph Valentino vehicle Monsieur Beaucaire. (I say ill-advised because Valentino was attempting to build his rugged action dude credentials and a fully accurate Rococo period piece complete with lace and satin and lipstick was just not the way to do it in 1924. Or in 2014 come to think of it.) The available prints of the film are quite fuzzy and I was unable to pinpoint Donlevy so I must declare his credited appearance to be unproven.
With nothing better in the offing, Donlevy returned to the stage. He tried his luck again when the talkies came but nothing caught fire until he was cast as Edward G. Robinson’s black-clad henchman in the 1935 historical film, The Barbary Coast. Donlevy was handsome but had enough of the tough guy about him to make a menacing villain or a hero’s somewhat-coarse pal. He spent the rest of the thirties playing characters with names like Knuckles, Spike, Broken Nose and Chesty. He menaced Gary Cooper in Beau Geste (for which he received his only Oscar nod), took on James Stewart in Destry Rides Again and generally gained fame for his on-screen caddishness and his off-screen niceness.
Donlevy’s career took another turn with Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty. At last, he had a chance to break out of the brutish rut that typecasting had trapped him in. During the second world war, Donlevy’s career really flourished and he began to be cast as heroes in A-list films.
On a more unpleasant note, Donlevy reportedly made it onto the notoriously difficult Veronica Lake’s extensive list of enemies, which seemed to include pretty much every leading man she was ever paired with. She claimed that she took a scripted slap in The Glass Key as an opportunity to slug poor Brian for real. (Some find tales of performers conspiring to physically harm their co-stars to be charming anecdotes. I find them disturbing, especially in light of Lake’s tragic battles with mental illness.)
Now an established star and character actor, Donlevy continued to work steadily in movies and in the new medium of television. His last appearance was in 1969’s Pit Stop. He passed away three years later.
There is not much information available about Walter “Spec” O’Donnell but almost every classic movie fan is likely to be familiar with his face, if not his name. Most online sources can be described as shady (i.e. Wikipedia and IMDB) so I crave your indulgence. The particulars of O’Donnell’s birth and death are found in the AFI Catalog, which is more reputable. As much as possible, I am relying on AFI and my own viewing experience.
Born in farming city of Fresno, California in 1911, O’Donnell made his first known film appearance in 1923. The film was Little Johnny Jones and O’Donnell was credited as “Freckle-faced Little Boy,” which pretty much indicated the direction the rest of his career would go. Those freckles gave O’Donnell a distinct look, something prized in silent Hollywood, but they also typecast him as a sort of juvenile character actor.
While he made shorts for the Hal Roach outfit, O’Donnell is best remembered by silent film fans for his two appearances opposite Mary Pickford. He played Abie, the title character’s best friend in Little Annie Rooney, a film with some charm and much questionable ethnic humor. (Sample laffs: Irish Annie gives her Jewish friend a taste of her ham dinner. Ha ha.) Sparrows, one of Pickford’s finest films, casts O’Donnell as one of her chief antagonists, a disgusting little brute. O’Donnell gamely plays both friend and enemy with skill.
Sound came at an awkward time for O’Donnell. He was at the single most dangerous stage for a child star, the teen years. Movie audiences love their child stars, sometimes a little too much. Some performers are never forgiven for growing up. While featured roles were no longer the norm for O’Donnell, he kept soldiering on in supporting roles.
The Glass Key was a fairly typical example of O’Donnell’s later roles. A face in the crowd, perhaps a line or two, and then he is gone. You can spot O’Donnell near the beginning of the film as a bellboy or porter. He utters the line, “Paul Madvig!” and we never see him again.
Oh, and here is the reason why Spec O’Donnell may look familiar to you:
He played the young fellow who grins at Cary Grant during the marriage scene in Arsenic and Old Lace.
In later years, O’Donnell added television to his list of credits. He played a member of the Mayberry town council in The Andy Griffith Show. His last credited role was in 1978, six years before his death.