A 1931 crime film with Wallace Beery, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Lewis Stone, Ralph Bellamy, and Johnny Mack Brown – a recipe for a great film, right?
The Secret Six has a great opening act, but then loses its way. First it’s the story of a low-life slaughter-house worker, Beery, opting instead for a rising career as a bootlegger and well-paid thug. Then it’s a love-triangle, with reporters Clark Gable and Johnny Mack Brown vying for the attention of club worker Jean Harlow. Then it’s a police procedural, with a bizarre and unexplained group of black-masked men in power working behind the scenes to bring down Beery, who by this time is in politics. Lastly, it’s a courtroom drama.
Get all that?
The casting is perfect. Beery, who wants steak for dinner after a day of killing cattle, could be reprising his role from The Big House. Lewis Stone gives an unexpectedly understated performance as the quiet head of the gang (did Brando see this?), and Ralph Bellamy, in his first role, is convincingly menacing as a double-dealing gangster. Gable, Harlow, and Brown play early versions of the sorts of characters Hollywood made them famous for.
The Secret Six also falters in its dialogue. I hate to dis the honored Francis Marion, who worked on 166 films from 1912 to 1940. She was Mary Pickford’s personal screenwriter (some great films, those), and brought good, basic storytelling skills to many silent and sound films. By the early ‘30s, though, the tropes she relied on in her dialogue were perhaps getting stale: The Secret Six must contain at least a dozen instances of the responses, “Yeah?” and “Oh, yeah?” Producer Irving Thalberg may have had a hand in the script’s plot, though, as there’s talk about Thalberg making Gable’s role in the film larger late in the shooting process.
The Secret Six has been released on Warner Archives DVD-R.