Mary Dane and falsely imprisoned Bud Leonard love each other, but Lou Rinaldo, who framed Bud to get Mary, and escape-minded King Callahan, set events in motion to prove that love and ... See full summary »
Mary Dane and falsely imprisoned Bud Leonard love each other, but Lou Rinaldo, who framed Bud to get Mary, and escape-minded King Callahan, set events in motion to prove that love and justice will prevail. Written by
Arthur Hausner <firstname.lastname@example.org>
NUMBERED MEN (First National Pictures, 1930), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is an early sound prison melodrama virtually forgotten by better ones that were to come, and doesn't star legendary tough guys as James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson or George Raft to attract any avid film buff's attention. While NUMBERED MEN was released shortly before any of these three actors made their mark on the motion picture screen, this was indeed a dress rehearsal for director LeRoy, whose prison drama, I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) featuring Paul Muni, has become legendary during the course of the years. NUMBERED MEN, however, stars some lesser known names by today's standards. Conrad Nagel heads the cast with his name under the title before listed second under Bernice Claire's during the cast listings and their roles, followed by Raymond Hackett and others. Adapted from a stage play, "Jailbreak" by Dwight Taylor, NUMBERED MEN, probably inspired by the current trend of Broadway's "The Last Mile" (1929) and MGM's THE BIG HOUSE (1930), follows that pattern with a slight twist to it.
Following its opening title which reads: "In God's glorious sunshine, everyone and everything bears a name. It is man's birthright - yet behind pitiless walls built with bricks of shame, there exist humans - with names long forgotten - now known by numbers only," the camera takes its full view of Stoneyhurst State Penitentiary before leading to the visitor's room and introduction to various convicts: Bud Leonard (Raymond Hackett), Number 31857, is serving ten years on charges of counterfeiting. He is loved by Mary Dane (Bernice Claire), "a swell kid with red hair," who's willing to wait for him. Bud shares a cell with Bertie Gray (Conrad Nagel), Number 26521, a pipe smoker serving time on charges other than counterfeiting, with six more months to go on his term. Other prisoners include "Happy" Howard (George Cooper), a harmonica player; "Baby Face" Pollack (Ivan Linow), Number 41226, who gets calmed by Bertie when going stir crazy; Jimmy Martin (Frederic Howard), Number 51034; and King Callahan (Ralph Ince), Number 33410, a crook who arranges for a jail break. Warden Lansing (William Holden) awards Bertie and Bud the honor system by offering them temporary privileges working a road camp, becoming employees of the state. Their work takes them near a farm run by the kindly Mrs. Miller (Blanche Frederici), who provides trustees with food and donuts. To get her chance to see and be near Bud, Mary gets a job working for Mrs. Miller. Trouble lurks when gangster, Lou Rinaldo (Maurice Black), who framed Bud on counterfeit charge in the first place, arrives to force his intentions on Mary.
Playing like a "B" movie, which it was, this 64 minutes programmer might prove disappointing for anyone expecting a solid prison melodrama. While the early portions show convicts having recreation time playing cards and listening to the radio, the warden does put enough trust in some to put them to work outside the prison watched by guards with no guns to keep them in their place. One scene worthy of mention is one where Bertie and Jimmy talk about Lou Rinaldo, whose face is superimposed on the screen between these two men. Anyone familiar with Bernice Claire, she's an singer with an operatic voice who specialized in musicals. Starring in some early screen adaptations as NO, NO NANETTE (1929) and SONG OF THE FLAME (1930), and best known for her duets with Alexander Gray in three early talkies, NUMBERED MEN was her only non-singing assignment. NUMBERED MEN came at a time when her movie career was coming to a close. Conrad Nagel, a popular leading man for MGM with a very distinctive voice, makes a go as a convict, though not so convincing as a tough guy. Tully Marshall, a familiar face in many motion pictures dating back to the silent screen, provides some humor as Lamuel Barnes, Mrs. Miller's neighboring farmer who raises chickens, and puts his distrust on the cons working so close to his area. As much as director LeRoy keeps the pace going, with plot more outside the prison rather than in, one wishes more time spent on prison breaks, cell fights and shooting by the guards. One of those is actually used, but on a limited scale. Take note that the actor, William Holden, is not the same Academy Award winning Holden of STALAG 17 (Paramount, 1953) and other popular films from that era.
An early talkie that surprisingly has survived over the years, NUMBERED MEN is simply a curiosity and not much else. Never distributed on home video or DVD, it turns up on very rare occasions these days on Turner Classic Movies cable channel. (**)
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