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Douglas Fairbanks Jr.,
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This one is still with us, and not in bad shape either. It was Richard Dix' third film for RKO, where he was a leading man from 1929 to 1943. This is also the film he did immediately preceding Cimarron. "Cimarron" was my first exposure to Dix, and probably the film for which he is most remembered since it won the Best Picture Oscar of 1930-1931 and won Dix an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. To me, that's a shame, because it is probably his hammiest performance, and the film has not aged well at all, although it does retain a certain early talkie charm. Imagine my surprise, several years later, to see some of his more seldom seen films and discover that Dix was a natural in the talkies and a natural before the camera with a great screen presence.
This film sports another fine performance by Dix, this time as a gambler on the run from the law. Dix plays professional gambler Larry Sheldon whose close friend is gunned down by gangsters on a rainy night. Sheldon knows immediately who did it and doesn't care about the repercussions when he marches right up to the hideout of the gangster he knows that did it and strangles him to death. Now he's on the run from the police, so he takes a train to the middle of nowhere. On the train he meets a parson of sorts whose mission in life is to reform gangsters, and the two men have a short conversation. The train carrying them both derails, and Sheldon is mistaken for the man actually killed in the wreckage, the reformer Ted Walters, with whom he spoke just a short time before. He's nursed back to health by the daughter of a town reverend, Doris Powell (Mary Lawlor), and is invited by the reverend to stay in the town and help crusade against the bad elements there, most prominently a gambling joint that has been taking time and money away from the local men folk. So now Sheldon has a choice - does he move on, or does he stay? And if he stays, does he simply use his cover to take this rural gambling establishment away from the current gangster that owns it and pick up where he left off in the city, or does he actually turn over a new leaf and become a reformer? Complicating matters is that the reverend's son owes the gambling house $3500, that the gangster who runs the place is using the leverage of this debt to try to put the moves on his sister Doris, and that Sheldon is starting to develop a soft spot for Doris himself.
Dix is great in this part as he plays a gangster with conscience here - quite different from the type Cagney and Robinson played over at Warner Brothers. He doesn't enjoy violence, it is simply an unpleasant byproduct of what he does enjoy - the thrill of gambling and the strategy involved in outsmarting an opponent while doing so.
The only other performer here you'll likely recognize is Robert Emmett O'Connor, who is being typecast here as he was in so many early talking films as the Irish cop. Mary Lawlor had only two film roles, and this is one of them. The other one was in "Good News". At that point she disappeared from view altogether. She is pretty enough and gives a good enough performance as the pure country girl caught between loyalty to her brother and the repulsion she feels towards the gangster that wants her, she just didn't do anything with enough distinction to set her apart from hundreds of other early talkie actresses. One of my favorites in this film was the actor playing Ace Martin, the gambling house proprietor that has the hots for young Doris. He perfectly portrays slimy confidence with the ladies and false concern, and he isn't nearly as smart or attractive as he thinks. He is the perfect villain.
Do note that in my description of the plot I deliberately got one key point wrong, but I had to do this, because the fact that the audience believes that this is the actual plot is what the surprise ending rests upon. Warner Brothers should own the rights to this one since it is an RKO film, so why it has never been televised on Turner Classic Movies I do not know.
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