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Bootlegger/cafe owner Ralph Bellamy recruits crude working man Wallace Beery to join his gang which is masterminded by crooked criminal defense lawyer Lewis Stone. Beery eventually takes over Bellamy's operation, beats a rival gang, becomes wealthy and dominates the city for several years until a secret group of 6 masked businessmen have him prosecuted and sent to the electric chair with the help of rival crusading newspapermen Clark Gable and Johnny Mack Brown. Waitress Jean Harlow is torn between her love for the honest newsman Brown and her financial dependence on her generous boss, Beery. Written by
While not on the level of the work being done in Warners crime films during the same period ("The Public Enemy," "Little Caesar"), "The Secret Six" is a fine picture with a lot to recommend it.
Primarily, this comes from the cast. Wallace Beery, then at the height of his fame, makes for a good central figure as Louis "Slaughterhouse" Scorpio, as the name implies, a former slaughterhouse worker turned bootlegger and murderer. His ordering "a hunk o'steak" after spending all day crushing animals heads with a sledgehammer suggests, right at the beginning, that killing means nothing to this huge primate of a man. Lewis Stone, on the wrong side of the law for once, is Newton, the dandyish crooked lawyer and head of the gang, giving an understated, sinister performance and making every scene count. Ralph Bellamy, one of the movies' perennial nice guys, plays a very, very bad guy here, as the gangster who brings Scorpio into the gang, to his later regret. And veteran Marjorie Rambeau, while she has little to do overall, is good as Bellamy's blowsy mistress, Peaches, a far cry from the society matrons she would specialize in later in her career.
But the big surprise, and one of the main reasons for watching this picture, are the solid early performances of Jean Harlow and a young, sans-mustache Clark Gable. Both were free-lancers who were hired for this film on a one-time basis. MGM was so impressed with their work as, respectively, Anne, the cigarette girl who loves and loses reporter Johnny Mack Brown, and Carl, the crusading reporter who aids the Secret Six of the title in bringing down Stone and Beery's criminal organization, that they were hired to long-term contracts right after the picture was completed. Both turn in solid performances. Those who think Harlow couldn't act should see her in the last third of the film, particularly the trial scene. And the sheer mile-a-minute energy Gable brings to his role makes his every scene watchable. Within the next few years, these two would establish themselves as the stuff of Hollywood legend.
Directed by the excellent, underrated George Hill ("Tell It To the Marines," "Min and Bill," "Hell Divers"), scripted by the great Frances Marion, and with the aforementioned solid cast and the usual MGM gloss, "The Secret Six" makes for a very enjoyable film, for historians, crime film buffs, fans of the stars, and just those of us who appreciate a good, involving story.
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