The state of procedure, evidence, and criminal defense protection was in flux in 1933. Perfect example of it's limitations (and on target in this film): Al Capone was sent to Atlanta Penetentiary (and later to Alcatraz) for tax evasion in 1931 - yet his gang was one of the bloodiest in American history. No murders were legally (i.e., in a court of law) tied to "Big Al", so the government got him through a back door. This led to the cynical comment : "You can murder anyone in the U.S.A, but don't fail to pay your income taxes!"
Another way to show this flux period in our legal rights was the Supreme Court decision in 1932 by Anthony Scalia's 1930's model, the brilliant, conservative jurist George Sutherland. Normally opposed to certain innovations in the Roosevelt New Deal, Sutherland was a libertarian and a fiercely devoted lover of our individual rights. He wrote the Scottsboro Decision in 1932 regarding the legal lynching directed at the Scottsboro defendants (all young African-Americans) in an Alabama rape case. Sutherland made it clear that all defendants in criminal cases deserved representation in court, and rejected the death sentences passed on the defendants who had no adequate representation. Next time you read of the "Four Reactionary Horseman" on the 1930s Court, please remember to separate Sutherland a bit. He wasn't a real reactionary like his colleague James MacReynolds.
One keeps in mind the flux of our legal system, even though Judge George Barbier shows a student the huge number of statutes and rules that governed courts in 1933. Civil Procedure rules for Federal Courts were not even settled until the 1938 case of ERIE v. THOMPKINS. With all this confusions rats frequently fell through the holes of the law, making the public cynical about how really good the law was. If they had watched what a really well oiled organized law could degenerate into at the time (Stalin's Russia; Hitler's Germany) they might have realized things were not as bad as they thought.
THIS DAY AND AGE is about how the children of a town's high schools learn the limitation of the law the hard way when a friend of their's (Harry Green, a tailor in this film) is first bombed by a member of Charles Bickford's gang, and then shot by Bickford in a confrontation in the ruined shop. The leading student in the nearby high school happens to wanders into the middle of the incident, and is knocked out. Bickford does not shoot him because he has set up a semi-clever alibi with a double in a dark corner of his road house. The kid happens to tell the police and Bickford is arrested, but his high priced lawyer makes mince-meant out of the student, and Bickford has that alibi. As the D.A. (Charles Middleton, of all people) tells the kid Bickford was likely to slip through their case from the start.
The kids begin organizing in small groups, but one goes badly with Bickford realizing they are looking for evidence and shooting one as a burglar (framing the second for the murder). Then the fed up students decide to go full throttle. One romances Bickford's right hand man to keep him away while Bickford is kidnapped by the student bodies of three high schools, and forced to confess or be dumped into a pit of real rats. When the police arrive (and surprise Bickford's gang) the Chief of Police deputizes the students (and ignores Bickford's griping about the rats). Bickford is brought into town by the students and police, and his confession is signed before Barbier and Middleton.
DeMille did only a handful of social commentary films in his career. His touch is evident, especially handling the scenes of Bickford's confrontation with the high schoolers. Not quite as intricate as his parting of the Red Sea (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS). The most juvenile aspect of his film planning is the various "acts" put on by Bickford at the Road House: Roller Skating trios, and dance girls dancing to various nursery rhymes. But some of the nursery rhymes (like Three Blind Mice, when the kids are organizing, and Bickford is beginning to worry) are not bad contrapuntal points to the action. The film suggests that DeMille might have tried more social commentary films - but perhaps wisely stuck to history and spectaculars.
Bickford works under a bigger fish called, "the little fellow". We only see this fellow once, when everything is on the verge of collapse, sending orders for play tickets and a boat out of the country. But we only see him from the back. One comment he makes is curious. He asks for a boat to Greece. In 1933 the audience would have known how Samuel Insull was pulled off a freighter to Greece when fleeing indictment.
John Carridine plays an assistant principal here - quite a different role from his mad scientists or "Bluebeard" the puppeteer. But how can I ever get the image from my memory of Billy Gilbert (the manager of the Road House) as a minion handling machine guns out to Bickford's gang?