When we talk about gangster flicks of the early '30s certain actors immediately spring to mind: Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Paul Muni. (Muni played a gangster only once in the Pre-Code era, but that performance was unforgettable.) One name seldom if ever mentioned is Spencer Tracy. He played a mob boss twice -- that is, twice as often as Muni did -- and yet he isn't usually associated with the genre. Perhaps this was because he worked for the Fox Studio, not Warner Bros. Many of the early talkies produced at Fox are scarce or missing entirely, largely due to a 1937 vault explosion which destroyed much of the studio's output. Tracy's two crime films survive but are seldom screened. He first played a racketeer in the underrated Quick Millions in 1931, and two years later portrayed mob boss Ed Carson in The Mad Game. The latter, long out of circulation, was recently restored and has been screened at the Museum of Modern Art to packed houses.
Ed Carson is a "beer baron," a successful bootlegger. His gang does the dirty work while Carson lives the high life. He has a beautiful mistress and a seemingly dedicated lawyer who fends off trouble. Ed enjoys seeing his picture in the papers, and has a friendly relationship with reporter named Jane Lee (Claire Trevor), who has a soft spot for him. But as Prohibition comes to an end, everything changes. Carson's lieutenant Chopper Allen (J. Carrol Naish) proposes the gang take up kidnapping as a new racket, but for personal reasons Carson opposes this vehemently. Before he knows what is happening Ed is betrayed by his supposed allies and lands in prison. There he reforms, and when the nation is hit with a wave of kidnappings - many of them masterminded by Chopper Allen and pulled off by Ed's former gang - he volunteers to help. After his facial features are altered by plastic surgery, Carson is released under an assumed identity and goes undercover to break his former mob.
This is the kind of fare we tend to associate with Warner Bros., not only because of the gangland element but because it boasts that ripped-from-the-headlines topical quality, as it was made at a time when high profile kidnappings were frequently in the news. And like those WB classics, The Mad Game offers vivid performances and sharp production values, and moves at a brisk tempo. Director Irving Cummings manages to avoid cliché with some imaginative touches, especially in one sequence when he conveys the information that two key characters have been bumped off with a visual flourish reminiscent of the best silent dramas.
Spencer Tracy, young and energetic, plays Carson with his customary intensity. We know from the beginning that, although he's said to be ruthless, there is integrity buried deep inside which may yet emerge. It does so when his right-hand man "Chopper" (Naish is downright scary in this role) takes over his gang. And when Carson reforms, we believe it. Claire Trevor, in one of her first Hollywood roles, makes a strong impression. Her Jane Lee is self-sufficient and smart, but also warm; you can see why the mobsters trust her. And there are a number of other notable players in support, including Ralph Morgan, gorgeous Kathleen Burke, and the underrated John Davidson as an exhausted, corrupt doctor, a man who is almost catatonic, yet who serves underworld clients for reasons unknown. While Tracy and Trevor are the standouts, there is no shortage of top drawer talent here.
For me, the only serious problem with The Mad Game comes in the second half, when Carson undergoes plastic surgery to alter his appearance. Everything hinges on the credibility of the result; that is, we're expected to believe it when close associates of the man completely fail to recognize him. To my eyes, the "new" Ed Carson still looks pretty much like Spencer Tracy, perhaps on his way to a costume party as a thug. When his longtime chum McGee (Matt McHugh) doesn't know him, I didn't really buy it. But the performances are so earnest, you just roll with it anyway, as you would while listening to a radio drama. In sum, The Mad Game is well written, well directed, and especially well acted. Now that it's been restored I do hope it finds the audience it deserves.
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