The Secret Six (1931)

Genres - Crime, Mystery  |   Release Date - Apr 18, 1931 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 83 min.  |   Countries - United States  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Bruce Eder

George W. Hill's The Secret Six was an unlikely subject for an MGM feature -- its story of bootleggers battling the law and each other is closer to what Warner Bros. was doing at the start of the 1930s. (One can also see some unique MGM touches in the production -- the apartment in which Jean Harlow's character is set up by her mobster/lover Wallace Beery is more elegant, in the best Art Deco design, than anything that would have turned up in a Warner Bros. drama of this sort). And the presence of Clark Gable in a leading role here, and the modest similarities in the plot to Warner Bros.' Little Caesar (released three months earlier) have a certain irony -- Gable had been up for the role of Edward G. Robinson's best friend (who eventually helps bring him down) when that earlier film was in pre-production in 1930. He gave such a strong performance in this movie, however, and showed he could dominate the screen so successfully, that he landed a long-term contract with MGM on the strength of his performance here. And Gable is the sparkplug that drives the movie -- Wallace Beery is okay, doing what he did best as a sometimes comically uncouth but vicious villain; Jean Harlow is good to look at and acquits herself well as an actress; and Lewis Stone is surprisingly effective as a lawyer whose contact with his criminal clients goes far beyond representing them in court. There are also some tense and well-staged scenes, such as an execution in a subway car, but the movie also creaks in spots where it should roll along smoothly, as was a risk with any talkie in 1931; and the director wasn't quite up to carrying it over those patches -- except when Gable is on the screen. There is also some fairly snappy dialogue, courtesy of Hill's wife Frances Marion, and it helps; but the whole notion of a group of masked citizens (who look like contestants on a 1950s game show when they're all sitting in a row) organizing a secret war against the mob will seem even sillier today than it probably did to anyone who stopped to think about it in 1931. Oddly enough, despite the plot holes and a certain unreality to the briskness of some of the events depicted, this movie was very topical for its time -- the exploits of Chicago mobster Al Capone were the obvious basis for some of the misdeeds attributed to Beery's Louis Scorpio, and Capone was indicted for tax evasion (one of the charges leveled at Scorpio) in 1931. As a multi-layered curio, in the career of Clark Gable, as an MGM crime film, and a piece of topical filmmaking, The Secret Six is worth a look -- and at its best, it's also an old-style thrill ride.