Saturday, January 26, 2013

DVD Review: King of the Underworld (1939)

King of the Underworld (1939)

Released August 28, 2012 by the Warner Archive Collection

Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia

Summary:  Gangster thinks he’s Napoleon, but is he just plain nuts?    

After Duke Mantee, and before Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, in the vast pantheon of Humphrey Bogart Gangster Portrayals, there was Joe Gurney!  

Joe Gurney is a gangster, and leader of the usual type of 1930s hoods with names like Butch, Muggsy, Slats, Slick, and Porky.  Now, perhaps because he was somewhat slight of build – or it could be BECAUSE his “associates” chose to go by names like Butch, Muggsy, Slats, Slick, and Porky – as opposed to names like “Plato”, “Aristotle”, and “Stephen Hawking” (one can never know for certain) – Joe Gurney had a Napoleon Complex. 

When not indulging in criminal activity, he read of Napoleon and often spouted his own interpretations of the Emperor’s philosophies whenever possible: 

It says here in the book that Napoleon says a good general has got to know when to be just, severe (blows his gun barrel after a casual killing), or mild!” 

Now, every once in a while, this sort of activity tends to get your associates (with names like Butch, Muggsy, Slats, Slick, and Porky) shot.  And one such shooting sets Joe Gurney on an ultimately fatal collision course with “two young doctors in love” named Niles and Carole Nelson. 

The Nelsons (not Ozzie and Harriet) step up and save one of Gurney’s gang from what would have been an otherwise fatal bullet would – in an operating theatre scene that would have surely inspired the madcap opening of Warner’s and Bob Clampett’s early Daffy Duck cartoon “The Daffy Doc” (1938), if only the cartoon hadn’t preceded the film. 

Gurney, impressed with the technique, pays a call on Niles Nelson one evening.  He finds that the Nelson’s Lower East Side (NYC) practice is struggling financially, and seeks to exploit that.   

I don’t get it… A guy with a pair of million-dollar hands in a DUMP like this!  You’re WASTIN’ YOUR TIME down here!  You oughta be UPTOWN, in the BIG DOUGH!” 

His head turned by five C-Notes left by the manipulative Gurney, Niles soon becomes a “mob doctor”.  Supported by Gurney, the Nelsons have moved their practice to lavish uptown quarters.  Carole turns a blind eye to these sudden changes, though she remains uneasy and suspicious. 

One evening, Carole secretly follows Niles on one of his Gurney calls to “the hideout”…

Niles:  How’d you get the BULLET, Jake?” 

Gurney:  Why, he was PLAYIN’ with his gun, DROPPED IT, and SHOT HIMSELF!  Isn’t he the stupid guy, Doc?” 

I suppose Butch, Muggsy, Slats, Slick, and Porky got away lucky!  Oh, wait... Slats was already dead by this time.  ...Guess he WASN'T so lucky!

During the operation, the cops raid the hideout.  Niles is killed.  Gurney escapes.  Carole learns the whole truth (which she pretty much knew already) and vows vengeance against Gurney. 

Atoning for her feigned (?) ignorance of her husband’s activities she pursues a slow and effective course of retaliation against Gurney, using her skills as a doctor and as wife of Niles to gain her an “in” with the gang, now cooling-off in the small, rural upstate NY town of “Wayne Center”. 

Indeed, at points in the film, I’d swear that Carol and her old “Aunt Josephine” act almost as Batman and Alfred Pennyworth in the single-minded pursuit of their quarry. 

This plot is further thickened by the introduction, to both Gurney and Carole, of “starving author” (and conveniently self-described Napoleonic scholar) English-accented “Bill Stevens” – who is somewhat reminiscent of Leslie Howard’s role in THIS BOGART CLASSIC.    

Does Carole’s determination, resourcefulness, and depth of medical knowledge lead to triumph over the Gurney Gang?  …Aw, that would be tellin’!  But, this WAS a Hays Code Era Gangster film… so figger it out fer yerselves, mugs!  

“King of the Underworld” is a release of “The Warner Archive Collection”.  Please GO HERE to read more about this relatively new enterprise from Warner Home Entertainment.  . 

As is our custom in these reviews, we’ll break it into CONS and PROS.  


It’s Warner Archives:   Generally, as barebones a product as can be.  No Extra Features that have become such a vital part of the DVD experience, beyond a lone theatrical trailer.  No subtitles, commentaries, etc.  See most of my previous Warner Archive product reviews for the standard list of items lacking. 


It’s Warner Archives:  That means we get a film that would probably not garner sufficient support for a general release.  Some very deserving and enjoyable films have been released through the Warner Archive Collection Program and, despite any CONS, I’m pleased to have them! 

Robo-Promos:  The usual “Warner Archive Collection” Robo-Promo, standard on earlier releases, appears to have been eliminated.  

Warnings: The overabundance of Warnings, present on standard Warner commercial releases, in more languages than most consumers could EVER comprehend, has not manifested itself on Warner Archive Collection product.  Just curious… Are they less concerned over people burning unauthorized copies of Warner Archive product, than standard Warner releases?    

Chapter Skips:  Warner Archive product is almost schizophrenic in its handling of Chapter Skips.  In its earliest releases, Chapter Skips were set at fixed “ten-minute intervals”, without regard to where that would place you logically within the film, when selecting such an advance. 

Later releases exhibited Chapter Skips that would work more logically with the film – see the Bogart film The Two Mrs. Carrolls(1947).   Yet, the fixed “ten-minute chapters” would return in still later releases such as Bogart’s 1945 Conflict” (Released: January 24, 2012). 

But, here, the variable-length chapters are back again!  We’ll just have to keep alternating this aspect from CON to PRO, and back-and-forth, until a permanent pattern finally emerges. 

Menu (Singular):  With this wave of releases, Warner Archives at last institutes individualized menus for the subject of each release, rather than a less attractive, no-frills generic menu.  The Menu for “King of the Underworld” sports a close-up of Bogie “caught in the searchlight” of law enforcement, in a larger segment of the overall package front illustration.  Nicely done! 

I’d say this improvement is characteristic of this entire wave, as “The Great O’Malley” (released on the same day) also exhibits an individualized menu.  Let’s hope this change becomes permanent across all Warner Archive product. 
Good Bye, Old Menu!

The Extra Feature (Singular):  Theatrical Re-Release Trailer (01:27):   Films would be released and often re-released theatrically, in those ancient days before television.  Often, as a DVD Extra Feature, you get a RE-RELEASE Trailer in place of the original release trailer.  (This is particularly true for the Universal Monsters “Legacy Collections”.)  But I don’t mind… it’s just that such a trailer is rarely (if ever) BILLED as a “Theatrical Re-Release Trailer”, as this one is. 

As a Re-Release Trailer, I’d suspect that Bogart’s name and marquee value (which had risen considerably around this time) were played up more, than might have been in the original trailer.

Bogart as Gurney (agitated): “Everybody STAY QUIET and KEEP WHERE THEY ARE!” 

[JOE’S NOTE:  Shouldn’t that be the other way around?  Not that I’d argue with a gun waving Bogie…]  

I’ll shoot the FIRST THING that MOVES!” 

Cue the large, on-screen TEXT: 

Blasting back in his most PULSE-POUNDING role!  Humphrey Bogart in the FIRST of his big-time thrillers… as the LAST of the big-time killers!  ‘King of the Underworld’!”  

Cut back to Joe Gurney, cool and cruel, feet-up on a couch, and “Slats” a very nervous hood:

Slats (panicky):  Joe!  Joe!  You don’t think” *I* had anything to do with it?  With him getting’ SHOT, do ya?”

Gurney (casually, admiring his gun):  I dunno, SOMEBODY tipped-off the cops!” 

Slats (still panicked):  I-it WASN’T ME, Joe!  Can I BLOW, now?”   

Gurney (seemingly unconcerned):  Sure, go ahead!”

Slats (exhales relieved):  Thanks!  You’re a SWELL GUY, Joe!”  

Gurney:  “Yeah…”

GUNSHOT:  BANG!  Slats drops, while moving for the door! 

TEXT Continues: 

“The scorching story of a gang lord’s rise and fall… [JOE’S NOTE:  Wasn’t that what THIS FILM was all about?]  starring Humphrey Bogart.  King of the Underworld’ A Warner Bros Re-release.” 

The Film: 

Though little about the packaging indicates viewers should expect any more than a classic Bogart gangster shoot-em-up, “King of the Underworld” features a remarkably strong (for the era) female protagonist.  Kay Francis, as Dr. Carole Nelson, is neither victim nor love interest / cheerleader to the male lead, but (again, unlikely for the era) the hero of the picture! 

Another aspect of “King of the Underworld” that sets it apart from its contemporaries is unusually good dialogue – something that I’m attracted to, given that I’ve done things like THIS. 

Here are some examples: 

Gurney and his captive, author Bill Stevens, discuss their mutual favorite subject – Napoleon:

Gurney:  [Napoleon] never went hungry!  Me?  I’m doin’ the SAME THING!  I’m TAKIN’ what I want!” 

Stevens:  Yes, that’s all right – but, you can’t GO ON doing that!  Napoleon tried it, and he failed.  He met his doom at Waterloo!” 

Gurney (pauses):  Yeah… I read that!” 

Slick:  Hey, Boss… That’s in IOWA, ain’t it?” 

Gurney:  Ahhh… It’s in EUROPE, stupid!” 

Slick:  Yeah?  When’d dey move it over DERE?” 

Gurney demands that Stevens write the gangster’s autobiography, a work that would liken Gurney to Napoleon.  Stevens quickly points out that an autobiography is:  “…the story of a man’s life, written by HIMSELF.” 

Gurney:  Well… I know that, but I got too many things on my mind to write, so I thought maybe you’d FRONT for me!” 

Stevens:  What you want is a GHOST WRITER?”

Gurney:  Naw, no MYSTERY STUFF… Just plain facts!” 

Gurney undergoes treatment (and a dig) by Carole for a wound: 

Gurney:  Well, can I TAKE IT, or can I take it?” 

Carole:  You can take it.  Some people aren’t sensitive to pain – especially moronic types!”  

Gurney:  Hey, did’ja hear THAT, Slick?  I’m a MORONIC TYPE!” 

Slick:  “Yeah?  What’s that? 

Gurney:  I dunno, some kinda MEDICAL NAME, ain’t it Doc?” 

Carole: “Sure!”


Gurney (proudly):  Hey, dat was PRETTY GOOD, what she called me!  Wait’ll I tell the boys – I’m a MORONIC TYPE!” 

Slick:  Boss, I knew ya HAD IT IN YA all th’ time!” 


For a film that does not set itself up as a comedy, such lines provide a welcome tempering against the requisite crime, coercion, and killings (Would Slick call them “The Three “C’s”?) rampant in a Warner Bros. gangster picture. 

The Cast:

Humphrey Bogart as “Joe Gurney”.  (Big Little Gangster)

Kay Francis as “Dr. Carole Nelson”.  (The Doctor is IN – In charge, that is!)

James Stephenson as “Starving Author Bill Stevens”. (His ‘30s books sold fewer copies than American Disney comic books will in 2012!) 

John Eldridge as “Dr. Niles Nelson”.  (Doctor Patsy)

Jessie Busley as “Aunt Josephine”.   (Alfred)

Charlie Foy as “Slick”.  (Kept around to make Gurney look smart)

John Harmon as “Slats”.  (R.I.P.  Alas, poor Slats!) 

John Harmon appeared in the later Bogart film “Conflict” (1945), as a hobo and red-herring suspect in the spouse-murder committed by Bogart’s character.  Later still, to STAR TREK fans, Harmon was the unfortunate derelict who curiously toyed with Doctor McCoy’s time-displaced phaser and vaporized himself in the ultra-classic “City on the Edge of Forever”.  And, in the tradition of “Slats”, Harmon also had a small role as a lower-level hood in TREK’s gangster episode “A Piece of the Action”. 


Flash to Gurney’s climactic death scene: 

Gurney:  I guess you’ll… have to FINISH MY BOOK without me!” 

Stevens (graciously equating the dying gangster with Emperor Napoleon one final time):  The finish was written LONG AGO!” 

Gurney (getting it): “Heh-heh… Yeah… I get it!  Hey pal, do me a FAVOR, will ya?  Don’t tell ‘em a DAME tripped me up…” (Trails off into death).   

Don’t know why, but I like that almost as much as Edward G. Robinson’s ultra-classic cinema crime-closer:  Mother of Mercy… Is this the END of Rico?!” 

Despite a length of just 01:06:42, “King of the Underworld” is quite a film, taking us in many satisfying directions – some expected, and some decidedly not.  It is as noteworthy for a strong female lead, and unexpected flashes of comedy, as it is for “everything else” we’ve come to expect from Golden Age Warner Bros. gangster pictures! 

According to the text on the back of the package, “King of the Underworld” would be the first time Humphrey Bogart’s name would appear “above the title”, indicating he was on his irreversible way to eternal stardom. 
Dat's ABOVE the title, see!
As an example of a decidedly lesser-known picture – from my favorite studio and my favorite period of that studio’s output (The splendor that was Warner Bros. in the 1930s), and certainly one of my favorite actors (Bogart) -- King of the Underworld” comes with my highest recommendation. 

But, don’t just take it from me… ask  “Butch”, “Muggsy”, “Slats”, “Slick”, and “Porky”.

…Okay, maybe not Slats!  …Alas! 

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