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The Guilty Generation (1931) Review, with Leo Carrillo, Constance Cummings, Robert Young, and Boris Karloff

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Mike Palmero
Leo Carillo
Maria Palmero
Constance Cummings
Marco Ricca
Robert Young
Released by Columbia | Directed by Rowland V. Lee
Run time: 81 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • “Are you really honorable?”
    “Nope!”
    “I’m so relieved!”
  • Bootleggers and speakeasies.
  • “Why don’t you go out and meet some nice girls?”
    “Who wants to meet nice girls?!”
  • “You look like Mike Palmero to me.”
    “Yeah, and you look like a tramp to me.”

The Guilty Generation: All Our Children

“I wish every mother and father in town could have got a look at what I saw this afternoon. There’d be no more gangsters alive tomorrow morning.”

I’ve seen The Guilty Generation called a ‘Romeo and Juliet story but with gangsters’ around here, though it may be one of the few variations where everyone ends up dead but Romeo and Juliet themselves.

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Truth be told, their romance is pretty much a sideshow to the frustrated machinations of Mike Palmero. Palmero is in the midst of a gang war with former friend Tony Ricca (Boris Karloff), and the two sides keep ending up with grim reports of dead relatives over the phone as a nightly ritual. Ricca has two sons, one a toady and the other architect Marco, who has legally changed his name to John Smith as he despises his father’s business so much. Palmero also has a pair of children, the frustrated but kindly Maria and the dipsomaniac Joe (Leslie Fenton).

Much of the film takes place at Palmero’s Miami estate which Marco unwittingly wanders onto. Palmero is trying to turn his daughter into a socialite with help from publicist Nellie Weaver (a scene stealing Ruth Warren), but runs into a problem, other than his own brusque manner. The socialites that come merely want to soak in the free booze and the vicarious thrill of danger. Once there’s even a hint of real violence– when a raging Joe begins to push people into the pool, no less– they storm away, saying they expected just as much from gangsters.

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For many of the people in the movie, the gangsters are perceived as glamorous, sexy figures who literally get away with murder. The winds of change are coming, as we follow the journalists eager to gnaw on the corpses of the two deluded crime bosses. Palmero’s lawyer lays into him in one meeting as the chaos continues outside his fortress:

“No man is big enough to keep breaking the laws and get away with it. People in this country are n0t indifferent anymore! They were a long time getting onto you, but now they’ve started, they’ll never stop until they finish their job.”

To Palmero and Ricca, pride and money has turned them into monsters. They keep themselves locked in tiny fiefdoms surrounded by guards and guns. Their visions have narrowed and eventually, as the deaths get closer to home, they turn within themselves and become poisonous. It’s a fascinating journey to follow, especially as the surrounding characters can hardly take such megalomania seriously, even as they end up in the cross hairs.

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Outside of the families, there are a number of characters who serve as miniature Cassandras as needed. The best is Ruth Warren, who talks bluntly to her gangster boss Palmero, knowing he won’t be able to separate the barbs from the truths. The central love story is small but effective– though whoever decided sticking a cheesy looking mustache on Robert Young would make him look Italian was irredeemably wrong. Young and Cummings have a gentle chemistry and an even more gentle cluelessness that serves things well.

Leo Carillo is front and center here. Unfortunately Karloff’s role is much more of the supporting variety though his entrance into the picture is undeniably chilling, it’s no wonder he was selected to play a different kind of monster a short time later. That said, Carillo is still fantastic, a man who is all thumbs at basic human interaction and lacks the awareness to notice. He’s loving to his children until they get in the way of his ambitions, and his anger is able to twist itself into a ball of rage. Carillo plays it with guileless intensity, a man who slowly slips out of sync with reality.

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Carillo’s bravura performance is good enough to recommend on its own. The film is good looking, even though the film shoots a lot of “day for night” rather obviously. The estate that contains most of the action is appropriately claustrophobic, as is Karloff’s lair.

The question I was most struck by in the film, which is most assuredly an indignant, sometimes lugubrious deflation of gangsters, is just who the titular ‘guilty generation’ is. Palmero and Ricca, the first generation immigrants who created new grudges when they arrived in America and destroyed their own families? Palmero’s mother, who let her son unravel to such an extent that there might be no stopping him? Or is it the young lovers,  who so callously love at the risk of forcing their parents into an impossible situation? Or, is it as I really suspect, that this is the finger being pointed directly at the audience once more?

We are all guilty for the criminals we unthinkingly emulate and admire. Like the movie, it’s a denouncement– as well as a call to arms.

Gallery

Click to enlarge. All of my images are taken by me– please feel free to reuse with credit!

Trivia & Links

  • TCMDB uses the film to talk about Constance Cummings’ emerging career, as well as a bit on the film’s background:

The Guilty Generation is itself based on a play, but director Rowland V. Lee and adapter Jack Cunningham make it crisply cinematic, helped by Byron Haskin’s unassuming camerawork, which makes good visual use of the Palmero family’s sumptuous swimming pool, sweeping marble staircase, and generally ostentatious surroundings. It’s fun to watch Carrillo – also a successful stage actor before his 1929 feature-film debut – portray the self-deluding Mike, lording it over a mostly odious clan like an instantly obsolete prototype of Marlon Brando’s godfather. It’s amusing to hear Karloff try to twist his refined English enunciation into something at least a tiny bit like a Sicilian accent. But most of all it’s marvelous to watch Cummings make the most of a small but significant opportunity at the outset of her Hollywood period. She was definitely a film star who could act.

  • The New York Times likes the film, but notes that it’s a latecomer to the gangster movies, hence:

The speeches sound rather like interpolations intended to make the gangster theme palatable at this late day.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • This film is available on Amazon as part of the Boris Karloff: The Criminal Kind box set. Also included in this set are The Criminal Code and Behind the Mask.

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