Guilty Hands (1931)

Proof That It’s Pre-Code:

  • “My dear sir, we don’t have morals any more. We have the law.”
  • Jokes about abuse. “I hope he beats you!” “You would!”
  • There’s a woman laying on a bed and grabbing onto the sheets and… oh dear. It’s very suggestive.
  • A father’s advice to his daughter about her impending marriage: “He’s a beast. Your wedding night will be a horror and a shame.”
  • The serial lover / future husband on why he’s getting married: “It’s going to take marriage for this one”
  • The future husband also had an issue where a 16 year-old-girl who was a lover of his ‘fell out’ of his high rise penthouse. He is not a very good person.

Three men are on a train, making time pass with some silly conversation. One man asserts that there’s no such thing as a perfect murder. Leaning out of the shadows is Lionel Barrymore. He chuckles, “I don’t suppose there’s anybody in the world who knows more about murder than I do.”

Barrymore adds, “In certain cases, a murder is justifiable. In certain cases, a man could perform a murder so skillfully he could get away with it.”

And that’s a setup if I ever heard one. As he makes his way off the train and discovers that his lovely daughter (Madge Evans) has become engaged to a womanizer of the highest degree (William Bakewell), even Barrymore knows that that earlier conversation couldn’t have been coincidental.

Lionel Barrymore, probably known mostly these days for It’s a Wonderful Life and possibly his Oscar nominated role as Norma Shearer’s alcoholic father in A Free Soulwas at the peak of his star at MGM. He’s cagey, funny, and scary when need be. It’s not much of a surprise that he spent most of his career as one version of a crank or another, but here, when he must gravitate softly between comedy and cold blooded menace, his talents shine.

You may know the truth, but that’s inconsequential. I know the truth as well.

Back to the film. Not to spoil too much, but future husband Bakewell ends up dead– after all, someone had to end up with guilty hands. Most of the overnight guests buy that it was a suicide– for guilt, after that 16 year old was “accidentally killed”. Most everyone knew that he was scum at heart, but one person at the wedding party was willing to forgive him of it.

This is Marjorie, a harp player and the poor woman who’s stood by Bakewell’s side through all of his lovers. She’s played by, of course, once again, actress Kay Francis. Francis, who I’ve seen before as a confident millionaire, a woman tempted, a doctor betrayed, and even a girl about town, is equally good at both tough, assertive roles and the more traditional demure woman.

This time she plays an interesting mix: a woman who is a slave to one man, but fierce in his defense. When he turns up dead, she’s the only one who rushes to protest the suicide. Watching her and Barrymore play off of each other is watching a good game of chess– both know more about the other than they’re letting on, but are moving their pieces as carefully as possible.

This results in a second act that plays a lot like a typical Hercule Poirot mystery– a man is killed, and a room full of suspects are being questioned– but turned on its head. The one doing the questioning is the man the audience already knows is the murderer, and almost everyone in the drawing room agrees without a doubt that it’s suicide. It becomes comical as Francis desperately clings to what she believes is true– and what the audience knows to be true– to no avail.

The visual arithmetic of this scene seems to show that Kay is trapped by Bakewell’s charms.

Guilty Hands is also a film drenched with shadows. Director W.S. Van Dyke (who went on to helm the Thin Man series a few years after this) takes care to give everything the appropriate mood, with Francis getting big black shadows painted under her eyes and Barrymore towering above every character as he masterfully makes his moves.

I will have to note that the film does contain a fairly ridiculous ending, but one I bought out of convention. It’s the perfect kind of cheesy display that simply seems inevitable. For a movie that’s so daring in some regards, ending it in such a silly manner is daring in and of itself.

Barrymore and Francis never teamed up again, which may have been for the best. The fireworks here are completely antagonistic, and undeniably fantastic.