The Right of Way (1931) Review, with Conrad Nagel and Loretta Young

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Charley “Beauty” Steele
Conrad Nagel
Rosalie
Loretta Young
Billy
William Janney
Released by Warner Bros. | Directed by Frank Lloyd
Run time: 68 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • The old amnesia/remarriage/”General Hospital” hogwash.
  • People keep trying to kill Charley Steele and, frankly, it’s kind of a relief when they succeed.

The Right of Way: I’m So, So Sorry

I apologized profusely to my wife after we watched The Right of Way, one of those movies so sanctimoniously bad that, frankly, I cannot do its awfulness any justice in a review. Alas, it’s a movie that must be seen to be believed, and I highly discourage doing that on every possible level. It’s awful. So, so awful.

Conrad Nagel, usually an inoffensive romantic lead, steps into this film whose first three moralizing title cards promise to explain to the audience the dangers of being a dick. The third, most pointed card reads, “Whosoever breaks Divine laws, forfeits his ‘right of way’ and unless he obtain Divine forgiveness is forever doomed.

Unfortunately, this opens Nagel up to an attempt to ‘act’– he plays Charley “Beauty” Steele, a snobby mouthpiece who considers everyone beneath contempt. His main affectation, his monocle, is pawed relentlessly so that Nagel doesn’t get too bored. In fact, Nagel seems to be doing a constipated John Barrymore impression for much of this, trying to stay awake as he manages to fail at being clever, coy, or cunning as the part would demand.

The film begins with Steele defending a lumberjack of murder. He succeeds with a bit of ballyhoo about circumstantial evidence that’s, really, pretty laughable, and takes a break from his courtroom performance to threaten his wormy brother-in-law, Billy (Janney). Billy is that dumb kid-dult who keeps losing more money than he can afford to very burly Quebecois gangsters. (Important detail: unlike traditional gangsters, they wear flannel.)

Nagel’s Steele belittles and mocks Billy before agreeing to cover the money. But Billy steals the money from him first, and after Steele tries to get it back, he’s beaten and thrown in the river. The lumberjack he successfully defended for murder, Joe (Fred Kohler), just so happens to be rowing by in the dead of night and fishes Steele out of the water, scurrying him back to his lumberjack camp up north.

But Steele has… amnesia!

Yes, that old gag. Steele becomes (checks notes) Charles Mallard as Joe keeps details on his old life mum. Mallard is tended to and quickly falls in love with Rosalie (Young), a capricious young girl with a bad case of Florence Nightingale syndrome. Just as they announce their engagement, Joe is forced to tell Mallard the truth– he’s really a huge asshole, so he’d better snap out his “I didn’t know what a spruce was before!” reverie.

Now imagine. You’re in the middle of this deadly serious, mostly nonsense plot with an actor hopelessly out of his depth playing a man who is just kind of being a douche to everyone. And then he gets amnesia, as you do, and suddenly he’s getting involved in a very emotional, very serious drama with this on his head:

God, how can you not take a man in that hat seriously? Like, say, when he has a flashback to his previous life and becomes a giant floating head wearing his Davy Crockett “King of the Wild Frontier” hat with an intense look of dumbfounded stupefaction– how dare you even consider laughing?

Or perhaps when rugged hat-wearing frontiersman Conrad Nagel realizes he will never be freed from his past and he decides, with all due subtlety, to become a drunk once more:

Isn’t this a serious, dramatic moment? Isn’t it?! WHY NOT A BEDAZZLED FEZ, MOVIE? WAS THAT TOO DIGNIFIED?

Okay, Danny. Breathe. No one has ever heard of this movie, no one could possibly give a shit about it outside the most ardent Nagel-ite or some creepy guy who photoshops himself into pictures with underage Loretta Young. Unless some TCM programmer is being a cruel bastard, this movie won’t be hurting anyone else any time soon.

I won’t spoil the ending for you other than to say that it does not improve upon what came before. If you try to follow the film’s moral arc, which seems to claim that godliness descends from being shot by someone you’ve blackmailed, you’ll just be left scratching your head.

The acting is lousy, the plot is laughable, the directing is pathetic, the movie is bad, bad, bad.  I’m so sorry, hon. No more Conrad Nagel movies ever again. I’ll do anything, honey. I’m just tired of sleeping on the couch.

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Mr. Nagel may enjoy playing the part, but it is doubtful whether many persons will enjoy seeing him in this characterization, for it is a role to which he is not in the least suited. His posing with the monocle reminds one of a school boy attempting to mimic somebody.

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Danny

Danny is a librarian who lives on the coast of California with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and yappy dog. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

2 thoughts on “The Right of Way (1931) Review, with Conrad Nagel and Loretta Young

  1. I watched this a couple months ago, and agree wholeheartedly. Just a terrible movie. Pretty sure Conrad Nagel was never worse than here. The only positive I could ascribe to it is the photography by John Seitz.

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