Whirlpool (1934) Review

Proof That It’s Pre-Code:

  • The old man gets around, and I mean in a sense more than just ‘he goes from town to town with the carnival’.
  • Despite that it’s specifically not about it, there are some father/daughter undertones that are a bit creep-tastic.
  • Well, no one comes out and says organized crime is bad, per se.
  • A woman journalist. She’s not home minding the house or anything!
  • Suicide is the noble option. This would later be frowned upon.

Danny INDIFFERENTPicking up on what can be best called a strange theme for the last month of my life, I return once again to the carnival.  Like in Water for Elephants, we see carnival life is a sordid one, moving from town to town to try and find the biggest suckers and get out before they notice that their pockets are empty.

Whirlpool offers a far less romantic view than the other film, with Whirlpool perhaps getting the edge in authenticity since it, you know, was made in the 1930’s rather than just being set there.

But the film isn’t actually set in a carnival, nor is it in the prison that Buck Rankin (Jack Holt) finds himself in after a riot at the carnival leaves a man dead. Turns out that owning a carnival is apparently the equivalent of being the captain of a ship– if it goes down, you’re going with it.

Here is a whirlpool, btw.

Jack was in an unfortunate situation to begin with– he’d just decided to settle down with a nice girl the night before the bad news. And, wouldn’t you know it, he’d done that old line about promising to marry her in the morning. Now he’s been sentenced to twenty years and she’s going to deliver a bundle of joy in nine months.

Jack does what any reasonable man would do and fakes his own death from behind the bars– one faked letter from the warden would do it. The girl buys it, and the chunk of the movie is set twenty years later. Jack leaves prison and joins up with the underworld with the same effort one would expend to join the Columbia Music House.

Meanwhile, his little girl has grown up with a judge as a stepfather and the unfortunate life choice to become a journalist. As fate and/or hacky screenwriting would have it, she ends up getting assigned a piece on the old man himself. They reunite and– realizing they only have a limited time before dad’s underworld connections will be catching up with him– spend all of their time together, much to the irk of their various friends and lovers.

I hate spending a great deal of time describing a plot in my reviews, and often find out that when I’m doing it, it’s either because the plot is hilariously complicated or I haven’t got much to say about the movie itself. This is a pretty heady combination or two; hell, I took a screenshot of a whirlpool. Trust me, I know how boring that looks.

The majority of this hour long film is the father and daughter rediscovering each other, and I won’t lie and pretend that it’s all tears, hugs, and kisses. Or even that it’s sordid, odd, and filled with incestuous undertones.

Even though it kinda sorta is.

The movie is careful to try and turn a blind eye to such drama, but, as Freud would say, “Look, it sure seems like they want to bone.”

Jean Arthur plays the daughter; she’s a husky voiced impresario who never seems that comfortable in a straight melodrama. She’s actress with a lot of depth that’s handed a teacup here and told to go for it.

All in all, Whirlpool is a silly experience that has no real moral. The obvious one is to cherish all the moments you spend with your loved ones. The other is that when you’re cherishing those moments, be careful how you present it to other people, lest everyone expect your children to have flippers.


Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. 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.

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