Sunday, May 5, 2019

Straight is the Way (1934)

With a runtime of just one hour, Straight is the Way packs a lot of Franchot into a very short amount of time. I have always had a soft spot for this film, but most reviewers have not held the same opinion as me. I should admit that Franchot is in nearly every scene of this film, plus he is young and quite beautiful in it, and I know that those factors play a part in my positive assessment. Franchot didn't get to carry many films during this time period. He was typically cast as the love interest with a small story who supports the main actress (Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis) with a big story during his early years in Hollywood. It's nice to watch a film whose plot revolves completely around Tone's character. The plot may be a bit flimsy, but I think it's a nice story with a solid cast, nevertheless.

Straight is the Way is a remake of the 1928 film Four Walls which starred John Gilbert and a young Joan Crawford—what a neat coincidence! Sadly, I believe that original film, which was based on a George Abbott play of the same name, is now lost.

First, let's look at the film itself, then we will get to the reviews.

Straight is the Way opens with Momma Horowitz (May Robson) anxiously awaiting the arrival of her son. She is so overwhelmed by her emotions that she can barely keep her eyes from tearing up and her hands from shaking. Bertha (Karen Morley) cannot contain her excitement either because her childhood friend Benny Horowitz (Franchot Tone) is coming home after a five-year stint in prison. Benny returns and shares that although he disliked being locked up, he survived by realizing "you stand anything if you have get to feeling you wanna smash the walls down and then after awhile you begin to realize it's not the walls. It's something inside that holds you prisoner. It wasn't so bad. I got along fine. I was president of the welfare league."

Benny promises his mother that he has no plans to ever return to jail again, but she's devastated and terrified when Benny immediately goes out to the street to say hello to former friends who are on the wrong side of the law. Benny learns that while he was in prison his buddy Monk (Jack La Rue) took Benny's old girlfriend Shirley (Gladys George) and became the leader of a criminal organization he's named the East Side Political and Social Club.

When Shirley comes around ready to rekindle a love affair, Benny rejects her:
Well, you're all wrong, Shirley. You can go back to Monk. I don't want ya. You don't mean nothin' to me. Listen, I'm free now and I'm going to stay free—all of me, inside and out. Nothing's ever gonna get hold of me again, ya got it?

Throughout the film, there is much emphasis placed on the fact that Benny is a Jewish man and that this is a Jewish neighborhood. There is a great deal of celebration surrounding the Sabbath in its scenes. Franchot received criticism for playing a Jewish man. A Silver Screen reviewer remarked, 'If Franchot looks like a Horowitz, then I look like an Adonis." In a separate review within the pages of Silver Screen, readers read, "You'll die laughing when we tell you who plays the nice Jewish boy who calls his Mater "Momma"—that elegant gentleman Franchot Tone."

Benny struggles to re-enter the workforce and grows weary of being treated like a criminal in his hometown. Every one is trying to match him with Bertha, but he feels she is too good and pure for him. He's desperate to relocate to the west and start fresh, but he's offered a mechanic job in his old neighborhood. Thrilled to be clocking in and out and bringing home an honest living, Benny defends his employer and makes an enemy of the mob when he stands up to Monk and his gang, who have been intimidating and stealing from his employer.

Benny resists temptation when he turns down an offer to take over Monk's position, but continues to struggle where Shirley is concerned. Will he return to the life that landed him in jail in the first place? Or will he continue on the straight path to moral and physical freedom?

On-set Stories

Cal York noted that Jack LaRue was originally cast in the part of Monk in the stage production, but it was decided he looked too young and Paul Muni was cast instead.

Silver Screen included this on set story:


Silver Screen said the film was simply not hot. It gave the film a cool rating of 35 degrees and wondered, "Why?...Why a studio ever saw fit to produce it in the first place is something that we can't understand..." Silver Screen felt that Franchot and Karen Morley were miscast and that the only actor who managed to "get by" was May Robson.

Photoplay was kinder in their assessment. The magazine called it a "powerfully constructed drama" and urged "All you doubters, come and see Franchot Tone give a performance, because he can and does!" Photoplay Magazine (December 1934) included this sweet photo of May Robson holding her great grandaughter.

Motion Picture Reviews only rated it fair, but praised Robson, writing that she "provides a very human and sympathetic appeal as the mother and does much toward making the action vivid though the tempo is often slow." Motion Picture Reviews summed up with a statement that the "value of the picture as entertainment depends on taste."

Based on that statement, I might have bad taste, but I enjoy this film. It's quick, it's simple, it's not going to win any awards—but I really, really like it.

Straight is the Way has not been released on DVD, but it does occasionally pop up on Turner Classic Movies and online video sites.

"Cal York's Monthly Broadcast from Hollywood." Photoplay. 1934.
"Straight is the Way." Silver Screen. October 1934.
"Straight is the Way." Photoplay. October 1934.
"Straight is the Way." Motion Picture Reviews. 1934.