Review: Underworld

Saturday was the Music Box’s Silent Second Saturday again. This month they showed Underworld (1927) written by Chicago legend Ben Hecht. Mr. Hecht wrote many articles for Chicago newspapers and later went on to write screenplays in Hollywood including His Girl Friday based on the play he co-wrote with Charles MacArthur). He actually won the first Oscar for Best Original Story for Underworld in 1929.

The movie is considered by many to be the first gangster film. The film relates the story of a man down on his luck as an alcoholic who accidentally sees a bank robber, Bull Weed, leaving the scene of the crime. Bull Weed grabs him and brings him back to his lair, not knowing what to do with him. Instead of killing him, Bull Weed decides to rehabilitate the man. It ultimately becomes a story of a love triangle between Bull Weed, “Rolls Royce” the newly made man, and Bull Weed’s moll “Feathers.” Ultimately, it’s a movie about friendship and honor. Spoilers ahead.

I enjoyed it but I didn’t love it. It’s not even my favorite of Ben Hecht’s works. I adore His Girl Friday or the newer version of the film Front Page starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau based on a screenplay co-written. But like most silent films, it’s still worth watching once. The characters are great. Bull Weed, played by George Bancroft, is the gangster with the heart of gold. He has a strange sense of morality and you root for him at times. That’s not to say he isn’t a murderer, thief, or possessive boyfriend but he’s got good qualities. Also, he is the laughing gangster and I dig that.

When you first see “Rolls Royce,” played by Clive Brook, he’s very drunk but he has a sense of dignity about him. He brings up moments in history at strange times (calling Bull Weed Attila the Hun). We find out that he used to be an alcoholic and sometimes lawyer. He’s cultured (when not drunk) and is rather handsome when he’s cleaned up. You get the sense that he’s an honorable and educated man who has gone through some bad times. Bull Weed’s moll, played by Evelyn Brent, is nicknamed “Feathers” because she constantly wears feathers in her outfits. Each outfit is increasingly outrageous. To be fair, Feathers isn’t the most fleshed out character but you kinda like her or maybe I just want to steal her crazy outfits. I can’t tell.

There is a party that is probably based on the famous First Ward Ball, an annual ball filled with drunkenness and licentiousness that was put on by corrupt Aldermen Bathhouse John and Hinky Dink Kenna. In the movie, Bull Weed tells Rolls Royce, “Everyone with a record will be there.” It’s a fairly lovely silent movie party with people wading in streamers and partaking of libations. There is a notable brief montage of people’s faces as they get increasingly drunk as the night goes on.

Moreover, there is some nice nods to Chicago gangster history in the film (well, I suppose it would have been recent history at that point.) The evil gangster Buck Mulligan owns a flower shop and hopes to make the wreath for Buck Weed. It’s a nice nod to Chicago real life gangster Dion O’Banion who had a flower shop in the 1920s who did make wreaths for other gangsters.

It’s a fun film and nice to see one of Chicago’s own writers light up the screen. Or at least his words do.

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