Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Cast: Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Charles Butterworth, Mae Clarke, Phillips Holmes, Martha Sleeper, Nat Pendelton, George E. Stone.
Released September 8, 1933. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Running time: 90 minutes.
There is something about the way gangsters are presented in MGM movies vs. the way they are shown in Warner Brothers films. In the latter, they are tough, snarling, dangerous. In the former they are clean, smiling, supportive, amusing, and their menace is only an underlying factor. Warner Brothers did better gangster movies with their B unit than MGM did with an A picture like “Penthouse.”
Not that this is a bad movie. Warner Baxter is quite good as Jackson Durant, an attorney who defends gangsters and proves his ability as a defense lawyer. His firm dislikes his defense of these characters, while Durant is inspired by the danger and intrigue of these cases. He is let go by the firm, but remains unflappable, believing he can control his own practice more effectively. He also loses his girl when she gives him the same ultimatum and he refuses to stop defending criminal cases. He meets a new girl, all is well, but then his old girlfriend’s new boyfriend is framed for murder and she comes to Durant to take the case.
“Penthouse” is a pre-code drama and thus is a bit grittier than films that would be made even a year later. The screenplay is by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who penned everything from “The Thin Man” to “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Its cast boasts the likes of Baxter, Myrna Loy, and a host of dependable supporting players like Nat Pendelton and Martha Sleeper (whose career dates back to silent comedies with Charley Chase). It is also good to see Phillips Holmes in his all-American-boy phase, a style that was passé by the end of the 1930s (Holmes would enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941 and be killed in a mid-air collision the following year). W.S. Van Dyke’s capable direction helps this movie’s rather predictable narrative, especially such atmospheric shots as having a criminal delivering an anonymous phone message beign shot with his back to the screen, or his mise en scene when presenting figures in the background to specifically enhance the action taking place in the foreground.
But what might have been effective as an hour long B drama is stretched to a 90 minute A picture. And while it is capable and entertaining, it seems a bit protracted in some scenes. Compared to a B drama that doesn’t waste a second, this film rests on a few scenes a bit too long. However, the twist ending is fun.