One of my favorite features in Criterion’s set “3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” is the reprint of the original story that earned Ben Hecht an Academy Award for Underworld. Hecht distanced himself from the film after director Josef von Sternberg got his hands on it, but those hands better fleshed out Hecht’s original characters, added many visual delights, and wrapped a traditional story around what was more of a literary slice of life that used backstory to fill in the details. Hecht's story reads good, but it seems a long way from a movie. At least a commercial one. More of this story survives in its adaptation than the one it first reminded me of, Dashiell Hammett’s treatment that Paramount spun into City Streets a few years later, but it still seems a bit light for a feature-length film. Hecht’s characters are interesting, but it’s the three actors and their demanding director who make Bull Weed, Feathers McCoy, and the Weasel—now called Rolls Royce—come to life on the screen.
“Underworld Is Newest Vogue,” said Variety in June 1927. They meant the underworld film cycle, and they credited the blockbuster film by that title as being responsible. Von Sternberg and company never specify their Chicago setting, but—wink, wink—there ain’t no doubt we’re in Chicago. From newspaperman Hecht’s own pedigree to Buck Mulligan’s Flower Shop—less than three years after Dean “Dion” O’Banion’s slaying inside Schofield’s River North flower shop—Underworld bleeds Chicago direct from a time when Al Capone and Bugs Moran were doing battle. It’s light on the organized crime aspect of the underworld that was torn from the headlines a few years later in classics like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, but it’s heavy on what it proclaims itself to be, presenting a criminal underworld and the characters who inhibit it. It began a trend, predating and influencing titles like Scarface, while also predating some of the underworld’s most infamous real-life headlines.
“There’s a wallop right through and yet the film retains romance, clicks not a little on comedy … and even whitewashes itself with a ‘moral’ that banditry cannot successfully defy the law and that the wages of sin is death” ("Review," Variety).
We know Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is doomed from the moment he tells Rolls Royce (Clive Brook), “They’ll never get me.” Heck, we’ve seen enough gangster films to know he’s doomed before we even press play on the DVD player, but despite the hubris and his well-deserved bleak future, Bull is one of those larger than life characters who we love to ride along with for awhile. Okay, Bancroft’s fits of laughter can make Bull a bit annoying, but there’s no denying the touch of humanity flickering inside this monster. It’s evident when he haphazardly offers Rolls Royce his salvation; it’s implied when we—and Rolls Royce—imagine how Feathers (Evelyn Brent) came to be Bull’s; and it’s knocked home when von Sternberg shows the condemned man obsessed by survival and revenge, yet taking time to extend a finger dripping with milk under the lips of a hungry kitten. Bull’s a swell guy, when he’s not robbing or killing you, and that’s why Rolls Royce and Feathers break their romantic clinches and plot to save him, despite their knowing that Bull’s freedom means they’re “his” again. They love the guy. Rolls Royce says they can’t double-cross him. They owe him everything. The newspapers remind Feathers that Bull faces the gallows because he saved her from Buck Mulligan. She knows they can’t do this to him.
While Bancroft is the star attraction, the budding romance between the Brook and Brent characters make them just as interesting. Von Sternberg’s beautiful imagery makes for beautiful characters, and even someone as vanilla as Clive Brook comes to life in a way we’re not used to seeing him. Brook in particular puts use to a face that the talkies seemed to rob of its expressiveness. Maybe it’s how Hollywood expected us to take a world-weary Englishman, but Brook always looks bored in his early talkies. Here von Sternberg captures several subtle expressions that even evoke Hecht’s original description of the character through Bull’s eyes: “Bull had watched him and got the feeling that this porter was smiling at something” (49). The movie tells us that Rolls Royce had once been a lawyer, but that detail isn’t necessary in this instance: Rolls Royce was certainly up at some point, his former standing evident beyond his love of reading in his behavior and manners. Something whipped him. Hecht credited the war, though Hecht never showed him as low as von Sternberg did. When Bull first runs into him on screen—down, out, and drunk—Rolls Royce is bereft of all but honor, and a little bit amused by whatever treachery life places in his path. Falling in love with Feathers changes that.
One of the actresses assigned to me I named Feathers, and to justify this I covered her with feathers, and even had feathers sewn on her underwear. Perhaps she felt uncomfortable in the tickling garment, for at one time while I told her how to act, she threw a shoe at me. I had the shoe returned to her and asked her to leave the stage and walk back to her producer-husband. But he had seen some of the film, marveled at the transformation, and informed her that she was an a idiot. So she divorced him, and continued with me to become a star. I liked her, and after using her in three films I let her fly by herself, and she promptly plummeted to earth. Last time we met she was exceedingly friendly (Von Sternberg 164).
Those feathers—and despite von Sternberg’s memories, Ben Hecht named the character—elevate Evelyn Brent’s atypical beauty, turning her into a work of art. She had a hard look about her and was already playing tough dames before Underworld, but von Sternberg’s close-ups really found her beauty and offered a softer side. Always interesting to look at, Brent outfitted as Feathers, in feathers, becomes the sort of curio you can’t tear your eyes away from. Dwarfed by Bancroft’s Bull, despite very high heels, the fluttery feathers move your eyes from his intimidating bulk to her more interesting decoration. She comes across as a disinterested possession at the beginning of Underworld, and only ever displays a positive passion towards Bull when he returns with shiny loot she had previously eyed in a store window. It’s when Bull is out grabbing those goods that Feathers is alone with Rolls Royce for the first time. We then get to see her as the coquette, her bare legs tucked under her feathery garments as she toys with Rolls Royce, who wears her down quickly with his no-nonsense manner of teasing back. The thought of Bull breaks up what was becoming a passionate moment.
I don’t think I realized it was special until I saw it at the preview. I knew what Joe was aiming for, but I did not know enough then to be able to envision what he was doing, as a whole picture. But, you see, he explained things very well, and he knew just how much he wanted from each person …Oh, but Joe, he could be really tough. We remained friendly. Not too long before he died, I met him over at Sears … he liked gadgets, tools and things. I had no ill-feeling. In fact, I think I’d rather work with him than anyone else I know. Except for Lubitsch maybe … (Kobal 113-14).
When Feathers is made Queen of the ball von Sternberg takes us to a party as wild as others he’d place in future movies (Dishonored  is first to my mind). Feathers fits right in as one of the decorations in the streamer-bound room filled with crooks, gangsters, and every so often a moll. The title card informs us it’s “a devil’s carnival,” filled with cheap booze and lust, before an accompanying fun house montage whips faces by us, each uglier as the booze and lust pile on top. It’s here that Bull spots Feathers dancing with Rolls Royce and becomes jealous for the first time. He barks at them to break apart and then scolds Rolls Royce for his indiscretion as though he were a little boy crossing the street without mother's permission. In a lesser story this would have been Rolls Royce’s breaking point: he’d begin his plot to kill the king and take his queen. Instead, Rolls Royce takes a drink. He winds up sulking alone, not because of Bull, but because he can’t have Feathers. Rolls Royce knows his place.
Buck Mulligan (Fred Kohler) does not.
After most of the revelers, including Bull, have passed out, Feathers is declared Queen of the ball. Her eyes are barely open, bored by her company: Bull is out cold, his face plastered across the table in front of them. Feathers is told she’s the winner and is directed down a hall to a room where the dastardly Buck Mulligan waits to take her. Buck’s girl Meg (Helen Lynch) knows what’s happening, but is helpless to stop it on her own. She scrambles to Bull’s table, pulling his head up by the hair and screaming details in his ear. Bancroft’s happy-go-lucky kingpin undergoes a change as his face takes on a drunken furor and he uses all remaining energy to push himself up from the table and wade through the knee-high confetti, stumbling down the hallway to find Feathers. When the door bursts open Buck Mulligan leaps out of a window and the monster Bull tears after him. Rolls Royce arrives to comfort Feathers, but the scene shifts to Bull swaying through the darkened streets making a beeline to Buck’s flower shop. Bulls is soon surrounded by the smoke of gunfire as Buck drops at the foot of the giant floral arrangement that he had planned for Bull’s funeral.
“Attila, the Hun, at the gates of Rome,” Rolls Royce had said the night Bull took him under his wing. Bull didn’t catch the reference asking instead if this Attila was “the leader of some wop gang.” Rolls Royce shook his head and advised Bull that he was born two thousand years too late—"You can't get away with your stuff—nowadays."
“They’ll never get me,” Bull says, sealing his fate.
“No man … can defeat the law,” the judge scolds before returning to his seat. “I sentence you to hang by the neck until you are dead.”
A smirk passes Bull’s face. He lets it fall away.
With Bull locked up Rolls Royce and Feathers can do as they please, and the rumors all over town were that they were. But they don’t. Instead they plot Bull’s escape, and while their plan backfires, Bull still manages to get himself free and then, only then, do we reach the opening of Ben Hecht’s original story. The story fills in some bits, for instance, mention of Weasel’s (Rolls Royce) war service, and we learn that Feathers came to Bull after her father died. Some bits were even put to use in the movie, but in the end the writer becomes a healthy footnote to his own story. Underworld is Josef von Sternberg’s.
This article was posted as part of "The Silent Cinema Blogathon" hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. Please go HERE to access posts from other Silent Cinema Blogathon contributors.
- Hecht, Ben. Underworld: An Original Story of Chicago in 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg, DVD set, The Criterion Collection, 2010, 45-77.
- Kobal, John. People Will Talk. New York: Knopf, 1985.
- “Review: Underworld.” Variety. 24 Aug 1927, 22-23.
- “Underworld Is Newest Vogue.” Variety. 15 Jun 1927, 5.
- Von Sternberg, Josef. Fun in a Chinese Laundry. London: Columbus Books, 1987. Originally published (New York: Macmillan, 1965).