Behind the Green Lights was a logical place for me to go after watching Red-Haired Alibi (1932), as it’s another, slightly later, Poverty Row entry reuniting director Christy Cabanne with supporting actors Theodore von Eltz and Purnell Pratt. The geeky payoff for doing this was to witness director Cabanne put von Eltz’s sleazy criminals through very familiar paces after the law begins closing in on him in each movie:
You can bet I’ll be looking for more of this little signature move in other Christy Cabanne movies!
I didn’t really know what to expect coming to Behind the Green Lights, not having bumped into the term before finding this movie. The title refers to this:
I suppose I’d have known this had I ever been a cop—or perhaps arrested in New York—but a pair of green lights are still found outside most New York City police precincts, a bit of tradition originating on Manhattan as far back as the 1650s: more on those origins here. The term itself, Behind the Green Lights, was used as the title of NYPD Captain Cornelius Willemse’s well-publicized 1931 memoir (Both book and film are unrelated to the 1946 film noir Behind Green Lights beyond being similarly titled movies about the New York police).While Mascot’s adaptation of Behind the Green Lights is available on the cheap with a budget DVD release from Alpha Video, plus multiple YouTube postings of the public domain title, used copies of Captain Willemse’s book are rare and, frankly, cost prohibitive. According to Motion Picture Daily, Mascot’s 1935 film is faithful to the book, though Variety said the movie was based on a single episode within the book. Beyond those mentions I didn’t notice any specifics in the film that matched details provided by 1931 newspaper reviews and publicity surrounding publication of the book (and the Captain LOVED publicity, so there’s a lot), so I suspect Mascot didn’t use much more than Willemse’s title and a few of his tactics for flavor. The former bouncer turned NYPD “Gang Buster”—and the use of that word in describing Captain Willemse predates most popular etymology—was active on the force from the turn-of-the-century through the 1920s and gained his greatest fame for taking a bullet through his straw hat when Kid Dropper was killed and then subsequently busting up rival Little Augie’s gang. Willemse’s Behind the Green Lights was followed by a second less-regarded book, A Cop Remembers, in 1933, also predating this movie.
Regardless of the source material, Behind the Green Lights is a well-acted and well-paced Poverty Row entry in the mid-1930s cycle of films glorifying honest lawmen over criminals whose charm had dried-up with any other hint of virtue since enforcement of the Production Code had begun. No matter how much Captain Willemse had to do with what reached the screen, his association with the movie via its title would have been enough to tell Depression-era audiences what to expect, especially theatergoers around New York. The cops are the good guys here and attorney Raymond Cortell (Sidney Blackmer) earns the biggest hisses from audiences as another popular figure of the era, the crooked mouthpiece. What the film lacks in top shelf casting it makes up for in depth as Norman Foster, leading lady Judith Allen, and Blackmer, are joined by familiar support in Purnell Pratt, Theodore von Eltz, and Ford Sterling (To put a bow on the casting, Allen and von Eltz can both be seen in Bright Eyes , Shirley Temple's breakthrough movie—Temple meanwhile has a small part in Cabanne's Red-Haired Alibi with von Eltz, Pratt, and co.). Character man J. Carrol Naish even shows up in an early scene of Behind the Green Lights to be chased through an apartment by Foster who tricks him into trapping himself on a fire escape.
The script allows for great pacing with the Norman Foster-Judith Allen romance entangling the police in a series of cases caused by the von Eltz character, who is defended by Blackmer’s shady law firm. Allen plays the rising star of that firm, Mary Kennedy, who is also daughter of detective Jim Kennedy (Pratt), an old-timer on the force who enjoys the camaraderie of Foster’s Dave Britten “behind the green lights” of their local precinct. Mary infuriates fiance Dave when she makes the most of an opportunity from boss Cortell (Blackmer) and uses trick tactics in clearing a jewel thief Dave had arrested. The romance between cop Dave and lawyer Mary allows the action to breeze between precinct and courtroom with stopovers in Cortell’s law offices and the Kennedy household helping provide a natural flow in between dastardly deeds by Cortell’s top client, J.C. Owen (von Eltz).
The prime goal of the movie is to show the handicaps police face in playing by the rules in a game rigged by the boatload of technicalities lawyers can rely on to seemingly clear any client of wrongdoing. At the same time an undertone of feminism keeps the movie relevant for modern audiences.
Now that tone may be deeply under for most of the movie, but Behind the Green Lights does open with Mary’s name already listed on the door to Cortell’s law office, which is something, even if it’s the bottom name. She gets her first big opportunity because Cortell believes she has “something that might be of great value for a jury,” though that something is probably exactly what assistant Beasley’s (John Davidson) knowing nods indicate. From the start of the movie, Mary has a deal in place with Dave to quit the law firm and marry him once Dave is promoted to lieutenant. Of course, Dave’s promotion comes on the very day that Mary lands the most important case of her career, so she balks when her intended arrives at Cortell’s office with orders for her to quit on the spot. Loaded throughout with sexist comments from hero Dave, who tries to keep his woman in check, Mary’s fight to continue working adds an unexpected feminist slant to Behind the Green Lights that also seems unintended until the movie’s final scene, which rewards Dave with the wife he wanted, but also Mary with Dave's blessing to continue practicing law.
Directed by Cabanne for Nat Levine’s Mascot Pictures, a busy independent company that was soon absorbed into newly formed super-indie Republic Pictures, Behind the Green Lights had a typical fast track to the screen. Levine bought Captain Willemse’s story in September 1934, cast Norman Foster in the lead the following February, and wrapped production less than a month after that. The film previewed to decent reviews in Hollywood that March with Captain Willemse lending a hand in radio promotion before it opened in New York that April. After Behind the Green Lights was completed Cabanne remained with Mascot and almost immediately began work on an even more entertaining release from that company, the old dark house mystery One Frightened Night (1935).