Cast & Crew
J. Carrol Naish
As the end of Prohibition nears, Edward Carson, the head of a bootlegging racket, angrily refuses to listen to the suggestion of his cohort, Chopper Allen, that they switch to the "snatch" racket, the kidnapping and holding of wealthy men for ransom. Carson reluctantly agrees with the scheme of his attorney, William Bennett, to plead guilty to an income tax charge so that, through Bennett's connivance, he will receive only a small fine and a suspended sentence. Reporter Jane Lee, who has won Carson's confidence, tells him that she intends to write his biography. He is excited, but he insists that she not write about the earlier kidnapping and murder of his daughter and the death of his wife, which soon followed. When Carson mentions that he plans to plead guilty to the federal charge, Jane, who knows of Bennett's involvement with Carson's mistress, Marilyn Kirk, warns Carson to reconsider. Carson pleads guilty nevertheless, and U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield sentences him to five years imprisonment. In jail, Carson plans to get back at Bennett and instructs Chopper to spring him. Chopper and his men stop the train that is taking Carson to the penitentiary, but during the subsequent break and shootout, Carson learns that Chopper plans to murder him, so he gives himself up. Chopper then has Bennett and Marilyn killed off and, after beer is legalized, reorganizes the racket to commit kidnappings, which terrorize the nation. The gang is unstoppable because they use a different mob for each "snatch." Judge Penfield is appointed to head a president's commission for the suppression of organized crime, and he declares war against racketeers over a radio broadcast. When Carson, who has become a model prisoner, is questioned by members of the commission on his ideas for reducing crime, he impresses them with his knowledge of the operation of the racket and declares that if he were let out, he could break it up. He convinces them by relating his feelings about the kidnapping of his daughter and suggests that he have surgery done to change his appearance so that he can infiltrate the gang. The warden calls the attorney general and arranges for the plan to begin. Jane, who was touched when Carson earlier told her how nice it was to see their names together on the cover of her biography of him, is suspicious when the warden now says that Carson has died from an operation for appendicitis, knowing that he had his appendix removed five years earlier. Chopper has his hoods kidnap Judge Penfield's newlywed son and daughter-in-law. In response to a note from the kidnappers stating that they will release their captives if Judge Penfield stops his activities and goes to Europe, the judge broadcasts his refusal. After the newspapers publish the story of Carson's death in prison, he goes to see Chopper in disguise and says that he was Carson's cellmate. Carson then wins Chopper's confidence when he protects Chopper from a bullet shot through a window by his cohort, Butts McGee, and gets hit in the shoulder. The doctor who removes the bullet, however, informs Chopper that it was only from a .22 rifle, and Chopper becomes suspicious. Jane finds Carson in Chopper's office and recognizes him. After Carson is taken into a car by Chopper's men, he pulls a gun on them. Jane then gets in, and Carson pushes the gangsters out after he learns that the kidnapped couple are locked up in a sanitarium. Carson and Jane go there, and by viciously grabbing the doctor's throat, Carson makes him tell where the hostages are. Jane hides them as Chopper's car drives up. Chopper unsuspectingly goes into the hostage room, and Carson locks the door with them both inside. Chopper then realizes Carson's identity, and they both shoot each other as the police arrive and engage in a gunfight with Chopper's gang. Carson dies in Jane's arms, and she hugs him and cries. While the newspapers praise the unknown hero who died rescuing the couple, Jane and Butts clink beer mugs in a toast to "a pretty swell guy."
J. Carrol Naish
According to information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, the Hays Office exhibited much concern about this film because of its subject matter. After the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby in March 1932, the various censor boards reacted strongly against films dealing with kidnapping, and, according to correspondence in the MPAA/PCA file for this film, after the October 1932 release of Three on a Match (see below), which contained kidnapping scenes, the studio heads reached a "gentleman's agreement" not to make any films with "kidnapping themes." Fox agreed to cut out the actual scenes of kidnapping in this film, and the Hays Office, following some internal arguments, agreed to pass the film, hoping that it would serve as a first test case on public sentiment regarding the depiction of the theme of kidnapping in films. In July 1933, James C. Wingate, director of the AMPP Studio Relations Office, warned Fox that the film might encounter censorship trouble in New York, where the son of a prominent politician was at that time being held for ransom by kidnappers. When the head of the Ohio censors, unhappy that the kidnapper in the film is not convicted at the end, wrote to Wingate requesting that Fox make a new ending, Wingate replied that he might ask Fox for one or two eliminations, but that he did not expect any remaking. Wingate noted in his letter to the Ohio censor that during the period in which the "gentleman's agreement" was in effect, kidnapping as a crime had increased. He commented concerning the apparent change of policy, "We now have the feeling that if pictures using kidnapping as a theme or pictures with kidnapping sequences are made in such a way as to present the kidnappers as despicable characters who meet swift and severe justice at the hands of the law, and refrain from showing the details of the crime, such pictures May not only interest the public but May arouse it to the importance of stamping out this most dastardly crime." The censor boards throughout the U.S. passed the film, although some required eliminations. In October 1935, when Twentieth Century-Fox applied to the PCA for a certificate of approval for a possible re-issue, PCA Director Joseph Breen suggested that they withdraw their application in view of a regulation set up by the MPPDA Board of Directors since the production of the film, regarding kidnapping in films, which read, "The kidnapping must not be the basic theme of the story." The studio then withdrew their application.
Reviews noted that this was the first production with a kidnapping theme to have been released in some time and praised the film for its treatment of the theme. Motion Picture Herald commented, "Because of the way in which the basic story material is handled in action, dialogue and acting, there seems hardly a chance that this pioneer kidnapping picture will encounter the objections with which the initial gangster films met. Rather, being always on the side of law and order, it is a definite adjunct to any public safety campaign." Variety called the film the "first of the gangster pictures to deal with the snatch racket, kidnapping" and remarked, "The plot suggests the enlistment of the U.S. Government to stamp out kidnappers and suggests a universal finger printing safeguard for everyone with the government. All of which has been discussed via the dailies, so this part of the film is factual." In the film, when "Carson" is visited in prison by members of the president's commission on the suppression of organized crime, he delivers a long speech in which he details his ideas for eliminating kidnapping and crime in general. Carson's ideas include a ban of all guns coming into the country from abroad; a temporary ban on the selling of guns and ammunition, especially machine guns; the elimination of parole and indeterminate sentences; fingerprinting of everyone in the country; making criminals carry police cards and report periodically to the police; having newspapers refuse to print the amount of ransom paid for kidnappings; and having honest lawyers force shysters out of business. Carson is told in the scene that a number of his ideas are already in the process of being implemented.
According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Theater Arts Library, writers William Conselman and Henry Johnson were assigned to do work in connection with Edward Dean Sullivan's unpublished story "Lead Harvest," but the story was discarded, and Conselman proceeded to create an original. New York Times, however, credits Sullivan with the story for the film. According to a Motion Picture Daily news item in July 1933, Preston Sturges was assigned to write this film; however, no other information concerning any involvement on his part has been found in the legal records or in the Preston Sturges Papers in the Special Collection Department of the UCLA Library. Reviews gave Claire Trevor high praise for her performance. Variety commented that she gave "about the best portrayal of a newspaper gal which the studios have submitted."