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Two Seconds

Two Seconds(1932)

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teaser Two Seconds (1932)

Often overlooked in the shadow of the ground-breaking gangster picture Little Caesar (1931), the 1932 film Two Seconds (which re-teamed actor Edward G. Robinson with director Mervyn LeRoy) is a rediscovered gem that exemplifies the saucy, hard-boiled entertainments that defined the Pre-Code era of the early 1930s.

Robinson stars as John Allen, a condemned criminal whose life unfolds in flashback at the moment of his electrocution. In happier times, he was a riveter on a New York skyscraper. When his roommate Bud (Preston Foster) fails to find his pal a suitable blind date, John is left alone, and wanders into a dime-a-dance joint where he meets a streetwise, world-weary taxi dancer named Shirley (Vivienne Osborne).

When a masher tries to get fresh with Shirley, John socks him in the eye and takes the now-jobless dancer to a soda fountain for some more wholesome refreshment. When Bud hears about John's adventures with Shirley, he smells a gold-digger and warns John to stay away from her. Despite Bud's warnings, John allows himself to get drunk and to be railroaded into marriage. Shirley's sudden appearance at John and Bud's bachelor pad creates a rift in their friendship. Tensions escalate and when an argument ensues on the construction site, Bud falls from a plank to his death. Bud's vertiginous plunge -- arms and legs akimbo, the buildings swirling around him, as an emergency horn howls -- is horrifying even by today's standards.

After the accident, John is too neurotic to return to work. To make ends meet, Shirley goes back to work for the dance hall proprietor (Carrol Naish), whose oily hair and pencil-thin moustache designate him a pimp. Emotionally impotent, John does little to stop her, until he learns that Shirley is tutoring Bud's ex-girlfriend in the ways of the world and is "going to make a tramp out of Annie." This emboldens John to purchase a gun, avenge Bud's death, and redeem his contaminated soul.

Once the homicidal revenge is carried out, John is sentenced to death and the circular narrative closes back on itself.

The plot of Two Seconds may not seem extraordinarily original, but it is distinguished by the style of its delivery. The gritty, urban tone of the film (characteristic of the Robinson and James Cagney vehicles at First National) is enhanced by the detailed depiction of the lowbrow entertainments that occupy the characters: the taxi dance hall, insipid radio broadcasts, the gambling bookie (the impish Guy Kibbee), a speakeasy that serves Prohibition liquor and calls it "tea," and the lost art of the "pick-up." Two Seconds is a fascinating time capsule for dramatizing the tawdry amusements that served as a balm for working-class Americans who were chafing at socio-economic hard times.

The film is further enlivened by its dynamic performances, most notably Robinson's. His descent into madness is brilliantly played, then crowned with a stunning monologue delivered at the judge's bench. John releases his demons and struggles with the tangled ideas of revenge, justice and punishment, and in the course of the four-minute scene, the viewer witnesses his descent into utter insanity. Few actors would dare attempt such a feat, and fewer still would be capable of pulling it off. The climactic monologue of Two Seconds stands as one of the high watermarks of Robinson's acting career.

Two Seconds was produced at a cost of $310,000 and earned an estimated worldwide gross of $822,000.

Two Seconds opened in New York at the Winter Garden on May 18, 1932. In his review in The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall wrote, "It is a production that is minus any comedy relief, being glum and gruesome, but adroitly done, a film that compels attention and one that is ably cast. Mervyn LeRoy, the director, has done his share in this graphic account of the last thoughts of a killer. His handling of the subject is imaginative and lifelike...In spite of its drab tale, it calls for admiration, for it never falters."

The original play was penned by Elliott Lester, and opened at Broadway's Ritz Theatre on October 9, 1931, with Edward Pawley and Blythe Daly in the central roles. The only actor to reprise his role in the film was Preston Foster, who played Bud in both versions, and who had a long career in Hollywood as a character actor. He appears as Pete in LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), the holdup man who causes the central character to do his first stint in the Georgia work camp.

Two Seconds was not a high-profile project for First National (which later became Warner Bros.), but a "programmer," intended to keep the release roster full during lean financial times. "We were highly organized and we wanted to keep working," LeRoy recalled in 1970, "There was a kind of creative excitement then; lots of good players like Robinson, Bogart, Cagney, Joan Blondell... and I always worked closely with the writers."

During 1931-32, LeRoy directed an astounding thirteen feature films (about one every two months). More astounding still is the quality of these films, which include Little Caesar, the monumental I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (starring Paul Muni), the hardball newspaper drama Five Star Final (1931, starring Robinson), and the Pre-Code women's picture Three on a Match (1932, starring Blondell).

LeRoy was born in San Francisco on October 15, 1900, and worked as a teenage vaudeville entertainer before landing a job in silent pictures with the help of his cousin, Jesse Lasky (later one of the founders of Paramount). But nepotism didn't allow the kid a free ride. LeRoy's first film job was folding costumes for the 1919 picture Secret Service. Over the course of eight years, he proved himself capable of any number of jobs, including assistant cameraman, wardrobe assistant, color-tinter in the film lab, comedy writer, and bit player. His first opportunity as director was No Place to Go (1927), starring Mary Astor. After the run of good pictures he made during the Great Depression, LeRoy had a number of other notable achievements, often in the delicate role of producer/director: The FBI Story (1959), No Time for Sergeants (1958), and The Wizard of Oz (1939, which he partially directed, without credit). LeRoy died in 1987, about a month prior to his 87th birthday.

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Harvey Thew; Elliott Lester (play)
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: W. Franke Harling (uncredited)
Film Editing: Terry Morse
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (John Allen), Vivienne Osborne (Shirley Day), Guy Kibbee (Bookie), Preston Foster (Bud Clark), J. Carroll Naish (Tony), Frederick Burton (Judge), Harry Beresford (Doctor), Dorothea Wolbert (Lizzie - Cleaning Lady), Berton Churchill (The Warden).
BW-67m.

by Bret Wood

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