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The violent and energetic gangster thrillers that thrived in the early sound era were all but forbidden after the production code was imposed in 1934. The studios responded by transforming them into social dramas and promoting the forces of law and order and moral values into the leading roles. That's more or less the approach of the 1936 drama Don't Turn 'em Loose, which takes on corruption and incompetence in the parole system through the story of brutal criminal Bat Williams, played with a cunning charm by Bruce Cabot. He pours on the sincerity while making his case for early parole then pulls a heist the very day he's released, killing a man in the escape with cold-blooded efficiency. But he has a double life. To his family, he's Robert Webster, globe-trotting engineer working jobs in Europe and South America, his cover for when he's on the lam or in prison.
Lewis Stone takes top billing as the father, a schoolteacher whose resemblance to Judge Hardy from the Andy Hardy movies is only enhanced by his penchant for making speeches and moral proclamations, and Nella Walker has a remarkable resemblance to Fay Holden, who played Ma Hardy in the MGM series. They even live in a Carville-like small town called Barlow, where they can hold on to the fiction that Robert is a world-travelling professional rather than a sociopath who puts on a show of being the good son and joshing big brother (to bubbly young Betty Grable) while robbing and killing his way through life. Cabot is remarkably effective in the role, playing the respectable son adored by his sister and doted on by his parents with a perverse satisfaction even as he kills a man right in their own hometown. Frank Nugent notes that "Mr. Cabot's performance is properly icy" and "Lewis Stone as the father is a dignified and relentless instrument of the gods" in his New York Times film review.
Betty Grable, not yet 20 when the film was released, was a starlet under contract to RKO struggling to carve out her own career. The studio had bleached her hair and promoted her as the "quicksilver blonde," but tended to bury her in the casts of big films (she dances in a couple of Astaire and Rogers musicals) or drop her in unmemorable programmers. After Don't Turn 'em Loose, RKO released Grable from her contract. "She was cuter than most imitation coeds whipping around the lot, but her cuteness didn't seem to mean anything," explained one RKO producer. Their inability to see Grable's appeal was Paramount's gain: they put her under contract and started aggressively promoting her. In a few years, she became one of the top box office attractions in the country.
Stalwart character actor James Gleason, who brought a tart amiability and a sense of humor to his authority figures and wily characters, co-stars as the police detective furious at the way the parole system rubber stamps the early release of violent criminals. He makes arresting Bat away once and for all his personal mission. And B-movie actress Grace Bradley is perfectly slinky and sneaky as Bat's girlfriend, having an affair behind his back while he's in stir.
By Sean Axmaker