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By the time Lionel Barrymore made Guilty Hands, in 1931, he had been acting for more than 30 years: As part of the illustrious Barrymore and Drew families, he made his theater debut in the mid-1890s, performing with his grandmother, Louisa Lane Drew. Among Barrymore's movies, Guilty Hands has come to seem like a footnote, perhaps because he won the Academy Award that year - the only one he'd receive in his lifetime -- for his leading role in another picture, A Free Soul (1931). But if Guilty Hands is a modest pleasure, it's not the guilty kind. The picture is fleet and efficient, packing a lot of plot into a runtime of just under 70 minutes. It's a pre-code crackler with a spooky murder as its centerpiece - a murder that, incidentally, is committed by an otherwise somewhat sympathetic character.
The picture was directed by the famously efficient W.S. Van Dyke - nicknamed "One-Take Woody" - from a script by playwright Bayard Veiller, and although Barrymore himself co-directed, he isn't credited. As a director, Barrymore had received an Academy Award nomination the previous year for the 1929 Madame X, and MGM no doubt wanted to maximize his capabilities. In Guilty Hands, Barrymore plays Richard Grant, a lawyer who, as he lays out to a friend in the first scene, believes there are cases in which murder is justified - and that it's possible to get away with it. Just as he's summoned to a remote island to change the will of a client and old friend, a wealthy, womanizing rapscallion named Gordon Rich (Alan Mowbray), he learns that his beloved daughter, Barbara (Madge Evans) is engaged to Rich. Enraged that Rich would try to manipulate and seduce his innocent daughter, he sneaks into Rich's study that evening and murders him. And that's just the beginning.
In Guilty Hands we know pretty much right off the bat whodunit. The movie's seductiveness lies in the way Grant spins his web of subterfuge, trying to pin the crime on Grant's longtime mistress, the heavy-lidded vixen Marjorie, played by a marvelously sultry Kay Francis (who appeared in the movie on loan from Paramount). The "mystery" plays out Agatha Christie-style, with all the suspects gathered in one room as Grant weighs the possible guilt or innocence of each one.
The story's economy is wondrous, and Barrymore's performance has a sinister sheen to it. Though Grant acts out of protectiveness toward his daughter - he fawns over her, and she over him, to the point that the movie acquires some vaguely incestuous undertones - Barrymore shapes the performance to suggest that there's an undeniable ruthlessness buried deep in Grant. His nasal sneer holds more than a note or two of condescension as he's addressing the potential "murderers." And though Barrymore isn't exactly subtle, his artful contrivance is the point. As even he said of his acting, "I've got a lot of ham in me." At least he was honest about it.
Guilty Hands has a spooky, mysterious aura about it - it builds a mood of dread that's more significant than any specific plot points. And Francis' performance is yet one more jewel in this taut little movie's crown. Mowbray's Rich has a history of using and discarding women - we learn that one young cutie "accidentally" fell to her death from his penthouse window, an unsavory little pre-Code touch - but his obsessive love for Francis' Marjorie is perennial, and you can see why. She gazes at him - at everyone - through dark accusatory eyes, but there are also glimmers of suffering there. She's a vampy beauty with intelligence and soul to burn.
Producer: Hunt Stromberg (uncredited)
Director: W.S. Van Dyke; Lionel Barrymore (uncredited)
Screenplay: Bayard Veiller (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Film Editing: Anne Bauchens
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Richard Grant), Kay Francis (Marjorie West), Madge Evans (Barbara 'Babs' Grant), William Bakewell (Tommy Osgood), C. Aubrey Smith (Reverend Hastings), Polly Moran (Aunt Maggie), Alan Mowbray (Gordon Rich), Forrester Harvey (Spencer Wilson), Charles Crockett (H.G. Smith), Henry Barrows (Harvey Scott).
by Stephanie Zacharek
The New York Times
www.kayfrancisfilms.com, Kay Francis' Life and Career