The Secret Six Is a Bad Movie, and That’s Why You Should Watch It
Exposing ourselves to Hollywood at its dullest gives us a better appreciation of what makes a good Hollywood film.
By NATHANIEL DEYO
Odds are you’ve never heard of The Secret Six, a crime melodrama starring Wallace Beery and directed by George W. Hill for MGM in 1931.
Known today, if at all, as the first of six films to pair Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, the movie tells the story of a brutish stockyard worker (Beery) who falls in with the mob and ruthlessly climbs his way up the ranks. For a time, he becomes the most powerful figure in Chicago’s criminal underworld before the forces of justice finally catch up to him.
So, pretty standard stuff as far as early 30s gangster movies go. And yet, I’d like to suggest, this little-known film is The Classical Hollywood Film Everyone Should See Before S/he Dies.
Before getting into that, though, there’s one more thing you should know about The Secret Six. The reason you’re not likely to have heard much about this movie before now is quite simple: it’s not any good.
The dialogue is clunky, the acting stilted, the direction aimless, and the mise-en-scene lifeless. Gable and Harlow are, as always, compelling and watchable, but the film mostly squanders their talents. Indeed, the movie embodies nearly everything aesthetically regrettable about Hollywood filmmaking in the early sound era.
So why, then, am I suggesting that this is a film you Should See Before You Die? In part, it’s because choosing between all of Hollywood’s actual masterpieces struck me as a daunting, if not impossible, task.
- How to decide between, say, Holiday (George Cukor, 1938) and Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)?
- Or to choose between Barbara Stanwyck in The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra, 1931) and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1940)?
- What about Stage Door (Gregory La Cava, 1937)?
- Or Caught (Max Ophuls, 1949)?
- Or Ride Lonesome (Budd Boetticher, 1959)?
At some point, you should probably watch (or re-watch, as the case may be) all of those movies. But only after you have watched The Secret Six.
The value in exposing yourself to Hollywood at its dullest and most formulaic is that it gives one a better appreciation of what makes good Hollywood films, well, good Hollywood films.
To the untrained eye, all old movies tend to “look” the same. Sure, one may know intuitively that some are funnier or tell more compelling stories or are just more entertaining than others. But it’s often difficult to pin down exactly what any given classic Hollywood film is doing at the level of style or form. Straight forward camera set-ups, even lighting, shot/reverse-shot editing: it’s always the same, right?
Watch The Secret Six alongside any of the masterpieces listed above, however, and you will become keenly aware that those movies are doing something. Figuring out what that something is may take a few more viewings, but that’s hardly an onerous task.
The Secret Six, thankfully, needs to only be watched once.
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