The importation of European film directors to Hollywood in the 1920' s was a move to revitalize the semistagnant American film industry. The industry was in need of new blood, and the European filmmakers had a well-founded reputation for innovation in the cinematic arts. Among these expatriates were such well established directors as Austria' s Josef von Sternberg, Germany's Ernst Lubitsch, and Sweden's Mauritz Siller. Many of these filmmakers were placed under contract in such a manner as to make them almost literally members of the directorial stables maintained by the major studios. This type of director has thus come to be known by the almost derisive term, "studio director. "
A studio director of the 1920's supposedly operated at the opposite
end of the creative spectrum from the auteur, although this view has
been largely refuted in recent years. It was a studio director's responsibility
to complete up to five or six films per year, regardless of the quality
or the difficulty of the scripts given to him. He was charged with
producing a cinematic commodity that was at least minimally sound
and possessed sufficient audience appeal to be economically successful.
Some films made in this hurried manner were masterpieces made by
directors who were able to imprint them with their own personal stamp.
Other films were not great, and others (the majority) were terrible.
In order to maintain the difficult production schedules, a considerable
amount of agitating and whipcracking was, of necessity, done by the
directors. As a result, European directors have acquired the stereotyped
slave driver and insensitive ogre image.
One of the most workmanlike of these studio directors was Michael
Curtiz, who was staunchly loyal to Warner Bros., at a time when the
studio was a virtual assembly line for films. Like other directors
at the studio, Curtiz was under contract to make so many films in
a year that he virtually had no time to prepare for each succeeding
project. In fact, Warner Bros. directors had such little foreknowledge
of the nature of the scripts that filmmaking became a matter of walking
onto the set and making rapid decisions on a daily basis. Curtiz had
to carry this practice through the 1940's, and, in fact, developed
it into an art on the production of the Oscar-winning CASABLANCA (1943).
Curtiz was continually under intense pressure to deliver his finished
products quickly and that pressure was, in turn, keenly felt by his
casts and crews, since he drove them furiously in an effort to meet
the deadlines. As a result, Curtiz was considered by many members
of the film industry to be one of the most thoroughly distasteful
directors with whom to work.
An interesting film from 1926 which typifies the Curtiz high-pressure
method was THE THIRD DEGREE, the first American effort by the Hungarian-
born director. Curtiz came to the United States in the early 1920'
s after achieving a reputation as a major pioneer in the Hungarian
film industry. He was quickly added to the directorial pool at Warner
Bros. and given the script of THE THIRD DEGREE. This film revealed
Curtiz's already ripening stylistic virtuosity that manifested itself
in a startling use of severe camera angles and almost dreamlike lighting.
Curtiz also adapted and made heavy use of a shooting style featuring
an almost continuously moving camera, a technique developed originally
by D. W. Griffith. As with most of Curtiz's work, stylistic considerations
had a far more prominent place in THE THIRD DEGREE than did the story
line. Although, in substance, it fell short of being a horror film
in the strict sense of the genre, the film contained a heavy dose
of strong emotional tension between the actors that presaged his later
film THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933).
In THE THIRD DEGREE, Alicia Daley (Louise Dresser), a former circus
performer, is unhappily married to Daredevil Daley (Tom Santschi),
who performs diving, tightrope-walking, and knife-throwing acts for
the circus which are very popular. Alicia is planning to run away
with Underwood (Rockliffe Fellowes), the ringmaster of the circus,
to escape her soured marriage to Daredevil. On the night of the planned
departure, Daredevil is trying out a new stunt -- riding a motorcycle
in a slatted bowl with their baby daughter Annie hanging around his
neck -- when he catches a glimpse of Alicia and Underwood in an earnest
conversation. He has a sudden premonition of what will take place
later that evening, and the thought throws him off balance. The motorcycle
then lurches and tips, hurling Daredevil and baby Annie over the side
of the bowl. Although the fall fractures his skull, Daredevil draws
enough strength to prevent Alicia from running away with their child.
Alicia, however, who imagines life with the ringmaster to be more
desirable than life with her own family, leaves without Annie. The
combination of the fractured skull, the fight over the child, and
his wife's desertion become too much for Daredevil, and he finally
collapses and dies.
The sympathetic circus owners take Annie under their wing, and, over
the years, she develops into the star attraction at a Coney Island
sideshow. The grown Annie (Dolores Costello) is like her father, walking
a tightrope and diving from a tiny platform into a minuscule tank,
plunging one hundred feet. While Annie's death-defying acts show
that she truly has her father's nerve and daring, she also reflects
her mother's beauty. While many men find her attractive, she becomes
interested in Howard Jeffries, Jr. (Jason Robards, Sr.) and they fall
in love and marry. Jeffries is the son of a millionaire, and when
he takes Annie to meet his father, Howard Jeffries, Sr. (David Torrance),
the father is so appalled that his son would marry a circus performer
that he throws them both out.
At this point, the audience learns that the elder Jeffries should
not be so repelled by his son's involvement with a circus performer
because Annie is actually the daughter of his second wife, Alicia,
Annie's long-lost mother. Jeffries, Sr., is not aware of the relationship,
however, and he tries to break up the marriage. He hires a private
detective to help him, and the detective turns out to be Underwood.
Underwood develops a plan wherein Howard, Jr., will become jealous
and suspicious, thinking that Annie is illicitly involved with the
detective. Howard, believing the worst, goes to the detective's home
and a violent brawl ensues, resulting in Howard's being knocked unconscious.
Complicating matters even further, Alicia bursts into the detective'
s home a moment after the fight and shoots her former lover when he
threatens to reveal her past to her current husband, Jeffries, Sr.
She quickly leaves and allows her son-in-law to be arrested for the
murder. At first, Annie tries to take the blame and confess that it
was she, not her husband, who shot the detective, but Alicia's conscience
eventually gets the best of her, and she confesses to the crime --
perhaps the first unselfish act of Alicia's life.
THE THIRD DEGREE is a direct predecessor to a series of films labeled
"speaking shadow stories" that derived their characters through settings
of the underworld. These melodramas utilized an abundance of murder,
intrigue, and illegal activities. THE THIRD DEGREE is typical of
this type of Warner Bros. film of the late 1920's and early 1930's
in that it deals with shady characters, ramshackle settings, and the
lower strata of society. The underworld film was one of the most popular
genres of the period.
Curtiz's obsession with the harshness of life's realities may have
been somewhat overdone in this film, however, as the too frequent
trick and freak shots tend to overpower the viewer at times. Throughout
his career, Curtiz never seemed to acquire the crucial ability to
avoid the plot entanglements that an overly lengthy script presented.
In addition to his favorite camera trick shots, many of the bloated
scripts were responsible for the addition of an extra reel or two
to the length of many of his films. THE THIRD DEGREE required a good
deal of additional footage because of extraneous subplots and dramatic
complications that could not be resolved in shorter fashion. Had Curtiz
been able to recognize some of the unnecessary plot elements in this
film, it may have been far more popular over the years. THE THIRD
DEGREE is an immensely interesting, if overly lengthy film, and it
deserves to be included in any consideration of the more memorable
films of the 1920's.
Release Date: 1926
Director: Michael Curtiz
Cinematographer: Hal Mohr
Run Time: 8 reels/7,647 feet
Alicia Daley - Louise Dresser
Annie Daley - Dolores Costello
Daredevil Daley - Tom Santschi
Underwood - Rockliffe Fellowes
Howard Jeffries, Jr. - Jason Robards, Sr.
Howard Jeffries, Sr. - David Torrence
Mrs. Chubb - Kate Price
Mr. Chubb - Harry Todd
Annie (as a baby) - Mary Louise Miller
Clinton - Michael Vavitch
Assistant Chief of Detectives - Fred Kelsey
New York Times: February 15, 1927, p. 23
Variety: February 16, 1927, p. 19
Studios named in Production Credits:
Black and White
The first American film directed by Michael Curtiz.
Magill's Survey of Cinema, 06-15-1995.