Thursday, October 12, 2023

The Secret 6 (1931)

When we think of Hollywood gangster movies of the early 1930s we don’t really think of MGM, but in fact MGM made several gangster pictures. The most notable was The Beast of the City (1932) which in my view is the greatest gangster picture of them all. A more unusual MGM gangster movie is The Secret 6, released in 1931. It was directed by George W. Hill.

Louis Scorpio (Wallace Beery) works in the stockyards and is affectionately known as Slaughterhouse. He gets involved in bootlegging in a small way in the town of Centro but when his boss and former pal Johnny Franks (Ralph Bellamy) double-crosses him he decides he’d like to be the boss. He guns down Johnny.

The real boss of this crime organisation is crooked lawyer Richard Newton (Lewis Stone). Being a lawyer as well as a gang boss makes Newton a formidable figure.

Slaughterhouse’s first move after taking over from Johnny Franks is to establish complete political control of the town. He engineers the election of bootlegger and gunman Nick “the Gouger” Mizoski (Paul Hurst) as mayor.

It seems like nothing can stop the rise of Newton and Slaughterhouse and soon they’re in control of crime in the city as well. They rely not just on gunplay but on large-scale bribery. They pay off city officials and also newspapermen, including Hank Rogers (Johnny Mack Brown) and Carl Luckner (Clark Gable).

Anne (Jean Harlow) is one of the gang’s women but she falls for Hank in a big way, which will have consequences.

The authorities may be powerless to stop these gangster but there are those who are determined to put an end to organised crime in the city. These men are the Secret 6, a group of important men who have formed a vigilante organisation. It’s a rather disturbing idea. This has to be one of the earliest Hollywood movies to deal with vigilante justice, but it would not be the last. The Secret 6 all wear masks which gives this movie a bit of a pulp fiction flavour, and also perhaps a slight Edgar Wallace flavour.

It’s interesting that both the notable MGM gangster movies, this one and The Beast of the City, are slightly unusual (although in different ways) with a flavour that differentiates them from Warner Brothers gangster films of the same era.

Slaughterhouse never manages to acquire even a veneer of sophistication. He’s uncouth and maybe not overly bright but he is ruthless and he has Newton’s brains to rely on. You do have to wonder if Slaughterhouse is really smart enough to be a gang boss. Wallace Beery is good as Slaughterhouse but maybe a bit too much of a cheery likeable working-class rough diamond to be really menacing.

Lewis Stone is smooth and sinister as Newton. Ralph Bellamy is excellent.

This was a very early rôle for Jean Harlow (she was nineteen at the time) but she shows definite flashes of the Harlow magic.

It’s also an early rôle for Clark Gable. He was not yet a star but he soon would be. Watching his performance in this movie his star quality is already evident.

This was the movie that convinced MGM that Harlow and Gable were star material and the rest is history.

There’s plenty of violence but it’s nowhere near as graphic as the blood-drenched The Beast of the City.

The ending is a bit contrived and a bit rushed. Frances Marion had a distinguished career as a screenwriter but gangster movies were not her forte and the script doesn’t quite hold together as well as one would like.

Director George W. Hill keeps things moving at a breakneck pace which helps to disguise the weaknesses of the script.

The Secret 6 is an intriguing and entertaining gangland saga and the presence of Harlow and Gable helps enormously. Recommended.

The Warner Archive DVD is of course barebones but provides a very good transfer.


  1. There really was a Secret Six:

    1. I had no idea of that. Interesting. Thanks for that.