Lon Chaney broke through as a character star – specialising in grotesque contortions – playing a bogus cripple who unkinks his limbs while faking a miracle cure in the 1919 version of this story – a novel by Robert H. Davis and Frank Packard, turned into a hit play by George M. Cohan. Only snippets survive of that – fortunately including Chaney’s big scene – but the piece was well-enough known in the silent era to merit this early talkie remake, in which John Wray goes through all the agonies as ‘the Frog’, though it might have been a miscalculation to show him unbending (with much bone-cracking noise) after a hard day’s rooking the citizens of San Francisco as a wheedling beggar in a sequence that rather takes the edge off the later cure scene.
Frog is actually a secondary figure in a gang of con men bossed by John ‘Doc’ Madison (Chester Morris, charismatic and mean-spirited) who echo another Chaney vehicle by being an Unholy Four – with pick-pocket Harry (Ned A. Sparks) and waif Helen (Sylvia Sidney) joining in fairly elaborate, cynical schemes … it’s easy to sympathise with onscreen con men when they exploit their marks’ greed, but this bunch exclusively target suckers’ charitable instincts. In a bit of pre-code prurience, a satellite gang member Nikko (Boris Karloff) – a Chinatown figure of indeterminate ethnicity and an odd accent – peeps through a keyhole at Helen undressing and is tossed off a landing by Doc, who has to get out of town fast. It’s later mentioned in an offhand manner that Nikko wasn’t killed, which gives away that the ending is liable to dish out redemption rather than comeuppance.
Doc shows up in a small town where no one violates prohibition and there’s no need of a doctor because a local faith healer called the Patriarch (Hobart Bosworth) takes care of all medical needs. Doc summons his gang and they have the Frog go through a healing charade so he can set up a bogus fund to get donations to build a chapel – and has Helen pose as the holy man’s long-lost niece. There’s a streak of non-specific religiosity with the Patriarch fringed in light like Jesus in the silent King of Kings and uttering only simple wisdoms (in earlier versions, the character was dumb and blind – which would make more plot sense). He also performs real miracles, healing the crippled son of the local atheist (Irving Pichel) and the sister (Virginia Bruce) of a rich fellow (Lloyd Hughes) who gets stuck on Helen.
All the gang reform under the influence of the Patriarch and the simple goodness of these small town folk – as imagined by Hollywood writers Waldemar Young (London After Midnight, Island of Lost Souls) and Samuel Hoffenstein (Laura, the 1931 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the 1943 Phantom of the Opera), who probably never met any small town folk – but Doc holds out until the very end. Nearly ninety years on, it’s hard to take the Patriarch as a saint – we wait for the hint that he’s a con-man too, or (if the story took a turn into Stephen King territory) diabolical and ready to take away the cures he’s dished out. Also, has this strangely dissociated character – who is ailing and unable to heal himself, which no one ever mentions – really been praying away a whole town’s worth of sniffles, scrapes and bruises and broken arms?
The achingly lovely Sidney is always good in agonised roles, and Wray and Sparks are solid as the other grifters, who are both in a nice reversal ashamed of their reformation and try to conceal from Doc that they have gone straight. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who must have wanted to make something outside his usual comedy wheelhouse (he worked with the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Danny Kaye and Bob Hope, made the fantasy-comedy classic Topper, and usually found himself helming things with titles like Redheads on Parade and Swing Shift Maisie).