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Most film books on the crime genre make mention of MGM's long running Crime Does Not Pay series, but except for intermittent individual screenings on TCM (and I think they had a day's special of them once) they've never been easy to see. The Warner Archive now offers the entire series in one DVD set, 49 (my quick count) short subjects in all. The cumulative price for the collection makes this release one of the most economical buys in classic movie collecting.
The series got started in an interesting way. After the Production Code ax fell most gangster pictures were no longer viable. The same thing happened to Horror films, for other reasons. The idea was to quash productions that glorified gangster-dom, so Warners took the lead by making a crime film where former Public Enemy James Cagney played one of J. Edgar Hoover's "G-Men". He hunted down gangsters while still behaving a bit like a gangster himself, at least in terms of swagger and style. MGM had more or less had opted out of 1932's vogue for gangster heroes, and instead happily hopped on the bandwagon for semi-fascist law 'n' order vigilante sagas -- Beast of the City, Gabriel Over the White House. MGM caught the lawman-hero reaction wave by inaugurating Crime Does Not Pay, an anti-crime, pro- good citizen series that would serve as sort of a consumer guide to warn middle America against the evils springing up around them.
The series is fascinating, illuminating about MGM politics of the time, and sometimes ridiculous. The best episodes warn Ma & Pa Kansas about sharp crooks that will cheat them or put their lives in danger -- medical quacks, disreputable car dealers, con-men, Bunco artists. Some of these shows imply that Crime Is actually Paying Off BIG, and that MGM is performing an important public service by informing the public of the pitfalls in their path. Many of the episodes that set out to illustrate the statement in the series title, are amusingly over-dramatized.
The very first Crime Does Not Pay episode "Buried Loot" stars a very young Robert Taylor. He hides his take from a robbery and then breaks out of jail to recover it. Unfortunately, the cops staged the breakout so they could follow Taylor to the dough. The punk is caught red-handed, after he's had his face scarred with plastic surgery to hide his identity. A great many episodes to follow show the police conducting elaborate, rehearsed "sting"- like charades to fool crooks. One would think that a big-city detective would need an Actor's Equity Card to do his job!
Almost all of the short subjects begin the same way, with a prologue intended to impart a feeling of immediacy, authority and authenticity. The "MGM Reporter" introduces an expert, usually a top policeman, government inspector, etc., who sits behind a desk and explains the crime or racket being featured. The funny thing is that these 'reality based' intros are totally faked -- the 'authentic experts' are familiar MGM bit players and up 'n' coming featured actors. I believe that Hugh Beaumont appears more than once, as a different expert each time. There were no rules about this sort of thing, I suppose. But we never see a Crime Does Not Pay episode entitled "Misleading Film Practices".
Quite a few of the shows are very good, even if they have little time for anything but moving the plot forward. A story about an adoption racket stealing the babies of unwed mothers is both convincing and scary. Another has a fake cancer clinic try to cover up its goofs by murdering a patient. To beef up the jeopardy angle, when the undercover cops close in these frauds often resort to pulling guns, getting violent, etc. This includes otherwise meek white collar criminals that in real life would go meekly to jail and then rely on a good lawyer to beat the rap. Since this is the Movies, the culprits more often than not take the John Dillinger route.
The stories stress the way innocents are hurt, often with a macabre touch. The cancer quack convinces a healthy guy that he needs expensive treatment. Depressed, the man doesn't get a second opinion and instead kills himself. The baby-snatching doctor leaves an expectant mother in the path of a deadly blaze. The unscrupulous car dealer lines a brake drum with asbestos instead of a real brake pad, and an innocent kid is killed. A crooked dock inspector goes into hiding when bubonic plague breaks out, withholding information that could stem the disease. We see emergency wards full of dying children.
These short subjects were of course a minor league showcase to provide extended screen tests for potential MGM talent. We see Van Johnson, Cameron Mitchell, and Laraine Day at one time or another. More importantly to film freaks, the Crime Does Not Pay series has episodes directed by great directors: Fred Zinnemann, Joseph Losey, David Miller, Joseph H. Newman and even Jacques Tourneur. It's no joke -- presumably given the same resources, these talents turn in much more stylish episodes. Zinnemann's are extremely tightly paced, with very sympathetic characters. Just as one would expect, Tourneur's episode ("They All Come Out", about parolees) is just as beautiful as his feature films, with well-crafted compositions, elegant scene transitions and nicely shaded characters that aren't fully Good or Bad.
The Crime Does Not Pay series naturally shows law authorities in a good light, even if they sometimes act erratically or behave like superheroes in a Republic serial. The series wasn't supervised by a law enforcement agency or 'edited' by the FBI, as were a number of movies in the Cold War era. But the attitudes communicated are rarely liberal. A show about a crooked employment agency ("Help Wanted") also implies that the trouble starts when thieves corrupt a blue-collar shop foreman, not an executive. Unions don't exist. Benevolent bosses solve all work problems, negotiating directly with individual employees. The movie about unwed mothers never really states an opinion about the situation the young girls find themselves in. Only one show ("A Gun in His Hand") is about a corrupt cop -- a show appropriately directed by Joseph Losey.
Some of the stories show generic 'bad guys' pulling off scams that most of us will recognize as things now done by unscrupulous businesses - or big corporations. That crooked employment agency gets shop foremen to hire new workers that then must pay half their first month's salary to the agency. At the end of the month, the foreman fires the workers, and hires a new batch. That's a popular scam foisted on beginners here in Hollywood, when people are worked four days and fired before payday. The crooked adoption agency tricks expectant mothers into signing away their rights when they enter, and then takes away their babies (at $500 per baby) even if the mother changes her mind. The bad used car salesman is an obvious example - making the sale is his only concern.
Only one show deals with what came to be known as big-scale organized crime. We're instead reassured that most crooks are isolated miscreants, nasty-butts and Oz-style Bad Deed Doers. In reality, by 1936 most large American cities were in the grip of organized vice mobs, extortion rackets -- the works. Since the FBI was doing next to nothing about this state of affairs and the news media swallowed Edgar J. Hoover's P.R. that concentrated on flashy bank robbers, it's not surprising that Crime Does Not Pay is unaware of the problem. By and large, everybody was unaware except the public servants on the mob payrolls.
The series always finds someone to blame, even when the crime is really a social problem with deeper roots. Bored boys in "A Criminal Is Born" turn to stick-ups for easy cash. One of them shoots a policeman and big prison sentences are dished out. The script nails negligent parents as the guilty parties, but the parents we see have no visible vices and are not shown to abuse the boys. Divine retribution also plays a role. In "Forbidden Passage" a (presumably Jewish) refugee cannot wait for a U.S. visa in Lisbon, and hires a smuggler to get him into the country. When the cops close in the smugglers throw him overboard weighted down with chains. The message imparted is that It's His Own Damn Fault -- his visa was almost ready for him to pick up. The episode ignores the truth, that isolationist America slammed the door on refugees from fascism. The man's only alternative may have been to starve in Lisbon or await arrest by the Gestapo.
When the war came Crime Does Not Pay turned to spy stories, showing how loose lips sink ships (Joseph M. Newman's "Don't Talk" with Gloria Holden and Barry Nelson), etc.. "Plan for Destruction" broke with the format and dramatized the rise of Nazi ideology in geo-political terms.
The series ended in 1947. Perhaps it simply ran out of steam or maybe its subject matter was overtaken by tough-minded postwar thrillers, including those later identified as films noir. The final episodes seem out of step with reality. In "Purity Squad" the FDA is shown diligently tracking down and nailing the makers of a bogus Penicillin substitute. As in the rest of the series, the law enforcement response to individual crimes is grossly exaggerated, with scores of cops assigned to check out a single report of wrongdoing or fraud. And that's not counting the shows in which the cops pull off elaborate, Sherlock Holmes-worthy sting operations to nail small-time criminals, like shoplifters. By 1947 the public may have had a hard time believing such fairy tales.
The final Crime Does Not Pay show, "The Luckiest Guy in the World" has taken leave of its senses. Barry Nelson stars as a guy who accidentally kills his wife, and then commits a cover-up murder that appears to be the perfect crime. He does get away with it, only to die later on from a completely unrelated situation - he's hit by a stray bullet from a random street crime. We're supposed to believe that this proves that fate always catches up with criminals. Why not just say that Crime Does Not Pay because the killer died in his sleep twenty years later?
I watched at least twenty of the shorts and parts of others and enjoyed all of them. It's fun to see the actors and directors putting these stories across in such a limited time format. We can recognize the difference between a hack director and a director with good taste adding finesse, timing and feeling to the emotional stories. It's also fun to see how various crimes or sins (gambling, drunk driving, counterfeiting) were viewed 'back in the day'. A couple of episodes won short subject Oscars. One of them, 1937's "Torture Money" is about crooks volunteering to have their limbs broken so they can pretend they've been injured in car accidents. A crooked lawyer then rakes in the big Insurance payoffs. At the exciting conclusion the hero undercover cop and a female victim are ushered into a fiendish torture chamber!
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Crime Does Not Pay spreads its long lineup of one- and (mostly) two-reel short subjects across six discs. Most of the transfers are excellent; I only ran into one that looked as if it had to be sourced from a secondary element. Be prepared to see occasional stock footage recycled from earlier MGM films!
Here's the full list of titles: Buried Loot, Alibi Racket, Desert Death, A Thrill for Thelma, Hit and Run Driver, The Perfect Setup, Fool Proof, Public Pays, Torture Money, It May Happen to You, Soak the Poor, Give Till It Hurts, Behind the Criminal, What Price Safety, Miracle Money, Come Across, A Criminal is Born, They're Always Caught, Think It Over, The Wrong Way Out, Money to Loan, While America Sleeps, Help Wanted, Think First, Drunk Driving, Pound Foolish, Know Your Money, Jackpot, Women in Hiding, Buyer Beware, Soak the Old, You, the People, Respect the Law, Forbidden Passage, Coffins on Wheels, Sucker List, Don't Talk, For the Common Defense, Keep 'Em Sailing, Plan for Destruction, Patrolling the Ether, Easy Life, Dark Shadows, The Fall Guy, The Last Installment, Phantoms, Inc., A Gun in His Hand, Purity Squad and The Luckiest Guy in the World.
As an extra the WAC throws in an unrelated short called Eyes of the Navy. This is a fine gift disc for the vintage crime fan that thinks he's seen everything.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Crime Does Not Pay rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.