Watching 1939: King of the Underworld (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: 
King of the Underworld (1939)

Release date: 
Jan. 7, 1939

Humphrey Bogart, Kay Francis, James Stephenson, John Eldredge, Jessie Busley, Murray Alper, Arthur Aylesworth, Mickey Kuhn (uncredited), Richard Quine (uncredited)

Warner Bros.

Lewis Seiler

Drs. Niles (Eldredge) and Carole (Francis) Nelson are married doctors who primarily work for a clinic. But the two soon become society doctors after Niles takes a deal with gangster Joe Gurney (Bogart) to help treat other criminals. When Niles is killed in a raid, the district attorney tries to charge Carole with involvement in the gang. Carole moves with her aunt (Busley) to uncover Gurney’s gang and prove her innocence.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Kay Francis was in three films released in 1939.
– Humphrey Bogart was in seven films released in 1939. This was the first time he received top billing.
– James Stephenson was 14 feature films released in 1939.
– John Eldredge was in six films released in 1939.
– Murray Alper was in 12 films released in 1939.
– Jessie Busley’s only film of 1939.
– Arthur Aylesworth was in 18 films in 1939.
– Charley Foy was in seven films released in 1939.
– Mickey Kuhn was in six films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Working title was “Unlawful.”
• Based on the novel “Dr. Socrates” by W.R. Burnett.
• This is one of three versions of this film, including:
– Dr. Socrates (1935) starring Paul Muni and Ann Dvorak
– Bullet Scars (1942) starring Regis Toomey
• Penny Singleton and Frank Faylen were announced to be in the film in a July 1938 announcement in the Motion Picture Herald. They were not in the final film.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Actress Kay Francis was one of the top Warner Bros. stars in the 1930s. But once Bette Davis gained popularity, Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner did his best to humiliate the star … particularly because she was paid a high yearly salary.

By 1939, Francis’s career was on the downswing, but she was still cast in the plum role of a hateful wife in IN NAME ONLY (1939), released by RKO Pictures. However, back home at Warner Bros., the roles weren’t so rewarding.

Francis was cast in KING OF THE UNDERWORLD (1939), a crime drama and remake of Dr. Socartes. Francis plays a doctor, whose doctor husband is killed by gangsters. To clear her own name, Francis moves to the small town where the gang hangs out and works as a physician as she tries to gain evidence.

Humphrey Bogart, still playing supporting roles and not yet the star we know him as today, plays the gang leader, Joe Gurney.

While the plot clearly revolves around Francis’s character of Dr. Carole Nelson, it was Bogart that got top billing. And not because he was the greater star.

This was a low-budget film for Warner Bros, and according to her biographer, B-films like KING OF THE UNDERGROUND were used to punish their stars.

Jack Warner’s motive was for Francis to have such a bad experience, that she would walk out on her contract. Warner believed Francis would spar with associate producer Bryan Foy, according to Vincent Sherman, who was a dialogue director and screenwriter for KING OF THE UNDERWORLD.

“But Kay said, ‘As long as they pay me my salary, I’ll sweep the stages if they give me a broom,'” Sherman said.

To add insult to injury, Bogart received top billing over Francis. It was the first time Bogart received top billing, but it was unfortunately at the cost of humiliating another actor.

The film was panned when it was released, however, some critics noted the cruelty in casting.

“We simply want to go on record against what seems to us to an act of corporate impoliteness,” said a New York Times review, according to Francis’s biographer.

Running at 67-minutes, KING OF THE UNDERWORLD is relatively entertaining and watching, though certainly not excellent. You could also look at it from a feminist standpoint: Francis is a female doctor, not something very common in the 1930s. This wasn’t the first time she played a physician either, the last time was in DR. MONICA (1934).

This is a sad exhibit of what became of Francis’s career. However, by taking the role (and keeping her salary) Francis continued to stand up against Warner Bros.

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