Allegory themes tend to be a hit and miss proposition. A lovely example is STRANGE CARGO (1940) with one of Clark Gable’s best on camera moments of life and the hereafter. Clarence Brown’s THE HUMAN COMEDY (1943) with Mickey Rooney is another. The picture was originally written by esteemed playwrite William Saroyan, based on his novel of the same name, and featured voice overs of thoughts. Saroyan was fired off the project. One can consider these pictures to be attempts by Hollywood to be more literate along with the “Prestige Pictures.” NO GREATER GLORY (1934) is a thoughtful, pre-code film with a beauty all its own.
Frank Borzage weaves a story about the madness and real cost of war by highlighting fight for a city block. The major players are George Breakston as the frail boy Nemeecsek who wants nothing more than to prove himself to the two gang armies headed by Feri Ati (Frankie Darrow or Darro) and Boka (Jimmie Butler ). They understood conflict as it was unfolding in their homeland during 1934. Conflicts on a similar scale of could also take place in an American city that mirrored the evolving Second World War.
Nemeecsek parents are hard working craftspeople with tailoring skills. The family lives in back of the shop in single rooms, trying to scrape out a living, wanting to belong.
The battle between two opposing gangs is set to take place with Nemeecsek the victim of water dunking by both sides as he deemed too frail. The undercurrent of bullying runs deep as George Breakston is physically smaller than most of the other actors and the only fair haired blonde. Nemeecsek does heroic acts like stealing the flag of the perceived enemy to win favor. He also worships Boka, who is everything he is not: charismatic , confident and physically strong.
On the eve of the battle, to be waged with spears, wrestling, and sand bombs, Nemeescek is bedridden with a cold. He yearns to be at the battle to prove himself.
Ironically, another boy, Garib (Jackie Searl), who is a ‘traitor’ gets a chance to prove himself to Boka. Nemmescek rises from his sick bed at the appointed hour to do battle as he when he is visited separately by Boka and Feri Ati and told he is ‘alright.’ Boka gives him the gift of a uniform hat. He has longed for such a thing as it shows he belongs.
The picture is wonderfully photographed at night in parks and streets, giving tet feel of what it was like to be in a slum. The battle rages to a shattering climax, punctuated by a last effort to do what is right at a terrible and real price. A watchman (Christian Rub) makes the comment that this is where the world is headed very soon.
George P. Breakson does the role of Nemeescek justice. He delivers his dialogue convincingly; even in his slightly high pitched voice. He shows no fear as he battles to stay with the other boys, in spite of a growing cold and fever. Frankie Darrow, one of the neglected stars of Hollywood, shines as stoic Feri Ati. Physically, he is a contrast between Boka and Nemeescek, making what he does stand out more.
Darrow moves with the grace of a dancer in battle. He is often dubbed ‘The Poor Man’s James Cagney,” due to his athleticism and small stature. Darrow or Darro starred in B films and pre-code dramas, drifting to uncredited roles in large pictures and later television for the rest of his career.
The father is played by Canadian born (Vancouver, British Columbia) John Qualen, who had Norwegian blood. Qualen changed his name from Johan Mandt Kvalen to go on to a career in many films in supporting roles. You have seen his face and heard the voice yet never knew who he was.
The mother was played by Lois Wilson. She was a school teacher by trade that entered acting in 1915 and made it to 1963. The roles of the parents in NO GREATER GLORY (1934) are handled with dignity and a pathos; greatly adding to the depth of the story. Qualen and Wilson use their voices at different pitches to convey happiness, sadness, all with the tinge of knowing that they must service the richer clients that frequent the shop.
It is debatable whether or not NO GREATER GLORY (1934) is an allegory of the coming conflict in Europe or simply events in a young boy’s life. Actor Jimmie Butler (Boka), was later killed in France during the Second World War. It is a precursor to LORD OF THE FLIES (1963) and later remade in 1990. The picture does send a strong message of what people do to belong to a society and their own countrymen. The film is worth seeing when it is shown, although this is rarely as it was a dismal box office performer when released. It’s a different vision of what Hollywood did with gangs as the emergence of The Bowery Boys series and the Dead End Kids followed.