NO GREATER GLORY (1934)


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.

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