Lionel Barrymore … Richard Grant
Kay Francis … Marjorie West
Madge Evans … Barbara ‘Babs’ Grant
William Bakewell … Tommy Osgood
C. Aubrey Smith … Reverend Hastings
Polly Moran … Aunt Maggie
Alan Mowbray … Gordon Rich
Forrester Harvey … Spencer Wilson
Charles Crockett … H.G. Smith
Henry A. Barrows … Harvey Scott
Produced by Hunt Stromberg & Lionel Barrymore.
Directed by W.S. Van Dyke & Lionel Barrymore.
Story and Screenplay by Bayard Veiller.
Cinematography by Merrit B. Gerstad.
Film Editing by Anne Bauchens.
Wardrobe by Rene Hubert.
Recording by Douglas Shearer.
Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons.
A Metro Goldwyn Mayer Picture.
Released August 28, 1931.
Cost of Production: $152,000.
Domestic Gross: $452,000.
Foreign Gross: $234,000.
Total Gross: $686,000.
See the Box Office Page for more info.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer…the powerhouse of the major three studios of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Kay Francis would complete four films for the company throughout her film career: Passion Flower (1930), Guilty Hands, Storm At Daybreak (1933), and The Feminine Touch (1941). All have a notable aspect to them regarding Kay’s career, but of the four, Guilty Hands was undoubtedly the best.
We can trace the brilliance of Guilty Hands back to two men, Lionel Barrymore, who not only starred in the film but co-directed it with W.S. Van Dyke, and Bayard Veiller, the legendary playwright who wrote the story and screenplay Guilty Hands was based upon.
Barrymore…like all other Barrymores…came to promise via stage success. He had done work in a few silent movies, but it wasn’t until his Madame X (1929), with Ruth Chatterton, where he found a home in Hollywood. Barrymore did not appear in Madame X, his was work was limited to directing only. He had received an Oscar nomination for his work on the film, and subsequently given an extended contract with MGM, which had produced and released Madame X to great success.
Following Madame X, he starred in The Mysterious Island (1929) for MGM, before remaining off the screen for two years, making his triumphant return opposite Norma Shearer in MGM’s A Free Soul (1931). The film earned him an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Barrymore went to work on Guilty Hands right after production on Free Soul wrapped.
Bayard Veiller had been a playwright and director of notable success, most famously with The Trial of Mary Dugan, a crime drama which starred Ann Harding on the New York stage and was brought to the screen with Norma Shearer in the title role. Veiller had worked on the final script for the film version while directing it as well. The Trial of Mary Dugan emerged as one of MGM’s most important films of the early talking years, considerably raising the fame and prestige of Norma Shearer and the studio.
Following Mary Dugan, Veiller brought his Within the Law to the screen via MGM with Joan Crawford in the film version, retitled Paid (1930). It was another hands-down success, allowing the genre of the crime drama to emerge in full bloom.
With Barrymore’s and Veiller’s success in the new genre, MGM decided to pair the two men in an original production and let the creative ideas really flow. With this came Guilty Hands, a film more thoroughly entertaining than Mary Dugan, Madame X, and Paid combined. As where the earlier three films had their slow moments, Guilty Hands would flow smoothly and quickly, with a sixty-some minute pace which rivaled that of even Warner Brothers, who could produce quality entertainment in a shorter running time better than any other studio.
Somehow in the midst of all of this, Barrymore, Veiller, and MGM decided that they needed Kay Francis for the role of Marjorie West. Her casting is still a mystery, but she must have impressed someone at the studio with her manipulative vamp roles at Paramount, for MGM was a studio with a roster of female stars better than any other in Hollywood.
Luckily, Paramount was more than willing to loan Kay out, and in return she got one of the best roles of her pre-Warner Brothers career.
After completing the unmentionable Vice Squad (1931) for Paramount, which featured Kay in yet another thankless second-rate lead, the studio loaned her out to RKO where she could be the star of her next picture, Transgression (1931). Transgression was a glossy soap-opera, but enjoyable and proof that Kay Francis could indeed be a star of her own films. Guilty Hands provided her with a complete turn-around.
Production on the film began June 4, 1931, and was completed on June 22. Originally, it was to be titled Shadows on the Wall, but this was changed prior to the preview of the film. Photoplay considered Guilty Hands “One of the best murder yarns produced, in which Lionel Barrymore gives an excellent and highly polished performance…Kay Francis and Madge Evans also contribute excellent performances.”
The other reviews were also largely favorable, but the film was neglected at the Academy Awards the following year. Still, it has the distinction of being one of the most intriguing films of the early talkie years in Hollywood. Few films of this era remain as watchable to modern audiences as Guilty Hands does.
Behind the titles we see decrepit hands…this gives a morbid mood from the beginning.
The film opens on a train. Richard Grant, a district attorney in New York for decades, is now returning home to slow down on his work. He prides himself on being an expert with murder, and states to others that there are some cases where it is justified.
Then there are other cases where it is not. That becomes the question we must answer by the final reel of this movie.
When he reaches his stop, he is greeted by his daughter, Barbara. At Gordon Rich’s home, Richard becomes perplexed with Gordon’s declaration of his intentions to marry Barbara. Richard knows Gordon too well to give his consent, and when Gordon tells him that there is nothing Richard can do to stop him. Richard throws out that he can murder him and get away with it.
Gordon is a man—if one can call him that—of a shady past, filled with the broken hearts of many innocent, young women. One of these girls was only sixteen when she threw herself from a high-rise building over her rejection from Gordon’s life. Richard will not let his daughter become one of those young ladies.
At a dinner to announce his plans to marry Barbara, Gordon upsets Marjorie West considerably. Marjorie is the one Gordon has left all of the money to in his will, and is really the one woman he will ever allow to love him fully, but he will not marry her. They have a questionable relationship, which makes one wonder how such an intelligent girl like Marjorie allow herself to be pushed around by a pig like Gordon.
But, then again, she can have the satisfaction of knowing she is the one woman who will come the closest to winning his heart, even if he will never even consider the idea of a marriage between the two of them. Even when the two meet after the dinner, Gordon tells Marjorie that he pretty much just going to marry Barbara to have her sexually—there is nothing more to their relationship, and he will return to her as he always does.
It is this trait of Gordon’s personality which fuels Richard’s determination to protect his daughter.
Sneaking into Gordon’s room, with the thunder outside to disguise the noise, Richard creeps up upon Gordon and shoots him straight through the heart. He places the gun in Gordon’s hand, and makes his way back to his bungalow. When he his informed that Gordon is dead, he rushes over and automatically declares suicide.
Since he was district attorney in New York for decades, no one dares question him. No one but Marjoie, that is.
Determined by her love for Gordon, Marjorie returns to Richard’s bungalow to figure things out. She discovers that a paper cut out of a facial profile placed on a moving phonograph can easily give the appearance of a shadowy figure walking up and down a room. She discovers that this was Richard’s way of proving that he was “in his room” the entire time. From outside, one would just presume that someone was pacing back and forth, but Marjorie knows better than this nonsense.
Back in Gordon’s room, she and Richard go back and forth over the whole suicide/murder speculation. Richard confesses that, yes, he did kill Gordon, but that she is only going to hang herself if she makes an issue out of this. As “the other woman,” Richard can easily prosecute her as the real killer, enraged by her jealousy of Gordon’s marriage to Barbara.
When the police come, she keeps her mouth shut, and the entire thing is written off as a suicide, but Gordon does manage to get his revenge on Richard. How? Well, you’ll have to watch this one to get the real details. It’s a great thriller, and I don’t want to give too much away.
For such a tiny film, Guilty Hands (1931) is incredible; clearly one of the best murder films Hollywood ever produced. The two distinct characters in the film are Lionel Barrymore’s Richard Grant and Kay Francis’ Marjorie West.
As Grant, Barrymore gives one of his best performances. Fresh off of his success in A Free Soul (1931), the film which garnered him his only Academy Award, he turns in a performance that, in my mind, at least, tops his Stephen Ashe. He is morally corrupt as Grant, suggesting from the beginning that not all murders are at the hands of killers. There are certain circumstances where it is justified, but, unfortunately, the end of Guilty Hands proves that his reason didn’t justify his actions.
He makes one hell of an attempt to prove his innocence, though. Marjorie is only one who questions his decision that Gordon shot himself out of guilt for his shady past.
Speaking of Marjorie, I would like to add that this is Kay Francis at her peak form during her early Hollywood years. She still seems a little green behind the ears, making facial expressions which kind of distract from her over all performance, but she is incredible to watch. Placed in good hands—Barrymore, Madge Evans, C. Aubrey Smith—she is on screen for nearly ten minutes before she scolds her first line, “That child. A mere child!” During that time she is given some interesting close-ups, suggesting there is a highly complex and clever character inside the appearance of this beautiful young woman. The shot of her playing the harp, as well as her reactions to Gordon’s announcing of his plans to marry Barbara, are most significant.
Marjorie West proved to be one of the most intelligent characters Kay Francis ever played onscreen.
Madge Evans does good with her virginal Barbara. She’s a saintly-soul, but not in such a way where she gets on the nerves of the audience. There is only one scene where she comes close to this, and that is when Gordon comes to just give her a simple kiss goodnight. Her reaction to the whole situation is a little ridiculous, but it motivates the plot.
Watch for Barrymore’s reaction where she tells him she had decided not to marry Gordon after the kiss.
There’s no musical score with the exception of the opening and closing credits. Barrymore rarely used music in his films, advancing the melodrama considerably. Barrymore’s Madame X (1929), with Ruth Chatterton, doesn’t even have a score for the opening credits, and no sound of music throughout the entire film. Surprisingly, this does not dull one minute of Guilty Hands at all.
Credric Gibbons’ sets are also of noteworthy importance. The house is beautifully decorated, the ideal setting of a murder mystery as intense as this one is. There are a lot of dramatic decorations which really help set a suspenseful mood. Whether or not this was intentional is beyond me. Metro Goldwyn Mayer did things a little differently than the other studios.
This is a great one. I’d recommend it to anybody just willing to watch a good movie on a stormy, weekend evening.