King of the Underworld (1939)


Humphrey Bogart … Joe Gurney
Kay Francis … Dr. Carole Nelson
James Stephenson … Bill Stevens
John Eldredge … Dr. Niles Nelson
Jessie Busley … Aunt Josephine
Arthur Aylesworth … Dr. Sanders
Raymond Brown … Sheriff
Harland Tucker … Mr. Ames
Ralph Remley … Mr. Robert
Charley Foy … Slick
Murray Alper … Eddie
Joe Devlin … Porky
Elliott Sullivan … Mugsy
Alan Davis … Pete
John Harmon … Slats

Produced by Jack Warner & Brian Foy.
Directed by Lewis Seiler.

Based on the novel “Dr. Socrates,” by W.R. Burnett.
Screenplay by George Bricker & Vincent Sherman.
Costumes by Orry-Kelly.
Musical Direction by Leo F. Forbstein.
Original Music by Heinz Roemheld.
Art Direction by Charles Novi.
Cinematography by Sidney Hickox.

A Warner Bros.-First National Picture.
Released January 14, 1939.

Box Office Information:
Cost of Production: $235,000
Domestic Gross: $319,000
Foreign Gross: $179,000
Total Gross: $498,000

See the Box Office Page for more info.


Warner Brothers’ attack on Kay Francis reached a new low when she was sent to producer Brian Foy to work out the final four films of her contract: My Bill (1938), Comet Over Broadway (1938), King of the Underworld, and Women in the Wind (1939). Foy was the executive producer of the B-picture unit for the Warner Bros.-First National Pictures Association, and to work under such conditions was a huge embarrassment for a star of Kay’s magnitude.

However, King of the Underworld sunk her to a new low.

Humphrey Bogart had been working in such pictures since his film debut in Up the River (1930), which was also the film debut of Spencer Tracy. Often playing supporting roles or second-rate leads, he reached the height of his fame in the 1930’s with his performance in The Petrified Forest (1936), but that was pretty much it aside from good work in Angles With Dirty Faces (1938) and Dark Victory (1939). Other than that, he was still a supporting actor, far from being a star on any level of notoriety.

So when Warner Brothers gave him the star billing in King of the Underworld, and lowered Kay’s name below the title, it was another devastating blow to her career. One would be surprised about how billing can affect a star’s career. Already, Kay had been lowered below the title and was billed equal to names like Ian Hunter, George Brent, and Dickie Moore, all of whom were far from the level of Kay’s fame. But to now be lowered in such a significant way really showed her worthlessness to movie audiences in the eyes of her home studio.

If films like My Bill and Comet Over Broadway made audiences look upon Kay as a thing of the past, King of the Underworld solidified it. She was now an official has-been. This was confirmed in the review of the film by the New York Times (see below).

Originally, Ann Dvorak was considered for Kay’s role in the film. Dvorak, an amazingly talented actress, was another female whose career was notably hurt by Warner Brothers. While they had given her good roles, they had failed to really find a niche for her, and her career decline is probably one of the more serious misfortunes of screen history. She was as talented as she was beautiful, and she could have made some really great dramatic achievements.

Interestingly, Dvorak had been second billed to Paul Muni in Dr. Socrates (1935), which was the film that inspired this cheap remake. Ann had played the role of “Josephine” in the original film, and in the remake she was supposed to play Dr. Carole Nelson, Muni’s character which underwent a sex change in the script for King of the Underworld. The role was passed along to Kay, who mentioned in her diary that she was going to be “Paul Muni in skirts.”

Production began May 25, 1938 and ceased sometime in June. However, the film was withheld from distribution until January 14, 1939, when it was theatrically released. A few years later, Warner Bros. recycled to property again for another programmer, Bullet Scars (1942), which was directed by D. Ross Lederman and had an almost unknown cast.

Critics dismissed the film and largely came to Kay’s rescue by defending her against the studio. “Indeed, considering the plot and everything,” Frank Nugent wrote in the New York Times, “it is our settled conviction that meaner advantage was never taken of a lady.”

Luckily, by the time production of King of the Underworld wrapped, a light began to appear at the end of the long, dreary tunnel. Two months later, at 5:30 P.M. on September 28, 1938, Kay’s employment with Warner Brothers was terminated when her contract expired. She became free from the studio and made her stunning comeback the following year in In Name Only (1939), with Carole Lombard and Cary Grant.

Billed as a costar in Underworld, it should be noted that, in her first film away from Warner Bros., Kay received equal star billing with Lombard and Grant for In Name Only. This proves her popularity with fans as late as 1939.


Webmaster’s Review

Warner Bros. Pictures, INC. presents… HUMPHREY BOGART in KING OF THE UNDERWORLD

…with Kay Francis

That’s how the credits for this movie start out. One can almost see the grin on the faces of Jack and Harry Warner as they watched their revenge on Kay unfold reel by reel in the projection room.

The film opens with Carole and Niles Nelson preparing to operate on a gunshot victim. Molls hide in the hospital to inform Joe Gurney, the gangster who arranged the shooting, what’s going on. When the news comes that the victim will survive, the hostage being held in Gurney’s apartment is shot and killed.

Joe goes into Doctor Nelson’s office and insults him for being a man with “million dollar hands in a dump like this.” Nelson receives $500 from Joe, but doesn’t understand why. “Skip it. Well, I’ll be seein’ ya.” When Joe leaves an Carole returns, she figures he got the money from gambling, a habit of his she hates. He agrees to stop gambling if they move their location uptown. He repeats Joe’s quote of working in “a dump like this,” and Carole agrees, but then scolds him for not paying attention to his work.

Joe gets on the phone and asks Nelson to help one of his boys. Nelson refuses, then realizes there’s no way out of it. Carole grabs her coat and follows him. The police, hiding, watch Nelson enter the gangster’s lair. Carole pulls up and looks for him, but can’t find any trace of him. A detective walks up with her and decides to use her to break into Gurney’s lair.

A hail of gunfire follows.

Carole is brought in for questioning by detectives. Unfortunately for Carole, she learns that he husband died in the shooting. There’s some really great lighting and close-ups of everyone involved in the scene. The scandal is all over the papers, and Carole is threatened with the loss of her doctor’s license if she doesn’t prove her innocence within three months.

She moves her office to Wayne Center in the mean time.

On the run, Joe and his gang drive through some desolate area. When one of their tires blow out from a nail, they accidentally accuse a passer-bye on the road. It wasn’t him. Joe jokes, quotes Napoleon, then gives him something to drink when he faints. Joe is fascinated by the man’s knowledge of Napoleon, and offers to give him a “lift” when he realizes how intelligent he is.

Joe’s gang forces a jailbreak. In the gunfire, Bill Steven‘s, the man Joe picked up, is shot and arrested. Carole is sent to treat his wound, and tells her story about Gurney’s shooting of her husband. Working back at the office, Carole gets a ring at her door. It’s Joe. He’s been shot. She treats his wound and he tells her he can take the pain. “Some people aren’t sensitive to pain,” she responds. “Especially moronic types.”

They make fun of her and give her a $100 bill.

Bill Stevens is released, and Carole offers him shelter until he’s physically better. Joe kidnaps him to help write his autobiography. When he’s talking to Bill, he realizes that Bill is starting to fall for Carole, and says he’d go for her types himself (probably a code reference to a one-night stand with her).

Working on his autobiography, Joe tells Bill that his father was the type of man who let people push him around. Joe says he himself was like that too, then got tired of the beatings from other kids and decided to stand up for himself and get what he wanted.

Joe’s men arrive at Carole’s door and take her to his hide-out. They keep her blindfolded until she’s in the house. She scolds him for taking the risk of his wound getting infected. She tells him to keep his mouth shut when he makes a few wise-cracks about Bill and her liking each other. Joe offers to make Carole his “queen,” then tells her to come back in the morning.

The $100 bill that Carole received was traced to a robbery. The grocer she gave it to comes early to warn her the sheriff and police—who hate her any way for being part of the scandal back in the city—are coming to arrest her. Carole goes back to Joe’s hide-out.

She tells him that his eye is badly infected, and he could go blind within six hours. He decides to make Bill his guinea pig, and makes Carole drop the medicine in his eyes first. Since nothing seems to be wrong, Joe asks that all of his men get the drops and he be the last to receive.

Back at Wayne Center, Carole’s Aunt Josephine tells police where Gurney’s hide-out is.

The men realize that Carole tricked them. The drops have blinded their vision. There’s a suspenseful chase of Carole from Joe and the boys all over the house. It’s probably the most heart-racing moment in any Kay Francis movie.

Police surround Joe’s house and a hail of gunfire follows. They come out of the house and are taken by police. The most suspenseful part comes when Carole opens a door and realizes Joe is in the house. Still unable to see, he follows her and Bill the best he can. A policeman guns down Joe right behind Carole on the stairs.

A few years later, Carole is shown coming home to her husband, Bill, and their son.

This really isn’t that bad of a movie. It’s filled with more action and excitement than any other Kay Francis movie, especially compared to the ones she was making at this point in her career. Oddly enough, Kay and Bogart have great chemistry. They should have been paired more often in good suspense films, their dark features play well off of each other.

Ann Dvorak was the original choice to play Kay’s Carole Nelson. Kay is (besides billed second to the then-unknown Bogart) billed much smaller than Humphrey. This was another attempt to get Kay to quit. Jack and Harry Warner figured that, by embarrassing her into playing a supporting role in a B gangster film, Kay might decide to walk out on her contract.

Famously, she refused.

Critics dismissed this movie as unimportant, and the public really didn’t take any notice of it, either. But in retrospect, it’s interesting to see two film greats paired at interesting moments in their careers. Kay was on her way out and Bogart on the way in, and the pairing of the two today signals the transition between two generations of great Hollywood stars.



Vintage Reviews:

By Frank S. Nugent, January 7, 1939.
Published in the New York Times.
Back in the old days of friendly panning, it never occurred to us that one day we might be the organizer of a Kay Francis Defense Fund. But after sitting through “King of the Underworld” at the Rialto, in which Humphrey Bogart is starred while Miss Francis, once the glamour queen of the studio, gets a poor second billing, we wish to announce publicly that contributions are now in order. Not that it wouldn’t have been a great advantage to Miss Francis if her name had been omitted altogether from the billing: we simply want to go gallantly on record against what seems to us an act of corporate impoliteness.

For “King of the Underworld,” which is said to be the farewell appearance of Miss Francis (who evidently had no first-billing guarantee in her contract) in a Warner Brothers production, is not merely bad: it is, unless we are misled by all the internal evidence, deliberately bad. The script writers, knowing as they perfectly well do that Miss France always has “r” trouble, have unkindly written in the word “moronic.” Indeed, considering the plot and everything, it is our settled conviction that meaner advantage was never taken of a lady.


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From the July 05, 1938 issue of the Motion Picture Herald
announcing the production of the film: