In ‘Quick Millions,’ a Young Spencer Tracy Knocks ‘Em Dead

Rags-to-riches gangster films flooded the market in the early 1930s. But few were as briskly cynical as “Quick Millions” (1931).

The movie was directed by Rowland Brown, a onetime reporter, from a script he wrote with another newsman, Courtenay Terrett, the author of “Only Saps Work: A Ballyhoo for Racketeering.” It is screening three times in March at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the series “William Fox Presents: More Restorations and Rediscoveries from the Fox Film Corporation.”

“Quick Millions” is as fast as it is flavorsome. Slang flies. Not one scene is held too long; the movie often suggests a succession of staged tabloid photos.

Spencer Tracy, in his second feature, stars as “Bugs” Raymond, a shrewd, cocky roughneck who rises from working-stiff truck driver to the ruling racket boss of an unnamed Midwestern metropolis. In his first scene, he intentionally bends a limousine fender and tackles a cop. “That name ‘Bugs’ suits you like a punch in the nose,” remarks his consort (Sally Eilers), a tough-talking moll who gives as good as she gets.

Graduating from fists to lead pipes, then to dynamite, Raymond and his partner “Nails” Markey (Warner Richmond) sell protection, corrupt unions, buy judges, shake down developers and even threaten the city’s food supply. But as Raymond ascends, he falls for a debutante. The gang thinks “you’re putting on the high hat,” Markey warns him — anticipating the movie’s kiss-off image of a topper flung from a car.

“Quick Millions” is largely forgotten today, but it was critically well received in the 1930s. “Although cinema patrons may be surfeited with underworld tales, this particular effusion has the distinct advantage of being endowed with originality and suspense and also of being exceedingly well directed,” Mordaunt Hall wrote in The New York Times. While not a hit, the movie did contribute a number of ideas to Howard Hawks’s 1932 “Scarface.”

Outrageous gestures abound: A hooker strikes a match off a cop’s badge, and Raymond gets a quick $12,000 in petty cash out of a gang member’s pocket. George Raft, anticipating his role in “Scarface,” appears as Raymond’s enforcer, so smooth he picks out a revolver to match his evening clothes. (Raft, a professional tango dancer before he entered movies, here enlivens a gangster party with a suave soft-shoe shimmy.)

There’s no shortage of attitude. One hoodlum sneers at “laws made by lawyers for other lawyers to break.” The movie stops dead for an irate district attorney to launch into a long rant regarding millionaire racketeers and big-business crime, attacking his audience, Chamber of Commerce types playing footsie with the mob, as “yellow” cowards.

Fox promoted Brown as an expert on crime who has “had frequent contact with gangster types and concededly knows more about them than any other person in motion pictures.” True or not, he was an obviously talented filmmaker who apparently rubbed his bosses the wrong way. Characterized by the film historian Carlos Clarens as a “pugnacious leftist,” Brown would only direct two other movies, “Hell’s Highway” (1932) and “Blood Money” (1933), both in the hard-boiled crime territory he staked out with “Quick Millions.”

Rewind is an occasional column covering revived, restored and rediscovered movies playing in New York’s repertory theaters.

Quick Millions
March 2, 13 and 25 at the Museum of Modern Art; 212-708-9400,

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