Pre-Code Crazy: The Doorway to Hell (1930)

I’m not very familiar with the screen work of Lew Ayres.

Oh, I know he played Dr. Kildare (but I never saw any of those films), and I know he was in The Dark Mirror and Johnny Belinda – but I can’t say that he made that big of an impression. (I also know that he died on my birthday in 1996, but that’s neither here nor there.)

But when I saw him in the 1930 Warner Bros. feature The Doorway to Hell, Lew Ayres made me sit up and take notice.

In The Doorway to Hell, Ayres turns in a memorable performance as ruthless, baby-faced gang leader Louie Ricarno – labeled as the “Napoleon of the Underworld” – who we first meet when he’s suspected of ordering the murder of one of his rivals. When he shows up, on his own volition, to the office of the chief of police, he’s immaculately dressed – even wearing gloves! – and politely inquires after the chief’s wife and children. He offers him a cigarette. You’d have thought the two were old golf buddies. But the chief quickly dispenses with the niceties.

“It’s too bad to see a swell kid like you in this racket,” he tells Louie. “Why don’t you get out of it while the breaks are in your favor? The best you’ll get is the worst of it. Why be a sap?”

Louie convenes the mob bosses.

But Louie’s no sap, and he’s totally unfazed by the chief’s questioning. His persona is further illustrated when he calls a meeting of all of the gang leaders of the city and lays out his vision for organizing the various factions, with himself as the head of the mob. And, after a couple of the men raise objections, he tells them with a sweet smile, “You fellas heard what I said at the opening of this meeting. And what I said then goes just as it lays. Any mug that don’t think so will be treated to the swellest funeral that ever stopped traffic.”

Louie’s right-hand man is Steve Mileaway, played by James Cagney, whose performance more than hints at the star that he will soon become.  The others close to Louie’s heart are his best gal Doris (Dorothy Mathews) and his beloved kid brother, Jackie (Leon Janney), who’s in military school. In fact, it’s Louie’s high regard for Doris and his brother that lead to his decision to step down from his post as head of the city’s organized crime mob, marry Doris, move to Florida, and “go legitimate.” What Louie doesn’t know, though, is that Doris and Mileaway are lovers and that, without him at the helm, his well-planned organization is crumbling like a house of cards. Despite pressures from both Doris and Mileaway to resume his place as head of the mob, Louie is content in his new, non-threatening, crime-free existence.

Dwight Frye, before Dracula and Frankenstein.

But fate has other plans in store for him.

I’m not going to say any more. To find out what happens to Louis, Jackie, Doris, and Mileaway, tune in to TCM on February 27th. I guarantee that you’ll be glad you did.

Other Stuff

The Doorway to Hell features Dwight Frye in a small role, in one of his earliest credited performances. You may not recognize the name, but Frye would gain prominence the following year as Renfield in Dracula (1931). He also appeared in both Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Sadly, Frye would die of a heart attack in 1943 at the age of 44.

The film was helmed by Archie Mayo, who is perhaps best known for directing Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest (1936). He also directed numerous pre-Codes, including Under Eighteen (1931), Svengali (1931), The Mayor of Hell (1933), and the famed lost pre-Code feature starring Joan Blondell, Convention City (1933).

Roland Brown wrote the story on which the film was based. He also wrote What Price Hollywood, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Johnny Apollo (1940), and Kansas City Confidential (1952). The original story was called “A Handful of Clouds,” a reference to the smoke that comes out of the butt of a fired gun. Brown earned an Academy Award nomination for Doorway for Best Original Screenplay, but he lost to John Monk Saunders for The Dawn Patrol.

Don’t forget to tune into The Doorway to Hell on TCM February 27th – and see the stand-out performance turned in by Lew Ayres. And don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for this month!

~ by shadowsandsatin on February 3, 2019.

20 Responses to “Pre-Code Crazy: The Doorway to Hell (1930)”

  1. I saw this film about 6 months ago on TCM and liked it very much especially this being a very early Cagney film and he was excellent as Ayres right hand man and two facing him for his girlfriend. Ayres as the head of a gangster mob gave a good performance which was very unexpected.

  2. I’m glad you told me “Doorway to Hell” is coming up on TCM – I’ve wanted to see it for years! The DVR will be set!

  3. Great pick, I love gangster movies and this is one I haven’t seen yet. The streak continues because I knew you’d posted on What Price Hollywood before, but! this is the closest we’ve ever come since you mentioned WPH in this post!

  4. I will have to watch this one!

  5. Will have to keep an eye out for this one.

  6. First saw this as a kid and the memory was seared into my brain. Although, I forgot the title so when I started watching it a couple of years ago it came back in a flash. Of course, I kept watching. Who could turn away?

  7. Haven’t seen this one yet, although Lew Ayres is one of my favorite actors. First saw him in the B-movie Murder with Pictures, and he had such great personality that I started tying scarves like his character did! His characters in Holiday as well as State Fair (1933) are some of his highlight roles, but I thought he also has a unique presence in everything from The Kiss (1929) to Donovan’s Brain (1953). His life was interesting too, as a pacifist and conscientious objector in WWII (where he was sent to the medical effort and learned skills later displayed in the Kildare series). He was apparently so nice that he was the rare recipient of an apology from Joan Crawford behind the scenes of The Ice Follies of 1939.

    • Diandra! I can’t believe I forgot his performance in Holiday! I just watched it again a few days ago — his Ned is the BEST. I’m going to keep an eyes out for Murder with Pictures and State Fair, too. I can imagine him being a nice guy in real life, too.

  8. Great choice !

  9. Lew Ayres, Cagney, AND Dwight Frye?? I’m in!

  10. Awesome post! Lew Ayres during this period is such an interesting fellow. Sorry I missed this showing on TCM, but I will be on the lookout for it in the future.

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