We’ve been looking a lot at the sexy and bawdy Pre-Code films starring Jean Harlow during the early 30’s. Today, we’re switching gears to look at Hide-Out. Also coming out of MGM during the 1930s, the film is a sweet Pre-Code romance. However, the narrative brings more beneath the surface thanks to the performances of its actors. A film like Hide-Out shows just how important performance can be in that tone and structure of a movie.
Hide-Out follows bootlegger and gangster “Lucky” Wilson (Robert Montgomery). When the man is wounded in a shootout with the police, he flees into the country before collapsing in front of a quaint little farmhouse. As he gathers his strength, he finds himself falling in love with local school teacher and farmer’s daughter Pauline (Maureen O’Sullivan). W.S. Van Dyke directed the film from a script by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich.
As bootlegger “Lucky”, Montgomery brings an interesting performance to the screen. With few exceptions, the leading men of the 1930s were rough, world-weary and hardened. Think of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and James Cagney. Montgomery brings the hardened persona of a Cagney to the role; however, he adds a sensitivity to the part as he morphs from a heavy to a romantic lead. In fact, Montgomery does particularly powerful work as the film progresses and he finds himself falling in love.
Montgomery’s career spanned from 1929 until he retired from acting in 1960. He was particularly prolific during the 1930s, spanning genres comfortably from the society dramas popular in the early years of the decade, romances, thrillers and even crime pictures. While so many actors had a stock character which they returned to (again and again), it was difficult to typecast Montgomery. It is this fact which plays the biggest role in this film. Wilson is such a layered and multi-faceted role that it likely wouldn’t have played as well in the hands of another actor.
To delve into Montgomery’s performance in further detail, the amount of depth they give the character (especially during this period) is refreshing. This period in history is noted for its gangster hero characters, personified by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. This was The Great Depression, and people weren’t adverse to seeing characters using the system to get ahead. However, what feels different is the noted shift in tone between this film and similar movies like Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Namely, we see the difference in punishment. We know crime can’t pay, especially in this era in cinema. It isn’t spoiling much to reveal that things don’t end very well for “Little Caesar” and Tom Powers. However, Hide-Out shows Lucky being given a chance at redemption. He still has to face a punishment for his relatively nefarious bootlegging practices; however, at the end of the film, his punishment is nowhere near as… permanent… as what these other men receive. He seems less of an anti-hero, and more a man capable of redemption.
Much in the film hinges on the performance of Maureen O’Sullivan as Pauline, the good-natured farmer’s daughter who unwittingly shows Lucky the error of his ways. O’Sullivan is (like the rest of her roles) incredibly good in this role. The only real issue is there’s not a heck of a lot for her to do over the span of the story. Rather, O’Sullivan’s role is as the angelic and pure “good-girl” meant to coax him back from his life of crime. She exists as an idea, a largely idealized image of what a change in life would mean for him. The exploration of her character is relatively minimal, choosing to focus on her as a farmer’s daughter and her growing crush on Lucky. As such, her character is largely defined through her relationship to other people.
That being said, O’Sullivan does inject her usual brand of likability into the part. She positively shines on-screen. O’Sullivan is completely relatable in the role, and this is vitally important to the character and the romantic pairing. Hide-Out would have sat much differently in the hands of a different actress.
Classic film fans will recognize a crazily young Mickey Rooney. The young actor appears in Hide-Out as Pauline’s rambunctious brother Willie. By this point, Rooney was already a show-business veteran with eight years of acting under his belt. However, at this point the best years were still ahead for the fourteen year old Rooney. This was three years before he landed the role of Andy Hardy, the part which would truly make the energetic young actor a star. However, this movie shows the young Rooney already developing as an actor, establishing the wide-eyed and mischievous persona which would come to define his early work.
Hide-Out is a simple little romance coming out of the late Pre-Code era. The movie features an interesting and layered performance by actor Robert Montgomery, who stands apart from his contemporaries in the depth he injects into his character. Combining Montgomery’s work with that of his co-star Maureen O’Sullivan, the actors create a sweet and likable romance.