Deserves a Look: “I Promise to Pay”

I Promise to Pay (Columbia, 1937) tells the story of a low-level office clerk, Eddie Lang (Chester Morris), who wants nothing more than to be able to finance a one-week vacation for his wife, Mary (Helen Mack) and their two children.  To do so, he succumbs to the lure of easy money from an illegal loan shark (Leo Carrillo).  When he is unable to pay back the loan immediately and is forced to contend with the 1,000 % yearly interest rate, he falls victim to a myriad of nasty thugs who threaten him and his family with bodily harm, kidnapping, and death.

Shady, illegal loan sharks were a very real deal during the Great Depression, and I Promise to Pay pulls few punches in its depiction of this phenomenon, making it one of those rare Depression-based films that deal frankly with just how depressing…and bleak…the Depression really was.  This Columbia programmer presents a dire and realistic picture of the struggles of a lower-middle-class family of four, living in a two-room apartment and attempting to survive on $24 a week.  There are no screwball society matrons here, nor any splashy chorus girls or madcap heiresses.  Instead, it is a brutally frank depiction of ordinary people who are forced to deal with the hand life has dealt them, sustained only by the love they have for each other and the belief that honesty and goodness will win out, even though there is often little evidence to support the validity of that view.

Mary Lang (Helen Mack) comforts husband and loan shark victim Eddie (Chester Morris) as he recovers from a brutal mob beating.

As the leading man, Chester Morris turns in a strong, winning performance.  Best known for playing the title role in the fourteen “Boston Blackie” films of the 1940s, Morris is largely forgotten today, although he had a solid reputation as a leading man in the late twenties and thirties.  In I Promise to Pay, he strikes just the right note of optimistic sincerity and honest conviction.  While audiences may question his naiveté, his motives are clear as is his ultimate courage in the face of a truly menacing situation.

Leo Carrillo in happier, friendlier times

As good as Morris is, it is character actor Leo Carrillo who steals the show.  He portrays the loan sharking crime boss Richard Farra as a gangster who is at once menacing, sleazy, and utterly ruthless. He’s the kind of gangster who spontaneously buys a car simply because it matches his girlfriend’s hair or holds a meeting with his henchmen while being vigorously massaged by a beefy gent who tickles him at the end of the session, much to his delight.  It’s far from a nuanced performance, but Carrillo’s courage as an actor pays off in a performance that is completely compelling…and more than a little disturbing.  He is ably supported by a sinister and intimidating group of henchmen, most notably Harry Woods as the sadistic Fats and Marc Lawrence as would-be child-kidnapper, Whitehat.

The film’s third act is fairly predictable in its Capra-esque conclusion, a fact that might be contributed partly to the presence of the always reliable Thomas Mitchell as the sincere and determined district attorney bent on freeing his city from illegal loan shark rackets.  Nevertheless, the film moves along at a brisk pace and packs a lot of story into a mere 68-minute running time.  In these days, where movies often run over two hours, it’s refreshing to see how much the filmmakers of the thirties could do with only half that time.

ALL TOLD: A fast-paced, surprisingly stark depiction of the Depression era bolstered by winning performances, especially that of Leo Carrillo’s creepy yet compelling depiction of a ruthless, egomaniacal crime boss.

I Promise to Pay

Columbia, 1937

Directed by D. Ross Lederman

Screenplay by Lionel Houser and Mary C. McCall, Jr.

Featuring Chester Morris, Helen Mack, Leo Carrillo, Thomas Mitchell

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