Gobs of movies during what we consider the classic eras had titles that had little or nothing to do with the plot of the film. Many took their names from popular songs of the day and others went through numerous changes before a title that suited the studio was selected. With The Secret Six the name is nearly irrelevant. The title refers to a body of men who wear masks (and pretty lame ones) and collect information on bootleggers and other criminals, delivering their findings to the district attorney. That body of men is only twice referenced in the movie and the first does not occur until more than half way through the action.
Also not appearing until probably a third into the plot are Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, who appeared together for the first time in this Wallace Beery vehicle. Beery was a big deal at that time, but in a few years time his name would get billed under the other two as their stars quickly climbed (see China Seas). Beery could be quite the heel and liked to flex his star power, and Harlow, whom MGM borrowed from Howard Hughes who had her on a contract, found particular distaste with the star.
In The Secret Six, Beery is laborer “Slaugherhouse” who takes up with some bootlegger friends of his upon learning about the great living they earn. When he and his pal Johnny Franks, among others, start to muscle in on a rival bootlegging operation, a shoot out ensues and the rival boss, Colimo (John Miljan) finds his kid brother killed. Franks pins the rap on Slaughterhouse, but when Colimo’s gang goes after him, they only wound the brute. Getting his revenge, Slaughterhouse shoots Franks and takes over his restaurant. He has now become essentially the boss of the operation. Enter reporter Carl (Gable) who with another reporter Hank (John Mack Brown) are trying to get the scoop on the murder while also flirting with Anne (Harlow), a moll of what is now Slaughterhouse’s gang, who is also now arriving out of no where.
Although Anne selects Hank as her beau, both reporters hang around the gang, trying to get scoops on all the goings on. Slaughterhouse, who now is going by Louis Scorpio, has also bribed them for giving him favorable light in the papers. The mobster has managed to elect a new mayor, which will keep the cops off his back to an extent. Carl and Hank are separately helping the police and the Secret Six by spilling information on the bootleggers. Hank has a theory that the same gun was used to kill Franks and Colimo, who has by now been knocked off. So he’s in search of it in the Scorpio home, which has the boss wise to his disloyalty. Anne tries to warn her man, but he is gunned down on the subway.
The case goes to court and Anne and Carl testify against Scorpio, but because the jury is fixed, the man gets off. He is now obviously out to kill the two snitches and is nearly successful.
The Secret Six was released before the Production Code was in full swing, so it managed to get by with some considerable violence. Some theaters refused to air it because of that concern. Unlike some other pre-code gems, however, in this flick the bad guy does not get away with his crimes. He is also horribly unlikable, so no one is really rooting for that approach.
The movie was a great move for Gable and Harlow. MGM exec Irving Thalberg had scenes added to bolster Gable’s character and the actor was hired to a contract with the company thereafter. Harlow too would soon join the MGM ranks. Both of those actors are enjoyable to watch but Beery does a great job of being an awful person. He is both evil and persuasive so that he does not become a totally hateable man, but one we know not to cross.
- The Secret Six is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Aug. 14 on TCM.
Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com