There's a special place in my Pre-Code heart for those films that are packed with Pre-Codedness in the first place, yet take it to another level of creative madness. I'm thinking of moments like in Dr. X when the true villain reveals himself while babbling about "synthetic flesh," or the pygmy village sequence in Tarzan the Ape Man when that giant whatsis beats the bejeezus out of Cheetah, or the grand unleashing of Cecil B. DeMille's id in the arena scenes of The Sign of the Cross. Any Pre-Code fan can name more moments of similar escalation, and now I can name the second half of A. Edward Sutherland's 58-minute quickie for RKO. Secrets is based on a series of articles that appeared in The American Weekly, a Sunday-supplement that ran in the Hearst newspapers and was well enough known to be shown during the opening credits. The Weekly seems to have been something between a pulp magazine and a supermarket tabloid, and the "Secrets" series that inspired the movie seems to have split the difference. I have no idea whether screenwriters Samuel Ornitz and Robert Tasker adapted any specific articles from the magazine series. Whether they did or not, the first surprise of the picture is that it's an early move version of the Anastasia legend. Well, that may be the second thing after the failure of a film called Secrets of the French Police to include apache dancers. In any event, here's the story of an immigrant waif promoted by a slick con man as the Romanov princess who miraculously survived the massacre of her royal family by the Bolsheviks. In many tellings the story is a fairy tale in which the pretender actually is the princess. Not this time. Instead, poor orphaned Eugenie the flower girl (Gwili Andre) is the dupe of a would-be Svengali, a cut-throat hypnotist who turns her into his glittering puppet while murdering anyone who might tell the truth about her, including the girl's father. Somehow General Maloff is not played by Bela Lugosi, though the character seems tailor-made for the great man. Instead, Gregory Ratoff, who later would sort of direct Orson Welles' performance as the mesmerist Cagliostro, gets the role and can't help sounding as if coached to do a Lugosi impersonation, only without the hand gestures.What Ratoff lacks in diabolical charisma, his character makes up for in ever more outlandish evil. Did the big presentation of "Princess Anastasia" to the Grand Duke not go over well? Not to worry; Maloff just plants a forged endorsement letter on the Duke and has him killed so that he can't deny the fakery. And he can't just kill a Grand Duke in any ordinary fashion. He makes the Duke's driver fall for a large-screen movie of a car (or was it an airplane) coming right for him, so that the hapless lackey drives the limo off the road.
It might have been a good idea for Maloff to have his Asiatic minions dismantle the projection apparatus as soon as possible, but nobody's perfect. The French Police, led by an unlikely yet commanding Frank Morgan, who gets to do a mean Lionel Barrymore impersonation while disguised as a drunk early on, and aided by Eugenie's boyfriend, a patriotic pickpocket (John Warburton) who never steals from a fellow Frenchmen, quickly figure out that something's just a little off about the Grand Duke's death-by-cinema, and General Maloff quickly becomes suspect number one. The general's dreams quickly begin falling apart, but he hopes to escape justice by disposing of the evidence. The evidence, in this case, is Eugenie, and his proven method is to shoot her full of formaldehyde and turn her into a plaster-covered statue. He does that with all the girls, it seems. But Eugenie's boyfriend the thief comes to the rescue, only to get captured himself and threatened with some Strickfadean electrothanasia before the French Police show up to set things right. At the last moment, a handcuffed Maloff makes a break for it and embraces his own electrothanasia device. To be honest, I'm not sure whether he meant to electrocute himself or he hoped that the voltage would burn off his cuffs, but I'm guessing either alternative was better than the guillotine.
Secrets' turn to outright horror, after a detour into dodgy sci-fi, really took me by surprise, and I like that in a Pre-Code film. Even if Ratoff is no Lugosi, his relative lack of charisma probably makes Maloff a more purely hissable villain, while Morgan and Warburton interact nicely as the heroes and Gwili Andre is always easy on the eyes. We can always imagine a more perfect cast and crew but considering all the pulp madness this film delivers in just under an hour, I'm definitely not complaining.