MGM most likely began its long running series of shorts, “Crime Does Not Pay,” in response to civic group criticism that the gangster films of the early 30s (of which MGM’s “Beast of the City,” directed by Charles Brabin, remains a favorite in these parts) were corrupting the morals of Depression-era youth by glorifying gangsters. But many if not most of the 50-odd shorts in the series, now gathered into a fascinating six-disc set from the Warner Archive Collection, are concerned with middle-class crimes of opportunity, like joy rides, embezzlement and insurance fraud, suggesting that MGM was chiefly interested in policing its own public. The series was initiated by George B. Seitz, who would soon go on to MGM’s prescriptive “Hardy Family” films.
The films remain compelling as social history, as the crimes depicted gradually shift from the domestic front into anti-Nazi propaganda, and conclude with some postwar intimations of film noir (including Joseph Losey’s first Hollywood effort, “They Gave Him a Gun”). These terse, two-reel dramas also offered a training ground to filmmakers like Fred Zinnemann (whose early features, such as “Act of Violence,” owe much to the CDNP style), Joseph M. Newman and Felix Feist, while offering occasional harbor to established auteurs like Jacques Tourneur (“Think It Over,” with Dwight Frye and Red Barry as arsonists), Gustav Machaty (whose 1938 “The Wrong Way Out” is the best of the handful of Hollywood films by the director of “Ecstasy”), and Edward L. Cahn (whose series of CDNP shorts anticipates the crushing pessimism and bizarre stylistic choices of his ultra low-budget 1950s work). I’m sure there’s much to uncover in this collection, and I make a first pass here, in my New York Times column for this week.