King of the Underworld (1939)


Lewis Seiler

Cinematography by

Sidney Hickox (as Sid Hickox) (photography)
After the killing of her husband by friendly fire during a police raid, Dr. Carol Nelson tries to find gangster Joe Gurney to clear her name with the medical board.
Humphrey Bogart got star billing for the first time in his career, even though co-star Kay Francis made nine times more money than he did. This was a deliberate snub by Warner Brothers, who had to pay Kay Francis $200,000 a year, even when her movies began to lose money.

“I’m a moronic type.”

8 December 2013 | by utgard14 (USA) – See all my reviews

Decent remake of Dr. Socrates changes a few things, including the gender of the doctor. In the original it was the great Paul Muni. Here, it’s Kay Francis. The real star of this film, however, is Humphrey Bogart. This was made during the period when Warner Bros. still had Bogie playing villainous gangster characters. This is one of the better movies that are considered “lesser” Bogart pictures. He’s great fun in the role and steals every scene he’s in. The plot is about a falsely-maligned female doctor (Francis) who sets out to prove her innocence by infiltrating Bogart’s gang. There’s a few holes in the plot but it’s a short, smoothly-paced WB gangster flick so you don’t really care that much. Just sit back and enjoy some good old fashioned popcorn entertainment.


Kay Francis as a doctor comes up against gangster Bogie

Kay Francis

Author: blanche-2 from United States
26 June 2006

In an effort to elevate Humphrey Bogart’s star and get rid of Kay Francis, Warners remade Dr. Socrates, giving the good doctor a sex change and making him Kay Francis instead. However, Bogart gets top billing and Francis’ role was reduced. It didn’t work; Francis kept plodding along until the end of her contract. Also, I still felt she came across as the star in this.

Francis plays a doctor whose husband starts picking up easy money repairing the wounds of gangsters and not reporting on their illegal activities. Eventually, he is killed in a raid, and the police are convinced that Francis was in on it with her husband. Unless she can prove her innocence, she’s going to lose her medical license. When she gets a lead on the gang’s whereabouts, she sets up shop in the same town.


It’s really hard to believe this movie came out in 1939 – it has the look and feel of something done about five years earlier. Bogart is good as a cocky and violent criminal who trusts no one and is too fast with a gun. Stardom is just ahead for the actor, as well as lots less of films like this.

Francis was past the magic age of 30 by this time, and her big star, big film days were behind her. She would soon fall to second leads and eventually move over to Monogram for several films, and, after a couple of early TV appearances, would retire. Everything about Francis embodies the strong ’30s career woman, and it’s hard to picture her out of the era. She does a great job in this as a determined, classy woman who has to use her wits to get out of a bad situation. An eminently watchable actress.

Of course me, I think banks is swell, I don’t know what I’d do without ’em.”

Author: classicsoncall from Florida, New York
5 January 2005
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

“King of the Underworld” paces at a machine gun clip, with Humphrey Bogart as Joe Gurney, a crime boss who quotes Napoleon and fancies himself as the last of the public enemies. When doctors Niles and Carol Nelson (John Eldredge and Kay Francis) perform a difficult surgery and save one of his men, Gurney insinuates himself into their lives with money and power. Niles can’t help himself, and welcomes the added income to support his gambling habit. Carol feels something amiss, but it’s only when Niles is killed in a gang shootout with the police that she comes to understand how entangled her situation has become.


Kay Francis

This isn’t one of Bogey’s better gangster films, certainly not on a par with “The Roaring Twenties” or “High Sierra”. His characterization of mobster Gurney felt somewhat forced and uncomfortable. He does however take peculiar pride in reaching the top of his chosen profession, taking some delight in author Bill Stevens’ (James Stephenson) suggestion for an autobiography – “Joe Gurney – The Napoleon of Crime”.

For an interesting scene that shows how far we’ve come from the movie’s 1939 year of release, consider how amazed the shopkeeper was to receive a hundred dollar bill from Mrs. Nelson, the first one he’d seen in at least six months!

Ultimately, Mrs. Nelson turns the tables on Gurney’s gang through a clever ruse using a chemical solution to temporarily blind them, on the pretense that they could actually go blind from an infection caused by a gunshot suffered by Gurney. But she couldn’t have done so if she didn’t make her way back to Gurney’s hideout. When brought there the first time to treat Gurney she was blindfolded, but apparently wasn’t blindfolded on the way back – not too clever for the Napoleon of Crime!


A film with a conclusion one has to see to believe

Author: theowinthrop from United States
23 October 2008
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I wonder if the screenwriter for this film had somebody in mind as a model for the criminal Humphrey Bogart plays. In the 1920s and 1930s there was a major war between Joe Masseria and Salvator Marranzano for control of New York’s criminal underworld. Marranzano, on the surface, seemed more modern to the younger crowd of gangsters like Luciano, Costello, Siegel, Lansky, and Lepke, and they helped him get rid of the “Mustache Petes” or old style gangsters supporting Masseria (and eventually Masseria himself). But they found that rather than restructuring the criminal world into a model corporate structure, Marranzano had delusions of grandeur. He was intoxicated by the image and memory of Gaius Julius Caesar, and intended to make himself the Caesar of the New York Underworld. Eventually “Caesar” Marranzano was bumped off by the disgruntled young Turks who did not plan for him to be a “Capo di Capo”.Interestingly enough he was stabbed to death in his office – one wonders if Luciano and the others purposely copied Caesar’s demise in the forum.

In this remake of an early Paul Muni film, DR. SOCRATES, Kay Francis is a female doctor who discovers that her late husband was tied to a powerful mobster (Bogart) and got killed helping him with some medical attention for one of his gang. The police and A.D.A. (Pierre Watkins) arrest and try Francis on really weak grounds as an accomplice, but the jury is deadlocked and she is released while the A.D.A. decides whether or not to retry her. Francis is determined to prove her innocence by catching Bogart.


Humphrey Bogart played many gangsters in the 1930s, and most of them were quite dangerous types, like Duke Mantee in THE PETRIFIED FOREST or Baby Face Martin in DEAD END. But his gangster boss here is ridiculous. The reason is that the screenwriter created a personality point about this gangster that is never pursued properly in the film. Bogart is enamored by the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, and keeps mentioning this. Never once in the course of the film, outside an occasional reference to say Waterloo or some incident like that, do we see Bogie trying to use Napoleons aphorisms and strategies in his crimes!

For example, Bonaparte once dismissed military brilliance and said something to the effect that he preferred “lucky” generals to brilliant ones. He realized that a brilliant general could get so hung up about his own brilliant schemes that he could blow a major battle, whereas a “lucky” general looks quickly at a situation and grabs the initiative. Bogart does not show any inclination to follow that particular piece of wisdom, and does not even mention it.

Bogart also is never shown using any of the strategies that made Marengo or Austerlitz or Jena victories that rang down through the last two centuries in his robbery schemes or crimes. For a man who supposedly admires a great figure he doesn’t seem willing to learn from him!

In the plot Francis hides in a small town and Bogart shows up there to rescue two of his men from the local police (actually similar to an incident involving gangster John Dillinger). Bogart has also picked up a traveling writer (James Stephenson) who he realizes can ghost write Bogies criminal memoirs. Stephenson is arrested in the incident, but he is released into Francis’ custody (she is now a doctor in the town), and subsequently kidnapped by Bogie (not quite like the unfortunate Duc de Enghien). Soon Francis is in pursuit, and notes Bogies health as a potential key to undermining his control of her fate and Stephenson’s. It involves giving him a peculiar drug that has to be also given to all his men at the same time to disable them all. This part of the script is absolutely unbelievable as Bogie’s gangster does not accept the simple solution of selecting one of his men as a guinea pig to test the drug on (Francis manages to browbeat him into taking the drug!).

There are elements of other, better films in KING OF THE UNDERWORLD. Most notable is James Stephenson’s writer/hobo who resembles Leslie Howard’s in THE PETRIFIED FOREST. The acting is pretty good (best are the scenes involving the local bigwig doctor who resents the arrival of Francis in the small town, and starts making problems for her). Stephenson was a fine young actor, whose best role (the troubled barrister defending Bette Davis’ “Leslie Crosby” in THE LETTER) was yet to come, and his death in the early 1940s was a true loss to movies. Francis does nicely in her role, even if her victory over Bogie is asinine. Bogie is good – wish I could say the same for his character or the script.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s