The Hole in the Wall (1929)

The Hole in the Wall (1929)
Running Time: 73 Minutes
Dir. Robert Florey
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Claudette Colbert, David Newell
Genre: Drama, Mystery

Screening Time: Friday, May 12, 2017 at 7:00 p.m.

Having been sent to prison on a false charge, “Madame Mystera” plans to kidnap the daughter of her accuser and turn her into a thief. Her plans are complicated by EGR in his first gangster role as “The Fox”.


  1. Anonymous

    January 10, 2017 at 9:19 am

    "The Hole in the Wall" is an early part-talkie, well-directed by Robert Florey but saddled with a plot that Tod Browning might have cooked up for Lon Chaney on a bad day. Several themes beloved of Browning (and often used in Chaney’s movies) are prominently used here, including a gang of crooks and phoney mediums, and (shades of "West of Zanzibar") a plot to corrupt an innocent girl in order to get revenge on her parent. The "hole in the wall" in this movie’s title is in the crooks’ hideout: it’s a peephole with a periscope, which the phoney medium uses to spy on her victims, so that she can gain information about them before she meets them, and impress her victims with her "psychic" abilities.

    Claudette Colbert (still learning the techniques of film acting) stars as Jean Oliver, who was sent to prison on false testimony by snooty society dame Mrs Ramsay. After spending several years in prison, now Jean is out and hell-bent on revenge. She plans to kidnap Mrs Ramsay’s little daughter Marcia, and raise the girl as a thief in a Fagin-like environment. Jean hopes that Marcia will grow up to be an habitual thief, get arrested and acquire a criminal record … and then Jean will get her revenge by revealing herself to Mrs Ramsay as the person responsible for her daughter’s corruption.

    The climax of the film is meant to be very exciting, when little golden-haired Marcia is a prisoner in the dockyards, trapped on a quayside ladder while the tide rises. Unfortunately, the untalented child actress who plays the kidnap victim keeps screeching "Mama! Mama!" over and over, on a very bad soundtrack. We’re supposed to be concerned about the plight of a kidnapped child who’s in danger of drowning, but I kept wishing the brat would shut her gob and quit yapping.

    The soundtrack is VERY bad, and I don’t think it’s just because I saw a very scratchy old print of this film. In the late 1920s and early 30s, the Fox Movietone method of sound recording (which this film uses) was vastly inferior to the Vitaphone process used by Warner Brothers. I give credit to director Florey and his screenwriter (Pierre Collinge) for intelligently shaping the story to incorporate sound effects legitimately, at a time when many part-talkie films used sound effects merely for stunt purposes. But the dialogue is badly written, apart from its poor sound fidelity. Groucho Marx, who worked with the French-born Florey in "The Cocoanuts" later this same year, claimed that Florey had difficulty speaking English … which might explain why Florey allowed such wretchedly bad dialogue to get past him in "The Hole in the Wall".

    There’s an exciting scene of a train crash on an elevated railway, and throughout the film the photography is excellent, as are the lighting and the shot-framing. This film’s many good points outweigh its numerous bad points.

  2. IMDBReviewer

    January 10, 2017 at 9:19 am

    Both Claudette Colbert and Edward G. Robinson were stars of the stage when Paramount's Long Island Studios contracted them to star in "The Hole in the Wall", a gritty crime drama dealing with kidnapping and spiritualism. Colbert had initially been the darling of Broadway for her performance in "The Barker" (225 performances) but a succession of bad plays and the advent of talking pictures made her reconsider her decision about the movies. (She had made a silent "For the Love of Mike" (1927) and absolutely hated it.) Robinson only accepted the role of "The Fox" because the deal was lucrative – he didn't like the script or the second billing to Miss Colbert.

    By mid 1929 a lot of people were despairing of talkies – they were static and action was only a word that directors used to commence a scene. Apart from an initial "talkie" sequence, the film opens with a pretty spectacular train derailment, with super imposed images of screaming people, flames and rescue workers.

    Among the dead is Madame Mysteria, a vital part of "the hole in the wall" gang, headed by "The Fox" (Edward G. Robinson), a bunch of jewel thieves, who steal from the wealthy society people that are drawn to Madame Mysteria's readings. Without Madame, the group is foundering but suddenly Jean Oliver (Claudette Colbert) appears at their headquarters. She has just spent 4 years in prison on a trumped up larceny charge. She was framed by her employee, Mrs Ramsey (Louise Closser Hale), a bitter woman who was jealous of her son's constant attention to Jean. Meeting one of the Fox's gang in prison, she arrives at the Hole in the Wall, eager for a job and with revenge in her heart. She has already developed a plan to kidnap her former employer's grand daughter, "bring her up to lie, cheat and steal and when she comes before a Judge, I can say to Mrs. Ramsey, behold your grand daughter!!!" The Fox installs her as the new Madame Mysteria, the real Madame he identifies as Jean Oliver. Meanwhile a newspaper reporter, (Jean's old childhood sweetheart) (David Newell) is putting two and two together – linking recent robberies with spiritualist Madame Mysteria.

    The sets are a combination of Art Deco and Expressionistic "Dr. Caligari" types – many of these very old movies had futuristic sets. Colbert and Robinson both seemed to learn on the job. Robinson's first scene – he seemed to speak very slowly and in Colbert's she seemed pretty jittery and didn't know what to do with her hands. To give Colbert her due, she was saddled with a "Oh Woe is Me" speech and had to put her hand to her brow!! Fortunately the plot thickened in the last 20 minutes – including a child being snatched from a watery grave and a character called "Dogface", a mad man locked in his room, who didn't seem to serve any purpose to the plot, except at the end when he springs into action. Midway through the film, Colbert and Robinson had relaxed enough in their acting to look as though they definitely had a future in talkies.

    One person who didn't was David Newell. There was obviously a reason why Paramount dropped him from their roster. As Jean's childhood love, he was very wooden and uptight. I have also seen him in another early talkie, "Darkened Rooms" (I wonder what that one was about – could it have been "phoney mediums")!! It was made by Paramount at the end of 1929 and his acting hadn't improved.


  3. Anonymous

    January 10, 2017 at 9:19 am

    The plot for "The Hole in the Wall" is utterly ridiculous and I am pretty sure that audiences back in 1929 must have thought so as well. Sometimes you can still enjoy a ridiculous film…but this strains anyone's ability to suspend disbelief!

    When the film begins, a gang of thieves is stuck. Their fake psychic partner is dead and unless they can find a new one, they'll have to disband or get real jobs. When Jean (Claudette Colbert) arrives on the scene, the boss (Edward G. Robinson) thinks perhaps she has the talent to be their next 'Spiritual Adviser'. She agrees with one condition–that they also kidnap Mrs. Ramsey's young daughter. It seems that Ramsey had sent Jean to prison when she was innocent and now Jean wants revenge. But instead of selling back the kid, she plans on raising the kid to be a little crook in order to get her revenge!!! Talk about complicated and wildly improbable!! Even more improbably, Jean writes a letter to Ramsey telling her of her plan!!! Who would be that stupid?!?!

    So is this any good? Not really, but for fans of classic Hollywood, it does give them a chance to see Robinson and Colbert in their first talking picture. Neither were famous at this point and it was only Robinson's third film and Colbert's second and she looks far different than she would in the 1930s-40s. Still, Colbert is pretty natural on screen, but unfortunately Robinson is rather flat. His usual bluster and bigger than life persona is absent and the character is a bit dull despite being the gang's leader. In fact, the whole film is very flat and lacks excitement where it should be.

  4. IMDBReviewer

    January 10, 2017 at 9:19 am

    At times the melodrama is downright hammy and there is really nothing unique about the plot – a group of con artists using a psychic/medium scam to bilk rich patrons, and a girl (Claudette Colbert as Jean) wrongly accused of theft by a rich woman to keep her away from her son, thrown into prison as a result, embittered and swearing revenge when she is released, and joining up with the gang. What is unique about all of this is how sound is used for the first time to give depth to the story.

    The group of thieves keep a howling madman that they got from a carnival around for the séances, and when he lets out a yowl it is really creepy. The end, with Jean the fake spiritualist actually making contact with the dead, and mouthing the dead man's real words of warning was surprising and could not have been done effectively in a silent film. As for the visuals, they are a mixed bag. For example, there is a train wreck scene that is done oddly. Time is taken to get a real feel of the human toll of the wreck with close-ups of the passengers before and of the wreckage afterwards. But the accident itself looks very fake and amateurish – the train is obviously a miniature model.

    The interior art design is a bit of a hoot too – I mean who is that supposed to be a statue of in the séance room? It rather looks like Buddha, but not exactly. Then there is one big goof by the thieves that actually draws the police like flies to the "hole in the wall" gang. Such so-called smart crooks would never make such a ridiculous mistake.

    Edward G. Robinson is really great as "The Fox". For the first time you can see and hear a gangster in a film, and his speech and mannerisms are spot on and very natural. His sweet proposal to Jean, her gentle rejection, and his dignified acceptance of her decision is the acting highlight of the film. Oddly enough Robinson is fourth billed under Claudette Colbert, although this is the first talkie for both of them, neither having been particularly successful in silent films. Besides the familiar faces working their way up, it's interesting and a bit sad to see unfamiliar faces working their way down. David Newell, billed over Robinson, completely fails to impress. He does stand out though because of his halting speech, detached performance, and a fake smile that seems to be stapled to his face. I just can't see this guy staying on Jean's mind since they were childhood sweethearts and her passing up The Fox for this cardboard cutout.

    The whole thing plays out a bit like an experiment in early sound film, and in December 1928 when it was shot that is pretty much what it was – even director Robert Florey looked at it that way, trying a number of different new techniques and players in this one film so he would know what would work. If you enjoy the early talkies I recommend you give this one a look.

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