Pretty good melodrama. Interesting plot, convincing performances from the four main characters, and divergent settings contribute to an entertaining movie. It helps that John’s (Richard Dix’s) crime happens near the beginning, and off-screen as well. Clearly, it’s more important that we have the domestic scenes, not only with John and his wife Dorothy (Madge Evans), but also that of the parallel couple, the maid Mamie (Una Merkel) and the milkman Jerry (Stewart Erwin). Everything’s disrupted by John going off to jail; leaving the door open for the wealthy interloper George (Conway Tearle).
There’s poetic justice coming though. George’s fooling with Dorothy leads to his landing in the same jail as John, after Kate (Isabel Jewell), George’s ex-girlfriend, dispatches Dorothy in a jealous rage. Actually, I can’t figure how all that gets George in trouble, but ok…Anyway, it doesn’t take long before John and George have it out in a literally over-the-top scene. The good guys indeed triumph. Meanwhile, the other set of good guys get together–Mamie and Jerry becoming pretty much surrogate parents to John’s kids after their mom’s murder.
An implicit theme of the dignity of the ordinary American is exemplified by Jerry and Mamie. There’s nothing not to like about them, and their genuine goodness is presented so well that there’s nothing sappy about it. The same could be said for that other parallel society: the prison inmates. With some believable rough edges, those guys more or less realize they’re all in the same boat, and deal fairly with each other. This is one movie where even the jailers are presented sympathetically. The jail culture reminds me of the camaraderie shown amongst soldiers in war movies. In fact, the music and dance scene–by contrast with what’s going on ‘outside’–looks like good fun.
Although Dorothy is plainly hedonistic, and Kate’s selfish and vindictive, George is the worst bad guy here. If George hadn’t sent the incompetent attorney to represent John, he might not have gone to jail in the first place. And, more importantly, if he’d kept his hands off of Dorothy, Kate wouldn’t have messed with her, at least not beyond the sniping at the office.
Day of Reckoning hardly seems dated. The themes of greed, lust, and betrayal, so accurately built into the characters, won’t wear out. Success here is achieved by being a decent person, not by mere wealth or status. Even though there’s definitely a happy ending, we see that Jerry could’ve lost Mamie to John, but Jerry would be okay with that; and, as Mamie sticks with Jerry after all, John’s okay with that too. No one’s guaranteed to get exactly what they want, but everyone’s satisfied with what they have. 8/10.