Robinson plays John Ingram, an expert at putting out oil well fires. John is happily married to Helen (Ruth Hussey), with a little boy (Bobs Watson), but he has a dark secret, known only to Helen: Years ago, under another name, John had been convicted of a robbery he didn't commit and sentenced to a chain gang. He escaped and has lived life as a solid citizen ever since.
Unfortunately a man named William Ramey (Gene Lockhart), who knew of John's past, arrives in town and extorts money and a job from John. The payoffs are ultimately to no avail, and John is arrested and sent back to the chain gang. Locked up under terrible conditions, it seems hopeless than John will ever be able to prove the truth...
BLACKMAIL is an intermittently interesting film. I very much enjoyed Robinson and Hussey's depiction of John and Helen's loving marriage; there was an interesting sort of "Beauty and the Beast" element to their touching romance which makes one wonder about the details of their back story. His adoration of her is very appealing, and Hussey does well as the strong wife John needs, whether cheering him on at a nerve-wracking fire situation or bearing up under difficult conditions when he's sent back to jail.
The Southern chain gang scenes and John's ultimate escape for a second time are long and exhausting. Combined with HELL'S HIGHWAY (1932), I've seen enough chain gang films for this year!
Guinn "Big Boy" Williams plays John's righthand man; sometimes his character's denseness is wearing, but he also has some touching moments.
As for Lockhart, this must be about the sleaziest character he ever played, and the audience roots for him to get his just desserts.
The cast also includes Esther Dale, Willie Best, John Wray, Arthur Hohl, Cy Kendall, and Charles Middleton, who gives Lockhart a run for his money in the evil department.
BLACKMAIL was directed by H.C. Potter and filmed by Clyde De Vinna. It runs 81 minutes.
The DVD is a good-looking print. The disc includes the trailer.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.