Two Seconds

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Two Seconds
Two Seconds 1932 poster.jpg
1932 Theatrical Poster
Directed by Mervyn Le Roy
Written by Harvey Thew
Based on Two Seconds (play)
by Elliott Lester
Starring Edward G. Robinson
Vivienne Osborne
Preston Foster
Music by W. Franke Harling
Cinematography Sol Polito
Edited by Terry Morse (aka Terry O. Morse)
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • May 28, 1932 (1932-05-28)
Running time
68 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Tony (J. Carrol Naish) and John (Edward G. Robinson) in Two Seconds John gives Tony $162 "Take it, it's yours" Tony:"I don't want your money!"

Two Seconds is a 1932 Pre-Code film directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Edward G. Robinson, Vivienne Osborne and Preston Foster. It was based on a successful Broadway play of the same name by Elliott Lester. The title refers to the two seconds it takes the condemned person to die in the electric chair after the executioner throws the switch. Preston Foster reprises the role he played on the Broadway stage.[1]


As John Allen, a condemned murderer, is led to the electric chair, a witness asks the prison Governor how long it takes for the condemned person to die. "A strongly built man like John Allen?" he is told, "It'll take two seconds". The witness remarks "That'll be the longest two seconds of his life." As the executioner throws the switch, the events that led up to the execution appear in flashback.

Allen works with his friend and flatmate Bud Clark as a riveter, high up on the girders of a skyscraper under construction, getting paid $62.50 a week "more than what a college professor earns". Bud is engaged to be married, and tries to set up a date for Allen, but Allen is uninterested as Bud keeps setting John Allen up with "firewagons", his term for fat girls. Bud and John go out on the town after Bud winning on the horses. John sees that the girl that Bud has brought along for him to double date is another "firewagon", so he splits off and goes to a Taxi dance hall alone, where he meets dancer Shirley Day. He defends her from an amorous patron, and she is fired by Tony, the proprietor who is also her lover. Allen takes Shirley Day for a milk shake. Allen had earlier said to Tony that he wanted a woman with an education, aspirations "aint no use both of us being dumb". She feigns respectability, telling him that she only works in the dance hall to support her sick parents, who live on a farm in Idaho. Shirley pretends to be interested in attending a lecture with him. Instead, she takes him to a speakeasy where she gets him drunk on "tea". Bootleg gin was served in teapots, to disguise its true nature. She bribes a justice of the peace with $10 to marry them; Allen is too drunk to say "I do". When they return to Allen's apartment, Shirley throws Bud out. Almost immediately, Shirley begins seeing Tony.

Three weeks later, Bud and John are doing their job riveting, 28 stories up. John and Bud argue about Shirley Day; Bud berates John Allen for being taken in by a liar: "she told you that her parents were on a farm in I-dee-ho, when all the time they're living in a booze (liquor) joint on tenth avenue". Bud calls Shirley a tramp. John: "Don't talk that way about my wife!" Bud: "Tonys wife!" whereupon John motions to hit Bud with a spanner. Bud falls to his death. The grief-stricken Allen then quits his job, but is demoralized by living off Shirley. Shirley has changed from the bookish nice girl into spiteful vamp. She puts John Allen down, saying "what have you got to live for?" and Mocks his nervous condition. Allen responds: "Were you ever 30 stories up with a 6 inch girder between you and hell?". She also asks him if he's got any insurance. A kindly doctor (Harry Beresford) is called to administrate to him, giving him a tonic. John Allen says that it's his nerves. The doctor says that John Allens problem is mental.

Later on, Shirley tells John that she has money for the rent as an "advance" from Tony. She tells John that she is trying to get Buds ex-girlfriend Annie, who she met at Buds funeral, a job at the dance hall. Allen: "Annie was Buds 'steady company'. You can't make a tramp out of Annie!". Allen has been betting on horses using techniques of multiple bets ("polys") used by Tony. The horseracing bookmaker (Guy Kibbee) arrives to tell Allen that one of his bets has paid out ($388). Bookie:"With that kind of money you can clear a lot of debt" John Allen "I'll clear them ALL off, that's what Bud would have wanted me to do" "Don't talk like that" the bookmaker tells Allen. A deranged John Allen insists that he only wants $172 of the winnings. He counts out what Shirley got from Tony, and enough for a gun. Allen heads to Tony's dance hall, where he finds Shirley in Tony's arms. He thrusts $162 into the hands of Tony, who doesn't want it, and then shoots Shirley after telling her "Bud was right, you were born rotten". "Born crooked" was how Tony had described Shirley when arguing with Allen, just before falling to his death.

At his trial, Allen refuses to defend himself, saying he should have been "burned" (electrocuted) when he was at his lowest, a "rat", living off Shirley Day, not after he had paid off his debts. Allen: "It's not fair to let a rat live and kill a man!". The judge informs Allen that he could have used a defence of insanity, but chose not to, and that he would have been lenient if he had. John Allen is sentenced to death.

Cast (in credits order)[edit]


Mervyn LeRoy said in the 70s, when talking about the film, that at the time his production team were "highly organised". LeRoy made five films in 1932. The sound clarity is because of Vitaphone sound on disk technology.

Critical reception[edit]

Although he called it "a sordid and melancholy study" that was "glum and gruesome" and "minus any comedy relief", New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall also found a lot to like in Two Seconds. "Edward G. Robinson contributes a remarkably forceful portrayal," he wrote, adding that the film was "adroitly done [and] compels attention." He called LeRoy's direction "imaginative and lifelike" and praised the supporting cast: "Preston Foster plays Bud Clark, a rôle he also interpreted on the stage. His acting is capital. Vivienne Osborne is very real as the conscienceless Shirley. J. Carroll Naish makes the most of the part of Tony." In summary, he writes: "In spite of its drab tale, it calls forth admiration, for it never falters."[2]

Variety's 1932 review was less enamored: "General slowness and stodgy overdramatics won't draw the flaps, nor will a tragic finale help."[3] In later years, prolific critic Leslie Halliwell tersely called Two Seconds a "competent, pacy crime melodrama".[4]

The film has been called an early (or first) example of the "Film Noir".

Cultural References[edit]

When a girl says to Preston Foster "who's the smiling lieutenant over there", in reference to a sour-faced John Allen (Robinson), she's making a reference to the 1931 Ernst Lubitsch film

'She aint no Peggy Joyce' Bud Clarke to John Allen (referring to a date he's setting John Allen with ('works in a laundrette')) Later: "There I was trying to get you Peggy Joyce & you go and get yourself hog tied to a dance hall dame" (Bud Clarke)

"Peggy Hopkins Joyce (May 26, 1893 – June 12, 1957) was an American actress, artist model and dancer. In addition to her performing career, Joyce was known for her numerous engagements, six marriages to wealthy men, subsequent divorces, scandalous affairs, her collection of diamonds and furs and her generally lavish lifestyle. "

There's a reference to Cagney (Public Enemy, 1931) and grapefruit - Bud (Preston Foster) to girl in the street "why don't you let me sit across from ya and squirt grapefruit juice in your eye, like they do in the movies" Re: Cagney "in a famous scene, when she complains once too often, he pushes half a grapefruit into her face."

"Hey big boy you sure a swell little hoofer" is the first thing Shirley Day says to John Allen when they start dancing (she as the paid "taxi dancer"). That is a reference to the 1930 popular song "Ten cents a dance", about taxi dancers; which was the subject of a subsequent film Ten Cents a Dance (1931 film). Lyrics: "Sometime I think I've found my hero, but it's a queer romance. All that you need is a ticket. Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.". "Hoofer" means "dancer".

Bud (Preston Foster), when Shirley Day brings John Allen back drunk, after having dragged him off to get married (she slipped the priest $10 because he was too drunk to stand) - Bud Foster to Shirley Day: "I'm not going to let you pull the old army game on him" "who's pulling the old army game" "I'm not trying to pull the army game on him, we're married already" (shows him the ring). The "army game" is the simplest con-trick, the "shell game", which, if you didn't know what it was, you would be easily taken in by. WC Fields refers to it when observing a shell (cup and ball) game going on, in the 1926 Silent "It's the old army game". "That's the old army game" he says sagely. It would have been common in the army (WW1)'s_the_Old_Army_Game . The game is still commonly operated, with minimal equipment in high traffic tourist areas.

Another building in the film is the Manhattan Municipal Building, which still exists. In the scenes of Bud and John riveting girders and their argument, it's the building shown prominently, centrally in the cityscape. The city marriage bureau was in that building. Bud makes a reference to it when arguing with Shirley Day. Johns demise results from his marriage to Shirley Day, who gets him drunk and drags him there. Johns argument with Bud about it, results in Bud falling his death.

"speak" A speakeasy, also called a blind pig or blind tiger, is an establishment that illegally sells alcoholic beverages. Such establishments came into prominence in the United States during the Prohibition era of 1920 to 1933. During that time, the sale, manufacture, and transportation (bootlegging) of alcoholic beverages was illegal throughout the United States.

When John Allen understands the true nature of Shirley Day, he says "I should throw you out". Shirley Day responds mockingly "Then the goose would stop laying the golden egg", as she was the only one bringing money into the house. That is a reference to one of Aesops fables The goose that laid the golden eggs, an idiom used of an unprofitable action motivated by greed.

Latonia Race Track, Kentucky. When the bookmaker (Guy Kibbee) meets Bud and John outside Tonys dance hall, to pay out Tonys winnings of $38, bookie tells tries to get Tony to bet again: "How about something on the nose at Latonia tomorrow". Latonia, once regarded as among the United States' top sites for racing was closed in 1939, during the great depression.

Reference to Astor Hotel. Bud in talking to the two girls "Got anything special on tonight?" "Yeah, we were just about to get a bite to eat at the Astor" (sarcastically) ..... Bud: "Don't try to pull no astor stunts on me (that sarcasm) I don't come from the Bronx (poor area). Coupla drinks, the speak (speakeasy), a dance & maybe a movie." Bud is telling them he has money to spend. Hotel Astor was a prestige hotel located in the Times Square area of Manhattan, in operation from 1904 through 1967. Featured a long list of elaborately themed ballrooms and exotic restaurants: the Old New York lobby, the American Indian Grill Room with artifacts collected with the help of the American Museum of Natural History, a Flemish smoking room, a Pompeiian billiard room, the Hunt Room decorated in sixteenth century German Renaissance style, and many other features.

"Owl dining car". Bud when chatting up two girls in the street: "Got anything special on tonight?" Girl: "Yeah, we were just about to get a bite to eat at the Astor." Bud: "You got the Astor mixed up with the owl dining car aintcha?" Girl: "The owl aint so bad at that". What were termed "owl wagons" from 1888, became furnished, fixed, "night owl" branded diners; converted streetcars which proliferated in New York City when drinking alcohol was prohibited by the Volstead Act from 1920-1933.

When Shirley Day asks John Allen what he does for a living John Allen replies "riveter" "That's where you get those big muscles. How much do you earn?", she asks. "$62.54" (weekly) John responds. "You and Rockefeller!", Shirley enthuses. That is a reference to John D Rockefeller (1839-1937), who was the richest man in America at the time.


  1. ^ Two Seconds as produced on Broadway at the Ritz Theatre October 9, 1931 to November 1931, 59 performances,; accessed October 17, 2014.
  2. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (1932). "Edward G. Robinson in a Flash-Back Pictorial Melodrama Telling of the Last Thoughts of a Murderer". The New York Times, May 19, 1932; accessed October 11, 2011.
  3. ^ Variety 1932 review excerpted in Halliwell, Leslie and John Walker, ed. (1994). Halliwell's Film Guide 9th Edition. New York: HarperPerennial. ISBN 0-06-273241-2. p. 1246
  4. ^ Halliwell, p. 1246

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