The film Daybreak, made by MGM in 1931, bears the distinction of being one of the earliest talkies in which gambling plays a significant role in the plot. It also has another distinction that makes it a rarity; it is one of the few films starring major studio stars like Ramon Navarro and Helen Chandler that survives from the ‘pre-Code’ era.
The Motion Picture Production Code, often called the Hays Code, was only seriously enforced from 1934 onwards. So from the invention of talkies in 1927 until 1934, US filmmakers were free to deal with risqué and taboo topics, without the heavy censorship that would later prevail for more than 30 years. If it had been made three years later, Daybreak would not have been able to be as candid as it is about subjects like the seduction of innocents, prostitution and foolhardy wagers.
Tortured Love Story Dominates the Plot
Daybreak sees Ramon Navarro play Willi, a lieutenant in the Austrian Imperial Guard around the turn of the century. On a night off, he visits a local gambling house, which is also a popular hunting ground for prostitutes. There he meets a virginal music instructor, Laura, played by Helen Chandler. After an evening of fun, they spend the night together.
The next morning, Willi leaves money for Laura on the dresser, which humiliates her because he obviously sees her as a prostitute. In retaliation, she becomes the mistress of disgusting old Herr Schnabel, played by Jean Hersholt. He sets her up in luxury, but she secretly pines for Willi. However, when Willi tries to apologise and win her back, she vows not to accept him until he is as rich as Schnabel.
A Spiral of Debt and Desperation
Willi tries to win the money he needs by gambling against Schnabel, but instead he loses a fortune to him at Baccarat. His only remaining option appears to be an honourable suicide, as he cannot pay the debt. However, his rich uncle offers to bail him out, if he promises to marry a suitable girl from a wealthy family.
Willi refuses, and suicide again seems his only option. His uncle relents and pays the debt, allowing Willi to pay him back with money he earns in a new job, once he has left the army. He and Laura can finally become man and wife.
An Amusing Throwback
The dialogue and social behaviour in Daybreak is laughably corny to modern eyes and ears, but the film still manages to blend drama, tension and humour effectively. Its pre-Code status allows it to inject touches like Willi’s manservant, who exhibits some bizarre sexual fetishes, along with frank dialogue about taboo topics that would have been banned by the Hays Code.
Daybreak was directed by Jacques Feyder, a Belgian-born actor, writer and director who worked frequently in France, Britain, Germany and the US. His devotion to realism gave Daybreak an authentic look, and his European sensibilities allowed him to explore certain controversial topics playfully, rather than with the stern moralistic overtones that US directors would have been expected to inject into their work.