Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader wrote:
Except for The Saga of Anatahan, this 1929 release is probably the most underrated of Josef von Sternberg’s sound pictures, and it’s underrated for the same reason: Sternberg is known almost exclusively as a visual stylist, but the most exciting thing here is the highly creative sound track. It’s Sternberg’s first talkie–a near remake of Underworld, a spiritual romance about a doomed gangster, with the same lead (George Bancroft) and Fay Wray–and although this is a minority opinion, I find it better than the original in many ways. With Richard Arlen and Tully Marshall.
THE SCREEN; Distorted Humor.
In “Thunderbolt,” an audible production featuring George Bancroft, there is a queer idea of humor, that of portraying what the producers esteem to be the lighter side of the death cell. The greater part of this production is of scenes in an aisle of barred cells, with a privileged negro slayer entertaining his colleagues in crime by playing the piano and singing hymns. Another convict warbler is wont to render a song heralded as “Broken-hearted,” when one of the condemned men is about to shuffle off this mortal coil.
There also is in this talking film yarn a unique specimen—a comic warden—who talks about the electric chair as if it were a suite of rooms in a specially cool corner of a hotel. It is this official, played by the capable Tully Marshall, who calls upon Thunderbolt, alias George Bancroft, to quiet an obstreperous criminal who has acquired a pistol. Tunderbolt snatches the weapon from the man and bangs him over the head with the butt. The dangerous man topples off into a corner as somebody in another cell sings “Rock-a-bye, Baby.”
It behooves the comic warden to do something for Thunderbolt. He thinks it over and decides that the giant gangster can have his dog in his cell.
There is nothing edifying about this production, and it is hardly an entertainment, for while there may be, once in a long while, a gangster who grins at death, this particular prison, presumably Sing Sing, has all the inmates in the condemned cells as happy and hearty as if they were about to take a dip in the surf, which one is tempted to call extravagant.
The dialogue in this production was written by Herman J. Mankicwicz. It is of the wise-cracking species. Jules and Charles Furthman are responsible for the story and Josef von Sternberg officiated as the director. It is a musical comedy plot striving to masquerade as a drama. The chapters that are not in the death cells deal with Thunderbolt’s romance. Thunderbolt talks so as to make one remember that at least part of his name suggests the great god Thor. He declaims his lines so that all may know his power and determination. When words roll from his tongue one expects them to be punctuated by lightning. The idea of any other man being brave enough to snatch at the heart of this Thor’s goddess is out of the question.
It happens that Bob Morgan, who is “framed” after captivating Ritzy, Thunderbolt’s dreamy-eyed girl, is incarcerated in a death cell directly opposite Thunderbolt. The big man knows that the youngster is loved by Ritzy and the only worry the gangster has at that moment is not when he is to go to the electric chair, but whether or no he will be able to kill Morgan before he (Thunderbolt) expiates his other crimes. He refuses, until the eleventh hour, to say the word that will free Morgan. One rather wonders why the District Attorney would take Thunderbolt’s word.
One of the many preposterous incidents in this film is that of having a marrige ceremony take place in a death cell, the couple being Ritzy and Bob Morgan.
Thunderbolt goes to his doom with a loud guffaw, which is caused by something which you know he would hardly smile at, even if he were free and light-hearted.
Fay Wray is pretty, but she, or Mr. von Sternberg, has odd notions of the well-spoken girls who run around with killers. Richard Arlen is fairly competent as Bob Morgan. Poor Tully Marshall was called in to play the part of the comic Warden. One can’t say that he is funny, that he is real or that his jokes are in keeping with his official position. But that’s not Mr. Tully’s fault.
Morduant Hall, NY Times, June 21, 1929