Ever since watching the Michael Curtiz pre-Code prison movie 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, starring Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, I’ve been interested in seeing the Anatole Litvak remake with John Garfield and Ann Sheridan taking over their roles. Now at last I’ve had the chance, after the release of the title in the Warner Archive series. I don’t think the print has been remastered, but it looks and sounds fairly good all the same. As with the original, there is some footage which was shot on location, in Sing Sing prison, and the shots of the long rows of small cells make a powerful impression.
Unfortunately it is now a couple of years since I saw the earlier version on TV and I apparently failed to keep a copy of the movie, so I can’t make detailed comparisons – but a look back at my review confirms my impression that the two are very close, with almost identical scripts. Like the original, this is the tale of a cocky young gangster, Tommy Gordon (though his name is spelt ‘Gordan’ in the newspaper headlines running all through this version) who swaggers into prison under the impression he is entitled to special treatment, but changes his ways of thinking under the guidance of the prison governor, Warden Long. Both films are based on the memoirs of the original of Long, real-life warden Lewis E Lawes, so it is no surprise that the character is glowingly presented – although, to be fair, he does seem to have been a reforming figure in real life.
I’d been wanting to see a movie starring Richard Barthelmess since reading about his work in Mick LaSalle’s book Dangerous Men. Since this film also stars a young Bette Davis and is directed by Michael Curtiz, it sounded like an unbeatable combination.
I wasn’t disappointed. This Warners/First National movie is gritty and powerful, turning the focus firmly on exploitation of poor cotton workers in the South during the Great Depression. Pre-code elements include the daring social commentary and a scene where Davis apparently strips off just off-camera to tease Barthelmess.
Despite a disclaimer at the start claiming that the producers have no interest in taking sides between the planters and the workers, the rest of the film refutes this, with haunting scenes of exhausted workers driven to desperation. There’s a moment near the start of the movie where planter Norwood (Berton Churchill) smugly lectures the weary parents of the hero, Marvin Blake (Barthelmess) about how they should take their boy out of school and set him to pick cotton. “Your crop must come first. Those are my orders.”
Nevertheless, all the characters are painted in shades of grey. The planters are not monsters – Norwood changes his tune to sponsor Blake’s education, if for his own ends – while the workers are far from being saints.
Reviews I’ve seen claim that Davis steals the movie from Barthelmess. She certainly gives a seductive performance as spoilt rich girl Madge, with the famous line “I’d like to kiss you, but I just washed my hair” – .and completely outshines her love rival, Dorothy Jordan. However, I think it’s still very much Barthelmess’ film. Despite being too old for the role, he gives a powerful performance as Blake, the poor boy torn between two worlds and two sets of loyalties – and he has a great speech near the end of the movie.
I had heard of The Petrified Forest as a gangster film, so was surprised to find that it is really a stage play, largely set in one room (a remote cafe at an Arizona petrol station) – and has a static, talky quality. Although this is known as a star-making performance for Humphrey Bogart, in fact the male lead is Leslie Howard.
He plays a failed writer turned failed drifter, who lands up at this restaurant in the middle of nowhere and strikes up a tentative relationship with waitress Gabby (Bette Davis), the daughter of the owner – who is desperate to get away and discover the outside world. I was intrigued to discover how literary a lot of the conversation between Howard and Davis is, with them both reading poems aloud – everything from Francois Villon to TS Eliot. I like Davis’ performance as the ambitious young dreamer frustrated by her surroundings Continue reading →