This posting is really a follow-up to the excellent John Garfield centenary blogathon. In the last few days I’ve been lucky enough to see one of Garfield’s rarer films, Saturday’s Children, and was surprised to realise just how many other versions of the same story have been made. The film was reviewed during the blogathon, but I can’t resist giving my own take on it too. Anyway, after talking about the film itself, I’ll then go on to mention the other versions which have been staged or filmed, ranging from the original Broadway stage play – starring a very young Humphrey Bogart! – right through to a stage revival in the last couple of years. I’ll also post some pictures of some of the other versions. Although I do like discussing endings, I’ve resisted the temptation on this occasion, so there are no serious spoilers in this posting – but, if you just want to know about the other versions, scroll down to the bottom!
The 1940 film starring Garfield, directed by Vincent Sherman, was the third screen adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play. It is often described as a romantic comedy – but perhaps a more accurate description is that it’s a tragicomedy. The way it moves from sweet early scenes to increasingly painful/bitter ones, and eventually lurches into near-melodrama, reminded me of one of my favourite James Cagney films, The Strawberry Blonde, made the following year, which I will be writing about soon for the forthcoming James Cagney blogathon. Both films have scripts by Casablanca writers Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, reworked from stage plays, and both see Warner Brothers ‘tough guys’ cast somewhat against type, in roles which bring out their more vulnerable qualities.
I’ve been planning to review a few Dickens films to mark his bicentenary, and am now beginning at the end of his career – though I do plan to write about adaptations of some of the earlier novels too! I will be discussing the whole plot of Drood in this review, including the ending of the 1935 film and also of the most recent BBC adaptation. As a lifelong Dickens fan, I like all his novels and have read them all many times over the years. But his last, dark masterpiece, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, holds a special fascination for me, as for many other readers – from its stunning dream opening in the opium den through to its abrupt breaking off when the author died. The book’s real power lies not in the endless controversy over how it would have ended, but in the tortured double character of John Jasper, lay precentor of the cathedral by day and drug addict by night. (I’ve read an article somewhere pointing out the similarity between Jasper and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which had already been adapted for the screen twice when Hollywood turned its attention to Dickens’ novel.)
The title sounds reminiscent of I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang – and the posters for this John Garfield movie tried to give that impression too, oozing toughness and desperation. However, as so often in movies of the 1930s and 40s, the advertising is misleading, and this tale of a troubled young boxer wanted for murder is a very different film from the image Warner Brothers was trying to sell here.
Admittedly, the first few minutes are dark and powerful, almost giving an early foretaste of film noir. But the rest of the film has a more hopeful flavour than this moody opening. The intensity falls off - although the film as a whole, surprisingly directed by Busby Berkeley between musicals, is still very enjoyable. This was Garfield’s second movie and his first starring role – and it feels quite similar to Cagney movies like the previous year’s Angels With Dirty Faces, especially as it co-stars the Dead End Kids.
The film’s biggest flaw is that it also co-stars Claude Rains, wildly miscast as a New York cop. I don’t suppose this great actor ever looked or felt more uncomfortable in a role. Rains doesn’t seem even to attempt an American accent, except that he talks faster than normal, and it just sounds ridiculous when, in his clipped English voice, he has to say lines like: “That was one swell-looking dame.” Rains’ character is a frustrated detective who has been stuck on “morgue duty” for years as a punishment – something which might have felt all too close to home for Rains himself, who was reportedly forced to take this part or face a suspension by Warner.
The noirish opening minutes see Garfield’s character, New York boxer Johnnie Bradfield, win a world title fight and soulfully dedicate his win to his dear old mother – also informing the press that he doesn’t waste his time on drink and women. Unfortunately, within minutes of making this announcement, he is busy knocking back large quantities of booze and in the arms of his girlfriend, Goldie (a tiny part for Ann Sheridan – whose two-dimensional character might just as well be called “gold digger”.)
I wanted to see Mr Skeffington because it stars Bette Davis, who is one of my favourite actresses. However, I ended up feeling that Claude Rains gives by far the stronger performance in this movie, which saw them both receiving Oscar nominations.
I was also interested to see it because I’d read that it is one of Hollywood’s first films to tackle anti-Semitism, and I’ve recently seen a couple of other films which look at this – but there isn’t as much about this theme as I’d expected. There are some brief, painful scenes where the Jewish hero, Job Skeffington (Rains) is shown being cruelly snubbed by members of society – and towards the end of the film there is some limited suggestion of what the Nazis were doing in Europe, leading to a shocking climax. However, most of the movie in fact focuses on Mrs rather than Mr Skeffington and on her struggle to come to terms with growing old and losing her looks – something which is unfortunately portrayed by Bette Davis wearing unconvincing wigs and inch-thick make-up.