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”.)
Soon extremely drunk, Johnnie boasts loudly about how he doesn’t really have a mother at all, and the sentimental story is just designed to appeal to “suckers”. A newspaper reporter overhears this and rashly comments that it will be a great scoop for him – but he ends up dead as a result, when Johnnie’s manager first punches him and then hits him over the head with a bottle.
As Johnnie lies in a drunken stupor, the manager, Doc Ward (Robert Gleckler), and Goldie briskly strip him of everything he has, including his watch, and run off with his car – neatly bearing out the boxer’s comment made a little earlier: “There’s no such thing as friends. You’re my friend, for fifty per cent. If I was down, you’d take my watch, my girl and my car.”
The couple run the car off the road in a police chase and it bursts into flames, killing them both. As a result, when Johnnie finally wakes up, on top of his hangover,he discovers from the front page of the newspaper that he is believed to be a murderer – and thought to be dead. His misery is completed hen he asks his lawyer for help – but, corrupt like everyone else, the legal expert instead steals his $10,000 savings, handing Johnnie just $250 and advising him to change his name and run away. “Stay dead.”
So far, so dark. Not a single character has seemed remotely trustworthy. As in the world of noir, everyone has a price and nobody really cares about anyone else. However, the hardboiled dialogue has also given Johnnie a certain poignancy, as we know that he has no family and no true friends.
The mood now changes and that poignancy deepens, as, in a brief sequence, the champion boxer is seen on the run and facing destitution. When he is thrown off a train roof where he has been hitching a ride, he walks – and, when his boots wear out, he goes barefoot. Eventually, and rather improbably, he turns up at a date farm in Arizona, and casually asks for a handful of dates, but turns away when the young woman at the desk tells him he must work before he eats. She thinks he is too lazy to work, but, as he leans slightly against a table, it’s clear to the audience he is too weak, and, when he tries to walk away, he faints on the ground. This whole sequence reminded me of scenes in earlier 1930s movies, like Hawks’ The Crowd Roars or Borzage’s Man’s Castle, where starving people try to hide their hunger and put on a good show – I realise the height of the Depression was receding by 1939, but the memory of it was still raw.
The young woman, Peggy (Gloria Dickson) nurses Johnnie, now known as Jack, back to health. He decides to stay on at the farm, which, it turns out, is being run as a sort of unlikely unofficial reform school for a group of New York teenagers, played by the Dead End Kids. At first Johnnie is a bad influence on the younger lads – but, as so often in these older films and some contemporary ones too, the countryside turns out to be a kinder world than the city and he is soon being reformed along with them, softened by his growing love for Peggy and inspired by the woman who runs the farm, known to everyone as Grandma (May Robson). I was interested to see that this film features two women running a business, which I think is quite unusual in movies of the period. However, they are both fiercely maternal and seem to spend most of their time worrying about “their boys”. Peggy is the older sister of one of the boys, Tommy (Billy Halop), and at the farm mainly so she can keep an eye on him.
The whole interaction between Johnnie and Peggy and the kids really reminded me of reform school movies like The Mayor of Hell, with the same feeling that young people’s lives can be turned around if they are given a chance to develop and govern themselves.
Gloria Dickson is hardly mentioned in much of the advertising for later issues of this film, despite being the leading lady, with Ann Sheridan, who hardly comes in, getting bigger billing – the reason being that Dickson died in a house fire within a few years, while Sheridan went on to have a successful career.
When Johnnie discovers that the women are struggling financially, he decides to take part in a boxing event locally, taking on a boxer who is boasting that he will fight any comer, so that he can raise the money they need. Johnnie is much smaller than this giant (Garfield was only 5ft 7in and many of his co-stars towered over him), but vows to take on the challenge.
However, cop Monty Phelan (Rains) just happens to see a newspaper photo of our hero, and travels all the way from New York to find out whether Jack is really Johnnie. The fight scenes seemed convincing to me and I found them quite hard to watch because of the level of raw violence, though I’m no boxing expert. (Garfield was an ex-amateur boxer, so it should be authentic – and eight years later, of course, he went back into the ring in the great film Body and Soul.)
Unusually, in this film, his character takes a terrible beating and gets knocked out, rather than triumphing in the best cheesy movie style – though it’s suggested that he is pulling his punches in order to disguise his identity from the watching Phelan. Before the fight, there are some good scenes where Johnnie talks to another of the challengers, who needs to win some money to pay his pregnant wife’s medical bills – these scenes reminded me a little of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, as you get the Depression-era feeling of so many people being willing to risk exhausion and injury for the slim chance of winning some cash.
I hadn’t come across screenplay writer Sig Herzig much before, but enjoyed the crisp dialogue. All through the film, I was watching out for hints of Busby Berkeley’s unique talents. There aren’t any dance scenes, though the fights seem well choreographed – but there is a dramatic sequence where the kids are trapped in a pool, including underwater filming, which shows Berkeley’s flair for making the most of a big scene. And, in another scene, there’s one unmistakeable cheeky signal of his presence, when one of the Dead End Kids loudly sings part of By A Waterfall, a song from Berkeley’s movie Footlight Parade.