Castle on the Hudson (1940)

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.

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They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

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 theymademeacriminal2toughness 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”.)

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Black Legion (1936)

I’ve now watched most of the movies from the Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Volume 3 box set – which is rather misnamed since none of the movies really seem to be true gangster films. Anyway, this early Humphrey Bogart offering is my favourite of those I’ve seen so far, along with The Mayor of Hell – which was also made by the same director, Archie Mayo. Judging from the films of his I’ve seen to date, it seems as if he was great at getting that Warner grittiness and working-class atmosphere, and, even when hamstrung by the Hays Code, he still pushed the boundaries as far as he could.

BlackLegionsleeveIn this exposé of 1930s fascist organisations, Mayo was forced by the Hays office to remove some vital elements, such as explicit references to the ethnicity of the victims targeted by the Legion, a shadowy Ku Klux Klan-like organisation operating in some states of the US at the time. There are no African-Americans in the movie at all, and it’s only hinted that one of the victims might be Polish-Jewish, another Irish Catholic. Mayo even had to include a disclaimer at the start suggesting that the Black Legion was a fictional organisation – although I’m not sure if this was dictated by Hays or an attempt to avoid reprisals by the real terror organisations. In any case, this would have fooled nobody. The real Black Legion had recently been in the headlines over a murder case which provided much of the inspiration for the plot.

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I Was a Male War Bride (1949)

Seeing the names of Howard Hawks and Cary Grant together, I expected a lot from I Was a Male War Bride. Watching it, however, I felt slightly disappointed, as I soon realised this isn’t the masterpiece I’d expected – and nowhere near the sublime screwball comedy of their other collaborations like His Girl Friday

iwasamalewarbride21Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed it, and wouldn’t quite agree with the critics who claim that it is “horrendously unfunny” – James Harvey’s verdict in the massive book I’m currently reading, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood.  I think that’s slightly harsh. There are some amusing moments, and the basic story is intriguing – but, to me, the main problem is that the dialogue just isn’t as fast and as sparkling as a screwball comedy needs it to be. Quite a bit of slapstick comedy is thrown in to make amends, and is often funny – but razor-sharp exchanges of wit between  Grant and Ann Sheridan could have been even funnier.

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They Drive By Night (1940)

I first saw the Raoul Walsh movie They Drive By Night about 30 years ago. At the time, I remember being slightly startled that long-distance drivers are presented in such an heroic light, and finding it faintly ridiculous when they are shown driving along roads at night accompanied by the sort of insistent, doom-ridden music which might usually mean a battle is about to break out. Watching again after all these years, I don’t find it ridiculous at all, but poignant.  I’m now a big fan of early, gritty Warners movies, with their focus on working lives, and am impressed the way that this film shows just how hard  it was for lorry drivers to make ends meet. 

I was struck now by how much it is a film of two halves. For me, the first half is brilliant – a powerful depiction of the tough conditions facing truckers – while the second  half is a rather weak film noir with a far-fetched crime plot. However, I am aware some critics think just the opposite and love the noir part.

GRITTY DRAMA: Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan and George Raft

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