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”.)

Continue reading

The Mayor of Hell (1933)

After watching the 1932 movie Hell’s House, set in a reform school, I was keen to see this better-known Warner Brothers movie, directed by Archie Mayo and starring James Cagney, Frankie Darro and Madge Evans, which was made the following year. I was delighted to find that this one is included in the excellent Gangsters Collection 3 recently issued by Warner Brothers – a shame for film fans in the UK that it is only available as a region 1 import, though I believe the discs are actually region-free.
 
Anyway, the print is beautifully remastered, a great change from all the shaky grey pictures and out-of-sync soundtracks I’ve been suffering recently! The commentary by film historian Greg Mank also gives interesting background, though at times I think he gets too fixated on listing all the films a minor actor appeared in rather than focusing on what is happening in the powerful melodrama we’re watching. The most intriguing aspect of his commentary is his focus on how much censorship this film suffered even in the pre-Code area, with various states cutting different lines and scenes, offended by everything from juvenile vandalism to Cagney saying: “Ah, nuts!”

James Cagney and Madge Evans

James Cagney and Madge Evans

The spectacular finale, where rioting inmates set fire to the reformatory, was almost completely cut in some states, so that cinema-goers must have had a job working out what was going on.
 
Cagney plays gangster Patsy Gargan who is given a role as deputy commissioner, nominally in charge of  a reform school, as a political favour. However, when he meets the boys and  sees how badly they are being treated by the sadistic Mr Thompson (a wildly over-the-top Dudley Digges), Gargan starts to become emotionally involved.   As a boy from the slums  himself, he identifies with the youngsters and is determined to help them. He joins forces with the saintly reformatory nurse Dorothy (Madge Evans), takes over the running of the reform school and gives the boys a chance to prove themselves through self-government. The experiment goes smoothly and gives hope for the future – but Thompson is determined to get back control.

Continue reading

Hell’s House (1932)

I saw this pre-code offering as one of a trio of films crammed on to a budget DVD misleadingly entitled Three Leading Ladies of the Silver Screen – with cover artwork  making it appear that Bette Davis is the star of the movie. In fact, she only has a very small part, as Peggy, the kind-hearted girlfriend of bootlegger  Matt Kelly (Pat O’Brien). I  gather the movie was rereleased after Davis and O’Brien had become stars, and repackaged to make the most of their names.

Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin

Bette Davis, Pat O'Brien and Junior Durkin

However,  this is the tale of a reform school for boys, and the lead role in fact belongs to  young actor Junior Durkin, who was 18 at the time the film was made. This contemporary review from the New York Times does give him top billing, though his name disappears from later posters. Watching this gawky lad with an expressive face, who dominates the screen whenever he’s present,  I wondered why he didn’t go on to become an adult star. Sadly, the answer is  that he died in a car crash at the age of 20. By contrast, the other teenager with a major part, Frank Coghlan Jr,  aka Junior Coghlan, is still alive, according to the small amount of material I found about him on the net. (He also played the young Tom Powers in the opening scenes of The Public Enemy.)

Continue reading