The Siren didn't realize this when she posted it, but her great picture of John Garfield was from a movie she saw last week, They Made Me a Criminal. This 1939 Warner Brothers feature is a pleasure, showing Garfield's charisma and talent in full flower.
In some ways it's an odd movie, with a beginning that suggests film noir. But check the date; it's 1939, no postwar anomie here. What starts out a dark tale of a man who loses everything over a crime he didn't commit turns rapidly into a story of a heel who finds redemption. Garfield plays boxer Jimmy Dolan, who wins the world title as the movie opens in the first of several great fight scenes. Turner Classic Movies suggests director Busby Berkley's experience filming dancers gave him an advantage in filming the boxing moves. The Siren believes, but can't prove, that genius cinematographer James Wong Howe
had more to do with it than the director, especially if you look at the fight scenes Howe shot for 1947's Body and Soul.
As reporters gather around him after the fight, Jimmy expounds on the virtues of clean living, teetotaling and remembering his dear old mom. Next thing you know, he's blotto and lolling around on a couch with Miss Oomph herself, Ann Sheridan, as they both laugh it up over fooling the press corps. Sheridan, whose rising star gave her high billing for a tiny part, wears a black satin dress held up only by attitude and what appears to be black dental floss. You figure half the reason Garfield invited her was to see how long those straps could stand the strain. It's a great scene, with Garfield balancing lovable scamp and dangerous drunk. Unfortunately for his character, Ann's dress is still going strong when an uninvited guest turns out to be a reporter, dead keen to expose Jimmy as a hard-partying hypocrite.
Jimmy punches the guy, then passes out. His crooked manager coshes the reporter in the noggin with a whiskey bottle. Ever see a movie bar fight where someone gets hit over the head with a bottle, and think to yourself, "My word, how can that man still move?" Well, here the bottle kills the guy. The Siren can't decide if that is more realistic, or goes too far in the other direction. Perhaps the reporter had an undiagnosed aneurysm.
The crooked manager persuades Sheridan to escape with him. They load Garfield in the back of a car, drive him out to the country, dump him in a cottage and vamoose. (Here the Siren ponders how empty cottages are as abundant in movies as well-located parking spaces.) But fate catches up with the pair, in the form of a fiery car wreck that leaves them not only dead, but unidentifiable. The world assumes Jimmy killed the reporter. But one cop (Claude Rains) doesn't believe Jimmy is dead. He's determined to bring in the boxer.
Rains' greatest strength--that deep, liquid-caramel voice--renders him ridiculous here, because someone had the bright idea of casting him as a tough New Yorker. Rains fought against having to take this role, but Warners threatened to suspend him and he gave up. He wanders through the movie, pursuing John Garfield and looking about as comfortable as a soaking wet cat. There are times when he seems to have the physicality of the cop right, but then he opens his mouth and it's curtains.
Back to Jimmy. His savings stolen by a crooked lawyer, he becomes a hobo. Here we leave proto-noir-land and are back firmly in the Depression, with a great sequence of Garfield hopping boxcars and getting chased by the railway detectives. (Judging by the way railway detectives are shown in 1930s movies, people must have hated them even more than bankers. Remember Sullivan's Travels?) Finally Jimmy fetches up on a work farm, where the Dead End Kids are serving out juvenile sentences. They're supervised by Kid Billy Halop's sister (Gloria Dickson, pretty good here, but just six years away from her horrible death). What's a boxer to do but straighten out these crazy kids? And how could a sister not love him for it?
I am always happy to see the Dead End Kids, emblematic of the wisecracking, classic New York I love. TCM says they got along well with Garfield, and it shows, with zing in the comic scenes and lightness in the sentimental ones. One great sequence has Garfield and the Kids using an irrigation tank as a swimming hole, with near-disastrous results. Underwater shots of the boys' flailing legs build the suspense. Whether this was Howe's touch, or Berkley's, it's marvelous.
Still more pleasures are to be had from this movie, including an end that didn't quite play as the Siren expected. It is widely available as a budget DVD, and doesn't look bad at all. The Siren recommends it.