Monday, January 3, 2011

They Made Me a Criminal (Warner Bros., 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was They Made Me a Criminal, a 1939 Warners vehicle for the up-and-coming John Garfield, teamed up with what were still being called the “Dead End Kids”: Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan and Gabriel Dell. Warners had picked them up and put them under contract after their screen debut in Sam Goldwyn’s production of Dead End, in which they repeated their stage roles as young tough street kids who idolize gangster Baby Face Nelson (played in the movie by Humphrey Bogart on loan-out from Warners). They Made Me a Criminal was a remake of an impressive Warners programmer from 1933 called The Life of Jimmy Dolan, about a fighter (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) who after winning a major bout repairs to his apartment with his fun-loving girlfriend Goldie (Shirley Grey), only a reporter and his girlfriend crash the party and the reporter threatens to expose fighter Dolan’s image as a clean-living young man totally devoted to his mother as a lie. Dolan punches out the reporter and accidentally kills him, then is forced to flee after his manager and Goldie are themselves killed in a car crash and his attorney swindles him out of all his money.

Dolan, under the name Jack Dougherty, ends up hiding out on a farm run by Mrs. Moore (Aline MacMahon) and her niece Peggy (Loretta Young), helped by a smattering of young crippled children who the two women have taken in (one, called “Freckles,” played by the very young Mickey Rooney). They Made Me a Criminal tracks closely with The Life of Jimmy Dolan even though it’s about 20 minutes longer (91 instead of 71 minutes) and at least two of the cast members are considerably better actors than the originals: John Garfield instead of Fairbanks as the fighter and Claude Rains instead of Guy Kibbee as the New York police detective who pursues Johnny Bradfield (Garfield) after a photo taken by one of the kids at the ranch shows Bradfield practicing for a semi-professional fight with his characteristic stance. (Rains’ character, Phelan, is desperate to rehabilitate himself after having previously arrested and built the case against an accused murderer who was later proven innocent, but only after the poor guy was executed for a crime he didn’t commit.)

The part of Goldie is taken by a marvelous Ann Sheridan — though after her star turn in Angels with Dirty Faces (with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart and the Dead End Kids) it seems surprising that she’s stuck in a part so small she’s killed in the second reel — with Warners regular John Ridgely as the reporter who gets killed in Bradfield’s apartment just after Bradfield has won the middleweight championship (reflecting the era of stronger Production Code enforcement, Bradfield merely knocks the guy out and it’s the manager who actually kills him by clubbing him to death with a wine bottle held in his right hand — Bradfield is left-handed) and Barbara Pepper as the reporter’s girlfriend, who witnessed the whole incident (thereby seemingly setting up an ending in which she would reappear as a character and exonerate the hero, though no such scene appears; instead Phelan merely decides on his own hunch that Bradfield didn’t commit the crime and thereby lets him go), while the young woman running the farm is called Peggy and played by Gloria Dickson in what was probably the performance of her career from this usually bland actress (Warners tried giving her a star buildup, but it didn’t take).

The basic source for this story was called Sucker and written in the early 1930’s by Bertram Millhauser (later the go-to guy at Universal for scripts for the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies) and Beulah Marie Dix, though sources differ as to whether the original was a novel (that’s what it says in the credits for this film) or a play (as it’s identified in the American Film Institute Catalog entries both for this film and for The Life of Jimmy Dolan). The script for They Made Me a Criminal is by Sid Herzig (different writers, David Boehm and Erwin Gelsey, wrote The Life of Jimmy Dolan, but the two films “track” almost identically) and the cinematographer is James Wong Howe, while the boxer Bradfield is supposed to last four rounds in the ring against is played by Frank Ricci (with an unusual amount of chest hair for a 1930’s movie lead) and one of his other pigeons is the marvelous Louis Jean Heydt (why this tall, handsome, striking-looking actor got stuck in the character salt mines and never made it to leads remains a mystery to me).

The director of They Made Me a Criminal is Busby Berkeley, of all people — and he’s quite good, actually (this is probably Berkeley’s best non-musical), maintaining Warners’ usual relentless pace and creating quite powerful suspense effects, with only one reference to the sort of films he was best known for (when Bradfield is taking a “shower” on the ranch — which the Kids help him with by taking a tub of water with nail holes on the bottom, pouring water through it and letting it splash on him below — one of the Kids breaks out into an off-key version of “By a Waterfall,” the song used for one of the biggest numbers in Berkeley’s classic Footlight Parade). They Made Me a Criminal marked Garfield’s first starring role in a film, and Garfield was the first Method actor to become a movie star — and his training shows in the quiet understatement of his performance, his avoidance of the scenery-chewing Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney had done in similar parts in earlier Warners films; after watching him here it seems all the more tragic that his early death prevented him from starring in On the Waterfront (a story originally intended for him), since he would have been worlds better in the part than gross, heavy, overwrought Marlon Brando!