For Reel

They Made Me a Criminal (1939)
December 3, 2011, 3:36 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley is remembered today as talented choreographer unparalleled in directing escapist dance spectacles during the depression years. Here, in a gritty melodrama, he favors car chases and boxing matches over the feathers and fountains of his luminous set pieces.

John Garfield plays a prizefighter who must relocate from the city after being wrongfully suspected of a murder. He happens upon an unlikely lush Arizonian fruit farm wherein he takes a liking to a group of young tramps and intends to help them raise enough money to open up a gas station.

Garfield is most familiar in brooding noirs of the 1940s, but here his character isn’t quite as tarnished with the same level of cynicism – in fact, in the first act he’s nearly unrecognizable with a cheerful demeanor. Evolving as a patriarch on the farm, Garfield successfully plays a common-man hero with an affectionate, fatherly edge that was unseen in films like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Four Daughters.

The ever-reliable Claude Rains gives a rare awful performance. The story goes that Rains himself had little interest in playing a New York cop in this picture, but the studio had threatened contract suspension should he refuse the part. His inconsistent, implacable accent makes one feel embarrassed on behalf of one the era’s most dignified screen presences.

Alongside Garfield are the Dead End Kids, a group of young actors who appeared in seven films between 1937 and 1939 before graduating to new monickers. There is an easy comparison to be made between this film and Angels with Dirty Faces (that film starring Jimmy Cagney, who Garfield was groomed to be the successor of), with the dramatic stakes of the second half of the picture revolving around whether or not the reformed hero can prove to be a good role model for a group of impressionable youngsters.

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