Public Hero #1 starts out as a conventional prison yarn, then switches to sophisticated screwball comedy, then back to shoot 'em up melodrama. Perhaps it is the way the cast handles the crackling dialogue by J Walter Reuben and Wells Root that makes this mixed-genre film so entertaining. It never sinks into torpidity, thanks in part to the introduction of Jean Arthur and Lionel Barrymore well into the proceedings. Until then it is up to Chester Morris to hold our interest, which he does robustly, as an undercover federal agent posing as a convict to trap bad guy Joseph Calleia and his gang. Barrymore, however, steals the show as a pickled-to-the-gills alcoholic mob doctor
the great ham at his hammiest. Calleia contributes a nicely textured
portrait of a hardened but still human criminal. All in all, an energetic if contrived gangster story spiked with laughs, fun plot twists and colorful characters. The final moment is interesting. It's as if Chester Morris was itching to wrap and go home that day, didn't like the way the fade out was written, so he recklessly improvised the last line and the last blocking bit and then the director gave in and allowed it. See for yourself!
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