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It's always a good feeling when a movie delivers the goods when you
weren't expecting it. The Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys found themselves in
a lot of uneven films, and usually did better when in a support role,
as in "Angels With Dirty Faces". Here, their presence as a backdrop to
the story of a boxer framed for murder gives them a lot of screen time
without distracting from the main action.
John Garfield is light heavyweight champion Johnny Bradfield, a southpaw hitter who's a lot different from the image he portrays to the sports world and the press. When a newspaper reporter inadvertently learns that Johnny's a party loving womanizer, his plans to spill that information in a column is interrupted by a whiskey bottle to the head from Johnny's manager Doc Ward (Robert Gleckler). In turn, Doc talks Johnny's girlfriend Goldie (Ann Sheridan) into running off with him to avoid the legal hassle of dealing with the reporter's death. As both flee, a police chase winds up in a fiery car wreck, and Doc's body is misidentified as Johnny from the gold watch he was wearing.
Claude Rains adopts an Edward G. Robinson sneer that doesn't quite work as a detective who's been reassigned to morgue detail after a bad arrest years ago. His character is Monty Phelan, and he has a pretty good hunch that the body in the car crash wasn't Johnny. He pesters his boss to hand over the closed case to him, and is given the assignment to get him out of town and out of the way.
Meanwhile, Johnny looks for advice from his lawyer, and winds up being screwed even worse when he gets conned for most of his ten thousand dollar savings. Making his way cross country, Johnny winds up at the Rancho Rafferty Date Farm in Arizona, run by a crusty Granny Rafferty (May Robson). The farm is the legacy of Granny's brother, a deceased priest from Brooklyn, and is now the home of a band of rag tag street boys (The Dead End Kids) who work the farm. Billy Halop is the nominal leader of the boys in this one, and his sister Peggy (Gloria Dickson) becomes the romantic interest for Johnny, now going by the name of Jack Dorney.
I get a kick out of the historical perspective offered in these pre-War era films. When Johnny and the boys take a joy ride in the farm's truck, they fill up at a gas station for a $1.28! Tommy (Halop) gets the idea that a gas station on the farm would be a good way to earn some extra money, and with that thought, Jack Dorney decides to take on a barnstorming boxer offering $500 a round to anyone who can stay in the ring with him. The clichéd premise is turned on it's ear somewhat when Jack gets knocked out in the fifth round, but by then he's earned enough to give the fruit farm a fighting chance of it's own. Maybe Grandma Rafferty should have been in the ring, she just about took out everyone sitting around her at ringside. As Johnny/Jack comes around in the locker room, Detective Phelan is on hand to take him into custody. Knowing that he can redeem his reputation with this collar, it's a toss up as to whether Phelan follows through on his arrest - you'll have to watch the film to find out.
I like the Dead End films where Leo Gorcey's in charge, but he doesn't have a lot to do in this one. However he does a great flim-flam on the ticket taker at the gate of the boxing match. Another thought - wouldn't it have been great if the ever present picture on the wall of the priest had been that of Pat O'Brien?
All in all, this is a pretty good entry in both the John Garfield and Dead End Kids filmography, and an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. If there's one downside, it's not enough screen time for pretty Ann Sheridan. The film might have wound up even more satisfying if the roles of Sheridan and Gloria Dickson were reversed, as the on screen chemistry between Dickson's Peggy and Jack seemed more forced than natural.
This is breezy highly entertaining drama with an excellent cast. Garfield
is fine as a boxer hiding from the police with that motley crew the Dead
Kids. Most notable of these is the beautiful Billy Halop who has some
moving moments. Gloria Dickson, who in real life died very young in a
fire, is strong and very attractive as Halop's sister, and in the early
scenes Ann Sheridan, on the brink of stardom, is a knock-out. May Robson
very funny as a crusty old granny, but Claude Rains proves here that even
great actor can flounder if mis-cast (whoever thought of casting him as a
tough New York cop?).
Busby Berkeley proves here that he was a fine director with or without musical numbers. The film moves at a terrific pace and the water tower sequence is very suspenseful and well photographed. The ending is contrived, and the plot nothing startling or original, but I still found this a highly enjoyable experience.
They Made Me a Criminal is a remake of an earlier Warner Brothers film,
The Life of Jimmy Dolan which starred Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as the
prizefighter on the lam.
Even with the restrictions now upon production by the Hays Office, this remake actually turns out to be better than the original. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., is horribly miscast as a pugilist. John Garfield with his background and style steps into a part he was born to play.
They Made Me a Criminal was directed by Busby Berkeley who Jack Warner believed in keeping busy in between musicals. Berkeley in fact would soon be leaving Warner Brothers for MGM.
Berkeley does do a fine job here, keeping the action flowing at a good pace. I particularly like the scene where four of the Dead End Kids and Garfield are swimming in a water tank and get stranded there when the water level goes down. They get it out of it quite narrowly and with some good ingenuity.
Other performances besides Garfield and the kids to remember are May Robson who runs the summer camp for the kids and Claude Rains as the obsessed detective on Garfield's trail.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Busby Berkeley is best known for choreographing dozens of beautiful
girls in outlandish costumes, twirling and parading in early musicals,
but here he tries his hand at choreographing boxing matches. John
Garfield is terrific in this rough little melodrama, where he's a boxer
mixed up in a murder committed by his manager. The manager takes his
watch, his girl, and his car and is promptly mangled in a car accident
so horrendous that the cops mistake him for Garfield. The unlikely
misfortune continues to pile up on Garfield as he gets the worst legal
advice ever from his crooked lawyer and takes it on the lam to Arizona.
The wonderful Claude Rains, with his theatrical carriage and a comically-bad accent sounding more Queensland than Queens, is way out of his element as a tough-talking New York cop, and that alone may be worth the price of admission. The Dead End Kids (AKA the Bowery Boys) appear here as delinquents transplanted from New York to an Arizona fruit farm(?!) Gloria Dickson is a bottle-blonde treat as feisty rancher girl Peggy who has lousy taste in men.
Garfield lays low for a while on the ranch, mostly getting the boys into trouble, but somehow wins the heart of Dickson despite lying to her every time he opens his mouth thru the entire film. He enters an exhibition match with a professional fighter on tour who is taking all comers and offering big cash to anyone who can stay in the ring for more than two rounds. Garfield hopes to win enough to start a gas station and save the ranch at 16 cents a gallon. Rains naturally shows up and throws a wrench into his plans.
The dialog is weak but the plotting isn't completely predictable (unbelievable, maybe, but not predictable). It's a fun diversion for those who like the era of pork-pie hats and swell lingo. However, seeing the teens fleece a 12-year-old military school cadet in a game of strip poker is... disturbing.
***SPOILERS*** Even though the movie "They Made Me A Criminal" is
nowhere as good as the later John Garfield anti-hero classics like
"Body & Soul" in 1947 "Force of Evil" in 1948 and his last and very
underrated "He Ran All The Way" in 1951 it's the film that defined his
career from that point onward until his untimely death on May 21, 1952
at the young age of 39.
Garfiled plays the part of light Weight Champion Johnnie Bradfield and later the fugitive from the law Jack Dorney who's innocent of the murder that he's charged with, even though he's been declared officially dead. Jonnie's manager Doc Ward, Robert "Doc" Gleckler, who during a drunken victory party killed reporter Charles McGee,John Ridgely, who was going to expose to the public his fighter Johnnie Bradfield lies about him being a one women guy as well as non drinking momma's boy. Doc Gleckler smashed a bottle over McGee's head killing him as Jonnie was almost dead drunk with a number of women partying in his hotel suite.
Doc was later killed in a car crash with Johnnie's girlfriend Goldie, Ann Sheridan, but Doc burned to a crisp and with Johnnie's watch on him was mistaken for Johnnie. Told to stay dead and buried by his lawyer Malvin ,Robert Strange, who took $9,750.00 of the $10,000.00 of Johnnie's money that he had for this great piece of advice. Malvin told Johnnie to take on a new identity and call himself from now on Jack Dorney and get the hell out of the state of New York; talking about sleazy shysters. Johnnie now Jack Dorney travels the rails from New York down to Arizona ending up at the Rancho Rafferty Date Farm where most of the film takes place.
If it wasn't for John Garfield in the lead role as both Jonnie Bradfield & Jack Dorney the movie would have long been lost and forgotten. Garfield who was only 26 at the time brought the best out of everyone in the movie. Even the transported Dead End Kids, I guess we can call them The Arizona Kids here, acting were notches above what you would have expected from them and they came across as real and sensitive persons not a bunch of slap stick clowns like in almost all of their movies. All that due to being on the same stage, or filming location, with John Garfield.
"They Made Me a Criminal" is a good story that has the undercover champ acting like anything but not to draw any attention on himself and end up not only behind bars but in the electric chair. In the end Jack showed just what kind of man he is by not fighting the big fight and against all the odds dramatically winning at the last moment but by going four brutal rounds to get the money for his new found family at the date farm including his girl Peggy, Gloria Dickson, to open up a gas station with it.
Giving the European champ Gaspar Rutchek, Frank Riggi, the fight of his life and getting $2,000.00, thats $500.00 a round, for doing it Jack showed everyone who looked up to him like the "Arizona Kids" that sometimes taking a punch is far braver and more courageous then throwing one.The fact that Jack could have easily clobbered Rutched but didn't in order not to expose himself to the police, as on the loose killer Johnnie Bradfield. But instead went as far as he could taking everything that Rutchek could throw at him to help out his friends showed more then all the fights that he won in the boxing ring put together.
I for one didn't find the ending of the movie contrived at all but fitting right in with the story. The cop Morty Phelam, Claude Rains, who came to Arizona from New York to arrest Jack had to live with for years the fact that he once sent an innocent man to the electric chair. We were told all this right at the start of the movie. Why knowing that Jack/Johnnie was innocent of the murder that he's charged with and not knowing for sure if he'll be found innocent of it in a court of law would he want to make the same terrible mistake again? I can easily see this happening in real life why not then in the movies.
Known for his wonderfully cinematic dance sequences, Busby Berkeley went for a different genre in this fine 1939 crime drama. A youthful John Garfield plays Johnnie, a tough NYC boxer who scores a big break in the ring. He attends a drunken private party where a news reporter is murdered. The killer himself dies in a flaming auto wreck, but not before he successfully shifts the blame to Johnny. Johnny flees the city and hides out at a small boy's camp out west, populated by everyone's favorite wayward street gang, The Dead End Kids. All seems fine in this hide-out until a NYC detective (Claude Rains) who was on the murder case, happens by. Berkeley keeps the film going at a terrific pace. Berkeley would never settle for a point-and-shoot look to his film. His camera is all over the place, even underwater when the kids take over a water tank. There's all the stock characters of old cinema her e- the nice girl who softens Garfield's heart, the spry old grannie, the tough NYC cops and reporters. Fun movie.
The blend of talent in "They Made Me A Criminal" is rather unusual,
with John Garfield, who was at his best in film-noir type settings,
Claude Rains, a skilled and classy character actor, and the Dead End
Kids, best known for more boisterous material. The story is written to
give all of them some good moments, and as a whole it works quite well.
Garfield gets a tailor-made role as a boxing champion who goes on the run after he is set up and framed. It was Garfield's misfortune that perhaps his best role, in "The Postman Always Rings Twice", was overshadowed (through no fault of his own, since it would have happened to almost anyone in the role) by Lana Turner's unforgettable performance. Here, Garfield gets the chance to show what he can do, showing a tough side, a cynical side, and, at the right times, a somewhat more thoughtful side.
The story is very interesting, and other than a couple of slightly implausible developments, it works well in mixing some different kinds of material and settings. The supporting cast all does well, although Rains has to battle with his role, as a tough-cop character that doesn't really make the best use of his strengths.
In keeping everything together and on-track, Busby Berkeley shows the same kind of skill that enabled him to produce the variety numbers for which he was better known. He comes in for his share of the credit here in creating an interesting movie with some unusual features.
The young John Garfield turned in a fine performance in the 1939 "They Made
Me a Criminal." Celebrating a ring victory in a jammed locker room, boxer
Johnnie Bradfield emotes about his love of mom, rejection of booze and clean
living style to fans, including cops, who eat it up. Later in the evening
he's plowed and tussling with his bimbo gal while his manager, in on the
con, shares the evening. And the whiskey.
A problem develops when another couple arrives. The guy is a newspaper reporter and he says he'll expose Bradfield's phony life on the front page. The manager kills the reporter and he and the floozy depart. The murder discovered, cops, later, are on the lookout for the now somnolent boxer whose car is driven by the manager with his new girlfriend-Johnny's now instant ex. A police chase ends with a fiery car crash. Manager and girl are dead and unrecognizable.
Johnny discovers that he's supposed to be a killer. But he's also presumed dead. Seeking advice from a lawyer, he entrusts the counselor with the key to a bank deposit box holding his sole savings, $10,000. The lawyer later gives Johnny $250 and tells him that the balance is his fee for giving him professional advice: get out of town, fast, and go far away. (I would never charge a client more than $5,000 for such pithy, succinct and wise direction.)
Johnny, now a freight train hopping hobo, winds up conveniently passing out at an Arizona date ranch where he's nursed back to health by beautiful Goldie West, Ann Sheridan, a fine actress whose career was in the ascendancy. Taking Jack Dorney as his moniker, the pugilist loses some of his rough edges as he falls in love with Goldie. He becomes a mentor and pal to - The Dead End Kids. Familiar screen characters to pre-war moviegoers.
A chance to make money arises when an exhibition boxer shows up challenging any suckers to last several rounds in the ring with him. It's a natural temptation for Bradfield/Dorney but there's a fly in the ointment. Who should show up but New York detective Monty Phelan, the laughing stock of the department? He's been on morgue duty for ages because of a slight mistake early in his career that sent an innocent man to Old Sparky (we all make mistakes, don't we?) Phelan recognized Bradfield from a news photo and he's there to watch the fight and make the pinch. Claude Rains is the cop who's endured slights and barbs from his fellow officers for years.
What follows is predictable but it's well acted. I hope this was a main feature when it was released-it's too good to rank as a "B" second on a marquee.
Busby Berkeley, best known as an outstanding choreographer, directed "They Made Me a Criminal" and Max Steiner, one of Hollywood's all-time prolific score composers, wrote nice but not extraordinary music for the film.
Now available on DVD from Alpha Video, the movie set me back a mere $4.99 and gave me real pleasure. I'll view it again.
I have never been a big fan of John Garfield but seeing this movie
gave me a different opinion. This is a well done remake of one of
my all time favorite films "The Life of Jimmy Dolan" (1933) with
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. , Loretta Young , a very young Mickey
Rooney and a cameo by a guy named John Wayne. That film had
one of the best love songs ever "How Deep Is the Ocean" as a
background to the love scenes.
Garfield plays his boxer a little more as a looser than did Doug Fairbanks but he is great in the part.
What really drew me to this film was the "ensemble" cast of the Dead End Kids as the tough reform school guys on the farm that Garfield's character helps. The ever superb (and I feel also unrated) Leo Gorcey says it all with his body language and that face as the tough mug with a ice cube for a heart. He is wonderful. As for the rest of the Bowery Boys/Dead End Kids, they are also fabulous. How they play off each other is a lesson in acting.
I would recommend this film but for the classic take on this story see the Fairbanks film. It is outstanding.
After winning a championship fight, boxer John Garfield (as Johnnie
Bradfield) celebrates with a drinking binge, which leads to the
manslaughter of a pushy reporter. Although his manager killed the man,
Mr. Garfield is blamed. When the manager dies in a car crash, wearing
Garfield's stolen watch, authorities think the boxer is dead. Still a
WANTED man, Garfield changes his identity to "Jack Dorney" and moves to
an Arizona ranch. There, Garfield meets "The Dead End Kids": Billy
Halop (as Tommy), Bobby Jordan (as Angel), Leo Gorcey (as Spit), Huntz
Hall (as Dippy), Gabriel Dell (as T.B.), and Bernard Punsly (as Milt).
Garfield bonds with the young "Dead End" lads, who were sent to stay with sweet "Grandma Rafferty" (May Robson) as an alternative to reform school, courtesy of her brother, deceased priest "Father Rafferty". Garfield falls in love with Halop's sister, pretty "Peggy" (Gloria Dickson), who is there to keep any eye on the kids. Of course, Garfield's past comes back to haunt him
John Garfield and The 'Dead End' Kids make beautiful (Max Steiner) music together, thanks to effective direction and photography, by Busby Berkeley and James Wong Howe. The story is predictably comfortable, with the Warner Brothers support team in fine form. Garfield and the "Dead End" kids are a winning combination; although Garfield made no further movies with the "East Side" gang, the studio had him re-team with both Billy Halop and Bobby Jordan, almost immediately, for "Dust Be My Destiny".
The boxing scenes are nicely staged. But, the most exciting sequence has Garfield and four of the New York "Kids" (Halop, Jordan, Hall, and Punsly) climbing into a giant water tank for a swim - which unexpectedly puts their lives in danger. Other, more brief, highlights include floozy Ann Sheridan (as Goldie), boozy Barbara Pepper (as Budgie), and young Ronald Sinclair (as Douglas) losing at strip poker.
******** They Made Me a Criminal (1/21/39) Busby Berkeley ~ John Garfield, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Claude Rains
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