Sure beats staying home with Ma. Image: Pinterest

The Warner Bros. crime/gangster dramas of the 1930s could almost be a film genre of their own.

They were brisk, economical movies soaked with cynicism and Cruel Irony. The dialogue was fast, droll, and slang-y, and it wasted no time.

The movies featured characters in desperate situations, often “borrowed” from real life. No matter how many times characters thumbed their noses at police or society, the scripts had to convey the Production Code message that Crime Does Not Pay.

In our opinion, the Warner Bros. gangster flicks were concerned with one lesson: Life is Not Fair.

Authority figures in these films are usually powerful and dedicated to their own self-interests. It’s unfortunate innocent bystanders get hurt, but suckers get hurt anyway, so what can you do.

Look at the B-movie, They Made Me a Criminal (1939), a film that sneers at its main character and spends most of its 92-minute run time robbing him of hope.

Delinquent youths from the Big Apple. Image: Films en Caja Tonta

John Garfield stars as a professional boxer who is both a champ and a phony. He pretends to adore his mother, and is all Aw-Shucks sweetness in radio interviews, but it’s a facade to cover his love of booze and fast women. Get this: He tells his friends he ain’t even got a mother.

When we first meet Garfield, he is at the Pinnacle of his existence. He’s just won a world boxing championship, along with $10,000 in prize money, and he revels in the love of fans from across the country.

Alas, this is as good as it gets for him; the Warner Bros. script writers will find a way to knock him flat, and it doesn’t even take 15 minutes.

There’s a murder, a crooked lawyer, an explosive car accident, and these events shove Garfield to the bottom of the American socio-economic scale. He can’t catch a break.

The film deals in disillusionment like it’s currency. It spends ill fortune lavishly, and even sends Garfield to a date farm in Arizona, which turns out to be an outdoor reformatory for delinquent youths. Garfield reluctantly becomes their de facto mentor, and the script rewards him by making him even more indentured.

But yet.

Despite this, there is still enough doggedness in Garfield and his protégés to glean something from their circumstances. They ain’t going down without a Fight.

The Warner Bros. scriptwriters will at least allow them that.

It’s all fun and games until the Law shows up. Image:

They Made Me a Criminal was released in 1939, a difficult year for B-movies to gain recognition. 1939 is often regarded as Hollywood’s Golden Year, and the legendary films from that year make for a crowded Playing Field.

This film was directed, surprisingly, by Busby Berkeley, he of the groundbreaking 1930s Musical Extravaganzas. It’s a shame Berkeley didn’t direct more dramas, because this film is gritty and thought-provoking.

The cast is superb, and it’s astonishing to see who’s in the line-up, starting with John Garfield in his first leading role. Garfield had already received an Oscar nomination, and would become something of a legend for playing rough, working-class Joes with astonishing depth and sympathy.

Ann Sheridan, in a minor role, already had several years of film experience, although much of it was uncredited. However, by the late 1930s, her career was gaining traction and, by the end of the 1940s, she would star with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

We hate to say it, but the disappointment here is Claude Rains, and we can hardly believe we’re writing these words. He’s dreadfully miscast as a scornful New York cop, but he plows through the thing anyway, thanks to the threat of being suspended by Warner Bros. Rains later said it was one of his least favourite roles.

The problem of the 1939 release year notwithstanding, it’s hard to believe this B-movie is not more well known today. It’s a rare film with three actors who would experience tremendous success in the 1940s.

It is a pleasure to see them in a film that, perhaps, isn’t as jaded as it first appears.

This is a contribution to The FAVORITE STARS IN B MOVIES Blogathon hosted by Films From Beyond.

They Made Me a Criminal: starring John Garfield, Claude Rains, The Dead End Kids. Directed by Busby Berkeley. Written by Sig Herzig. Warner Bros., 1939, B&W, 92 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

38 Comment on “1930s Warner Bros. Crime and Disillusionment

  1. Pingback: 1930s Warner Bros. Crime and Disillusionment - Gangster Movies

Start Singin', Mac!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: