Thursday 17 December 2009

You Can't Get Away With Murder (1939)

Director: Lewis Seiler
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Billy Halop and Gale Page
TCM's star of the month for Dec 2009 is Humphrey Bogart, to celebrate what would have been his 110th birthday on 25 Dec, at least according to Warner Brothers.
Johnny Stone looks up to Frank Wilson like he's a hero but he's really a crook, the sort of cheap two bit gangster you might expect from thirties Hollywood. Gangsters like Wilson tended to call everyone 'kid' but Johnny really lives up to the name. He's a real wet around the ears youngster who insists on going along with his idol on a job to hold up a gas station and promptly spends his half of the take on a whole new wardrobe. You can understand some of the appeal given that Wilson is played by Humphrey Bogart, who knew this sort of small time crook part backwards having played it for half of a decade. Then again, Johnny's played by Billy Halop, who was making only his sixth film here but his fourth with Bogart, after Dead End, Crime School and Angels with Dirty Faces. He ought to have known better by this point!

Meanwhile life is looking up for Johnny's sister Madge. Her boyfriend Fred Burke is a respectable soul who has landed a managerial position in Boston and he's named the date when they'll be married. He even wants to help Johnny out and get him back on the straight and narrow, but when he tries to tell him the kid just doesn't want to know. 'You can't show me nothing,' he shouts and storms out to hold up a pawnbroker's place with Wilson. He even takes Fred's gun with him and Wilson uses it, leaving the pawnbroker dead and the gun in the pawnshop as an easy find for the cops. Sure enough, it's Fred that goes down for the crime, quickly finding his way to the death house at Sing Sing. By the time he gets there Wilson and Johnny are inside too, for the gas station job. With this success rate, it's amazing that this bunch can manage to get out of bed in the morning.
Billy Halop was perfect for this sort of role and while it's great to see old reliables like Henry Travers, George E Stone and Joe Sawyer, it's Halop who has to carry the whole film on his shoulders. Fortunately he knew it well. It's really the old cautionary chestnut that crime doesn't pay, all wrapped up in the story of an idiot kid who falls prey to the easy road in life and resists redemption all the way down the line. He spends most of this film so tangled up in a knot that it's a wonder he doesn't burst and the story doesn't do much except twist him even tighter. We know that he has to come clean in the end but it's a very particular sort of ordeal watching him fight it as hard as he possible he can as long as he possibly can.

These stories were strong and telling affairs in an America recovering slowly from the Great Depression and many of them featured youngsters in the lead roles. There were so many of these films churned out in the thirties that sometimes it feels like there must have been one such on the bill at any random theatre at any random spot in time. They all featured people like Billy Halop, who was one of the most prominent of them, sassy and tough but always redeemably human somewhere inside, the sort of kid who mothers couldn't help burning to save. It doesn't take much to see across seventy years to the audiences of 1939 and watch those women squirm along with Johnny.

His first film was Dead End, an adaptation of a Broadway play which starred names like Sylvia Sidney and Joel McCrea but was really all about the youngsters who took their name from it, the Dead End Kids. They were a group of sassy young actors who originated these roles on Broadway, then reprised them in Hollywood and proceeded on to various name changes over a long string of films for a number of studios. There were 89 of them in all, initially starring the Dead End Kids, who became the Little Tough Guys, then the East Side Kids and eventually the Bowery Boys. I've seen a bunch of these and it's now impossible to see this sort of character without seeing their faces, faces like Halop's, Leo Gorcey's or Huntz Hall's, so much so that this film wouldn't have worked without one of them. It's more melodramatic than most but it's solid enough.

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