Thursday 11 March 2021

Movie Review: They Made Me A Criminal (1939)

A drama about a boxer forced to abandon his life then discovering a new way to live and love, They Made Me A Criminal is a hard-boiled and uneven split-decision.

In New York, boxer Johnnie Bradfield (John Garfield) wins the championship title. Publicly he pretends to be a clean-living model of good behaviour, but privately he is a cynical womanizer and heavy drinker. At a private party, his manager gets involved in a scuffle and kills a reporter then flees with Johnnie's girlfriend Goldie (Ann Sheridan), pinning the blame on Johnnie.

The boxer is forced to disappear and drifts across the country, finally arriving at the Arizona palm tree and dates ranch run by Peggy (Gloria Dickson) and her grandmother (May Robson). Peggy also houses a group of ex-New York juvenile delinquents (the Dead End Kids). Johnnie befriends the boys, getting them in and out of trouble, while trying to spark a romance with Peggy. Meanwhile, detective Phelan (Claude Rains) is determined to catch up with the fugitive boxer.

Only six years after 1933's The Life Of Jimmy Dolan, Warner Bros. dusts off the same script and produce a remake, this time as a showcase for John Garfield and the Dead End Kids. The story carries inherent power and Garfield is effective and more than sufficiently caustic in the leading role. But despite many scene-for-scene recreations, this version stumbles upon weaknesses exposed by suspect choices.

Song and dance extravaganza maestro Busby Berkeley somehow ends up in the director's chair for a mostly grim drama. A few high-angle shots are impressive, but otherwise Berkeley demonstrates no interest in artistically enhancing the intensity of Johnnie's predicament. Gloria Dickson as the main love interest is an unfortunate non-entity in a de-emphasized role. More damaging is the casting of a clearly disinterested and therefore over-indulgent Claude Rains as Phelan, his role whittled down to a handful of scenes and losing much of its impact.

But perhaps the fluffiest deficiency resides in the remake's raison d'etre. Once the Dead End Kids enter the movie at the start of the second half, Johnnie is relegated to the sidelines of the boys' antics and escapades. The fledgling romance with Peggy is shoved far to the background and becomes a clumsy afterthought dealt with in boorish strokes. For fans of the Kids this is all well and good, but otherwise They Made Me A Criminal deflates for a substantial stretch until the climax picks back up.

Despite still delivering a decent punch, They Made Me A Criminal is also on the receiving end of some solid self-inflicted blows.

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