|While I normally like to provide some sort of background on the movies I review here (either some historical context or maybe a fun little fact about the cast or crew), the various permutations of the The Dead End Kids are far too numerous to mention here. So if you'd be so kind, please direct your attention here. I'll just wait while you get all caught up on your late-1930's juvenile delinquents on film history...
Got it all? Basically the play Dead End became a movie by the same name (starring Sylvia Sidney, Joel McCrea, Humphrey Bogart, Wendy Barrie, Claire Trevor, and Allen Jenkins), and the original cast from the play reprised most of their roles. This group of actors became known as the Dead End Kids, and they were comprised of Billy Halop (Tommy), Bobby Jordan (Angel), Huntz Hall (Dippy), Bernard Punsly (Milty), Gabriel Dell (T.B.), and Leo Gorcey (Spit). And over the next 21 years various combinations of this troupe of actors and additional players went on to make 89 films and three serials for four different studios (under a number of different group names: The Dead End Kids, The East Side Kids, The Little Tough Guys, and The Bowery Boys). But it was the original gang of Halop, Jordan, Hall, Punsly, Dell, and Gorcey that starred in the subject of this particular review, They Made Me A Criminal.
This 1939 remake of The Life of Jimmy Dolan (starring Douglass Fairbanks Jr.) is emblematic of so many pre-Noir films of this time period. Lots of fedoras and smoking, and Claude Rains is there. Everyone talks real fast, see, and the emotions and motivations all turn on a dime. The movie begins at a running start where we're introduced to Johnnie Bradfield (Garfield), the newly crowned lightweight champion of the world. His public persona is one of a clean cut Momma's Boy who doesn't drink and always goes to church, but in reality his mom's dead and he's a bit of a sauce monster who carouses with a morally iffy broad named Goldie (Ann Sheridan, in an all too brief role) and other undesirables. During his post championship bender he gets into a dust up with a news reporter who threatens to reveal his not so squeaky clean image, and through a fairly convoluted series of circumstances, ends up framed for murder, robbed (twice!), and presumed dead. All of this happens in the first 10 minutes! So now he's gone from lightweight champion of the world to just some guy with a five o'clock shadow and a hangover who's on the lam.
After some classic lamming footage (the well-worn shots of shuffling feet, 15¢ a night hotels, and tramp cars superimposed over a line winding it's way across the U.S. of A), Johnnie finds himself at a date farm in Arizona. It's here that he runs into the Dead End Kids, playing against type as a group of New York City delinquents who got the golden opportunity to do day labor rather than going to reform school. The ranch is run by Grandma Rafferty (Mary Robson) and one of the hood's sister, Peggy (Gloria Dickson). Johnnie immediately takes a shine to Peggy, while forming a bond with the street-wise kid's from his hometown.
So that about wraps it up, right? Johnnie seems to have found himself a fantastic situation there in Arizona. Good woman, father figure to a bunch of nice kids, and all the dates a man could eat, so he'll be regular. But he didn't account for that hard-nosed NYC detective with the English accent that he met during the break neck intro section, Phelan (Rains). The disgraced dick is looking to erase some detecting mistakes from his past (sent an innocent guy to the chair!), and he's not convinced that Johnnie Bradfield is dead. So, rather than laying low, Johnnie decides to help Phelan out by being photographed AND entering a boxing competition out in Arizona. WILL Johnnie be discovered? And what about the ranch (which is, invariably, in trouble; that's why Johnnie enters the boxing competition)? And how about Grandma Rafferty? And Peggy? And all dem angels with dirty faces back at the homestead? Hmmmm?
Like I said earlier, the status quo is maintained for a movie from this time period. Coming in just under the hour and a half mark, the plot moves briskly, and the emotions are like sign posts on an expressway. Drama, Coming in 5 minutes! Get off at Exit 41 for Romance! Tugging the Heart Strings and Intrigue Merge Just Ahead! John Garfield plays his part of tough guy with a decent heart easily. And this won't be the last time he plays a boxer (his academy award winning role in Body and Soul came 8 years later). Gloria Dickson is very natural as the tough gal doubting Johnnie's intentions who turns on a dime and immediatley gets all dewy-eyed and rubbery-kneed for him, just because the script says so. And, of course, the Dead End Kids are up to all kinds of rough housing and shenanigans. Like slapstick comedy, either you go for that kind of stuff or you don't. The biggest problem is the woefully miscast and underutilized Claude Rains. He just isn't able to do NY-tough, and his role in this drama is about as stiff and unimaginative as they come. As the de facto antagonist, he's neither threatening nor present enough to be effective. It's a shame that such a fine actor was wasted in such a limp and unproductive role.