San Quentin (1937) Starring: Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, Barton MacLane. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Screenplay by Peter Milne, Humphrey Cobb. Story by Robert Tasker, John Bright. Produced by Jack L. Warner (Exec. Producer) Hal B. Wallis (Exec. Producer) Run Time: 70 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama, Prison
After having successfully created the gangster film genre, Warner Bros. was starting to find itself under fire by the new production code of 1933 which was suddenly being enforced. A simple fix was to move gangster stars, like Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar 1930) and James Cagney (Public Enemy 1931) into law enforcement in
Bullets or Ballots (1936) and G-Men (1935) respectively.
But Warners was never one to walk away from a news story that could be made into a movie. They had already made a film about prison-life, I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), and with the depression starting to come to a close, prisons were filled with the victims of the hard times who were being forced to share cell space with hardened career criminals. This, coupled with overcrowding and tales of prison guard brutality, was more fodder for the Warner Bros. By the end of the decade, Warner Bros. had released several prison films including: Alcatraz Island (1937), Blackwell's Island (1939), Each Dawn I Die (1939) and San Quentin (1937), which starred up and comers named Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart.
An example of guard brutality opens the film. The prisoners are in the yard when some of them are being called to the Captain’s porch, which is where re-assignments and punishments are handed out. Captain of the Yard Druggin (Barton MacLane) dishes out punishment to a deaf prisoner, upping his time in solitary by ten day increments, because the prisoner can’t hear him. Such treatment leads to unrest amongst the prisoners, who protest their treatment.
|Captain of the Yard Druggin (Barton MacLane) likes to dish out punishment.|
The warden calls Druggin into his office to tell him that a new Captain of the Yard will be arriving tomorrow. Druggin, as it turns out, was an interim fill-in who thought he might get the job. The warden informs him that he lacks people skills and that they’re bringing in someone who does, Army trainer Stephen Jameson (Pat O'Brien). Druggin, not surprisingly, does not take the news well.
For his last night on active duty, Jameson goes to the Lorenz Revue with a couple of his fellow officers. His friends are ribbing him about his assignment, but Jameson is more interested in the captivating singer May Kennedy (Ann Sheridan), who is singing under the stage name, Mae De Villers. There seems to be a rule that every Warner Bros. sound era film in the 1930’s has a nightclub scene with a featured song. In this case the song is “How Could You," music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.
|May Kennedy (Ann Sheridan) sings at the Lorenz Revue.|
May’s kid brother, Joe "Red" Kennedy (Humphrey Bogart), a petty crook, shows up backstage. He asks May for some money, telling her he has a job offer in Seattle. But no sooner does she give him the money than the police arrive to arrest him for robbery. Shots are fired and Jameson, as well as other patrons, go backstage to see what’s the commotion. He sees Red being arrested, but Red doesn’t see him. Once the police take him away, Jameson moves forward to comfort May, but she’s up and the show must go on.
|Red (Humphrey Bogart) shows up backstage and asks his sister for some money.|
The next day is Jameson’s first day at San Quentin. Out in the yard, one of the prisoners, Dopey Rogers (Garry Owen), is shown reading from the Common Book of Prayers. While he is praying a couple of other prisoners give him a hot foot, much to the amusement of others in the yard.
|The San Quentin prison yard as shown in the film.|
When the Warden introduces Jameson, he tries to make a brief speech, but he is interrupted by a heckler. As punishment, Jameson makes him get up in front of the yard to sing. He’s shown later still singing though the yard is now empty.
Soon, Red shows up in a delivery of prisoners. With him is Sailor Boy Hansen (Joe Sawyer) who has been at San Quentin before. Red is unfamiliar with prison terms, like a weekend meaning ten years. Hansen takes him under his wing and show him the ropes. Red also meets Jameson for the first time.
|Red arrives at San Quentin with Sailor Boy Hansen (Joe Sawyer).|
Out in the yard, Red tells anyone who will listen that he’s got friends on the outside who will spring him. He talks so much that Sailor Boy plans a practical joke. Red hears his name and prisoner number called out. He’s told that he’s going to be sent back to San Francisco. But Red doesn’t think it’s so funny and in fact punches Hansen for his part in it. That punch lands Red in solitary for fighting.
Back at the Lorenz Revue, Jameson makes a point to bump into May. She invites him back to her apartment for some home cooking. There she opens up about her brother and the mistreatment he is no doubt receiving in prison.
Next, May goes to visit Red in prison, but gets caught passing money to him that Sailor Boy has told him is necessary for smokes and chocolate. Red get punished and May is called by Druggin to deal with Jameson, unaware that the two know each other. May is not happy to learn this is what Jameson does for a living, but he tries to explain to her that he thinks he can bring something better out of Red, who has lost all privileges for thirty days.
|May visits Red in prison and gets in trouble for passing him money.|
Twenty-nine days later, Jameson is conducting an inspection. Rogers is there. Jameson realizes that there is something mentally wrong with him and plans to talk to the board about moving him elsewhere. He also runs into Red again and offers that if he keeps straight and follows the rules, he’ll see time come off his sentence.
The next day, Red is working in one of the machine shops and is partnered with Sailor Boy. There are no hard feelings between them. They talk about escape out on the yard while playing dominoes. Rogers comes by proselytizing to the yard, but Sailor Boy and Red work together to knock him over, which again brings laughter to the yard at Roger’s expense.
|Out on the yard, Sailor Boy and Red talk about escape.|
When a guard accidentally drops his rifle into the yard, Rogers scoops it up. He shoots one of the guards and threatens everyone, prisoner and guard alike. Jameson shows up and manages to get the rifle away from Rogers, who is then taken to the hospital because he needs mental treatments. The prisoners, including Red, are impressed by Jameson’s bravery and decisiveness.
|After getting no respect for so long, Dopey Rogers (Garry Owen)|
snaps and takes revenge when a rifle falls into the yard.
Jameson’s approval drops when he starts changing the assignments, putting Red and others on the road gang, which displaces some who feel they’ve earned the privilege. Prisoner’s protest and strike rather than go to work. The yard nearly riots, but Jameson demands its clearance and sends everyone to their cells with no chow. Still it takes guards firing into the air to clear the yard. Still, the prisoners don’t go willingly, banging the pipes with their cups. Even turning off the lights on them doesn’t quiet them down.
Druggin, who has never gotten along with Jameson, uses the near riot to call a reporter friend of his at the Daily Chronicle. Soon headlines are everywhere about Jameson’s methods. The public outcry has Jameson brought before the prison board. There he explains what he’s trying to do and asks for a chance, which the board grants him.
After May visits Red, she asks to see Jameson, who is out in the yard. While Druggin watches on, May thanks Jameson for what he’s doing for her brother and apologizes for her earlier comments about prison guards.
|While Duggin watches, May thanks Jameson for the treatment Red is receiving.|
Meanwhile, Hansen plots a potential escape plan with his girl, Helen (Veda Ann Borg) when she comes to visit. He tells her that if he can get on the road crew then she could help him. Another prisoner, identified as Fink (Ernie Adams), overhears Hansen’s plans and goes to, what else, Fink to Druggin. His sign that he has something to say is to drop a piece of paper. While Druggin yells at him for littering, Fink tells him what he’s learned.
|Sailor Boy hatches an escape plan with his girlfriend, Helen (Veda Ann Borg)|
When Jameson gives Druggin the list of prisoners for the road gang, Druggin alters it to add Hansen to the detail.
While working together, Hansen tells Red about his plans, but Red, following advice he’s heard many times, tells him he just wants to keep straight and get out as soon as he can. But back in the bunk house for the road gang, which seems odd since they go back and forth to the prison, Red gets ribbed about his special treatment, which is credited to Red’s outside connections until one prisoner makes reference to May’s relationship with Jameson, hinting at, but not explicitly stating (this was made under the Production Code) Jameson is swapping sexual favors from May for treating Red with kid gloves.
|Red doesn't take kindly to accusations about his sister.|
Upset about the allegations, Red decides to teach Jameson a lesson and tells Sailor Boy he wants in on the escape attempt.
Later, back on the road gang, Helen’s car has a flat tire right in front of the crew. When the guards tell her to leave, she asks for help, suggesting that Sailor Boy and Red, who just happen to be nearby, could do the work. The guard agrees, but hidden in a secret compartment under her tools are guns, which Hansen and Red use to aid their escape. Druggin, who knows Hansen’s plan, is taken hostage; he is later thrown from the moving car.
|Druggin gets thrown from the moving car as Red and Sailor Boy make their escape.|
Guards take chase and manage to blow a hole in the gas tank before crashing. The Sheriff takes over the chase. Running low on fuel, the boys carjack another car and send Helen on her own. The boys manage to get ahead of their pursuers by barely beating a train to a crossing, but their luck doesn’t hold out and before they can try that maneuver again, Red, who is driving, crashes the car. Sailor Boy is killed, but Red manages to get away, catching a ride on a passing train.
|Sailor Boy gets killed in the crash, but Red survives.|
The warden tells Jameson that the escape means his methods are through. But Jameson wonders how Hansen’s name got on the list and vows to find Red.
Meanwhile, Red is still out for revenge. When he hits the city, presumably San Francisco, he heads to a friend’s shop and demands a .38 and some slugs, as he puts it.
Jameson, with Red watching from the roof, goes to see May. Red comes into the apartment and shoots Jameson in the arm. Still, Jameson wants to help him and tries to convince him he’s been duped and to give himself up. When police arrive to check out the gun shots, Jameson hides his wound under a coat and hides Red as well. But after the police have left, Jameson and May find that Red has again escaped.
|Still on the run, Red breaks into May's apartment when Jameson is visiting her.|
But Red doesn’t get very far before one of the police watching May’s apartment shoots him as he goes over a wall. But Red is not easily stopped and makes it out of the city. He hitches a ride with a trucker, who notices something’s not right with him. Red insists he’s fine and is let off at the San Quentin turnoff. From there he hikes to the prison, but dies at the gate from his wound and the loss of blood. One of his last words to a guard is to “tell Jameson I came back.”
Shot between October 5 and November 10, 1936, the film had some retakes in January and March, 1937. One of the reasons for the retakes was that Jack Warner thought the ending was rather abrupt and wanted an additional scene added to the end in which "Capt. Stephen Jameson" is having breakfast with "May Kennedy" when he receives a phone call from the warden telling him that "Joe 'Red' Kennedy" has died. Director Michael Curtiz shot the additional scenes in January, 1937 but they were later reshot by Bacon in March after Pat O'Brien returned to the studio after a six-week vacation. A studio memo from Associate producer Sam Bischoff to Producer Hal B. Wallis complained that the sequence, as shot by Curtiz, was not a sufficiently serious ending to the tragic situation that had transpired. The final version of the film does not contain this additional scene.
Like so many Warner Bros. films from the 30’s and 40’s, it is sometimes the supporting actors who add that little extra something to the film. In this case, it’s Barton MacLane, who was a contract player at Warner Bros. in the 1930’s and 40’s. He began his career on the Broadway stage, making his debut at the age of 25 in The Trial of Mary Dugan in 1927. His first screen appearance is in an uncredited role in the Marx Brother’s Cocoanuts (1929). His first film credit was in His Woman (1931). But MacLane wasn’t through with Broadway. He wrote a play, Rendezvous, in which he played the part of Private Oakley. While the play only ran for 21 performances, it was enough to get him noticed and signed as a contract player to Warner Bros.
Regularly cast as a heavy or bad guy, MacLane sometimes played tough policemen, such as Detective Dundy opposite Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941). He would also work with Bogart and director John Huston again in the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Other notable films MacLane appeared in include: Frisco Kid (1935) opposite James Cagney; Bullets or Ballots (1936) with Edward G. Robinson, Joan Blondell and Bogart; High Sierra (1941) again with Bogart; All Through the Night (1941) with Bogart and Conrad Veidt; San Quentin (1946), not a remake and in which MacLane plays a convict; The Geisha Boy (1958), starring Jerry Lewis; Pocketful of Miracles (1961), directed by Frank Capra; The Rounders (1965) starring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda; and his last film, Buckskin (1968).
|Barton MacLane played a lot of heavies in films.|
When not acting, MacLane lived on a cattle ranch in Madera County, California, located in the Central Valley, and played several musical instruments, including the violin, piano and guitar. Born on Christmas Day, 1902, MacLane died on New Year’s Day 1969 from double pneumonia.
Joe Sawyer, who played Sailor Boy Hanson, was a Canadian-born actor who appeared in more than 200 films between 1930 and 1962, sometimes in uncredited roles. A stable at Warner Bros. in the 30’s, he appeared in such films as Jimmy the Gent (1934), Frisco Kid, The Petrified Forest (1936), Black Legion (1937), The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Sergeant York (1942), Gilda (1946), The Killing (1956) and How the West Was Won (1962). He also appeared on Broadway in the play Casey Jones (1938) and on TV in such shows as Maverick, Bat Masterson, Sugarfoot and Peter Gunn. His is one of those faces you see again and again in films.
|Joe Sawyer with Humphrey Bogart in San Quentin (1937).|
The film’s director, Lloyd Bacon, is not someone who gets mentioned when talking about the greats or, as the French would say, auteurs. Still, he did direct over 100 films between 1920 and 1955. Bacon started out as an actor, appearing in about 40 films including Charlie Chaplin’s shorts The Tramp (1915), The Champion (1915) and Easy Street (1917).
Bacon began directing comedy shorts and moved on to features at about the same time sound came into use. A workhorse director for Warner Bros., Bacon is not remembered for having many classic films to his credit, though his name and his films frequently show up on Trophy Unlocked. While he was the director on 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933), his work is overshadowed by the choreography of Busby Berkeley. Bacon would direct several films starring James Cagney: Picture Snatcher (1933), Here Comes the Navy (1934), Frisco Kid (1935), Boy Meets Girl (1938) and The Oklahoma Kid (1939), but he’s not known for the actor’s signature gangster roles.
|Director Lloyd Bacon.|
Bacon would also direct A Slight Case of Murder (1938), Indianapolis Speedway (1939), Brother Orchid (1940), Knute Rockne All American (1940), Action in the North Atlantic (1944) and The Fighting Sullivans (1944). His last film would be She Couldn’t Say No (1954), starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Bacon died in 1955.
There is an attempted earnestness about San Quentin. Deep down inside, the film wants to be the next I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, but it falls very short. The ending, with a dying Red trying to do good for Jameson and May, is a Hollywood ending if there ever was one. Druggin may get his comeuppance, but he is never held responsible for the wrongs he’s done and there is no sign that things will really change. In fact, since Jameson’s plans failed, his reforms seem more likely to be discarded than adopted.
We are also never shown how harsh the treatment really is, the way Fugitive from a Chain Gang showed us with beatings and harsh conditions. Like the long shots of the actual San Quentin prison yard, we are kept away from seeing actual mistreatment or suffering by the prisoners at the hands of those in power like Druggin. We are told rather than shown and that waters down the message.
Perhaps it was Hollywood at the time, trying to work within the confines of the Production Code, or it was simply bad filmmaking, but what could have been a powerful story of prisoner abuse gets shorted by a somewhat hard to believe (not to mention really convenient) relationship between the Captain of the prison yard and the beautiful sister of one of his newest prisoners. These kinds of romantic connections are better suited for comedy than a prison picture.
If you’re like me and want to see everything you can starring, or almost starring, Humphrey Bogart, then you should definitely see San Quentin, if only to see how far he would come. And there are better prison films out there if you’re interested in that genre of films, such as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. San Quentin is not a bad film, just one that could have been better and could have meant more if it had been.
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