Saturday, November 29, 2014

Stubs - Each Dawn I Die

Each Dawn I Die (1939) Starring: James Cagney, George Raft, Jane Bryan, George Bancroft. Directed by William Keighley. Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine, Warren Duff. Based on the novel Each Dawn I Die by Jerome Odlum (Indianapolis, 1938). Produced by Hal B. Wallis (Exec. Producer) Run Time: 92 minutes. U.S. Black and White. Drama, Prison

We’re wrapping up our celebration of the 75th anniversary of Hollywood’s Golden Year, 1939, on Trophy Unlocked with Each Dawn I Die. There were so many great films that came out of that year there is no way to write about them all and do much of anything else. While we wanted to highlight some of the great films from that year, like Stagecoach and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, we also wanted to pay homage to some of the lesser films from that year as well: Indianapolis Speedway. Not every film was Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.

Films about men and women behind bars have been popular since the 1930’s, when the production code shifted emphasis away from gangsters committing crimes to showing the punishment for criminal behavior. Films like I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) showed that harsh punishment can be handed out to the innocent as well. Each Dawn I Die touches on some of those same themes, but is not nearly as dark or message-laden.

Frank Ross (James Cagney) is a crusading newspaper reporter who is on the trail of a crooked District Attorney, Jesse Hanley (Thurston Hall). We watch as he stakes out the Bantom Construction Company and observes Hanley and his accomplice, W.J. Grayce (Victor Jory), burning the company’s books and ledgers to thwart a possible investigation and derail Hanley’s campaign for Governor. When Ross files his story, his editor, Patterson (Selmer Jackson), isn’t initially behind the story, but changes his tune when Hanley calls him to threaten the paper. Knowing that they are really onto something, Patterson tells Ross to keep writing.

Frank Ross (James Cagney) really thinks he's onto a big story. His editor, Patterson
(Selmer Jackson), tells him to keep writing. Fellow reporter and love interest,
Joyce Conover (Jane Bryan), looks on.

But Hanley makes good on his threats. One day after work, Ross is indentified by Shake (Abner Biberman) and knocked out by Polecat Carlisle (Alan Baxter). Still unconscious, Ross is put behind the wheel of a car and covered in whiskey. The car is then sent down the street where it collides with another car, turning it on its side and catching it on fire, killing the three young people inside.

An unconscious Ross is set up to take the fall for an accident that kills three.

The crowd gathers around a still groggy Ross and loudly declares his guilt. This carries over to the courtroom where, prosecuted by Hanley and Grayce, Ross is found guilty of manslaughter while driving drunk, a crime made more heinous by Ross’ previous reporting about the horrors of DUI.

On the way to prison, Ross is handcuffed to “Hood” Stacey (George Raft), a hardened criminal and notorious racketeer who is serving a 199 year term for murder, the state they’re in does not have a death penalty.

On the train trip to prison, Ross finds he's handcuffed to Stacey (George Raft), a hardened criminal.

John Armstrong (George Bancroft) is the warden at the prison, who tries to be hard, but fair, to his prisoners. Ross and Stacey both work in the prison’s twine manufacturing plant. The two become friends when Ross saves Stacey from a knife thrown by another inmate, Limpy Julien (Joe Downing). Intending to get his own revenge, Stacey takes a shiv to a prison showing of Wings of the Navy (1939), but someone else kills Limpy.

Prison warden John Armstrong (George Bancroft) is tough but fair.

Stacey offers Ross a deal. If Ross will implicate him, Stacey will be tried in the courthouse; there, he can make an escape. When he’s out, he can find Shake, whom Ross knows identified him to whomever framed him. At first Ross does not want to be a part of it, but a visit from his fellow reporter/girlfriend, Joyce Conover (Jane Bryan), who has brought his mother (Emma Dunn) with her, changes his mind.

Ross' mother (Emma Dunn) and his reporter/girlfriend, Joyce Conover (Jane Bryan), visit him in prison.

When Ross gets back to the twine factory, he accepts Stacey’s deal as his best bet to get out. But, being a newspaperman, Ross can’t resist tipping off his paper to cover the trial heavily. Ross is in the courtroom, as a witness for the prosecution, and watches as Stacey makes an escape, jumping out the window, landing in a truck filled with down and escaping in a waiting car driven by one of his cohorts.

Under a table in the twine factory, Ross accepts Stacey's deal.

Stacey feels betrayed by Ross because of all of the press coverage. Ross is treated back at the prison as an accomplice, beaten by the brutal guards and sentenced to five months in solitary confinement, or, as it is known, “the hole”. In solitary prisoners are handcuffed to the bars in the dark and fed bread and water once a day at noon. While Stacey had warned Ross of this treatment, Ross is changed by it, becoming hardened and unruly. He keeps thinking Stacey is looking out for him, but it takes Joyce, who arranges a meeting through Stacey’s attorney, Lockhart (Clay Clement), to convince the criminal that Ross is worth helping.

Ross is hardened by his time in "the hole".

She goes back to the prison and convinces the Warden to give Ross a second chance. He agrees and puts him up for parole after he’s turned himself around. But now Governor Hanley has appointed Grayce as the head of the parole board. Because Ross insists he’s innocent of the crime he was charged with and since he isn’t repentant, Grayce tells him that they can’t grant him parole. Ross lashes out and has to be physically restrained. He then breaks down and asks for forgiveness. The parole board, of course, turns him down and says he can reapply in five years.

The parole hearing doesn't go Ross' way.

On the outside, Stacey’s men find Shake, who gives them the name of the man who hired him, Polecat, who turns out is back in prison, sent there for cover. The only way for Stacey to make good for Ross, who he’s convinced is "square guy", is to go back to prison and root out Polecat. Ross is unaware that Stacey is back until he sees him being taken to solitary. Ross is convinced Stacey can’t help him.

At Joyce's request, Stacey has his men find Shake in an effort to clear Ross.

Stacey’s presence instigates a prison breakout, led by Dale (Edward Pawley), as part of his plan, arming the men in the twine factory with guns. Ross doesn’t want to be a part of it, but is forced along. He does manage to keep one prisoner from getting involved by knocking out the Fargo Kid (Maxie Rosenbloom). Ross tries to stop the riot, but is forced at gunpoint to participate. Stacey, who is freed from solitary, orders the prisoners to bring along Polecat.

A prison guard is killed when he tries to disarm a convict. While the warden and some of his men are held as hostages, the National Guard is called out to stop the riot. Armed with machine guns, gas and hand grenades, they trap the rioters in solitary and hold them down. Under fire, Stacey forces Polecat to confess to framing Ross with the warden and his men as witnesses. Stacey, who is wounded, forces Polecat to go with him and be killed so he cannot recant his confession. All the rioters are killed, with only Ross spared.

During the aborted escape attempt, Stacey gets Polecat Carlisle (Alan Baxter) at gunpoint
to confess to setting Ross up for the crime that sent him to prison.

The warden helps to have Ross released and Governor Hanley and Grayce are indicted for murder. I’m not sure what this film says about the justice system in the 1930’s or at least how it was perceived. Men like Ross get convicted of crimes they did not commit and confessions taken with a gun to one’s head are enough to free men from prison.

While both Cagney and Raft were well known for their portrayals as gangsters at Warner Bros., this is the first and only time the two shared leads in a film. While we’ve written before about Cagney’s career at Warner Bros., we haven’t had an opportunity to discuss the career of George Raft except when discussing roles he’d turned down, including the role of Chips Maguire in It All Came True (1940) and Rick in Casablanca (1942), both of which went to Humphrey Bogart. He would also pass on Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941), another role that would have a significant impact on Bogart’s career.

Having made a career as a dancer in New York and London, Raft moved to Hollywood in 1929 to act in the film Queen of the Night Club (1929) starring Texas Guinan, a saloon keeper and actress in who’s stage act Raft had danced. Raft had such prowess as a dancer that the great Fred Astaire would remark in his autobiography that Raft was lightning fast and did the fastest Charleston he’d ever seen.

He had small uncredited roles in some early Cagney films such as Taxi! (1932), in which he played a dance competitor, and Winner Take All (1932). That same year he would also draw attention as a nickel-flipping second lead alongside Paul Muni in Scarface (1932). So strong was Raft’s identification as a gangster that he was often thought to have been a former gangster himself. Raft was friends with some very famous underworld figures, including Bugsy Siegel and Siegel’s old friend Meyer Lansky. Raft reportedly interceded on behalf of Gary Cooper when the actor’s romantic escapades led him to inclusion on one gangster’s hit list.

Even though he would move to Paramount Pictures, Raft would continue to be a major gangster star, along with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, throughout the 1930s. Bogart, who would ultimately be the bigger star, was a distant fourth in popularity. Raft is also credited for giving Mae West her first break in Hollywood, when he got her cast in Night After Night (1932) after the studio refused to cast Texas Guinan as Maudie Triplett because of her age, even though the character was based on her.

The success of Each Dawn I Die led Warner Bros to signing Raft to a long term contract. However, his career would peak in the early 1940’s. Following the release of Background to Danger (1943), a film meant to capitalize on Casablanca’s success, Raft demanded termination of his contract with Warners. Offered a $10,000 settlement, Raft inexplicably sent a check for that amount to the studio, rather than the other way round.

After that, Raft continued to make movies, but they were of declining quality and were often made overseas for tax benefits. During the 50’s he spent a lot of time as the greeter at the Capri Casino, of which he was a part owner in Havana, Cuba, a well-known haven for organized crime. He appeared on the syndicated television series I’m The Law (1953) which ran for one season. While he made the occasional appearance in films, his career got a definite boost when he appeared in Billy Wilder’s comedy Some Like it Hot (1959) as Spats. Raft followed up that part with the role of a casino owner in the Rat Pack starrer Ocean’s 11 (1960). He made a brief cameo in Casino Royale (1967) after going to the UK in 1966. Raft’s last film appearances were in Mae West’s Sextette (1978) and The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980). He would die of leukemia in Los Angeles at the age of 85.

While I’ve always found Raft to be a little stiff and while he was good in this film, that opinion didn’t change after watching Each Dawn I Die. Raft isn’t very expressive, so he comes off as wooden. But I did see a wide variety of emotions from Cagney, who plays it hard and then moments later breaks down crying. There is one scene after the visit with his mom, Ross is walking back to the twine factory; no words are spoken, but through his gait you see him transform himself from broken man to someone with determination.  It is when he gets back to the twine factory that Ross accepts Stacey’s offer.

The female lead, Jane Bryan had a very short screen career, lasting only from 1936 until 1940. She was being groomed at Warners as a leading lady and given prominent roles in films like Marked Woman (1937), Kid Galahad (1937), A Slight Case of Murder (1938) and Invisible Stripes (1939). But in 1940, Bryan married Justin Dart, the wealthy owner of Dart-Kraft, Inc., formerly Rexall Drugs, and retired from acting.

Actress Jane Bryan.

Her character is pivotal to the plot as she does most of the behind the scenes heavy lifting to convince Stacey to help Ross and the warden to give Ross a second chance. She is the strong female that binds all the men together in these kinds of films, similarly to how Ann Sheridan’s May Kennedy character was the link between Captain of the yard Jameson (Pat O’Brien) and her brother Red (Humphrey Bogart) in San Quentin (1937).

Unlike earlier Cagney films that we’ve reviewed on this blog, more care seems to have been taken with Each Dawn I Die. For one the shooting schedule lasted about two months, so you don’t have the sped up sense of Winner Take All and The Crowd Roars (1932), films that seemed to be literally cranked off an assembly line.

Like directors of some of the other films we’ve reviewed, William Keighley is not a name that appears on a list of great film directors, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t make some well known films. He directed a variety of genres and directed Cagney in several films, including G Men (1935), The Fighting 69th (1940), Torrid Zone (1940) and The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). Keighley also directed Bullets or Ballots (1936), Brother Rat (1938) and The Man Who Came To Dinner (1942). Keighley started to direct The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), but was replaced by Michael Curtiz. Keighley would retire from films in 1953 and move to Paris with his second wife Genevieve Tobin.

While prison films are not for everyone, Each Dawn I Die is a pretty good one. I would say that it's definitely better than San Quentin. There seems to be more meat on the bone here. Not that either Red's or Ross' stories are typical of real prisoners, there are more layers in Each Dawn I Die than San Quentin. And given the status of each actor at Warner Bros. at the time of their respective prison films, you can see the difference between an A film (Cagney) and a B film (Bogart).

Anyone who is a fan of Cagney’s or Raft’s will no doubt enjoy this film as much as I did.

Interested in seeing the movie? It is available as part of a four feature two disc set at WBShop:

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