Watching 1939: Blackmail (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film: Blackmail

Release date: Sept. 9, 1939

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Hussey, Gene Lockhart, Bobs Watson, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, John Wray, Arthur Hohl, Esther Dale, Willie Best (uncredited)

Studio:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: H.C. Potter

Plot: John Ingram (Robinson) has a successful business fighting oil fires and lives a happy life with his family (Hussey, Watson). But his not so savory past comes to light when he’s seen in a newsreel and someone tries to blackmail him.

1939 Notes:
• Edward G. Robinson was only in two films in 1939.
• Bob Watson was in five films released in 1939.
• Ruth Hussey was in seven films released in 1939.
• Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams was in nine films in 1939.

Other trivia: 
•For prop oil wells were constructed for the first fire in the film, according to a Sept. 29, 1939 news brief.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
This film is more about revenge than “Blackmail.”

We meet his character in the film who is an upstanding citizen who runs a successful oil firefighting business. He has a wife, played by Ruth Hussey, and a son, played by Bobs Watson. But his past catches up with him when sleazy Gene Lockhart arrives. We learn Robinson at one time escaped from jail while serving time for a crime he didn’t commit. Lockhart blackmails Robinson into giving him money to not tell anyone where he is…and then betrays him, turning Robinson into the police. Robinson is back on the chain gang serving time for the crime he didn’t commit and for running away from jail. Then all he cares about is getting revenge from Lockhart, not even thinking of his own family.

To me, this type of seething revenge can be frustrating. While the main character was wronged, their plans are often narrowly focused and hurt others around them. For example, Robinson’s desire to get back at Lockhart affects his wife and child.

Edward G. Robinson does a good job in this low-budget film, but his character is pretty standard to the rest of his films. Robinson is practically crazed with his desire for revenge and the hate he feels for Lockhart’s character.

Ruth Hussey’s character is wonderful, and she is underrated as being a versatile actress. And Bobs Watson doesn’t disappoint! We get maybe three really good cries during this film. I’m always excited to see Bobs’s name in the credits, because he’s one of my favorite child stars and probably the best cryer of them all.

Gene Lockhart is especially sleazy in this film. It may be one of his most slimey roles. Also rounding out the supporting cast is Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, who is a friend to Robinson’s character and attempts to be his voice of reason.

“Blackmail” is an intriguing brief film, but I still feel it should be renamed “Revenge.”

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2 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Blackmail (1939)

  1. Jessica, good review. I liked this movie and It looks like MGM edged into Warner Brothers territory with this chain gang movie. Edward G. Robinson is one of my all-time favorite actors. I don’t think he ever gave a bad performance. Also, for viewers who are used to seeing Gene Lockhart in A CHRISTMAS CAROL(1938) and MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET(1947), this could be a shocker. I agree with you about the title.


    • You’re right, it is very much a “MGM does WB” isn’t it? That is the perfect way to describe it. I didn’t dislike it, I guess I was pretty ambivalent. Edward G. Robinson is always solid, as is the rest of the cast! Thank you for reading and commenting, Walter! 🙂


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