Watching 1939: Dust Be My Destiny (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: 
Dust Be My Destiny (1939)

Release date: 
Sept. 16, 1939

Cast: 
John Garfield, Priscilla Lane, Alan Hale, Frank McHugh, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Charley Grapewin, John Litel, Henry Armetta, Stanley Ridges, Moroni Olsen, William B. Davidson, Ward Bond (uncredited), Chester Clute (uncredited), William Hopper (uncredited)

Studio: 
Warner Bros.

Director: 
Lewis Seiler

Plot:
Joe Bell (Garfield) went to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. When the law finds he’s innocent, Joe is released from jail, but trouble follows him. Again ending up at the wrong place at the wrong time, Joe is arrested and sent to a work camp. At the camp he meets Mabel (Lane), the step-daughter of the foreman and the two fall in love. When Mabel’s stepfather dies after attacking her, the two run away knowing they will be accused of murder.

1939 Notes:
• After the success of “Four Daughters,” John Garfield and Priscilla Lane co-starred in two films released in 1939. Lane starred in a total of five films released in 1939 and Garfield was in five films as well.
• Billy Halop was in eight films released in 1939.
• Alan Hale was in six films released in 1939.
• William Hopper was in 16 films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Based on a book by Jerome Odlum
• Warner Bros. rented a nearby farm for the prison farm scenes, according to The Women of Warner Brothers by Daniel Bubbeo.
• Remade in 1942 as “I Was Framed” starring Tod Andrews, Julie Bishop and Regis Toomey
• The film was originally going to have a tragic ending, but this was switched after the commercial failure of You Only Live Once (1937).
• A theater advertises “On Your Toes,” another Warner Bros. film released in 1939.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Actor John Garfield had his first screen appearance in “Four Daughters” (1938). After that film, Garfield quickly catapulted to fame. To help capitalize on the success of “Four Daughters” Warner Bros. reteamed him with Priscilla Lane in two more films (you could say three, since he as seen in archived footage in “Four Wives“).

In 1939, Garfield and Lane were teamed in “Daughters Courageous,” a film with a plot similar to “Four Daughters,” and then “They Made Me a Criminal” (1939).

Garfield plays a man who went to jail when he was falsely accused of a crime. He is released from prison and cleared of his crime, but continues to run into trouble and feels that society is against him. When he is imprisoned again on a work farm, he calls in love with the stepdaughter of the foreman, played by Priscilla Lane. When Garfield runs into trouble again on the farm, the two run away together and live constantly fleeing the police.

Though still early in his career, Warner Bros. had created a formula for Garfield film plots, and Garfield was already tired of it, according to the book, He Ran All the Way: The Life of John Garfield by Robert Nott.

Neither Lane or Garfield wanted to make the film, but followed through so they didn’t go on suspension, according to the book The Women of Warner Brothers by Daniel Bubbeo.

Despite the leads’ lack of interest in the film, “Dust Be My Destiny” (1939) is an exciting and heartbreaking film. Every time Lane and Garfield’s characters seem like they will find happiness, you know they soon will be on the run again.

Lane and Garfield play their characters as young, star-crossed lovers well. Garfield keeps trying to send Lane away so that she isn’t tangled with him, but his expressions show his true feelings.

Some of the highlights of the film are those who help the young couple along the way.

Henry Armetta is wonderful as the diner owner who gives the two jobs and then helps them run from the police – really sticking his neck out.

Alan Hale is a newspaper editor who hires John Garfield after he takes photos of a bank robbery. Garfield has to confess who he is, and Hale works to help the couple as well.

The film is filled with frustration and hope.

Though it may seem silly, but while I enjoyed this film, it also holds a special meaning for me now. It was one of the last films I watched with my dachshund Molly, who was my constant movie-watching companion. She died later that week after I watched the film.

While not one of the top films of 1939, “Dust Be My Destiny” is an interesting look at how quickly Garfield became famous and how equally quickly he was typecast.

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