Watching 1939: They Made Me a Criminal (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: 
They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

they made me a criminal2

Release date: 
Jan. 21, 1939

Cast: 
John Garfield, Claude Rains, May Robson, Gloria Dickson, Ann Sheridan, The Dead End Kids (Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, Bernard Punsly), Louis Jean Heydt, Robert Gleckler, John Ridgely, Barbara Pepper, Ward Bond, Irving Bacon (uncredited), Ronald Sinclair (uncredited), Janet Shaw (uncredited)

Studio: 
Warner Bros.

Director: 
Busby Berkeley

Plot:
Johnnie Bradfield (Garfield) is a successful boxer. When a reporter is found dead, Johnnie is falsely accused of the murder. But police also think Johnnie is dead when the burned body of a man is found in the wreckage of a car with Johnnie’s girlfriend (Sheridan). Johnnie is advised to change his identify and travel west. While traveling across the country, he comes across a farm in Arizona run by Grandma Rafferty (Robson) and Peggy (Dickson). The women are guardians of teenagesr (the Dead End Kids), who work on the farm rather than go to reform school. While Johnnie begins to enjoy life on the farm, a New York detective (Rains) doesn’t believe Johnnie is really dead and is investigating the case.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– John Garfield was in six films released in 1939.
– Claude Rains was in six films released in 1939.
– Gloria Dickson was in six films released in 1939.
– Ann Sheridan was in six films released in 1939.
– May Robson was in seven films released in 1939.
– John Ridgely was in 35 films released in 1939.
– Irving Bacon was in 36 films released in 1939.

they made me a criminal5

Other trivia: 
• Version of The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933)
• Based on the 1933 play “Sucker” by Bertram Millhauser
• Filmed at Palm Desert. It was so hot, some of the actors fainted and the film stock in the cameras may melt.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
John Garfield became a star with his first film, FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938). With his success, Warner Bros. cast Garfield in six films that were released in 1939 (though he was a ghost/memory in FOUR WIVES). Garfield’s first film released after FOUR DAUGHTERS was THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL (1939).

While the title alludes to the plotline, it also foreshadows Garfield’s typecasting as criminals for much of his career at Warner Bros.

Garfield plays a boxer who is falsely accused of murder, but that’s okay, because the police also think a burned corpse in an automobile wreck is him. Although it’s not. Garfield goes on the lam, and meets troubled teens in Arizona on a farm, run by an elderly lady and the sister of one of the teens (Robson and Dickson). Garfield’s character begins to enjoy life on the farm, and even considers doing some amatuer boxing. This puts him at risk of being identified by a detective who doesn’t believe he’s actually dead.

The first 15 minutes of THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL are a doozie. You expect Garfield’s character to eventually get into trouble based on the title but wow. We go from fame, to murder to death to running. I hate to break it to any Ann Sheridan fans, but she has an incredibly small role in this film.

The casting feels like old home week, reteaming John Garfield with May Robson and Claude Rains, who co-starred with him in FOUR DAUGHTERS. Rains plays against type as a very sloppy detective with a poor-fitting suit and talks out of the side of his mouth. He was disgraced in the department for fumbling a previous case and is trying to prove his worth by finding Garfield’s character. Robson is fabulous and adorable as always. I really love Garfield in this film. Though he’s supposed to be a “criminal,” he’s really a guy caught by terrible circumstances.

While I’m usually not a big fan of the Dead End Kids, I like their roles in this film. In real life, Garfield became like a big brother to the Dead End Kid actors during the filming of the movie, according to Garfield’s biographer. I will say – I found the scene with Garfield and the teens caught in a water tank extremely stressful.

What’s interesting about this movie is that it is one of those classic film plots that wouldn’t work today. A dead body with a burned face would no longer be difficult to identify due to forensics. But I actually didn’t consider that until the end of the movie.

While THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL isn’t necessarily important in the grand scheme of 1939’s cannon, it is important in the career of John Garfield. While it continued to solidify his star status with Warner Bros. following FOUR DAUGHTERS, it also began a long line of film roles where Garfield plays a criminal or man wrongly accused of crimes.

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