Watching 1939: 6,000 Enemies (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. 

6000 enemies1939 film: 

6,000 Enemies (1939)

Release date: 

June 9, 1939

Cast: 

Walter Pidgeon, Rita Johnson, Paul Kelly, Nat Pendleton, Harold Huber, Grant Mitchell, John Arledge, J.M. Kerrigan, Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, Tom Neal, Arthur Aylesworth, Willie Fung, Esther Dale, Helena Phillips Evans, Ernest Whitman

Studio: 

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director: 

George B. Seitz

Plot:

District attorney Steve Donegan (Pidgeon) usually wins his cases; sending thousands to prison. But when Steve is framed by gangster Joe Silenus (Huber) for taking brides, he is sent to jail where he is surrounded by everyone he has imprisoned.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Walter Pidgeon was in four films released in 1939.
– Rita Johnson was in seven films releaed in 1939.
– Paul Kelly was in six films released in 1939.
– Harold Huber was in nine films released in 1939.
– Nat Pendleton was in eight films released in 1939.
– John Arledge was in five films released in 1939.
– Arthur Aylesworth was in 18 films released in 1939.
– Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams was in nine films released in 1939.
– Grant Mitchell was in seven films released in 1939.
– Willie Fung was in 10 films released in 1939.
– Helena Phillips Evans was in two films released in 1939.
– Tom Neal was in 12 films released in 1939.
– Ernest Whitman was in five films released in 1939.
– Bernadene Hayes was in eight films released in 1939.
– J.M. Kerrigan was in 15 films released in 1939.
– Esther Dale was in 13 films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• During the boxing fight, Walter Pidgeon’s rib was broken. Nat Pendleton was pulling a punch but lost his balance. The scene where Walter Pidgeon is in a hospital bed with a broken rib was filmed before this incident occurred, according to an April 23, 1939, news brief.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
I went into this film, assuming it would be like most low-budget, 60-minute prison film. But I walked away blown away by the storytelling, camera work and surprised by how gritty this little picture is.

Walter Pidgeon stars as Steve, a district attorney who is framed for bribery and sent to jail. While shouting he is framed, he is reminded that he recently has told the accused that there is no such thing as being framed.

While in jail, Steve quickly finds that he is not going to be making any friends, since most of the prisoners are there because of him. Several prisoners are planning their own revenge plans, while the prison’s physician, Dr. Malcolm Scott (played by Paul Kelly), tries to protect Steve, or give him tips on how to survive. While Steve is in jail, his younger brother Phil (John Arledge), is trying to clear his name.

The title of course refers to the prisoners who dislike Walter Pidgeon.

While Walter Pidgeon is now best known for his Academy Award-nominated roles in “Mrs. Miniver,” and his stalwart, leading man prescience. News briefs leading up to this film note that this was one of Pidgeon’s first and best leading dramatic roles, after often playing “the other man” to Clark Gable or Nelson Eddy.

It is a surprisingly gritty film for Walter Pidgeon. Usually dressed in a white dinner coat while smoking a pipe, here he’s in a prison uniform and doing hard labor in jail.

One of the most compelling scenes is during a boxing match with Walter Pidgeon and Nat Pendleton (who won an Olympic silver medal for wrestling before his acting career). The fight is meant for Pidgeon’s character to prove himself to the other prisoners. George B. Seitz’s direction is really interesting during this scene, as he makes each punch the point of view of the camera. The camera shows quick closeups as Pidgeon is punched in the face, showing the intensity of the fight.

Pidgeon did sustain an injury from this fight, according to a news brief, when Pendleton stumbled while trying to pull a punch.

My only complaint is that the rest of the film is wrapped up very quickly. Also this is a spoiler, but it’s becoming a film fact: John Arledge dies in nearly every movie I watch with him. That is all the more sad since he died young at age 40.

“6,000 Enemies” (1939) isn’t one of 1939’s best films, but it’s an intriguing MGM B-level movie that was a better film than I expected it to be.

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