Watching 1939: Back Door to Heaven (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.

back door to heaven1939 film:
Back Door to Heaven (1939)

Release date:
April 19, 1939

Wallace Ford, Aline MacMahon, Jimmy Lydon, Stuart Erwin, Van Heflin, Patricia Ellis, Iris Adrian, Kent Smith, Anita Magee, Bert Frohman, William Redfield, Raymond Roe, Georgette Harvey, Bruce Evans, William Harrigan, Jane Seymour

Paramount Pictures

William K. Howard

Frankie Rogers (Lydon as child, Ford as adult) had a tough upbringing and his grade school teacher Miss Williams (MacMahon) is the only one who believed in him. After his grade school graduation, Frankie is sent to reform school and then continues to move in and out of prison. When he’s released with two of his prison mates (Stuart, Frohman), Frankie returns back home to find things changed and that his criminal past is never far behind him.

1939 Notes:
• First film for actors Jimmy Lydon, William Redfield and Raymond Roe.
• Anita Magee’s first and only film.
• Vaudeville performer and singer Bert Frohman’s only feature film.
• Director William K. Howard’s first Hollywood film after spending time making films in the UK. Howard also appears in the film as the prosecuting attorney in the courtroom scene.
• By the numbers:
– Jimmy Lydon was in four feature-length films in 1939.
– Aline MacMahon’s only film of 1939.
– Wallace Ford’s only film of 1939.
– Van Heflin’s only film in 1939.
– Stuart Erwin was in four films released in 1939.
– Patricia Ellis was in two films released in 1939, and she also left Hollywood in 1939.
– Iris Adrian was in two films released in 1939.

back door to heaven

Aline MacMahon and Jimmy Lydon in BACK DOOR TO HEAVEN. This was Lydon’s first film role.

Other trivia:
• Written and directed by William K. Howard. Howard wanted to do the film on his terms, including direction, casting and script. “This is a condition rarely existing in Hollywood,” Howard said.
• Story was based on a childhood friend of William K. Howard’s.
• Filmed at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, NY. “Back Door to Heaven” and “…one third of a nation…” were the last two traditional features made in New York before World War II.
• Working titles were “Frankie” and “Hometown.”

back door to heaven

Van Heflin, Wallace Ford and Aline MacMahon in Back Door to Heaven.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Wow. While this film has a low-budget feel, it leaves you thinking and also feeling depressed.

The film follows Frankie Rogers from childhood to adulthood. While not a bad kid, he fell into petty crime because of his poor upbringing with a drunk father who abused his mother. After being sent to reform school, Frankie continues to follow a life of crime and is in and out of prison. After being released from prison at one time, Frankie returns home and visits his old town and his old school teacher, Miss Williams, who is the only adult who believed in him and supported him emotionally. Unfortunately, in the end, life outside of prison isn’t any easier for Frankie, and his background gets him accused for crimes he didn’t even commit.

Wallace Ford plays Frankie as an adult, and while he isn’t often thought of as a lead actor, but he is really outstanding. He gives a subdued, quiet but gut-wrenching performance. Ford himself had a difficult upbringing, being put into an orphanage by relatives and then treated poorly by his adopted family. Ford said by age 11, he was on his own.

In his first film role, Jimmy Lydon also does an excellent job as young Frankie. Lydon was later known for playing the zany student character, Henry Aldrich. But here at age 16, Lydon is also quiet and subdued. Lydon plays Ford as a child, and their performances and features blend well.

As always, Aline MacMahon is wonderful. There’s nothing more you can really say because MacMahon is fabulous in every film – and excels here in a role that requires her to age into an older woman.

Van Heflin also appears in his first film role since 1937. Still early in his career, Heflin gives a great performance as an unsuccessful lawyer, nervously defending a case of a former classmate. The role is brief, but Heflin shines.

The only disappointing performance for me was Stuart Erwin, who I generally enjoy seeing in films. Erwin interestingly plays against his affable “aw shucks” type, but somehow playing against type makes him nondescript. You can almost overlook him in this film.

There is some interesting casting of unknowns in BACK DOOR TO HEAVEN. Perhaps because William K. Howard wanted complete control of casting, many of the children and some of the adults were only in this film or few others. Also interestingly, stage performer Bert Frohman is in the film and performs a song, and this was his only film. Frohman was better known for his work in vaudeville and on Broadway. I felt his song delivery was similar to Al Jolson.

There are some odd moments and also some heartbreaking ones. There’s a scene where Frankie and two of his pals are eating in a diner after being released from jail and a fire breaks out. They take their plates and continue eating outside. I’m not sure the point off this, perhaps that they aren’t conditioned to help?

There’s another scene I found sad as gunshots are fired and a blind man sitting outside is asking what’s happening. Also as Frankie returns home and hears about his family.

Overall, BACK DOOR TO HEAVEN isn’t a great movie, but I think it could have been more effective if it didn’t feel so low budget. However, this is a really interesting watch for this very reason.

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