Watching 1939: Blackwell’s Island (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.

blackwells island 31939 film:
Blackwell’s Island (1939)

Release date:
March 1, 1939

Cast:
John Garfield, Rosemary Lane, Dick Purcell, Victor Jory, Stanley Fields, Morgan Conway, Granville Bates, Anthony Averill, Peggy Shannon, Charley Foy, Leon Ames (uncredited), Vera Lewis (uncredited), Brenda Marshall (uncredited)

Studio:
Warner Bros.

Director:
William C. McGann

Plot:
Newspaper reporter Tim Hayden (Garfield) is trying to uncover a crime ring led by Bull Bransom (Fields). When Bull and Tim both land in jail at the same time, Bull takes over the prison and Tim works to get to the bottom of the story while he’s close to Bull.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– John Garfield was in six films released in 1939.
– Rosemary Lane was in five films released in 1939.
– Stanley Field was in eight films released in 1939.
– Dick Purcell was in four films released in 1939.
– Victor Jory was in 10 films released in 1939.
– Leon Ames was in 13 films released in 1939.
– Peggy Shannon was in six films released in 1939.
– Granville Bates was 16 films released in 1939.
– Vera Lewis was in 19 films released in 1939.
• First role of Brenda Marshall, who plays an uncredited role as a secretary.

Other trivia:
• The film’s story was inspired by Austin MacCormick’s 1934 raid on the Welfare Island prison, which revealed that gangster Joseph “Tough Joey” Rao was in total command of the facility.
• The first press screening was held at Welfare Island.
• Director William C. McGann filmed three different endings, none of which Jack Warner found satisfactory. When McGann was taken off the the film, director Michael Curtiz was brought in for retakes and to film additional scenes, according to Curtiz’s biographer.
• Censors were unhappy with the film, because the film depicted “things that couldn’t happen, such as police and prison guards accepting bribes,” according to Curtiz’s biographer.

blackwell's island 2

Stanley Fields, Peggy Shannon and John Garfield in Blackwell’s Island

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
They often say the truth is stranger than fiction, and as you may chuckle at Stanley Fields’s character’s antics (like I did), they are all based on a real person and real events.

In this week’s 1939 film BLACKWELL’S ISLAND, reporter Tim Hayden (John Garfield) tries to uncover a crime ring. Tim faces difficulties when the ring controls various organizations and people — including his boss who fires Tim when asked by crime leader, Bull Branson (Fields). Tim lands in jail shortly after Bull Branson does. Bull has taken over the jail, bribing guards, taking over the hospital area like it’s a private dormitory where he gets shaves, feeds his Great Danes steak and plays with toy trains. While Tim is in jail, he’s able to become one of Bull’s private servants, allowing him to share evidence with the new commissioner (Victor Jory).

That couldn’t really happen at a prison, right? Oh, but it did. In 1934, gangster Joseph “Tough Joey” Rao was imprisoned at Welfare Island — known today as Roosevelt Island. Similar to the film, Rao and his gang slept on comfortable hospital bed and he even used homing pigeons to send messages and narcotics. Similarly, Rao’s take over was discovered during a raid.

Knowing all of this is based on a true event makes the film a bit more interesting, in my opinion.

John Garfield found overnight success after his role in FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938), which also typecast him as a tough guy. In 1939, Garfield was still finding his footing in films and BLACKWELL’S ISLAND was only his third film.

While Garfield is great per usual (though he may be pushing the fast talking reporter by actually talking too fast?), the true star in my opinion is Stanley Field as the gangster Bull Bransom.

Field is simultaneously hilarious and dumb, while he’s also a dastardly hood. In one scene while he’s in jail, Fields’s Bull is getting a shave, sitting with his dogs, playing with toy trains, and it’s all so ridiculous that it’s hilarious. Then we next see him being a downright bad dude. It’s an interesting juxtaposition — though Bull is rather simple, he still should be taken seriously.

I felt like Rosemary Lane didn’t have much of a role in this, and Victor Jory has a small but important role.

Garfield is great, but Stanley Fields is the shining star in this simple 1939 film.

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