Watching 1939: Let Us Live (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:
Let Us Live (1939)

Release date:
March 29, 1939

Cast:
Henry Fonda, Maureen O’Sullivan, Ralph Bellamy, Alan Baxter, George Lynn, Martin Spellman, Stanley Ridges, Henry Kolker, William V. Mong (uncredited), Dick Elliot (uncredited), Milton Kibbee (uncredited), Charles Lane (uncredited), Ann Doran (uncredited)

Studio:
Columbia Pictures

Director:
John Brahm

Plot:
Sweethearts Brick Tennant (Fonda) and Mary Roberts (O’Sullivan) are about to be married. Brick has just purchased his own taxi to start in business on his own and life looks promising. That is until Brick and his pal Joe Linden (Baxter) are accused of holding up a movie theater and killing someone in the process, the two find that even if you didn’t commit the crime, public opinion can still be stacked against you.

1939 Notes:
• Last film role for actor William V. Mong. He started his career in films in 1910.
• By the numbers:
– Maureen O’Sullivan was in two films released in 1939.
– Henry Fonda was in five films released in 1939.
– Ralph Bellamy was in three films released in 1939.
– Alan Baxter was in six films released in 1939.
– Stanley Ridges was in eight films released in 1939
– Milton Kibbee was in 25 films released in 1939.
– Charles Lane was in 19 films released in 1939.
– George Lynn was in 10 films released in 1939.
– Martin Spellman was in six films released in 1939.
– Henry Kolker was in nine films released in 1939.
– Ann Doran was in 13 films released in 1939.
– Dick Elliott was in 16 feature films released in 1939.

Other trivia:
• Based on the story “Murder in Massachusetts” by Jospeh F. Dinnen, which was published in a 1936 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The story was based on a real criminal case, where two Boston taxi drivers were identified and accused of a theater murder in Lynn, Mass. The author of the story and the magazine were sued for libel by the governor of Massachusetts, which made some Hollywood executives no longer interested in making this a film.
• James Cagney was originally considered for the leading role in this film.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Before Henry Fonda played THE WRONG MAN (1956) in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, he played another man falsely accused of a crime in LET US LIVE (1939).

Fonda plays Brick, an idealist man with an excited outlook on life. He just bought his own taxi for his business and is about to get married to his sweetheart, Mary (O’Sullivan). Brick waits outside while Mary is in church lighting a candle in memory of her mother. At the same time, there’s a robbery nearby and a man is killed. Brick is falsely identified in a randomized line up, and he and his pal Joe (Baxter) are brought to trial and found guilty. Outside of prison, Mary is helped by Lit. Everett (Bellamy to find evidence to prove their innocence. All the while, while Brick first has hope in prison, he gets bitter over time, realizing the system he believed in is faulty.

I think what I like most about this film is how it looks. While watching this film and noting the cinematography, I started wondering if it was directed by Fritz Lang. There are some interesting shots that actually look like Lang’s style—Fonda in his jail cell with only his eyes eliminated and everything else in darkness. A shot of Maureen O’Sullivan from behind as she stands, watching Fonda and Baxter go into the courtroom. The film in fact was directed by John Brahm who studied under Lang, and this is evident in the outcome.

This is certainly not a happy film. Fonda does a good job of completely changing his character. He’s a different person by the end of the film. O’Sullivan sometimes is cast as shrinking flower or weak women, but she certainly isn’t here. The whole time she is fighting for Fonda’s character.

Ralph Bellamy is also very good in this, especially in a scene where he gives a monologue to the District Attorney saying that maybe everyone is following their job descriptions too closely, rather than helping people, which he thought they were supposed to do.

I must admit, this is one of those movies that makes you worried about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fact that this film was based on true events makes it even more startling.

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