THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL was advertised with the breathless tag line “I am a fugitive…I am hunted by ruthless men! I am shunned by decent women! I am doomed to hide forever!” Directed by Busby Berkeley as a break from his musicals, this 1939 outing was remake of the 1933 picture The Life Of Jimmy Dolan, based on a play called Sucker. To slap home a point, in the script by Sid Herzig, someone either calls somebody else or defensively declares that they aren’t a “sucker” 19 times.
Drunk after winning a bout, prizefight champ ‘Johnnie Bradfield’ (John Garfield) wakes up to find his manager stole his watch, and skipped off with his dame ‘Goldie’ (Ann Sheridan), but not after killing a journalist and dropping blame on passed-out palooka Johnnie. Then his lawyer rips him off (a first). Johnnie takes it on the lam as ‘Jack Dorney’, ending up working on a farm in Arizona, where he becomes a hero to a gaggle of juvenile delinquents (The Dead End Kids) and sparks with ‘Peggy’ (Gloria Dickson), a “nice girl”. But copper ‘Monty Phelan’ (Claude Rains) is on his trail. Is redemption in store? Did Warner’s harvest all the corn from Kansas and Iowa?
Popular enough (grossing $3,200,000, placing 66th), the vehicle set the pattern for new brooding wiseguy on the block Garfield, whose work in his debut film, the previous year’s Four Daughters, pulled an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. Smelling blood in the money, Warner’s promptly starred the 26-year-old in six flicks in ’39.
The character of Johnnie/Jack is so much of a jerk, so much of the time, that it’s hard to give a hoot whether he wises up or not. The relationship jazz with Peggy doesn’t convince. Sheridan’s role is flashy but brief, Rains is miscast. The punks (Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell and Bernard Punsley) are really trying in this, the brash antics irritating rather than endearing. *
After the wham-bam start, the best thing in this efficiently crafted product, other than observing the stars, is a long sequence where Jack and the boys go swimming in a water tower and get perilously stranded, treading water when the level drops and they can’t climb out. It carries a suspense charge similar to the classic foot-caught-in-railroad tracks bit. Some will also enjoy the boxing match near the end.
Photographed by James Wong Howe, score by Max Steiner. With May Robson, William P. Davidson, Louis Jean Heydt, Barbara Pepper, John Ridgely, Ward Bond, Frank Riggi, Irving Bacon, Clem Bevans. Nonsense runs for 92 minutes.
* Garfield’s other 1939 attention getters: Juarez, Dust Be My Destiny, Four Wives, Daughters Courageous, Blackwell’s Island. Likewise, the vibrant 24-year-old Sheridan was also on display in a half dozen, the others Dodge City (recm.), Naughty But Nice, Indianapolis Speedway, Winter Carnival and Angels Wash Their Faces (putting up with the Dead End Kids again). One more outing after that (On Dress Parade) and The Dead End Kids morphed into ‘Little Tough Guys’, then ‘The East Side Kids’, finally ‘The Bowery Boys’. Established already, Rains, 49, put up with this part because he had to (“contract stipulates”) . This was the fifth movie for 21-year-old Gloria Dickson (she had a nice smile). She made 16 more (five of those in ’39—boy they worked the hell out of these people), her once promising career was plagued by weak scripts, worse marriages and bad publicity. She died tragically in a fire in 1945.