“I thought you were dead?”
“No, I ain’t dead. What’re you talkin’ that way for?”
Here we have a couple of Warner Bros. films from 1939 and 1942 respectively. They Made Me a Criminal is a minor A-picture with a pretty good pedigree. Lady Gangster is an out-and-out B-picture that trickled out from the studio a few months after Warner officially terminated its B-production unit, which had long been headed by Bryan Foy.
John Garfield made quite a splash in his very first film role of any consequence, playing an urban misfit who finds himself in small-town America in 1938’s Four Daughters. Eager to cash in on Garfield’s good notices, Warner Bros. resurrected the script for The Life of Jimmy Dolan, a film the studio had made six years previously with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The remake — They Made Me a Criminal — finds Garfield assigned to Fairbanks’ former lead role. The film tells the tale of boxer Johnny Bradfield who, after winning a championship fight, thinks he has killed a man while drunk. He leaves town to avoid being charged, and finds himself out west at a struggling ranch run by two women. Falling in love with one of them, Johnny enters a prizefight contest in order to win money to help save the ranch. Meanwhile, Johnny has been the object of an ongoing search by detective Phelan, who has been trying to bring him to justice. Johnny, although using an alias, has a distinctive left-handed boxing stance that will reveal his true identity — and Phelan has just arrived in town to see the upcoming prizefight.
At this early stage in his career, Garfield was not yet exasperated by second-rate roles. He contributed a great deal of energy to the film. Garfield worked well with director Busby Berkeley, who here was completing his Warner contract. He was an unusual choice for director, since he was taking on a project completely different from the musicals for which he was known. Berkeley’s efforts are particularly effective in the exciting boxing sequences he directs. He also generates considerable tension in an unusual sequence in which Johnny and a group of kids from the ranch (well-played, albeit predictably played, by the Dead End Kids) must tread water in the giant vat in which they have become trapped. The only unfortunate decision in the film’s casting is the use of Claude Rains to play Phelan. Rains is completely miscast in the role; it is a constantly jarring note in the film whenever he and his patently phony accent appear. Overall, the film is a satisfying piece of entertainment and a good example of what Warner Bros. was capable of at the time, even when they didn’t employ most of their A-level talent.
They Made Me a Criminal is one of those films that has fallen into the public domain, and is a staple of the low-cost specialists when it comes to DVD availability. A quite acceptable version is already available from Front Row Entertainment, so it’s worthwhile to compare the Roan Group’s effort to that release. The comparison is not in Roan’s favor. Although the disc is watchable and the film is correctly presented full-frame, its look is very soft with contrast merely fair and shadow detail below average. Numerous scratches and speckles are in evidence. Although the latter is true of the Front Row Entertainment version, it is much sharper and brighter (although the sharpness comes with some enhanced edge effects). In short, if it’s just They Made Me a Criminal that interests you, this Roan Group version is not the one to get. Your desire to have Lady Gangster along with it may be the deciding factor.
Lady Gangster has all the characteristics of a typical Warner B-production — a recycled but interesting script, a brisk running time, good production values, a competent cast, and good direction. The script was based on the play “Ladies They Talk About,” which had inspired a Warner film of the same title nine years previously. In this new version, aspiring actress Dot Burton is arrested after carrying out a heist with a gang of bank robbers, but is paroled into the custody of broadcaster Kenneth Phillips, who believes her to be innocent. She decides to go straight, but when the rest of the gang try to cheat her out of her cut, she steals the money from them intending to return it in exchange for her freedom. She pleads her case to Phillips, but when he refuses to support her, she ends up in prison. While there, she alienates several of the other prisoners, who then make Dot believe that Phillips is effectively blocking her parole. At first she plots revenge on Phillips, but must make a bid for freedom when she learns the truth.
The film is directed by “Florian Roberts” — in reality, Robert Florey, a veteran Hollywood house director who could make this sort of film blindfolded. Florey moves the complicated story along very efficiently; the short 62-minute running time just flies by. The women’s prison scenes are particularly effective. In many ways, the film is reminiscent in tone and style of the gangster and bad girl films from Warner’s pre-Code days, but with the details sanitized in order to conform to the more rigid Production Code of the 1940s. Faye Emerson (as Dot) and Julie Bishop (as a convict who befriends her) were stalwart B-heroines for the studio in the early 1940s. They had the same air of assurance as the pre-Code dames, but a less-abrasive edge that was more in tune with the glamour of the war years’ films. The male performers in the film were a forgettable lot in comparison, with their ranks enlivened only by the appearance of a young Jackie Gleason (in a minor role as a gangster) and DeWolf Hopper (as Phillips’ assistant — fans of Perry Mason will know him better as William Hopper, the actor who played detective Paul Drake).
On Roan’s double feature disc, Lady Gangster is the better looking film of the two. The image (correctly presented full frame) is fairly sharp most of the time, although several reels are somewhat soft. Shadow detail is acceptable. The mono sound is adequate, although some background hiss is evident. (This is also true for They Made Me a Criminal.) The disc’s supplements consist of the first episodes of two serials — Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe and Radar Men from the Moon. There are some superficial production notes for They Made Me a Criminal. Roan should really take more care with their back cover blurbs. Their plot summaries are inaccurate. Nor is highlighting Jackie Gleason on the front cover at all indicative of his small role in Lady Gangster; it’s disrespectful to the film’s actual stars.