Your Bogie Film Fix:
Director: Lewis Seiler
Johnnie Stone (Billy Halop) is a teenager heading down a dangerous path after he falls in with small time gangster Frank Wilson (Humphrey Bogart). After being sentenced to Sing Sing Prison for a gas station holdup, Johnnie is torn when his soon to be brother-in-law, Fred (Harvey Stephens), joins him in prison after getting the death penalty for a murder in which Frank and Johnnie were actually involved.
What I Thought
I had to wonder while watching this film if Warner Brothers wasn’t trying to create a new B-movie Bogart gangster with Billy Halop. One of The Dead End Kids, this was the fourth film that Halop made with Bogart (Dead End, Crime School, Angels With Dirty Faces), and Bogart was clearly an influence on the young actor’s style and presence.
The melodrama can skew a little heavy as Halop wrestles with his secrets while in prison. There are multiple crying-into-the-elbow moments, and a few “You ain’t the bossa me!” teenage rebellion outbursts with Johnnie’s sister. While Halop occasionally appears a little green and the sibling tension often seems unmotivated, there are some flashes of good work in his performance.
The film is very watchable, despite the fact that there were a few plot points that I had issues with. Why was Johnnie so dead set on making trouble when he was surrounded by people who loved him? Was there supposed to be motivation for his behavior implied by the fact that he had absentee parents? Why wouldn’t his sister Madge (Gale Page) instantly assume that he and Frank were responsible for the murder after they’re busted for the other robbery? When faced with a more than typically friendly prison staff and inmates, why does Johnnie wait so long to spill the beans on Frank?
I ended up feeling that Director Seiler was a scene or two short in setting up the unbreakable bond between Johnnie and Frank. I know that the lure of money and power can be overwhelming for a young kid without direction, but once they were in prison, what kept Johnnie loyal, almost to the bitter end?
Problems aside, there are numerous good scenes of comedy, action, and drama which all help elevate the film above a subpar script.
The Bogart Factor
Playing another one of his “young punks” who thinks he has the world by the tail (á la Up the River, The Bad Sister, Big City Blues, Midnight/Call It Murder, etc.), Bogart gets a good deal of time to flesh out his wannabe-gangster persona as he leads young Johnnie astray. There’s plenty of cool talk and gun play as the elder thug mentors his protégé on the fine art of the criminal lifestyle.
While not fleshed out to a fully three-dimensional character, Bogart’s still very good as the murdering thief whose over-confidence in his own skills continues to trip him up. Playing the film’s main antagonist, Bogart’s able to pose a physical and psychological threat to Halop with his performance despite the fact that the script doesn’t give Halop a lot of motivation to fall under Bogart’s sway.
Is it Bogart’s best bad guy role? Not by a longshot. It’s not even in the top ten. But I can’t blame the studio for hiring the guy who could look cool, talk tough, and handle a gun better than anyone else to fill the role.
Billy Halop as Johnnie Stone deepens his “street tough” persona beyond what we’ve come to expect from The Dead End Kids. He often tips the line into over-playing his emotions, but what young actor from the time doesn’t? Even Bogart had to feel his way through a few dozen films before he fully grasped the importance subtlety and nuance.
Gale Page plays Johnnie’s older sister, Madge, and she does all right with a character who only appears when plot advancement requires it. Page worked a number of films with Bogart in supporting roles, so it’s always good to see her, but she definitely deserved more depth than this.
Harvey Stephens plays Fred Burke, the fiancé to Madge, and he suffers from the same lack of character development that she does. Existing for little other purpose than the movie-goer’s sympathy, Fred comes and goes whenever Johnnie needs an extra emotional push to move the story along to the next level. Stephens doesn’t get the time to shine here as he did in The Oklahoma Kid.
Henry Travers plays Pop, the old timer librarian that tries to mentor Johnnie into a better man. It’s a character that we immediately expect Henry Travers to play, so there’s no new ground broken here for the well know character actor, but Travers is always a treat, so it’s great to see him.
George E. Stone, Harold Huber, and Bogie Film Blog favorite Joe Sawyer all show up in roles as inmates alongside Bogart and Halop – each with their own great character quirks and scene-stealing moments. It was especially fun to see Sawyer as Red since it’s the only Bogie film in my memory where Sawyer plays a good guy. We’re even left with an ambiguous ending for Red as he disappears over the wall. Did they catch him? I hope not! After all those gangster and inmate roles, he deserves at least ONE successful escape!
Don’t Forget to Notice
The stuntmen on this film deserve a lot of credit for the prison escape scene. Two falls have to happen off of a wall that’s somewhere between fifteen and twenty feet high. The second one looks incredibly painful, and there’s no appearance of padding or trickery. I winced for sure!
Classic Bogie Moment
I mentioned the same thing about Cagney in a previous post, but Bogart is an actor that can put on any costume and still look cool. Fancy gangster suit? You bet! Down on his luck bum? Sure. Cowboy outfit? Well . . . except for those silly hats, yes! To put a bullet point behind it though, just take a gander at these pics of Bogart in his prison gear:
With Halop and Travers
This is a prime example of the man making the clothes.
The Bottom Line
Not a must see for non-diehards, but there are a few good glimmers of fun and talent to enjoy here.