Joe Sawyer

Black Legion

*This post is a part of the “What a Character” Blogathon over at Aurora’s Gin Joint  hosted by @citizenscreen!  Check out the rest of the great posts over there!

Birth Name: Joseph Sauers

Birthdate: August 29, 1906

Number of Films that Joe Sawyer Made with Humphrey Bogart: 6

The Lowdown

There were two actors that inspired me to start ‘The Usual Suspects’ portion of this blog. The first was a character actor named Ben Weldon. The second was Joe Sawyer. With a crooked nose, cleft chin, devilish smile, and a build like a brick house, Sawyer popped up time and time again in character roles in over 200 films and television shows.

While most people would probably recognize Sawyer from his recurring role as Sgt. Biff O’Hara on The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Sawyer’s unique look made him stand out to me immediately while watching Bogart film after Bogart film. Who was this guy? What’s his story? How many Bogart films was this guy in?

I actually had the chance to chat on the phone with Sawyer’s son a couple of months ago and he told me that his father was an independent contractor that usually hired himself out to studios for a week or two at a time – hence the smaller roles. While he wasn’t apparently a close friend with Bogart, they did both originate their roles in The Petrified Forest onstage together in New York, and on a few occasions they went out for drinks after a day of shooting.

While you may not recognize his name, I have no doubt that if you’re a fan of classic films, you’ll recognize Joe Sawyer’s unmistakable face!

The Filmography

The Petrified Forest – 1936

Petrified ForestSawyer with Bogart and Adrian Morris

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Sawyer plays Jackie, one of Bogart’s henchmen. A role he also originated on stage, Sawyer is a lot of fun in this small part, especially when he taunts Boze the gas station attendant. Sawyer plays Jackie with a wonderfully cruel sense of humor, and it’s pretty admirable that in between Bogart, Bette Davis, and Leslie Howard, Sawyer can hold his own. Plus, he gets to give Bogart the greatest introduction that he ever had in a film! You can read my original write up on the film here.

Black Legion – 1937

Black Legion

Sawyer plays Cliff, good friend and work buddy to Bogart. He’s great here as the borderline-intelligent bully that can cause a lot of havoc with just a little effort. He ropes Bogart into the violently anti-immigrant secret society known as The Black Legion, and it all goes downhill from there. Don’t we all know someone like Cliff? That guy or girl who’s incredibly likable one second, and then suddenly spouting some horrible ethnic joke or slur the next? You can read my original write up on the film here.

San Quentin – 1937

San Quentin

Sawyer plays Sailor Boy, the repeat offender who’s serving time with Bogart in San Quentin Prison, and he’s the real standout of the film. Sawyer and Bogart have great chemistry, and of all the films they did together, Sawyer gets the most chance to shine here. Sailor Boy is another role for Sawyer in which he gets to play the likable bad guy, and there’s a real glint of craziness behind his eyes throughout the film. You can find my original write up on the film here.

You Can’t Get Away With Murder – 1939

sawyer 2

Sawyer plays Red, a fellow inmate to Bogart, and for the only time in their collaboration, Sawyer plays a good guy. (You know, except that he’s a convict…) Red is doing his best to play life straight, but when the chance to escape comes up, he jumps at it. The plan eventually fails and everyone is shot or recaptured, except for Sawyer who’s left with an ambiguous ending after disappearing over a wall. Did they catch him? I hope not! After all those gangster and inmate roles, he deserves at least ONE successful escape! You can read my original write up on the film here.

The Roaring Twenties – 1939

Roaring TwentiesJames Cagney, Sawyer, and Bogart

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Sawyer plays The Sergeant, the tough as nails commanding officer who bullies Bogart during the war only to come face to face with him years later after Bogart has become a gangster in a bootlegging operation. The role is small, and Sawyer’s not given much to work with as far as his lines are concerned, but his side story with Bogart plays an integral part to Bogart’s overall character arc. Their final confrontation is one of the triggers that blows up the relationship between Bogart and Cagney. You can read my original write up on the film here.

Deadline U.S.A. – 1952

Screenshot_2015-11-09-21-24-53

The last collaboration between Bogart and Sawyer was Sawyer’s smallest role out of all six of their films together. He plays Whitey Franks, one of the henchmen for a gangster named Rienzi. To be honest, I don’t even remember if Sawyer has any lines here, as his job is to intimidate and rough up one of the witnesses against Rienzi’s. You can read my original write up on the film here.

*The Usual Suspects is an ongoing feature on The Bogie Film Blog where I take time to highlight some of Bogart’s best collaborators. You can read the rest of the entries here.

San Quentin – 1937

san quentin

My Review

— Lackluster — 

Your Bogie Fix:

2 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director – Lloyd Bacon

The Lowdown 

An army man (Pat O’Brien) is brought in to shape up the inmates at San Quentin Prison, only to find out that a troublemaking new convict (Humphrey Bogart) is the brother to a lounge singer (Ann Sheridan) with whom he’s recently become smitten.

What I Thought

Almost all of the ingredients are here for a great film– great actors, capable director, great cinematographer, etc. – but the one thing lacking is an interesting script.

Through no fault of Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, or Joe Sawyer, there’s just not much excitement or drama to be had in this film.  Everyone seems to be sleepwalking through their parts, especially O’Brien who was more than capable of carrying a good role if he got one.

Perhaps it’s the fact that O’Brien’s Captain Stephen Jameson is just written too blandly to evoke any sympathy.  His range of emotion shifts back and forth between mildly uncomfortable and slightly content.  Perhaps it’s the fact that every time some real motivation for drama occurs, all the tension is quickly let out of the scene with a few lines of dialogue that wraps up any conflict that was about to occur.

Am I being too hard on the film?  Maybe.  I’ll have to revisit it a few months from now and see if I still feel the same way.  Director Bacon made quite a few films with Bogart, some far better than others.  I personally feel like this is one of their less enjoyable collaborations.

The Bogart Factor 

While Bogart gets a lot of screen time in the movie as restaurant thief Joe “Red” Kennedy, he doesn’t seem to have a lot to work with as far as his character arc is concerned.  There are flashes of a charming con man towards the beginning when he meets with Ann Sheridan at a nightclub, but the moment that Bogart’s arrested, he spends the rest of the movie shifting between a hardened convict persona, and a naïve new jailbird who just needs to catch a break to become a better man.  Neither side of the character really has time to stick, so the final payoff for the film felt a little flat for me.  I wasn’t sure that “Red” Kennedy’s final act of redemption felt earned after everything we’d seen throughout the film.

Then again, I hold true to my motto that, “Any Bogart character is a good Bogart character.”  I feel like San Quentin offers us a chance to see Bogart in a role that is often overshadowed by his more iconic film archetypes.  We know the tough as nails gangster, the detached detective, and the loner expatriate, but there were also a number of roles where Bogart ably played a less-than-likable punk – a character who might be a gangster or a convict, but without the audacity or the wit that would make him likable.

I think it’s pretty impressive that Bogart could slightly fine tune his choices from one film to the next to make a gangster cool and dangerous in one movie (Petrified Forest), and a sniveling whiner in the next (Kid Galahad).  He could be confident and in control as one convict (High Sierra), while abrasive and unlikable as another (San Quentin).

Would it have helped if “Red” had been more likable in San Quentin?  I think it would have, but it’s still a great film to see a side of Bogart that doesn’t always make the highlight reels.

The Cast 

Pat O’Brien, as Captain Jameson, really only has a one-note character to work with.  Moments for his character to display some real internal conflict (whether or not to date Sheridan, how to handle an insubordinate MacLane, etc.) are downplayed in favor of his ease and confidence as the Captain of the yard who has a plan that can solve everything.  I think it would have lent a little more weight to the film if the script had allowed him just a bit of vulnerability.  For goodness sakes, he even downplays being shot at the end as if it’s just an inconvenience!

Ann Sheridan gets a little more to work with here as May, O’Brien’s lounge singing girlfriend, than she had in Black Legion.  Sheridan, though, suffers from character inconsistencies as well – playing the sultry nightclub act in the opening, and then switching over to the innocent girl next door type for the rest of the movie.

Barton MacLane is very good as the undermining Lt. Druggin who loses out on the Captain’s job in favor of O’Brien.  I think a little more focus and interaction towards the beginning of the film would have made his payoff in the climax more satisfying.

The real standout of the movie is character actor Joe Sawyer.  Sawyer has popped up a few times so far in this blog, once as a thug in Petrified Forest, and once as an anti-immigrant bully in Black Legion, but here he really has a chance to shine and play off of Bogart as the repeat offender, Sailor Boy.  What I love about so many of these Classic Hollywood studio films is that some of the character actors who appear over and over again seem to really be enjoying themselves in their roles.  Sawyer and Bogart have great chemistry, and their relationship is one of the film’s better components.

Classic Bogie Moment

We get a glimpse of the smooth Bogart gangster during the opening nightclub scene, and a little bit of the vengeful convict later on in prison as he utters the phrase, “I’ll make that guy eat those words if I have to spend a year in solitary!”

Perhaps the more classic moment, however, happens when we get to watch Bogart make a more subtle, physical choice.  One of the skills that Bogart displays so well is the ability to shift emotions right before our eyes.  Specifically, there’s a scene in the barracks as one of the convicts tells Bogart that all his prison perks come because the captain is dating his sister.  Watch the close up on Bogie’s faces as it switches from a wistful smile to a frowning rage, hitting every beat inbetween, in a fraction of a second.  Good stuff.

Don’t Forget to Notice

My “Don’t Forget to Notice” moments have, so far, always been little gems of greatness within a film – usually an actor in a small, but memorable role.  This time, however, there was one moment in the film that I found laugh-out-loud ridiculous.

When Bogart and Sawyer are escaping from the police in a stolen car, we get a long chase scene around country roads, through meadows, and over mountains.  In one abrupt cut, we go from Bogart and Sawyer on a level road, to the sudden insertion of a motorcycle cop missing a mountainous curve and flying off the edge.  Wait, what happened there?  It didn’t even look like they were on the same road!  Was he even close to the bad guy’s car, or did he just lose his concentration and trash a piece of government property?

I can imagine the conversation that must have happened to get the scene put in, though:

Lloyd Bacon:  William, what’s with the motorcycle guy out of nowhere?

Film Editor William Holmes:  Well, Lloyd, I know it doesn’t really fit or make sense, but Eddie busted up his back pretty bad on that stunt, and I kinda felt like we owed it to him to get it in there somewhere.

Bacon:  Yeah, that did look pretty bad.  Stick it in.

The Bottom Line

It’s watchable, but not memorable.  If anything, pay a little homage to Joe Sawyer as he gets more screen time than usual.

Plus – we watch as O’Brien pretends to some police officers that he hasn’t been shot so that Bogart’s “Red” can escape, but what are we supposed to think happens the next day when he shows up to work?  Isn’t anyone going to find it odd that both an escaped convict and the captain of the yard have been shot?  Is O’Brien going to pretend he’s not wounded forever?!?

Ah, the wonders of a less-than-stellar script . . .

Black Legion – 1937

blegion

My Review

—Very Good—

Your Bogie Fix:

4 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

(Although, this might be a fix you only go to once or twice in your life…)

Director – Archie Mayo

The Lowdown

When machinist Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is passed over for a promotion in favor of a young Polish immigrant, he’s outraged. It’s not long before an ultra-conservative, pro-American, secret society called the Black Legion recruits Frank to join their cause – terrorizing local immigrants in an effort to keep shops and businesses strictly American owned and operated. Soon Frank is involved so deeply within the organization that he cannot keep from getting swept along into a series of brutal attacks, and eventually, murder.

What I Thought

Occasionally there will be a movie that is very well made, and yet so gut wrenchingly powerful that I just can’t imagine sitting through it again. Schindler’s List was this way for me. So was Mystic River. Now I would easily add Black Legion to that category. Loosely based on a true story, Black Legion took me places emotionally that I wasn’t used to going in a normal Bogart film.

It’s easy to distance yourself from a villain on screen when their violence is outlandish and they talk in constant hyperbole, but Bogart’s Frank Taylor is a family man, and his motivations are actually understandable. He feels that he’s been wronged at work. The promotion should have been his based on seniority and his relationship to the company. When he thinks the job is a sure thing, he begins to dream up ways of spending the money – a new family car and a vacuum for his wife.

These are situations we have all been in. Everyone, at some point, gets passed over at work. (Fairly or unfairly, it always seems wrong when it happens to you.) Everyone has those moments where they optimistically hope for the best and dream for a better future, only to have those dreams dashed with a strong dose of reality.

What makes this such a painful film to watch is that Bogart is not the over-the-top gangster or escaped convict that we’ve seen in so many other films. He’s a normal man in a relatable situation. When those types of people begin to make bad choices, choices with motivations that viewers can relate to, they become some of the scariest film antagonists of all.

The Bogart Factor

Director Archie Mayo seemed to be able to get performances out of Bogart that few other directors even got close to. First he directed him as Duke Mantee in Petrified Forest, and then a year later as Frank Taylor in Black Legion. Bogart disappears more deeply into these two roles, I would argue, than many of his other pictures.

Unlike so many of Bogart’s more iconic characters, Frank Taylor struggles intensely with his self-confidence, is easily swayed by emotion, and suffers from a severe lack of impulse control. This isn’t Bogart’s typical in-control bad guy or ethically superior good guy. This is a flesh and blood real man that we are appalled by, but also understand. It’s certainly some of Bogart’s best work.

The Cast

Several other familiar faces from Petrified Forest also show back up in Black Legion.

Dick Foran, who played football-obsessed Boze in Petrified Forest, is here as Frank’s best friend Ed – a simple factory worker who loves his beer almost as much as he loves his girlfriend. Foran is given a much deeper role to work with in Black Legion and does very well representing the voice of the audience as we watch him eventually lose his temper and confront Frank.

Joe Sawyer, who appeared as Duke Mantee’s thug, Jackie, is Cliff, the man who pulls Frank into the Legion. While not given as layered a role as Foran’s, Sawyer has plenty more to chew on compared to his gun-toting thug in Petrified Forest. Sawyer was born to play the tough guy with his square jaw and broad nose, and he portrays Cliff as the borderline-intelligent bully that can cause a lot of havoc with just a little effort.

Perhaps two of the best supporting actors are Henry Brandon as the Polish immigrant Joe Dombrowski, and Clifford Soubier as the Irish immigrant Mike Grogan. Though they are given small roles, Brandon and Soubier are able to make strong supporting appearances as hardworking men who find themselves caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Erin O’Brien-Moore and Dickie Jones play Bogart’s wife and son, Ruth and Buddy. Both capably play their roles realistically without falling too far into the melodrama trap, giving us an incredibly heartbreaking moment in the final court scenes as Ruth and Frank lock eyes for the last time before he’s taken away.

Ann Sheridan appears as Betty Grogan, Ed’s girlfriend. She’s sweet enough in the role but doesn’t get a lot to work with beyond that.

Make Sure to Notice

Helen Flint as Pearl Davis, a local floozy who has a wonderful drunk scene with Bogart after his wife and child leave him. They play it up so realistically, arguing over how to appropriately sing Home on the Range, that we get a rare, but wonderful, moment of levity in an otherwise bleak film.

Classic Bogie Moment

Bogart, who made dozens of movies where he carried and used firearms, stands before a mirror, gun in hand, admiring the way it looks in his grasp. It empowers him with a false sense of security as he “plays tough,” trying to bolster his desperate lack of confidence. It’s a great counter balance to all the other times in his career where we saw him comfortably use a weapon as if it was an extension of his own arm.

The Bottom Line

Black Legion is a definite must-see for any self-respecting Bogart fan, as Bogie does some of his best character work.

A Little Extra

According to the short documentary on the DVD, the machine shop featured in the film where Bogart works is the actual Warner Brothers machine shop with real employees in the background.

The Petrified Forest – 1936

pf

My Review

—A Great Film—

Your Bogie Fix:

4.5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director:  Archie Mayo

The Lowdown

Alan Squier (Leslie Howard) is a drifter / writer / hitchhiker making his way across the U.S. when he walks into a little gas station café in the Arizona desert for a “bar-bee-cue.”  Gabby Maple (a young, gorgeous, bright-eyed, yes I have a crush . . . Bette Davis) is the café owner’s daughter who waits on Squier, quickly falling in love with him.

Squier is an intellectual and Gabby is an intellectual in the making.  With a fifteen year age difference between Howard and Davis, it’s a May-December romance that’s easy to believe since both actors exude charm from every pore of their bodies.  But, alas, it’s a romance not to be.  Howard’s Squier is a depressed wanderer at heart, and he’s just wise, mature, and intellectual enough to know that he shouldn’t get involved.  Whatever emotional baggage he’s obviously carrying below his plucky surface, it’s enough to keep him from returning Gabby’s advances.  So Squier heads out the door on his way to see the Pacific, and Gabby reluctantly stays behind in the café with her dreams of becoming a Parisian artist on hold and a lunkhead gas station attendant named Boze nipping at the hem of her dress.

Enter Duke Mantee, played by Humphrey Bogart in what most consider his breakout role.  A gangster on the run after a shootout in Oklahoma, Duke’s car happens to break down just a few miles away from the café, just before Squier’s hitched ride passes by and stops to help.  Within minutes, Duke and his gang have commandeered a new ride, and Squier is left on the side of the road, watching the gangsters head straight towards Gabby’s café.

Squier returns to make sure Gabby’s okay, of course, and what follows is a tense and gripping hostage situation where Howard and Bogart get lots of time to shine in roles they were both born to play.  As the story goes, Howard was the one who demanded Bogart play the part of Mantee after they played the roles together in the original stage production.

It’s no wonder why it was a star making turn for Bogart, as he adopts a tone, style, and mannerisms for Duke Mantee that I don’t believe he ever surpassed in any other role.  Both IMDB and his biographies claim that Bogart studied bank robber John Dillinger for the role, and the character work done here is nothing short of Bogie’s best.

The Great

Bogart physically becomes a violent, desperate, dangerous gangster.  From the moment he appears on screen (about 35 minutes into the film), he is a rubber band wound tight, and the viewer is just waiting for his inevitable snap.

He walks hunched with his hands held slightly out at the waist.  It gives you the impression that he’s either going to draw his gun, or strangle someone at any moment.

I cannot imagine any other actor playing the role of Duke Mantee as well as Bogart does.  It’s clear that Bogart worked hard to embody the gangster from top to bottom.  I almost began to wonder if he was even able to sweat on command as the movie ramps up to its violent, dramatic conclusion.

Bette Davis, who looks and seems to be playing younger than her 28 years here, is so cute and fun that it’s almost too unbelievable that Leslie Howard would choose to leave her at the beginning of the film.  If the sight and flirtations of a budding Davis can’t break a man out of depression, what could???

Leslie Howard portrays the depressive intellectual wonderfully, and his playful banter with Bette Davis is both the heart and the backbone of the film.  We believe that Howard’s mind is stimulated by Davis’ thirst for more in her life.

The script, which is said to stay very true to the original stage play, offers this group of actors a lot of great dialogue and story to work with.  So many times, a filmed play seems like just that – a play on film, but Archie Mayo adapts this story wonderfully.  It wasn’t until Bogie’s off-screen death scene that I remembered that The Petrified Forest was meant for the stage, and sticking close to the original script is probably why we don’t get to see Duke go out in a blaze of glory.

It’s been written about a lot before, but director Mayo’s use of the buffalo horns behind Bogie’s head is a wonderfully subliminal way of giving us a demonic look at the unstable Mantee.

The Good

The supporting cast is quite good, and there are a lot of great comedic moments spread throughout the movie.

Joe Sawyer’s portrayal of Mantee’s henchman, Jackie, is particularly fun – a role he also originated on stage.  When he taunts the gas station attendant Boze, there seems to be real enjoyment in his cruelty.

Porter Hall and Charley Grapewin do very well in their respective roles as Dad and Grandpa Maple – giving the movie a good dose of its comic relief, and Bette Davis just enough henpecking to remind us why she wants out of the café.

Classic Bogie Moment 

Joe Sawyer’s Jackie narrates Bogart’s entrance as he announces, “Now, just behave yourself and nobody’ll get hurt.  This is Duke Mantee, the world famous killer, and he’s hungry!”  And there stands Bogart – a wild, edgy, dynamite stick of a man who’s ready to blow up at any moment.

Director Mayo gives Bogart some of the best close ups he would ever get.  The sneer.  The sweat.  The trembling lip.  The sunken, desperate eyes that dart around the room.  Bogart does as much with just his face in this movie as most actors wish they could do with their whole bodies.

This portrayal should be a textbook example for all actors on how to really lose yourself in a role.  While Bogart would go on to play other desperate, edgy characters, I don’t think any come close to Duke Mantee.

The Bottom Line

There’s no argument needed as to why this was Bogart’s breakout role.  From script to cast, this movie is tight and entertaining.  This was a role Bogie was born to play.  Sit back and enjoy.

Fun Fact

Warner Brothers apparently wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role of Duke Mantee.  While I can understand how Robinson would have lent instant credibility to a gangster film, I don’t know if he could have played Mantee as dangerously dark as Bogart was able to.  There was always just a hint of humor in too many of Robinson’s roles.  (Although, if they’d shot an alternate-Robinson version, I’d be the first in line to make a comparison!)