Friday May 20, 2022

Movie Review: San Quentin (1937)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Warner Bros. tosses a lot of its 1930s tropes into this thing but they don’t connect. At all.

The new tough-but-fair “Captain of the Guard” at San Quentin prison, Stephen Jameson (Pat O’Brien), becomes involved with a nightclub singer (Ann Sheridan) who is sister to one of the inmates (Humphrey Bogart). From that, for most of the movie, we're wondering two things. Can he reform the men? And can he do it without showing favoritism to the brother?

To which the movie gives us these answers: He kind of reforms the men. And he thinks he doesn’t show favoritism. 

Forever blowing bubbles
At the start, San Quentin is a mess, run by Lt. Druggin (Barton MacLane), a martinet whose answer for any infraction is taking away privileges and a month in the hole. But his draconian ways create more problems than they solve—the men keep rebelling—so the warden, and the prison board, bring in an actual army captain.

Bogie as second banana.
Mouse over for 1940s rerelease.

Odd coincidence: The night before Jameson begins, he meets and falls for lounge singer Mae de Villiers, nee May Kennedy (Sheridan). Odder coincidence: That very night, her brother, Joe “Red” Kennedy (Bogart), shows up backstage and asks for some dough. He says he needs to get to a new job in Seattle but he’s actually on the run from the cops, and they catch up with him in Mae’s dressing, in front of both Mae and Jameson, and haul him away—to San Quentin, of course.

So how is Jameson’s method different than Druggin? Here's how. His first day on the job, giving a quick speech in the yard, a wag in the back mocks him, but rather than a month in the hole Jameson makes him stand on a soapbox and sing “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” into the evening. (“Public Enemy” homage, anyone?) Then during inspection, he chastises an old-timer for not showing a newbie how to fold a blanket properly, and talks with a prisoner who’s suddenly making a good living as a writer. So he knows them. He also gains some measure of respect when he talks down then overpowers a dimwitted Christian prisoner (Garry Owen), who’s holding the yard at gunpoint.

But it’s not until more than halfway through, after Jameson has to explain charges of favoritism before the prison board, that we get anything like a philosophy from him. And it’s basically this. In prison, there are two groups of men: hardened criminals who have no hope of rehabilitation ... and the other kind.

Ah. Thanks.

No one asks him how he knows which men belong in which group. Instead, the warden simply says, “Gentleman, I’m convinced that Jameson is right,” and the Board mumbles its assent. 

That’s the movie: vague pronouncements from the steadfast Jameson, while everyone else veers wildly—poor Bogart in particular. Initially he thinks little of Jameson (“He’s just another copper to me”) and plots with “Sailor Boy” Hansen (Joe Sawyer) to escape when they get road-gang work. Then he’s impressed by how Jameson handles the dimwitted prisoner. Then he gets the road-gang work but suddenly he’s already reformed. Yeah, that quick. He says he’s gonna do his time and come out on the right side and get a job. Until, that is, the other prisoners tell him he’s getting these plum assignments because his sister is “dating” Jameson. So now he wants to kill Jameson, and, though one would assume there was ample opportunity in the yard, he thinks the prison break with Hansen is the best path.

Here’s the movie’s biggest disconnect: When “Red” Kennedy gets the road-gang assignment, it is considered such a violation of protocol that the other prisoners all but riot. They stage a strike. But at this point, no one even knows about Jameson and Mae; they just think it stinks of favoritism without knowing why “Red” would be favored. Now you’d think if you made a decision that favored the brother of your girlfriend, and it pissed off enough people that they all but riot even though they don’t even know about your personal connection, it might give you pause; it might make you wonder if maybe you were favoring him for personal reasons. But there’s no pause here—from Jameson or the film. Jameson just barrels through in that steadfast Pat O’Brien way. He’s right because he’s the hero.

Anyway, Red and Sailor Boy do escape, taking Druggin hostage, then kick him out of the car even though they still need a hostage. We get a long car chase, and a car accident in which Sailor Boy dies while Red escapes uninjured. He shows up at Mae’s apartment at the same time as Jameson, then learns the two are in love. So he leaves, is shot trying to escape, but, to prove Jameson’s “reforms” worked, fights his way back to San Quentin, where, with his dying breath, he says to a guard, “Tell Jameson I come back. Tell the cons to play ball with him. He’s … He’s a swell g—”  The he dies. And that’s the end of the movie. 

Fuck is that bad. No wonder Bogie drank.

Two bars
Eight writers—four credited, including John Bright, who wrote “The Public Enemy”—contributed to “San Quentin.” Early on, the night Jameson and May meet, we do get this nice bit of dialogue:

Jameson: Hi, Beautiful.
May: Hello, Sergeant, where's the war?
Jameson: Haven't you read the papers? We’re fighting the Indians because they won't take the country back.
May: Really, Sergeant?
Jameson: And don’t call me Sergeant!
May: Well, I won't if you promised to tell me what you are.
Jameson: Do you know what two bars mean?
May: Sure, twice as many drunks as one bar.

I like the two bars joke. And I really like his line about how the Indians “won’t take the country back.” That points to a wry, underdog sensibility—but one closer to John Bright than Capt. Stephen Jameson.

The above exchange provides more sparks than the rest of the so-called romance, which is dullsville. O’Brien schlumps his way through the project and Sheridan isn’t much better. Only Bogart pops. Veda Ann Borg is also good as the moll who helps with the escape.

Warner Bros. mainstay Lloyd Bacon directed this thing, and he fit right into the “roll ‘em out quick” mode of the studio. He made some of my favorite early Cagneys (“Picture Snatcher”), and some of my least favorite (“The Irish In Us”), but you have to admire a guy whose career goes from silent, black-and-white comedic shorts to wide-screen Technicolor. One of his first features was “The Singing Fool,” the follow-up to “The Jazz Singer,” the first credited talking picture; and his last was “The French Line,” with Jane Russell filmed in Technicolor and 3-D. That’s a lot of innovation in technology and storytelling in 25 years. It’s the beginning and end of things all at once.

Posted at 11:47 AM on Friday May 20, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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