Thursday May 28, 2020
Movie Review: Each Dawn I Die (1939)
In “Picture Snatcher” from 1933, James Cagney plays a con who leaves prison to become a newspaper reporter. Six years later, in “Each Dawn I Die,” he plays a newspaper reporter who’s railroaded into prison and becomes a con.
The railroading is reminiscent of “Great Guy,” one of two movies Cagney made for Grand National in the mid-1930s. As the Chief Deputy of Weights and Measures, Cagney’s Johnny Cave is offered a sinecure by a corrupt politician, refuses, and is set up. He’s left at a car-crash site covered in booze with a “hot” gun in his pocket. But the corrupt politician then vouches for him. The whole thing was “a warning.” Here, as Frank Ross, a reporter digging up dirt on a corrupt politician, he’s knocked out, covered in booze, and put in the driver’s seat of a car that is sent careening down the street. This one goes beyond a warning. The subsequent crash kills three and in the next scene the judge is passing sentence: 1-20 years of hard labor. The scene after he’s riding the bus to prison and gets into it with Stacey (George Raft), a famous gangster.
Which is to say: When you make 32 movies in a decade, as Cagney did in the ’30s, it’s easy to repeat yourself.
This wasn’t supposed to be the casting, by the way. Originally, it was supposed to be Cagney and Edward G. Robinson—their first picture together since “Smart Money” in 1931—with Robinson playing the reporter and Cagney the gangster. For some reason, Robinson couldn’t do it, so his role went to John Garfield and then Fred MacMurray. Either of those would’ve been interesting to see. Instead, Raft, an old Cagney pal from vaudeville days, signed on and the parts were switched.
It’s an odd role for Cagney. He’s brave, sure, and gets in with the good cons quick, and he ain’t no mug or rat, but he has an odd faith in the system. He figures his newspaper, The Banton Record, will find the evidence to get him sprung. After months in solitary, he loses it:
“When I first came here I believed in justice! I thought that someday I’d be released! Then I began to figure in weeks and months, and now I hate the whole world and everybody in it for this! Buried in a black, filthy hole because I was a good citizen—because I worked my head off to expose crime. And now I’m a convict. I act like a convict, smell like a convict, and think and hate like a convict. But I’ll get out. I’ll get out if I have to kill every screw in the joint!”
Worse, his first parole hearing is led by Grayce (Victor Jory, “The Shadow” in the 1940 Columbia serial), who—shouldn’t Ross know?—is right-hand man to the corrupt governor, and he offers Ross this classic Catch-22: “We’re only interested in men who acknowledge their guilt and wish to atone.” So Ross loses it again. He actually threatens the parole board. Then he breaks down and sobs.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean what I said. Oh, please give me another chance. I just couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t. I can’t do any more time. Please turn me out of here.”
Yeah. So not your typical Cagney.
“Each Dawn I Die” is an odd mix of the gritty Warner Bros. of the Depression-era 1930s and the patriotic Warner Bros. of the WWII-era 1940s. The bad guys are still rats and corrupt politicians, but the warden (George Bancroft), for one, is an upstanding guy. He’s mostly useless, and duller than spit, but I guess he’s there to show us the whole system doesn’t stink.
Stacey’s gang in prison, like Red’s in “Shawshank,” is full of personalities:
- Fargo Red (Maxie Rosenbloom): big, kind, dumb
- Meuller (Stanley Ridges): volatile-crazy
- Dale (Edward Pawley): volatile-smart
- Garsky (Paul Hurst): older, short-timer
- Lassiter (Louis Jean Heydt): calm banker-type
One of the prison guards, the aptly named Pete Kassock (John Wray), is a sadistic headbuster. You also have to watch out for “Limpy” Julien, a rat with a shiv who’s gunning for Stacey. That’s actually how Ross gets in good with the gang. Limpy is heading towards Stacey with intent to kill when Ross trips him. Back slaps all around. Stacey winds up with the shiv, and Ross later sees him practicing his throws amid the bales of twine they’re making in the workhouse. During movie night—a Warner Bros. release, of course, “Wings of the Navy,” starring George Brent—Stacey and Dale ignore Ross and Fargo Red and sit two rows directly behind Limpy and another rat, Carlisle (Alan Baxter). In the middle of the movie, in the dark, Limpy cries out. He’s been killed with a shiv in the back.
Two things happen as a result: 1) Stacey thanks Ross for not ratting on him, and then 2) says he didn’t do it anyway. He gave the shiv to another guy and he did it. Wait, three things: 3) Stacey suggests Ross rat him out anyway so Stacey can get another trial, escape, then help find the evidence to spring Ross. Ross is wary of this—he doesn’t want to rat and still considers himself a law-abiding citizen—but after a prison visit from his distraught mother (Emma Dunn), he finally agrees. Except then he tells his newspaper to be prepared for a scoop. This leads to him getting solitary and Stacey, on the outside, abandoning him, since he “ratted” to the newspaper.
Much of the movie is this kind of murkiness: Stacey practices killing Limpy but doesn’t, thanks Ross for not ratting on him but asks him to, promises to help him but abandons him. Everyone has a strict code that folds after a 15-second conversation.
Here’s another. Ross’ girl, Joyce (Jane Bryan), finds Stacey and chastises him for not helping:
Joyce: He had to let his paper know. It was his instinct as a reporter.
Stacey: Well, his instinct blew him right into the hole. And I hope he rots there. … I think he’s like every other wise guy. He had to have a payoff before he’d dummy up.
But in 15 seconds she reduces his argument, his code, to nothing, and he winds up risking everything to help Ross. His gang finds their only lead, Shake Edwards (Abner Biberman), who confesses it was a guy named “Polecat” who arranged it all. And where is Polecat? In Rocky Point Penitentiary, the prison from which he just escaped. He’s Carlisle, Limpy’s other rat friend. At which point Stacey sends word to his gang to get the goods on him.
Kidding. He actually gives himself up to go back to prison. Got that? One moment he’s not helping Ross at all, the next he’s giving up his freedom to confront the guy who railroaded Ross. So stupid.
That said, the scene itself is great. Stacey takes a cab to the prison and rather than a couple of bills just gives the cabbie the whole wad. “It’s OK,” he says to the stunned cabbie, “I didn’t print it.” He takes one last deep breath of fresh air before walking towards the front entrance. It takes several beats for the cops to realize who is walking towards them, and and then they descend en masse. In their confusion, they’re actually pushing him away from the prison. “What do I gotta do,” Stacey says, “fight my way back in?”
Now that I think about it, Raft is way cooler than Cagney in this. He certainly gets the best lines. Probably because the lines should’ve been Cagney’s.
White flag, schmite flag
The third act is equally murky. There’s suddenly guns in the twine and a big prison break, led by Dale, which Ross keeps counseling against until he’s held hostage. Pete “the Kassock” is finally killed by Meuller, Fargo Red is saved by Ross, who knocks him out with one punch and then handcuffs him to a bale of twine to keep him safe. Oh, they also grab the warden as a hostage.
Then all the stuff the movie wants to happen, happens:
- Polecat Carlisle confesses in front of the warden
- The warden believes him
- All the rioting prisoners die
- Stacey dies
- Ross is exonerated
That third point is particularly off-putting. The cons we’ve liked for most of the movie are suddenly gunned down in a hail of bullets by trigger-happy military men—and the movie doesn’t seem to have a problem with it at all. One guy is even holding a white flag but … BLAM. Good riddance. What happened to Warners’ social consciousness?
“Each Dawn I Die” is based on a novel by Robert Odlum, whom IMDb says is “a one-time managing editor of The Minneapolis News who became a successful author of stories chiefly about crime and corruption.” It was adapted by two guys who did a lot of Cagneys: Warren Duff (“St. Louis Kid,” “Frisco Kid,” “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Oklahoma Kid”) and Norman Reilly Raine (“Fighting 69th,” “Captains of the Clouds”). It was directed by William Keighley, the director of the Broadway play, “Penny Arcade,” that led Warners to signing Cagney in the first place, and who directed his share of Cagneys over the years (“G-Men,” “Fighting 69th,” “Torrid Zone,” “Bride Came C.O.D.”).
“Each Dawn” has a rep but it’s second-tier Cagney. I wish they'd made the Fred MacMurray version instead.