Public Hero # 1 (1935)
Directed by J. Walter Ruben
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Chester Morris, Joseph Calleia, Lewis Stone
* Published specifically for The 120 “Screwball” Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema *
If you have not yet seen this film and/or do not want the plot to be spoiled for you, please do not read any further. It was impossible for me to talk about the film without giving pivotal details and if I could have done otherwise, I would have. This is a film that you will want to discover and experience on your own. 🙂
The dangerously infamous Purple Gang has been plaguing parts of the Mid-West with their murderous crime sprees. Most of their victims have been innocent bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time while the gang was making their getaways, usually after bank robberies. The local police and national authorities in Washington, D.C., do not know how to stop this crime wave, especially since they are not exactly sure who the members are and where their hideout is located. Their only lead is a suspect named Sonny Black (Joseph Calleia) who they believe to be one of the primary gangsters. Since he is already incarcerated and serving time on an unspecified charge, they decide to take drastic measures in order to finally put an end to the Purple Gang’s reign: the Department of Justice decides to put in one of their own as an informant. They designate Jeff Crane (Chester Morris), a young but promising federal agent, to be voluntarily imprisoned under the guise that he held up a beer joint for a measly $12. It is arranged by the prison warden (Lewis Stone) that Jeff will share a cell with Sonny in order to build a bond and get inside information.
Things start pretty rough for Jeff as a prisoner. He provokes a short-lived food fight that lands him for 21 in days in solitary confinement; a hell with no light, little air, and only bread and water to eat. In the Warden’s own words, “Down there, a man can’t live much longer.” Sonny, who had initially been cold and distant with Jeff, has a newfound respect for him once he gets out of solitary. Jeff confides in Sonny that he has a friend on the outside who delivers items to the prison on Wednesdays, the same day that an assembly of prison officials come and hold a meeting with the Warden. It does not take long for the two of them to devise a breakout scheme and with the assistance of Jeff’s friend they manage to procure two pistols with two boxes of shell casings. The escape plan almost occurs without a hitch but things get complicated at the last minute, prompting a chase and leaving Sonny with a serious bullet wound in his torso.
Jeff and Sonny manage to make it to Sonny’s place in Wisconsin despite the blood loss and difficult travel conditions. Sonny is still in bad shape but is able to communicate, so he instructs Jeff to get in touch with a certain Dr. “Doc” Glass (Lionel Barrymore) who can help them. Being impossible to reach over the telephone, Jeff goes out to get the Dr. on his own. Driving in the middle of a heavy rain storm, Jeff has a tough time staying on the road and nearly collides with a bus that gets stuck in the mud. A female bus passenger accosts Jeff and takes his keys until he promises to drive them all to the nearest town. Maria Theresa, also known as “Terry” (Jean Arthur), turns out to be quite a pain in his side and she pressures him to take her on to her final destination, to which Jeff refuses. When all the passengers have been dropped off, he finally makes his way to Dr. Glass’s residence. Unfortunately, Doc is a chronic drunk so when Jeff gets to him, he is in a pitiful state and barely able to function. With the rain still pouring by the bucket, Jeff and Doc head out to find Sonny.
Along the way, Jeff and Doc get sidelined by the rainfall and are forced to take refuge at a nearby hotel where they happen upon Terry and the bus passengers. Terry still bugs Jeff for a ride and also to have dinner together, all the while Doc gets some rest. When the rain has finally subsided and they can be on their way, Terry jumps into the car without either of the men’s knowledge. Her presence is only discovered when Jeff’s car breaks through a bridge and the car is swept away by the high waters. The three are put up in the home of a kindly widow but do not end up staying the night after Terry discovers that Sonny is in between life and death. It turns out that Terry, ignorant of his criminally notorious background, is Sonny’s sister and that she has been trying to see him.
From here on, it is a race for time for Jeff to save Sonny’s life and to get the goods on the Purple Gang while dealing with his budding feelings for Terry.
Thoughts & Discussion
The tone for the first half of the film is set at the beginning when headlines about the Purple Gang are splashed all over the headlines. One of the most shocking is, “Child slain as Purple Gang makes getaway!”, accompanied by the terrible image of a wounded nanny falling over next to a baby carriage. There are hardly any words one can give about such a horrendous crime. We, the audience, are shoved into the dark and menacing world of maximum security prison without any warning and become attached to two jailbirds who will take us on a surprising ride. Perhaps I am overly naïve on the subject but I could not foresee the twists and turns of the story, so I was genuinely surprised by the events. The way that the screenwriters chose to layout the narrative was clever and attention-grabbing, making Public Hero # 1one of the most satisying impromptu picks that I have had the pleasure of watching in quite some time.
This film works because it is well-written and perfectly cast. A noticeable aspect about the dialogue is that it is serious with elements of harebrained comedy incorporated. Characters like Terry and Doc alter the feel of the film, allowing you to laugh during stressful situations, such as when Doc is found in the bathtub having swiped a stone jug full of liquor and stashing some of it in glasses that he hides behind a towel. You can see where his primary interests lay. There is also the annoying fellow bus passenger who will not stop hitting on Terry, pretty much begging her for sex. These examples are to be cherished nowadays because they were some of the last controversial details to be left in before the Hays Code forced filmmaking to become more puritanical. It also gave us a very unique blend of crime and comedy genres that would not be seen again until Some Like It Hot was released some 24 years later.
Lionel Barrymore and Chester Morris in-character (left) and in-between takes (right).
It was a treat to see Chester Morris and Lionel Barrymore completely incarnate their characters. This is one of the first times that I saw Morris in a leading role and he honestly blew me away with his performance. Barrymore defined reliability and continuity, as he was a constant asset to any film in which he appeared. He always looked physically familiar but did not play the same character twice, unless of course you are talking about Dr. Kildare. Rounding out this goodness is one of my favourite character actors of all time, Joseph Calleia. Seeing him so youthful had me slightly shell-shocked, I must admit, but he eventually gets his signature pencil-style moustache back towards the middle of the film. It is a rare treat to see him in such a pivotal role, especially for what MGM touted as his official screen debut.
While all the main characters in the story are interesting to talk about, let us focus for a moment on Doc Glass. He is certainly a figure for the cinematic history books! Referred to by Jeff as a “Drunken Ape” in one scene, Doc is about as colourful and hectic a personage as you could imagine. Once a reputed surgeon, Doc now spends every evening at a local bar running up a large tab. And since he is short of funds, he uses his medical tools as collateral until the time comes when someone needs his services, at which point they must pay the entirety of the bar tab to retrieve the instruments. Jeff has to pay $20 to get them back, which equates to over $382 in today’s money. Just to put this figure into perspective, Jeff was fictionally sentenced to 10 years over a sum of $12, which equates to around $230 in today’s money. This goes to show the sheer severity of Doc’s drinking problem. He even steals medicine from his medical bag if he has nothing else to drink. It makes you wonder how he can still be alive yet when it comes to saving Sonny’s life, he is on top of things. His dedication to the Purple Gang never fails, either.
Jean “The Voice” Arthur
If there is an actress who deserves a Blogathon in her honour, it is certainly Jean. She was very talented and her filmography is filled with a long list of impressive credits. I thought about using the word accomplished to describe her but it does not quite fit her personality. Jean was someone who did not want to live in front of the limelight, exposing herself professionally or personally. Praise was not something that she needed in order to function as an actress or as a person. Her biographer John Oller described Jean as “being an enigma.”* This kind of behaviour can certainly stump some people from within the industry who are used to stars soaking up their status. It can be further misconstrued by audiences/fans who may feel as they are being shunned or even ridiculed. After all, seeing their films and paying movie entrance fees help propel these players’ popularity. All of this did not seem to hurt Jean and she remained one of the most beloved players of 1930’s & 1940’s Hollywood. If anything, her reclusiveness has cast a slight shadow on her modern legacy since relatively little is known about her life. Thankfully, Virginie has so kindly helped promote her remembrance and for that, I and the classic film community are very grateful!
Jean was excellent in any genre but had a certain a knack for romance-drama and even screwball comedy. Her films with Frank Capra – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – are amongst her best known work. On-screen, she was the quintessential strong-willed, independent woman with a tough outer shell who was tender and loving on the inside. This is the perfect description of her character Maria Theresa “Terry” O’Reilly. Terry bursts onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere, 30 minutes into the story, and makes herself immediately known. She changes the dynamics of a film that was, up until that point, mainly a gangster tale and as expected adds a few good chuckles. This young woman reminds us of the world that exists outside of crime circles and also that Jeff is not the henchman he is pretending to be. He loosens up with her although he never once risks blowing his cover. In fact, Jeff reasserts his status as a runaway prisoner when Terry finds out about him and Sonny in the newspaper; something that does not dissuade her in wanting to try a serious relationship. Quite bold for the time, it is she who proposes marriage to him and without batting an eye!
Appearing in a little over half the film, Jean received top billing from MGM as a stipulation of her contract with Columbia Pictures. Her contribution to the film is immeasurable notwithstanding the amount of time that she spends on-screen. I cannot think of anyone else who could have played the role as she did, even her prodigious peer Myrna Loy who was so captivating in the Thin Man series.
There are some people who dismiss Jean Arthur because of her very particular voice, for which she was affectionately nicknamed “The Voice” by Frank Capra. I have heard similar things said about June Allyson, who had a raspy voice. It is a terrible shame that these two women have their bodies of work overlooked because of a God-given characteristic. To anyone who is on the fence about Jean in any way, I say to give this a film a try and re-evaluate your feelings afterwards. If you need a confirmation, look no further than Shane.