Tuesday, April 13, 2010

MGM's Gangsters

Tonight continues Robert Taylor's turn as TCM's Star of the Month. One of his more interesting movies shows up at 11:45 PM ET: Johnny Eager. It's MGM's idea of a gangster movie, made after all of the great gangster movies had already been made over at Warner Bros., and that alone makes it interesting.

Taylor plays the title role, a paroled gangster who is operating a taxicab by day, and a crime syndicate by night. This is, of course, quite illegal, and DA John Farrell (Edward Arnold) is sure to put him back in jail if he were to find out what Johnny is doing. Still, Johnny has a palatial hide-out at the dog track he's running (gotta love those MGM sets!). There's a bit of a problem though: Farrell's daughter Liz (young and lovely Lana Turner) is a college student doing a project on the workings of the parole system, and she's out to cover Eager as part of that assignment. What happens next should be painfully obvious: she falls head over heels for him even though it's a Really Dumb Idea, and he begins to fall in love with her, despite the fact that he's got another woman (Patricia Dane, the one in the picture above). The other problem is that Johnny does have a conscience, too, although it's a disembodied conscience, in the form of Johnny's friend, the now-alcoholic cynic Jeff, played by Van Heflin.

The big problem with Johnny Eager is that almost everything seems slightly wrong. Warner Bros. did a great job on its gangster movies, uing their back lot effectively, and being able to cast stars like James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart was a big help. At MGM, on the other hand, everything looks too darn glitzy. MGM was able to make a lot of great movies, but that glitz -- at least the early 1940s version of it -- doesn't work. Perhaps if it had been the Prohibition era with some ridiculous art deco sets, it might have looked right. Also, Robert Taylor is unconvincing as a gangster. Lana Turner is OK as the young woman who falls for him, and it's obvious why anybody would fall for her. Edward Arnold is fine, although his is a fairly easy role. It's Van Heflin who steals the show from everybody; he's brilliant in playing the man who's had too much, both figuratively and literally. He's so much better than everybody else here that it isn't funny, and is frankly to the detriment of the movie: we want to see him, and don't care so much for the rest of the characters. It's no surprise that this movie won Heflin his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Watch also for Glenda Farrell in a small role as a policeman's wife.

Johnny Eager got a release to DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection, so you can get a copy of it, although not as cheaply as many other classic movies.

No comments: