Saturday, December 10, 2022

East of the River

I have a bit less that I've watched saved up to do posts on, only because I recorded a few things I planned to do posts on, only to start them and realized not only had I seen the movie, I'd already done a post on it. With that in mind, I looked through the films on my DVR and selected East of the River, which didn't seem familiar to me, at least not in the sense of realizing I'd seen it before. There are other ways in which it is familiar, of course....

The movie starts off in the late 1920s in New York. Mama Lorenzo (Marjorie Rambeau) is an Italian-American in New York who runs a pasta restaurant and has an adolescent son Joe who's always getting into some sort of trouble or another. This time, however, he's gone too far, and is threatened by the judge (Moroni Olsen in one of his many character actor roles) with being sent to reform school. Mama has an impassioned talk with the judge, who decides to give Joe one more chance. However, Joe got in trouble along with an orphan Nick, who is going to be sent not back to the orphanage, but to that reform school since he doesn't have a family to go home to. So Mama offers to adopt Nick and the judge amazingly enough agrees.

A montage shows that the two boys grow up, with Nick being grateful for his second chance in life, getting straight A's, and going on to college. Joe, for his part, continues his bad ways, eventually getting thrown out of school and heading west to California at 18, where he can continue a life of crime without his mother finding out about it. He's using the proceeds of his crime to help pay his brother's way through college, of course. (Warner Bros. had used this plot device in Invisible Stripes only a year before.

The law catches up with Joe (played as an adult by John Garfield), and he spends a fair bit of time in San Quentin. But he lies to Mama and Nick about where he is, instead getting his girlfriend Laurie (Brenda Marshall) to commit forgery for him so that he can keep sending money home. Eventually, Joe gets out, and just in time, as he's learned that Nick (played as an adult by William Lundigan) is about to graduate from college. So he and Laurie head to New York for the graduation.

Not that Joe is able to escape his life of crime. And he's in trouble, because the two guys who framed him are in New York. Joe is able to turn the tables on them, but this means he's a wanted man by them so he has to head back to California to lay low for a while, telling Mama he has to attend to the "honest" business he left behind. Joe makes the mistake of leaving Laurie behind, and as time passes, Laurie begins to fall in love with Nick, and ultimately decides to marry Nick. Joe finds out, and he's jealous. And a vindictive bastard. He threatens to reveal Laurie's criminal past to Mama (who loves Laurie like the daughter Mama never had) and scupper the wedding between Laurie and Nick if Laurie won't do Joe's bidding.

I've mentioned before that going back to the pre-Code days, Warner Bros. was the studio that was best at doing social issue pictures. East of the River isn't quite that, but it certainly fits into the mold of the lower-class urban drama and crime movies that those social issue pictures evolved into by the end of the 1930s. Of course, in James Cagey, then Humphrey Bogart, and now John Garfield, they had the stars to pull it off more than some of the other studios did.

At the same time, however, it feels like there's no new ground being broken in East of the River, and a sort of sense that this is a movie being made because Warner Bros. needed something to go on the lower half of the bill. There's not exactly anything terribly wrong with it, mind you, other than a decided lack of originality. It's the sort of thing that, a generation later, probably would have been pared down from 74 to 44 minutes and turned into a TV episode for some show.

East of the River isn't the best work of any of the cast members, but I don't think it's anything any of them should be ashamed of, either.

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