Monthly Archives: May 2015

‘Johnny Apollo’: ‘Now, Let’s Forget All about Legal Ethics’

Poster from original release.

Poster from second release.

You won’t find “Johnny Apollo” (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940) on any list of the Fifty Best Crime Dramas of All Time, and who can wonder? It’s the sort of assembly line studio programmer to which “best” can hardly be applied with any seriousness — though it must surely have been the best picture to open on March 15, 1940 in Ossining, New York. (The tie-in was that exterior shooting was done at Sing Sing.) It is immensely engaging, lively, preposterous and a lot more fun than most of the pictures you’ll find at the top of the Fifty Best Crime Dramas list.

The Smash Up

Tyrone Power plays Robert “Bob” Cain, Jr, a college athlete whose life is turned upside down when his father, a Wall Street tycoon (Edward Arnold), is sent to prison for embezzlement. With his father in jail, Bob must find a job to support himself. But when his father’s old friends and colleagues turn their backs on him, he changes his name and turns to crime; as Johnny Apollo, racketeer, he plans to earn enough money to spring the old man.

Much of the action takes place in night clubs, betting parlors, dingy offices, stairwells — anyplace where the windows look out on blinking lights. Looming over everything are the courthouse and the big house. The situations are steamed up; the coincidences are many; the patter is snappy and far above average for this kind of picture (the screenplay is by Philip Dunne); good is rewarded; evil is punished and amor vincit omnia.

Tyrone Power as Johnny Apollo, nee Bob Cain

Tyrone Power as Johnny Apollo, nee Bob Cain, Jr.

With a few exceptions, it’s extremely well acted. Tyrone Power isn’t up to much, but he’s better than usual. The role suits him well, and he was relieved to be doing, at long last, a picture in modern clothes. Lloyd Nolan overplays Mickey Dwyer, a mob boss who becomes Johnny Apollo’s father figure while the old man is up the river making boilers. He lays on da Bronx accent a few inches too thick; he’s unconvincing as a brutal kingpin — he’s a whippet making like an attack dog.

The rest of the cast is terrific. Edward Arnold’s performance is the best I’ve ever seen him give. He was an old hand at playing loudmouth robber barons, but this role has more depth and complexity than most of his other parts: from the first frame, he’s a villain whose greed and dishonesty have destroyed his son’s bright future. By the end of the picture, he’s an heroic figure — his rehabilitation and enlightenment are gradual; it’s a signal pleasure to watch Arnold’s masterful handling of Robert Cain’s transformation; he plays each individual scene beautifully; taken together, the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. He deserved an Academy Award nomination for this one.

I’d also have nominated Charley Grapewin (best known as Uncle Henry in “The Wizard of Oz”), who gives a fine, old-style ham performance as “Judge” Emmett T. Brennan: a notoriously unprincipled shyster and world class soak. The part is a compendium of sentimental clichés, both about the practice of law and alcoholism, but Grapewin makes all of it seem vital, fresh and interesting.

Best of all, however, is Dorothy Lamour (on loan from Paramount), who plays singer/actress/gun-moll Lucky DuBarry, girlfriend of Mickey Dwyer. Once she claps eyes on Johnny Apollo, she finds it hard to look at anyone else. Her performance deserves special attention, which will make this essay far too long. You can find my appreciation of Lamour’s performance by clicking here.

The Dust Up

After the scandal hits the afternoon newspapers, Robert Cain waits anxiously for Bob to come home from the campus. Like everybody else, Bob learnt about his old man’s indictment in the papers. Arnold plays the man’s apprehension beautifully. On his way to Bob’s room, he seems grave but in command. Outside Bob’s door, he hesitates. Suddenly he looks worn out, older, grimmer. His current troubles are entirely of his own making, but he’s a pitiable figure. This overfed, corrupt plutocrat is vulnerable. Both by training and temperament, Arnold was a roaring, old-style baloney-bender who went in for big effects. But as you will see, he could play complicated emotional scenes with great finesse and fine detail.


“The prison term doesn’t mean anything to me: I could do that standing on my head!” I can’t think of a single thing that Edward Arnold could do standing on his head; I seriously doubt he could stand on his head. His parting shot is typical of his hothead blowhard personality: “And now that we’ve found out how we feel about each other, I’ll know that I’ll never have to give you another thought as long as I live!” Oh, guess again, Tubby.

Tyrone Power never learnt the trick of sounding spontaneous, but he’s better than usual in this one. He never imitates life accurately enough to make you forget that he’s acting. He works the lines too hard, overthinks everything, and stresses too many words. For instance, the line, “I guess I should just sit in class and be Exhibit A, instead of that skeleton they have hanging on the wall — all my friends being extra nice to me just to show how broadminded they are.” Power stresses eight words on a line that makes better sense when only one word — “skeleton” — is given a little additional emphasis. The best actors let the words do the acting for them, whenever possible. The most common error young actors make is to try to act out every word. Experience usually corrects this. Power, alas, went the opposite direction. When he’s listening instead of speaking, he’s a very good actor. The portrait behind him is his mother. The resemblance is remarkable.

Frank Capra on Edward Arnold

By the time this picture was made, Edward Arnold had all but cornered the crooked tycoon market. He’s easy to dislike: abrasive, quick-tempered, peremptory and captious; his girth suggests gluttony; zeal for strong drink burns in the beacon of his nose; his glittering eyes peer out hard and shrewd beneath the perpetual frown of cold command. His deep baritone voice is beautifully resonant, but his accent — a peculiar combination of the Lower East Side (where he was born and raised) and New England (listen to the way he pronounces “heart”) — is harsh, staccato and often unpleasant. Frank Capra, who admired Arnold’s skill almost as much as he disliked his personality, couldn’t bear the sound of his joyless, insincere laughter. In his autobiography, “The Name above the Title,” Capra provides this brisk overview:

He could be unctuous as a funeral director or cold and ruthless as a Cosa Nostra chief . . . . [H]e had a laugh as unique and as phony as a three-dollar bill. It would wind up in pitch like the flywheel starter of a fighter plane, then explode in choked-up pops like its motor . . . Edward Arnold was anathema to directors. In take after take he would blow his lines and shrug it off with that phony laugh. Other actors could wring his neck. They would have to give their all in take after take, just in case Arnold didn’t blow his lines. The result: Arnold got all the attention. Distraught directors would okay any take that he finished, regardless of how the other tired-out actors fared. But if you could put up with that — and I gladly did — Arnold was a powerhouse on the screen. His performance as the jungle king of Wall Street, who walked away from his throne for the love of his son was the philosophical clout an otherwise farcical comedy needed to make “You Can’t Take It with You” the acclaimed Best Picture of the year.

Yes, he’s right about that: Edward Arnold was a powerhouse. Capra could have been describing his performance in “Johnny Apollo.” Arnold was easily the best thing about “You Can’t Take It with You” (the stage play is infinitely superior to the saccharine screen version), but he was never at his best when Capra directed him.

Sent Up

Here’s the scene in which the Honorable Mr Justice Penrose pronounces sentence on Cain. I find Charles Trowbridge’s performance as the peevish judge hugely entertaining. It’s a very specific style of ham that he serves up, a dish that went off the menu decades ago. Because he doesn’t raise his voice or flail his arms about or pull coarse faces, and because the two speeches he delivers are humorless, terse and implacably stern, you may think Trowbridge is not a ham. But he is. Have a look:

His delivery is a classic example of High Dudgeon on a High Horse Ham: his diction is elaborate, artificial, theatrical and eccentric; every slightest inflection, intonation and cæsura has been carefully chosen and rehearsed. And he pulls the oldest ham trick in the book: he whips off his spectacles as a visual exclamation mark. Nobody in real life ever does that, unless they learnt it from watching baloney-benders like Judge Penrose. Charles Silas Richard Trowbridge was born to American parents in Vera Cruz, Mexico, but grew up in Napa and Hawaii. His accent is unlike any I’ve ever heard; I assume it’s entirely his own invention, but wherever it came from, it’s as impressive as it is weird. He made a career of playing censorious authoritarians; I’ve seen him give nearly identical performances in at least two dozen pictures, but I’m always glad to see him — particularly when a tongue-lashing is on the bill. Whenever Charles Silas Richard Trowbridge makes with the obloquy, I begin to chuckle. His turn in “Johnny Apollo” is especially delightful: the old ham pulls those cheaters off his nose not once, but twice in the same short scene. Now, that’s what I call guts.

Stood Up, Dressed Down, Cast Out, Honked Off

From a staircase at Grand Central Terminal, Bob watches a squad of prison guards herd a group of prisonbound convicts, including his father, onto the train for Ossining. He sees his father bid farewell to his attorney (Lionel Atwill). Bob intercepts Atwill as he leaves. “Did my father mention me?” “No,” Atwill replies absently, then murmurs a few sympathetic words, assures Bob there’s nothing more he can do for the old man. Justice must take its course; Robert Cain must serve his time. He wishes Bob good luck and departs. Bob must find a job. Here is what happens. The storytelling in this sequence is remarkably efficient.

George Irving plays Mr Ives, the drunkard’s son, who chastises Bob then fires him. I love the way Irving speaks the line, “My father diiiied in jail, an habitual drunkard!” (Both he and Trowbridge put just enough emphatic nasality on “an habitual” that I smirk every time I hear them say it.) It’s a pretty rum go that this Mr Ives fellow begins by accusing Bob of moral cowardice, then proceeds to crow about being the proud son of a drunken jailbird, and then summarily fires the young man without allowing him to say a word in his defense. Oh yes, young Mr Cain is a competent, diligent fellow with a first class education and an earnest desire to get ahead in the world — but the rascal has not enough family feeling in him to be a-counting Mr Ives’ beans. So Mr Ives rebukes and fires him — and then promises to write him a recommendation! The drunkard’s son will not permit the scoundrel to work for him, but he’ll recommend him to others. Get a load of Mr Probity!

I cannot quite get myself to believe that Power succeeds in making his Grand Remonstrance sound extempore, but I sure want to believe he does. I like his energy and heat, even if his delivery does make me see the words and punctuation marks as they must have appeared in his prompt script. I like the subversive argument he makes; I like how he exposes Atwill’s temporizing as false and illogical; I like the efficiency with which he rattles the attorney’s murmuring complacency and then says, “Now, let’s forget all about legal ethics.” Checkmate, you dirty son of a bitch!

More about “Johnny Apollo” here.

‘Johnny Apollo’: Twenty Bucks and a Mink

Original poster.

Original poster: a rare instance of the poster exactly matching the tone of the picture it advertises.

Although there are plenty of gangsters and criminal pursuits in “Johnny Apollo” (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1940) it is a Papa Drama first, a Love Story second, and a Gangster Picture third. When the story opens, Wall Street tycoon Robert Cain Sr (Edward Arnold) has just been indicted for embezzlement. For Cain, it means scandal, disgrace, ruin and a stretch in the pen; for his son (Tyrone Power), it means paying for his father’s sins and a descent into a life of crime. You can read a more complete overview of the plot by clicking here.

Ty and Dotty Meet Cute

This scene should give you a good sense of the overall tone of the picture. As Lucky DuBarry, actress/saloon singer and part-time chippie, Dorothy Lamour lays on the tough girl stuff with a heavy hand, but for this picture, I think that’s a virtue. Her lack of subtlety and shrewdness makes Lucky increasingly poignant as the picture progresses.

I’m particularly fond of the scoring in this scene, with “Melancholy Baby” being played on a cheerfully rinky-dink honky tonk piano. I also like the way that the two characters, both of whom have loved ones cooling their heels in jail, play the scene looking at each other from behind bars.

On first viewing, I felt that Lamour was working too earnestly at the hard-bitten shtick. On further reflection, however, I think it’s not Lamour, but Lucky, who is trying too hard to be tough, and she overdoes it because she’s not terribly bright. In fact, she’s a bit of a lunkhead. She’s only got two settings: hard-boiled and half-baked. When she’s irritated, she puts on her tough girl act; when she’s sentimental, she gets sloppy and dreamy-eyed. But mainly, Lucky’s too sensitive for her own good and she needs the tough girl pose to protect herself. The problem is she’s not clever enough to fool anyone. That’s what makes her poignant. For instance, she says “Hey, look: get a load of the robin!” with an emphatically snotty tone of voice, as if she finds the innocence of nature something to sneer at. But immediately after she says it, she closes her eyes tight and crosses her fingers like a little girl. “Yer supposed ta make a wish.” The point is, she really is making a wish because she’s superstitious. Dope that she is, she overplays the baloney-on-wry patter, then undermines it by being overtly sentimental. Who knows how much thought Lamour did or didn’t put into this? Frankly, it doesn’t matter: all I care about is that it works. I find her enormously touching. Lucky’s lament — “That’s why I’m starvin’ ta death in a mink coat that I wouldn’t dare sell!” — tells her entire story in a single line. She never lets up on the world-weary downward inflections, and she looks with disapproving boredom at the world with her eyelids at half-mast, but you can tell that she’s got a good heart and is hungry for affection. And she’s got a little yen for this handsome sap, which is going to grow into something serious. For now, she’s in charge, because she’s not yet in love.

Johnny Meets Brennan the Shyster

There’s a sentimental cliché about lawyers in pictures that goes back to the earliest days of the talkies and maybe into the silents: the attorneys we’re supposed to like are usually drunks. I have no idea why the cliché continues to this day: I’ve worked in and around law firms for almost thirty years, and in all that time, I’ve never known a single attorney who was a loveable sot, or even an unloveable one. Anyhow, the drunken shyster in this one is played by Charley Grapewin, and he’s terrific. How I wish there were truth in this Hollywood fiction: I’d like it if this sort of soak were indeed a regular fixture in the legal profession. I’d like to hear a tosspot declaiming Latin poetry and Victorian bombast after returning from a liquid lunch.

The Latin quote, “. . . neque semper arcum/Tendit Apollo” (“Apollo does not always strain his bow”; which means, approximately, “Even the gods sometimes kick back”) is from Horace’s Ode II.X — and is slightly misquoted. I don’t know why it is, but whenever Hollywood writers spruce up their dialogue with passages from the Ancient Romans, they almost invariably choose Horace, and nearly always quote him wrong. Hooray for Hollywood. There’s another quotation in the scene worth mentioning. Grapewin, while on the brink of passing out, declaims the last three lines of this passage, which he also misquotes:

. . . Around her form I draw
The awful circle of our solemn church!
Step but a foot within that holy ground
And on thy head — yea, though it wore a crown —
I launch the curse of Rome!

Then he says, “Shhhh! I’m teaching my elephants Shakespeare.” This must surely be an inside joke. For that line is most decidedly not Shakespeare. It’s from the famous late nineteenth century verse drama, “Richelieu,” an old war horse that Edwin Booth made famous. The playwright was none other than Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of “The Last Days of Pompeii” and “It was a dark and stormy night” notoriety. Darryl F. Zanuck, who was the head of Twentieth Century-Fox and the producer of this picture, began his independent producing career just a few years earlier. The first picture he produced was “Richelieu,” and it starred the then-famous old ham, George Arliss. Anyhow, I think it’s a sweet joke to have Charley Grapewin mistake Bulwer-Lytton for Shakespeare. (This reminds me, incidentally, of a funny exchange between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant in “Charade”: She: “Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, ‘When strangers do meet in far off lands, they should e’er long see each other again’?” He: “Shakespeare never said that!” She: “How do you know?” He: “It’s terrible. You just made it up.” She: “Well, it sounds right . . .” Oh, no it doesn’t.)

This Is the Beginning of the End

I love the way Dorothy Lamour sings this torchy tune by Mack Gordon, and I like the arrangement. This tune comes about halfway into the picture and casts a romantic haze over much of the rest of the action that follows it. The lighting is also gorgeous: notice how cinematographer Arthur C. Miller has lighted Lamour and Power so that there’s a seam of silver running along their jawlines. They’re both extremely attractive people, but Miller makes them look like gods.

Lucky in Love

Lamour looks like a woman in love: her eyes never leave the man she loves, and you can tell that she’s no longer confident in his presence.

Dancing for Nickels and Dimes

Meanwhile, while Johnny Apollo’s father is still in the bighouse making boilers, our hero keeps getting sucked deeper and deeper into gangland activities. He spends a lot of time at Mickey Dwyer’s Paradise Club, where he watches Lucky perform ratty numbers like this one.

The tune (by Lionel Newman) and lyrics (by Frank Loesser) are lively and fun, but my God, how terrible that dance routine is! The girls are actually pretty good, but the steps are so vulgar, awkward and undignified that one gets the impression that the girls are to blame; the uncredited choreographer has gone out of his way to make them look like lousy hoofers. I wouldn’t have it any other way: for once, a picture features a dance number of the low quality one would expect to find at a low dive like the Paradise.

Lucky Talks Ethics to Mouthpiece

If just about any other actress in the world played this scene, it would be camp. But this is where Lamour’s straight-ahead, no-frills performance really wins the day. She doesn’t go in for any tricks; she doesn’t try to play more than exactly what the lines say.

She speaks every line with complete conviction. Bette Davis would probably play too many angles; Barbara Stanwyck would be too intelligent and strong to be entirely sympathetic. But Lamour talks tough because that’s the language she knows, but even while she uses snappy streetwise patter, she’s completely guileless. And old Charley Grapewin has beautiful chemistry with her. “Well, anybody that plays ball in your league has got to play a pretty fair brand of ball.” It’s probably the nicest thing anyone ever said to her, and you can see from the way the tears shine in her eyes how much the compliment means to her. The underscoring is “This Is the Beginning of the End,” and if the orchestration is more than a little woozy and soppy, so are the characters in the scene, and it’s the sort of music they respond to. I don’t deny that it’s all fairly crummy and obvious, but I love it. The material may be second rate, but you can see that the actors’ hearts are in it and they play it for all they’re worth. I find the scene irresistible.

As Far as Twenty Bucks and a Mink Coat’ll Take Me

The first time I saw “Johnny Apollo,” it was the afternoon feature on a local New York television station. I came upon it near the end, just about five or ten minutes before this next scene. I was well acquainted with Edward Arnold as a turbulent gasbag from the Capra pictures — sort of a poor-man’s Adolph Menjou (both were born on February 19, 1890) — but this was my introduction to Dorothy Lamour. (I’ve always been allergic to the Road pictures.) The way she handles herself in this scene made a positive and lasting impression on me. She also speaks what continues to be my favorite line in the picture.

Her performance had a specific importance to me when I first saw it: I was a full-time student in a university acting program where Lee Strasberg’s version of The Method was in full vigor. Without going into detail, I quickly discovered that The Method and I were not destined to get along, and now I was stuck taking a lot of acting classes that taught a technique that I came whole-heartedly to despise. Lamour’s style would have been harshly denounced by the Method teachers I worked with, but I felt she was not only far more natural in her actressy way than any of the girls in my classes, but she was more fun to watch, and like Mussolini, she kept the trains running on time. Most of all: she was infinitely touching. She holds herself together, while keeping herself perfectly framed within the cross-hatched grille that separates her from the prisoner. She does the acting so the audience can do the crying. Well, it’s the old lesson Dame Edith Evans gave to John Gielgud after one of his tear-soaked performances: “Johnny, if you would cry less, the audience would cry more.”

A few hours after I saw the end of “Johnny Apollo,” I had to be at a rehearsal for a show. As luck would have it, an opportunity arose for me to reply to somebody’s question with “As far as twenty bucks and a mink coat’ll take me.” Another cast member, who was two years my senior, immensely wealthy, incredibly glamorous and impossibly out of reach, had also seen “Johnny Apollo” that afternoon, and loved it. He was bursting to talk to somebody about it, but none of his friends had seen it. So, as has often happened in my life, simply by quoting a line of dialogue that had struck a chord, I stumbled into what became an important friendship. He was by far the greater connoisseur of this sort of movie, and his enthusiasm for B pictures with smart-aleck dialogue was the beginning of my love of trashy pictures. I remember we both took the line as an arrant bit of Hollywood camp. Yes, it is camp, but because Lamour speaks it with complete sincerity, I find that it’s much better and more satisfying than mere camp. And for me, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which was cut short: he died young, in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, and now I cannot see “Johnny Apollo” without thinking of him. I make no doubt, the very idea that “Johnny Apollo” would summon up the memory of him years after he had shuffled off this mortal coil would have made him roar with laughter.