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.
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 broad–minded 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.
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.