William Holden, Jane Bryan, and George Raft in Invisible Stripes (1939)


“Morose, humorless and predictable prison story.”

(director: Lloyd Bacon; screenwriters: Warren Duff/based on the book by Warden Lewis E. Lawes; cinematographer: Ernest Haller; editor: James Gibbon; music: Heinz Roemheld; cast: George Raft (Cliff Taylor), Jane Bryan (Peggy), William Holden (Tim Taylor), Humphrey Bogart (Chuck Martin), Flora Robson (Mrs. Taylor), Moroni Olsen (Warden), Henry O’Neill (Parole Officer Masters), Paul Kelly (Ed Kruger), Lee Patrick (Molly Daniels), Marc Lawrence (Lefty), Margot Stevenson (Sue), Joseph Crehan (garage owner), John Hamilton (Police Capt. Johnson), Frankie Thomas (Tommy McNeill, friendly stockboy); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Hal B. Wallis/Louis F. Edelman; Warner Bros.; 1939)

“Morose, humorless and predictable prison story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Lloyd Bacon (“The Oklahoma Kid”/”Marked Woman”/”Boy Meets Girl”) directs this morose, humorless and predictable prison story about an ex-con who finds it tough going to go straight even though he tries his best. It’s a standard issue Warner’s crime story, one they could have made in their sleep, who send out mixed morality messages about the bad guys. It says crime doesn’t pay, yet its criminal hero robs banks to bankroll his kid brother’s garage—which keeps him out of the slammer. A good cast which includes George Raft, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Jane Bryan, Flora Robson, Henry O’Neill, and Lee Patrick is wasted in this routine gangster film. It’s adapted from a book by warden Lewis E. Lawes, who served in Sing Sing since 1920. The authorship undoubtedly explains why the warden in the film is made into a saint, and the only one in authority that the good-hearted ex-con Raft trusts.

Cliff Taylor (George Raft) and Chuck Martin (Humphrey Bogart) are paroled the same day from Sing Sing. Chuck joins forces with a gang run by Ed Kruger (Paul Kelly, a real-life ex-con who served two years for manslaughter and was a friend of Raft’s), while reform minded Cliff heads back to his Manhattan tenement flat to live with his long-suffering angelic widowed mom (Flora Robson, Brit actress who was actually seven years younger than Raft) and car mechanic kid brother Tim (William Holden). Things don’t go well for the earnest Cliff, as his long-time girlfriend Sue (Margot Stevenson) dumps him because she wants nothing to do with an ex-con and the parolee finds it’s nearly impossible to get a legit job as his ‘invisible stripes’ make him not employable in straight society.

When Tim thinks he’s not good enough for his sweet girlfriend Peggy (Jane Bryan) because of his low paying job, he wants to resort to crime to make some quick money to buy Peggy the finer things in life that she deserves. Big brother won’t hear of Tim going crooked and sacrifices himself by joining Chuck’s high-flying gang of robbers. After robbing some banks, Cliff pretends to be working as a tractor salesman and finances Tim’s garage. Tim now marries Peggy, and Cliff quits the gang over the objections of Lefty (Marc Lawrence). But Chuck’s gang is chased by the police in their next botched violent robbery and force Tim to help them escape by saying Cliff is part of their gang. Cliff comes to the aid of his kid brother when the police arrest him as a gang member, and martyrs himself to save his kid brother from having a criminal record—feeling good that he at least saved him from a life sentence of invisible stripes.