Van Heflin, Robert Taylor, Lana Turner, Edward Arnold, and Robert Sterling in Johnny Eager (1941)


(director: Mervyn LeRoy; screenwriters: from an unpublished story by James Edward Grant/Mr. Grant/John Lee Mahin; cinematographer: Harold Hal Rosson; editor: Albert Akst; music: Bronislau Kaper; cast: Robert Taylor (Johnny Eager), Lana Turner (Lisbeth Bard), Edward Arnold (John Benson Farrell), Van Heflin (Jeff Hartnett), Robert Sterling (Jimmy Courtney), Patricia Dane (Garnet), Glenda Farrell (Mae Blythe), Henry O’Neill (Mr. Verne), Barry Nelson (Lew Rankin), Diana Lewis (Judy Sanford), Charles Dingle (A. Frazier Marco),Paul Stewart (Julio), Don Costello (Billiken), Lou Lubin (Benjy), Connie Gilchrist (Peg Fowler), Robin Raymond (Matilda Fowler), Leona Maricle (Miss Mines), Cy Kendall (Bill Halligan); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John W. Considine, Jr.; MGM; 1942)

“Nothing can save this syrupy crime melodrama from its eagerness to please as a romantic sudser.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Nothing can save this syrupy crime melodrama from its eagerness to please as a romantic sudser. Mervyn LeRoy (“I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang”/”Little Caesar “) is the capable veteran director who signed the famous “Sweater Girl” Lana Turner to her first contract at Warner Bros., and reunites with her in this film (her first starring role was in 1937 in “They Won’t Forget”). The script by John Lee Mahin and James Edward Grant cuts a lot of the sleaze from under its plot line’s legs, as LeRoy make it into the usual high-minded treatment MGM is renown for (a studio which does not ordinarily make crime films). It stars Robert Taylor as a cold-blooded racketeer who falls in love with Lana, the vulnerable society woman he plays as a sucker but becomes redeemed through her love before the third act goes down in a blaze of bullets. It’s the kind of weakly made film noir where the Taylor gangster character blames his criminal past on his deprived childhood–not even owning a dog.

Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor) is an ex-con driving a taxi and reporting to parole officer Verne, who is pleased with his rehabilitation–not realizing the taxi driver gig is a coverup for the big-time gambling operation he runs on the sly. Two sociology students, Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner) and Judy Sanford, while visiting the parole officer, take an interest in the handsome Eager. Verne arranges for a surprise visit to Eager’s residence, which is a phony one arranged to please the parole officer, as he’s tipped off in advance of the visit by a female worker in the office. Society gal Lisbeth gets hot all over for Johnny, licking her lips as she tells her friend “I think he’d beat a woman if she made him angry.” It turns out her step-father is John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), the District Attorney who put Johnny behind bars and is the one preventing Johnny’s underworld organization from opening a dog-racing track.

Johnny is warned by Farrell that he’ll be returned to prison if he doesn’t stop seeing his daughter. The gangster then cooks up a scheme where he invites Lisbeth to his apartment and play acts a fight with henchman Julio, and when he’s about to get killed has her shoot his attacker. The gun is loaded with blanks, but Lisbeth thinks it’s for real. Johnny then blackmails her step-father into lifting the injunction and the track opens with the help of other crooked city politicians. But a series of double-crosses take place and Johnny’s only friend, the alcoholic lawyer Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin), an effete reciter of poetry and whipping-boy for the mobster, finally tells him off about how rottenly he treated Lisbeth. This seems to do the trick and right before our eyes the mobster turns over a new leaf, trying to make things as right as rain.

Van Heflin won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his sappy role of being Johnny’s self-hating sloshed pal and legal eagle.

It’s listed as a film noir, but failed to carry through on those dark conventions. No blame for its self-destruction can go to LeRoy, who made the best of the bad script with his high-style and energetic direction. At no time did a miscast Robert Taylor seem like a noir protagonist, as he was just in his usual hero role but in a film that wasn’t tailor-made for his matinee idol good looks.