(director/writer: John Ford; screenwriters: William Collier, Sr./story by Maurine Dallas Watkins; cinematographer: Joseph H. August; editor: Frank E. Hull; music: James Hanley/Joseph McCarthy; cast: Spencer Tracy (Saint Louis), Claire Luce (Judy), Warren Hymer (Dannemora Dan), Humphrey Bogart (Steve), William Collier, Sr. (Pop), Joan Marie Lawes (Jean), Morgan Wallace (Frosby), Louise Mackintosh (Mrs. Massey), Robert Emmett O’Connor (Warden); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Fox; Fox Home Entertainment; 1930)

“The film was popular with Depression era-audiences, though the critics creamed it.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An early talkie minor prison comedy by John Ford (“The Battle of Midway”/”They Were Expendable”/”Men Without Women”) that’s based on the story by Maurine Dallas Watkins and written by the comedian William Collier. The story is a nonsensical bummer; it’s only worth anything for its historical value. It was the first time Ford teamed with Spencer Tracy, who was in his first film. It was also the only time Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, in his second film but first starring one, worked together. Tracy and Ford got along very well and teamed up again in 1958 for The Last Hurrah. Bogie called Ford by his nickname of Jack without an invite, incurring his wrath, and thereby never worked with Ford again. It was intended as a serious drama, but when MGM came out with “The Big House” Ford had it rewritten by Collier for a comedy. Bogie and Tracy were both appearing at the time in different stage productions in New York, with Tracy taking a 17-week leave of absence in The Last Mile. The film was popular with Depression era-audiences, though the critics creamed it. I found it dreadful, the levity in the camplike prison seemed a retarded effort at best.

Likable escape artist St. Louis (Spencer Tracy) busts out of jail in the south with the moronic Dannemora Dan (Warren Hymer) and then leaves him on a deserted road. They meet later in Kansas City and get into a brawl, which lands them in a Midwestern prison. The two cons share a cell with rich boy Steve (Humphrey Bogart), treated by the warden with special privileges, who has not told his folks he’s serving a brief sentence for accidental manslaughter. They think he’s in China. Steve has fallen in love with Judy (Claire Luce), a female prisoner in the adjoining women’s prison who worked as a con artist with Frosby (Morgan Wallace) and was framed by him. Steve is released and returns home to find that Frosby is swindling his mom and blackmailing him if he squeals. Word of this gets to St. Louis and Dannemora, who become peeved. So while putting on a prison play they manage to escape and go to New England to help Steve. The boys end Frosby’s criminal career and return to prison just in time to play in the annual baseball game against the rival Sing Sing team.

It was remade in 1938 by director Alfred L. Werker with Preston Foster and Arthur Treacher in the roles played respectively by Tracy and Hymer.

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