Not Quite Classics: They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

Boxing and movies have gone hand-in-hand ever since audiences saw Bob Fitzsimmons KO Gentleman Jim Corbett with a blow to the solar plexus in 1897. High in drama and low in cost, boxing has been a staple subject for the movie industry, from Body and Soul to Requiem for a Heavyweight, from Rocky to Raging Bull. The movies I review, however, won’t be appearing on any Top 10 lists. Or any Top 50, for that matter. But what these B-movies lack in name recognition, they more than make up for with their blunt charisma, their quirks, and their unexpected cameos. These are the sometimes-forgotten pictures that shaped the genre we know today. Join me in rooting for these cinematic underdogs as we explore some of boxing’s Not Quite Classics.

1939’s They Made Me a Criminal is primarily a story about mistaken identity. The movie hammers this theme pretty hard, with multiple characters approaching it from multiple angles, and yet the movie only hints at the profundity within such a theme.

Johnnie Bradfield (John Garfield, who later starred in 1947’s Body and Soul) is a southpaw fighter with a very unusual stance. After winning a championship fight, Johnnie manages to get caught up in not one, but TWO cases of mistaken identity. First, he is wanted for a murder he didn’t commit. And when the actual killer dies in an automobile crash, the police mistake the body for Johnnie’s (the killer had stolen Johnnie’s watch, which they use to ID the body).

Afraid to come forward, Johnnie flees New York City, riding the rails like a hobo before winding up on a struggling date farm in Arizona. Under the alias “Jack Dorney,” he meets the beautiful Peggy (“The Oomph Girl” Ann Sheridan who also starred in 1941’s City for Conquest), who owns the farm with her mother. We are also introduced to their hired hands – a group of juvenile delinquents played by the Dead End Kids (a rough and tumble adolescent version of Our Gang). When Johnnie first meets them, he’s a bad influence, convincing one to steal cigarettes for him. But the boys begin to look up to him, and soon Johnnie has to wrestle with what identity he wants for himself: bad influence or positive role model?

Meanwhile, a secondary plot mirrors Johnnie’s. Back in New York City, we meet Detective Phelan (Claude Reins, who also played a policeman in Casablanca). He’s been demoted to morgue detail because a few years earlier he arrested the wrong man (there’s that theme again). Phelan knows Johnnie is a southpaw, and he notices the body they identified had worn the watch on the wrong wrist, but no one will listen to him. If Phelan can prove Johnnie’s still alive, he can clear his name.

Back in Arizona, a boxer comes “barn-storming” into town, offering cash to anyone who can go more than two rounds with him, Johnnie decides to take up the gloves once more in order to win the boys the money they need to fund their dream of opening a service station on the struggling date farm.

Phelan manages to track Johnnie down and plans to identify him at the fight, based on Johnnie’s unusual fighting stance. Phelan’s premise is that there are some things a man just can’t change: which side of his face he shaves first in the morning, the wrist he wears his watch on, how a fighter stands. Recognizing Phelan in the crowd, Johnnie tries to conceal his identity by concealing his southpaw stance. It doesn’t work, however, and Johnnie gets beaten from pillar to post until Phelan, in a sympathetic moment between rounds, urges Johnnie to ditch the orthodox charade and go back to southpaw.

Johnnie switches stances, and although he doesn’t win the fight, he goes the distance and wins back his respect as well as the prize money he wants for the kids. This is where the movie, which aims high with its lofty themes of identity, falls short. Johnnie has changed from bad influence to role model, but at the same time, he is unable to change his boxing stance. Can a man change, or can’t he? The movie doesn’t really say.

Much great art has been made that raises questions it cannot answer, and many people smarter than myself have argued such questions are the point of great art. But this movie’s non-answer doesn’t feel intentional or artistic. It feels sloppy, accidental. Such quietus is a shame, too. Many of us come to boxing, as fighters and as fans, pressed with the urgency of such questions. How would Tyson Fury answer the question of whether or not a man can change? How about Gervonta Davis? Or Mike Tyson? It’s a philosophical conversation deserving of more trenchant analysis than any one picture, this one especially, can offer.

An interesting side note: They Made Me a Criminal was directed by Busby Berkely, best known for directing/choreographing musicals with lavish costumes and kaleidoscope-like overhead shots (recall the homage number in The Big Lebowski, “Gutterballs,” with the bowling pin headdresses). But the movie has only one boxing sequence, and sadly, Berkely’s flair for distinctive and extraordinary image-making didn’t carry over into the ring. Inevitable speculation about the choreography that could-have-been hangs heavy over the picture, at least for me anyway.

Although They Made Me a Criminal sometimes lacks the courage of its convictions. its refreshingly uncommon approach to the boxing picture makes for an entertaining, if philosophically incomplete, watch.

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More ‘Not Quite Classic’ reviews:
Iron Man (1931)
They Never Come Back (1932)
The Prize Fighter and the Lady (1933)

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