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Blackwell's Island

Blackwell's Island(1939)

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teaser Blackwell's Island (1939)

While the last two generations of New Yorkers have known the East River's Roosevelt Island as a unique residential community, there was a time when its profile in the community wasn't nearly so benign. For a century dating back to the 1830s, it served to house state facilities, including a penitentiary and lunatic asylum, each of which became notorious for systematic abuses. The prison's problems, in particular, came to a head in the early 1930s, and the always headline-conscious production team at Warner Brothers recognized their dramatic potential in crafting Blackwell's Island (1939).

The screenplay is set on an NYC waterfront ruled by protection racketeer Bull Bransom (Stanley Fields), an overbearing oaf unaccustomed to having his authority questioned, and therefore none too happy when his mouthpiece Cardigan (Morgan Conway) brings his attention to an expose authored by crusading young reporter Tim Haydon (John Garfield). Bransom pulls a few strings and gets Haydon fired; a rival paper soon takes him on, and the newsman picks up the gauntlet. His defiance brings admiration from the honest young cop Terry Walsh (Dick Purcell) and his corrupted superior Capt. Pederson (Wade Boteler), fed up with living in Bull's pocket. With their testimony, Bransom draws a six-month stretch in Blackwell's for bribery.

Tim's satisfaction, however, is short-lived; having paid off the warden (Granville Bates), Bull has the run of the prison, fully able and very ready to engineer his revenge against those who sent him up. After Pederson and Terry turn up murdered, Haydon--who has already fallen for Walsh's sister Sunny (Rosemary Lane)--contrives to get himself convicted and sent to the island, so he can witness firsthand--and hopefully expose--the by-products of Bransom's graft.

The production history of Blackwell's Island offered intrigues at least as interesting as anything that played out onscreen. The second Warner assignment for freshly-signed contractee Garfield, the B film was strictly for the purpose of gauging his success as a lead. However, the film was in post-production when Garfield's debut project Four Daughters (1938) hit theaters; after critics and audiences alike declared him to have walked away with the picture, Warners okayed $100,000 for the lensing of additional sequences (directed by an uncredited Michael Curtiz) to bring Blackwell's to an "A" gloss worthy of their hot new talent. Blackwell's Island didn't reach audiences until after the release of Garfield's first bona fide A project as star, They Made Me a Criminal (1939).

The location shoot--and re-shoot--at the actual Blackwell's sat well with Lower East Side native Garfield, who'd already become homesick for his pregnant wife and for the stage. As recounted in Larry Swindell's bio Body and Soul: The Story of John Garfield, "'This isn't acting,' Julie said while Blackwell's Island was being filmed, 'this is what's called racing with the clock.'" In Robert Sklar's analysis City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, Sklar found that Garfield seemed to have been instructed to channel Cagney in his performance; he noted that the response to Four Daughters ensured that he'd never have to do so again. "To represent New York's young men, Garfield no longer needed to be Cagney. He could now be himself--or rather, his new screen self--and stand for the boys and men of the later 1930s as Cagney had for the earlier."

The project had its genesis in the 1934 raid engineered by Fiorello LaGuardia in response to a cycle of corruption and scandal that had dogged the penitentiary from the early 1900s. The action led to the transfer of the inmate population to the just-completed Rikers Island, and "Welfare Island"--as cosmetically rechristened by the city back in 1921--was solely purposed toward the care of the aged and infirm until the beginning of its renaissance in the late '60s.

Producers: Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner (uncredited)
Director: William McGann; Michael Curtiz (uncredited)
Screenplay: Crane Wilbur (screenplay and story); Lee Katz (story)
Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Bernhard Kaun (uncredited)
Film Editing: Doug Gould
Cast: John Garfield (Tim Haydon), Rosemary Lane (Mary 'Sunny' Walsh), Dick Purcell (Terry Walsh), Victor Jory (Commissioner Thomas MacNair), Stanley Fields ('Bull' Bransom), Morgan Conway (Steve Cardigan), Granville Bates (Prison Warden Stuart 'Stu' Granger), Anthony Averill (Brower, a Henchman), Peggy Shannon (Pearl Murray), Charles Foy (Benny Farmer).
BW-71m. Closed Captioning.

by Jay Steinberg

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