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San Quentin

San Quentin(1937)

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teaser San Quentin (1937)

Having practically pioneered the gangster film in the early Thirties with the likes of Little Caesar (1930) and Public Enemy (1931), the brothers Warner quickly came under fire after the newly enforced 1933 censorship code put a halter on some of the more questionable subject matter in movies. However, it was Mae West's 1932 sex comedy I'm No Angel, made at Paramount, and not the violent hoodlum that ultimately made the moral-minded (i.e. election coming up) politicos throw up their hands in disgust. In a shrewd move worthy of their screenland mob counterparts, Warners simply had Cagney and Robinson play law enforcers instead of lawbreakers, thus vindicating the cinematic Tommygun rat-tat-tat of urban bloodletting. Public Enemy joined the ranks of the Nation's G-Men (1935) while Little Caesar surfaced as an undercover investigator in Bullets or Ballots (1936), both to the hearty approval of critics and audiences. Yet, it was the emergence of contract player Pat O'Brien, who, running the gamut from neighborhood cop to parish priest in a rapid succession of films, almost single-handedly personified the studio's dedication to the reform movement.

By the end of the thirties, with the Depression finally starting to wind down, focus turned to the now over populated penal institutions, crammed with victims of the breadline, who, having turned to lawlessness to survive, often found themselves sharing their quarters with the less notable members of Murder, Inc. This "odd coupling" of social injustice compounded by horrific tales of guard brutality, made great headline copy - always a staple for Warners source material.

In 1937 alone the studio had three prison pictures in release: Alcatraz Island, Blackwell's Island and, most prominently, San Quentin. True, a few skeptic scribes questioned the coincidence factor of the plot - honest prison yard chief O'Brien is faced with the dilemma of having the rebellious brother (Humphrey Bogart) of his girl friend (Ann Sheridan) confined to his institution - but with its fast-paced Lloyd Bacon direction, crackling dialogue and rogue's gallery supporting cast (Barton MacLane, Joe Sawyer, Marc Lawrence, Frank Faylen), there wasn't a squealer in the house.

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Producer: Sam Bischoff (uncredited), Hal B. Wallis (uncredited)
Screenplay: Peter Milne, Humphrey Cobb (from a story by John Bright and Robert Tasker)
Cinematography: Sidney Hickox
Editor: William Holmes
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Cast: Pat O'Brien (Captain Steve Jameson), Humphrey Bogart (Joe 'Red' Kennedy), Ann Sheridan (May Kennedy), Barton MacLane (Lt. Druggin), Joe Sawyer (Carl 'Sailor Boy' Hanson).
BW-71m. Closed captioning.

by Mel Neuhaus

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