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In the 1920s and early 1930s, gangster films were extremely popular at the box office. Prohibition and The Great Depression had made pop heroes of Al Capone, Dutch Schultz, Bonnie and Clyde, and John Dillinger to name but a few. Films, then as now, reflect the current societal mood and gangsters were all over the screen in The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932) and Little Caesar (1931).
By the mid 1930s Hollywood films began to move away from glorifying gangsters. The Production Code administrators, led by former Postmaster General Will H. Hays, decreed that films needed to help support the police and FBI in their fight against organized crime. A good example of this change is Public Hero No. 1 (1935), starring Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, Chester Morris, Joseph Calleia, and Paul Kelly.
SYNOPSIS: A lawman (Chester Morris) poses as a convict and enters prison to spy on a noted gangster (Joseph Calleia in his first film role). When the gangster escapes, the lawman goes with him so he can find the rest of the gang. Jean Arthur stars as Calleia's sister who falls for Chester Morris and as the film progresses, her sympathies move from her brother to the lawman, as the public's sympathies would, too.
Shooting began at MGM on March 18, 1935 and ended only one month later. It proved to be a difficult shoot for Lionel Barrymore, who was going through personal problems. His wife, Irene, was losing her battle against anorexia and Barrymore was suffering what was believed to be crippling arthritis (although more recent books theorize that it was the after effects of syphilis). Within a few years, he would be confined to a wheelchair. The exhaustion was apparent. James Kotsilibas-Davis wrote in his book The Barrymores that a visitor to the set confused acting with real life. "Only a Barrymore could inject such realism into acting," noted a spectator during filming of a scene depicting Lionel sleeping on a couch. When the scene ended, the snoring continued, demonstrating that he had not been acting at all. The elder Barrymore was noted at his home studio for dropping off not only between scenes but often during their filming."
Andre Sennwald praised Public Hero No. 1 in his review in the June 8, 1935 New York Times, calling it "a rattling good show, equally effective in its snarling violence and in its humor....notable, among other things, for Joseph Calleia's memorable performance as the hounded fugitive. This is the same Joseph Spurin-Calleia who distinguished himself on the stage in Small Miracle. A sad-eyed Latin killer, filled with melancholy bitterness, he provides a new and fascinating style in screen outlaws....Jean Arthur, whom you may recall for her breezy excellence in The Whole Town's Talking , is as refreshing a change from the routine it-girl as Mr. Calleia is in his own department. The scenarist has written some sharp and cynical banter for her, and she recites it in a way that is remarkably stimulating. Then there is Lionel Barrymore as the alcoholic doctor who dislikes the thought that the outlaws on whom he performs his furtive operations are cut down before they can appreciate his skill. He is an amusing fellow with the bottle, that doctor." He also draws parallels between Calleia's character and John Dillinger (who had recently been gunned down outside a movie theater after watching the MGM film Manhattan Melodrama, (1934). Scenes for Public Hero No. 1 were shot at the Meralta Theater on the 9600 block of Culver Blvd in Culver City, a few blocks from MGM studios. The theater burned down during World War Two and on the site was built the Meralta Shopping Plaza which exists to this day.
Paul Kelly, who plays Duff, brought a sense of realism to the film. He began his career in films as a child actor, working with John Bunny and Flora Finch at the Biograph Studios in New York and later on Broadway with Helen Hayes in Penrod. He went to Hollywood, where in 1927, he accidentally killed his girlfriend's husband in a fight and was convicted of manslaughter. While he served his time in San Quentin prison, films were making the transition from silents to sound. Kelly spent his free time studying diction so he could continue his acting when he was released. The crime, which made headlines in its day, did not seem to affect Kelly's career and he worked steadily until his death from a heart attack in 1956.
Producer: Lucien Hubbard
Director: J. Walter Ruben
Screenplay: J. Walter Ruben, Wells Root
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Film Editing: Frank Sullivan
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Josiah Glass), Jean Arthur (Maria Theresa O'Reilly), Chester Morris (Jeff Crane), Joseph Calleia (Sonny Black), Paul Kelly (Special Agent James Duff), Lewis Stone (Warden Alcott).
BW-90m. Closed captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
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The Internet Movie Database