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My Six Convicts

My Six Convicts(1952)

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teaser My Six Convicts (1952)

In the late 1940s, independent producer Stanley Kramer began building a reputation for his socially conscious dramas, taking on subjects such as racial prejudice (Home of the Brave, 1949) and disabled war veterans (The Men, 1950). In 1951, Columbia studio head Harry Cohn made Kramer an irresistible offer: if he would bring his production company to Columbia, he could produce whatever he wanted, without interference, as long as he stayed within a limited budget for each film. Kramer's first production under the contract was a film version of Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Death of a Salesman (1951). It was the height of the "Red Scare," and even a subject as painfully personal as a salesman's emotional crisis was suspect - the film was picketed for being "anti-free enterprise."

According to Kramer's autobiography, the message of My Six Convicts (1952), his second film at Columbia, was "If we improve our treatment of criminals, their behavior will correspondingly improve." It was based on Donald Powell Wilson's best-selling memoir of working at Leavenworth Prison in the early 1930s, conducting a study on the relationship between drug addiction and crime. In the film, the psychiatrist (John Beal) works at "Harbor State Prison," located in a picturesque harbor very much like San Francisco Bay, and the subject of the doctor's study is less specific than in Wilson's book. Instead, the focus of the film is the details and language of prison life, and on "Doc's" relationships with the six inmates who become his assistants.

Kramer writes in his autobiography that he was attracted to the subject matter when he chose to do My Six Convicts, but he was also looking for a hit, after the box office failure of Death of a Salesman. At the time, prison films were popular, so he thought the movie would combine both his commitment to his liberal principles, and his desire for an exciting, popular story. "I knew there would be no starring roles...and not enough money in the budget to hire stars," he recalled. "The subject was the only real attraction we had going for us." Harry Cohn did not agree. Because there was no real violence in My Six Convicts, Cohn scoffed, "That's the most unexciting film I've ever seen."

My Six Convicts had no major stars - the biggest name was Gilbert Roland, whose days as a leading man were long past - but did boast an excellent cast of character actors. John Beal had been playing decent young men since the 1930s, when he had his most important part, the title role in The Little Minister (1934), opposite Katharine Hepburn. Roland, a romantic matinee idol since the silent days, plays a smart, tough Italian mob boss. Millard Mitchell plays a shrewd and genial safecracker with an uncanny knowledge of what goes on in and out of prison -- he is the doctor's guide to prison life. The same year My Six Convicts was released, Mitchell played the role for which he's probably best remembered, the genial studio boss in Singin' in the Rain (1952). Harry Morgan, who would become a beloved film and television comic actor in series such as December Bride (1954-59) and M.A.S.H. (1974-83), plays the most evil of the convicts, the psychotic Dawson. The other three convicts are played by Alf Kjellin, a Swedish actor who had appeared in several early Ingmar Bergman films, and who would himself become a director; Marshall Thompson, a popular juvenile in the 1940s, who starred in the TV series Daktari in the 1960s; and Jay Adler, brother of theater stars Stella Adler and Luther Adler.

Kramer was not yet directing, so he chose Argentine-born director Hugo Fregonese, who had done mostly B-westerns and crime dramas. My Six Convicts would be one of Fregonese's best films. Kramer got permission to shoot on location at San Quentin for nine days, although he was not allowed to film any real prisoners. But they were always around, observing, and one day, one of them tried to escape by mingling with the film crew as they left. He was not successful. The exposure to real-life criminals, while disconcerting, also informed the performances of the movie prisoners.

My Six Convicts received excellent reviews. According to the New York Times, "penology, psychology, and crime have been blended into a compassionate, thoughtful, incisive, and, above all, genuinely humorous account of life behind prison walls." Other reviews questioned some of the film's inventions, and the emphasis on comedy, but praised the subject matter and performances. However, Harry Cohn's instincts were correct and it was not the box-office hit Kramer had hoped for. Kramer made nine more films under his Columbia contract, all but one of them box-office failures, and in 1954, he and Cohn mutually agreed to end their five-year contract early. But Kramer went out in a blaze of glory. His final film at Columbia, an adaptation of Herman Wouk's best-selling novel, The Caine Mutiny (1954) had color, big stars, a bigger budget, and big box office. It made $11 million in profits, wiping out Kramer's losses on his previous Columbia films. He returned to independent filmmaking, began directing, continued to make films that combined entertainment and liberal ideology, and became one of the most respected and admired filmmakers in Hollywood.

Director: Hugo Fregonese
Producer: Stanley Kramer
Screenplay: Michael Blankfort, based on the book by Donald Powell Wilson
Cinematography: Guy Roe
Editor: Gene Havlick
Art Direction: Edward L. Ilou
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Millard Mitchell (James Connie), Gilbert Roland (Punch Pinero), John Beal (Doc), Marshall Thompson (Blivens Scott), Alf Kjellin (Clem Randall), Harry Morgan (Dawson), Jay Adler (Steve Kopac), Regis Toomey (Dr. Gordon), Fay Roope (Warden Potter).

by Margarita Landazuri

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