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Juke Girl sounds like the title of a musical, but the 1942 release with Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan is a very different affair, full of conflict and treachery in the Florida fruit and vegetable trade. Although it's hard to say why Warner Bros. chose such a misleading title it refers to the heroine's work as a dancer in a cheap nightspot the film is reasonably entertaining once you adjust your expectations. Reagan's strong performance as a labor organizer is particularly interesting, and highly ironic, given his dim view of unions when he became a politician. One wonders how he felt in later years about this character, an anticapitalist rabble-rouser that critic Mitch Tuchman called "a kind of Cesar Chavez type."
This friend of the working man is a drifter named Steve Talbot, and the story begins when he blows into the town of Cat-Tail with his friend, Danny Frazier, looking for a job. The farming economy there is controlled by Henry Madden, a greedy capitalist who cares a great deal about his profits and nothing at all about the growers, pickers, and shippers whose hard, honest labor supports his enterprise. Madden's ruthless methods are plain to see when he gets into a dispute with Nick Garcos, a Greek farmer who's so fed up with being exploited that he tries to buck the system, drawing a fierce counterattack from Cully, the corrupt manager who carries out Madden's orders.
Danny decides to knuckle under and join Madden's team, feeling there's no other choice if he wants to earn a living. Steve stands on principle, joining Nick in his battle against the odds. He also falls for taxi dancer Lola Mears, who resists romance with him because she considers herself a fallen woman. She joins in the effort to help Nick when she gets fired from her job at Muckeye's nightspot, and the action heads toward a confrontation that will resolve things one way or the other. The climax involves a homicide, a frame-up, a last-minute confession, and a lynch mob marching on the local jail.
Juke Girl takes place in Florida rather than California, but it was obviously inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, the John Steinbeck novel about the Great Depression and the Oklahoma Dustbowl drought that led countless poverty-wracked families to head west in search of a better life, or at least a less miserable one. Steinbeck's book appeared in 1939 and John Ford's much-respected movie adaptation arrived the following year; while Ford's picture is more resonant and influential than the comparatively lightweight Juke Girl, it contains dry and didactic moments that the latter film avoids. On the other side of the scale, Reagan is no match for Henry Fonda.
The role of Lola was originally meant for Ida Lupino, who was fresh from three successive triumphs in three successive years The Light That Failed (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941) and now had such a high loan-out fee ($75,000 per film; her salary was $15,000) that Warners promptly sent her into a two-picture deal with Twentieth Century-Fox and handed Sheridan the Juke Girl part. Pairing her with Reagan made excellent sense because the two had just finished the admirable Kings Row (1942) together, greatly pleasing the studio with their work. They started on Juke Girl after just a few days off.
The project was no warm-weather vacation despite the story's Florida locale. Juke Girl was shot in California farm country during the winter of 1941-1942, with temperatures so low that the actors had to spray glycerin on their faces so they'd look like they were sweating, not freezing. They were also told to smoke cigarettes in scene after scene so their vaporized breath wouldn't give the game away. Since more than eighty percent of the scenes take place at night, extensive shooting after dark was necessary as well, increasing the toll on all concerned. "Because you start shooting around eight o'clock in the evening and finish every morning at around five, just before sunrise," director Curtis Bernhardt said, "everybody suffers constantly from fatigue." Reagan had the same reaction. "I discovered how nervous fatigue can creep up on you," he said later. "With all the misconceptions about pampered stars, none is so far afield as the belief that physical discomfort isn't tolerated." As if the fatigue and the cold weren't enough to contend with, truckloads of tomatoes had to be thrown around and smashed during action scenes, then gathered and smooshed together again for further use, raising more and more of a smell as time went on.
Looking back on Juke Girl after some 40 years, Bernhardt said that its anti-corporate, pro-worker position may make it look "rebellious," but at the time people expected this type of movie from Warners, which specialized in no-frills entertainment for ordinary people. Bernhardt worked closely with cinematographer Bert Glennon, personally scoping out the camera movements and aiming for a "feeling of oppression, like the camera is bearing down" on the characters. The only performance that didn't satisfy him was the one by Richard Whorf, who was "too city-like, too intellectual a type" to play Danny and "didn't give the part anything." I find Whorf's acting a refreshing contrast with Reagan's, but Bernhardt may have been on to something, since Whorf switched his career from acting to directing not long afterward.
According to Tuchman in a 1980 article for Film Comment, a romantic scene in Juke Girl presents Reagan's first-ever "big on-screen kiss that counted the first through which he projected character as well as enthusiasm." Other critics have praised Reagan's performance on various other grounds, despite the sharp divergence between his evolving political views and Steve's labor organizing. Asked about this by an interviewer, Bernhardt had an unexpected answer. "I didn't know about his politics," the director said. "I only thought he was stupid....He said that [World War II] was being won by the cavalry. That was the stupidest statement anyone could make, because there is no cavalry in modern warfare." Touch. But at least such differences didn't hinder the making of a lively picture.
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides
Cinematographer: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: Warren Low
Art Direction: Robert Haas
Music: Adolph Deutsch
With: Ann Sheridan (Lola Mears), Ronald Reagan (Steve Talbot), Richard Whorf (Danny Frazier), George Tobias (Nick Garcos), Gene Lockhart (Henry Madden), Alan Hale (Yippee), Betty Brewer (Skeeter), Howard Da Silva (Cully), Donald MacBride ("Muckeye" John), Willard Robertson (Mr. Just), Faye Emerson (Violet "Murph" Murphy), Willie Best (Jo-Mo), Fuzzy Knight (Ike Harper), Spencer Charters (Keeno), William B. Davidson (Paley), Frank Wilcox (Truck Driver), William Haade (Watchman).
by David Sterritt