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At the dawn of the 1930s, James Cagney first blazed his way into filmgoers' consciousness with The Public Enemy (1931). He would cap the decade in which he ruled Warner Brothers' crime melodrama output with Each Dawn I Die (1939), a prison story that resounded with audiences of the day. Many of the script's elements have dated with time, and a lot of its contrivances might've seemed improbable back then. Still, it wears well, chiefly because of its star's arresting work as a tough man unjustly incarcerated, one who wages a grueling battle with the hopelessness of his situation.
Cagney plays Frank Ross, a cocky reporter whose efficiency at rooting out local graft and laying it bare has not gone unnoticed by corrupt local D.A. Jesse Hanley (Thurston Hall). As a result, Frank finds himself accosted after a late night at the office by Hanley's goons, who slug him, douse him with liquor, and set him behind the wheel of a runaway car. The plan to disgrace the journalist proves a little too effective, as three people are killed in the resulting collision. Frank's pleas of innocence are fruitless, and he's sentenced to hard time. He adjusts to life behind bars by keeping a tough front, hoping his colleagues' efforts to exonerate him pan out, and staying out of trouble until his parole hearing.
Ross quickly butts heads with the hardened street tough, Stacey (George Raft), who comes to appreciate the kid's style after he foils an assassination attempt by the craven Limpy Julien (Joe Downing). Soon afterward, Julien is knifed during the weekly movie; Stacey, as part of an audacious escape bid, sells Ross on the idea of fingering him for the murder, in exchange for help in clearing Frank's name. Removed from prison to face a hearing on the charges, Stacey dives from the courthouse window onto a canvas-roofed truck waiting in the street. Suspected of complicity, Frank is returned to face even greater wrath from the penal authorities.
Certain Frank was responsible for the excessive press presence at the hearing, Stacey fully intends to let him rot, until Ross's colleague/girlfriend (Jane Bryan) implores him to do the right thing and help the nearly-broken journalist. Stacey works the street, and ultimately discovers that Kassock (John Wray), the gunsel who engineered Frank's frame-up, is now doing time within the same prison. Stacey goes on to engineer an equally outrageous scheme for winning Ross's freedom, which takes the film to a bullet-ridden conclusion.
In his direction, Warner house pro William Keighley kept the story's momentum at a riveting pace. The familiar faces in the supporting cast turn in nice work, such as George Bancroft as the no-nonsense warden eventually sold on Ross's sincerity and Victor Jory as the parole board puppet charged with making sure he never gets out. The players making up the colorful community of cons, including Maxie Rosenbloom, Alan Baxter and Louis Jean Heydt, also acquit themselves well.
Each Dawn I Die was Raft's first film assignment after signing with Warners and joining their legendary stable of tough guys. Raft had known Cagney since they were hoofers in vaudeville, and Cagney had wrangled a small part for him in his early vehicle Taxi! (1932). Raft is effective here in a role a shade more sympathetic than most in his long screen portfolio of dapper thugs; Cagney always bore him great respect for both his footwork and his character. "He was the only really tough man I knew in the business," Cagney would relate to biographer Doug Warren. "He was genuinely tough without meaning to be."
Much is on record of the rough crowds that Raft ran with off screen, and his reputation therein might have preserved Each Dawn I Die as we know it today. Lewis Yablonski's 1974 biography George Raft recounted a post-production encounter between the actor and Willie Bioff, a union racketeer who had been extorting payoffs from studio heads in order to ensure the prevention of on-set "accidents." Bioff claimed that Raft ought to thank him for the picture's success: "The studio wasn't going to pay off and we were planning to take care of Cagney...We were all set to drop a lamp on him. But I got word to lay off because you were in the picture." Years later, Raft would work with the studios and the courts to clean up corruption in the industry unions.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner, David Lewis
Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Warren B. Duff, Norman Reilly Raine, Charles Perry, Jerome Odlum (book)
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Film Editing: Thomas Richards
Art Direction: Max Parker
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: James Cagney (Frank Ross), George Raft (Hood Stacey), Jane Bryan (Joyce Conover), George Bancroft (Warden John Armstrong), Victor Jory (W.J. Grayce), Maxie Rosenbloom (Fargo Red).
BW-92m. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg