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Invisible Stripes

Invisible Stripes(1939)

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teaser Invisible Stripes (1939)

In 1932 Warner Bros. acquired the film rights to a popular book by Lewis E. Lawes, who had been the warden of Sing Sing Prison since 1920. The result was the 1932 film 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, directed by Michael Curtiz. The movie, starring Spencer Tracy, was partially filmed at the actual prison. The Lawes book was filmed again by Warner Bros. as the John Garfield vehicle Castle on the Hudson (1940). The studio also tapped into elements of the book for the movie Invisible Stripes (1939), but rather than focusing on prison life itself, this film follows two convicts who are paroled on the same day, as they reenter society with two very different goals in mind.

The parolees are Cliff Taylor (George Raft) and Chuck Martin (Humphrey Bogart). While Martin is anxious to take up his criminal life where it left off, Taylor plans to go straight - a promise he makes to the Warden (Moroni Olsen). Cliff is welcomed home by his mother (Flora Robson) and his younger brother Tim (William Holden). He is rejected, however, by his girl Sue (Margot Stevenson), who tells him, 'I could never marry an ex-con.' Tim is anxious to make quick money so that he can settle with his girlfriend Peggy (Jane Bryan), but Cliff has to beat some sense into him to keep him away from crime. Due to his invisible prison stripes, Cliff has trouble finding a good job and is even placed under suspicion when his place of employment is robbed. To provide a better life for his brother, he falls back in with Martin and his gang.

Director Lloyd Bacon keeps things moving between action scenes, and scriptwriter Warren Duff manages to interject a bit of the type of social and political commentary more typically found in earlier, harder-edged Warner films. In one scene, Cliff is finally offered a good-paying job, but it is under the assumption that he will spy on his fellow workers and report "unrest" to the factory boss. (Cliff justifiably socks the boss on the chin). In another sequence, Tim buys a flower for Peggy; as she stands on the corner, a fellow in a tuxedo steps out of an expensive car and, assuming Peggy is herself a flower girl, gives her a coin. This launches Tim into a rage and a subsequent rant on the class system: "I'd like to take that white neck of his in my hands; I'd like to rip off that stiff shirt and cram dirt down his mouth." Sadly, Peggy does little to soothe Tim's outrage when moments later she asks him, "Where would we go if we had a yacht?"

By the time Invisible Stripes was made, George Raft was attempting to veer away from the coin-flipping criminal type he had essayed so well in Scarface (1932) and other 1930s films, so the role of the good-hearted ex-con must have held a great appeal for the actor. Raft had already brought his Hell's Kitchen upbringing to his earlier tough-guy portrayals; he also happened to have some familiarity with ex-cons from Sing Sing. According to biographer Lewis Yablonsky, Raft had befriended various mobsters and hoods in his youth, and retained these friendships well into his performing days. One friend since childhood was Owney Madden, who served ten-to-twenty in Sing Sing after setting up a rival mobster in a shooting. Raft visited him several times in the penitentiary in the 1920s. Of the other members of the cast, it is worth noting that Paul Kelly, who played Bogart's fellow gangster Kruger, had himself served two years in San Quentin for manslaughter.

Invisible Stripes was the second major film appearance by William Holden, following his much-lauded leading role in the boxing picture Golden Boy (1939). His home studio, Paramount Pictures, loaned the young actor out to Warner Bros. for the film. In his biography George Raft, Yablonsky quotes Holden on working with Raft:

In one scene, I square off with George in a fight because I resent his help. When we did the scene I must have still been bobbing and weaving from my fight scenes in Golden Boy because my head hit George's eye. I remember, when I saw the blood, thinking, 'Christ, it's George Raft. Now I'm really going to get it.' Well, he was as nice as could be even though his wound needed several stitches later at the hospital. He really was my big brother, in and out of the movie. In fact, if he had not helped me, I might have been thrown out of the picture. However it began, the director, Lloyd Bacon, was always yelling at me. I couldn't seem to get anything right - my lines or my movements. It was Hell. Then George stepped in with the director and told him to go easy on me. The director finally lightened up on me because of George's insistence.

In another interesting bit of casting, distinguished British actress Flora Robson appears as the mother of the Taylor boys. Robson, who had just co-starred in William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939), was saddled in this film by some fairly mediocre old-age makeup - the actress was actually seven years younger than Raft. Robson and Raft have some effective scenes together, in particular one set at a company mixer where the two dance a mild jitterbug. Jane Bryan, the female lead in Invisible Stripes, had been a Warner contract player since her 1936 debut but made only one more film before she married millionaire Justin Dart, the owner of Rexall Drugs, and retired from acting.

Don't miss a nice in-joke as Raft spots Bogart and his girlfriend leaving a movie theater: the picture playing is the Warner Bros. programmer You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939), which starred Bogart as - what else - a hood who is sentenced to Sing Sing prison!

Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Louis F. Edelman
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Warren Duff, based on the book by Warden Lewis E. Lawes
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Film Editing: James Gibbon
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Art Direction: Max Parker
Costume Design: Milo Anderson
Makeup: Perc Westmore
Cast: George Raft (Cliff Taylor), Jane Bryan (Peggy), William Holden (Tim Taylor), Humphrey Bogart (Chuck Martin), Flora Robson (Mrs. Taylor), Moroni Olsen (Warden), Henry ONeill (Parole Officer Masters), Paul Kelly (Ed Kruger), Lee Patrick (Molly Daniels).
BW-82m. Closed captioning.

by John M. Miller

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