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Tyrone Power (1914-1958) never got over his pretty face. One of Hollywood's prototypical tall, dark and handsome leading men of the 1940s and '50s, he was signed by Darryl F. Zanuck in 1936 as 20th Century-Fox's answer to MGM's Robert Taylor. It was a winning bet. Power began filling Fox's coffers at about the same time as age began catching up with the studio's top money-maker, Shirley Temple. He did it mostly in swashbucklers: The Mark of Zorro (1940), Blood and Sand (1941), The Black Swan (1942), Captain from Castile (1947), Prince of Foxes (1949), The Black Rose (1950). His swordplay was the real thing. Power was recognized as a premier swordsman.
But he was not often recognized as a classically trained stage actor - the Power family trade since the mid-19th century. On stage he worked with the likes of Katharine Cornell, Charles Laughton, Orson Welles, Judith Anderson and Raymond Massey. He was related to Laurence Olivier and Tyrone Guthrie. Each time he donned a scabbard and doublet for the cameras, it rankled him that such typecasting, however lucrative, narrowed his range. Armed with clout, he pressured Zanuck to cast him as a carnival sideshow geek in the cult fave, Nightmare Alley (1947). His last completed film role, as the accused murderer in Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957) was one of his best.
Which brings us to Johnny Apollo (1940). One can't keep from speculating that in retrospect Power must have enjoyed it, if only because he gets his face punched in a few times. We first see him as the Ivy League scion of a rich widower stockbroker from Gatsby country - mansion, butler, formal wear at dinner even if he's dining home alone. Then just after rowing his heart out for Harvard, Yale, Princeton or whatever, he gets the grim news that his father has been arrested for fiddling with his customers' accounts, is ruined and is staring a prison term in the face. At this point, Power's Bob Cain seems not just unworldly, but spoiled and self-righteous, dropping out of college in shame and denouncing his old man. The formidable Edward Arnold, as the guilty paterfamilias, bears up with a stoic dignity that outclasses his son, and trudges off to prison, but not before telling his son that it's an eat-or-be-eaten world and codes are for suckers.
By the merest of coincidences, this is the same world view of Lloyd Nolan's racketeer, who hires Bob after the Cains' hoity-toity circle drops them. Because the name of Cain has become social poison, Bob looks out a window and calls himself Johnny Apollo after the dance hall across the street. Not only that. He also gets Dorothy Lamour, the racketeer's nightclub singer mistress who owns the mink on her back and little else. She's OK as the coarse dame with heart. Lamour, of sarong and WW II pin-up fame, armed with half-lidded eyes and pouty lips, does not experience her finest hour here, given clich after clich to play and being lumbered with a couple of altogether forgettable songs. They meet on the staircase outside the office of the racketeer's alcoholic, Shakespeare-quoting lawyer, played by that silver-haired figure of sweet frailty, Charley Grapewin, best remembered as Dorothy's Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Grandpa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940).
But even Grapewin's sweetness disappears entirely when Bob/Johnny experiences a change of heart about his imprisoned father. When he asks the lawyer about a parole, the old jurist growls, "Money!" The Depression-Era toughness that matter-of-factly pervades so many '30s films is the power source of Johnny Apollo, the reason veteran director Henry Hathaway is able to pace it so efficiently through its set pieces. As Power's Bob/Johnny wises up by learning things you don't learn in college, it's a tribute to his abilities that he's able to move the title-roleist from twerp to tolerable, then likable.
For a while, he's frankly the least appealing figure on screen, especially positioned as he is between the commanding baritone pillars of Arnold and Nolan. If the son rethinks his position and becomes more compassionate, Arnold's father seems to mellow and deepen, too, shored up by an inner toughness that enabled the stockbroker to rise in the world in the first place. We're not surprised when he chooses boilermaker as his prison job, saying it was his first adult job, and knowledgably taking right up where he presumably left off. When his son's misdeeds catch up with him, he winds up in the same prison as his old man. When there's a rumor of a jailbreak, it's not the rocklike father's safety you worry about, but junior's.
Nolan, whose popularity was to soar in WW II movies, makes the racketeer surprisingly likable, too, at least until he starts slapping Lamour around. It's no backhanded compliment to say that while it takes Power half the film to match the simpatico vibes of the older men, he does. Nolan and Arnold are two more reminders of Hollywood's golden age of character actors. Johnny Apollo isn't one of the iconic gangster movies. But it's a solidly crafted effort that delivers honest entertainment value and likely left its audiences feeling they had got their two bits' worth. MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer was fond of boasting that his studio had "more stars than there are in the heavens." Power, Nolan and Arnold provide ample evidence that Fox under Zanuck was no pocket of poverty in the acting department, either.
By Jay Carr