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1939: Hollywood's Golden Year
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,You Can't Get Away with Murder

You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939)

Friday July, 26 2019 at 10:15 AM

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By the late 1930s moviegoers probably noticed that repetition had set in at the assembly line crime and gangster films from Warner Bros. Pictures. 1938 saw the release of Crime School, in which a boy of the slums (played by Dead End Kid leader Billy Halop) defies his older sister (Gale Page) and gets mixed up in petty crime with the neighborhood tough guys. He and the gang are sent to a Reform School and suffer at the hands of a corrupt administration until the new deputy commissioner (played by Humphrey Bogart) comes in to reform the reformatory. Crime School was directed by Lewis Seiler, who just the following year helmed the Warner picture You Can't Get Away with Murder (1939). This film brought back Halop and Page as a different brother and sister, but ups the ante as Halop is now old enough to be sent to Federal Prison and Bogart, playing the sort of character that the public had come to expect from him in 1939, becomes the corrupting influence.

Synopsis: In a small apartment in New York's Hell's Kitchen, Madge Stone (Page) lives with her younger brother Johnny (Halop). Madge is worried about Johnny and the low-life sorts that he associates with at the local pool hall. She has reason to worry, because low-level hood Frank Wilson (Bogart) has taken Johnny under his wing and into a life of crime; one night Johnny accompanies Frank on a gas station hold-up. Madge's fiancé Fred Burke (Harvey Stephens) announces that he will be moving the Stones to Boston, where he has a job lined up for Johnny. Johnny wants to go out on another outing with Frank, though, and steals a gun from Burke to take along. The job is a pawn shop robbery – the shop owner scuffles with Frank, who shoots the old man with Burke's gun. Later, Frank and Johnny are picked up for the gas station job and sent to Sing Sing, while Burke is sent to death row for the pawn shop murder. In prison, Johnny continues to be silent under threats from Wilson, as he works in the library with older inmate Pop (Henry Travers). Burke's lawyer (John Litel) pressures Johnny as his client's appeal is heard.

Billy Halop was a natural choice for the co-starring role of Johnny, the kid corrupted by slick-talking would-be gangster Frank Wilson. Halop had already been a well-paid child actor in radio before beginning his film career; he starred in the title roles of such popular shows as Skippy and Bobby Benson's Adventures, and was earning a cool $750 a week at his peak. In 1936 he was the first actor signed to the Broadway show Dead End, and was paid more than his fellow Dead End Kids (Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Bernard Punsly, and Gabriel Dell) when he was brought to Hollywood by Sam Goldwyn for the film adaptation in 1937. In Dead End Bogart played the gangster Baby Face Martin, who was idolized by the Kids, another reason that the plot of You Can't Get Away with Murder must have had a ring of familiarity with moviegoers.

In his review of You Can't Get Away with Murder for The New York Times, Frank Nugent has some fun with the fact that Warner Bros. had, by 1939, turned out such a long string of prison pictures. He wrote "it is said that there are old extras on the Warner lot who scarcely breathe the air of freedom from one prison picture to another. And Warners' most valuable stock players like Humphrey Bogart, Billy Halop and John Litel are held, not so much by five-year contracts, as by five-year sentences. Or at least so it must seem to them at times." Nugent goes on to single out Halop's role: "It is certainly no use pretending that You Can't Get Away with Murder isn't one of those death-house melodramas where the big punch line in the final sequence is when the warden says: 'Get the Governor on the wire.' Billy Halop, prospective Public Enemy No. 1 of the 'Dead End' boys, is still having interesting trouble with his diphthongs, but we have seen Billy reclaimed so often for society that we are beginning to think he is a sociological pushover. One thing, though, in You Can't Get Away with Murder Billy has finally reached man's estate: he is now being sent to penitentiaries instead of reform schools."

Bogart was only treading water in his movie career in 1939; his best break from gangster roles would come with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon in 1941. Billy Halop should have benefited from the juicy part in You Can't Get Away with Murder, but not many other good roles came his way, and certainly no variety in the characters he played. Halop was the leader of yet another group of bullies in RKO's Tom Brown's School Days (1940), although he co-starred with such players as Cedric Hardwicke, Freddie Bartholomew, and Josephine Hutchinson, a more prestigious group than the Warner Bros. stock company. Halop landed at Universal Pictures, playing group leader of the "Little Tough Guys" (the Dead End Kids minus Gorcey and Jordan), in films like Mob Town (1941), Tough As They Come (1942) and Mug Town (1943), and even a pair of serials, Junior G-Men (1940 – 12 chapters) and Junior G-Men of the Air (1942 – 12 chapters).

Following service in WWII, Halop found himself heading up the Gas House Kids (1946) at the low-rent studio PRC. Starring alongside the nearly-forgotten child star, Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer, this was perhaps the most impoverished variation of the Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys ever to hit the screen. Halop had a more promising role, and top billing, in Dangerous Years (1947), but once again he was playing a young hoodlum in need of reform, and subsequently the acting jobs dried up. According to a profile by David Hayes and Brent Walker in The Films of the Bowery Boys, at this point "...the anguish [Halop] suffered from lack of work led to a drinking problem, a nervous breakdown and a suicide attempt." In the 1950s Halop worked sporadically in television, but he took on other jobs, including electric dryer salesman, restaurant chef, and registered male nurse (he learned nursing skills while taking care of his third wife, who suffered from multiple sclerosis). Through the 1960s, Halop could often be glimpsed on episodic television, usually playing bartenders, garage attendants, elevator operators and the like. His final role of note was a recurring part as Archie Bunker's cab-driving buddy Bert Munson on the long-running TV series All in the Family. Halop died of a heart attack in 1976, at the age of 56.

Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Associate Producer: Samuel Bischoff
Director: Lewis Seiler
Screenplay: Robert Buckner, Kenneth Gamet, Don Ryan, from the play Chalked Out by Jonathan Finn and Lewis E. Lawes
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editing: James Gibbon
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Frank Wilson), Gale Page (Madge Stone), Billy Halop (Johnny Stone), John Litel (Attorney Carey), Henry Travers (Pop), Harvey Stephens (Fred Burke), Harold Huber (Tom Scappa), Joe Sawyer (Red), Joe Downing (Smitty), George E. Stone (Toad).

by John M. Miller



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