San Quentin (1937)

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*. I’m not a big fan of this movie, but then I’m not a big fan of prison movies. That’s not to say there haven’t been some good ones. From The Big House and early Warner classics like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Each Dawn I Die the genre has gone on to give us such notable titles as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great EscapePapillon, Escape from Alcatraz, Midnight Express, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Shawshank Redemption. But whenever I watch these movies I can’t help getting an itchy feeling, as though I’m as trapped as the protagonists. Empathy becomes an enemy. If Hollywood movies are meant to be a form of escapist entertainment, what’s with all this confinement?
*. Part of my itchiness may also be due to the prison-house of conventions. Characters type like the sadistic head guard and the fink or snitch, and plot points like the endless plans being made for escape, are all boxes that need to be checked.
*. Then there is the fact that prison films in the 1930s have a hokey flavour to them. We don’t feel we’re among a lot of really bad characters so much as people, like Red Kennedy here, who are down on their luck or who have had some bad breaks.
*. I wonder how much of this is due to a difference in public attitudes. We’ve become used to the notion of a “war on crime,” with a criminal underclass demonized as the enemy. In the 1930s there was more of a belief in the power of rehabilitation and reform. It was the end of the Depression, after all, and there may have been a sense that a trip to the Big House could happen to anyone. In an age of affluence we are less tolerant of those who break the rules.
*. As a corollary, authority figures are far more likely to be questioned or thrown in a darker light in these older films. There’s usually at least one “turkey” who is a corrupt bully (the part played by Barton MacLane in San Quentin).

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*. Another curious point bearing on all of this: the one overtly Christian figure goes by the name of “Dopey” and is mocked for being slow, with his Book of Common Prayer kicked and tossed around in a game of keep-away (a scene cut by British censors). Later, this drives him into a murderous frenzy that lands him in the psych ward. In today’s more sensitive political climate I’m not sure this would be acceptable.
*. Maybe people back then just weren’t as incorrigibly bad as they are assumed to be today. Or, another alternative, it may simply be that as movies have become more realistic they can get away with showing us more. I mean, you’re not going to see scenes of rape or drug use in these early prison flicks (though Chaplin got into the blow when he went to prison in Modern Times). We’re not in Oz yet.
*. Of course, there was always something going on in the dirty ‘thirties that had to be covered up in euphemisms. Like sex. I like it when May Kennedy (Ann Sheridan) tempts Captain Jameson with her “home cooking.” She even gets a wink out of him the second time she trots that one out.
*. But all that said in its defence, I’m still not overly fond of San Quentin. It’s a fairly obvious genre pic, with only a couple of things to recommend it.
*. The first is Bogart. He’s fun to watch, and as with Cagney in Each Dawn I Die the camera just loves him. Unlike Each Dawn I Die, however, there is no George Raft for him to play off against. Pat O’Brien, the star, and a bigger name at the time than Bogie, is no match for him when it comes to screen presence.
*. It’s ridiculous that Bogart is playing Sheridan’s kid brother. He was sixteen years older than her at the time. And even without a big sister he’d be much too old to play Red, who is supposed to be 25 (Bogart was pushing 40, and looks it).
*. The other highlight of the movie is the car chase and all of the stunt driving. This is actually quite impressive, as they really put the vehicles through their paces. There are also a number of convincing crashes and spills, especially when the first car drives into a cliff. It didn’t look like anyone was wearing seatbelts there. Come to think of it, I’m not sure they even had seatbelts in those days (yes they’d been invented, but I don’t believe they were customary until mid-century).
*. Alas, once the ride is over the denouement ties itself into a clumsy knot: satisfying the production code while forcing a resolution to the action. It’s too preposterous for words, but is another part of that earlier, more innocent time.

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