Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Each Dawn I Die (1939)

 

Director: William Keighley

Two of the most popular images of the genre of 1930s gangster films appear in starring roles together for the first and only time in the production Each Dawn I Die. Freshly returning to the studio and genre that made him a name in Hollywood, James Cagney co-stars with fellow movie tough guy, George Raft, who just began his newest contract with Warner Bros., the studio that ruled the genre of gangster films during the period. This prison drama brings these two icons together for the first time in starring roles, with their previous appearances featured Raft as a minor character in Cagney led pictures. Their film together highlights the unwritten moral code among even criminals in prison.

Each Dawn I Die is a prison drama of an innocent man framed to a jail sentence and his befriending of its most notorious criminal while working to clear his name. Frank Ross (James Cagney) is an investigative reporter who gets too close information about a crooked assistant DA running for governor and is framed for manslaughter. In prison Ross meets and befriends Stacey (George Raft), an infamous gangster sentenced to life. Ross earns Stacey’s respect by saving his life, but appears to turn his back on Ross when Stacey escapes with Ross’ aid and Stacey not following through with the promise to find the real killer that framed him. Ross’ girlfriend Joyce (Jane Bryan) pleas for Stacey to help Ross and Stacey willfully reenters prison and fingers the man responsible for murders that sentenced Ross before a riot breaks out . In one last act of redemption Stacey sacrifices himself for Ross and the warden who frees Ross of all his charges.

This classic-style gangster picture puts our usual criminals behind bars instead of fighting it out in the streets of a major metropolitan city. As in G-Men, a prior picture also directed by William Keighley, Cagney plays the straight laced good guy, but finds his way into the lions den being framed by the very crooked politician that he tried to crack down on. Raft plays a notorious gangster up for life in the slammer, yet rules his own portion of these men behind bars. Following the lines that Hollywood’s production code allowed during this period, the good guy comes out on top, our gangster discovers his heart of gold, and all bad guys meets their demise. As the code would have it the bad guys are always out armed with the police firing machine guns, while the criminals only carry revolvers. So the film is skewed by the moral laws of Hollywood productions.

In a genre which he tended to dominate, James Cagney was comfortable in yet another gangster film. Although this time he serves as a good guy needing to adapt to tough individuals of the prison, including the police guards. George Raft was a lesser star, but still popular among the tough guy roles. His performance can be described as Humphrey Bogart-like, a bit stiff with a stone face to complete the demeanor of a man putting on a gruff front among a world of criminals.

George Bancroft supports the stars of the picture playing Warden Armstrong. Bancroft was increasingly so a character actor primarily in supporting roles, here playing a harsh individual that who eventually is won over by Ross.

Jane Bryan appears as Joyce, Ross’ main squeeze, who pines for him while in prison and convinces Stanley to return to save his man. Her role is very small and really serves to do nothing else than to be a voice for Ross to Stanley on the outside. No real emotional connections are made with her through the picture, despite her sporadic visits to see Ross.

The films really does center on the main two stars as Ross continually attempts to find ways to clear his name of this frame up while surviving prison life. Emotionally the film is not very gripping, yet it holds up well as a classic gangster feeling of the picture. Cagney dominates his time on screen while Raft carries his role just fine, not allowing himself to be overshadowed by Cagney.

The picture was a moderate box office draw which had a few fans that enjoyed its tale of an unwritten code among men about good, even though they were criminals. One of the film’s most famous fans was the Soviet leader Josef Stalin, noting it as his favorite American picture. However not all audiences appreciated the film’s content as Australia would ban the picture for its violent content.

Each Dawn I Die stands as yet another film in the line of James Cagney gangster pictures. He may not be the criminal in this film, but his depiction of a man that lived in this world of crime and punishment made him the greatest star for Warner Bros. and one of Hollywood’s top draws in his day.


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