With a title like You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939), you pretty much know what to expect. Subtle, this movie is not. It doesn’t stand out much from the kind of dime-a-dozen prison and crime dramas Warner Bros. was churning out in the ’30s and ’40s, but there’s also a kind of comfort in that.
The film is based on a play co-written by Lewis E. Lawes, who was prison warden of Sing Sing Correctional Facility at the time. Lawes actually wrote a few books and plays about the prison experience (as he saw it); his most famous, and most popular, work was Twenty Thousand Years in Sing Sing, which was made into a movie in 1932 starring Spencer Tracy, and remade as Castle on the Hudson in 1940. (By the way, Lawes wrote these while he was still warden of Sing Sing — no worries about conflict of interest, huh???) One user review on IMDb.com noted that the play this film is based on, “Chalked Out,” was a huge flop when it premiered in 1937, closing after only 12 performances!
Humphrey Bogart gets top billing, but he isn’t really the main character; in fact, Bogart had played this kind of character so often by this point, that his performance and role as baddie and minor crime boss Frank Wilson are practically paint-by-numbers. But Bogart’s facial expressions are always compelling, as seen below.
The real lead is Billy Halop, who plays Johnnie Stone, a young man who gets in over his head by helping Frank on a couple of jobs — and gets thrown in prison along with Frank for his efforts. Halop was well-known by 1939 as one of the leaders of the “Dead End Kids,” characters in a series of plays and films that featured young actors as tough street kids. Even though Halop, like Bogart, had also played this kind of character many times by this point, his acting… I’ll be nice and just say he’s not as compelling as Bogart. It’s almost like Halop is acting as if he were on stage, using overly broad gestures, facial expressions, and shouting a lot, while everyone else is acting in a movie.
Poor Johnnie, he’s just not cut out for prison. He’s scared of Frank — Bogart always played menacing really well, even in a mediocre film like this one — and he’s holding in a dark secret that’s giving him the shakes. No spoilers here, I promise.
Eventually, almost 30 minutes in the film, Johnnie gets transferred from the shoe-making shop to… you guessed it, the library!
And guess who’s NOT happy about it?
Pop, the prison librarian!
Guard: Pop, this is your new assistant, Johnnie Stone. This is Pop, your new boss.
Pop: How much time has he got?
Guard: You’re doing 5 to 10, ain’t you, Johnnie?
Pop: Five? That means in 3 years and 4 months, the parole board will yank him out. It takes me 2 years to break a man in on this job. I told the warden nothing less than 10 years, lifers preferred. [Turns to Johnnie] Know anything about books?
Pop: I thought I was getting an assistant.
Guard: Johnnie’s all right, as long as he keeps away from this big-shot pals. This ought to keep him busy. All in the line of duty, Pop.
I felt both delight and chagrin at this brief scene. Delight that the film highlights the time it takes to thoroughly train someone in a library (by the way, a master’s degree in library science usually takes two years… coincidence?). Chagrin that administration doesn’t really care much about having qualified people in the library — and kind of sees the library, and Pop, useful only as “babysitters” for youth. Two attitudes that still plague libraries today… 😦
Where this film also sets itself apart a bit from other, run-of-the-mill prison dramas is in the strength of its supporting cast. If you’re a fan of old movies like I am, then you will recognize a lot of these character actors. Henry Travers is one of those character actors — if he looks familiar, that’s because he played Clarence, the angel who helps Jimmy Stewart out in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). In fact, in that classic film, Travers was the one who revealed that Mary turned into a spinster librarian!
And in this film, he gets to play the male version of a spinster librarian, a self-confessed “old timer” who has found his life’s meaning in the prison library. He takes pride in his library — “I’m the boss of this library!” — and won’t stand for any shenanigans in his domain. He breaks up several heated arguments that take place in the library. In one scene, a weasel-y prisoner is trying to get something out of Johnnie, so Pop comes to the rescue by hitting him over the head with a book!
Take your books and get out, or I’ll knock the bottom right out of your filthy little racket.
Pop has earned respect from both his fellow prisoners as well as the prison guards. Pop also has a heart condition, and several times, different people express concern about his failing health. One prisoner even knits Pop a sweater!
I figured the old man could use it, what with the cold weather setting in. You know he’s been kinda slipping lately, Johnnie. He’s a great guy, kid.
That’s not something you see in every prison drama! 😉
Henry Travers is quite touching in this role, and displays a lot of patience, understanding, and wisdom. After his initial skepticism of Johnnie, he takes the boy under his wing. Fast forward two years, and we see Johnnie, typing up a storm, stamping books, and earning this praise from another prisoner:
Gee, Johnny, you get to know more about the library than Pop does.
Johnnie has grown up a bit under the protection and tutelage of Pop, but with added pressure (and let’s face it, because reasons of PLOT), he soon cracks again. Almost an hour into the film, in a pivotal scene between Pop, Johnnie, and Frank that takes place in the library, Pop gets to deliver a big emotional speech, trying to convince Johnnie to go straight.
I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that Johnnie does find his own kind of peace in the end of the film. In this way, Johnnie fulfills the Liberated Librarian character type. Initially seen as a failure, the male Liberated Librarian eventually breaks free (even in a metaphorical sense); this type usually needs outside force or action to instigate “liberation,” as is the case here. Liberated Librarians are also usually central characters, and in this film it’s Johnnie’s story, and personal arc, that fuel the entire plot.
Pop fulfills both the Information Provider role, as well as a version of the Male Librarian as a Failure character type. I maintain there is a special subset of the Male Librarian as a Failure character type carved out for prison librarians — the “failure” in this sense is often a social construct, like a prison. Prison librarians, who fit into this category as societal “failures,” often get their positions because of good behavior while in prison. It’s an interesting contrast, a “failure” on the outside of those prison walls — but a “success” on the inside.
There’s also a telling moment about Pop’s real name that ties in with this character type.
Guard: He’s forgotten his real name.
Pop: Pop will do. I’ll never need another name.
He’s been there so long, it doesn’t matter. He won’t need his real name, because he’s never going back to the “real world.”
Overall, You Can’t Get Away with Murder (1939) lands in the Class II category, films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot. It doesn’t really matter that Pop and Johnnie work in the prison library — it’s just being used as a shortcut for someplace “safe” within an unstable and often violent environment. And a librarian character onscreen brings immediate trust, and we, along with Johnnie, need someone to trust in this movie full of untrustworthy characters. It would have been a Class III film, if we had seen only Pop in the library, but because Johnnie gets to be the library assistant, he upgrades the film to Class II.
And what of the prison library itself? It’s a quite spacious set, with several tables and chairs. There are also quite a few tall metal bookcases, which create some interesting shadow effects and lighting. A long counter separates the “closed stacks” of the library and the open seating area. The main set-up seems to be that runners from different areas of the prison go to the library to drop off books and pick up new titles (as opposed to Pop taking books out of the library to different parts of the prison).
There are also a few signs dotting the library, including one along the back of a magazine stand that proclaims, “Attention: Magazine Must be Returned to Rack. Do not Leave Books or Magazines on tables.” (The capitalization is haphazardly applied.)
And last but not least, a moment that made me laugh. When Pop starts training Johnnie, he starts off with a task to “get acquainted,” a task to “study this catalog.” He hands him a thin sheaf of papers — the prison library’s card catalog!
If only it were that simple… 😀
I mentioned in last week’s “Reader poll winner” post that the plot of the film reminded me of 1994’s classic prison drama The Shawshank Redemption. There are actually quite a few similarities between the two films — including a character named “Red” — and I think there’s enough there for another post in the future…