Robert Taylor

Johnny Eager (1941)

Johnny Eager Robert Taylor Lana Turner

Johnny Eager (Robert Taylor) had been a known as a ruthless gangster, but after spending some time in prison, he’s turned over a new leaf as a cab driver.  At least that’s what he wants his parole officer to think.  When he isn’t driving a cab, he’s as cutthroat as ever, involved in illegal gambling, and is working on opening his own dog racing track.  While visiting his parole officer one day, he runs into sociology student Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner).  There’s an immediate attraction between them, but it grows into a deeper infatuation when they meet again later.  Lisabeth is much more sophisticated and intellectual than the type of women Johnny usually meets.

When Johnny suspects his friend Lew (Barry Nelson)  has been short-changing him, he and his associate Jeff (Van Heflin) go to a nightclub to confront Lew.  While there, he runs into Lisabeth again, who has been left alone after her date got drunk.  Johnny gladly keeps her company for the rest of the night, but when he brings her home, he discovers Lisabeth’s father is John Benson Farrell (Edward Arnold), the man responsible for putting Johnny behind bars.  Farrell is also the one preventing Johnny’s dog track from opening.

Of course, Farrell isn’t happy about Johnny seeing his daughter and wants to put a stop to it.  He tells Johnny he will do anything to protect his daughter, even if it means killing or framing Johnny for something.  So Johnny decides to turn the tables on Farrell by coming up with a scheme for his friend Julio to come bursting into Johnny’s apartment while Lisabeth is there.  Julio and Johnny stage a fight, Lisabeth shoots Julio with a gun loaded with blanks, and Johnny escorts her away before she can question what happened.  Lisabeth has a breakdown over the incident, but Johnny uses gun with her fingerprints on it to blackmail Farrell into letting his dog track open.

Johnny’s dog track has a successful opening night, but after the stunt with Lisabeth, some of his closest associates are getting concerned that his ruthless behavior is getting out of hand.  One of them even offers Johnny $500,000 to close the track and leave town with Lisabeth.  It isn’t until he visits Lisabeth that he realizes just how badly he’s hurt her.  For once, Johnny feels badly about what he’s done and wants to make it right, even if it means putting his life on the line to do it.

Johnny Eager has a pretty standard gangster movie/film noir plot, but strong writing and good acting save it from being just another run-of-the-mill gangster flick.  Robert Taylor may get the star billing, and he is very good as Johnny Eager, but it’s Van Heflin who really steals the show.  Heflin completely deserved the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he won for his work in Johnny Eager.  I’m a big fan of Lana Turner, but I don’t think this was her best work.  Although I did get a kick out seeing her play what has got to be the most outrageously glamorous sociology student of all time.  If you’ve never seen it before, Johnny Eager is definitely worth keeping an eye out for; it’s very enjoyable.

Escape (1940)

After many letters to his mother, German actress Emmy Ritter (Alla Nazimova), are returned marked “address unknown,” her son Mark Preysing (Robert Taylor) decides to go to Germany and make sure she’s all right.  At first, nobody is willing to tell him where she is or help him find her.  Eventually he finds out that she has been arrested by Nazis for helping German refugees and been sent to a concentration camp.  The only lead he has is a postmark on a returned letter, so he goes to the city on the postmark.  One day he meets Countess Ruby von Treck (Norma Shearer) and asks her if she knew what happened to Emmy or could find out for him.  At first, she really doesn’t want to get involved in this ordeal.  But later when she sees her boyfriend Nazi General Kurt von Kolb (Conrad Veidt), she asks about Emmy and finds out that she is indeed in a concentration camp.

When Ruby tries to tell Mark where she is, she doesn’t have the heart to break the news to him.  But she changes her mind when she later finds out that Emmy is set to be executed very soon.  She tells him to go back to America, it’s too dangerous to get involved with, but then he meets Dr. Ditten.  Dr. Ditten is a physician at the concentration camp where Emmy is being held.  He doesn’t realize who Mark is at first, but he happens to be a fan of Emmy’s and has been secretly trying to help her any way he can.  When he realizes Mark is Emmy’s son, he asks Mark to come see him the next day and gives him a letter she had written to her children that was supposed to be delivered after she died.  The next day, at the concentration camp, everyone thinks that Emmy has died on her own.  What they don’t realize is Ditten had given her a drug to just put her into a coma and signed the papers declaring her dead, even though she’s actually still alive.  When Mark goes to see Dr. Ditten, Ditten explains what he’s done and that he’s arranged it so that Mark could come claim the body for burial and Emmy could be taken out of the concentration camp in a coffin.  Mark calls up Fritz, one of Emmy’s former servants, to come help him with this plan.  They arrange to meet up in a tavern, but while waiting for Fritz to arrive, Mark is questioned by some Nazis.  Their questioning makes him nervous and the Nazis don’t buy his answers so they bring him to the concentration camp for further questioning.  He ends up finding Fritz there and it comes out that he was really looking to claim his mother’s body.  They do let Mark and Fritz take Emmy, but not without making them jump through a bunch of hoops first.

As soon as they think they’ve successfully got Emmy to freedom, the only road they can take turns out to be blocked.  Not willing to give up, Mark remembers that they are close to Ruby’s home and they head there.  Again, Ruby is hesitant about having them in her house, but has too much sympathy for Mark to throw them out.  By now, Emmy has come out of her coma, but is very ill.  Ruby runs a boarding school out of her house, so to avoid being caught, she sends all but one of her students to go skiing for a day (one was too ill to go).  Kurt isn’t as easily fooled, though, and is suspicious when he sees Mark at her house.  After she gets rid of Kurt, she helps Mark and Fritz disguise Emmy and steals a passport for Emmy.  But just as they’re about to leave, Kurt returns and Ruby sneaks them out through the back while she distracts him.  She tells Kurt that she doesn’t love him, she loves Mark instead.  The shock of the news gives Kurt a heart attack and he dies, giving Mark, Emmy, and Fritz ample time to escape for good.

I picked Escape to watch today because I had actually recorded it last year when it was part of Norma Shearer day but I had never gotten around to actually watching it.  After finally seeing it today, I’m not sure why I put it off for so long.  This was an excellent drama, very taut and suspenseful.  Lots of great performances to be seen here.  Even though Conrad Veidt was a staunch anti-Nazi, he sure played Nazis chillingly well.  I tend to prefer Norma’s pre-code and silent roles, but she was pretty amazing in Escape.  At first, I was a little disappointed because it seemed like she wasn’t getting much screen time, but she did start getting more time as the movie progressed and by the time the movie was over, she was at the top of her game.  I’m so, so glad that I finally got around to this one, I loved it.