Prison Break (1938)
Director: Arthur Lubin
Cast: Barton MacLane, Glenda Farrell, Paul Hurst
Synopsis: An innocent California fisherman sits in prison for murder; his sweetheart waits.
The way that Prison Break bangs on about the difficulties experienced by prison parolees trying to go straight in an unforgiving society, you could be forgiven for thinking it was one of those Warner Bros.’ socially conscious movies ‘ripped from the newspaper headlines.’ This impression is reinforced by the fact that it features Barton Maclane (Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and Ward Bond (It Happened One Night, It’s a Wonderful Life) — two actors often seen supporting the likes of Warner regulars Cagney, Robinson and Bogart — in prominent roles. But Prison Break is, in fact, a Universal B-picture which may or may not have been attempting to rip off the Warner Bros’ style of filmmaking.
Maclane plays Joaquin Shannon, a tuna fisherman whose dialogue is peppered with nautical terms and whose unfailing good humour marks him out for a fall straight away. He’s fallen for Jean Fenderson (Glenda Farrell — I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang), an unmarried mother with a young son whose family disapprove of her mixing with a rough seagoing type who isn’t one to shy away from a fight should it come his way. Joaquin’s shipmate, Chris (Edmund MacDonald — Destry Rides Again) is marrying Joaquin’s little sister, Maria (Constance Moore) and on the night before the young couple’s wedding, Joaquin and his shipmates take Chris out for a few drinks. A complicated series of events result in Joaquin standing over the beaten body of Jean’s brother, Joe (Edward Pawley) mistakenly believing the heavily intoxicated Chris is to blame. In fact, it was Big Red Kincaid (Bond) who whacked Joe over the head, dealing him a big enough blow to eventually kill him. That’s bad news for Joaquin, who admitted blame for Joe’s beating because he didn’t want Chris’s wedding day spoiled by a day in the slammer and now finds himself facing a manslaughter charge.
Right, that’s the first ten minutes out of the way. Honestly, Prison Break is so packed with plot that it fairly whizzes by. Joaquin ends up serving one-to-ten, and determines to keep his nose clean in order to keep the length of that sentence as close to the one as he possibly can. Unfortunately, who should pitch up at the same prison but Big Red? Although Joaquin doesn’t realise Kincaid is the reason he’s behind bars, it’s not long before the two of them are locking horns and Joaquin subsequently finds his sentence has been extended to five years.
Cue the prison break, eh? Well, no actually. In fact prison break doesn’t actually feature a prison break to speak of. There is an attempted one by Kincaid, however, which is thwarted by Joaquin, a good deed which earns him an immediate parole. You’d think that would be the end of Joaquin’s problems, but in fact they’re just beginning, and the difficulties he encounters ironically see Joaquin drifting towards a life of crime.
Prison Break is good, old-fashioned, solid entertainment on a modest scale with an obvious agenda against the US parole system which sees parolees prevented from working outside of the state in which they live — something of an obstacle for a seaman — and even prevents them from marrying. Despite this, it avoids being too preachy, and builds a lot of sympathy for the kind-hearted Joaquin. Ward Bond, looking a lot like a young Lee Marvin in some scenes, provides an oppressive nemesis for Joaquin, and the story keeps buzzing along right to the final minute or two. Worth a watch if you’re in an undemanding mood.
(Reviewed 6th April 2014)