Dir. Mervyn LeRoy
David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film refers to Johnny Eager (1941) as “fatuous,” which I think unfair. (The IMDb hordes gave it a 7.1, for whatever that’s worth.) Casting the famously good-looking Robert Taylor was something of a gamble; Thomson’s other complaint about the film is that Taylor looks like “a male model after memories of Cagney and Robinson.” Taylor undoubtedly attracted female moviegoers, but would he be able to pull off being a bad guy gangster? I think he does alright. That’s in great part because he’s got Van Heflin at his side, as Johnny’s best and only friend, Jeff. Heflin won a Best Supporting Oscar for his lugubrious lush with a penchant for quoting literature.
Johnny Eager (1941) is an interesting instance of movies that have a central heterosexual romantic relationship but in which the arguably more important relationship is the one between two male characters. Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), one of my favorite movies, is another. This is not to knock Barbara Stanwyck’s sly and scary performance. Double Indemnity was my introduction to the amazing Stanwyck, who might be my favorite actress of all time. But the relationship between Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff and Edgar G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes (and his “little man”) is the one that underpins the story, and that makes Neff something other than a weak-willed adulterer. That is another post for another day, however.
The Turner Classic Movie web site does a pretty good job of summing up Johnny Eager’s plot: “Sporting a new, manly mustache, Taylor plays a cold-blooded gangster who succumbs to the charms of [Lana] Turner, the district attorney’s daughter.” Johnny is on parole, allegedly driving a taxi. He’s actually living in a penthouse and trying to open a dog-racing track. Though his attraction to Lisbeth is genuine, it turns out to be convenient as well when he discovers that she is the district attorney’s stepdaughter. In order to keep the district attorney, who has already sent him to jail once, out of his way, Johnny makes Lisbeth think she has murdered someone in an attempt to save Johnny’s life. And that’s when thing start to go off the rails.
Johnny is a smart man who can’t figure out what the percentage is in doing anything that won’t net him some kind of profit. Motives other than self-preservation and acquisition are unfathomable. His constant refrain: “But what was his angle?”
“Sentiment!” he scoffs, not unlike Loki in The Avengers (2012), “Since when does that pay off?” (I’m afraid that Robert Taylor isn’t nearly as compelling as Tom Hiddleston, unfortunately.) When Johnny gives his current girlfriend the brush-off—while telling her explicitly that it is not a brush-off—Jeff feels sorry for her, though he doesn’t like her much. It’s a position Johnny cannot understand.
“Well, Johnny,” he tries to explain, “you can feel sorry for someone you don’t like if you’ve got a heart or soul or decency.” Beat. “I guess you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
He has precisely the same trouble understanding why his dog (an unwanted gift) wants to play with a stuffed toy. Lisbeth explains, “He wants you to throw it for him.”
“So he can chase it, silly.”
“Where’s the percentage in that?” Even retired racing dogs must be looking to make a profit. More than his attitude to Lisbeth, we can keep track of Johnny’s progression from cold-hearted gangster to sucker, as he puts it, by the changes in his response to the dog.
Johnny’s first significant encounter with Lisbeth is at the apartment his parole officer believes is Johnny’s humble home. She and her friend, supposedly students of sociology, are tagging along on a surprise visit, a sort of social work ride-along. There is nary a mention of Lisbeth’s studies after this, which is just as well, since Lana Turner as a sociology student is only slightly less ridiculous than Robert Taylor as a modern Medici. Johnny pretends to be helping his deplorable niece, Matilda, with her homework, to write about a literary character of her choice. Lisbeth’s hopelessly tactless friend suggests the Count of Monte Cristo. Lisbeth suggests Cyrano, his definition of a kiss coming to mind—“a divine secret which two mouths tell each other while neither needs to listen.” Johnny pricks up his ears, but when Lisbeth explains that Cyrano was making love to a woman on behalf of another man, he loses all interest. When he returns to his real apartment, he asks Jeff about Cyrano. “Are you starting to meet literate dames?” asks Jeff, in disbelief. As Johnny stalks off, Jeff has the delightful line, “Mr. Freud, take a letter.”
The romance has some darkly wonderful repartee. After Lisbeth tells him the fact that he didn’t have a dog as a boy explains Johnny Eager “completely,” he shoots back with “Some day a man’ll come along and put you in a zippered bag.” What better way to sweep a woman off her feet? More tellingly, he says to Lisbeth, “Don’t turn ordinary on me…I don’t want to get tired of you.” Lana Turner has a wonderful moment when her boyfriend predicts that with Johnny, “You’re going to get hurt, you know.”
“No, Jimmy,” she says, almost sadly, “I don’t know.”
Lisbeth’s quotation of Cyrano is echoed in the quotations that Jeff tosses off at Johnny, quotations which aim to explain Johnny to himself. Jeff claims he is “a modern Boswell,” and later laments, “I was going to be the troubadour of all the Eager folk songs.” (Having not read Life of Samuel Johnson [apologies to DWN], I can’t say for sure, but, to me, Jeff seems more like a drunken consigliere than a modern Boswell—a drunker, lighter-hearted Robert Duvall.) Just as Johnny tells Lisbeth not to be ordinary, Jeff insists that Johnny shouldn’t be “obvious.”
It is, to a great extent, Jeff’s commentary on Johnny that makes Johnny interesting. It’s not always clear what Jeff sees in Johnny, but he conveys the feeling he has for Johnny, and that makes us care about him. Johnny is at least dimly aware of the value of Jeff’s friendship. When Johnny finally goes to tell Lisbeth he tricked her and put her out of her misery, he takes Jeff along with him, saying, “Come on, I’m doing this as much for you as for anybody.” Jeff is Johnny’s partner, his better nature.
[SPOILER ALERT!] When Johnny is fatally shot down in a street, after sending Lisbeth off to safety with her ex-boyfriend, Jeff is there to cradle him in a Pietà. Jeff offers a quick eulogy of Johnny, who could have been anything, he says, if only he had started on a different path. Jeff and Johnny’s Pietà is repeated three years later with Keyes and the dying Neff, in Double Indemnity’s last moments.
Director Mervyn LeRoy (1900 – 1987) is an interesting fellow in his own right. He was cousin to producer Jesse L. Lasky, who introduced him to the movie business, where he started in the costume department. He also worked as a lab assistant, camera assistant, and part-time silent film actor. LeRoy was nicknamed “The Boy Wonder” of Warner Bros., ostensibly because his pictures consistently made money. It’s a pretty good nickname for a (male) director who could shoot any kind of story. (He was also married to Harry Warner’s daughter, Doris. Maybe that’s not irrelevant.) He directed 13 Oscar-nominated performances, three of which (Heflin, Lemmon, Gale Sondergard) won, though he never won an Oscar for Best Director. In its usual game of catch-up, the Academy did give him the Thalberg (Irving Thalberg G. Memorial) in 1976. He was nominated for Random Harvest, which I haven’t seen. (It was on TCM earlier today, as part of an homage to Joan Fontaine, but I was not giving it my full attention.) But he also directed Little Caesar (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)—two enormously important films in the history of film genre—Three on a Match (1932), a pre-Code classic starring Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis, the enormously entertaining The Bad Seed (1956), as well as contributing to The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Perhaps not incidental to Johnny’s dog track, LeRoy was one of the organizers of the Hollywood Park racetrack, and a director from 1941 until his death in 1987. Its chairman was Harry Warner and many of the shareholders were from the same social set. The Mervyn LeRoy Handicap has been run at Hollywood Park since 1980.
And, in case you need a vintage insult: “You couldn’t stop being a thief any more than a weasel could stop sucking chicken blood.”