Review: They Made Me a Criminal (1939)

After a night of drinking and carousing, boxing champ Johnnie Bradfield (John Garfield) wakes up to discover he’s front page news, wanted for the murder of a journalist. Riding the rails as far as his last $250 will take him, Johnnie ends up flopping at an Arizona date farm populated by The Dead End Kids, playing (what else) a group of juvenile delinquents.

This working reform school is run by a kind-hearted but tough old broad (May Robson). Resident blond beauty Peggy (Gloria Dickson) acts as chaperon to her younger brother Tommy (Billy Halop), the sensitive member of the gang whom Johnnie takes under his wing. The prize fighter hides out on the farm under an assumed name where he quickly earns the boys’ respect and acts nothing like a role model. He coaches the boys in boxing, a good way to keep a low profile. He encourages them to pinch cigarettes for him and join him on an illegal swim in an irrigation tank. (Bet you’ve never seen that in a movie.)

Back in Philly, Detective Monty Phalen (a very uncharacteristic Claude Rains) is the butt of the department, banished to the morgue since botching an investigation years ago. Madly puffing away on a cigarette with a perpetually cockeyed fedora atop his head, Phalen vows to find the fugitive boxer.

All goes well until Johnnie’s best intentions get the better of him and he enters a contest against a barnstorming boxing champ to earn money for the farm. With his trademark southpaw stance, it’s only a matter of time before the determined detective sniffs him out.

Directed by Busby Berkeley (yes, that Busby Berkeley) this is a better than average B-picture. The fight sequences are good, John Garfield is engaging and believable, and The Dead End Kids provide plenty of laughs. Bonus fun comes from the aforementioned scene in which Johnnie and the kids sneak a swim in the water tower. It’s also entertaining to watch Claude Rains in a role far less urbane than his usual character type. And when is the last time you saw a movie shot on location on a date farm?

This is no mold-breaking drama but fun none-the-less. In this genre, my favorite is still Brother Orchid with the great Edward G. Robinson.

I give They Made Me a Criminal 3.5 out of 5 date palms.

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