Monday, July 4, 2011

Bogart: 'San Quentin'

Continuing my sporadic look at Humphrey Bogart’s early career, here’s another entry from 1937, a routine prison drama called “San Quentin.”

It was one of seven movies released that year featuring Bogart in either lead or supporting roles. In this film the lead is Pat O’Brien, the go-to actor who Warner Brothers turned to for good-guy roles. Bogart’s the con with a chip on his shoulder, while rising Warners star Ann Sheridan plays the love interest. Lloyd Bacon crisply directs with some location shooting at the prison itself.

Unfortunately, the script never breaks free from the genre’s conventions. With such an obvious title, “San Quentin” does what you’d expect it to do in a brisk 70 minutes. But that’s also a detriment because it feels contrived.

O’Brien plays Capt. Stephen Jameson. With his Army background, he’s hired by the warden to bring some order to San Quentin. Jameson has an eye on reform while curbing the restless complaining of the prisoners.

On the eve of starting his job, Jameson visits a local nightclub with some pals, where May (Sheridan) is singing. Jameson is immediately smitten as one pal cracks, “Training one woman is worse than a whole company of recruits.”

May is smart and sassy and declares that she doesn’t like guards. Jameson keeps his new assignment a secret, especially after May’s brother, Red (Bogart, below with Sheridan), visits her backstage looking for money for a “job.” Unfortunately, he has been followed and is arrested for robbery before getting away, while Jameson watches the commotion as a spectator.

When Red is brought to San Quentin, Jameson recognizes him immediately. Without telling May, Jameson decides to help Red, believing he’s not far enough gone as a criminal. But Red is cynical about the help, especially when he learns that Jameson is seeing his sister.

Even if the film doesn’t aspire to greatness, it could have been far better had the clumsier moments of the script been eliminated. In one scene, a guard accidentally drops his rifle into the prison yard in a bit of unbelievable nonsense that would play better in a Laurel and Hardy film. In another scene, there’s a prison break involving a car. While the guards phone in the break, they can remember the car’s license plate number (which they probably didn’t see for more than a few seconds) but can’t figure out which prisoners made the break, even with a stool pigeon standing nearby who was planted specifically to keep an eye on the escaped prisoners!

The most unintentionally hilarious bit happens when Jameson sees May for the first time. O’Brien must have been told to look at Sheridan as if he’s seeing a juicy side of beef. All that’s missing is the drool sliding down his chin and a ketchup bottle nearby!

The film does a better job of showcasing its two rising stars. Sheridan is winning despite having little to do, while Bogart demonstrates why Warners developed that tough-guy image. He played a wide range of roles in 1937; if “Black Legion” did a better job of allowing him to stretch, “San Quentin” demonstrates his commanding presence despite the familiarity of the material.

Some good performances are turned in by the supporting cast, notably Barton MacLane as Lt. Druggin, the tough guard who precedes Jameson, and the likable Joe Sawyer as Hansen (shown below, right, in a scuffle with Bogart), the con who wants to make a break. As an aside, to demonstrate how much a good character actor could work, MacLane had 11 films released in 1937 and Sawyer had 10!

“San Quentin” contains all the requisite aspects of a prison film – a disgruntled con, scheming prisoners, nasty guards, wisecracks delivered as quickly as gunfire, a pretty girl and a car chase. If only these ingredients were used in a way that was more original. Even the final moments, meant to be exciting and redemptive, are unbelievable as they fit a moralistic agenda rather than completing the story.

If anything, this film simply demonstrates the evolution of Bogart from a Warner Brothers breakout star to the legend he would eventually become.


  1. Pretty much agree with everything you said. I was amused to see Barton MacLane as a guard in this one. Usually he's the one trying to break out of the big house.

    It's always interesting to see Bogart in these pre-stardom roles and the 70 minutes pass by harmlessly if not memorably.

  2. I agree that the 70 minutes are harmless. There are far worse ways to spend that time, and Bogart is interesting enough, although I still suggest "Black Legion" from the same year.

  3. CFB,
    I haven't thought about this film since I dozed off watching it several years ago. A great cast with O'Brien, Bogart and Sheridan but it just dragged on for me and never did pick up. The cast deserved more but given what they had to work with I agree that it is watchable just to see Bogart before he jettisoned to stardom. On a side note I can't help but wonder how the film would have played out given that Bogart and O'Brien had their roles reversed. (Another of my wacky thoughts)

    I'm not sure how many more of Bogart's early films you'll be revisiting but I look forward to seeing whats next.

    A great review as always Brian. Oh, I left you a response to your comment over at my place.

  4. I love your wacky thoughts. Wouldn't that have been more interesting casting! Oh well ... they can't all be winners. Do check out Black Legion. I reviewed it last fall and it's definitely worth a look.

  5. Another winner, CFB. You are quite right -- not every classic film was A list. But a lot of the time, even their losers were still entertaining! I feel that what really saved a lot of movies were the marvelous character actors, 2 of which you showcased here -- Barton MacLane and Joe Sawyer. They knew their job well and added to many movies, as you said.

    I love gangster movies and prison movies -- and this one, although not A list, is distinguished in one thing which you brought up -- trying to make Pat O'Brien look lustful! That's like trying to make Mae West play a nun. It just doesn't suit them! LOL!

  6. LOL Love that last line! Thanks for sharing that one. :)