' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Johnny Eager (1941)

Friday, September 13, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: Johnny Eager (1941)

Stanley Tucci's old-fashioned screwball comedy set in the 1930's, "The Imposters" (1998), hits and misses but the hits are fairly amusing. One of the hits involves a couple of con-artists, Richard Jenkins and Allison Janney, who don't really get that much to do but are still allotted enough screen time for Janney to repeatedly annunciate Jenkins' character's name: "Johnny." There is just something about the way the name Johnny exudes from a lady's lips when she is at her most desperate or flummoxed or eroticized. 'Course it doesn't quite work in the modern day, not in the way it once did, which is why everyone now is a 'John' rather than a 'Johnny' and which is why time-traveling in "The Imposters" to routinely hear Janney implore "Oh, Johnny" is so delightful.

To quote Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell, however, there ain't nothin' like the real thing. Nothin', baby. All due respect to Janney - a fine actress - but her recitations of "Johnny" are amateur hour compared to the immortal Lana Turner. Co-star of Mervyn LeRoy's striking 1941 noir, "Johnny Eager", the title affords Ms. Turner the opportunity to toss off mellifluous renderings of Johnny-centric sentences all over the place. "Oh, Johnny." "You love me, don't you, Johnny?" "Hold me, Johnny." "What's wrong, Johnny?" "I had to do it, Johnny." Am I alone in wanting a CD compiling all of Lana's Johnny remarks to drift off to sleep to? (Is that weird?)

Turner's character, the delectably named Lisbeth Bard, is not the main character, per se, and not featured on screen for scenes at a time. Yet, it is difficult to deny her place as the most vital character, the one that causes the wheels of our anti-hero Johnny Eager to spin and eventually get stuck somewhere in the swamps of A-Man's-Gotta-Do-What-A-Man's-Gotta-Do.

Johnny Eager, played by Robert Taylor with his impeccable pencil-thin mustache, opens the film as a jocular taxi driver visiting his kindly parole officer, Mr. Verne. (Does this suggest Tony Gilroy is a fan of "Johnny Eager"?) It is a credit to Taylor that he is so convincing in this sequence, so apparently on point for living the straight and narrow, because in the ensuing sequence he parks his cab outside a shabby dog track and saunters through about fourteen doors (including one with the requisite command "Do Not Enter") and slips out of his cabby uni and into a sleek suit and tie and assumes position behind a desk with a cigarette in hand and issues hard-bitten orders into the phone as several underlings perform tasks around him. He's no taxi driver, see, but still leading the high life, running a gambling syndicate, but with a well-placed member of the parole office in his pocket to warn of any forthcoming visits. His dream: turn this rundown dog track into a money-wagering destination.

Scene by scene, moment by moment, Johnny Eager's charming veneer is stripped away and by the time he stands ready to off his age-old best friend he has basically traded in the label of Anti-Hero for Straight-Up Scoundrel. That is precisely what makes Lisbeth Bard's role as the Femme Fatale so intriguing.

Femme Fatales exist, of course, to lure the Anti-Hero into a web of desire and danger and dishonesty against his better judgement. Typically, though, that danger is that much more dangerous than the danger to which the Anti-Hero had already submitted himself. In "Johnny Eager", however, written by James Edward Grant and John Lee Mahin, the Anti-Hero, upon using and abusing the Femme Fatale for his own wily purpose, finds himself being led less into a web of dishonesty than of virtue. It turns out the Femme Fatale is simply too upstanding and when he comes face-to-face with that fact he essentially retreats into his self-made cocoon of scum & villainy and (literally) pushes her away when she might just be his saving grace.

The film does an exemplary job of bringing all its main characters together in such a way as to entrap them all within the same metaphorical vice. Aside for one character, that is, and he is Jeff Hartnett (Van Heflin, who earned the Best Supporting Actor Oscar), the near-omnipresent trembling alcoholic chum of Johnny Eager who gets more good lines in single scenes than characters these days get in whole movies. His reasons for being kept around are never quite made explicit, though his explanation that he is "meticulously recording for posterity the doings of a unique individual" is rather poetic. And that poetry is what brilliantly obscures the fact that he mostly exists to shine a psychological light upon Johnny Eager and offer advice that he knows his pal won't heed.

That he's a writer, though, is spot-on because he is the one character who despite consistently being on the screen still remains off to the side, un-entangled in the whole sordid mess of an end to which everyone else (knowingly or not) is driving. Not that it prevents him from getting caught up in it emotionally. He does, but he also seems to the only one from that understands from the get-go the fatalism encompassing the world of stories like that of "Johnny Eager." There's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, there's only shit and piss.

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