Friday, November 7, 2008

San Quentin (1937)

  The clanging of tin cups on bars, a stampede of inmates marching back and forth inside their cells, and the scared glances from armed guards as the threat of a riot looms; these are the cliches of the prison picture. Yet with San Quentin the aim is not just for cheap entertainment, but also prison reform. The director, Lloyd Bacon, takes all these stock ingredients; brutal prison guards, hardened inmates, a progressive warden, and creates a tight action-packed movie.
  Pat O'Brien stars as Steve Jameson the new captain of the yard for San Quentin and he brings military discipline to the harsh environment of the prison. Like all progressive characters from the 1930's he believes in harsh punishment for those who don't toe the line, but is also capable of giving any man a second chance. Opposing him every step of the way is Lieutenant Druggin, played by Barton MacLane, who would rather knock a man down instead of shake his hand. 
  These two men fight each other for control of the prison, and this film concentrates that battle with Humphrey Bogart's character, 'Red' Kennedy, a fresh fish in a pool of hard-edged criminals. The film makes it very clear that 'Red' is a product of reform schools, but with the right type of treatment he has the capacity to clean up his act and make something of himself. Yet bad habits die-hard when 'Red' finds out that the special treatment he's getting from the captain of the yard has something to do with the fact that Jameson is going out with his sister May, played by Ann Sheridan. 'Red' undoes all the progress he's made by letting his anger take hold of him, but like in all Warner Bros. films from that decade redemption is never impossible to attain as long as you are willing to pay the ultimate price.
  With a 70 minute running time their isn't much space for character development, but everybody involved with the film should be proud for turning out a top notch studio picture that neither wastes time, talent, or intensity.

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