Classic Film Guide

Johnny Eager (1942)

This crime drama, which earned Van Heflin the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (on his only Oscar nomination) is actually quite confusing and silly. Most of the rest of the acting is sub-par or over-the-top, and even Heflin’s statuette seems to have been earned on fake tears alone. Sure, he plays a likable, literate drunkard and gets to deliver some pretty good lines (the film's only?), but his character seems to serve only to highlight the cold natured, soulless title character, played by Robert Taylor, who was clearly out of his element in this one. I thought Robert Sterling's Jimmy, as Lana Turner's character's fiancé, was sufficient enough for the contrast needed. Turner's performance is as laughable (literally) as Paul Stewart's accent. Edward Arnold plays a character we've seen him play before, but at least Glenda Farrell, as Eager's former girlfriend, plays a worthwhile role. Henry O'Neill, Charles Dingle, and Connie Gilchrist round out the cast. This Mervyn LeRoy directed-James Edward Grant (who wrote the screenplay with John Lee Mahin, Captains Courageous (1937)) story could and should have been a LOT better.

Eager (Taylor) is a "just released from prison" hood that's conned his parole officer (O'Neill) into believing he's a cabdriver while, in reality, he's trying to get a permit to open a dog-track. Lisbeth Bard (Turner) is a sociology student that's introduced to Eager as one of the system's models of "rehabilitation". Due to their mutual physical attraction, the two begin seeing one another. But Liz's father turns out to be District Attorney John Benson Farrell (Arnold), who threatens Eager into dumping his daughter; Johnny uses his ambitious heavy Julio (Stewart) to do the trick. Heflin plays Eager's only friend, Jeff Hartnett, a lawyer who drinks to salve his lack of internal fortitude or character (e.g. to stand up to Eager).

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