Review: Johnny Eager (1942)

>> Sunday, September 16, 2007

USA/B&W-107m./Dir: Mervyn LeRoy/Wr: John Lee Mahin & James Edward Grant/Cast: Robert Taylor (Johnny Eager), Lana Turner (Lisbeth Bard), Van Heflin (Jeff Hartnett), Edward Arnold (John Benson Farrell), Paul Stewart (Julio)

Johnny Eager is often categorized in movie references as an early film noir--likely due to its gangland setting and dark ending--but in truth, it is simply a fast-moving MGM melodrama, and a pretty forgettable one at that. Still, it has become a personal favorite, and I almost always go out of my way to catch this flick whenever it is broadcast.

Robert Taylor stars (which probably means that Clark Gable wasn’t available) as Johnny Eager, an ex-con pretending to be a cabbie in order to satisfy his parole board. In reality, gangster Eager is up to old tricks, bankrolling a dog track and jockeying for the top spot in the local underworld. Into this scheme steps Lisabeth Bard (Lana Turner), a socialite sociologist who takes too strong an interest in Eager. Eager takes advantage of those affections and tricks Lisabeth into believing she has killed a man in order to blackmail her father (Edward Arnold), the district attorney standing between Eager and the opening of his dog track. Of course, Eager’s plans unravel with tragic results when he actually falls for the girl.

Although Johnny Eager is no classic, it has plenty to recommend it. It is a slick, breezy entertainment, peppered with colorful performances by some of the best character actors in the business. In addition, Turner has the opportunity to prove that she is more than just delicious eye-candy, turning in some of the best acting of her career in the scenes in which Lisabeth’s psyche shatters under the stress and guilt of having killed a man.

However, the main reason I keep revisiting this film is the astonishing, scene-stealing performance from Van Heflin as Jeff Hartnett, Johnny Eager’s self-hating, alcoholic lawyer. Although nearly forgotten today, Heflin was one of the best actors Hollywood ever produced, and he was never better than he was here--walking through every scene in a believable alky haze and spouting complex, erudite dialog between slugs of booze. Whether tearing up or quietly brooding, the character’s inward struggle between pangs of conscience and his affection for the gangster (which borders on homosexuality) is always evident. It’s an A+ performance in a B- picture, one for which Heflin deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and one of the best in soused cinema history.

Drinks Consumed--Brandy, whiskey, and various unnamed liquors and cocktails

Intoxicating Effects--Slurred speech, staggering, soused sentimentality, and hangover

Potent Quotables--JEFF: I seem to have offended your light of love by using a polysyllabic word.
EAGER: You’re drunk.
JEFF: Now, Eager, that’s… obvious. Very obvious. Don’t be obvious. You’re out of character when you’re obvious. Adroitness is your racket. Hard, clever, and adroit--that’s your description.

Video Availability--Johnny Eager is available as a manufacture-on-demand DVD-R through The Warner Archive.

Similarly Sauced Cinema--It was Lana Turner’s turn to hit the booze as an alky actress in the flashback-filled Hollywood melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).


stennie September 17, 2007 at 1:52 PM  

I think this was Heflin's screen debut, too. It's a shame he's not better remembered today.

garv September 17, 2007 at 9:47 PM  

Heflin was also great in another favorite of mine, GRAND CENTRAL MURDER, also from 1942. TCM screens it from time to time, and it's a great little who-done-it time waster. It's packed with fun character performances, it features a couple of the loveliest females of the Forties--Patricia Dane and Virginia Grey, and Heflin makes a great private dick. It's a shame he didn't portray more detectives or spin GRAND CENTRAL MURDER into a series.

Anonymous September 21, 2007 at 3:55 AM  

Awesome review, Garv. You know it would be tempting for someone to dismiss this as a frat boy's blog, but you're actually a very adroit film critic. Booze plays only a minor role.

I have never seen a movie with Van Heflin in it, but James Mangold was singing his praises during all the press for the remake of 3:10 To Yuma. Good call, I need to check some of these Golden Age movies out.

garv September 21, 2007 at 5:24 PM  


Thanks for the kind words. I'm about as far removed from a frat boy as one can get. My reality has always been more GHOST WORLD rather than ANIMAL HOUSE.

The source of my interest in alky-centric cinema can be summed up with the words "W.C. Fields" and "Dean Martin."


Unknown March 29, 2011 at 2:02 PM  

Just discovered your pages and want to say I am really enjoying your intellegent reviews. Johnny Eager is a little known film but well worth catching.

I don't think Van Heflin's character is bordering I think its as explicit as they dared given the censorship of the time.
I mean, he cradles Taylor in his arms and sobs! Its a lovely job of acting.

If you like Van Heflin also check out 'Presenting Lily Mars' a Judy Garland vehicle but Heflin is funny in it as her leading man.

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I like to drink. I like to watch movies. I like to watch movies about drinking. I like to write about the movies I’ve watched, but only if I’ve had a drink first.

All text including the title "Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide" Copyright William T. Garver

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