April 19, 1940, release date
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Screenplay by Philip Dunne, Rowland Brown, Curtis Kenyon
Based on a story by Samuel G. Engel, Hal Long
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
Edited by Richard Bischoff
Cinematography by Arthur Miller
Dorothy Lamour as Lucky Dubarry
Edward Arnold as Robert Cain Sr.
Lloyd Nolan as Mickey Dwyer (aka “The Mick”)
Charley Grapewin as Judge Emmett T. Brennan
Lionel Atwill as Jim McLaughlin
Marc Lawrence as Bates
Jonathon Hale as Dr. Brown
Harry Rosenthal as the piano player
Russell Hicks as the district attorney
Charles Lane as the assistant district attorney
Fuzzy Knight as Cain Sr.’s cellmate
Ed Stanley as stock exchange announcer
Distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
Produced by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation
I watched Johnny Apollo over Father’s Day weekend, and it turned out to be appropriate for the holiday: The film examines the relationship between Robert Cain Sr. and his son and namesake Robert Jr. It is a film noir with a surprisingly complicated story line and lots of twists and turns in the main characters’ development.
After the opening credits, the film starts with a shot of a façade outside the New York Stock Exchange. It cuts to the interior of the stock exchange and a man announcing that the Business Conduct Committee has suspended the firm of Cain and Company from the exchange. The firm is run by Robert Cain Sr.
The film cuts to the Cain residence. Robert Cain Sr. is talking with his attorney Jim McLaughlin, and a phone call comes in from the district attorney’s office: Robert Cain Sr. has been indicted for embezzlement. McLaughlin’s reaction: “Well, they never sent a millionaire to prison as long as I can remember.” Cain Sr. is not so sanguine about his chances and says so to McLaughlin. But his biggest concern for the moment is that his son hear the news from him, not in the newscasts or from reporters.
The district attorney’s office sends officers to arrest Cain Sr. immediately, so Cain Sr. sends McLaughlin to relay the news to his son. When Robert Cain Jr. finds out about his father’s indictment, he is at college competing in a rowing meet. He is so upset by the news that he quits school on the spot. Back at home, he tells his father that he feels betrayed because his father never told him what he was doing. Here is part of their conversation:
• Robert Cain Sr.: “We’re in a tough game, and we’ve got to be as tough as the other fellow or get out. You’ll find it out for yourself when you’re making your way in the world. I suppose that—"
• Robert Cain Jr.: “I guess I was just dumb enough to believe what was taught to me: live by a code.”
• Robert Cain Sr.: “What? The athletic code? Why, every time you ran down the field for a touchdown you had one of the best teams blocking for you that money could buy. Codes are for suckers. It’s the same in business. There’s only one rule: eat or be eaten.”
• Robert Cain Jr.: “This is a swell way to find out.”
I found this exchange especially striking: It could be a conversation taking place between corrupt politicians and/or corrupt businesspeople anywhere, anytime, not just in the noir world of film. When Cain Jr. hears his father’s words, he is so angry that he leaves home, and father and son part with hard feelings. But Cain Jr. attends his father’s sentencing hearing. He never talks to his father, but he sees that gangster Mickey Dwyer is sentenced the same day, and he realizes how far his father and his career have sunk since the indictment and trial.
(This blog post about Johnny Apollo contains spoilers.)
Rather than return to college, Cain Jr. looks for work, but he cannot get a job from any of his father’s former business associates. One stalls because of Cain Sr.’s criminal record. Cain Jr. is fired from another job because he changed his name to Robert Thomas.
When Cain Jr. finds out that Mickey Dwyer is being released on parole, he asks Jim McLaughlin, his father’s attorney, to do the same for his father. McLaughlin refuses because he feels that the alternatives to make this happen are unethical. Cain Jr. decides that he will do anything to obtain his father’s release, and he decides to meet Dwyer’s attorney, Emmett T. Brennan. When he arrives at Brennan’s office, he finds the door locked and Lucky Dubarry, Mickey Dwyer’s girlfriend, waiting outside. They chat while waiting for Brennan. He arrives eventually, and he is drunk. Dubarry knows that this is a sign of trouble, but Cain Jr. ignores it.
Robert Cain Jr. gives his name as Johnny Apollo to Emmett Brennan and Lucky Dubarry when he meets the lawyer for the first time. (He takes the name after seeing a neon sign outside Brennan’s law office.) Dubarry leaves Brennan’s office to find Dwyer, and Brennan eventually passes out on a couch in his office. Mickey Dwyer shows up to find Brennan passed out and Johnny Apollo trying to help him. Dwyer takes money from Brennan’s desk and sends Apollo to pay the bail for Bates, one of his mob associates. Apollo does as he is told, but Bates tries to run away after his bail is settled. Apollo catches him and beats him into submission. Later, when he and Bates arrive at the Paradise Club, which is run by Mickey Dwyer, Apollo suddenly realizes what he has done and what he is capable of.
Lloyd Nolan plays Mickey Dwyer, a vicious gangster, in Johnny Apollo. I can’t recall ever seeing Lloyd Nolan in a gangster role before. I am used to seeing him playing the detective Michael Shayne in a series of films in which he investigates and solves crimes, all with a flair for the comedic and always tongue-in-cheek. As Dwyer, he uses people and then discards them when they are no longer useful to him. When he finds out that his moll Lucky Dubarry has betrayed him, he slaps her and nearly chokes her. He stabs his lawyer and friend with an ice pick and then carries his casket at the funeral. I have always enjoyed Nolan’s talents as a comedic actor playing Michael Shayne; now I see that he is just as good playing a criminal without even a shred of conscience.
Apollo becomes caught up in his new career working for Mickey Dwyer: He needs the money to help his father and getting it through legitimate and socially acceptable means has become almost impossible. He and his father may have parted on harsh terms, but he still wants to help his father anyway that he can. He visits his father in prison, and the rift between them seems to be on the mend. His father meanwhile takes a position as boilermaker while he is in prison. It’s a job he did before becoming a stockbroker, and he finds the work rewarding. He begins to see the advantages of honest labor, and he is dismayed when he discovers that his son has taken a new name and has started working with new and dangerous associates. He disowns his son, and they are estranged once again.