Twentieth Century-Fox's 1940 crime film Johnny Apollo stars Tyrone Power as Robert Cain, Jr., son of a convicted embezzler played by Edward Arnold. When Cain, Jr. realizes that his father's old friends will be of no help to either of them he decides to toss the rule book. Career criminal Mickey Dwyer (Lloyd Nolan) was convicted at the same time as Cain, Sr. but the Mick walked out of prison much sooner. Bob, Jr. seeks out Mickey's lawyer (Charley Grapewin) to help with his father's case, meeting Mickey's girl, Lucky (Dorothy Lamour), along the way.
Directed by Henry Hathaway under Darryl F. Zanuck's charge at Fox, Johnny Apollo recalls some of the movies from the early Warner Brothers' gangster cycle also overseen by producer Zanuck. Hathaway stated that Johnny Apollo was even ripped from the headlines like those old Zanuck productions. He claimed the story was based on the imaginary reactions a once entitled son would have to the fate of formerly respected financier Richard Whitney's fall from grace after being convicted of embezzlement in 1938 (Hathaway 170).
Whitney had been Vice-President of the New York Stock Exchange during the 1929 Crash and advanced to President before his retirement in 1935. Disgrace came just a few years later in '38.
Hathaway, who later directed film noir classics The Dark Corner (1946) and Kiss of Death (1947), and cinematographer Arthur Miller lay a lot of shadows across the generally shady world of Johnny Apollo. Visual bars of darkness--vertical, horizontal, even criss-crossed--darken all of our criminal characters throughout the film and are especially noticeable across Edward Arnold and Lionel Atwill, playing his lawyer, at the open of the movie. Planting the seed early make these shadows stand out all the more throughout Johnny Apollo.
While Johnny Apollo's characters are more polished than the gruff collection of noir underachievers to soon follow, they are every bit from the wrong side of the tracks with the manner and lingo to prove it. There's also a surprising amount of violence in Johnny Apollo for a 1940 film. While most of this violence is suggested I'd say that it's more strongly suggested than usual for the period.
In sum Johnny Apollo seems to straddle the boundaries of those two genres playing like a cross between a late Warners' gangster film and a proto-film noir.
Bob, Jr. had been a pretty clean kid before his father got sent up for embezzlement. Even a star on the school rowing team. His father's arrest caught Bob, Jr. completely unprepared and led to an unfortunate blow-out between the two men just before Cain, Sr. was taken off to prison. Bob, Jr. wonders, "Why should I be able to take it when I've had no warning? When out of the clear sky I find out my father's a crook."
While they part on the poorest of terms, Bob, Jr. soon learns the world is a rougher place than he had ever imagined. The son can't find work because of his father's name. Old friends want nothing to do with him. So Bob, Jr. changes his name. But he changed it at the wrong office. His employer discharges him because his own drunkard father had died in prison yet he had remained proud of his own name and feels Bob took the coward's way out in changing his. It won't be the last time Bob Cain, Jr. changes his name.
When Bob, Jr. sees that career criminal Mickey Dwyer, convicted moments before his father, has gone free he confronts his father's attorney, McLaughlin (Lionel Atwill), with hopes of securing his father's release.
When McLaughlin won't help him, Bob, Jr. says, "I've come to the conclusion that maybe my old man was right after all. It was all these so-called friends of his that helped me find it out. There isn't one of them who isn't in his debt one way or another. Yet today they're all ashamed to admit they ever knew him." McLaughlin says that might be true of some and so Bob adds, "And that goes for you too."
With that attitude Bob, Jr. climbs the steps to lawyer Brennan's office where he meets Lucky (Lamour). She's waiting on word about Mickey, who's just gotten out, but takes a shine to this new youngster all the same. Bob, Jr. tells her that his name is Johnny and when pressed for more inside Brennan's office he elaborates. Johnny Apollo. His last name taken from the blinking neon sign across the way.
Johnny Apollo, our former Bob Cain, Jr., takes up with Mickey, Lucky and Brennan because he's out of options and Mickey at least pays. He never confides to Mickey that the man he's trying to help is his father, but he tells him instead that Cain is a former benefactor who had helped pay his way through school. Mickey remembers Pop fondly from their serving time together.
With the aid of his illegal earnings through Mickey, Johnny soon has enough of a bankroll to try for his father's release. He gets Cain, Sr. excited upon a visit when he brings up the possibility of a parole.
It's only after this meeting as the prison guard is returning him to his cell that Pop Cain learns who Johnny Apollo is.
"Mind if I give you some advice, Pop?" asks the guard escorting him back to his cell.
"No, go ahead."
"You've got a good record here and you'll get plenty of time off for good behavior. Now why don't you let nature take its course instead of playing around with a rat like that?"
"What do you mean?" asks Cain, his son having just been insulted by the guard.
"You know what I mean. You were talking parole with Apollo weren't you?"
Once Pop Cain realizes that Apollo is his son he wants nothing more to do with him. He refuses to visit with him when Johnny comes to see him in jail. By this time Johnny has gotten himself in so deep with Mickey's gang that he seems to have forgotten his original reason for going to work for the Mick.
When Johnny first joined the gang Lucky had wondered to Brennan if "You think the kid will reform the Mick?" As usual old Brennan (Grapewin) saw what was coming all along. "Or vice versa," he replies.
The five key cast members of Johnny Apollo, big names all, are each fantastic.
Tyrone Power, already Fox's top actor but with the great success of The Mark of Zorro (also 1940) still to come, shows that he's more than a pretty face in this one. Power begins as an helpless boy spoiled by his rich father but after the world beats him down he makes his own way. The biggest change comes over his Apollo as Power holds a steak over his eye and the character absorbs the new world he's landed in. Lacking the proper training to be his own man he decides that Mickey's world is the way for him.
Lloyd Nolan brings an extra layer to Mickey Dwyer, who at first doesn't seem nearly as bad as the judge who convicts him in the beginning would have you think.
Dwyer is the scariest type of criminal. On the surface he's an amiable fellow. It's easy to understand how Johnny could be charmed into a friendship with the Mick. The Mick seems a good guy and after Johnny does him a good turn Mickey responds in kind. But Mickey Dwyer is always going to be out for himself first. We finally see what Mickey's fully capable of when his temper has been tried and an ice pick is within view.
Edward Arnold is flawless as Pop Cain. As is Charley Grapewin, who gets one of his meatier roles as the crusty old lawyer who likes milk with his whiskey in Johnny Apollo.
Dorothy Lamour plays Lucky and puts her over as sort of a dimwitted broad whose heart turns ever more golden as she falls harder and harder for Johnny.
Lamour gets many of the best lines throughout Johnny Apollo. One of my favorites comes when she first meets Johnny. Lucky is a singer and Johnny assumes she would have had no problem landing gigs while the Mick was locked up. She says that is not the case: "Every guy in town that owns a joint knows that if they did me any favors that it would only mean one thing to him," she says of Mickey. "He'd blow their head off. That's why I'm starving to death in a mink coat that I wouldn't dare sell."
Lamour also gets to sing a couple of songs, "This is the Beginning of the End," and the much snappier "Dancing for Nickels and Dimes."
In her autobiography Lamour admits a crush on Power before the start of Johnny Apollo. The Paramount star Lamour met Fox's matinee idol Power for the first time when she was loaned there for Johnny Apollo. The two would get along famously during production with Lamour recalling Power pulling practical jokes on her with props like whoopee cushions and funny cigarettes while on the set of the movie.
Originally titled Dance with the Devil, Johnny Apollo was featured in a promotional piece in Life Magazine that was unfortunately subtitled "The Amazing Story of College Oarsman Turned N.Y. Mobster." While you're likely to forget Power was an oarsman within a few minutes of seeing him in his bathing trunks, you will continue to think of him as a young man of privilege who had life yank the rug out from under him. His choices are what make Johnny Apollo interesting.
"Why should I take it for something I didn't do," he asks his father when the news is first broken. That's life, Johnny. Now we get to see how he copes.
Very entertaining. An exciting climax stretches believability some (how'd they get all those hollowed out books, never mind the guns inside) and is tempered some when the happiest ending you could possibly imagine is tacked on behind it. But even this doesn't sink Johnny Apollo. It had to end some way.
Though I would have called it as Lamour makes her exit from the prison.
Great for fans of movies about the underworld, film noir and, of course, Tyrone Power fans.
- Johnny Apollo is available on DVD as part of the Tyrone Power Matinee Idol Collection.